By Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor
Published October 3, 2013
It should go without saying that the following discussion of the “Breaking Bad” finale will contain information as to what happened in the “Breaking Bad” finale, but people tend to be particularly sensitive about spoiling with this show, so this is your very fair, explicit spoiler warning.
“All bad things must come to an end,” declared the AMC promos for “Breaking Bad” ’s “Felina.” And for the first time in a while, we got a series finale that really did feel like the end. After two weeks of episodes packed with tension and horror, “Felina” plays out much more quietly, replacing the breakneck speed and instability that defines the whole series with an almost dreamlike fluidity.
In the opening scene, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) — stuck in a stolen car covered in snow as red-and-blues swirl around him in blind pursuit — calls, earnestly and for the first time, upon a higher power to take him home. Keys magically fall into his lap, and everything that follows in the extended episode has a fantastical, unreal haze covering it that so starkly contrasts the slashing realness of all that precedes it.
Walt haunts scenes perfectly framed by Vince Gilligan’s directorial hand. Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia (Laura Fraser) don’t notice him sitting just feet away in their usual meeting place. After Marie (Betsy Brandt) calls Skyler (Anna Gunn) to warn her Walt’s back in town and probably coming for her, the camera shifts to reveal he’s already there, hovering. In a perfect example of how “Bad” uses sound mixing and other techniques to set tone, evoke emotion and even provide narrative to an extent no other show has accomplished, Walt lurks in the shadows of Elliot and Gretchen’s (Adam Godley and Jessica Hecht) home, the silence and shadows more threatening than Elliot’s tiny knife could ever confront.
It’s a marked change of pace from the rest of the whiplash-inducing final season, and the mostly unsettling series reaches a surprisingly settled conclusion.
“Felina” ’s standout moment comes not from its most violent outbursts, but from a quiet confession from Walt to Skyler. “I did it for me,” he cuts her off as she tells him to stop giving her bullshit about doing it for the family. “I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.” Most of us knew Walt’s motivations were never about others (except for the contingency of the few-but-loud Team Walt soldiers insisting he was a Family Man who lost his way, a victim of uncontrollable circumstances — they’re, hopefully, eating their words and then some). But to hear Heisenberg himself spell it out and show his true baby-blue colors — in what’s possibly the only moment of pure honesty from the character since season one — satisfies more than anything else in “Felina.” Gunn (who gives off some serious Carmela Soprano vibes with her physicality — worn but resolved — in the scene) proves just how worthy she is of the little golden statue she won a week earlier, capturing Skyler’s surprise in a single look.
“Breaking Bad” has always been immensely punitive, and while not a religious show, it often possesses an Old Testament view of consequences and justice. “Felina” doles out justice with machine gun robots and Stevia packets. Walt built the legend of Heisenberg on material wealth, but as he learns in “Ozymandias,” “Granite State” and “Felina,” money can be stolen and empires can crumble. With almost everything stripped away from him, Walt sets out on a direct path toward justice, driven by the one thing he has left, the one thing that reignites Heisenberg mode: his pride. Walt’s determined path in “Felina” is not wholly redemptive, but there is definitely a sense that what’s supposed to happen, well, happens. Lydia dies at the hands of the the Chekhovian ricin. The neo-Nazis get what they deserve in a Tarantino-esque shootout that allows for one last Heisenberg-helmed tech trick. The most tit-for-tat deliberation comes when Jesse (Aaron Paul) kills Todd in a grotesque scene that mirrors Walt’s strangling of Krazy 8 back in season one.
This season in particular has been so devastating, so painful for the characters we care about: Hank and Marie meet truly tragic endings, and both halves of the season overflow with blood and tears (two of the periodic symbols that make up the anagram “Fe-li-na”: Iron. Lithium. Sodium. Blood. Meth. Tears. Gilligan is a genius/bastard.). The amount of time I’ve spent worrying about Jesse Pinkman over the past five years baffles even me. I know he’s not a real person and that even if he were a real person our lives would almost certainly never intersect, and yet Jesse’s fate has always been a top concern of mine. He’s “Bad” ’s foremost tragic character for most of the series, but he finds freedom at last in “Felina.” Jesse’s defining character moment — when he shoots Gale at the end of season three — sneaks back in an eerily similar scene, but this time his gun points at Walt. The wounded Heisenberg tells him to pull the trigger, but Jesse’s done taking kill orders from the man, done being his puppet.
Perhaps because of how accustomed I became to Gilligan — and every last actor on this damn show — tearing relentlessly at my heartstrings, I feel oddly uneasy about how neatly “Bad” wraps up. It’s not a happy ending by any means. It’s not even a just one. In a perfect, just world, Hank would live and bring down the bad guys (or, Marie would exact revenge herself … and then find peace, but mostly I just wanted Marie to poison everyone). Brock would have a mother. Walter Jr. would get unlimited breakfast food for life. In a just world, Walt wouldn’t have had the final say or the power to write his own fate. His belief that the world owes him something just because of who he is, the belief that he’s truly peerless in terms of his intelligence and power, informs all of his actions. The writers don’t necessarily sympathize with Walt in the final chapter, but they do grant him that same control he used to hurt others time and time again. “Felina” isn’t Walt’s apology or his quest for grace; it’s just acceptance. He’s a ghost from the start. Despite his cancer, Walt always fancied himself a god, able to outsmart his enemies at every turn. Or, more accurately, thinking he can outsmart them: The show’s best moments are when he underestimates those in his way and overvalues his own abilities — the most extreme case being when he thinks he can spare Hank’s life in “Ozymandias.” In “Felina,” Walt still has his noxious pride, but that blinding sense of immortality evaporates.
Now that we have all of “Breaking Bad” ’s pieces in front of us, it’s easier to point to the series’s highlights. “Phoenix” haunts me to this day. “Fly” unfolds like a poem, and proved the series could shine even when the intensity wasn’t turned up to explosive levels. “Ozymandias” will go down as one of the best hours of television in our lifetime. “Breaking Bad” has several cornerstone episodes, but “Felina” isn’t one of them. It’s satisfying, that’s for sure. And it’s one of the better series finales I’ve seen. But the same reason it works so well is the reason I walked away from the end of “Breaking Bad” a little disenchanted. For a series about the moral complexity of humans, the conclusion is strikingly well defined. Walt receives a death sentence in the pilot, and so in the end, he dies. It’s a strangely beautiful (and poetic) end for a man who embodied so many ugly things. But that’s what “Breaking Bad” has always been: a beautiful show about the wicked. It’s full of darkness and evil, all set against a colorful backdrop of sunny-bright Albuquerque. It made me care about junkies, drug dealers, shoplifters and assholes. I already miss it, but I also know we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
In that way, I guess Heisenberg got what he wanted after all: an indelible legacy.