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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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I will never press the button to open the trunk of the car without thinking of the finale.

I may have to give up TV dramas. How could anything top this?

Well, Breaking Bad mayyy be the best drama ever (personally, I still prefer 6 Feet Under and the Wire), but its finale doesn't mean that the best show ever has ended.

I'm talking about Archer, of course.

Six Feet what now? Seriously? But. But. Alan Ball.

OK -- here goes:

I don't think Walt ends up in Hell.  Even though he admits he enjoyed his work, he admits explicitly that he has been a "monstrous father", and thus admits he has failed in his most important project.  He leaves Vermont to set things as right as he can.  He sees to it that his children will be provided for even as he gets no credit for it.  And he helps destroys the meth business he participated in as far as he can --  he kills Lydia and slaughters Jack and his gang -- and himself.  Finally,  knowing that Jesse wants out of the business, he lets Jesse go.  

His conscience is a defective one, but according to his new light he puts things in order as best he can.  What more can be asked of such a creep?

I should have added that not only does he not kill Jesse, he gives Jesse the opportunity to kill him -- more opening out to justice as his deformed conscience sees it.

Not only does he not kill Jesse, he saves his life by covering him with his own body.

I'm inclined to put Walt in Dante's "Ante-Purgatorio" of the late repentant – if Scott Moringiello permits it.

Do yo think Walt blew up his meth empire in order to spare addicts his super-pure product? I don't. I think he did it because it was his. He made it.

Yes, Walt shields an unsuspecting Jesse from the hail of bullets. But he does more: He gives Jesse the option of killing him. He lets Jesse make a choice that separates him from his past. Not completely--it's not a balm. Andrea is still dead. Brock motherless. Gale buried. But Walt allowed Jesse to choose a new beginning. 

"Yo" to you too. Hey, he's not even in Purgatorio yet – there's a long climb ahead!

Grant --

Yes,  no doubt Walt blew it up because it was his and he didn't want anyone else to have it, but people often have more than one motive for doing what they/we/I do.

I wish I had seen the whole series so I'd know Walt better.  I'm still scratching my head a bit about the motives which enticed a supposedly good man to choose to turn to criminal acts. Yes, he needed money.  But that would not have been enough for most good men.  

Was Walt something of a psychopath (lacking fellow-feeling for his victims) from the beginning?  Or did he become so indifferent to them by degrees?  How much did his desire to act creatively (building his empire) have to do with his change?  How much did the opportunity to boss other people have to do with it?  And sometimes I got the feeling that Skyler really hadn't been very supportive of his dreams whatever they originally were, so he decided to show her he too could be a "success".  (I thought that on one level their last phone conversation had the ring of truth.)

I saw only a half-dozen episodes.  Great, great TV.  It's now on a par with "cinema" and, yes, "the theatuh".  But poor Gilligan.  How will he top Walt?

Great finale. As for his final state, ditto what Fr. Imbelli and Ann said. Not quite redemption but doing the best he could under the circumstances to make it right. In so many ways, he is actually courageous and resigned to do the best he can but he is under no illusions as to his life.

In one episode a while back he says to Jesse that if there is a hell they are pretty much going there.

But, in the end he saved him. Their relationship is so complex. I loved watching it unfold. It has such an amazing father/son feel to it. It is almost eery.

Emily Nussbaum posted this take today, expressing her disappointment (about which she is fairly apologetic). She tweeted that "the episode felt eerily like a compensatory fantasy from Walt's perspective," and her case is compelling.

I mean, wouldn’t this finale have made far more sense had the episode ended on a shot of Walter White dead, frozen to death, behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start? Certainly, everything that came after that moment possessed an eerie, magical feeling—from the instant that key fell from the car’s sun visor, inside a car that was snowed in.

I think I like that ending almost as much as what we actually saw. In fact, the final shot of Walter lying on the floor of the meth lab reminded me of Jack Nicholson's frozen, grinning face at the very end of The Shining. Maybe the writers let us eat our cake and have it too -- we saw Walter deserted and (nearly) despairing, brought low by his many sins, and then we saw him go out in a blaze of vengeful glory.

Nussbaum seems not to have connected the flashback we saw of Jesse making a box with the scene when Jesse reminisced about his talent for woodworking back in season 3. That made me go back and look it up -- I'd kind of forgotten about that moment from the finale until she mentioned it -- and the significance is powerful.

Jesse was in a 12-step meeting, answering this question: "If you had the chance to do anything you wanted, what would you do?" (I am relying not only on my memory but also on the transcript some fan posted to IMDB.) Jesse remembered a time in woodworking class when he did a lousy job on an assignment, and the teacher challenged him: "Is that the best you can do?" That motivated Jesse to really give it his all and make something he was proud of. That's the memory he goes to when he thinks about what he would do if he had a second chance. (He also admits that he ended up trading the box for "an ounce of weed.") The box reminded Nussbaum of a coffin, but to me it represents Jesse's potential. It gives some shape to the hope for him now that he has escaped: even in prison, he can probably do some woodworking! But more broadly, he can find some way to value himself again.

