Let’s talk briefly about what it means to save face. About what it means for things to have fallen so far from the intended circumstances, that you begin to equate victory with whatever terrible outcome best suits your ability to walk away with a reassurance of still-intact dignity. Let’s talk about whom the act of saving face truly serves. About how few people, in the end, will likely even give a damn about your still-intact dignity. Let’s talk about saving face as an inherently, and exclusively, self-serving endeavor; a perhaps vain reassurance that your wretched circumstances weren’t entirely for naught.
Let’s talk about the final chapter of Breaking Bad, and how it tells the tale of a fallen king looking to save face. Let’s talk about why, though it may be the surprisingly modest conclusion few were hoping for, such a conclusion is fit for a fallen king like Walter Hartwell White.
With ‘Felina,’ Breaking Bad both honors and shirks the TV finale’s impulses to bring its characters full circle and to close plot points, and doing so with utmost explosiveness. Certainly, we are meant to consider how far Walt has brought down each individual in his orbit; returning to his ramshackle home, he flashes back to a happy scene in the very first episode when Hank first extends his invitation to take him on a drug bust. Oh, the incredible things Walt has accomplished and fumbled since then! Innovating a product of incomparable quality and demand, he quickly toils and murders his way into a glorious meth empire, the bricks of which having been cemented with gumption, ego, and sheer dumb luck.
Yet almost instantaneously, his efforts are negated. The legendary Heisenberg – the man who killed Gus Fring, who orchestrated a methylamine heist so incredible that (almost) nobody noticed, who amassed so great a fortune that it literally could not be counted – not merely loses that fortune. He not merely loses the family he always claimed to serve. He loses it all to some random band of skinheads who don’t even hold a candle to the adversaries of his past; not Fring, not the Salamanca clan, and certainly the brother-in-law that they murdered and unceremoniously buried in the desert. Walt’s unfortunate encounter with Uncle Jack and his Neo-Nazi goons leaves him with less than nothing. No empire, no riches, and no apparent opportunity at a legacy. Only a garden cultivated of sins, whose fruits have been plucked. This week sees Walt attempt – and succeed – in winning back that legacy, even if he knows he will be the only one ever to know about it.
But before that climactic finale, from which he seems fairly certain he will not emerge, Walt has a few items to scratch off (what passes for) a bucket list. First, to directly address those who prompted his return to Albequerque in last week’s episode, Gretchen and Elliot. In perhaps one of the most elegantly staged break-ins I have ever seen on a show known for great break-ins and heists, Walt simply lurks in the shadows as the couple enters their lovely new mansion after a night out. The two making idle, banal chit-chat, he simply follows them inside. Once Gretchen finally bothers to notice their intruder, Walt orders them to funnel his remaining $9.7 million into a trust fund as a “gift” to Walter Jr. on his eighteenth birthday. Any taxes or legal fees, Walt insists, are to come strictly out of the $9.7 million, and nowhere else. Walt’s son may never be able to know where the money actually came from, but he’ll be damned if his family accepts actual charity in the form of Gray Matter revenue.
To sufficiently compel his former business partners, Walt cites both the Schwartz’s philanthropic precedent when it comes to victims of the meth industry, and the two menacing red lasers coming from outside their home, intently pointing to their chests. Of course, we later learn those lasers are coming not from rifles, but from laser pointers wielded from ol’ Badger and Skinny Pete (so happy for that one last cameo). But Walt’s empty threat doesn’t really matter; he leaves Elliot and Gretchen in a state of compliance.
Next on his list is engaging Lydia and Todd as they convene for their regular weekly meeting at the coffee shop. Correctly predicting that Todd’s Methylamine supply is running low, Walt brokers a deal with the two – mostly at Lydia’s apparent agreement – to teach Todd a new way to cook. Of course, Lydia has no plans to actually do more business with Heisenberg. She convinces Todd that Walt will have to be dispatched when he meets later that night with Jack, ostensibly to arrange the deal’s specifics. Unbeknownst to Lydia, however, Walt has sneakily replaced the stevia she mixes into her tea with ricin. As she plots murder, somebody has already murdered her.
