OBVIOUSLY SPOILERS AND NOTHING BUT
After five seasons and six years of tweaking expectations, Breaking Bad‘s series finale contained only one surprise: somewhere between New Hampshire and New Mexico, Walter White was murdered and replaced by a pod person.
At the close of last week’s understated “Granite State,” a lonely, withered Walt was about to turn himself in; take the heat off his family; and spend his final days shamed, destitute, dying of cancer in prison. However, what changed his mind–what spurred him to action–was a slight from smarmy yuppies Gretchen and Eliot. The insult to Walt’s pride put the fire in his belly, not any altruism. Rejected by his family, he had completed his journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface. What was he after? Who else would get caught in the crossfire?
At the start of Sunday’s “Felina,” however, this Walt–vengeful, pure Heisenberg Walt–was gone. Though the encounter with his Gray Matter partners was the one act of the episode that felt like classic BB, culminating in a terrific sendoff for Badger and Skinny Pete, something was still off. Vince Gilligan had blinked; he refused to let Scarface wreak any havoc. Instead, he yanked him back to… not virtue, but some good-guy-by-default territory where he served merely as protagonist, which somehow became enough to save his soul.
In Gilligan’s ending, Walt became MacGyver–a brainy action hero with a perfect plan that went off without a hitch. Gone was the moral ambiguity of the Gustavo Fring rivalry, where physical danger masked Walt’s longstanding envy of the respect and order Gus maintained. And instead of facing an antagonist that would thematically raise the stakes–his own brother-in-law, his own protege–it was Walt vs. Nazis, the most politically correct, one-dimensional bad guys possible. They stole his business; they murdered his cop brother; they threatened his wife. It reads exactly like the trailer voiceover to a ’90s Stallone flick.
Stockiest of stock villains in his sights, Gilligan sent Walt through a fan-service checklist to tie up loose ends ever so neatly: his son will become a trust fund kid, he patched things up with Skyler, and he gave her a literal get-out-of-jail-free card. When it came time for the Nazis to get theirs, even that was clumped into tidy beats. Walt took a bullet for Jesse, Jesse got revenge on Todd, we learn the much-discussed ricin vial went to Lydia–a clever twist but a wasted motif. The only snag in the entire scene was that a goon took Walt’s keys/transmitter away from him. Ever resourceful, he got them back by waiting til no one was looking, then inconspicuously reaching for them. The tension was… well, I can’t describe it if I can’t see it.
What’s most infuriating is–just as Jesse wailed in “Rabid Dog”–he got away with it. Yeah, yeah, of course Walt died. That’s no punishment. He was always going to die; that’s why he started cooking. He lost his family, but this was hardly a new development; the nickname “Flynn” and Skyler’s adultery manifested seasons earlier. In terms of new developments, consequences coming to pass in the final moments of the show, Walt sunk no lower. Gilligan let him keep his dignity and even achieve some level of redemption. In the final shootout, he was the last man standing, then nobly fell on his own sword. He provided for his family, achieved an understanding with his wife, saved Jesse, and bypassed the agonies of the justice system or his body’s civil war.
If Walt were making a pros and cons list, as in Season 1’s “And the Bag’s in the River,” the takeaway here would be that crime did pay.
So why did Walt get a happy ending? Why did we hear Badfinger’s upbeat “Baby Blue” in the credits fadeout? Had he found redemption? Sonny Bunch of the Free Beacon thinks Heisenberg is actually a Christ figure. My good friend Frances Martel argues he’s the thief on the cross next to Christ. Both of them believe Gilligan is telling us that no one’s beyond redemption.
However, Walt does not disavow his crime. Rather, he affixes his identity to it. He admits to Skyler what was evident as early as the pilot: the drug trade made him feel alive. His death comes after a loving embrace with the lab equipment. He has not surrendered to a higher power as a repentant sinner, nor has he embodied a higher morality that would make him a Messiah (note that by killing Lydia to protect his family, he has made an orphan of someone else’s daughter). He embraces the fact that he was better as a criminal than an upright man, and that’s supposed to be the catalyst for his redemption?
I think we can trace this dramatic failure back to the beginning of this season’s latter half. It never felt true to Walt’s character that he truly quit the business–that he resigned himself to managing a car wash. There was no concrete motivation for him to give up the empire business. He had burned too many bridges with Skyler and Jesse; he would never be cool enough for Flynn. He wouldn’t live long enough to earn Holly’s admiration. His only real pride–his only feeling of control–came from meth. It seems more a plot contrivance than a character-driven development that he would humble himself when the only person asking him to do so is the woman who’s outright hated him since Season 2.
And if he hadn’t given it up, the Nazis wouldn’t be a concern. The Walt/Hank cat and mouse game could last longer, and Jesse could have played a much more active role. Maybe one would still get caught in the crossfire before the finale, but whether the final showdown became Walt vs. Hank or Walt vs. Jesse, either would keep up Breaking Bad‘s tradition of characters’ decisions escalating the drama. The Nazis were just terrible on that front. They had little history with Walt. They were a smaller-scale fight than Gus’s operation, wiped out by a machine gun sweep of a single room. And, again, they provided a cheap good deed for Walt to perform, yanking him away from his deserved retribution.
Breaking Bad is still one of the best television dramas ever made. Nothing will ever quite hit this same sweet spot of crime drama, family melodrama, utter bleakness, and loony comedy. Still, I can’t help but feel that after so many times Gilligan et. al. wrote themselves out of corners with brilliant surprises, they would commit to–and seem satisfied by–something so easy. So inevitable. So ordinary.