September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad - Requiem

Everything in this post (including the title) is attributed to Mark Berman, because he put into words, very eloquently, everything that I thought and felt about the Breaking Bad series finale. Enjoy.


Be warned: Spoilers for “Felina,” the final episode of “Breaking Bad,” await you after the jump.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really….I was alive.” 
The finale of “Breaking Bad” seems deceptively tough to discuss, if only because it bucks what we’ve come to expect from some series finales. It didn’t feature any massive surprise or out-of-left-field ending. There was no abrupt cut to black, no hackneyed revelation, no major plot thread left dangling. (We can all joke about what happened to Huell, sitting in a motel room waiting for Hank, but that’s not really a big unresolved issue.) There was a proper amount of closure for the main characters. There was a mix of characters saying their goodbyes and storylines being tidily wrapped up (albeit not too tidily, which I’ll get to in a second).
It didn’t end too early, with the story still unfinished. It didn’t end too late, years after many in the audience stopped caring. It didn’t reveal that the people running the show never really knew what they were doing, nor did it showcase a disregard for an audience’s desire for closure. It just ended perfectly, simply and cleanly. We saw exactly as much as we needed to see, we learned just enough to know the answers to our questions and there was still something left unsaid, left unstated, because even if you don’t like a “Sopranos”-esque ending, shows don’t have to clearly and cleanly answer everything for us.
“Felina” was as close to perfection as we could have hoped for in “Breaking Bad’s” finale.
Vince Gilligan wrote and directed an episode that was beautifully, wonderfully “Breaking Bad” in a nutshell. Everything we loved in the show was there: A slow, steady burn, leading to a massive explosion of action and violence; hints dropped early and often that were purposeful and that paid off; bursts of dark humor; Walt’s arrogance and his intellect, hand in hand; just enough plot holes (The police were only watching the front of Skyler’s place? Also: Walt predicted that all of the Nazis would be standing in one room? He knew nobody would be off picking up dinner?) to let viewers feel smart for finding nits to pick but not so many that they ruin one’s enjoyment of the show; and, of course, a multi-faceted examination of what drives people to be who they are.
That’s what the series boils down to in a lot of ways, really. That’s what mattered in the beginning and it is what mattered in the end. The series examined rage and hubris and it depicted the anguish of a man smothered by economic uncertainty and it talked quite a bit about what it means to be a professional and a human being, but the most vital theme  – the one that was visited again and again in this final episode, Gilligan’s last chance to tell us what he was saying and what kind of story he wanted to tell — was ultimately about motivation and character. What makes us who we are? What matters to us? What people or things do we care about and what people or things can we do without? What do we want to do and what do we need to do — and why? For many works of fiction (televised or otherwise), the motivation is a thread but not the whole cloth; for “Breaking Bad,” the why was always as important as the how.
That is why Walt returned from New Hampshire, cracking a sheet of ice (one that resembled his blue meth) off of a car window. That is why — as I noted last week— he had to return to finish what he started. When the series began, he started cooking meth to help his family; when he no longer needed to cook meth to help his family, he kept doing it anyway because, as he said in “Felina,” it made him feel alive. It took until the final episode of the show for him to finally be honest with Skyler — as well as himself, it seemed — and admit why he became who he became. Walt’s other excuses faded away, one by one, until he was wealthy and dying and all alone in a cabin in the woods. In revisiting his original motivation — that rage at being left behind by Elliott and Gretchen that fueled him to return to the meth game in the first place — he was reminded why he started this in the first place. Without the other excuses to hide behind, Walt was able to see what he had done and realize he had to stop it.
Walt’s petty, lingering anger at Gretchen and Elliott makes him choose to terrorize them and use them as the vessels to try and funnel his money to his son. (Only his money, of course. He is, and remains, the same Walter White.) His desire to do right by Skyler, Hank and Marie leads him to give Skyler the coordinates where Hank’s body is buried, if only to help Skyler secure a deal and to perhaps give some solace to Marie. His perpetual, lingering hope to financially provide for his family remains in the money he sets aside for his son — not mentioned to Skyler, remember, just left for his son — though he finally realizes that his presence in his son’s life can cause nothing but harm. His anger at his meth’s continued existence makes him seek out vengeance against Lydia (killed, as many predicted, by the ricin slipped into her tea) and the Nazis. And once he confirms that Jesse remains as innocent as someone can be in this world, his desire to finally do right by Jesse leads him to give him his freedom and offer him a chance to take Walt’s life.
