In case you were concerned that there wasn’t enough Breaking Bad analysis out there on the Internet, I gathered up some of the usual roundtable suspects to talk about the series finale “Felina,” the final run of episodes, and BrBa‘s overall legacy. This is a lengthy discussion, full of diverse insights. I ended up not saying a whole lot because everyone else provided so much. Let’s do it.
Cory Barker: We’ve now had a few days to process our feelings about the Breaking Bad series finale and to take in or try ignore the trolls on the Internet. As these things go, there’s been quite a bit of debate about how the show ended its magnificent run and what that ending means for Vince Gilligan’s vision for the show and its lead character. We’ll get to that. But let’s start with simple stuff: What did you think about the finale, and how did it track with your perspective on the last few episodes leading up to it?
Andrew Daar: I was unsure about how I felt about the finale while I was watching it, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m liking it. “Felina” will never be listed among my top favorite finales ever, but it satisfyingly ended a series that will forever have a place on my list of favorite shows. My reservations during watching the episode centered on Walt. First of all, despite spending much of his time hidden in the shadows (or behind conveniently placed pillars), he dominates the episode. If memory serves correctly, there is only one scene that he is not in (that would be Jesse’s Ron Swanson-esque woodworking fantasy/wake up to meth cooking reality). This is Walt’s show, about Walt’s descent into villainy, so the ending should be about him. But his dominance means that Marie appears once, to deliver exposition, and Walter, Jr. gets no lines. Walt’s dominance means that we see just enough of Jesse to conclude his story and know that he made it out alive and free. We don’t see him try to reconnect with Brock or Badger and Skinny Pete (who fortunately were given one last glorious scene) or even his family. My other concern while watching “Felina” was that Gilligan was trying to redeem Walt to some degree. Beyond that, Walt ultimately succeeded in his initial goal: he found a way to provide for his family before dying. It may not have occurred exactly how he’d intended (losing his family along the way was never part of his plan), but he succeeded.
Here is where distance and thought has improved my view of the finale. Walt has accepted that he is the villain, he has let go of his pride, and he makes it his final mission to ensure the safety and financial security of those he cares about. But he is still not a good guy, and his actions, which may have beneficial consequences for his family and Jesse, are the actions of a villain. We root for Walt in “Felina” because the people he goes up against, a group of psychotic neo-Nazis who treat Jesse like a dog, are worse than he is. The heroic course of action would be to turn himself in, taking the heat off of Skyler and providing information about the neo-Nazis’ operations (which he could use as a bargaining chip to help either Skyler, himself, or both of them). Instead, Walt does what he has always done: takes matters into his own hands. Only this time, he is not blinded by pride or greed. All he wants is to do right by those he cares about, even if it means he won’t walk away this time.
I think it was Alyssa Rosenberg who said that she would have preferred that “Ozymandias” was the final episode, and while I don’t think that would have been a satisfying conclusion from a narrative standpoint, from a thematic one, I’m right there with her. I envisioned Breaking Bad ending with Walt’s empire in shambles and him living out a life similar to the one he had in New Hampshire. His empire was destroyed, but he ended up coming out of it with some measure of dignity, ending matters on his own terms. It’s not the tragedy I envisioned based on the final run of episodes, but it was satisfying. Walt achieved his goal and then he died. He got what he wanted and we got, through a roundabout way, what we were promised: a meek chemistry teacher selling meth to provide for his family.
Julie Hammerle: It’s interesting to think about “Ozymandias, or even “Granite State,” as a finale. I think ending the series with Walt either going on the lam or leaving the bar in New Hampshire after hearing the Schwartzes’ interview would’ve angered a lot of people (possibly in a good way). There would’ve been no catharsis, but there would’ve been a lot more discussion left to have.
While I enjoyed “Felina,” I thought it played out almost like Breaking Bad fanfic. What happened in this episode was, I think, what people hoped would happen. Walt figured out how to get his money to his family. Skyler, Flynn, Marie, Holly, and Jesse are still alive and will (probably) be OK. Uncle Jack, Lydia, and Todd are dead. Huell is ALIVE. Walt’s story is done. He’s done. There are no loose ends left to frustrate us. It’s the anti-Sopranos finale. I’m not passing judgment as to whether that’s good or bad, but I do think the discussion of this finale and its impact ends this week. Vince Gilligan left us with no questions.
So, is that what you want in a finale? Do you want everything tied up and spelled out for you, or do you want to be left with a little sense of longing and wonder?
