Recap

The 'Breaking Bad' Series Finale: The Perfect Goodbye to a Wonderful Story

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Sep 30, 2013 | 3:24am EDT

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In the moments between that one last Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan and a frenetic phone call from my college roommate, I struggled with the uncertainty that hits some of us after experiencing anything as grand as the Breaking Bad series finale: Was that — could it possibly have been — as perfect as I thought it was? Would everybody else in the world feel the same way, or would this be the Lost finale debacle all over again? (Hey, Walt did leave us in a pose quite reminiscent of Jack Shephard's final bow.) But then I got the call. I logged onto Twitter. I caught a few moments of glee emanated by the Talking Bad panel. I knew that this wasn't all stemming from my will to leave this program on a high note. This was real. The Breaking Bad finale was, unequivocally, perfect.

Perfect in its pacing. We got the big blow-out episode two weeks back, when Hank and Gomey bit the dust, Walt kidnapped baby Holly, and a border collie scampered across the New Mexican highway. While the world anticipated a Walt Vs. The Nazis showdown in this final chapter, that was really just the capper: the meat of the episode was the deliberate, somber cobblestone pathway leading up to that explosive end. The drama that booms inside of Breaking Bad, not the thriller that coats its outer shell.

At first, "Felina" made some of us hesitant to believe that it would accomplish everything it needed to. After a menacing stop at the Schwartz household and a quick visit with Lydia and Todd, we might have wondered if the show was delivering its final episode in a form that felt too much like a staccato bucket list. But we were validated in our hopes that the ep would soften its edges. Once Walt hit Skyler's depressing new pad, paying a visit with the secondary intentions of leaving her with the tangible evidence capable of freeing her from the law's grasp once and for all and the primary intentions of bidding one last goodbye to his wife and infant daughter (and, through a tear-stained window, his son — so shattered by his father's villainies that he has abandoned one of their most symbolic kinships: driving), the episode evened out to a steady flow that not only proved unconditionally captivating, but also retroactively acknowledged all that came before it to have been so mechanically necessary.

From that point on, we came to realize that the first half of the episode (jeez, we're already more than halfway done!) was spotted with perfection. We were sold on the grimacing opener — Walt shivering in the snowed-in car he steals up in New Hampshire, praying to a God who has no business paying him any mind and ultimately receiving the bounty for which he asks: the keys to the ride takes across country, stopping first at the Schwartz's place to put the fear of death into them in return for Elliott's boneless agreement to transfer Walt's nine million smackers to Walt Jr. upon his 18th birthday. The whole scene — a break-in that Danny Ocean would treat to an impressed nod — plays with the cinematic poise and aggressive suspension of disbelief you might find in a Hollywood heist flick. Walt, reproducing some amalgamation of Heisenberg, Mike Ehrmantraut, and the dapper leading antiheroes in whatever movies he asked Robert Forster to pick up for him during his time in the mountains, recognizes just what sort of folk he's dealing with this time around: his sort of folk. Not the hardened Salemancas or sociopathic neo-Nazis that see straight through his falsified bravado, but the kind of people he can so faintly remember being. So, he can take this one final opportunity to tout the character he has built... sans hat, but close enough.

And to concede that this scene isn't at all a deviation from the Breaking Bad universe but very much just a machination of Walt's toxic drives paying off in the only sort of community they ever really might, we find out that the two "expert hit men" he hired to shine sniper rifels into the chests of his Prague-going victims are none other than Badger and Skinny Pete. Here is a sign of the depths to which present day Walt, with millions in tow, has sunk. And just as importantly, it is a sign of series creator/episode writer and director Vince Gilligan's appreciation for his fan base. There might have been plenty of ways to convey that Walt had no intention, or means, of actually harming Elliott and Gretchen. And a dozen and a half, easy, of Walt solidifying the realization that Jesse was still at large. But none would have been more crowd pleasing. More fun for the long-time viewers. Here's one for the fans, Vince Gilligan must have smiled while writing these scene. Proof that even in its darkest, bleakest attire, Breaking Bad is not intrinsically joyless.

On, past quick shots of Walt parading through diners, his broken down old home on Negra Arroyo, and glaring ominously into his trunk, to his next victim: Lydia. A predictable sort (and predictably one, at that), Walt is able to determine the time and place of Lydia's next meeting with Todd as well as exactly what she'll be drinking at the time. The sort of beverage into which a cigarette's worth of ricin might find itself dumped during a frantic ad hoc meeting (a meeting that also gives Walt the opportunity to get a leg in to a reunion with Todd's dirtbag brethren. All in one stone. And although this scene isn't likely to stay with us the way that Walt's tyrannical traipse through the Schwartz home, his miserably poetic sit-down with Skyler, or any of what comes thereafter will, it is a point we needed to visit, and of which to watch the undertaking with a cautious and hungry eye. Walt is lucky, yes (very), but he's also quite good at much of what he does.

