I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
—"Ozymandias," by Percy Bysshe Shelley
And so we have reached the end. But endings are tricky things, aren't they? Bittersweet, necessarily tentative, and overburdened with expectations, an ending is as likely to frustrate as it is to satisfy.
We ask a lot of endings. We want them to honor everything that has come before, and to somehow make us feel okay about the fact that there is nothing more to come. We want a sense of completion—the feeling that we have heard as much of the tale as there is to hear—but if we love the story we also want it to end in a way that allows it to play on in our imaginations behind the drawing of the curtain.
Most of all, I think, we want meaning: we crave the existential edification of order, the moral reassurance of justice, the narrative comfort of knowing that everything happened for a reason and that everyone got exactly what they deserved.
David Milch, the creator of Deadwood—and, for my money, as fine and thoughtful an artist as any who ever worked in television—has never yet gotten to write a proper ending to one of his series (all of which were cancelled prematurely). In a documentary feature on the final Deadwood DVD set, he philosophized on "The Meaning of Endings," and the craving for order in a medium that is, by its nature, and like life itself, unwieldy and unpredictable:
"Everyone tries to allegorize experience so we think we're tending toward some ultimate destination, but that really is a lie. I mean, that's a lie agreed upon. The truth is, all we get is a day at a time. And, more than that, as an artist in this medium, you have to assume that every episode in some way or another is the end of things, and that the audience gets a sense of an ending, and then the miracle is that life goes on. Well, and then one day, the miracles stop. The biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing, a conclusion of something which never concludes."
I thought of Milch's words after I had watched "Felina," the final episode of Vince Gilligan's extraordinary series Breaking Bad. As television finales go—and they are a notoriously flawed collection—Gilligan's conclusion is as deliberate and well-constructed as any I can think of. The evolution of the television medium in recent years has let creators like Gilligan and Mad Men's Matthew Weiner construct their series as true, long-form narratives: they have been allowed to let their stories unfold, and bring them to natural conclusions, largely free from the risk of having to slap a makeshift ending on a suddenly cancelled show, or the demands of a network to milk "just one more season" out of a money-making hit. Breaking Bad was not cancelled prematurely, nor did it overstay its welcome: it went out on top, and by its own terms, and Vince Gilligan told the story he wanted to tell. That freedom to allow the work to end in accordance with its own organic unity shows in these final eight episodes: few shows have managed to end as logically, and definitively, as this one did.
At the same time, however, I found myself somehow unsatisfied. I myself have "allegorized" Breaking Bad, and my long, analytical journey through the series—which, by the end of this post will have taken eight months and more than 50,000 words—has largely been a search for meaning. I've seen the long, strange story of Walter White as a cautionary tale, a critical commentary about monstrosity masked as male empowerment in our society. I've seen the show itself as a critique of its own genre, an entertaining deconstruction of a medium that finds destructiveness so endlessly entertaining. From very early on in this process, I decided that Walter White was neither hero nor anti-hero, but a villain: he was not a figure to be emulated, admired, or pitied, but one who must be judged, and despised, and eventually—most importantly—punished.
Somewhere in all of this, I suppose, I had unconsciously been constructing my own ending to Breaking Bad, an anticipated light at the end of the pitch black tunnel, a meaningful and coherent inevitability that the series would arrive at after so much chaos. I do not know that I could have articulated what would have happened in my hypothetical perfect ending, but I know how it would have felt. It would have felt like a reckoning. It would have felt like the wrath of a narrative god coming down on Walter White's head, and mercilessly peeling away his pathetic delusions about his motives and all his illusions about himself. It would have felt like a brutal and pitiless excision from the world of the cancer that Walter White became when he himself was diagnosed with cancer, and a reordering of the miserable moral universe of the series into something that felt, at last, like justice, like meaning, like grace.
That's a lot to ask, I know. Few stories can deliver that perfect an ending, and the more we care about the story the less likely we are to be satisfied with its ending. Disappointment is inevitable, anticlimax almost unavoidable. The richer and more complex and more engaging the work, the less likely it is that everything possible can be said, that every thread can neatly be tied off, that every theme can be resolved, or that every storyline will feel like it ended the only way it could possibly have gone.