Greg Boyd: Based on Andrew’s thoughts and the reviews I’ve read, I seem to be in the minority on this, but I don’t really see how this finale reads as anything other than tragic. Yes, Walt may have succeeded in a few final goals (and died fairly happy as a result), but what stood out to me most about “Felina” was all the destruction. Marie’s one scene isn’t just her delivering exposition: it’s showing us how she’s still struggling to put her life back together, and how her relationship with her sister is probably going to be forever strained. He provided Skyler with the means to avoid prosecution, sure, but it was in the form of a lottery ticket with the location of two dead bodies. Jesse got away, but is he ever going to be okay after all that has happened? Sure, the money will probably be appreciated, but his real legacy is emotional wreckage and death.
That’s why I love that final song choice so much (it rivals last season’s use of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” as far as I’m concerned). On the one hand, it’s a peaceful song that reflects the contentment Walt’s feeling. And yet if you listen to the lyrics, they really speak to the fact that he ultimately loved his meth—or at least, the feeling cooking it gave him—more than his family: his “baby blue” more than his actual baby. That’s a seriously twisted mindset, and I love how the clash of words and music is able to comment simultaneously on Walt’s own relative peace in those final moments as well as our own knowledge that he’s done nothing that left a positive impact on the world.
In regards to this not being as astonishing as something like “Ozymandias,” I think Breaking Bad isn’t getting enough credit for how daringly structured this final season turned out to be. A common complaint I’ve seen about the finale is that it felt too “safe”, but I think it’s just the opposite. The rules of television tend to dictate saving a lot of huge developments for the final few episodes, and in previous seasons the show has followed that general structure (just look at what’s gone down in the last two episodes of each season prior to this one). To completely upend that structure in favor of a pair of relatively low-key episodes—light on plot but rich in meaning—is to me incredibly audacious, and I thought it worked perfectly, even as it does mean that “Felina” (like “Granite State” before it) probably won’t make most people’s lists of the greatest Breaking Bad episodes.
Emma Fraser: The second half of this final season has been gut wrenching and to be honest I’m glad that it’s over. Not because it has been a terrible experience but because we have witnessed such devastating events with “Ozymandias” reaching the utter point of despair. The last episode is a reprieve of sorts for us as the audience and even though it’s wrapped up in a neat bow and Walt dies before he is prosecuted (mirroring what he told Hank would happen, ok he thought the cancer would get him) I was satisfied by this conclusion.
It had moments of pure exhilaration like Jesse driving through the gates screaming towards or the animalistic rage he got to unleash as he got his revenge on Todd. Jesse also got to say no to Walt one last time and even though it’s not going to be easy for him when e comes down from this escape he’s got some form of closure. As it’s been mentioned already this is Walt’s story and the scene that stood out to me was with Skyler as he admitted finally that he liked cooler meth and the power that came with being good at it. This doesn’t count as redemption, nor does revealing where Hank and Gomey are but it goes some way to help his family get beyond this awful legacy that has been left behind.
The task of writing a good final episode sounds like a nightmare and I’m happy with what Vince Gilligan and his team produced.
Adam Lukach: From what’s been written already, I’m in a similar headspace regarding the finale. I found it to be immensely satisfying, while the nagging critical part of me thought it might be too tidy, too redemptive, etc., for the man that was supposed to be on a “Mr. Chips to Scarface” journey that we were reminded about so many times.
But for all the Tony Montana shirts and visceral catchphrases, Walt was never quite Scarface; he had too much inherent morality as a father, and Tony Montana would never have deluded himself with Walt’s familial justifications. Tony never made any apologies, which is why he wound up in a fountain of his own blood. We saw Walt close to this—at his most defiant—in “Ozymandias,” which is where you guys mentioned the series sort of “ended” in a sense. The show’s steep descent into evil hit with a thud there, but Walt’s remaining humanity was left unexplored. That was what made this dude interesting in the first place: he was supposed to care.
Not that we’re supposed to feel sorry for him, but narratively, it made sense for the meek chemistry teacher to have some kind of character epiphany at the end. He had to come full circle, because there was that side to him. Was it too neat and too convenient? Maybe a little. Greg makes a great point when he says that there was a great deal of tragedy in this episode for Walt as he retreaded all of his destruction, having to witness everything he’d done too wrong to make right.
It might not have been the uber-challenging, trope-bucking show that we’d seen for 61 episodes, but this show got so dark that any attempt to come out the water was going to seem weirdly fulfilling for Walt. I’ll still concede that it was probably a little indulgent for Walt, but it certainly didn’t make for bad television.
Kerensa Cadenas: I think ultimately what “Felina” gave for me was relief. For the last eight episodes, I feel like I’ve been so caught up in the world of Breaking Bad and more emotionally invested in it than any show I’ve ever been a fan of. I’ve watched the last several episodes completely submerged in utter dread, so when Walt spoke to Skyler and finally says “I did it for myself. I liked it. I was good at it. It made me feel alive,” I felt like something had been lifted.
