From the very beginning of Breaking Bad, when Walter White was a sympathetic and pathetic high school science teacher with cancer who decided to cook meth to provide for his family, we knew it was going to end badly. There was only one way this was going to end: with Walter dying. It was either going to be the cancer, some drug lord like Tuco with more power than sense, or his wife Skyler when she found out. Well, there was also the possibility he would get caught by Hank, his DEA brother-in-law… but even after that, the tumor would finally get him.
Breaking Bad started with the promise of death, and then slowly took it away from us. It put Walt’s cancer in remission and made him and his bumbling partner Jesse just good enough at the drug game that they could escape the law and the bad guys for a little while. In Season One, that’s what we hoped for: a happy ending. We wanted Walt to be okay, to figure out that drugs were bad, but to somehow find some redemption and justice in a life that seemed to be unnaturally hard on him. It’s time to realize that happy ending is never going to come.
As I said, we knew it from the beginning that it would end badly, but we still hoped for the good. We’ve been trained by every movie, TV show, book, musical, song, and even instant coffee commercial to root for the protagonist, even when your protagonist turns into an amoral megolomaniac willing to poison a child just to stay alive. But still, we root for Walt. We root for him not to get caught as he hijacks a train for methylamine, even though a child dies as a result. We root for him to figure out a way for “everyone to win” as Mike points a gun to his head even though he shoots and kills Mike in the next episode. We somehow root for Walt, through all the atrocities.
This is because even in the great age of the TV anti-hero, ushered in by The Sopranos, we’ve still been granted happy endings. It seemed like things for Tony Soprano, another crime-happy family man, could only end with him getting killed or getting caught, just like Walter White. But, in the much debated series finale, he got as close to a happy ending as he could have gotten. When the bell on the door of the diner where he was dining with his family rang and the screen cut to black, he was essentially absolved of all his sins. That bell could have signaled the arrival of anyone: a hitman there to kill him (dead), the FBI there to arrest him (caught), or just some guy there to have the meatloaf special. The ending leaves us to imagine our final chapter for Tony, and I think many believe that he just continued his life, hoping and striving to make himself better as he always did. That, as far as I am concerned is a happy ending.
While it’s easy for anti-heroes in comedies to have happy endings – while it always seemed like Weeds‘ Nancy Botwin would end up dead or caught, it looks like she’ll end up finding a legit life of selling dope through pharmaceutical corporations – it’s not so easy in dramas, but it still happens. We all know that Don Draper is going to grow old and die and, if the last season of the show is any indication, fade into cultural irrelevancy. As long as he doesn’t turn out to be the guy plummeting from the top of the building in the show’s opening credits, that is seen as a victory.
This can’t happen to Walter. In the opening scene of the show’s final season (which I still say is the show’s final two seasons, but that is a different argument), Walt picks up a car with a gun in the trunk. This is not going to end well. And it shouldn’t, for Walt. He stood there and let Jane die, he raped his wife and continues to emotionally terrorize her, he’s mowed down dozens in his path for glory that now has nothing to do with drugs or money, but feeding some insatiable need inside himself to finally be the best at something.
This is a very bad man who deserves a very bad ending. We should stop being relieved when he evades the law, usually at the expense of Hank who is helping to raise the man’s children. We should stop being glad he finds a way to keep producing drugs, at the expense of all the drug addicts whose lives he’s helping to ruin. We should stop hoping he’ll find another way to not get killed, at the expense of someone else losing their life.
Even saying Walter White deserves to die sounds unkind. He is a fictional character after all, and one who has done awful things. This is what it is going to take, either his death or something equally awful. I only hope that it’s not at the expense of his children or the other innocent people caught in the black hole of his sociopathology. Walter White can not have a happy ending, the writers must see this, and we have to deal with it. We can no longer rationalize rooting for him. Instead, we should just brace for impact.
[Photo Credit: AMC]