The end of Breaking Bad did not—would not, could not—provide the narrative perfection, or the thematic integrity, or the emotional catharsis that I had wanted.
But—credit where it's due—it came pretty goddamned close.
BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION TWELVE
Binge Watch Period: March 9-10, 2015
Episodes Watched: Season 5, Episodes 9–16 ("Blood Money," "Buried," "Confessions," "Rabid Dog," "To'Hajiilee," "Ozymandias," "Granite State," and "Felina")
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Bittersweet. Endings are always bittersweet.
Since this is my last post on Breaking Bad, I want to approach it a little differently. I'm going to do less recapping and reviewing than I usually do, and proceeding even in the vaguely chronological order of my previous posts doesn't feel quite right either. Rather, I think we'll be best served by taking the major characters in turn, and seeing where, and how, they end up at conclusion of this story.
Strap in, folks: this might take a while.
"My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself." — Hank
Back in Season Three, I lamented that IMDB had inadvertently spoiled me about the miraculous longevity of our major characters, all of whom were listed as being in all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. So it was something of a surprise to see Hank Schrader die two episodes early, in the stunning hour of television that is "Ozymandias."
I say something of a surprise, because, really, how surprising can it be? Doom has been circling everyone in Walter White's orbit for five seasons, and Hank has been the odds-on favorite to fall since the very beginning. It is improbable to the point of incredulity that he made it this far, that any of Walt's business partners wouldn't have made it a top priority to remove the DEA-agent brother-in-law from the equation. If anything in Breaking Bad was inevitable, it was probably that all roads for Agent Schrader led to a shallow anonymous grave in the New Mexico desert.
But Hank has been essential to this story—the Ahab in obsessive search for the white whale of Heisenberg—and Dean Norris has been this show's secret weapon, delivering an emotionally complex performance as a character who is not particularly comfortable with emotion. I've long argued that Breaking Bad is a critique of traditional notions of American masculinity, and Norris's Hank managed to embody those notions without ever degenerating into a cartoon. Surprisingly intelligent beneath his brutish exterior, and a genuinely caring husband and family man within a limited range of expressible emotion, Hank was never a parody of American machismo: he was the actual thing.
In most other series, in fact, Hank would have been the protagonist. The tough, funny, lovable cop who never says quit and doesn't always play by the book, Hank is the quintessential American action hero who should stand triumphant in the end and restore order to society. (Certainly, in the fantasy narrative that plays out in his own mind, that's how the script is supposed to go.) In Breaking Bad, however—a show that deconstructs, critiques, and ultimate rejects such romanticized, pop-culture notions of masculinity—Hank was the antagonist, and ultimately doomed to failure. He certainly couldn't "win"—the notion of winning and losing itself comes under critique, I think, in how both he and Walt often treat their life-and-death activities as a game—and ultimately he couldn't even survive.
Hank—though deeply flawed—is clearly a better man than his brother-in-law, but he is the other side of Walt's coin, a lighter reflection of Walt's darkness. They are both overgrown boys who have both chosen to play a live-action, self-aggrandizing game of cops of robbers, and they both ultimately put that romanticized game ahead of their own families. (There's a lovely commentary on how similar they are in Walt's contingency plan: a DVD "confession" that frames Hank as the master criminal. It's a surprisingly plausible retelling of the entire series with Hank cast as the villain.) We also see, throughout these episodes, that—though Hank is on the side of good, and Walt the side of evil—they share a certain ruthless practicality, and a willingness to use and risk the lives of the people around them. (Jesse goes from being Walt's pawn to being Hank's: Hank pretends he cares about Jesse, just as Walt has done, but really he doesn't mind if Jesse lives or dies as long as he gets what he wants. When his partner asks Hank what happens if they're sending Jesse into a trap, Hank is utterly unconcerned. "Oh, you mean the junkie murderer?" he replies. "Pinkman gets killed, and we get it all on tape.")