Next up, of course, is a visit to the new home of his estranged wife. Skyler receives an urgent call from Marie (the last thing Marie does in Breaking Bad), warning her that Walt has reportedly returned to Albuquerque. Marie is unaware that as she speaks, Walt is standing right in front of her sister, in her kitchen, ready for one final talk. “It’s over, and I needed a proper goodbye,” he says. “Not our last phone call.” As an olive branch, as one meager stab at resolution, he passes along that lottery ticket with the coordinates to Hank’s grave (for use in a deal with the prosecutor). He additionally explains to his wife, for his and her sake alike, how their brother-in-law was murdered, and intimates Hank’s murderers will no longer be a threat to Skyler after that night.
Then, a final olive branch. Just as Skyler expects to hear another tedious apologia for how Walt did what he did for the sake of his family, Walt says something truthful for once: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. and I was… really… I was alive. For the first time in two years, Skyler’s final memory of her husband gets to be a kernel of bittersweet sincerity. Skyler gives Walt one final moment to be with his daughter. And he leaves gently, wordlessly. He manages one final, clandestine glimpse of his son Flynn as he returns home, and he leaves to finish his business.
If the feel of ‘Felina’ strikes as rather bulleted, and even a little too tidy and efficient in its plot progression, then I think that really speaks to Walt’s single-mindedness as he ties up his own loose ends. There is no time for reflection, no time for sentimentality, not even all that much time for true redemption. There is only time to finish everything he planned to get done for his final day on earth. Walt visits Jack’s compound for a business deal neither party is particularly interested in making happen. Walt enters the premises, parks his car awfully close to the main building, gets frisked, and walks inside.
Having learned through Badger and Skinny Pete earlier that his specialized brand of Blue Meth was still being made somehow, he accuses Jack of doing business with a still-living Jesse Pinkman. Once they drag an enchained Jesse inside to prove that no such deal had taken place, Jack seizes upon this apparent insult as pretense for finally executing Walt. Before he has a chance though, Walt – finding sympathy in the tortured visage of his former student and accomplice – tackles Jesse to the ground, and pops the hood of his trunk with his remote keychain. Out pops a machine-gun – the very same one from ‘Live Free or Die’ – rigged on some oscillating contraption that mows down the entire Nazi clan. Once the shootout ends, a still-living Todd gets a surprise strangulation from Jesse, and Walt puts a bullet in the head of a severely wounded Jack before his chance to give up the remaining eight barrels of money.
In their final exchange, Walt slides his handgun over to Jesse “Do it,” Walt goads his protege. “You want this.” But like Skyler, Jesse’s had his fill of Walt’s bullshit. “Say the words! Say you want this!” When Walt so complies, Jesse notices the (lethal) bullet wound bleeding from Walt’s side, an unfortunate consequence of his little booby trap. Perhaps it is out of sympathy or mercy, or perhaps it is out of an unwillingness to kill even one more person. Or perhaps he simply knows the deed is done, and he is keen not to follow one more request from Mr. White. Whatever the reasons, Jesse says what he should have said the first time Walt ever asked for a cooking assistant: “Do it Yourself.” A half-crazed Jesse exits, and drives off as quickly as he can. He leaves Walt to die alone, sobbing and laughing and screaming as he leaves all sources of his misery behind him.
And so Breaking Bad ends with a bang, but not nearly the kind of bang I imagine many were expecting, including myself. Only the truly expendable supporting characters die, and nothing in the episode comes close to matching the intensity of ‘Ozymandias.’ And as far as narrative risks, I must say I was expecting at least one member of the White/Schraeder clan to bite it before the end. But they did not. We are left with Walt, alone in his last act of carnage, dying slowly from a bullet wound as the police come to investigate the shootout. The whole affair is just so… straightforward. I came in to this coda of one of the greatest creative works that television has ever seen, and frankly, I expected a bit more.
Yet having seen ‘Felina,’ having had the night to think it over, I now cannot think of a more appropriate send-off. The Walter White we see in the final 75 minutes of the character’s life is a man who, simply, has lost. He endeavored to make a great moral sacrifice for the apparent good of his family, and his pride impeded him from making the correct decisions at every reasonable juncture. As he tells his wife, it made him feel “alive.” This is true; by the time of that final scene of the pilot episode six years ago, Breaking Bad ceased to be a show about a good man dying, and started to be about a corrupt man finding life, no matter the cost. Now that living has cost him everything, his final acts in this chapter are, in a way, to save face. To reaffirm his strength somehow, even if it is merely at the service of knowing he can outwit a band of loathsome rednecks. To lighten the personal cost of everything with one final, if very small, victory.
