This review contains spoilers.
“The chemistry must be respected.” – Walter White
It’s been a source of tension worthy of the show itself: would Breaking Bad manage to tie-up the unmitigated tension and nigh-on flawless action-drama of the past five series in a way that would stay true to the characters and overall ‘vision’ of the show, while also not feeling like a terrible anti-climax in the wake of the insanity that preceded it?
Well, I can only envisage two types of reactions to Felina, the Breaking Bad finale: 1) that was perfect, or 2) that was a little too perfect.
In terms of closure, this finale was staggeringly eager to please: there’s not a plot point of note (sorry Huell and Ted Beneke) that didn’t get addressed and gracefully concluded in some way. And Walt got to go out pretty much exactly on his own terms – Vince Gilligan had hinted prior to the finale that the end felt like “kind of” a victory for Walt, but considering what had taken place before it, this was probably the best possible ending he could ever have hoped for. So for those who felt Walt needed to be brought further to account for his crimes, this episodic equivalent of a victory lap might prove unsatisfactory.
Really, I think that the ‘finale’ of Breaking Bad should be seen as the final three episodes in this half-season, as they accomplish a neat trick: they give Walt all three of the likely endings many had predicted for him. Firstly, there’s the all-out apocalyptic ending of Ozymandias, which sees his dual empires of family and methamphetamine crumble in the messiest, most unpleasant way possible. Then there’s Granite State, which sees Walt (and Jesse) totally impotent, detached and alone, and staring down the slow onset of decay, leading to death. And then there’s Felina, which gives Walt the chance to go out with a bang and redeem himself – even if it is only to himself.
In keeping with this atmosphere of score-settling vengeance Walt’s return to Alberquque felt very much like the return of an ageing gunslinger, and the bullet-strewn finale felt reminiscent of The Wild Bunch or the Dollars trilogy. As I’ve mentioned many times in these recaps, Breaking Bad loves a Western reference: partly because tipping your hat towards the striking imagery conjured up the likes of Leone and Ford isn’t the worst stylistic decision you can make, but mainly because it’s arguably the place where film and television audiences really first became aware of the American anti-hero.
The Law of the Old West meant men could be violent and still the good guys, employing an ‘it’s either him or me’ mentality. The Western (along with film noir, another notable influence) was the first place where audiences saw lines of morality being blurred into shades of grey, something that Breaking Bad has in effect built an entire series around. Of course, where Breaking Bad deviated from these films was to put the less appealing (i.e. less macho and honourable) personality traits of a true ‘anti-hero’ under an unforgiving spotlight by relocating to the modern world, where Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name is bitchy and passive-aggressive towards his wife while William Holden suffers panic attacks and whines about not being given enough credit by his boss.
As well as exuding an outlaw weariness, it was also notable how Walt appeared to drift in and out of scenes in this episode like a spectre: again and again Walt would be revealed only after a subtle camera movement, or he would seem to materialise out of the scenery in the background (or even in the foreground). Walt’s presence was then often greeted with the kind of reaction that you’d imagine these characters would reserve for an encounter with a real ghost, and in effect, it felt like Walt haunting these people for the last time before finally disappearing to the afterlife.
Except he’s not, of course: the people he doesn’t end up killing will likely be haunted by the vision of Walt forever. Or, in the unlucky case of Gretchen and Elliot, will be haunted by the vision of two crack hitmen stalking their every move: two hitmen who, in reality, are a couple of stoners with a neat sideline in Star Trek fan fiction in Badger and Skinny Pete. In a way, this reveal sums Walt’s visit to his former Gray Matter colleagues up: I’m sure Walt has fantasised about visiting the pair and lording up his status as a kingpin many times since his empire-building began, and he makes sure to make use of his new-found powers of intimidation by taunting them sadistically with a lurid description of their own assassinations.
But it’s all for show: for all his bravado, he is effectively coming to them with his cap in hand, asking for help. His money and power are gone, and all he has left is his ability to wheedle and coerce, and his willingness to do so. The only thing that has changed since they first offered him their help way back in the early days of the show is that he’s become a bigger thug.
