And so it ends.
Can I now safely say that Breaking Bad was the best TV drama there ever was? Not without watching a whole lot of other TV dramas I haven’t caught up with yet, and not without stirring up a heated debate. There are a good number of other series that would vie for that title — the closest contender being The Sopranos, probably, in terms of popularity, critical kudos, and game-changiness. Unlike that series, Breaking Bad had a modest beginning, capturing the attention of only a handful of television viewers (including myself). It took three or four years before I could say, “Breaking Bad is the best show on TV right now” without being met with a blank stare.
Over the past six years, though, it has developed into a major pop culture staple — not just a flash in the pan, I think, but one that’ll be here to stay for years to come. There are all kinds of Breaking Bad memes out there; enough merchandise you’d think Walter White’s saga was a Disney movie; and if you happened to glance at Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter last night, you probably had your fix of chatter about this finale.
Best show ever? Who knows? Who can say, yet, so definitively? There will never be a consensus. This season, though, I’d venture to say that Breaking Bad achieved a level of pop culture relevance not even enjoyed by The Sopranos — you’ll see more Breaking Bad Halloween costumes out there than you would ever see from The Sopranos. This is, in part, because the show is viewable by more people thanks to Netflix and its home on AMC rather than HBO, and also because social media has made sharing our thoughts on pop culture a much bigger “thing” than it was a decade ago.
But it’s also because Breaking Bad is, like, a really good show, you guys.
Before I go overboard with my praise and suggest Walter White’s face be added to Mt. Rushmore, let’s talk “Felina,” the series finale. (A brief Google search uncovers that “Felina” is an anagram of “Finale,” and “FeLiNa” contains the periodic symbols for iron, lithium, and sodium.) In my eyes, Breaking Bad has essentially had two series finales already — “Ozymandias,” the climactic episode in which Walt lost everything he’d been fighting for all this time, and last week’s “Granite State,” which saw everyone reaping what they sowed in a seriously bummed out state of mind.
It was a clever tactic on Vince Gilligan’s part, because this way, everyone gets the Breaking Bad finale they needed. You want nail-biting suspense and jaw-dropping moments? “Ozymandias” has that in spades! Do you prefer grim drama and nearly unbearable loneliness to punish these characters for their wicked ways? Try “Granite State”! It has gloom and doom to spare! Or maybe you’d like some Tarantino-style revenge killing with a dollop of redemptive heroism in the end? If so, then “Felina” is the finale for you.
A tweak or two and either “Ozymandias” or “Granite State” could have sent Breaking Bad out fittingly. They were both terrific episodes in very different ways. But they also would have ended the show with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths — Hank freshly killed, the (even badder) bad guys winning, Walt facing the music for his crimes without any upside whatsoever. All for naught. That’s all fair, from a narrative standpoint, but would we really be satisfied? In its final hour, Breaking Bad lets up on the misery porn and allows itself to be fun again, having punished Walt, Jesse, Skyler, and the gang enough for one lifetime. Now it’s time to punish the people who really, really deserve it.
It’s not like Skyler and Marie are suddenly doing high-kicks in sequined outfits while Flynn warbles a ditty about the most important meal of the day, but compared to the last few episodes? “Felina” is like an episode of “Glee” next to “Ozymandias.” In the series finale, the people we want to die do and those we don’t, don’t. There’s some fan service here, but just the right amount — it satisfies without feeling like a cheapo cop out, a betrayal of everything that came before. Breaking Bad is not, never has been, and never wanted to be The Wire; though it has gone to very dark, dirty, and despairing places, what separates it is the lightness it manages to find between them. The show has always found a quirky, dry sense of humor even amidst shocking squalor and depravity; you wouldn’t think it’s funny, but it is.