I’ve despised Walt for a long time, so watching this final episode came with a lot of contradictory feelings. I cheered when he decimated the Nazis and saved Jesse, sobbed when he spoke to Skyler and felt really glad to see him die. But at the same time, all of it felt so easy—Walt building that awesome gun, sneaking in and out of his last goodbyes without getting caught and in that aspect it felt weirdly heroic. But Walt’s not a hero. He’s never been a hero—he was finally doing what he should have done a very long time ago—looking out for the people he cared about but in typical Walt fashion, he still did it on his terms, making his actions seemingly selfish to me.
I got the chance to watch the final episode at the cemetery screening with the cast in Los Angeles and the mood there felt as if it was celebrating Walt. Cheers after the Nazi killing spree, after Lydia’s poisoning and the death of Todd (rightfully so) and I cheered right along with them but feeling compassion for Walt makes me feel confused and kinda gross which I think is one of the most interesting things about Breaking Bad—making you question if you would go just as far as Walter White and if you’d like it.
Les Chappell: After the finale finished airing, I went on Twitter and made the following statement: “Now that is how you stick the fucking landing.” And I still believe that a few days later, because for me “Felina” was absolutely the finale to Breaking Bad I wanted. It was brutal, it was beautiful, it was occasionally funny, it was epic, and it ended in a place where I felt the story of Walter White deserved to end.
I’ve tried to think about why I liked the episode so much, and I think I’ve realized why: because it reminded us that, for all of its darkness and destruction, one of the main reasons why we kept watching Breaking Bad for so long was that it was a hell of a lot of fun. “Tohajiilee,” “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” were emotionally devastating, phenomenal episodes of TV that gave us the uncompromising look at what Walt had brought down on those he loved. But they were also episodes that are going to be hard to watch again—and God help those poor souls who are going to try marathoning it when it comes to Netflix. Walt deserved to be brought low, and so did we as an audience, but this was a series that gave you highs beyond comparison when it wanted to. “Crazy Handful of Nothin’.” “One Minute.” “Half-Measures.” “Face Off.” So many exultant moments as the series paid off its tension in vivid, explosive and unexpected fashion.
This episode though? Totally recaptured those peaks. We got to see what the Heisenberg presence looked like to those who only knew Walt as Elliot and Gretchen were brought to heel in his presence, we got one final moment of comedy from Badger and Skinny Pete, and we got to see Walt’s scientific know-how come into play one last time as he rigged the M60 robot arm trap. There were moments of pure joy and catharsis—I screamed “YEAH BITCH!” as Jesse choked the life out of Todd and applauded as Jesse got to enjoy that first moment of freedom. (Also, for the record, after how Walt killed the dealer and Jack killed Declan and Todd, I totally called that Walt was going to blow Jack’s brains out as the latter lay prone.) This was the last ride of the outlaw Walter White, and after we spent so much time rooting for the guy—regardless of whether or not he deserved it—I think we earned getting to do it one last time.
Yes, everyone complained that things may have tied themselves off too neatly, but there’s a difference between narrative resolution and living happily ever after. Walt’s family gets the money he tried so hard to give them, but the credit for providing it—the one thing he wanted even more than financial security—is denied to him. He takes his vengeance on Jack and Lydia, but there’s no joy in it, only a clearing of the decks. It was a Pyrrhic victory at best, a dying man with no friends or family left standing amidst the blood and bullet casings that littered so much of his wake for five seasons (and with a gas mask identical to the one he left in the desert for Hank to find so many episodes ago), eventually collapsing amidst the last vestige of the meth empire he sacrificed everything for. Walt may have looked peaceful in his final shot, but that’s a man falling straight to Hell.
I can entirely buy those people who say they’d have preferred the show close with “Ozymandias” or “Granite State,” leaving Walt’s fate open to interpretation but still inescapably doomed. But for my money? After every wonderful, brazen, tragic, gorgeous thing Vince Gilligan and company delivered, I’d say they earned the victory lap.
Noel Kirkpatrick: The finale presented a journey for Walt that allowed him to clean up his messes–money gets to his family, he eliminates the Nazis and Lydia, reveals where Hank’s body is, frees Jesse—and how easy it was. I’m with Emily Nussbaum who argues that everything that happens in the episode might’ve been better served as Walt’s dying dream in that snow covered car considering how everything from the keys in the visor to how he’s able to move around without ever drawing any attention to Uncle Jack’s overly-manufactured offense at Jesse being thought of as his partner is just way too easy. That’s where I ended up balking at the episode. I rolled my eyes at the handiness of the keys in the visor and Uncle Jack’s apparent and sudden ego problem. Walt, despite dying, still got almost everything he wanted before that happened (Jesse didn’t kill him, which may’ve been the last thing Walter really wanted). He outsmarted everyone (again) complete with laser pointers, ricin Stevia, and a pop-up machine gun in the trunk. He was the same badass who shook up Tuco with a crazy handful of nothin’, not the nearly-dead man from cancer who lost everything. It felt as if the episode were stacked in Walter’s favor just to see his megalomania rewarded one last time before letting him die surrounded by what he had created in an effort to give some slight moral nod.
