(Note: I’m not going to waste any time spoiling the series finale of Breaking Bad in this post. Look away immediately if you haven’t watched this show yet.)
In the first scene of “Breaking Bad,” Walter Hartwell White (Bryan Cranston) filmed a video in which he promised that he would provide for his family no matter the cost. In the series finale, Walt finally made good on his promise, but at what cost? His brother-in-law is dead. His wife and kids are under the microscope of intense media scrutiny. His former partner was imprisoned by neo-Nazis in an underground meth lab for months on end. He’s been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, whether inadvertently or intentionally. He’s made the lives of everyone he knows around him miserable.
But creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed the series finale, managed to give Walt some measure of triumph in his final moments. Walt’s final plan, hinging on the thespian skills of the dynamic duo Badger and Skinny Pete, goes off with nary a hitch, ending in the demise of the neo-Nazis and the sociopathic lothario Todd (Jesse Plemons, increasingly amazing in a difficult role). And Walt’s family will be provided for. Whether they want that money, and whether they will be able or want to use that money effectively, might be another story, but they’ll have it if Gretchen and Elliott follow through.
Yes, the episode ends on an upward spiral shot of Walt lying dead in a meth lab while the police swarm around him, but did Walt (and the show’s writers) earn these complicated victories? That question has been the subject of much debate on the Internet since last night. The finale ties up the show’s loose ends and puts a button on every one of Walt’s relationships in such a clean way as to almost seem contrived beyond the suspension of belief, but Gilligan makes a strong case for the ambiguity of his resolution. Jesse (Aaron Paul) speeds off into the night, whooping with delight, but his story is far from over: what happens when the police find out his role in the events of the Heisenberg era? Jesse lets Walt die on his own terms, but were his final moments made more painful because of his presence in a place where the poison of power made him feel “alive”? Walt gives Skyler another opportunity to exonerate herself from paying for his crimes, but will this latest attempt prove any more successful than the last one? If “Ozymandias” was any indication, Walt got very little of what he really wanted, especially considering the way he wanted it.
Gilligan and Co. played a risky but ultimately rewarding trick with this final season. Instead of slowly building to a noisy climax in the series finale, the writers deployed many of their big emotional moments in “Ozymandias,” leaving the last two episodes as a more contemplative coda to this incredible five-season tale of power, corruption, money, race and the fractured American dream. But “Felina” derives its power from our collective memory of the moments that came before. Many people will point to Walt’s various speeches in this episode as the pinnacles of Bryan Cranston’s performance, but the exchange that resonated most strongly with me was composed of glances rather than words. When Walt and Jesse laid eyes on each other in Uncle Jack’s living room for the first time in months, five years of history came rushing back. Walt and Jesse are the last two people onscreen in this episode because the show’s heart has explored their relationship as a microcosm of Walt’s overall decline. The episode’s final beat: Jesse leaving Walt to die himself, disregarding the carnal satisfaction he might derive from pulling one last trigger. In his final moments, Walt lies alone, surrounded by the tools he used to dig his own grave.
There will be much more to write about with regard to this finale. Is it a satisfying conclusion to a series that routinely captivated me like no other show before it? Does it successfully and sufficiently complicate the antihero dynamic that now feels played out as a conceit for television drama? Does it matter if this episode is perhaps a bit too focused on wrapping up plot threads and leaves little time for spare moments of visual and aural poetry?
The short answer: I’m not sure yet. But as with the totality of “Breaking Bad,” last night’s episode gave me lots to think about. That alone is television at its finest.