Breaking Bad is many things, but above all, it’s a good time. To end on a pitch black note would not exactly be wrong, but it would drastically alter the way we felt about the show after it’s over. Imagine it ending with “Ozymandias.” Now imagine it ending with “Granite State.” The entire series feels different with each of those endings, right? After seeing “Felina,” I can say that it all feels of a piece; the tone of this last episode is about the same as the tone of the first. In fact, “Felina” may be the lightest hour of Breaking Bad we’ve seen in ages — which I know is a strange thing to say about an episode in which multiple people are gunned down and the final shot is of the hero’s dead or dying body. But really! “Felina” ends on the lightest note Breaking Bad could have ended on.
That is, without Hank popping up with a wink and a “gotcha!”, a reveal that Mike, Andrea, Drew Sharp, and the rest really did just take a trip to Belize, and that aforementioned musical number about breakfast.
Following last week’s distinctly cinematic “Granite State,” “Felina” is most definitely an hour of television, wrapping up (almost) all loose threads methodically and episodically. We watch as Walt makes his way through those flash-forwards (which are now the present) and check in with significant surviving characters like Skyler, Marie, Flynn, Badger, and Skinny Pete. The (very) cold open is a clever and foreboding bit of Breaking Badness, as police come to a stop outside the snow-covered truck Walt is hiding in… and then merely drive off again. (Snow wouldn’t have been able to save his ass in New Mexico.)
It’s another depiction of Walt’s curious luck, which allows him to escape near-catastrophic predicaments but only for a matter of time, until he is placed in some even graver danger; Walter White is the poster boy for that old cliche: “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.” This time, though, it’s pretty obvious (since it’s the final episode) that we’re about to see Walter White’s last stand. Luck is on his side for only a matter of days now.
Walt gets himself a machine gun and then heads home to collect his ricin, as we’ve seen. (Carol is unfortunately a no-show this time around, however.) We get an unnecessary and somewhat awkward flashback to the pilot, which may have just been a way for Dean Norris to make an appearance — it steered dangerously close to a “clips episode” moment, something Breaking Bad should be above. (I’m rarely a fan of flashbacks to scenes we’ve already seen that exist primarily to tell us what a character is thinking.) From there, Breaking Bad is officially moving forward in time after our first flash-forward in “Live Free Or Die” more than a year ago.
Posing as a New York Times reporter, Walt finds his way to Gretchen and Elliot’s new mansion in a masterful sequence that is also quite narratively tidy. Last week’s cameo from Gretchen and Elliot was a major surprise to most Breaking Bad fans, motivating Walt’s decision not to give himself up to the police at the last minute. We knew he was returning to New Mexico with some heavy artillery (the machine gun) and some light artillery (the ricin) — would one of these be used on the Grey Matter moguls? It was somewhat unlikely, since Walt has never killed in cold blood with such premeditation; he’s not pure evil. Heisenberg going all homicidal like that would have been a bit of a shark jump.
Instead, it was likely that Gretchen and Elliot’s appearance merely motivated Walt to return to New Mexico to reclaim his legacy somehow; his ego demanded that he go out on a Heisenberg-y note rather than as a sickly old man in a remote cabin in the woods. We had no guarantee that the Schwartzes would appear in the series finale. But as it turns out, they did. And Walt’s reason for visiting them was more practical than we anticipated.
Before we learn what it is, though, Breaking Bad teases us brilliantly, demonstrating exactly why this series has been such a fascinating ride. Here we are, in the series finale, and we have no idea what the protagonist will do to these people. If he pulled out a gun and shot them point blank, we’d be surprised… but we’d believe it. Even this late in the game, Breaking Bad can tease us with whether or not the main character is a homicidal maniac, which is impressive. Walt creeping around the Schwartz house is as unsettling as anything you’ll see in a horror movie because it’s really not clear what the fuck he’s doing there; he doesn’t even have to make a threat to be completely terrifying. Apparently, by reputation, he’s achieved that. Gretchen and Elliott have the same reaction as neighbor Carol at the mere sight of him. The word has spread — Heisenberg is bad news.
