Series Finale: Breaking Bad – “Felina”

BreakingBadTitle“Felina”

September 29th, 2013

A series finale is different from any other episode of a television show; the biggest test for a series finale is whether or not it feels different from any other episode of that television show.

Breaking Bad has been an often messy show, driven by complex moral agency and characters who seem simultaneously the architect and the victim of chaos. It was a series that continued to grow in scale but largely followed the same principles of tight characterization and almost claustrophobic connections with those characters. In the show’s third season, it delineated between “half measures” and “full measures,” and the series was ultimately a narrative driven by the former: while some were explosive and others were tragic, there was never a moment when one could say that Breaking Bad had solved or even dramatically mitigated its central conflict.

It was this quality that gave the series its momentum, and enabled it to grow an audience of devotees from a series that many people—myself included—had not given much of a chance in its early seasons. It was also this quality that by the very nature of a series finale was forced to change in “Felina,” a clean end to a messy show that very purposefully limits its capacity to embody the series it brings to a conclusion.

Walt is methodical in his return to New Mexico, laying the groundwork for his childrens’ future in a bit of theater that fully embodied his love of Heisenberg as a character. Gilligan spends much of “Felina” playing into things we might have expected based on the conclusion to last week’s penultimate episode, and based on the various flashforwards we’ve seen throughout the season. It starts with the belief that Walt may have intended to harm Gretchen and Elliot, and his performance is convincing given his talk of hiring hit men to go after Jack before he was shipped to New Hampshire; of course, we quickly learn he intends to use them as a way to launder money to his family, and we subsequently learn the hit men are just Badger and Skinny Pete in the desert with laser pointers.

It’s the beginning of an episode that I would argue feels like theater, a show put on for the purpose of making key points about who Walter White was, and what Breaking Bad was about. The points it makes about Walt and the argument it mounts about the show are resonant, clear in their desire to make this a story about a man who had come to terms with the fact that he was not the hero he made himself out to be, but that whatever he became was not devoid of love for his family or empathy for his partner. Walt’s attack on Jack and Todd’s compound isn’t an attempt to save Jesse, or an attempt to shut down a meth operation; it’s an effort to gain closure, to put to an end both his life and his life’s work.

“Felina” works too hard to create closure, but it never pretends it doesn’t. It owns its theatricality by almost indulging in its desire to make a statement rather than to be as messy as the show could be at its best. Many had speculated the ricin may end up in Lydia’s Stevia packet, but Gilligan never bothers to suggest it wouldn’t: the camera lingers on the single Stevia packet early in the scene, and zooms in on it once Lydia poors it into her chamomile. Recent episodes had established Walt would be using the machine gun he purchased at the beginning of the season, but the sequence of Walt building his garage door contraption eliminated any and all uncertainty over how. We know every element of Walt’s plan before he enters that compound, removing one element of suspense and shifting focus to whether or not Walt’s plan will unfold as he intended.

That never felt particularly suspenseful in an episode designed from the beginning to offer closure. From the beginning of the episode it was easy to see how Walt’s ignorance about Jesse’s imprisonment would activate his empathy, changing his mission from revenge to rescue midstream. It was also clear throughout the back half of the season that Todd’s family would become a symbol of the corruptive forces he allowed into his life, and that exorcizing those demons was equivalent to Walt making peace with his failures. While I would have thought going into the finale that it was possible these outcomes would not come to pass should Walt’s return to New Mexico not go smoothly, the opening scene of “Felina” sets the tone for the episode to follow: unable to use a screwdriver to hotwire the Volvo he drives back to New Mexico with the police patrolling around him, Walt flips down the visor and we watch as the keys fall into his lap. This is not going to be the trip that denies Walter White closure; this is going to be the trip that puts a period on a series that has chosen the comma at every turn.

That choice means “Felina” feels like a series of carefully designed moments designed to say something important about Breaking Bad as a television show. Those points are stylistically compelling, beautifully acted, and often enormously cathartic: there is undeniable meaning in Walt shooting Jack before the man can even attempt to bargain for his life with Walt’s remaining money, and watching Jesse choke Todd to death captures the series’ capacity to make us cheer for things that we would never normally cheer for. It is fitting that Walt and Jesse share the former’s final moments together, and meaningful that Jesse refuses to indulge in killing Walt but rather let’s the gunshot wound do the work for him.

However much all of this resonates, however, it’s too clean by half. When Walt started walking toward the meth lab, I exasperatedly shouted “Oh jeez, he’s going to finish the cook.” I will gladly acknowledge that Walt’s end is poetic, as he dies contaminating the lab he once tried so hard to keep pure and clean when it was always the byproduct of a messy situation he could never truly wipe his hands of. I will also gladly acknowledge that I didn’t feel the emotion of the scene because I was too busy finding it all too convenient, too pure a commentary on the series and Walter White as a character. Much as the ongoing building to the plane crash at the end of the second season ended up feeling like something that lived outside of the narrative, Walter’s final moments in the meth lab after getting his vengeance on the symbols of his mistakes and setting Jesse and his family free seemed like the culmination of a season designed to reach this very specific, very carefully executed conclusion.