Because that final confrontation with the Nazis — that perfectly tense, suspenseful moment framed by Gilligan as a callback to Walter White’s first encounter with Tuco seasons ago — is about more than just Walt gunning down any remaining meth providers. When Walt found out the blue meth was still in circulation, he knew Jesse had to be the only one cooking it. And he knew that Jesse was supposed to be dead. So either Jesse was working with the Nazis or he was working for them in some capacity. Walt went in not knowing if Jesse was with the Nazis. And he taunted Jack until Jesse was brought in so that, if Jesse was helping them intentionally, Walt could gun down Jesse along with everyone else (himself included, by the way, as we saw he was happy to die there that night) in the room. If Jesse wasn’t, as turned out to be the case, Walt could try to keep him safe. He used the confrontation as a way to find out, a way to give Jesse back the life Walt stole from him (again and again) — and he even offered his life to Jesse, a penance for his sins.
You have to imagine that “Jesse kills Walt” was on the table at some point as a potential ending for the series. It would have been fitting — just as Walt getting away with it could have been fitting, just as Hank arresting Walt could have been fitting, just as Walt dying alone in a cabin could have been fitting — finally allowing the most abused person on the show to gain some measure of revenge on the one responsible for so much of the abuse. Instead, though, Jesse was finally able to refuse Walt’s offer (sincere or a manipulation, it didn’t matter to Jesse) and refuse to take another life for him. They shared a brief moment of understanding — Jesse seeing Walt mortally wounded, Walt knowing the pain and agony he caused Jesse time and time again — and while it didn’t come with an apology, Jesse has his freedom and Walt has finally closed the book on what they started in an R.V. in the desert five seasons ago.
It’s fascinating to me that with the series winding down, after so many other characters emerged and took up so much screentime over the seasons (from Jesse and Hank to Gus and Mike and, this season, Todd and Lydia), Gilligan ended things by honing in on Walt and wrapping up his stories with the other characters — while still leaving some things open-ended with these characters. “Breaking Bad” was always focused on exploring one character more than any other, but as it expanded and grew we learned to accept long stretches where Walt wasn’t the most interesting or essential character at any given moment. In “Felina,” we zoomed right back in on Walt and viewed the entire finale through his eyes, returning to the character that spawned this world and was our guide.
Skyler appears in just one scene, one that gives her some closure (she appears to be on better terms with her sister, and she gets to hear Walt finally admit why he was doing what he’s doing), but one that leaves unstated what she will do with the rest of her life after all of this. Jesse (who also appears in a small percentage of the episode) is finally free, his triumphant laugh at the end showing us that after facing what looked like a lifetime of punishment and imprisonment he is alive again in a way he hasn’t been for some time, but where will he go? What will he do? Will he rescue the orphaned Brock? Will he be captured by the authorities (who are clearly aware of his identity and involvement)?
Todd and Lydia and Jack and his crew are dispatched brutally and ruthlessly, as befits their roles in the story. They represent, in various forms, the evil that Walt has had to contend with and that he has unleashed onto the world. (That Jesse gets to kill Todd is perhaps the most cathartic moment in the finale, one that finally lets the oft-beaten Jesse dispatch his evil, murderous counterpart.) Flynn/Walt Jr. doesn’t even get a line of dialogue in the episode; he’s simply seen, sadly and from afar, by Walt. In spite of everything, Marie still sounds like she did before Hank’s death, trusting in what he would have done and what he would have wanted. For them, their new lots in life are the byproducts of being in Walt’s orbit.