Throughout Breaking Bad I've noted the number of opportunities Walt had to humble himself and choose a safer course of action, and how he rejected it every time. Here, it is interesting to note that Hank does the same thing: in realizing that his own brother-in-law is the master criminal he's been chasing, he's stricken less by emotion or a sense of betrayal than he is by the wound to his professional pride: he was standing right next to the criminal, and he didn't see it. Marie begs him to go to the DEA with everything he knows, but Hank can't do that: he is too embarrassed. "The day I go in with this is the last day of my career," he tells his wife, his voice breaking. "It's over for me."
Marie tries to tell him that he doesn't have to be "Lone Wolf McQuade," referencing a cheesy Chuck Norris action hero from the '80s. But that's more or less exactly how Hank thinks of himself, and that's the reason he can't take the safer course of turning his evidence over to the DEA and rolling out an entire task force against Walt. "I can be the man who caught him, at least," he says to his wife. It's a very macho, pop-culture, action-hero attitude—This time it's personal!—and in the end it's what gets him killed. (The opening sequence of "Ozymandias"—ending with Hank's murder—is a brilliant rebuttal to all those action-movie scenes where the hero seems on the verge of death, but makes yet another unlikely, last-minute escape. There can be no miraculous reprieve this time. "Sorry, man," Jack says. "There is just no scenario in which this guy lives.")
Hank dies utterly and completely himself, unwilling (or unable) to surrender his macho pride for a moment, even in the moment of his death. It's a strangely admirable and touching moment, but, in the whole, it's also a devastating critique of the crippling limitations of Hank's action-hero ethos. The same pride, the same self-aggrandizement, the same outdated notions of what it means to "be a man" drives Hank as well as Walt, and it leads them both to their deaths and the deaths of people they care about.
"I can't remember the last time I was happy." — Skyler White
Throughout my entire binge-watch, I've been trying to figure out what to make of Skyler White, and hoping that something would make the character cohere for me before the end of the series. Now that we've reached that end, however, I'm just going to say it: Skyler is, without a doubt, the weakest character on Breaking Bad.
This isn't Anna Gunn's fault, by any means: Gunn has consistently, reliably, and thanklessly embodied every one of Skyler's mercurial mood changes, and there were even moments when it felt as though she had almost succeeded in piecing them together into an integral arc. No, the problem with Skyler is all Vince Gilligan's: in this show that is largely about masculinity, Gilligan never imbued his lead female character with anything resembling autonomous life.
Even after sixty-two episodes, Skyler barely registers for me as a character at all: there's just no there there. She strikes me as a long series of inconsistent reactions assembled into vaguely human form, called upon to serve—as the situation required—as either a prop or a foil for the man in her life. We could discuss Walter White's character and arc without making more than a passing reference to Skyler, but we can barely discuss Skyler at all except in the context of her husband. (I'd argue the same is true for most of the female characters on the show, all of whom tend to be underwritten and lacking in narrative agency. Laura Fraser's Lydia was a late, and not entirely successful, attempt to create a woman in this story who wasn't defined by her relationship to a man. But, for me, the most successful female character—mostly thanks to the actress—is probably Betsy Brandt's Marie. Marie feels like a real person in a way none of the other women of Breaking Bad quite do for me.)
The back half of Season Five just underlines the weaknesses in Skyler's character. For the first eight episodes of the final season, we witnessed her near disintegration, resulting logically from her absolute terror of her husband and for her children. The last eight episodes, however, open with everything mysteriously hunky-dory between the Whites. Could Skyler really forget so easily the many glimpses of the monster she's married to? Could she really accept so easily that he is out of the game, and go on laundering tens of millions of dollars without sparing another moment's thought to the morality of their actions and the lingering danger to her family? I just don't buy it: it is inconsistent with both the strength and the weakness she has shown in the past, and none of it quite makes sense. It only makes sense as a necessity of plotting: Gilligan needs the Whites happy in the first few episodes of this batch, so he can blow it all up in "Ozymandias."