And yet — this is a weak middle-aged man with just a matter of months to live. Like Gus Fring, he’s intimidating because we know what he’s capable of. And the Heisenberg name has gotten far bigger than the man, since these days Walt is suspected of far more malice than he actually intends. The reason for his visit turns out to be much more linear than imagined — at the end of “Granite State,” he tried and failed to send money to Flynn; he saw Gretchen and Elliott on TV and thought, “Hmm… I know a way I can get him the money!” But we all thought he was there for a more nefarious purpose, didn’t we?
In this sequence, Breaking Bad has its cake and eats it too. Viewers love Heisenberg as a villain. The last few episodes have been leaning toward a more redeemable, less reckless Walter White, one who refused to murder his DEA agent brother-in-law, fought to save Jesse for as long as he could, tried to clear Skyler’s name with the police, and safely returned baby Holly to her mother before running off cross-country. Of course, it’s always possible that he snapped and decided to kill all his old enemies, regardless of their innocence, which is why this suspense sequence remains full of foreboding. In the end, though, this is a scene depicting a sick man leaving money for his son… a sweet, well-intentioned gesture that we’re not entirely sure won’t end in a bloodbath.
After requesting their help in setting up a trust for Flynn, thus ensuring he gets a piece of the pie after all, Walt waves his arms in a genius Heisenberg-y moment and suddenly, Gretchen and Elliot have lasers trained on them. His threat is utterly convincing, both to the Schwartzes and to us — even though, moments later, we learn that Badger and Skinny Pete are the “snipers.” It’s all just another Walter White con. The scene satisfies the piece of us that revels in Heisenbergian badassery while ultimately allowing Walt to remain the good guy in this final hour. Not an easy feat, but one Breaking Bad has always excelled at.From there, Walt crashes Lydia and Todd’s tea party, a surprise that neither is too keen on. We expect Lydia to freak out when anything looks even mildly suspicious, but now Todd, too, has turned on his former mentor. Lydia’s tea with soy milk and Stevia makes a notable appearance — the Stevia might as well have spelled out “R.I.P., Lydia!” as she stirred it into the cup. It’s so obviously the ricin going into the tea that it can’t possibly be the ricin going into the tea. It is, though — as we learn at the end of the episode, with Lydia feeling a bit sniffly as Walt explains why.
If I have one gripe with “Felina,” it might be this — Breaking Bad is usually so masterful with misdirection, it’s strange that Lydia was killed so obviously. Walt almost pulled the old ricin/Stevia switcheroo way back in “Gliding Over All” last year; you’d think they wouldn’t return to that same old well a year later. I thought it was a red herring — that the ricin would pop up elsewhere after we’d been faked out about the tea. But like I said, “Felina” is a fan service episode, and so many fans were waiting for Lydia’s death by Stevia that, I suppose, it had to be done. I found it mildly disappointing, along with the way Walt spelled it out to her (and us) on the phone. Surely there could have been some surprise there.
Notice how we’ve gotten this far in the finale and not seen any of the core cast members besides Walt? Now we finally get to Skyler, who has relocated to some rather, um, modest digs… and, happily, reconnected with her sister. Marie calls to warn Skyler that Walt is back in town, and we see that despite her grief over Hank’s death, Marie hasn’t changed in the slightest. She’s still a busybody. She still believes that the forces of good will triumph over the forces of Heisenberg. (Another bit of fan service: Marie confuses neighbors Carol and Becky, which many Breaking Bad fans also did when Carol appeared in “Blood Money.”) Trouble is: Walt is already standing in Skyler’s kitchen.
After ensuring his money will get to his son, Walt now gives Skyler the gift of a lottery ticket leading to her brother-in-law’s remains. (Gee, thanks, honey!) He thinks she can use it as leverage to get herself out of whatever legal trouble she’s still in, and while that probably isn’t as enticing to the DEA as other leverage she’s possessed, it may be enough. It’s all Walt has to offer at this point.
The scene is reasonably brief but also on-point; it’s an interaction between married people who know they’re done with each other. There’s obviously still some affection here — even, I think, on Skyler’s end. (She doesn’t run screaming out of the place, at least.) What’s done is done, and Skyler seems to know that Walt finally has his head and his heart in the right place… or at least, the rightest place they can be after all that’s happened. Walt finally admits that his actions were selfish, motivated by ego and greed, and not for the family. Apparently all that time alone in New Hampshire taught him something after all. It was only getting away with murder that helped him realize he actually didn’t want to get away with it at all.