In a quick break from Walt, we see the Lambert sisters taking to their pre-series dynamic: high on the leverage her noble tragedy gives her over the decrepit narrative worn by her sister, Marie phones Skyler to play a condescending (never vindictive, just inherently competitive) guardian, letting her know that Walt has been spotted back inthe neighborhood, and that she best be on the lookout — because we're lucky enough to be watching Breaking Bad, it is immediately after this phone call that we realize Walt is already in the picture. When he does finally say his goodbyes to Skyler, to baby Holly, and (tacitly) to Flynn, Walt allows us something we haven't experienced in full seasons: he impresses us. Walt comes clean to himself, using Skyler as the push, that he didn't do any of this for anybody but himself. Cooking meth, ascending to the top of the kingdom, it was all to be something he never got a chance to be. To grab at the missed opportunities that have haunted him through every car cleaning and every ungrateful high school student. He needed to feel like the man he never was. And all the decay he has come to discover, and to endure, has finally made Walt open his eyes to that.

It is the first time of several in this final episode that Walt shows us something in him that we can reflect upon as sympathetic. We'll never root for him again. We'll never give him the benefit of the doubt. But we can grow wistful over shines of the man he once was. In Walt's exchange with Skyler, we see that old Walt in him again... we hold onto memories of a Walt we can remember loving. In Flynn's defeated, physically weakened trodding from bus to front door, we see an abandonment of the Walt we might ever have rooted for. And in Walt's stroking of the hairless head of a sleeping baby Holly, we see the hero, and father, he never got the chance to be. Worse even than the crumbling Skyler and altogether abdicated Flynn, we see a daughter who won't remember him at all. But he'd hang onto her, and this moment, even if he lasted another five seasons.

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And then comes the boom. Walt's endeavor toward justice. We're not certain where he stands on objective, at this point. Is he just trying to reclaim his throne? Is he vying for the rest of his money, with which to shower a resentful Walt Jr.? Revenge for Hank? Freedom for Jesse? Some kind of principled takedown of the White Power movement? Or maybe, in the simplest and possibly most gratifying terms, a scientist driven to carry out a calculated plan?

Walt is ushered through the team's gates, salivating with anticipation over his opportunity to let loose his machine gun-rigged automobile. The simplest and most foreseeable of problems takes hold immediately: they snag his car keys (the weapon is operated by the unlock plooper thing — for the life of me, I have no idea what else you'd call those gadgets, and my father always used the word "plooper"). And then, a larger problem: Uncle Jack wants Walt dead. Why, exactly? Eh, who knows? He's a menace. He's a threat. He's a jackass. Take your pick. But Uncle Jack, that same Uncle Jack who so graciously gave Walt a barrel of his own dough, will not be called a liar when Walt accuses him of partnering up with Jesse Pinkman to create the blue meth that is selling hot throughout Europe these days. So, Uncle Jack parades the shackled Jesse out into the open for Walt to gaze upon. Not a partner, but a slave.

We can assume that Walt's agitation of Jack was only to bide time while he squirms for his key plooper on the fleetingly guarded pool table, and that Walt had no real intention of seeing Jesse again — at least at this particular juncture — or using him as a pawn in his plan to take down the nazi troupe. But a monkey wrench in thrown into the gears when Todd drags Jesse into the line of Mr. White's sights, and the man who just gave the wife he destroyed one last look at the good that lurks someplace inside of him surprises us yet again: he looks at Aaron Paul, but doesn't see Jesse. He doesn't see the loud-mouthed, bright-eyed, beaming idiot with a heart of gold that came under his tutilege back in the days of the desert. He sees what is left of that scrappy young pup, and feels something — call it guilt or responsibility, maybe just pity, or (if you are an idealist, like I am) a flicker of love. Corroded love. But in taking one look at the boy whose name he cried out during his painkiller soliloquy, Walt sees someone else he cares to rescue. A tackle to the ground, a quick press of the plooper (sorry if that's robbing the summary of its gravity) button, and the guns howl with fury, taking out — in a twist of fate so romantically gratifying that you're not going to call it out for being "too convenient" — every one of the low-down bastards but Todd and Uncle Jack.

Todd is left to Jesse, who strangles the monster with the very shackles in which he placed him. That's elementary poetic justice. But then Walt enacts perhaps the most surprising move we get ever in the show: he cuts Jack off, with a bullet to the head, right in the midst of a threat that he'll never know how to find the rest of his millions. That unapologetic decision tells us that this whole endeavor was not for the money, nor even for the pride. It was for freedom. It was his goodbye to this world, on the part of his trembling family and — a priority that came into being as soon as he laid sad eyes onto him — Jesse.