Cory: Most of my nitpicks have already been addressed—that Walt’s revenge plot seemed too smoothly executed most notably—and I really hate to fantasy re-write things after the fact. On one hand, I think “Felina” might have worked just a little better had we spend another scene or two with other characters to really emphasize that despite Walt’s victories here, everyone’s lives are ruined. On the other hand, if you’ve been paying any attention to the show, you already know that; Gilligan and company shouldn’t have to spoon-feed us any more than they already have.
What the finale really hit home is that this is Walter White’s story. The great thing about long-running shows is that we at home often fall for the supporting characters, the ones that keep the story moving forward (and in the case of Breaking Bad, keep reminding us of the effects of Walt’s carnage). But as the story neared the end, the focus had to narrow. Did the final eight episodes need more Jesse? Yeah, I think so. I understand why he was so despondent for much of the run, particularly the last three or four, but I would have loved to see Aaron Paul have more to do in his last episodes on the show. But this isn’t a story about Jesse Pinkman; it’s a story about Walter White, about Heisenberg, and about whomever he became in that New Hampshire cabin. And ultimately, that man didn’t ‘win’; he took care of some of the problems he caused. He could never fix them all, and this wasn’t really about making amends. Walt knows that he’s too far gone for that, which is why he spends most of this episode resigned to his fate. He’s finally willing to admit to Skyler why he kept cooking, why he poisoned kids, why he robbed trains. Some might say that reversal came suddenly—and maybe it would have been better to spend more time in New Hampshire—but I think it had to end that way. Walt admitting that he was the biggest egomaniac on the planet doesn’t undo all the hellfire. That scene alone tells us that he didn’t triumph. He beat the Nazis, but he still lost everything.
So, how does the finale change the way you view the show as a whole? Even if you’re a little disappointed, should the finale impact how you look at the previous 61 episodes?
Noel: It’ll certainly change how I see the show when I revisit it, the same way some finales may change how things work upon a re-watch. So it will likely change my perception of the show and its goals, but I can’t speak to how that’ll work out until I do that re-watch. I’ve never seen an episode of the show more than once, and a wider statement about that sort of thing is beyond my abilities.
However, the finale doesn’t automatically negate my reception of the show, all the yelling and screaming at screens I did, the terror I felt, and all the other emotions I experienced as I watched it. I may not have liked the finale, but that one episode, regardless of it being the last episode doesn’t make it a bad show, a show that I wasted over 60 hours of my life watching. Nah, it doesn’t do that. It can’t have that much power.
Whitney McIntosh: After finishing the episode late Sunday night, I almost immediately made the decision that I wouldn’t overly indulge in other reviews or long reads about how the finale made everyone feel, or how each different theory and suspicion played out for everybody else. I was so incredibly satisfied with how the final glimpse of these characters played out that I don’t need a ton of other opinions in order to properly parse through my own. Which is why I loved this finale not only for the show but for the actual finality it had. I have no issue with people debating and discussing how shows end years after the fact. Intelligent, entertaining, and enlightening conversations can come out of people who just discovered a show responding to viewers who have been thinking back on it for years. There have been shows where you could attempt to read everything written and still not be close to done (or stopped enjoying reading them) all this time later. But this wasn’t that type of show and I think everyone realized that long before the finale actually aired. This was a loop being closed, as finite a story as you can get on television, and that’s exactly what I wanted going in to Sunday night.
Yes, there are characters who we didn’t fully get closure for and everyone will feel free to wonder where their stories ended down the road, myself included. Jesse may never get to lead a fully functional and happy life, but would he have if Walter White hadn’t asked him to cook together? Flynn might not be a well adjusted adult with a happy family in 10 years, but he also could have everything a smart and kind kid should have despite what his father was. We don’t know. I liked those pieces of the episode mostly because it means that the show didn’t put too fancy a bow on the whole thing, more like a simple knot that gets the job done. This was Walter White’s story the whole time and I was ecstatic that we were able to spend his last moments with him and him alone. His thoughts, his regrets, his accomplishments whether real or imagined, and most important of all his lab equipment. I don’t think I would have been disappointed if he had gone out in a blaze of glory or Jesse had indeed ended up doing the deed but I do think I would have been aware that something important was missing in that situation. The final few times that Walt seemed to be smarter than everyone in the room or, alternately, too smart to make the situation plausible, I welcomed with open arms. Rather than seeing them as unbelievable or too much fan service I saw them as the show going back to its roots of seasons 1, 2, and 3, even after all the destruction that had been carried out in seasons 4 and 5. It’s easy to forget how much fun this show was during the early years until you get a taste of that run and gun offense the show utilized so well again after not seeing it for 15 or so episodes.
