Breaking Bad #516: "Felina"

Yesterday, as the final episode of Breaking Bad approached, Samantha Bee (of The Daily Show) raised a good question:

I'm sure we'll think of something. If you are among those who never caught up, now you can feel free to do so on your own time. And to help you in your journey I'll keep all the spoilers in our discussion of the finale after the jump...

Following on our discussion of sin and redemption and "cosmic justice" earlier this week, I think it's safe to say that the series ends with Walt in Hell. That was the story Gilligan intended to tell all along -- the story of one person's journey to damnation, with good and not-so-good intentions along the way. It was thought-provoking and morally challenging. This season it has been punishing. But -- to my great surprise -- in the final episode it was actually fun again. Walt hit bottom -- rock bottom, as it were -- in "Granite State," and the outcome was not redemption or remorse or despair, but a full and active embrace of his criminal status. He was a step ahead of us right to the end, and the last episode brought us back what made the show so enjoyable from the beginning, watching Walt use his brain to solve his (self-generated) problems.

And so the final episode was, for me at least, very satisfying, but not necessarily in the ways I expected. Walt told the truth, at last, about his motivations, first to Skyler and then to Jesse. He did it all for himself, because he enjoyed it, because he was "good at it." He manipulated Jesse to serve his own ends, not because he wanted Jesse to be happy. But while Walt admitted his true, base motivations, he did not disown them. He never said he was sorry. He claimed his identity as a criminal and freed himself from any need to be seen as anything else. Maybe that's what truly set him off in Gretchen and Elliott's Charlie Rose interview: he wasn't irate at the way they'd downplayed his contribution to their billion-dollar company. He didn't go back to Albuquerque determined to set the record straight. He heard Gretchen say that the "sweet," nice man she'd once known was no more, and he decided she was right.

Using the Schwartzes as a way to get what remained of his money to his kids seems so obvious in retrospect that I feel foolish for never even considering it. Walt did get his revenge on them in a way, leaving them fearing for their lives (not knowing the "hit men" are just a scam) if they disobey his orders. But he also realized the only way to leave a legacy for his kids was to give up on getting credit for it. He even lied to Skyler, consenting for the second time to let her think that his hard-earned cash is really a gift from Gretchen and Elliott.

Lydia got the ricin after all (sorry Mr. President) -- because she dared to keep distributing Walt's signature blue meth, or because she threatened Skyler and the kids, or both? Walt's phone conversation with Lydia was the one thing in this episode that felt over the top to me. I didn't need him to explain that he had poisoned her; the subtle shot of the tea cup with the Stevia clouding up in it was effective enough. And seeing her ailing, and hearing him tell her that she was dying, was not satisfying for me in any way. It seemed like Walt twisting the knife for the sake of it, as he did with Jesse when he told him about the circumstances of Jane's death.

As for Jesse -- maybe the biggest surprise for me was that they found a way to give Jesse what feels like a real second chance. I presume he went straight to the cops (and directed them back to the compound where they found Walt), and obviously his future won't be a very sunny one. But I didn't expect him to have a future at all. Some tiny scrap of hope lives on with him.

Amends were made where possible: Marie will be able to bury Hank (and Skyler will be able to stay out of jail). The kids will have their nest egg. But Holly will still grow up without a father. Lydia's child now has no mother. And poor Brock has no parents at all. Those details keep this ending from feeling too tidy.

And Walt spent his final moments not struggling with guilt but remembering the good times he'd had as a crystal-meth kingpin. He had a chance to bid farewell to his sleeping daughter, but his last loving caress was for the lab equipment.

Emotionally this episode left me in a pretty good place: remembering how exciting it could be to watch a criminal mastermind at work, and able to say "Good riddance" to said criminal as the credits rolled.

What did you think?

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Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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