And what of Walt? He slowly and methodically leaves his money for his son, offers the sincerest apology he can manage to his wife, slaughters the enemies his work created or enabled and, in the end, seeks only the outcome he was facing in the pilot episode. Bryan Cranston is predictably terrific here, showing us Walt’s entire history with Gretchen and Elliott using just his face in that scene and letting us see glimmers of the hypnotic, arrogant, monstrous and humane character throughout the episode. (The bit in the kitchen where he tells Skyler about how he cooked meth for him — where he admits he felt alive, accompanying that look and the monologue with a perfect mixture of pride and self-loathing — it’s a fascinatingly complex look, and there should be an entirely separate Emmy category built to honor such looks.)
Walt’s decaying state in “Granite State” and this episode made his death seem to be almost an afterthought, the likeliest ending for his road. Would he be killed by Skyler, the wife he morally compromised? Jesse, the quasi-son he abused, beat and broke? By the Nazis he worked with? By the authorities trying to contain him?
No, in the end Walt does what seems inevitable. He kills himself, though the episode purposefully doesn’t tell us if he meant to get shot by the automatic weapon he set up in his trunk or if he happened to get hit. In a way, you could say it would be fitting if he was shot intentionally or unintentionally. If he meant to do it, he was finally making himself the victim of the violence he kept inflicting on others. If he was hit accidentally, he finally became like so many of the people caught in his path or adversely affected by his life choices.
He went to that compound ready to die, which makes the question of whether he wanted to kill himself almost immaterial. He offered his life up to Jesse, and he put himself over Jesse and put himself in harm’s way. After doing so much to protect himself over the years — his skin, his livelihood, his identity — he finally, truly puts himself between someone he loves and the danger. For Walt, a desire to protect himself and what he has built had grown to rival his arrogance. Throughout the series, he spoke about wanting to protect his family. After losing them and everything else, Walt was finally capable of putting the needs of everyone but himself first.
“Felina” is a wonderful, pure finale. The final image of Walt, alone and dying in a lab — holding a gas mask, of course — reminds us of Walt, alone and dying in a lab, when we first met him five years ago. He returned to the drab clothes he wore as a teacher for this episode, a way to try and wear his old skin while never being able to return to his old life. It had to end with him looking at the equipment, thinking about what he did and how well he did it, thinking about where he was before this moment, before he puts a bloody handprint on the metal and falls. And, of course, “Breaking Bad” had to end with Walt finally succumbing. Not to the cancer or to one of his enemies, but to the world he entered when he first decided to cook meth. Walt was responsible for so much death and so much pain, and only in stopping the cycle from repeating itself (from stopping the production of his drug, which meant stopping those who would profit from it) could he hope to finish his work before dying.
How will history remember “Breaking Bad”? As a masterful, engaging, astonishingly acted and perfectly plotted drama, sure. And viewers will remember the feeling of shotgunning episodes in marathon sessions, being wowed by the whiplash-inducing plot twists and being awed by the magnetic performance of Cranston, the exposed nerve that is Aaron Paul, the visceral strength of Anna Gunn and the stellar work from the rest of the cast.
Years from now, though, I imagine we’ll look back on it as an example of a show that was done right from beginning to end. We’ll look at other shows that meander through muddled plotlines and try out characters that don’t work and waste hours of our time and we’ll think, “Ugh, remember ‘Breaking Bad’? Why can’t this show be more like that.” Vince Gilligan has said he had an arc in mind for Walter White and for the show and that meant the show had to end. The story we saw had a beginning, a middle and an end. We saw an average man become an antihero, an antihero become a villain, a villain become a kingpin, a kingpin become a fallen drug lord and, finally, a fallen drug lord seek closure and redemption.
“Breaking Bad” told a complete story, one that was — at various times — suspenseful, tense, smart, funny, brutal, painful, cathartic, chaotic and clear. It was a story for the ages, a story that somehow found a perfect balance between the episodic nature of television and the long-form capabilities of serialized, serious television. More than anything else, though, it was a story that began and ended with Walter White — with his life, his work and his death. And it was wonderful, transcendent television, a story that wrapped up exactly how it needed to wrap up.