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.