And it is the relative size of that victory that embitters Walt’s “happy” ending with an ingenious, cruelly ironic twist. Writer/director/mastermind Vince Gilligan allows his episode one bit of sentimentality at the very end, allowing Walt to spend his final minutes in the meth lab he helped to create – the last remnants of his officially defunct signature creation – all to the tune of Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue.’ It’s a sad moment, but it’s a happy moment. But it’s also a sad moment. Last night’s little victory is Walt’s own way of saving face, of affording himself the dignity of knowing that he can go out with even a soft bang, and not a whimper. His coup on Jack and Lydia, his deal with the Schwartzes, they distract Walt in his dying moments from the inconvenience of knowing the world will forget him. His daughter will never know him. The son who hates him will inherit his money, yes, but he will never know his true benefactor. His wife will likely learn in police reports of the showdown involving her husband and know she has been saved from their treachery, but can she ever forgive the man who destroyed her family, who was responsible for the death of her sister’s brother? She will move on with her life. And Walt’s apprentice, his partner Jesse, has fled. Likely to a world where names like “Walter White” and “Heisenberg” will never be uttered again. The only others to witness Walt’s last actions, a pack of useless skinheads, did not live through it.
And “Heisenberg,” while a folk sensation now, will in all likelihood not survive a relentlessly fickle media cycle. Certainly, the ceased conflagration of his signature “Baby Blue” will send meth dealers and consumers alike scattering for the next hot product. And even if the memory of Heisenberg does endure, the name of Walter White will not. Nobody who has survived Walter White will know of the man’s final, meager victory.
Only Walter White will know what all he has done. And he drops dead, seemingly okay with that. After all, wasn’t everything that Walter White did for the sake of Walter White in the first place?
- Since I gave ‘Felina’ an A- grade despite a fairly rapturous appraisal, I guess I should give my two (minor) quibbles. The episode contains two scenes that I felt were rather superfluous. I’m guessing these scenes were done in the interest of avoiding any ambiguity (it seems Gilligan wanted everything cut-and-dry), but I feel each the point was hammered home at the expense of artfulness:
- One of those scenes is the final exchange with Lydia. While it was genuinely satisfying to hear Walt breaking bad news to the woman he poisoned (see what I did there?!), was it really all that necessary for the viewer to see? We knew Lydia’s fate the second that bag of stevia went in her tea. At the very least, why even mention the ricin to her? I envision a much juicier scene in which Walt answers the phone, asks her if she’s been feeling under the weather, and hanging up – effectively leaving her dangling over what her ailment could possibly be.
- I’m sorry to say my second complaint is the final shot, a rather hokey slow-tracking aerial perspective of police arriving on Walt’s dead body. Honestly, I felt it would be far more aesthetically pleasing had the episode closed on its penultimate shot, Walt placing his bloodied hand on the metallic dome, only to see his body collapse in the reflection.
- As if only to screw with us, Marie’s last scene in the entire series is of her wearing not purple, but white. I imagine it is meant to signify the relative moral purity she’s managed to maintain throughout the series, her reliance on law enforcement to bring Walt to justice, but I want to hear other, better theories.
- Walt’s final lie to Skyler: “I don’t have any [money] to give you. I spent the last of it to get [back to Albuquerque].” Is this the one lie of Walt’s she finally believes?
- This season the writers have been huge fans of mirroring certain scenes against others. So it’s no surprise that they would choose to mirror Jack’s death against the murder of Hank. Just like Hank, Jack gets shot in the head midsentence. Unlike Hank, he barters for his life even when he knows Walt made up his mind several months ago.
- Some have complained about Jack’s crew not even bothering to check the trunk of Walt’s car as an unrealistically stupid omission. Admittedly, I have no counter-explanation for this, so I wonder if anybody else does.
- One of Breaking Bad’s strongest assets was its ability to tie up loose threads. One piece I wish had been addressed a bit more was the matter of Skyler’s previous occupation as an aspiring writer. It’s hinted at early on in the series, but unfortunately nothing becomes of it. So I guess I’ll have to envision her tell-all memoir years down the line: I Fucked Ted – The Skyler White Story.
- I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been to do these write-ups for Film Misery, especially for our new TV Misery column! This has been one of the more enjoyable writing projects I’ve done for the site, considering the affection I have had for Breaking Bad. I really hope you enjoyed my posts as well, and would appreciate any feedback you have (this is my first time recapping a series, in case it’s not obvious).
- So… what else is on?