By this point you’ve seen the finale of Breaking Bad. Maybe you’ve watched it twice. By this point you’ve read everything about it too and have had a full week to process it. We’ve already done a piece on the last episode. By this point the people who love the finale have made their love known and people who didn’t like it so much have done the same. Everything has been said that needs to be said and said well. You are probably exhausted from all of this Breaking Bad content. But how ’bout one more kick at the giant barrel full of cash for old times sake?
Full disclosure, I was never an undying devotee to Breaking Bad. I liked some things about the show a great deal but thought much of this goodness was overblown by its adoring public. When other people were declaring it THE BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION THAT EVER HAPPENED AND WILL EVER HAPPEN, I would sit there, quietly, reserving my opinion for a later day. Well, folks, today is that day. And, although I liked many things about its final season I will say right now that I did not like the final episode. I didn’t like its rigid finality and I didn’t like what it said about the characters and the show as a whole.
What the finale does is expect us to take the modicum of humanity seen in Walt’s phone call to Skyler and expand it to ludicrous proportions. The finale makes Walt the hero in a show where he was at best a morally flawed individual and at worst the outright villain. He was never the hero and should never have been the hero in the final episode. But the episode never seems to question this. It is going to present Walter White as the hero whether you like it or not. To me it is saying that there is nothing more than Walter White and there never was, despite what the show seemed to be telling us for so long. It felt like either the finale was a lie or what came before it was. The finale felt like it wanted, desperately to have it both ways – “we know that Walter White is a terrible person who has done terrible things but what if (just hear us out now) he isn’t really, in his heart of hearts?” It took all the moral complexity out a show that, on some nights, had at least some shading.
The problem I have with this is that not enough time has passed for any of this to be satisfying. I don’t mean enough time in the world of the show because, I gather, months have passed since Walter enters his cabin hide out. I mean, that at the end of the penultimate episode we are left with Walter White, morally compromised, terrible person, with tiny slivers of humanity and by the end of the final episode we are left with Walter White, morally compromised, saviour of all the good people. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad’s creator, called the final episode “victorious” which is telling but it is only a victory for Walter. None of the other characters win. Jesse is freed but for, really, what life? Skyler has nothing except for her cigarettes. Walt Jr. gets the satisfaction of never having to see his father again but gets the burden of drug money when he turns 18 (the lie of where the money came from is ludicrous). Marie has been widowed. Walter has destroyed pretty much everyone’s life he’s ever come in contact with and yet he gets to go out on top. I find that problematic for the simple reason that so many people watch the show and think Walter is a badass and a super cool person for doing what he did. It feels strange to give those fans exactly what they were asking for.
Turning Walt into a hero is a story that was started, I’d argue, with the introduction of the neo-Nazi characters (and maybe even before this) and I’m kicking myself for not recognizing it for what it was until it was too late. The writers set up a clear hierarchy of badness in this last season that goes a little something like this:
The question is why does the audience need this hierarchy of badness? Why do we need to be told who is worthy of death or comeuppance? Why did the writers make the decisions they made? Perhaps because it is the only way to “redeem” Walt. The show is and has been smarter than that throughout its 5 seasons, giving us characters and villains that are more than just plain evil but the neo-Nazis don’t belong in this group. They are just bad, bad, bad.
In the last episode of Breaking Bad everything is coming up Walt. He gets to trick his former Gray Matter partners into thinking that they are being watched by hired assassins so they will cooperate in giving Walt Jr. the boatloads of cash that Walt leaves for him. He gets to tell Skyler that he was never really cooking meth for the family instead he was doing it because he liked it. He gets to save poor, suffering Jesse (dreaming of beautiful, hand crafted boxes in the finale’s best scene) from the neo-Nazis by rigging up his car to shoot them all while they are conveniently all hanging out in the same building. He gets to poison Lydia with the ricin he’s swapped with her Stevia (‘cause…why?). Walt gets to do all the things he wants to do and they all work to perfection. All the good guys win and all the bad guys die. Walt goes out with as clean a conscience as possible and he gets to go out on his own terms. No one has a choice, dammit. He’s going to save them whether they like it or not. Bow. Tied.
But what does all of this mean? For a show that pretended that it was so interested in the way you are changed by your faltering and shifting morality, it is as if none of this matters. Perhaps “Walt’s Big Day” is meant to show us that even the most morally compromised, murderous, drug pushers are capable of love and humanity. Except of course if they are moustache twirling neo-Nazis, then fuck ’em. The finale functions as a kind of dream episode except no one ever wakes up.
So is it possible to read the finale another way and to understand that we are only seeing what Walt wants us to see? This would be the more interesting endpoint – that Walt’s final con is on the audience and the show knows it. I would love to read the episode in this way but there just isn’t enough to suggest this to me. That’s not what we are left with because this is, in the end, Walt’s world and Walt’s show. And I guess what I have to accept is that Walt is the hero because he has been the hero all along. I just desperately don’t want to. I thought I was watching one show but it looks as though I was really watching something else entirely. I guess, in the end, I have been manipulated by Walter just like Skyler and Jesse and Walt Jr. and Marie and Hank. But worse I’ve been manipulated and tricked by the show as well.