As for how I see the show in its entirety after it’s over, I think it will certainly change upon re-watch and without having started any sort of re-watch yet (obviously) I can only hope it will be for the positive. Instead of watching Walt make choice after choice that hurts the people around him or kills drug dealers or positions him to take his place at the top of an empire and wonder how this will all end up when it’s all said and done, I’ll be watching him make the decisions that divide him from his family and destroy and semblance of normalcy an entire corner of Albuquerque had. True, we all pretty much knew that was how this whole novel of destruction would end but watching it and knowing with absolute certainty that this is the fate of all of my favorite (and not so favorite, sorry Lydia) characters are destined to is something different entirely. I don’t think it will change the level at which I enjoy watching the show, but it will probably change the way I filter that enjoyment even if only one percentage point or two. But I mean we all know how important the percentage of something can be when it comes to an empire.
Emma: I think the main way it might change how I see the show is how this is really just the story of Walter White. The finale focused so much on him – which of course it should seeing as he’s the main character – and it made it very clear that everyone else is there to service Walt’s story. Yes I wanted more from Jesse in season 5 and I guess I thought there was more to their relationship than the last episode gave to us, but that’s just one minor gripe.
As I’m in the “I found the finale satisfying” camp it really doesn’t change how I feel about the show as a whole.
Greg: I didn’t really get that impression at all. Yes, the finale was very Walt-focused. And I saw this as an issue at first, given how attached I’d grown to the supporting cast. I’m still a little disappointed that we only got two brief Marie scenes in the last two episodes, given how stunning Betsy Brandt was over this final half-season. But I think something that is being overlooked about Breaking Bad is just how rich it is on a thematic level, and in that regard focusing on Walt doesn’t really change what to me are the fundamental thematic aspects of the show: a scathing criticism of societal constructions of masculinity, a dark vision of the struggle to achieve the American dream, and an examination of people making immoral decisions and the effects those decisions make. That story began with Walt and ended with him, but these (and other) core themes were reflected every bit as much in the show’s supporting cast as they were in its lead.
So for me, it changes nothing, either in terms of how I perceive the show’s quality or its ultimate meaning. Which I think is why it’s such a great ending. It’s not revelatory or (aside from the Gretchen and Elliot stuff, which I’m reasonably sure almost no one saw coming) especially surprising, although the way much of the action unfolded was still exceedingly tense and impactful, thanks largely to Gilligan’s masterful staging of the final action setpiece. Was I hoping prior to seeing “Felina” that it would knock the wind out of me the way, say, The Shield‘s ending did? Of course. But the ending we got was a terrific one. It fit. It allowed me to ruminate on some of the show’s key ideas one last time, and stayed true to those ideas right to the end. I’ll take that.
Kerensa: Even though I have complicated feelings about the finale and did ultimately feel pretty satisfied by it, I don’t think that the finale will change my feelings about the show as a whole.
I think it was always pretty well established that it was a show about Walt and his evolution into the monster he became, so it in some respects obviously makes complete sense to focus the finale primarily around his end journey. However for the whiny fan in me, of course I wanted more Jesse! Did he go find Brock? Did he get to make a wooden box? Did he finally find happiness? Skyler! Did she stop chain smoking in that sad apartment? Would she ever make Walt Jr. breakfast again?
Jokes aside, the finale doesn’t tarnish my feelings about the show as a whole (unlike say a Lost (yes, I know this is irrational) or Gossip Girl (I know this shouldn’t even be mentioned in this discussion)) even though I wasn’t totally sold on parts of it. This could change on a rewatch but as emotionally exhausted as I’ve been over Breaking Bad in the last weeks, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. But I’ve watched Six Feet Under at least three times through, so ask me if I’m re-watching Breaking Bad next week.
Andrew: I do not think the finale will affect how I perceive the rest of the show. I’m generally of the belief that a poor finale/final season should not retroactively “ruin” the episodes that you enjoyed watching. Unlike Kerensa, who admits to irrationality, I don’t think that hating the end of Lost or Battlestar Galactica removes the merit of episodes like “The Constant” or “33.” (It is here that I must admit that I liked the endings of both shows.) I’m straining to think of endings or later seasons of shows that made me retroactively dislike what I had once liked, and the only two examples I can come up with are Entourage and Family Guy, both of which I turned on in the middle of their runs, when I realized that the shows were rife with problems I had not noticed until repetition made them impossible to miss.