The cleanness of “Felina” is frustrating, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a failure. It never attempts to erase the messiness of previous seasons, content in a conclusion that acknowledges the inability for someone like Flynn or Skyler to fully embrace Walt after what he did and which resists laying out clear, unencumbered paths for their happiness. Although Walt creates the conditions for his family to be secure financially, legally, and physically following his death, that does not mean that their lives will be happy ones, nor does it suggest that every part of Walt’s plan will unfold simply as the years pass. As free as Jesse felt as he drove away from that compound, his life remains complicated, and this was not a “happy ending” so much as a new sort of uncertainty. Marie may get the closure of burying her husband’s body, but she’ll never know exactly why he had to die, and there’s no doubting how much emotional and psychological damage she and other characters have been left with.

“Felina” is Vince Gilligan and his writing staff giving Walter White the gift of closure. Every plan works perfectly, every scene feels meaningful and resonant, and his death feels absolutely right in a way that lets him die in peace. It is a gift that I’m not certain Walt deserved, and which at times felt wrapped too nearly, but it works because it never feels like the gift belongs to anyone else. Walt leaves behind more than a trust fund, and there’s no symbols or catharsis capable of erasing the long-term impact of his actions on those around him. When he dies, Walter White firmly believes that he can rest in peace knowing that he had done everything possible to rescue his life from the direct results of his own selfish actions; I am less sure that Walter White can rest peacefully, a reading that I do not believe the finale argues against so much as it once again forces that reading into the series’ ambiguous morality.

I saw at least a few tweets that implied Vince Gilligan learned something from David Chase’s conclusion to The Sopranos, in that he offered a definitive end to his narrative as opposed to the uncertainty of The Sopranos‘ fade to black. However, I would resist the definitiveness of this conclusion, as it ends Walter White’s story without ending the larger interests and purposes of Breaking Bad as a series. I accept “Felina” as a compelling, often riveting statement from the series as it ends its story, but I reject it as a clean break from the issues and values the series explored over five seasons.

It is easy to accept something so poetic and resonant and see it as the definitive meaning of the episodes that preceded it, but Breaking Bad has never been about easy. “Felina” felt too clean at first blush, but it is my hope that as we—inevitably—debate and argue and engage with the episode, we’ll see that the acceptance and rejection of this empathic statement is in fact the true embodiment of the messy, often brilliant run-on sentence of a television series Breaking Bad was.

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25 Comments

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25 responses to “Series Finale: Breaking Bad – “Felina”

  1. junierizzle

    The finale was executed too perfectly? That’s why you didn’t like it so much? This show has never been about good or bad or what drives men to do terrible things. It was about a guy with Cancer that decided to cook meth to leave money for his family. The acting and plot twists made this show entertaining as hell. Nothing more nothing less. Why does something have to have a deep meaning in order for it to be considered great?

    • James

      Yeah I agree with you junier, this doesn’t make sense. Too perfect? Ridiculous, I’m all for people having issues, but this is terrible reasoning.

    • “Perfect” is such a strange word for something, though. Perfect for whom? What’s perfect for Walt—the only time I invoke that word—is not perfect for the show, at least as far as I’m concerned.

      Now, what you’re getting at is the fact that it ended perfectly for you. And that’s great! I found myself more ambivalent about the choices made, in part because I believe the series’ engagement with morality makes it far more than about acting and plot twists. That we disagree on this does not make one of us right or wrong, or the series perfect or flawed; it just means we read it differently.

      • Exactly, even if we disagree on the statement of “too clean an ending”, I want to consider your viewpoint and what you have to say because it adds depth and helps me discover things that I may not have noticed otherwise

        For example, Matt Seitz’s review mentions Walter’s ghostly appearance and how the show depicted him as “materializing” within a scene. I felt something like that while watching, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. The review helped me to understand that, and open up new ways of thinking just like this review did

        That’s what made this show great – it’s ability to satisfy and create different thoughts and emotional states.

  2. Scott Drew

    I think it was perfect for the show, story-wise, in my opinion, because it’s always been more about the personal story of the character, Walt rather than about making a message about morality. That was very much secondary.

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  4. reba

    You do not have a clue as to what perfect is. Your flabby review proves it. You are, in your own mind, too clever by half. Your career as a critic is one half measure short of a half measure. Get a real job. One you can do.

    • You’re awesome. I think everyone felt the same way as you after reading this.