To articulate the currents that erupt between Walt and Jesse in their final moments together would be a task I'm not equipped to take. Walt allows Jesse the opportunity to kill him; hell, Walt allows himself the opportunity to be killed, to be put out of his demonic misery, by his proverbial son. But Jesse — wanting so badly for Walt to be out of the picture, refusing so resentfully to do him any last favors, and so painfully unable despite everything and anything else to take the life of someone who has (for better or much, much, MUCH worse) been so very important to him — can't. Won't. Doesn't. "Do it yourself," Jesse tells Walt.

In discussing the scene to follow with a few friends post-viewing, I recognize it as that which will be called out as the finale's only weak link: Walt's phone conversation with Lydia. On the one hand, we don't need to hear him tell her that she's dying, as we already know. And she, soon enough, will know. But this call isn't for us, for Walt, or for Lydia. It's for Jesse, for whose benefit Walt speaks in hearty exposition just before the tattered young man can make his way out of the incarcerating gate. Jesse needs to know that he's free. That this world to which he has been bound so mercilessly since pre-Day 1 is under the ground. Walt has plucked every major player from the meth game, topping off the list with Lydia, thusly ending Jesse's ties to this cold, chemical, blue hell. And with Jesse taking note of Walt's abolition of him, he might even set Walt free, too: of the hate. Whether or not he still holds onto the very real anger he must feel for the latest father figure to abandon him, Jesse offers Walt one final glance of sincerity. A "thanks for the memories," or a "it's been real"? Maybe. Probably, if only just a bit. It might be asking too much to think that the find, wordless stare shared by the men is anything close to the love or fraternity we always sort of wanted to believe they shared. But it's certainly civility. And, if that's not enough to make you tear up a little, it's shared history. And then, it's a goodbye.

The most wonderful goodbye we'll say to any Breaking Bad character, as Jesse speeds dynamically through the gate he tried to scale one episode and so many months before, laughing like the child he never got to be not only at his freedom from his underground cage, but from the pen in which Walter White has kept him for the past two years. Killing Walt, or seeing Walt put in jail, might never have given Jesse the ease he feels in this beautiful instance. A true understanding and trust, despite everything, that the man who has controlled his life has decided once and for all to let him go. And then once he flips on that engine, Jesse's life is, for the first time in the series, his. He belongs to himself alone. And he's off to do whatever he might wish — build boxes, draw cartoons, flee to Alaska, take care of Brock. Tying everything up so neatly, the show lets our imaginations run wild. Breaking Bad says, "Give Jesse the ending you've always wanted for him." And that's not only okay, it's perfect. Jesse, now, can have any ending he wants. And we love him. So let's all give him the one we love best.

Note: And yes, in the cold light of morning, I understand the frivolity in deeming Jesse's ending a "happy" one. Sure, he is free now in a tangible sense, and ostensibly able to escape hold of the trade for his days to come, but this is the same young man of pulverized heart and spirit that we saw lifelessly opt to flee to Alaska not so long ago. Actually, it's a man worse for wear, now that Andrea has been killed right before his eyes. Jesse will never be free, not from all that has been tattooed onto his soul thanks to the legacy of Walter White. Holly might not remember him, but Jesse won't go a moment without Walt's claws piercing him so viciously. It's a given that Jesse's life won't be perfect, and might never be "good." But I do think we can latch onto that unadulterated relief we see in him in that final second. That momentary glee. The ability to feel something in the neighborhood of hope again. I think that's a happy enough ending, and that we can have fun determining for ourselves in what way it will manifest.

And as for Walt... his ending is quite clear. As he steps with the chemist's awe into the nazis' meth lab, glowing over the machinery that gave him the torrential past two years, Walt is happy to hold fast to every twinge and twitter that he has know in this tour. He has come to a point to realize that his reasons for getting into the game were all sour, that his actions were all missteps, that everything he has done to his family and friends has been nothing short of satanic. But he has not forgotten any of the other side of it: having known all that, to some degree, this entire time, there was a reason he kept going. Everything he explained to Skyler — the feeling that he was finally what he wanted to be. A king, a hero, a man, a winner. At the expense of his wife and children, his in-laws, friends, coworkers, and of Jesse, Walt gave himself life.

It's a sad, terrible, monstrous, tragic story. But it's a human one. And as the cops flood in and we Walt fall bloody to a Jack Shephardian death, weakened by a nick from one of his own bullets and long torn down by the disease brewing inside of him, finally ready to let go after settling everything on the outside and inside alike, we recognize the human inside of Walt. We don't forgive it. We don't entirely sympathize with it. We can't say we love or root for it whatsoever. But we see it — him. We see a man. And for all he's done to everyone around him — and to us as well — we'll sure miss his story.

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