The Brilliant Breaking Bad and Its Finale09.30.13
[NOTE: Many spoilers in this posting.] This is a show that needs no introduction -- lauded for every aspect of production and performance -- it's been argued that it's one of the, if not the, greatest TV show of all time.
The finale, for me, was nearly flawless. It was incredibly different from nearly everything we've come to expect from Breaking Bad, yet both summed up everything that we've come to see but also allowed us to now deeply understand the universe in which Breaking Bad has always lived.
For 5 1/2 seasons, Breaking Bad -- and its hero, Walter White, has followed a consistent motif of unintended consequences. Perhaps one of the things most resonant about the show, is that if you accept some early (and generally mildly reasonable) premise -- you quickly get sucked into a world you never could have imagined yourself. Have cancer and need to pay your bills without destroying your family's future? Cook meth. Somehow get a drug dealer into your basement who then secretly is keeping a broken piece of plate to kill you? Kill him (with a bike lock, no less). Only at the very end does the stunningly long list of the dead (guilty and not guilty) become damningly clear. Let alone all the innocent lives that have been broken along the way.
The finale was something different. The finale knew all that -- knew all the rules that have been broken, all the well made plans that have been laid to rest -- and said, "The Breaking Bad universe will be righted -- and here are its rules."
Gretchen & Elliott
As Walter White transformed over time -- particularly in his monstrous 5th season -- we've come to expect perhaps the cartoonish thuggery that we've grown accustomed to for men in his position of power. Cross him and he'll kill you -- or worse. When Walt, in a snowy New Hampshire tavern, watches Gretchen & Elliott on Charlie Rose disavow nearly any contribution he made to the multi-billion dollar company Gray Matter -- we expect the Scarface Mr. White to come full tilt. After all, we know from Episode 501 that he has a M-60 in the trunk of his car -- the only question was, who is it for? But it wasn't for them -- he simply uses them to launder his money to give to Flynn on his 18th birthday. I should note that this is an amazing piece of storytelling wizardy -- Walt has figured how to solve a nearly unsolvable problem. With DEA agents crawling everywhere -- how could he possibly get his dirty millions to his family who will accept no complicity in taking the money from him? By using a deep family connection -- one that has shown a willingness to give to charity, one that has shown a willingness to give to the White family, and one that very arguably OWES this money to the White family -- at least on some level. It's brilliant. But most importantly, Walt doesn't kill them. He doesn't torture them. He doesn't do this because in the Breaking Bad universe -- Walter White doesn't kill because he's been slighted. Walter White kills out of "necessity" -- perhaps the most egregious example is the killing of the Gus' crew in prison because they're about to cut deals with the Feds. In every other case, he only kills because his own life is at stake or Jesse's is. (I would be remiss to not noting that while he doesn't kill Jane, letting her die -- though very ingeniously set up by the writers -- was quite a monstrous act setting in course the death of many more innocents.) Even Walter's last piece of persuasion -- the threat of death by sniper at a moment's notice -- seemed at once to satisfy those cheering Walt's transformation by simultaneously affirming that, once again, in Walter White's universe -- he is not quite that monster. It was just Skinny Pete and Badger with laser pointers. BUT, it also means Gretchen & Elliott will forever be looking over their shoulders -- never quite able to enjoy their millions -- and that, in the Breaking Bad universe, is justice for the injustice that they wrought.
Skylar / Holly / Flynn
I thought this scene between Walt and Skylar was beautiful and amazing. It was wonderful to hear Walt say what we all knew, "I did it for me." Unlike others -- I felt it was totally deserved and Walt, by this point, seemed completely self-aware. His transformation was both accidental and willing. He pushed himself a little and so did circumstances. He felt. He became. He was, as he puts it, alive. There was no reconciliation. No "I love you". I recently re-watched the pilot episode and the pilot (along with Season 1) seems like a much different show. Lighter. More comic. But also -- for Walter White -- more desperate. His life seemed not unlike those of so many of ours. A life unfulfilled. A man of many talents but unrecognized. Toiling away in a classroom of high schoolers who care little for his teaching and at a second job -- one at a local car wash. Finances are so tight that even a small purchase at Staples is scrutinized by Skylar. There's some love in the family -- but one borne almost out of rote obligation and perhaps mock jesting by the likes of Hank and others. Walt -- albeit in a criminal univese -- became who he was meant to become. Now -- could Walt have done the same in a more legitimate enterprise? Absolutely. There are many who use their brilliance and scheming in so called legitimate ways -- we see this in business every day. It just so happened that this was not that path Walt took or was able to take. But every portion of this scene felt deserved to me. The poignant acknowledgment from both sides of what happened and the end that was about to come. Walt's goodbye to Holly. Most of all, Walt not getting a proper goodbye to Junior / Flynn. His only being able to see him from afar. Because even in this universe, our actions have consequences, even at the very end.