Even if I hated “Felina,” which I did not, Breaking Bad would still be a great series, full of suspense, tension, and pulse-pounding action. If the series had ended with the neo-Nazis winning or Walt acting out of character, I would still be able to go back and enjoy “One Minute” and “Face Off” and “Dead Freight.”
Cameron White: Leading up to the finale, I had an insurmountable source of tension in finding out how things would go. I don’t mean “how things would end”—the show is fairly open about how its main premise is supposed to end—but rather how events would line up to bring about that ending.
In particular, my stray thoughts each week invariably circled back to Todd and Lydia, the latest pair of counteragents to Walter White. At first, I wondered if we could possibly get a chance to reflect on past antagonists Walt has had to face. Then I realized: for the show to reflect on its past, Walt would have to reflect on his past. And Walt hasn’t looked back since the beginning, or at least since his very first kill. Like the show itself, Walt forced himself to become an embodiment of forward momentum. To boil him down to a Game of Thrones quote, “If I look back, I am lost.”
And the finale could have gone many different ways, particularly based on the way “Granite State” ended. Was Walt about to spend an entire hour ripping through people with a gun? Were Gretchen and Elliot about to die? Who really knew how it was going to go down, but ultimately the show chose an option that I think ended up working really well: it forced Walt to reflect in a meaningful, real way.
A lot of people drew a lot of attention to the Gretchen/Elliot/Walt scene in the finale, but I most remember two specific scenes that came afterward. First was the Walt/Skyler scene, which is a scene I am still unpacking in my mind all this time later. We talk about Walt’s conflicts in relation to his cancer and his past slights, but the thing I think people always forget is that the show also started with one of the most well-worn plots of all: a husband lying to his wife. It’s true that Skyler did eventually become privy to Walt’s machinations as a rising drug kingpin, but he continued to maintain for the longest time that he was doing it for the family, so that they would be covered long after he passed away. And Walt’s stops have a distinctive air of searching for redemption, but the thing is, there is no redemption now. There is no going back from the action Walt took in the pilot to become a meth cook. Walt is only finally realizing that his actions have had consequences that stretch so far beyond him. He can’t bring back Hank, he can’t take back the aggressiveness he felt towards Skyler, he can’t take back anything he’s actually done.
The one thing he can do is stop lying to his wife. So he does. Again, this doesn’t make up for the piles and piles of bad things Walt did (calls to mind that quote from Doctor Who “Vincent and the Doctor”). But it, more than any other action Walt takes prior to his fateful journey to Nazi Camp, is the truest indication that Walt really means to die on his own terms. As such, the scene with Skyler is Walt at his most emotionally vulnerable. We’ve seen him play his wide range of emotions for play, and Skyler has been so bitten by that side of Walt that she searches his face for a sign of what he really wants this time. But she sees the truth, just as we do, when he tells her the real reason he did these things, and it wasn’t for his family: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
The other scene that I will most remember, and the other one that convinces me more than anything else that “Felina” was an excellent finale with the right priorities in mind, is the final Walt/Jesse confrontation. Walt/Jesse (known to some in fandom circles as “The Crystal Ship” for obvious reasons) has always been a relationship of power. Jesse genuinely trusted Walt, which is why he did a lot of the things he did. He believed that Walt would help him make his own mark on the world, instead of falling to the wayside as a dropout loser junkie. Instead, as Jesse said in his Emmy-winning season three speech in the hospital bed, Jesse continued to lose the things he loved and cared about the longer he stayed with “the great Heisenberg.” Jesse was mostly an innocent guy who was sucked into a world of madness by a man who needed a human tool to use for various purposes. Walt made the relationship abusive, and as we saw over the course of seasons four and five, it began to crush Jesse’s soul.
So the most important thing the finale could have done was to finally flip those tables, to let Jesse have power over Walt’s life and to let Jesse finally have a clean break from the drug world forever. And so it was. Watching Jesse choke the life out of Todd, I knew instinctively that the scene I had actually secretly hoped for in my head—of Jesse shooting Walt and letting that be the end—was not going to happen. With Todd, Jesse also choked away the part of himself that allowed murder to be okay. When Jesse finally gets to say “no” to shooting Walt, it’s the biggest victory of his life.