Thinking of Skyler as a plot device and prop, more than as a character, is disappointing but almost necessary: if I think of her as a character, I find myself truly hating her nearly as much as I hate Walt himself. Marie's finest moment in these episodes comes when she confronts her sister, and slaps her, and accuses her of carelessly and selfishly risking all their lives, and tries to take her children away from her. All of these seem like perfectly reasonable responses, and a long-overdue reckoning for Skyler.
Am I being too hard on the character? I honestly can't decide. Certainly, in the first half of the season, her actions at least made a sort of sense: she was essentially an abused wife, living in fear of her husband and desperately trying to keep her children safe. But now she's moved past that—somehow—and when Hank tries to grant her the abused wife/Stockholm Syndrome defense, she rejects that interpretation out of hand. "You're done being his victim," Hank tells her, but she won't have that: "Hank, am I under arrest?" she responds, as if insisting on her own culpability.
And, of course, she is culpable. It was early in Season Three that Skyler learned the full truth of Walt's business dealings, and—though she tried to pull away at first—it wasn't long after that she began enabling him with her money-laundering services. She has never known all of Walt's crimes—I don't think she ever knew about Jane or Brock, for example—but she knew enough. She knew about Gus. She had to know, in retrospect, that Walt was ultimately responsible for Hank's (first) shooting, which nearly killed him. And she knew, after all, that he was a meth dealer, the morality of which is something that has never been really discussed. And throughout it all, she never really did more than feint at leaving him, at taking her children away from him; she never did the right thing. (It's worth mentioning, too, that Skyler crosses a line in these episodes: she isn't just tolerating Walt's crimes, she is now actively encouraging them, practically ordering him in "Rabid Dog" to murder Jesse Pinkman.)
For me, the key "Skyler moment" in this final half-season is one that Skyler isn't even in: it's a scene that uses Lydia as a Skyler-proxy. After Lydia has enlisted Todd and Jack and the other neo-Nazis to slaughter her under-producing former partners, Lydia can't bear to look at the bodies. "I don't want to see," Lydia says, pathetically, and so Todd has her close her eyes, and leads her blindly out, tiptoeing gingerly through the wholesale destruction she has wrought.
This scene, I think, is really about Skyler, and her refusal to look too closely at the reality of her husband's actions. It's a scene that comes in the same episode as—in fact, it immediately follows—the scene in which Walt and Skyler discuss their options now that Hank is onto them. Walt offers to turn himself in if Skyler can figure out how to keep the money, but she talks him out of it. "You can't give yourself up without giving up the money," Skyler says. "So maybe our best move here is to keep quiet."
That, right there, was it: the last opportunity—in a long series of opportunities—in which Skyler could have done the right thing, and accepted the consequences, and protected her family from the impending nightmare of "Ozymandias." But Skyler, like Lydia, doesn't want to see; she has closed her eyes, and stuck her head in the sand, and chosen to believe that they can somehow live a normal life free from the consequences of their actions.
"Ozymandias" is the real series finale of Breaking Bad: if the show had somehow ended there, I would have no reservations at all about the way Vince Gilligan concluded his story, because it is the logical culmination of everything that has come before. It does nearly everything that I wanted from a Breaking Bad finale: it strips away all the illusions and delusions that have powered this entire tale, and drags everyone into the harsh light of reality. I said I wanted a reckoning, and "Ozymandias" is that reckoning.
"There is just no scenario in which this guy lives," Jack had said of Hank, and that line typifies how the chickens have come home to roost for everyone in "Ozymandias." There never was any scenario in which all of this didn't lead to death and destruction and the obliteration of the White Family Unit: it is only surprising that it took this long, and that it didn't claim even more lives. Walter White has done so many truly unforgivable things, but the death of Hank is the one from which there is absolutely no recovery: his bullshit lies about doing everything "for the family" has led to the death of a family member, and to his wife and child cowering on the floor before him, and to his own kidnapping of his infant daughter.
