By: Paul Andreacchi and Daniel Reynolds
The key, really, is to pick the perfect closing song. Plot, character, chill-inducing moments, these are important but unless the ending nails that outro music the whole operation falls apart. So when Badfinger’s Baby Blue (get it?!) started up with that opening line, “Guess I got what I deserve”, well that’s when you know you’re watching something special. How do you put a final bow on this gift of a show? What remains to be said after Vince Gilligan, his crew of writers and directors and his cast, put the finishing touches on one of the finest shows ever made? I’m going to try to avoid steering this wildly out into the desert of hyperbole, but good God, that was some good television. With the cacophony of internet criticism (who needs it, amirite?) ready to hate on everything, let’s just sit back and marvel.
The primary criticism of Breaking Bad has always been this notion of it being purely driven by plot, a story escalating to twisted and vile extremes eschewing, perhaps, loftier character and thematic developments. Unlike, say, the other recent shows in the all-time pantheon (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men; FYI The Wire gets my vote as the best ever), Breaking Bad’s plot allowed no room for digressions, no grandiose political aspirations, and minimal melodramatic wheel spinning (hello Mad Men Season 6!). So people would accuse Breaking Bad of a certain thinness, as if the perfect construction and execution of a 62 episode show is the easy part (ask fans of Lost or Dexter about that). Instead, to its credit, Breaking Bad moves us to appreciate the richness of characters forged in the fires of action and reaction, of emotional catalysts, of long form narrative alchemy that ultimately rewards.
This is how you end up with a moment that involves some ricin and a packet of stevia. It is how a character like Lydia, sketched minimally with an uptight nature and surging paranoia, feels like a complete person even though Breaking Bad’s relentless narrative train spent scant minutes with her. I mean, you realize these are chemical callbacks that started in Season 2? This is why you felt relief and a certain pleasure as it was revealed that Skinny Pete and Badger were still cluelessly alive (I hope Huell is doing OK). It is why we cheer Todd’s death. This is how Skyler can cut Walt off as he seems to be starting in on another speech because she thinks he knows what he is going to say. It’s what makes Walt’s admission all the more surprising and powerful. And it’s what makes Walt’s distant goodbye from his son – forever Flynn now – so tragic.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
Then there is Jesse, he who wanted only to die. After spending way, way too much time chained up, after being beaten down in every way imaginable, Jesse went from being thought of as a rabid dog, as an Old Yeller situation, to something of a mongrel (his mangy hair didn’t help). Jesse is not fixed, really nothing could fix Jesse, but for a character who has spent long stretches of his time hell bent on destroying himself, the look on Jesse’s face as he raced towards freedom was a sweet, satisfying mixture of relief, gratitude and bittersweet happiness. There are things worse than death, but nothing quite as final. Kudos to Aaron Paul for taking what could have been a walking cartoon and, with the obvious help of some spectacular writing, crafting a memorable character instead. I want to believe that Jesse is still out there somewhere trying to reclaim his life in some way, maybe opening a shelter for abused animals or something.
Still, the ending. In a way, Gilligan spoiled his conclusion right from the start. Breaking Bad was, as he said, to be a journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface”. And for the first half of the finale, setting aside a few needling Grey Matter moments (Walt’s utter contempt for the quaint lives of the Schwartz duo was not unenjoyable), Walter White was Mr. Chips, the ashen and dying man. He can’t exactly repent his sins, it’s too late for that and there are a few too many buried or dissolved bodies, but this is a man settling accounts, a man determined to accept his fate. This is Walt’s real transformation.
Then, the foretold Scarface part. Much like our Al Pacino fueled vision, Walt went out in a hail of gunfire of his own design. Of course, in classic Heisenberg fashion, it was a clever, risky plan that required a bit of chancy luck (and the best parking job of all time). The showdown between Walt and Uncle Jack was really Vince Gilligan at his finest. It was pure plot set into perfect motion; tension from the subtlest of miscues, the car keys out of reach, the thought of possible mechanical failure (remember Tio’s bell that almost didn’t seem to work?). Then the chaos, the dust settling. The Badfinger song cranks up, maybe you glanced at the time and realized it was almost over. Walt knew it was time.
Are we happy with how things played out? Walt strolling alone in one last meth lab, wounded by his own errant bullets, admiring the machinery and chemistry, recalling his own mastery. Look, I don’t know if you write in the script that second last image, the one before Walt collapses to the ground for the slow skyward zoom out. I’m talking about the shot of the reflection of Walt on the tank. It’s ghostly and out of focus, maybe Gilligan comes up with that on the floor. The song swells (“The special love I have for you, my baby blue”), Walt caresses the tank – shades of his final loving gesture to Holly – and then it is stained by blood. It was supposed to be easy: cook meth, make money, die of cancer, family safe and secure. Walt never lacked for a vision, for himself or for his life. Staring at his reflection, one can’t help but feel Walt’s own acknowledgement of how warped it eventually made him. Walter White is dead, long live Walter White.
“Growth. Decay. Transformation.”
It has been the ethos of this show and its central character since the pilot episode where the weakly and defeated Mr. White attempts a moment of inspiration to his perennially uninspired students (been there). To say Walter White has ‘changed’ in five seasons of Breaking Bad is a gross understatement. Transformation is much more accurate a term. The sweet, loving father is long gone. The ruthless criminal mastermind is all that is seemingly left entering the series finale. All of our reviews thus far have highlighted the many moments of transformation throughout the series so I will not recount them again. However, the transformation does not end with Walt, Jesse or the White family. Like only a few stories have the ability to do, Breaking Bad allows its audience to grow and transform with it.
These are the stories we learn from. These are not just lessons on crime, greed, pride, drugs, and violence. Some stories teach us about the extremes of the human experience. Breaking Bad examines the human experience in its complexity and its moments of complete tragedy. Many have chosen to view the series as another story showing its audience the perils of criminality. However, Breaking Bad is not any other story. It does not simply show us how monsters are created and dwell on their heinous actions, leaving the audience horrified, and nothing else. Breaking Bad strives to show us how monsters are defeated.
The great Heisenberg is not defeated in a final moment of violence. Walter White is defeated in the moments he says goodbye to his broken wife, strokes the hair of his infant daughter, and gets the last look of his son through a dirty window. Like all the monsters of history and literature before it, the Breaking Bad story affirms that these monsters often defeat themselves through excessive pride, greed, and hubris. However, Breaking Bad is like no other because even amidst the violence, death and moral depravity, the fundamental human instincts for love, devotion, and sacrifice can still prevail. Walt seeks approval, yes, but in the moments where our monster is deconstructing, we still feel his pain for his broken family and broken spirit. This monster is truly human.
It would be difficult to argue that Walt experiences redemption after five season of despicable words and actions but soon after finally admitting to Skyler he did this for himself, he sets out to right as many wrongs as he can before he meets his end. So, not only does the Breaking Bad story show us how monsters are defeated but it also shows us how some exceptional monsters, like Walter “Heisenberg” White, can knowingly engineer their own defeat and consciously bring about their final downfall for the sake of others. In his final moments, Walt guarantees his family’s financial security, finally gives Jesse his freedom from the meth business he has long wished for, and more importantly, sees the monster within himself and acknowledges the fate he deserves.