Some have said this scene didn’t feel substantial enough for an ending to Walt/Jesse’s relationship. I disagree. It specifically reminded me of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, of all things. In that book, the Dursleys are evacuating from 4 Privet Drive. It’s the last time they’ll see each other, and Rowling does two things in the chapter that are just so brilliant. First, as Harry and Uncle Vernon clap hands, she writes, “What does one say at the end of sixteen years’ intense dislike?” The other thing is the end of the chapter. Aunt Petunia is the last one out the door, but before she exits, she stops and stares at Harry with this strange look on her face, as if about to say something. I have always interpreted that scene as Petunia finally no longer seeing “Harry Potter, the boy from the world that we will never speak of,” but rather “Harry Potter, my sister’s son.” It’s an acknowledgment that, however much they may have disliked each other, they had also not kicked him out on the streets, and in fact, not two years prior, Petunia had insisted that Harry be allowed to stay at Privet Drive after the dementor attack that almost got Harry expelled from school. Walt and Jesse are seeing each other clearly for the very first time in that last scene, and Walt accords Jesse a courtesy he knows Jesse is owed, because when Jesse walked out in chains, Walt saw his own work reflected back at him.
A lot of this is rambling and raving about scenes, but these two scenes are so much better than what I had imagined in my head that they raise the rest of the finale in my own estimation. It’s easy to predict the final image, of Walt dying in a meth lab. We all knew Walt was going to die (and increasingly as the show went on, we knew he was going to die on his own terms, not someone else’s). But it’s less easy to figure out a way pinpoint the most important elements of the premise and bring them to the fore while letting the main character sail away in his own way. I don’t actually care much for talking about liking or disliking characters, but I do understand the decisions made about the scenes in the finale, and because of that, I find Breaking Bad (and its finale) to be one of the most powerful and impactful pieces of drama I have ever seen.
Cory: So, let’s bring up the L-word. It’s early, but how do we think Breaking Bad will be most remembered? Although I’m less interested in where it fits in the PANTHEON or the MT. RUSHMORE of great shows, Breaking Bad traveled on quite the trajectory over its six years on the air, ultimately growing into this massive pop culture touchstone that viewers of the first season could have never imagined. What do you think will stand out most over time, either in the larger discourse or for you personally?
Cameron: I have always felt that Breaking Bad is the pinnacle and crowning achievement of this Golden Age of Television. We’ve already kinda been in a transition phase in the last couple of years, with AMC agreeing to endings for both this show and Mad Men, and anti-heroic men (and dramas in general) are not really the dominant force on television anymore. Sure, Mad Men will be ending later, but Breaking Bad is the one that took all the pieces of the classic shows of this decade and simultaneously carried them up to 11 while deconstructing most of its core concepts. I expect we’ll see something new in terms of dramas come up later, but we’ll always remember how Breaking Bad encapsulated so much of the exhilarating experience of watching TV in the past five years.
Greg: Agree with all of this. I’ve already seen talk about what show will be “the next Breaking Bad“, and I seriously don’t get why anyone would use that wording. There will never be another Breaking Bad. Its achievement is basically unprecedented, in that it told a completely serialized story with a small cast of characters and life or death stakes, all without ever spinning its wheels or taking any questionable plot turns (I’m not saying there weren’t missteps, but they were always minor ones that only affected a single episode, and never impacted the perfection of the larger story arc). That has never been done before, and I have serious doubts that we’ll ever see a better example of this type of narrative, just as we’ll never see a better in-depth sociological examination of a city than The Wire. As Homeland proved in season two (though I like that season a lot more than most seem to), the degree of difficulty in telling this kind of high-stakes story is just so high. So many opportunities exist to go off the rails, or (even worse) for narrative momentum to stall.
And keeping the narrative strong and focused while also providing the consistent thematic depth and visual wonder that Breaking Bad had? Yeah, good luck with that, future TV shows. This is a landmark televisual text. There will be shows in the coming years (my hunch is that Sundance’s Rectify will be one of them) that deserve to be spoken of with the same reverence, but I’m almost 100% sure that those shows will deserve it for doing something completely different from Vince Gilligan and company, even while retaining some of the lessons (particularly about the need for visual as well as narrative poetry) they taught.
Andrew: I agree with Greg to a point. We should not be concerned about what the “next Breaking Bad” will be because we should encourage new shows to forge their own identities and engage with genre, tropes, culture, clichés, and ideas in their own way. (Think back to all the shows that tried, and failed, to be the “next Lost“; people tried to replicate what made Lost great instead of figuring out how to tell the best story and/or promote its ideas in the best way possible.) On the other hand, I’m not so convinced that Breaking Bad is unprecedented or that no one will be able to replicate its successes. Once again, I must point out that “replicating its successes” does not mean making another show about an anti-hero/villain protagonist’s rise and fall. I mean that I foresee future shows that will be able to tell an overarching narrative effectively. It won’t come along tomorrow, and there will be plenty of shows that try and fail, but it will happen.