"Just get me home. Just get me home. I'll do the rest."

Maybe it's worth noting that the first line of dialogue in Felina was Walt's whispered...prayer?

Considering what "the rest" means, it's a questionable spiritual breakthrough. But it's also the first intimation of real theism since Gretchen proposed the existence of a soul.

Yo, Fr. I!!

Steven - I forgot about that line, but when it aired I had the same thought: "Was that a prayer?" Very very interesting. Perhaps it was his last bargain with the devil?

Embarrassingly the comparison never occurred to me until today, but didn't Goethe have Faust pursuing a maiden named Gretchen?
Still, I'm one of those who prefers to see a little more grace and mercy in Felina than Faust. Peter Gould, who wrote and directed Granite State, said in an interview that Walt left the bar no longer Heisenberg, no longer Mr. White, but something new. I think it must mean Walt recovered enough of himself to try to set things right even if he remained Heisenberg enough to have chosen evil means. Not to excuse poisoning Lydia, mass murder at the compound, etc. But to say something complex happened and, at least, Walt ended his life knowing what he had become, with too little time for real redemption.

I can't decide whether my vague feeling of letdown at the finale is simply a matter of being sad to see such a great show end or disappointment that things got tied up a bit too neatly. I was sorry that Jesse was the one to kill Todd, though I think that was inevitable. I also think that his triumphant cry as he drove out of Uncle Jack's compund seemed to ignore the profound damage he has suffered as a person, and kind of gave the impression that he was headed into the horizon to start over with a clean state. As if. I also feel like Walt got a little too much of what he wanted.

Still, sompared to how awfully some good shows ended (Battlestar Galactica anyone?), I think Gilligan and co. can definitely put this in the "win" column. Mollie's point about his final caress being not of his daughter but of his lab equipment is a great one. And as someone who is firmly committed to the privatio account of evil, I can hardly fault the writers for maintaining some shred of goodness in Walt.

The new website Previously.TV had a couple binge-watch the whole series over the last couple months. It's been interesting to see how watching it all in a row like that affected their take on the last few episodes -- in short, they were especially able to appreciate story continuity and the little details that pay off down the line, and they had less trouble keeping in mind that all of this was unfolding over the course of just two years. They also experienced the final episode as being in continuity with what came before it, whereas I was so swept up in the grimness of the episodes immediately preceding it that its tone took me by surprise.

Anyway, I wanted to bring this, from their response to the finale, over here, because I think it's fascinating -- Breaking Bad as Paradise Lost:

As complicated as it all was on paper, the entire series is a simple caution against the temptations of the devil as he has been known for thousands of years. I mean, several times in the final season, Walt is actually referred to as the devil -- including once in a tossed-off way by Marie (Betsy Brandt), heard partially through a door as Hank (Dean Norris) emerges from the house after finding the Walt Whitman book. And the series is nothing if not a tale of the fall from heaven of one Walter White. Walter falls, Walter begins reaping the souls from all around him, and in the end, Walter returns briefly to the world of God (the Schwartzes house -- c'mon! You have to admit it looked like heaven. And everything in it seemed to operate by magic!) to ask that the world that he cast himself out of at least take pity on his son.

Emily Nussbaum complained that the Schwartzes were portrayed, in this final episode, as "cartoon assholes—monstrous foodies!" as if to justify Walt's actions. But it didn't read that way to me at all. The Charlie Rose interview made them seem like not-cartoonish rich assholes. But watching them return home in "Felina" and make small talk -- albeit rich-person small talk -- as they settled in made them sympathetic, in my view. They represented the life Walt might have had, happy domesticity plus a ton of money plus renown and respectability, if he hadn't...gone another way. And I don't agree, either, that the "Gray Matter backstory, which once seemed ambiguous...shrivels into Walt’s version of the story" in that scene. The worse Walt has become (and has he ever seemed as thoroughly evil as he did slipping quietly, casually, into their home and lurking in the shadows, waiting for his chance to terrorize them?), the easier it has been for me to believe he was mostly or entirely at fault for his falling-out with his old business partners.

On another note: watching Talking Bad, listening to the beind-the-scenes podcast, and reading interviews with Gilligan, I have gotten the impression that he felt it was very important that Walt manage to leave a lot of money to his family, which is what he set out to do in the first place. He seemed to feel that, one way or another, that was how the show needed to end, and the biggest puzzle he and the writers had to solve as they approached the ending was how he would manage to do that. It's funny, because I don't think that was important to me at all. I wouldn't have felt like the show let me down if Walt fell short of that goal; I think that is actually what I was expecting. You?