Swan Song

09.30.13

'Breaking Bad's' Series Finale Cements Its Status As One of the All-Time Greats

The series finale to AMC's 'Breaking Bad,' titled "Felina," was the perfect cherry on top of a classic TV show.

I’m on the record saying that Breaking Bad—the best show on television right now, period, and easily my favorite to watch—is nonetheless not one of the three or four finest television shows of all time.

But Sunday’s series finale was such a perfect, A-1 piece of televisual filmmaking—and such an unparalleled valedictory achievement, especially when you compare it to the endings of other Great Cable Dramas—that I think I’m ready to reconsider my earlier assessment.

The reason I’m revising my rankings doesn’t have all that much to do with how the finale itself unfolded—the clockwork particulars of plotting, the clever little directorial flourishes, the mad-genius soundtrack. Instead, I was blown away by what the episode (titled, anagrammatically, “Felina”) revealed about the character who’s spent the last five seasons propelling this white-knuckle rollercoaster forward, week after week. By the end of “Felina” we know Walt better than we ever did before. He knows himself better, too. And we understand Breaking Bad better as a result.

Let us begin, as all things Breaking Bad inevitably do, with Vince Gilligan—the devilish Southern gentleman who not only created the series and ran it each week, but who wrote and directed Sunday’s finale himself. In April, I interviewed Gilligan for a story about why today’s best television shows are so addictive. In the lead-up to Sunday’s finale, I kept recalling something Gilligan told me about how he keeps us watching.

“When you’re telling a very serialized story, you want to tie up all your loose ends,” Gilligan said. “My writers and I don’t like leaving loose ends.”

At the time I assumed that Gilligan—who was taking a break that afternoon from editing the final episodes to chat with me—was talking about writing Breaking Bad in general. But now I realize he was actually talking about the finale itself. Because on Sunday night “Felina” made it abundantly clear that Gilligan doesn’t like leaving loose ends—and neither does his protagonist.

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Gilligan structured the last Breaking Bad episode as a series of schemes—schemes designed by Walter White to square every circle, to dot every “i,” to rescue or punish every man, woman, child, or enemy remaining in his life. It was a brilliant decision on Gilligan’s part. In the first half of the elongated Season Five, Walt scrambled to escape the meth trade; in the second half, he and his loved ones suffered the consequences of the misdeeds he had tried and failed to nullify by “retiring.” This was Walter White in decline, and amid all the cosmic comeuppance, it was easy to forget what he was declining from.

But in “Felina,” Gilligan reminded us. At the end of Breaking Bad’s previous episode, “Granite State,” Walt saw Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz—the co-founders of Gray Matter, the pharmaceutical company he invented and was then elbowed out of—on Charlie Rose, dismissing his original contribution, his original gesture towards greatness, as “virtually nothing.” With that, Walt left his dram of Dimple Pinch on the bar in New Hampshire and headed back to Albuquerque, seemingly hell-bent on revenge and carnage. But that’s not quite right, as it turns out. What Walt was actually hell-bent on—what he was actually determined to do—is to feel alive one more time before dying, and in doing so remind himself that the final two years of his life weren’t pointless after all.

And so the schemes begin.

First Walt steals an unlocked Volvo—the icy windows shielding him from the passing police, the keys conveniently materializing under the sun visor.

Then he slips into the Schwartzes’ immaculate Tesuque mansion, silently stroking the fine wooden door and richly painted walls as the couple uncorks a bottle of wine and debates the relative merits of luxe restaurants Per Se and the 21 Club. “I really like your new house,” Walt deadpans once Gretchen sees him and screams. “You must have one great view of the Sangre de Cristos.” He leaves them with $9,720,000 in cash, instructions to give it to Walt, Jr., on his 18th birthday in the form of an “irrevocable trust,” and the threat of assassination if they don’t (a ruse that relies on Badger, Skinny Pete, a pair of laser pointers, and Walt’s campy villain act). The point for Walt isn’t just to provide for Junior’s college education. It’s also to prove his superiority one last time: to outwit the DEA, and to force the Schwartzes, who stole his ideas and shut him out, to finally “make it right.”

America encourages and almost mandates precisely the sort of ravenous striving for individual success that Heisenberg so desperately pursued...

Next, Walt creeps up on Lydia and Todd at the diner, where he sets a hook in the latter—I have a new method of cooking crystal meth without methylamine, he saysand poisons the former by slipping ricin into her Stevia. “How did you know we would be here?” Lydia asks. “10:00 am every Tuesday morning,” Walt says. “You’re rather schedule-oriented.” He wins again.

By the time we see Walt rigging up some sort of remote-controlled oscillating M60 machine gun in the desert, Mac-Gyver-style, we are pretty sure that the Nazis’ days are numbered—that Todd will summon Walt to the compound, that the crew will try to kill him, and that they will all get killed instead. Uncle Jack may be dastardly, but he’s simply no match for Walter White at his best. And that’s what we’re seeing for the first time in a long time: Walt operating, once again, at the peak of his powers. It’s thrilling to witness: a kind of rapid-fire Heisenberg highlight reel; the first four-fifths of Breaking Bad in miniature.