For me personally, Breaking Bad will forever be a story about pride and greed, and how these two sins destroy not just the sinner, but the world around him. It is an utterly fascinating character study about inner demons and our inability to fight against them when they make our lives hell, because they give us just the right amount of (a supposed) heaven. I do fear, though, that many will remember it as “that badass show about an awesome meth-cooking chemist and his annoying wife.”
Greg: My argument was that this specific kind of overarching narrative—one with life and death stakes and a fairly small ensemble (as opposed to the large cast of Game of Thrones and The Wire)—is incredibly hard to do well over the long haul. The Shield did it, but it also (particularly during the early years) had plenty of cases of the week to go along with the serialized story. Breaking Bad didn’t; every episode was devoted to advancing plot, theme, and/or character. Look at the other recent shows that have tried to do what it has done: Homeland had a basically perfect first season, but its second had some issues (albeit not nearly as many as people like to claim), while the once promising Sons of Anarchy has fallen victim to the narrative wheel-spinning that Breaking Bad so consistently avoided. I’m hopeful that FX’s The Americans will be able to sustain the quality of its first season, but we’ll have to wait and see about that.
I totally agree that there are plenty of other kinds of overarching stories that can be told just as effectively. Mad Men is proof of that, as is Game of Thrones. And it’s why I mentioned Rectify. But these shows are all telling stories with different stakes and different scopes than Breaking Bad. That was my point.
Whitney: The most interesting thing about Breaking Bad’s legacy from my perspective is how it will impact, or has already impacted, the business of television. Netflix has obviously already caught on to how much people enjoy binge watching the hell out of awesome shows and certain networks have paid attention to which of their programs will go into syndication well, but I’m curious as to how Breaking Bad’s growth from first season to last will change other networks’ plans as far as keeping certain low rated but critically adored shows on for longer than they might have lasted before. There has been an afterlife market for television for years now, but I think this concrete evidence of Netflix and other streaming services boosting a quality show’s ratings this much in only a few years will make it clear that this afterlife can actually help shows still airing, not just in syndication or half a decade off the air already.
The other thing about Breaking Bad is that one of the great things about it that so many people have discussed is how it was really only one story the whole way through. Obviously show runners like Vince Gilligan don’t come along every day, neither do actors like Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul, nor do directors like Michelle MacLaren or Rian Johnson. But even when the show seemed like it could be going off the rails or losing steam there was no sense that AMC stepped in to preserve its cash cow and greatly altered the structure of the show or any decisions that were made. Obviously they made the choice to split the final season into two halves and there were ongoing budget conversations that had to happen, as they do on any show. But there’s a chance that networks may begin to realize that in order to survive in this new landscape it is better to let some things go without being excessively micromanaging and they might be better off in the end. Again, like I said you have to have great talent involved with the process and you have to be confident enough to trust that talent but I hope Breaking Bad went at least a little ways towards allowing shows in the future to be given some increased level of creative leeway if the situation calls for it.
Cory: This is less about the show itself and more about a particular character, but I really hope that history is more kind to Skyler than a big chunk of the audience has been over the six-year run. Anna Gunn has been great throughout and straight-up tremendous over the last few seasons. That Emmy win a few weeks back was so well-deserved and she’s primed to win again come next fall. Although Skyler wasn’t a big part of the final episode, the scene between she and Walt was so powerful. I don’t recall another actress who could pull off the kind of broken down yet despondent affectation that Gunn brought to Skyler. The Internet is always an ugly place, but especially so when it comes to women in popular media. Gunn shouldn’t have had to write an editorial in a global publication to get people to understand her character. So when people bring up Cranston or Paul or Esposito in the conversation about all-time great dramatic performances, I really, really hope Gunn appears in that conversation as well.
Kerensa: At the Q&A post the finale screening, Jonathan Banks (Mike) mentioned that he felt that Breaking Bad became literary in its execution, that it became like a great American novel that you couldn’t put down. And I agree with him and I think that’s what part of the Breaking Bad legacy will be—Gilligan and co. raised television to a completely new level.
While shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men (so many dudes 😦 ) have paved the way for excellent television and criticism, I think that Breaking Bad can be seen as operating on an almost literary scale. I think that it can be an example for the haters (are they still out there even) who say that television/pop culture isn’t worthy of critical study, a historical relic from a depressing economic time period and operates like a great American novel. Breaking Bad contains all those elements. And I think since it does, it really could change the way television is consumed and studied. I’d totally take Breaking Bad in an American Literature Survey course. Another hope is that the next truly great television show post-Breaking Bad is about a woman. Guys, I love your work, but it’s time for some other types of stories.