It’s surprising to see Skyler takes such a small role in the finale — though she’s had plenty to do this season, and certainly quite a showcase for Anna Gunn’s Emmy-winning acting chops. Flynn doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in this episode, instead observed from afar as he comes home from school — but wasn’t enough said last week? Once you’ve said “die already!” to your father, where can you go from there? I enjoyed the fact that we see only as much of Flynn as Walt does; Walt has sinned too greatly to earn more. Flynn is lost to him.
I’m slightly saddened that Marie didn’t have a larger role in the last few episodes, though; she was always essentially an accessory for Hank, not exactly a pivotal character. But still. That’s probably why I wanted her to have a bigger moment, something unexpected. Every other character — even Flynn — got a scene or two of reckoning and closure, one that really cut to the heart of that character. Marie didn’t even get any screen time to grieve for her presumed-dead husband. I wanted a little something more from her at some point in these last three episodes; instead, all of Walt’s former family plays a pretty minor role in “Felina.” Just as they play a pretty minor role in his life these days.
And then comes the big showdown, a scene featuring the show’s two key figures (who haven’t spent much time together this season). Walt deliberately steps into the trap Lydia and Todd set for him, finding himself on the other end of Uncle Jack’s gun just as Hank was a couple episodes back. This time, however, Walt manages to buy some time, identifying Jesse as Uncle Jack’s “partner” and setting the old Nazi off in a fit of prideful rage to retrieve the prisoner.
Jesse has, at this point, been enslaved for the better part of a year — even seeing Walt can’t elicit much of a reaction from this ghost of a man. Walt pounces on Jesse, seeing how broken he is, feeling some of that old sympathy — and probably guilt, too, given that he’s the one responsible for these months of torment. The machine gun in his trunk pops up to conveniently wipe out Uncle Jack and all his men. It’s a bit of Breaking Bad magic that’s a little hard to buy if you think about it — so don’t. On this show, such things happen. Walt’s lucky, remember?
Todd escapes the shower of bullets, but not Jesse’s wrath. Andrea’s death and months of captivity are avenged as Jesse strangles Todd with his shackles, ensuring that Todd has served his last bowl of Americone Dream. A barely-alive Uncle Jack tries to negotiate with Walt, offering info about his money. Too little, too late — Hank’s death should have proven that that money is no last-minute life saver. As was done to Hank, Walt blows his head off mid-sentence, demonstrating that it’s finally no longer about the money for Walt. Lesson learned.
Walt passes Jesse the gun. Jesse raises it. Walt wants to die now, and wants Jesse to make it happen. Not much is said — it’s a minimal interaction, since most of us what needs to happen between these two has happened already. Suffice to say that in this episode, each man spares the other’s life, which is about the most kindness we can expect at this point. Jesse thinks it over and refuses, gets into a car, emitting crazed laughter and a howl of relief/disbelief as he heads for… Alaska? Or wherever Brock has been crashing? It’s pretty unclear what’s in Jesse Pinkman’s future, since he’ll surely face a lot of trouble as he tries to reestablish a life for himself. (Hooking back up with the Vacuum Cleaner Salesman is unlikely.) This way, it’s up to the audience to imagine an ending for Jesse, be it happy (playing father to the orphaned Brock in the Alaskan wilderness) or more realistic (prison). (Without Hank and Gomez around, is he still a wanted associate of Heisenberg, or has the trail gone cold?)
“Felina” is very much the Walter White Show, with the supporting cast appearing only briefly. We see mere glimpses of the fates of Marie, Flynn, Skyler, and Jesse. Where they end up — and how happy they can ever be — is up for debate.