Who could the ricin be for? Apparently Lydia -- in a very artful and sophisticated means of poisoning. Taking advantage of the very rigidity and schedule that Lydia tacks to -- to turn that against her. However, I spent a lot of time thinking about her murder. Why Lydia? What did Lydia do to Walt? Lydia saves her own life (or gets a lucky break) multiple times. First with Mike -- when Mike decides to ask if she can still get methlymine instead of executing her in her own bedroom. Then with Walt -- when she makes him swear on his children's lives in exchange for information that would ultimately become "Dead Freight". Finally, with Walt again -- when she proposes a European expansion part in parcel with giving up the names of Gus' crew. But where does Lydia betray Walt? Mike wants to kill Lydia because she (essentially) killed two members of his crew and put a hit out on her. Walt almost poisons Lydia the first time because she's a loose end -- something very Heisenberg-ian, and perhaps justified on some level because of her previous actions. But Lydia's fate seemed almost sealed in almost a fundamental way. Why? Perhaps Walt found out about Todd threatening Skylar and Holly on behalf of Lydia. That would certainly do it. Maybe it was simply knowing that Lydia was complicit with Uncle Jack, Todd, and the neo-Nazis. Walt does, after all, know that she's meeting Todd for their regular business meeting / date. In his last phone call with her, Walt doesn't gloat. Doesn't tell her how little time she has left. He simply lets her know. In many ways, he reserved the cruelest death for her. Before the finale, I tried to think of permutations of a finale that would be as dark as the episodes leading up to it. Does Lydia survive? Do the neo-Nazis? Is this the world order? One in which the worst carry on? These are not rootable criminals like Gus Fring. No -- they are the most undeserved. The ones we loathe who don't garner their achievements by careful planning, hard work, and intelligence. Instead, they're the weasels of the underground or muscle in at the last minute and enslave people like Jesse Pinkman. But that's not this world. No -- even with a multiple of innocents dying on a regular basis, this is a world where the Lydia Rodarte-Quayles -- with their designer clothes, beautiful mansions, and nannies -- where their double life cannot protect them from the justice that awaits.
Uncle Jack + the neo-Nazis
Satisfying and complete. Though there was that one moment when Walt is about to be dragged out back without his trusty car keys to save him. In a world where Andrea can be shot dead on her own porch -- would this be how 62 brilliant episodes end? With the death of our hero / anti-hero in some dirty backyard at the hands of neo-Nazis? It was possible. For all the ill that we felt watching Hank die, Skylar grab a kitchen knife to defend himself against Walt, and Walt leaving baby Holly in a fire truck -- how much more ill would we feel knowing that the neo-Nazis won the day, and the series? But it wasn't to be -- and it wasn't to be for a very good reason. Unlike the Bond criminals who can't wait to delay and divulge their plans, there is a strong criminal code in this world. One in which snitches pay. For Walt to accuse Uncle Jack to work with a snitch purely because of potential profit was a bridge too far. Even he, in his own good conscience, could not allow Walt die thinking that of himself. So he drags his slave prisoner out -- allowing Walt a chance at nearly fundamental redemption (at least in this universe.)
In the short time period we've known Todd, he's killed a boy, enslaved Jesse, and killed Andrea. All without seemingly expressing a moment's degree of remorse. A true sociopath. It was a little surprising when he lets Skylar go with a mere warning / threat -- leading me to think that he probably understands the concepts of empathy + love, just that he probably doesn't feel it or he barely does. Is Todd the worst of them all? Todd feels like a child -- almost too simple to understand the world in which he operates -- so on some level, you blame him less. Nevertheless, the moment it becomes clear Todd has managed to duck the oncoming slaughter of M-60 rounds and barely makes out a, "Mr. White?" before we see a shackled Jesse creeping over to him -- is a moment of sheer redemption and justice. Jesse -- the one on whom death and killing has weighed the absolute most on -- does the deed with vengeance and pleasure. Justifably. Before this -- think back to how difficult it was for Jesse dealing with the deaths of Combo, Jane, Gale, Andrea -- Jesse does not belong in this world. He is constantly brought back, and brought back, and brought back by Mr. White. Despite his protestations in the pilot episode, he doesn't even care about the money. Yet, his small, simple actions often result in the death of those he loves. It was he, after all, who was paying for Andrea's condo with meth money. In many ways, Jesse was one of the few who realized the full gravity of the consequences of his actions. In this universe -- the most reluctant killer -- he becomes the one who extracts a true measure of vengeance, by his own hands, and relief by willingly murdering Todd.
This is not a world, however, where Jesse murders Walter White for his sins. Does not seek redemption that way. Jesse, despite killing and just killing, is not a killer. That is not who he is. He has been thrust into this world by a man far darker than he could have ever have imagined. In that moment, he lets the very best of Jesse Pinkman emerge. Let Walter White die on his own -- than let that be one more stain on his own soul.
As he drives off, echoing Jonathan Banks' sentiments on Talking Bad -- is there any doubt that his next stop is to get Brock? Jesse will be haunted forever by what happened to Andrea. Echoing something Skylar said to Walt when he was hiding the ocean of methlymine at the car wash -- will there be people who come who would be willing to kill for it? They came from Andrea, because of Jesse. People who were willing to kill for it.
This was very tidy. The bad guys died and so did Walt. Skylar / Flynn / Holly will move on. Marie lost Hank and we barely had a chance to grieve for him. Jesse lives -- the one we grew to love, and in many ways, the heart of Breaking Bad. So no, Walt, in the end -- everyone doesn't die. In this world -- the universe finally righted itself, best as it could in spite of all the damage done -- after 62 episodes. But only after Walt did something not for himself, but for those he loved.