Then there’s Skyler, for whom the spectre of Walt will likely never go away. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the final run of episodes of Breaking Bad is how it has brought the Walt and Skyler relationship right back to the fore, even while the bodies have been dropping and blood has been spilling elsewhere. The most powerful moments in Ozymandias and Granite State both highlighted the tragedy of what has become of their marriage, and so it was again here, in a beautifully shot and played scene where Walt (somewhat improbably) got to meet up with Skyler for a final goodbye.
Ostensibly, Walt was there to give her the lottery ticket that will give up the location of Hank and Gomez’s bodies and act as a crucial bargaining chip in her ongoing struggles with the DEA. But perhaps more importantly, Walt handed over this piece of paper knowing that it would act as closure for Skyler (and closure for Marie), while also making her aware that he wasn’t directly responsible for Hank’s death. Of course Skyler doesn’t have to believe him when he says this: but his admission that he embarked on his criminal life not in the interests of the family but for himself, and because he “liked it” as it made him “feel alive”, marks perhaps the most honest moment he has ever shared with his wife. It’s an interesting quirk of his character, and one that I think says a lot about the nature of screen anti-heroes, that in many ways Walt’s dishonesty has always felt like his most detestable quality, despite his penchant for murder, emotional abuses and intimidation; so it feels cathartic to finally hear him admit he just gets off on being terrible to people.
But then his apparently selfless actions towards Skyler here seem to contradict the idea that Walt is just an outright bad guy. He’s clearly capable of concern for others, and even altruism: but what he makes clear to Skyler is that while he loved her, and loved his family, ultimately he prized the thrill of criminal power that gave his own life meaning and allowed him to stave off the reality of his oncoming death over any of their feelings or ultimate interests. It’s only now, after he has lost everything and come to terms with his own mortality, in the knowledge that his death can no longer be postponed, that he can finally admit that both to her, and to himself.
And so Walt marches into an almost certain death in a showdown with Uncle Jack and the neo-Nazis: but not before a mini-confrontation with Lydia and Todd, where he manages to finagle an invitation into the gang’s compound. Lydia has managed to maintain her whole unlikely existence by carefully avoiding impurities, both in her diet (non-dairy, naturally) and in her personal life, keeping her drug-dealing cohorts at several arms lengths while consistently wearing the horrified expression of someone who has just smelled 300 farts at once. So it’s a delicious irony that she should die (we can assume) from ricin poisoning as a result of her predilection for non-carb, non-calorie sweetener.
With her out the way, Walt heads into the compound with his M60 artillery hidden in his car trunk, Django-style. As it turns out, the M60 proves to be overkill, decimating Uncle Jack’s cohorts in seconds but continuing to shoot up the cabin for what feels like an age afterwards: but, as one of the minions casually remarks to Walt when assessing his car “there’s no replacement for displacement” (a saying popular among American muscle car enthusisasts meaning essentially that the bigger the engine, the more power your car will have and the more effective it will be. This is Walt’s testimonial, and he’s not about to take chances by underplaying it.
But before then, Walt came face-to-face one last time with Jesse. Bedraggled and covered in scars, Jesse had taken to daydreaming about the satisfaction that comes from quality carpentry (it’s left ambigious as to whether this is a flashback to the shop class he mentions in Problem Dog, a fantasy sequence, or even a flash-forward) in order to escape from his reality of meth servitude.
When confronted with Jesse’s situation, Walt has his ‘throwing the Emperor into the reactor’ moment, and decides to save him, pushing him out of the way of the machine gun fire. It’s unclear if this was always Walt’s intention, but once Walt disposes of the gurgling Uncle Jack (mid-sentence, just as Jack murdered Hank) and Jesse strangles Todd (which, no matter what side of the morality divide you fall on, I think we can all agree was 100% justified), Walt sees the opportunity for a perfect ending – death at the hands of Jesse, thereby giving Jesse the revenge he clearly craved, and Walt a convenient way out. Jesse, in his only lines of the episode, asks Walt to tell him directly that he wants him to kill him, and when he does, Jesse refuses. And like that, he’s gone, smashing through the gates in a stolen car, screaming with emotion and his eyes wet with tears. How perfect that Jesse’s final act in Breaking Bad is to finally, finally disobey Walt, and take some long-overdue responsibility into his own hands. Why, it’s almost a happy ending for poor, poor Jesse.
