BREAKING BAD 5.16: “Felina”

BB1Congratulations, Vince Gilligan, you did it! As creator and executive producer of BREAKING BAD, you crafted a finale that totally lived up to the series, and you gave fans the ending they deserved.

In contrast to a lot of the high-tension episodes we’ve endured in the final run-up, this installment was almost elegiac as Walt shambled through town, tying up loose ends, settling grudges, healing wounds and saying goodbyes. It was a masterful way to end the series — leaving nothing ambiguous for viewers to fight over for years to come. BREAKING BAD was product of one vision — that of creator Vince Gilligan — and it was able to consistently confound and amaze viewers because it was true to Gilligan’s idea of the story, not network committees or viewer ratings. From first episode to last, Gilligan told his story the way he wanted to, now he has ended it his way. And that’s the way it always should have been.

Stealing a car, Walt (Bryan Cranston) makes his way to New Mexico, where he obtains the Schwartzes’ address by pretending to be a reporter, then pays a little visit to Elliott (Adam Godley) and Gretchen (Jessica Hecht). He convinces them to use Grey Matter to set up a trust for Walt Jr. using Walt’s remaining $9 million in drug money. He makes them think he hired hit men to keep watch and make sure they deliver the money to his family. Badger (Matt L. Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) tell Walt the Blue Sky meth is still on the street, confirming that Jesse is alive.

BB2Lydia (Laura Fraser) and Todd (Jesse Plemons) take their regular meeting in the coffee shop — but Walt is waiting for them. He claims to need money and will trade a new method of cooking meth for $1 million. Todd agrees to meet him at Uncle Jack’s place that night, but after Walt leaves, Lydia and Todd plot to kill Walt at last. Then she stirs a packet of Stevia into her tea, as usual. Walt goes to Skyler’s (Anna Gunn) tiny apartment and gives her the Lotto ticket with the GPS coordinates and tells her trade it — the location of Hank’s and Agent Gomez’s bodies — for a deal with the DEA. And then he finally admits to her the true reason why he became Heisenberg and built a meth empire: “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive.” Then he said farewell to Holly, and later hid outside to watch Flynn (RJ Mitte) come home from school.

Walt heads out to the desert and assembles a robotic arm. Meanwhile, Jesse (Aaron Paul) is seen lovingly crafting a wooden box in a workshop. Then it is revealed to be a daydream while he is actually cooking meth for the neo-Nazis. Walt arrives at the compound and parks in front of the clubhouse and meets with Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) who has no intention of making deals — only killing Walt. Walt buys time by insinuating that Jack is partners with Jesse, so Jack orders Jesse brought in to prove he’s a slave, not a partner. Walt pretends to attack Jesse, throws him to the ground and activates his key fob. On the signal, the trunk of his car opens and the robotic arm swivels the M-60, firing armor-piercing rounds into the clubhouse, mowing down everyone in the room. Walt is hit in the side by a ricochet as he lay on top of Jesse. Todd is the only other survivor, but Jesse instantly jumps him and strangles him to death with his chain. Walt finds Jack alive but mortally wounded. Jack tries to trade the location of Walt’s money for his life, but Walt shoots him dead without a second’s hesitation.

Now armed, Walt confronts Jesse, but instead of finally killing him, he slides the gun to Jesse, giving him the chance to exact his revenge. Jesse is about to pull the trigger when he notices the serious wound in Walt’s side. “Do it yourself,” he says, dropping the gun. Jesse jumped in a car and blasted out of the gates, speeding into the night with a triumphant cry. Walt answered Todd’s ringing phone. It was an ill Lydia. Walt told her he’d slipped ricin into her Stevia, knowing she’s such a creature of habit. Then he walked into the meth lab and slowly looked over the instruments and devices, musing on his past. Then, without a word, he collapsed and died, as the lab was overrun by police.

BB3A few weeks back, the-powers-that-be evoked the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his poem “Ozymandias”; well this week’s episode had me thinking William Butler Yeats — specifically, “The Second Coming,” about the devastation left in the wake of World War I:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

I feel like Walt was totally devastated. He was practically dead on his feet, both physically and emotionally and spiritually, and he was returning home to Albuquerque, the place where Heisenberg was born, and all about him (especially the White House) was a wasteland.

