Reviews

Sep 30, 2013

Breaking Bad delivered the exact finale it promised, but was that enough?

Tonight marked the end of Breaking Bad, one of the most acclaimed television shows of the last decade. But was "Felina" the series finale of a show which too simplistically forewent broader cultural impact in favour of safer narrative closure?

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, ghostly and distant in "Felina".

For 5 seasons, Breaking Bad was something of a perpetual motion machine. Beginning with the almost innocuous premise of a beleaguered chemistry teacher turning to a life of crime, it quickly spun out into a cyclical, sickening morality tale. Touted far and wide as one of the greatest television series ever made, many see the last episode as some kind of stamp, the supposed seal on the envelope admitting it to the “pantheon”, as it’s so-called. Audiences and critics had already decided what Breaking Bad was; the show just had to decide how to be it.

It couldn’t have been the series finale of Breaking Bad without Walter White coughing. In the last cold open the show will ever give us, Walt enters an unlocked, snow-clad car and searches for the keys. He pries away with a screwdriver from the glovebox (not before we see the all-important Marty Robbins cassette he uses to blow up the DEA — kidding) but can’t get the car to start. His warm breath is visible, as though we’re literally seeing the last remnants of his soul.

The red and blue flash of a police car illuminates him from behind. The forces of good which had evaded him so long — which he had so strenuously operated outside of since he began to cook crystal meth — had finally caught him. But as he whispers, “Just get me home. I’ll do the rest,” the officer’s torchlight vanishes and the red and blue lights recede, reflected in the lenses of his glasses. Was Walt praying? Was he speaking to a universal god? Or just to his own — Heisenberg?

As he realises the keys hide overhead and frees the car window of snow with one slick hit, it becomes clear exactly who. Walt has spent most of the series worshipping at the altar of this godlike figure he created and subsequently inhabited. He became the one who knocks, he became the danger. He became a bumbling, scattered, blue angel of death. So how do you bring death’s journey to a satisfying end?

Walter and the White and Schrader families in...mostly happier times.

Structurally, Breaking Bad’s best moments are never the most action-packed. Sure, the climactic scene at Todd’s White Supremacist Funland is thrilling and ‘badass’ in that warped Walter White way we’ve all come to enjoy. But looking back, when was the show ever more chillingly magnetic than the camera slowly panning over the Lily of the Valley, the anarchic buzzing of the fly in Gus Fring’s meth lab, the perfectly silent death of Mike Ehrmantraut?

For these reasons, this finale feels as neat as it needed to be. Breaking Bad works within certain parameters. The pilot showed us Walt as his most innocent, and “Ozymandias” showed him at his most despicably evil. The flash-forward sequence that pre-empted the fifth season’s premiere — Walt’s birthday, the retrieval of the ricin, the machine gun in the trunk — showed us all the tools and then, across the next fifteen episodes, demonstrated how they would be put together. Where its network-mate Mad Men is beguiling and elegant, Breaking Bad tended more towards blunt and confronting.

In this sense this finale felt somewhat instructive but simultaneously like the show filling in the blanks and leaving it at that. That’s not to say that Walt’s laser pointer-aided home invasion wasn’t thrilling, or that the slow reveal of Walt’s presence during the phone call between Skyler and Marie wasn’t deeply unsettling. But therein lay the problem the show created for itself. It became so obsessed with Walter White that all else became sundry.

It’s a finale that creates any number of questions, to a point. Jesse is free of meth slavery — but what then? A man who had spent the last couple of years of his life either manipulated by a mentor who crafted his own form of bondage or in the ethereal grasp of drug-addled stupor was able to drive away, but there’s so little guarantee of his well-being. His wife takes a phone call from his sister-in-law whose husband’s corpse can now be unearthed thanks to Walt’s coded lottery ticket. Flynn returns home to a chain-smoking Skyler in their new, dimly-lit apartment while baby Holly sleeps upstairs.

It seems all too telling that all of these moments came before the final scene. Walt lies dead — spared by Jesse — but felled by his own bullet in the middle of a meth lab that could only exist if he did. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” plays, and that’s it. That’s the show. Walt tied up the loose ends he had left dangling, hoping for some kind of redemption. But after the events of “Ozymandias”, how on earth could he possibly deserve such a thing?

A moment of silence for Walt's stylish new frames.