I'll discuss this more below when I talk about Walt himself, but, as far as Skyler goes, I'd argue that she gets off easy. The scenes with Walt, Jr. are remarkable for how clear-cut everything seems to him: after all the lies about protecting the family—one of Skyler's excuses for keeping Walt's secret was to protect Junior's image of his father—Junior sees everything exactly as it is. "Why would you go along?" he asks her, when he finds out about Walt's activities. "If all this is true, and you knew about it, then you're as bad as him," he accuses her, and he's right. She is as bad as Walt, and her last-minute decision to pull a knife on her husband and order him out of the house comes at least two seasons too late to mean anything. It is notable that Junior knows instantly what to do: call the cops and report his father. He doesn't hesitate, he doesn't deceive himself, he doesn't choose to be blind to the reality of the situation. Unlike either of his parents, he has a clear-cut moral core, and his actions stand in stark contrast to his mother's. Skyler should have done this months ago, and—if she had—Hank (and a lot of other people) might still be alive.
The final scene between Walt and Skyler in "Ozymandias"—and I wish it had been their final conversation in the series—is a stunningly complex piece of work. Walt calls Skyler, knowing full-well that the police will be listening in, and he viciously berates her. There are at least three levels operating here, and all of them have emotional truth behind them. First, obviously, he is trying to let her off the hook: he takes ownership of everything that has happened, and makes the police think that Skyler really knew nothing, and that he forced her—through threats and intimidation—to go along with it. There is truth to this, and a certain—if belated—nobility.
But I would also argue that his anger and hostility towards her is not entirely feigned. "I built this," he says. "Me, me alone. Nobody else." That is how he feels about his empire, how he has always felt, how he has always wanted to be seen. And the contemptuous resentment he expresses here—"You never believed in me, you were never grateful for anything I did for this family"—is also genuine: it's how he has always treated her, and thought of her. That is Heisenberg talking, and it's not an act.
Finally, this tirade—whether it's intended that way or not—is an accusation, a litany of her own moral failings. Walt pretends that she has tried to stop him. "Oh, no, Walt, you have to stop…It's immoral, it's illegal, someone might get hurt…" he mocks. Even as she realizes what he is trying to do for her, you can see the guilt register on Skyler's face—in a fantastic performance from Gunn—that she never really said these words to him, never looked closely enough at the ramifications of his actions, never tried hard enough to prevent the nightmare that has now happened, that was happening all along.
It feels churlish to spend much of my last review discussing what didn't work for me about Breaking Bad, but—even as I celebrate what an extraordinary experience this series has been—this is also my last opportunity to explain why Breaking Bad has not quite broken into my personal pantheon of The Greatest TV Shows of All Time. (It might make my hypothetical Top 20: it's not going into the Top 10.) The character of Skyler is a big part of that, along with the larger issue she represents about the overall treatment of women on this show.
The biggest problem, however, and the thing I think is a fundamental flaw in the very construction of the show, is this: I never, for a moment, cared about Walt and Skyler's marriage. I never really believed in it, I never thought they seemed genuinely in love or happy together, I never saw it as an authentic relationship between two genuine human beings. There was always a curious distance and falseness about their marriage, a sense of two people playing house instead of two real people living in an actual marriage.
One could argue, of course, that this was part of the point—the extent to which Walt was ever a real human being is certainly open to debate—but too much of Breaking Bad is constructed around the stakes of the White marriage. Walt's claim to be doing everything for his wife and children was always an illusion, but it was an illusion we were supposed to invest in, and we were supposed to worry about the day when this lie would blow up in their faces. Walt and Skyler's relationship just never seemed like a substantial enough thing to bear the weight of everything Vince Gilligan placed on its back, and I'm not sure that the emotional arc of the series would have been substantially different if Skyler had been written out around Season Three. It's not a fatal flaw, but if this had really been the story of a great love affair threatened by man's love affair with himself, I think Breaking Bad would have achieved a depth and richness that it ended up lacking for me.