What was interesting about Walt’s final big gambit here was how it acted almost as a mirror image to his memorable infiltration of Tuco’s lair in series one, where he heads into the belly of the beast and manages to escape by flinging a synthesised explosive at the ground. It’s arguably this early success, and particularly Walt’s ecstatic reaction to it, that serves to really draw him into the underworld after his initial dabbling, and to convince him that he might not only survive in this world, but thrive. Here, however, his big explosive plan is designed to get him out of that world by tying up a loose end, and feels a lot more muted as a result. In fact, it’s Jesse who is the one joyfully pounding on the wheel, as he drives at 100mph away from a world he never wants to be a part of again.
At this point, I think it’s germane to salute the way Vince Gilligan and his writers have meticulously constructed the world of Breaking Bad. When listening to him and the other writers talk in interviews, it’s clear that his democratic approach to writing and storytelling (he trusts his writers enough to direct their own episodes, and according to Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men is a genuinely kind and thoughtful man to work for and be around – decidedly unusual qualities for a television showrunner, if the book is to believed) led to an atmosphere where writers could suggest almost any idea, and it would then be discussed and debated by the team in earnest. It’s only through working out every single possibility that the show could arrive at its own peculiar sense of rhythm and reason, where every development feels at once completely unpredictable and yet the most logical possible outcome.
This controlled but creative method of hammering out a story is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same way any good chemist approaches chemistry: because it contains diverse aspects and elements that won’t always react the same way or the way you might expect them to, its creation by nature is unpredictable. As a result, you need to use your intuition to find your way through, and establish order within the chaos.
That’s exactly how Walt approached his meth cooking, and how he dealt with the volatile elements of the criminal underworld. He knows every reaction breeds a reaction, so he always needed to be thinking several moves ahead. But it also trained him to be aware that there was always an element of unpredictability that needed be accounted for, and to always be ready to think on your feet.
The (literally) cold open for Felina showcases this neatly, showing Walt as he desperately tries to get a car working in order to get back home. As he struggles, it sounds as if he’s praying, asking for help to just get him out of there so he can put his plan in motion. If Walt was a God-fearing man, Breaking Bad would immediately make no sense, so it can’t be a literal prayer; instead I think this is Walt acknowledging the role that the uncontrollable, unpredictable element of his life, the one thing he is unable to manipulate and control, has played in getting him to where he is.
This inherent instability to everything is the reason why a 100% cook is impossible; it’s the reason why Hank decided to read Leaves of Grass on the can, of all things; but it’s also a huge part of the reason why Walt has reached the point in his life he has. Walt is a bad guy – perhaps he always was – but his ‘breaking bad’ was facilitated by doors suddenly being opened at just the right time. It was ultimately his decision to go through them, and now he has to live with the consequences of his actions: but they were opened all the same. That’s why he knows if he can just get lucky at the moment where it counts, he can rely on his unparalleled ability to plot an incredibly complicated scheme, gain vengeance on those who wronged him, and go out on his own terms. And sure enough, shortly after his prayer to the gods of chemistry, the keys to the kingdom fall directly in his lap.
When he wistfully looks over the lab equipment in the compound in the episode’s final scene, you can see that, after everything, he’s overwhelmed by his love of chemistry and its combination of absolute certainty and total, seat-of-the-pants intuition. And he’s in thrall to the way his life has turned out by exactly the same token: for all his genius and foresight, who would have thought that his decision to cook meth would have brought him here? Hell, who would have thought his cancer diagnosis would bring him to this point? Every action has a reaction. There’s a grim inevitability to everything, and yet nothing is certain.
And as Badfinger’s Baby Blue kicks in on the soundtrack (another astute power-pop soundtrack choice), and Walter White finally slumps to his death, you have to ask yourself as a viewer: who would have thought a show about an irredeemable, cancer-stricken meth-dealer would have such a sizable impact on not just TV, but pop culture as a whole? Who would have thought the dad from Malcolm in the Middle would have one of the all-time great screen performances in him? Who would have thought it would have stayed this good, for this long?
That, then, was Breaking Bad: a brilliant, maddening, shocking, all-consuming piece of storytelling that will never be forgotten by all those who saw it. It raised the bar for what television can achieve, had the guts and the vision to go out on its own terms, and in the process gave us all a new-found respect for chemistry.
Read Paul’s review of the previous episode, Granite State, here.
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