And yet, it still feels like a satisfying end to a series which was content to wrestle with the identity of its anti-heroic protagonist and not much more. There’s little wider evocation of the effects of Walt’s drug empire; it’s mostly focused on the devastating spiral of evil and how it both draws in and repels all around him. Many predicted that Holly would prove the ultimate casualty of Walter White’s transgressions, but evidently Vince Gilligan was more interested in returning a sliver of his humanity. For a show that always tended to be a little simplistic, it’s certainly an appropriate ending.

Many have argued that “Ozymandias” was the logical end-point for the series, and in many ways I agree. But Breaking Bad is a show that has provoked a massive range of reactions, and oftentimes it feels as though we as the audience have our own position on the spectrum from “rooting for Walt” to “wishing for Walt’s brutal death”. It’s very unclear whether or not escaping from Walter White, crushed and alone at his lowest of lows, would be as emotionally fulfilling as it would be morally satisfying. At the very least, Walt finally admits to the extreme selfishness of his actions.

In dragging Walt back from the brink, Gilligan has either affirmed the idea that essential humanity can still seep through after breaking bad, or admitted that we were meant to be cheering Walt on for his demonic behaviour all along. Neither quite sits comfortably with me on a thematic level, but as a narrative, this feels like the only way it could realistically end within the boundaries it set for itself. Those boundaries may be what hold this episode back from true brilliance, but there’s no denying the series’ mastery of its territory.

It’s much too early and facile to talk of Breaking Bad’s status in relation to the classic television that’s come before it (though that certainly isn’t stopping many). The thing about a series finale is that it’s an end as much as it is a continuation; while the story meets an end like Walt’s, the show’s legacy — fettered as it now is by narrative closure — and the ongoing question of its impact on the televisual landscape will shuffle on. With time it will be freed and evaluated from a distance. But for now, “Felina” eases our thudding hearts and calms the nerves previous episodes so wonderfully jangled. Goodbye, Breaking Bad, and thank you for the ride.

10 comments

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10 thoughts on “Breaking Bad delivered the exact finale it promised, but was that enough?

  1. m8kin

    I was only hoping he would try his product while he laid there and died… smile on his face and all.

  2. mikeb

    Walt finally admitted that in reality he did it all for himself. There was no redemption – only satisfaction that for the only time in his life he was the master.

  3. Tim nash

    M8kin, I too wondered if he would crack off a shard and try some of his meth. Oh well.

  4. ian smith

    “It’s much too early and facile to talk of Breaking Bad’s status in relation to the classic television that’s come before it …”

    ??? !!!

    Sorry Lawrence, you appear a bit slow.
    The verdict (from both young and old, men and women, critics and lay-people, etc.) was in many episodes ago.
    i.e. this is definitely the best TV series ever made – by a mile. And I have been a TV watcher since it first began in Australia.

    1. Laurence Barber

      That’s exactly the problem, Ian (cheers for needlessly calling me slow right after spelling my name incorrectly, by the way; a truly classy touch). The show just ended, so it’s pointless to scream “BEST TV SHOW EVER” from the rooftops so soon because everyone praises the newest thing as the greatest despite these perspectives completely lacking context and historical perspective.

  5. ian smith

    My apologies Laurence.

    However, my point is based on the fact that the series ran for 60+(?)hours, and has been on our screens for such a length of time that it is ridiculous to claim that it is “too soon” to reach a verdict.

    Secondly, you may have a point if you can nominate another TV series you think could challenge it. I cannot think of one.

    1. Laurence Barber

      It’s really not. The shows that I’d nominate as superior – The Simpsons, Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Seinfeld, Cheers, and more – have all had time to be reappraised and evaluated to an extraordinary degree. Many of those shows, too, have the advantage of drastically altering the medium of television, which Breaking Bad hasn’t done. While it’s very, very, very good, it was essentially a rehash of everything The Sopranos already covered. I’d say it make a lot of aesthetic strides and was incredibly compelling and well-written start to finish, but it will take some time to convince me that it’s better than any of those shows.

  6. ian smith

    Your alternatives are all worthy, but I confess I have not seen all of them in full (i.e. never got hooked). Also, I don’t believe you can compare lengthy dramas with comedies.
    Breaking Bad scores points in terms of the anticipation it generated amongst its viewers for each episode (especially for the finale) and the subsequent withdrawal symptoms.
    Lets compromise by saying it will rank as one of the best ever TV drama series.

    1. Laurence Barber

      Yes, it’s definitely worthy of being considered amongst them. Hm, perhaps, but genre distinctions are generally fairly arbitrary. At some point they have to butt up against each other (plus, sitcoms still require a dramatic current to remain interesting). In any case, I think you should definitely track those ones down and give them a shot!

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