"Just tell me you don't give a shit about me." — Jesse Pinkman
Of course, the show was never really about the relationship between Walt and Skyler, was it? If the show was ever about a love affair, it was about the one between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman.
I had an interesting thought while I was watching these episodes. Walt has $80 million buried in the desert. Jesse has had ridiculous amounts of money himself, and begins this final half-season with a cool $5 million in cash. And yet nobody—not Walt, not Skyler, not Jesse—has ever really spent any of that money, let alone enjoyed it.
Sure, Walt bought a couple of cars, and Skyler bought a car wash and paid some medical bills, and Jesse threw a bitchin' party that seemed to rage on for weeks, but nobody's lifestyle ever really improved. This is not a show about the temptation of "the good life," the lure of easy money and the need for materialistic things. Skyler's complicity, for example, might be easier to understand if she grew accustomed to a certain way of life for her family they could otherwise not afford, but that is not what happens. In fact, she and Walt seem to work as hard at the car wash as they ever did in their previous jobs, and their standard of living remains more or less exactly what it was.
And even before Jesse started driving around Albuquerque, guiltily throwing his "blood money" out the window, his own sad apartment—with a high-tech entertainment system that is basically the only furnishings—just underlines how this was never really about the money. Jesse doesn't care about money, and he certainly doesn't care about being rich and powerful.
So what does he care about? The hint came back in Season Three's "Kafkaesque," when Jesse described to his rehab group how, just once in his life, he did something right: he made a wooden box in shop class that was perfect. We get a callback to that scene in "Felina," in a fantasy sequence in which Jesse, looking young and innocent and bathed in light, smiles in pride as he completes a perfect wooden box.
Jesse has been a perpetual fuck-up his entire life, and what he craves most of all is pride: to feel good about himself, to know he is good at something, to know his worth. And—because, as a perpetual fuck-up, he did not quite trust his own judgement—he sought that reinforcement from others. "He was my teacher," Jesse tells Hank in "Rabid Dog," when Hank asks him to start at the beginning. It was a teacher who pushed him to reach his real potential with the wooden box, and we have seen him attempting to prove himself to a series of teachers throughout the series: Walt, most importantly, but also Gus, and Mike. (Note that, after everything Walt and Jesse have been through together, Jesse only rarely—and usually mockingly—calls Walt by his first name: the rest of the time, he remains "Mr. White.")
And those teachers have played on Jesse's longing for self-worth. When Walt has wanted to attack him, he has insulted his expertise. ("You don't give a shit about me," Jesse screamed at Walt, way back in "One Minute," almost crying as he said it. "You said I was no good…You said my meth was inferior.") When Walt has wanted to manipulate him, he has done so by flattering Jesse. ("Being the best at something is a very rare thing," Walt told him recently. "You don't just toss something like that away.") And Gus, too, manipulated Jesse this way, bolstering his sense of pride in himself to get him under control. ("Maybe I'm not such a loser after all," Jesse told Walt, after Gus had engineered opportunities for Jesse to prove his worth.) Throughout the series, Jesse has been used: by Walt, first and foremost, but also by Gus, and by Hank, and by others, all of whom appealed to his pride.
Pride is Walter White's cardinal sin as well, but I think there's a subtle but important distinction to be made here, one that illustrates a fundamental difference between the two men, and one that may explain why there was hope for Jesse and none for Walter. Walt's pride is all directed outward: he has a need to be respected, a need to be feared, a need to be perceived as a brilliant and powerful man. Whether he is pretending to be a good and respectable family man, or whether he is projecting an aura of power and danger, Walt's entire existence is about how he is seen. As long as he has convinced the world he is what he wants to be, he's happy; when he feels the world has underestimated or disrespected him, he's furious.