If you were looking for a nebulous, “choose your own” ending, you weren’t getting that here. Gilligan tied up every loose end and dangling plot thread that could possibly be sewn up. Nothing — except, perhaps, the ultimate fate of the bulk of Walt’s money — was left ambiguous.

The direction by Gilligan himself was showy, but overly distracting. I liked the Dutch angles of Walt inside the car — from below as he was trying to hotwire the car, and from above as the keys dropped from the visor. And remember how he walked away from his family, gradually fading from view, becoming a blur in the distance? That’s how his family will see him now. But the bravura shot was Walt’s execution of Jack. Jack’s blood splattered across the lens and almost obscured out view of Walt — just the way Walt lost sight of himself when he became Heisenberg.

BB4Did Walt redeem himself? I cannot say yes because of all the lives that his Blue Sky meth destroyed offscreen, but I can say he came close. He came close when he went to Skyler and came clean about her brother and told her where to find his body. And especially when he admitted that he became a monster for himself. All through the series Walt has repeated the mantra that he was doing it for his family — and he probably believed it for a long time. Certainly, in the very beginning he was. But later it became all about him. Viewers came to realize this over the years as everything became about Walt earning respect. “I’m in the empire business,” was not just a badass boast, it was a mission statement.

And it’s easy to see (if not quite sympathize with) why he did it: A man living a small life as a (disrespected) chemistry teacher gets a diagnosis of fatal lung cancer and rails at the unfairness of life and his powerlessness. Then along comes an opportunity to change all that; to become powerful and hold other people’s lives in his hands. Suddenly, he was making life-or-death decisions! Walter White, the chemistry teacher, never did that. But Heisenberg, the meth kingpin, could stand by and watch a girl choke to death on her own vomit or he could order the execution of dozens of men. That’s a lot of power for one small man.

Walt did the best he could to follow through on his initial vow to leave a nest egg for his family — the question being how Walt Jr. will react. I’m sure he will understand his obligation to help his mother and sister, so when he turns 18 in 10 months, he will agonize over the source of the money, but vow to do something good with it. In the end, it really wasn’t all about the Benjamins for Walt, otherwise he would have let Jack live long enough to reveal the location of the other $80 million. By then, Walt had already admitted to himself and to Skyler that he became Heisenberg because it made him feel powerful, and he exercised that power to kill Jack as payback for Hank.

BB5And what about Jesse? Is he redeemed? I think it’s easier to go with “Yes” because he has long been tortured by his role in the meth trade. Indeed much of this last season was devoted to Jesse struggling with his guilt and trying to make amends in his own ham-fisted ways. He promised to go after Walt and tried to do the right thing by going to the DEA, but it all ended in tears. So when he takes the high road and declines to kill Walt — who truly wanted Jesse to end his suffering — it does symbolize Jesse leaving the thug life behind, even more than speeding into the desert night in that old El Camino. Jesse’s enthusiastic yelp — what poet Walt Whitman surely would have called “a barbaric yawp” — was his way of celebrating being alive and free. Everyone from his meth-cooking days is either dead or neutralized, and no one will be looking for him. Maybe he’ll make it to Alaska after all. I hope he does, and that he finds peace there.

Just as I believe Walt found peace in the end. Strolling through that meth lab was a walk down memory lane for Walt/Heisenberg. We now know that the only time he was truly happy was when he was cooking. So this was his chance to say goodbye to his old “friends.” I liked how his hands left a smear of blood on the tank as he collapsed and died. Walt had left his mark on the world — and, intentional or not — it was painted in blood.

In the end, Walt won — he provided for his family and vanquished his enemies — but he didn’t survive long enough to enjoy it. Whether it was the (ultimately self-inflicted) bullet wound or the cancer that finally claimed him, Walt died. And I mean that: It wasn’t Heisenberg who perished alone in that meth lab, it was Walter White.

Walt is dead and Jesse is free to start over. Could it have ended any other way?

Oh, yeah? Sez you!

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