But the crucial thing here isn’t just that Gilligan’s desire to tie up loose ends gives us one last reminder of Walt’s genius. It’s also that it gives Walt a chance to be reminded as well. Nowhere is this clearer than in Walt’s heartbreaking and cathartic final scene with Skyler. After evading the DEA, sneaking into Skyler’s new apartment, and giving his wife a lottery ticket imprinted with coordinates that will lead the authorities to the bodies of Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez, which she can trade for a deal with the prosecutor—another scheme perfectly executed—Walt begins, yet again, to explain why he did it.

“All of the things I did,” he starts to say, “you need to understand…”

Skyler flinches. “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…”

“I did it for me,” Walt finally says. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”

With that Walt closes his teary eyes. Under a scraggly beard his lips tremble. He seems relieved—like an anvil has been lifted from his shoulders—and so are we. Skyler sighs. It is the first time we have ever seen Walter White completely at peace. 

A few minutes later, Walt’s final scheme gets underway: the plot to kill the Nazis. Yes, Jesse is brought up from his cage. Yes, Walt tackles him to the ground. Yes, the oscillating M60 fires its rounds above their heads. Yes, Uncle Jack and his pals are riddled with bullets. And yes, Jesse emerges unscathed. But when Walt slides a handgun to his former protégé and says, “Do it—you want this,” Jesse backs down.

“Say you want this,” Jesse shouts. “Nothing happens until I hear you say it.”

“I want this,” Walt whispers.

“Then do it yourself,” Jesse responds.

He already has. Walt’s plan was for Jesse, who had suffered so much because of him, to get his revenge. But Jesse doesn’t want revenge; he isn’t like Walt. He just wants to be free. And so he speeds away in the 500, laughing and crying at the same time.

And there Walt remains, shot in the gut by one of his own bullets. As he runs his fingers over the glistening tanks of Todd’s meth lab and gazes nostalgically at a stray gas mask, he realizes that this is an even more fitting death than the one he’d plotted out. Walt’s genius—he desire for control and mastery—was the thing that got him into this mess, so it might as well be his ultimate undoing as well. He smiles and slumps to the floor as Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” plays on the soundtrack. The song is an ode, in this context, to Walt’s greatest achievement—his blue meth. It also begins with the line “Guess I got what I deserve.”

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Vince Gilligan has famously said that Breaking Bad is a story about how Mr. Chips turns into Scarface—or, in this case, how Walter White turns into Heisenberg. For the longest time I admired Gilligan’s ambition—his formal daring—without quite understanding the point of it, and that’s why The Sopranos, The Wire, and perhaps even Deadwood seemed like the deeper shows to me. They may have been sloppier than Breaking Bad, but they were about something bigger than structural innovation and narrative perfection. What was Breaking Bad about?

Even Gilligan couldn’t really answer that question. Back in 2011, I asked him point blank. “OK,” I said, “so you’re doing this experiment—you’re transforming a hero into a villain. But what is that experiment trying to find, or show, or prove, beyond just going dark?”

Gilligan’s answer was honest, but it was also unsatisfying. “I guess the point of the experiment is to be different,” he told me. “To see where we can go, to see where it takes us.”

Watching “Felina,” I finally realized where Gilligan was going—where the transformation of Walter White was taking us. The Heisenberg that Walt spent the series “turning into”—and whom he finally became the second he told Skyler, “I did it for me”—wasn’t Scarface. He wasn’t a monster. He wasn’t the embodiment of evil.

He was an all-American striver. He was an unbridled capitalist. He was an independent man. He was Walter White unleashed—realizing his full potential, reinventing himself, following his bliss, making his way in an Opportunity Society, living free and refusing to roll over and die.

Even as Heisenberg, Walt still loved his family. He still tried to protect them. But the point Gilligan seemed to be making, in the end, is that America encourages and almost mandates precisely the sort of ravenous striving for individual success and self-actualization that Heisenberg so desperately pursued, and that while success may make one’s family wealthier and more secure—like the Whites, who wound up $9.72 million richer than they started—it also can also wound and divide and destroy.

Ultimately, Breaking Bad was a show about the pursuit of happiness—and the unhappiness it can cause. The point of reviving Walt's virtuosic genius at the eleventh hour wasn't to redeem him or render him victorious, as some critics have claimed. Instead it was to force him, and us, to grapple with the bigger question at the heart of the series.

The pursuit of happiness is a double-edged sword; self-reliance often bleeds into selfishness. At what point, then, does the American dream become an American nightmare? How do we know when that line has been crossed?

Walter White did what he was good at. He did it for himself. But was his pursuit of happiness worth the payout (and the fallout)? Or would he have been happier if he’d died of cancer with his poor but loving family by his side?

Watching Breaking Bad’s final scene, with its nostalgic return to the meth lab, I honestly can’t say how Walter White—or Vince Gilligan—would answer that question. But I also can’t think of many television shows that have had the courage to ask such an important question in the first place.