      • jamespope101

        I think it’s clear from the other comments that’s not true, but I certainly agreed with Myles on most points! Everything was a little too neat, but as Myles says, this was clearly intentional what with foreshadowing the ricin and the (unbelievably impressive) machine gun rig, as well as poetically nice resolutions, such as Walt shooting Jack mid-sentence the same way Jack did to Hank. In fact my favourite scenes of the episode were with Elliot and Gretchen, mostly because it did not go the way I was dreading and I was surprised by Walt’s use of cunning over bare rage for the two. I was also disappointed in Jesse’s ending; killing Todd was a cathartic moment, but after the hell he’s been through in the whole series, I wanted to see more than him (hopefully) escaping hell and actually see him enjoying it. Then again, this was always Walt’s story.

        A great finale nonetheless, and I can’t really see it altering the show’s legacy for better (like Six Feet Under and The Shield) or worse (like The Sopranos and Lost). Though this is the internet, so I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong.

  5. Sam

    That finale was extremely satisfying. So happy. Brilliant!

  6. Of course the last remaining piece of a jigsaw puzzle is going to fit perfectly into place and complete the picture.

  7. Shayne V

    This is exactly how I felt about the finale. There was just something about it that was off to me and this really clarified what it was. Everything fit too perfectly. To me, I think everything went too right for Walt when it shouldn’t have. I was expecting a far more depressing ending.

  8. I did feel like this final season (especially the last 8) was quite a bit more mechanical than the rest of the series. Things like the phone call from Hank to Marie and the many, many lingering references to Lydia’s chamomile and stevia felt like they would have been red herrings that were cleverly subverted by this show in earlier seasons, but instead were left to play out exactly as one would expect on any other, lesser drama.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, that this felt more theatrical than much of the rest of the series, the hands of the writers moving the chess pieces around the board were more visible than they had been in previous years. That might be impossible to avoid to some extent, if you want any kind of definitive ending for the series without any inexplicable deus ex machina type events coming into play.

    This show has always prided itself on backing it’s characters into seemingly inescapable corners, only to have them cut some crazy hole in the wall to escape, so it felt a bit out of character for the show to have such a straight point A to point B to point C arc for it’s final run.

  9. Joseph Kay

    wonderful post, Myles. yes the events in felina came off flawlessly for WW but, in the world of BB, what appears flawless at ground zero is ultimately revealed to be full of holes. the murder of fring, the magnet, the prison murders — all perfectly executed, each brought with them unintended consequences.

    but this time WW gets to die at ground zero, gets one moment to bask in his perfection, then dies — as you point out — in a meth lab contaminated by his own blood — a symbol for all the destruction the man has wrought.

    your point completely holds — the ending itself is such a pristine, almost un-natural tableau — but for me at least, it worked. everybody in the world of the show, except WW, will wake up tomorrow with their lives ruined forever. yet the egomaniac (partly evil, still human) goes out with an illusion of perfection, clutching (per Vince) his precious.

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  11. I think it may be overreaching to say that the conclusion was clear cut and perfect, on Walt’s terms. Let’s look at some of the realities here:

    -He won’t be remembered in any positive way by anyone.

    -His family will never know the financial contribution to be his.

    -He did not get a proper goodbye with Flynn (in a beautiful and tragic moment when he had to walk away without a confrontation)

    -He didn’t get shot by Jesse, which would have been his own ideally justified way of going out.

    So I would say it wasn’t a shabby way to go considering his situation, but to call it clean cut doesn’t properly address the pain and sadness that undercuts his “wins” in this episode.

  12. I think some of my favorite moments were of Walt watching Flynn come back home from school. There was something really haunting about it, especially the way Walt is watching behind a sort of dilapidated laundry room.

    Leaving aside the scene as a way for Walt to see his son one last time, to me it says something about who Walt really was, a man who is a father but whose true heart belongs to his ambition and mind. Walt being a teacher and not achieving much to me is like poison to Walt’s true identity. By being a regular person, he shuts off the real person inside of him who has an extreme need for achievement.

  13. rob

    I’m glad you got the key thing too.

    It seems to me that initial scene is the heart of the entire episode. Every time Walter White tries to do something grand it falls apart but he scrambles and partly lucks his way into victory. He never acknowledges this, he sees himself as Heisenberg, builder of empires but this time, the universe or divine judge lets him set things right.

  14. Scott Ellington

    I think the popular belief that Walter White dies at the end of Felina is a pile of wishful thinking.

    “Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
    A deep burning pain in my side.
    Though I am trying
    To stay in the saddle,
    I’m getting weary,
    Unable to ride….
    …One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.”

    Mary Robbins’ classic song ends with an immensely-satisfying irresolute ellipsis that’s tantalizingly missing from Felina. I think we’re explicitly invited to make the comparison, feel the difference, and wonder why. And wait.

    • So you’re thinking Blood Transfusion, Walt doesn’t die, he goes to jail and then he has to Break Bad/out of jail? We can call the next season Prison Break(ing Bad)

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  19. I’ve heard someone mention that Breaking Bad is showing how Terroristic White people are in society. The fact that his name is Mr. White. It’s definitely good to study this show and talk to other people about Racism (White Supremacy) in our media.

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