The fate of Walter White, however, is far from ambiguous. After Jesse refuses to add one more death to his kill list, Walt takes a stroll down to Todd’s meth lab and dies of a bullet wound anyway. It’s a semi-heroic ending, as he has saved Jesse, taken out the remaining bad guys (who still posed a threat to his family), and finally stopped evading the cops. Nearly everything Walt does in “Felina” is “the right thing,” and that’s somewhat surprising after six years of watching Mr. Chips become Scarface, as was Vince Gilligan’s intent.
For such an atypical show, Breaking Bad ends, perhaps, a bit more typically than we expected. Walter White is redeemed rather than crucified. It’s the kind of ending we’ve seen in plenty of movies — a Hollywood ending. It’s not controversial or ambiguous by any means. It’s not perplexing or challenging. It’s one that’s meant to satisfy the largest number of people, the kind movie studios and TV networks aim for. Is that a good thing? Or did Breaking Bad owe it to its fans to remain unpredictable and unconventional right up until the bitter end?
Like I said, anyone who wanted Breaking Bad to end differently essentially got their wish in “Ozymandias” and “Granite State.” Vince Gilligan was probably smart to end on a high note, giving fans exactly what they were looking for. The bad guys die in an over-the-top explosion of payback violence, the protagonist sacrifices himself, the women and children are safe at home, and the sidekick rides off into the sunset. When you break it down this way, Breaking Bad turns out to be remarkably traditional, very black-and-white. The detail and nuance we saw along the way help it to stand out, but now that it’s one complete story, with this particular beginning and end, it doesn’t seem so daringly different after all.
And so it’s over. Breaking Bad fans are collectively saddened and satisfied. There’s a palpable disappointment in the air, because a great show went out with a bang and there’s nothing comparable out there to entertain us anymore. This series started strong and ended even better, with every single episode between providing an exemplary hour of television. It never hit a false note or took a wrong step — how many shows can say that? Even The Sopranos had at least one truly bad episode.
In ending this way, Breaking Bad feels more like a complete work than just about any other show I can think of —the episodes feel more like individual chapters of a book than hours of television. Vince Gilligan never had a crystal clear vision of the end, but it feels like he knew everything that was going to happen, every step of the way, for all 62 episodes. It’s one complete story. Iit’s a work of art. And now that we know how it ends, we’ll rewatch those episodes and perhaps see Walter White and his actions differently than we did the first time around. It’s not the story of a man becoming a monster — it’s the story of a man becoming a monster becoming a man again. That’s a more optimistic outlook than many of us were expecting, especially once Season Five went down such a dark path.Like any work of art, Breaking Bad will take some time to process now that it’s complete. It has almost certainly raised the bar for TV drama — expect plenty of imitations popping up on other networks, none of them as good. Breaking Bad a unique entry into the pop culture canon, so let’s take a moment to be grateful that this dark and moody little show, populated by (then) little-known actors, managed to not only find an audience but also to become the talked-about show on TV. An Emmy winner, a game changer. And all the while, remaining true to its original vision.
It’s rare that TV — or, well, anything — is quite this good these days, but as long as we live in a world where Breaking Bad is possible, I’ll hold out hope and find a reason to go on, even if my heart is a little heavy after losing so many of my fucked up TV friends last night. This finale wasn’t quite Breaking Bad‘s strongest episode — I prefer unpredictable, gut-wrenching, “Ozymandias”-style drama — but it didn’t need to be. I’m satisfied that everyone else is satisfied. I’m glad that my favorite show of recent years became everybody else’s favorite, too. And I know that these characters will love on in the public consciousness for years to come.
We’ll grapple with Walter White’s actions and debate just how good or bad he really was, how weak he was, or how capable. Was he the legendary Heisenberg or the meek and pathetic Walter White? Was he heroic for saving his family and Jesse in the eleventh hour, or a devil for placing them in danger in the first place? There may not be any more episodes of Breaking Bad left, but this show isn’t over until you can rewatch all the episodes without asking such questions. It’s a rich enough series that it will be remembered long after its gone, its impact felt like a ripple effect. Walter White would certainly be pleased that his name will live on in this way.