‘Breaking Bad’ ends with a monster in his cave

In response to Inevitable Backlash Blog: Breaking Bad’s Finale Fizzles:

I was much more satisfied with the finale, although I found it the weakest episode of a stellar half-season.  It felt as though it really needed to be a full two hours to do the story justice.  (Why couldn’t The Best Show On Television get a two-hour finale?)  The previous two episodes felt more like a two-part single piece, ending with that shot of Walt’s drink sitting on the bar, as the famous theme song played for, I believe, the very first time inside an episode.  Walt transformed one last time when he saw his old partners dissing him on the Charlie Rose show.  This final incarnation deserved a full two hours.

On the other hand, the creators know we understand these characters well enough to fill in a few of the blanks, and since the human story rolls along after any individual’s chapter ends, it’s good that a few of the details about the fates of the supporting players remain up in the air.  Giving Walt’s son an entirely wordless single scene in the finale was an interesting choice… but what could he have said that would top his final phone conversation with Walter in the previous episode?

I thought a couple of the key plot points were telegraphed a bit too heavily – Lydia’s tea, Walt’s adventure in automobile customization.  The tea, in particular, could have been left more vague until Walter’s farewell to Lydia.  Telegraphing its punches knocked out some of the finale’s suspense.  

But maybe that was the point.  This was the episode where everything finally worked exactly the way Walter intended, the one time all of his careful preparations paid off, the one time his formula produced the desired result.  And it started with a prayer.

I don’t think it was necessarily about redemption, though.  Walt didn’t “patch things up” with Skyler.  She’s still a shattered husk; I doubt she’ll ever be a whole person again, and she’s never going to shed the burden of guilt she carries for her role in Walt’s crimes.  She’s not on good terms with him at the end of their scene – she’s horrified.  He’s a monster wearing the skin of the man she married.  Their moment of catharsis – the moment when he’s finally, finally honest with both Skyler and himself about why he did the things he did – is a moment of icy terror for her.  Walter White got a lot of innocent and semi-innocent people killed, just to feel alive and fulfilled during the final act of his life.  He thought the meth trade was a nearly victimless crime when he started, but he sure as hell knows better now.  That’s evil, pure and simple.

He wouldn’t appreciate the depth of his sins unless he still had some capacity to understand right and wrong – some desire to seek, not necessarily redemption, but at least a settling of his debts with his loved ones.  The great tragic monsters retain a shred of humanity, as with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster (or, come to think of it, Dr. Frankenstein himself, who might be the closest literary parallel with Walter White.)  Remember, Walt went to that compound intending to kill Jesse, because he thought Jesse was partners with Uncle Jack.  He made a snap decision – with literally seconds on the clock – to save Jesse’s life instead.  And while Walt wasn’t seeking redemption for himself, he gave a measure of absolution to Jessee by tossing him the gun, leaving destiny entirely in his hands for the first time in their relationship.  He was human enough to want a future for both of his sons, even though both of them hate him.

Which is why that final scene was so horrifying and majestic.  The monster shambles into his cave, admiring his awesome and terrible handiwork as he bleeds out.  His final sight was his own distorted, horrid reflection in the apparatus; his final act was to leave his bloody handprint upon the awful thing he created.  Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair… 

Walter White died exactly where he belonged, and he damn well knew it.  Redeemed?  Not by a long shot.  But free of debt, free of illusions, his enemies vanquished… including the odious Gray Matter duo, who he enslaved!  Uncle Jack and the Nazis weren’t just easy P.C. targets for the Trunk Monkey weapons system.  They were the final, bestial, blatantly monstrous result of Walt’s crimes, the savage proof that Walt actually made the seedy, life-destroying underworld worse by his actions.  They were also pretenders to his throne, out to steal his legacy, unsatisfied with even the mountain of cash they stole from him.  They were his demon spawn; Todd, perhaps the most chilling character in a series full of them, was almost completely soulless, almost innocent in his evil.  (How perfect that his last act is to naively ask “Mr. White” what he thinks is going on, a confused teenager seeking guidance from his mentor and idol, after his fellow demons get wiped out in a hail of machine gun fire.)  

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, eh, Walter?