But we've seen all along that Jesse is different. Jesse didn't need to be famous, or feared, or recognized, or respected. Jesse was more or less content to work anonymously for Gus, while Walt bristled at the indignity. And while Walt can commit a terrible deed and—as long as no one knows about it—feel perfectly content, Jesse is haunted by his crimes, even when no one knows about them. "I accept who I am," he told Walt, shortly after Jane's death. "I'm the bad guy." He was haunted by Gale's murder; he was nearly broken by the death of Drew Sharpe, the boy on the motorbike in "Dead Freight," and horrified that Walt could whistle a jaunty tune as they discussed it. (Again, Walt—whose identity is all about external consequences—could not have cared less.) Jesse will seek external approbation, but his actual struggles—and his actual sense of identity—are internal. He doesn't care as Walt does about how he is seen; he cares, at his core, about what he is.
Perhaps this is just a long-winded way of saying that Jesse is a person, where Walt is not; Jesse has a soul and a conscience, both of which Walt seems almost entirely to lack.
I wish the final few episodes of Breaking Bad had given Jesse more to do, but even so it is thrilling to see him—despite the hell he is living in—come into his own. He knows who he is, and who he wants to be, and—most importantly—who he doesn't want to be. Even before the revelations that put him actively at war with Walt, he has moved beyond the need for Walt's approval, and rejected once and for all everything Walt represents. In "Blood Money," after Jesse tries to give all his cash to the families of Mike and Drew Sharpe, Walt gives him one of his patented speeches attempting to rationalize everything. "Son, you need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past. Look, nothing can change what we've done, but now that's over…There's nothing left for us to do except to try to live ordinary, decent lives." But Jesse—who knows that Walt killed Mike—can barely look at Walt, and is no longer accepting any of his lies and justifications.
Nor can he even pretend Walt has his best interests at heart. Once Hank is trying to get Jesse to turn on Walt, Walt "helpfully" suggests Jesse leave town. "Jesse, will you let me help you?" Walt says, in "Confessions." "I don't like to see you hurting like this. Maybe it's time for a change…Just get out of town, and don't look back." But Jesse is having none of it.
"Would you just, for once, stop working me?…Can you just stop working me for like ten seconds straight? Stop jerking me around?…Just drop the whole concerned dad thing, and tell me the truth. I mean, you're acting like me leaving town is all about me and turning over a new leaf, but really, it's all about you. You need me gone…Just say so. Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don't give a shit about me, and it's either this, or you'll kill me the same way you killed Mike. I mean, isn't that what this is all about?"
Jesse is sobbing during this speech; Walt pulls him in for a hug, and Jesse lets him—but doesn't hug him back. He will leave town—at this point all he wants is to get away—but his eyes are wide open. He sees Walt, and he sees himself. He understands their relationship now, and he won't be manipulated anymore, and nothing Walt says can make him feel better.
And then Jesse realizes that Walt poisoned Brock, and all bets are off. I've been waiting at least three seasons for Jesse to really go to war with Walt, and it was just about worth the wait: Jesse's righteous fury is a joy to behold—"HE CAN'T KEEP GETTING AWAY WITH IT"—and it's made all the better by the discovery that this really is a battle of equals. Jesse works with Hank, but it's not Hank's plan that brings Walt down: Jesse won't be used anymore, and he's done doing what other people say. ("So your plan is to do his plan?" he asks the cops, disgustedly.) Jesse knows Walt, like no one else does. ("Look, you two guys are just guys, okay?" he tells Hank and Gomez. "Mr. White, he's the devil. He is smarter than you, he is luckier than you…") Jesse begins thinking for himself, making his own decisions for perhaps the first time in the series, and it works. ("That kid is not as dumb as you think," Saul cautions Walt.) It's his plan that finally leads them to Walt's money, and to getting the famous Heisenberg—however briefly—in handcuffs. He outsmarted the teacher.
I said a while back that, while Jesse's only chance for salvation lay in getting away from Walt, Jesse himself probably represented the only hope for Walt's fading humanity. Jesse was the only person with whom Walt had a real relationship: he was the only one who really knew him, the only person with whom he could share this extraordinary journey he's been on. The question of why these two men stuck together as long as they did is a complex one, but I'd suggest this is one answer: that Walt needed Jesse to keep him human, even when he was Heisenberg. Walt could convince himself that he cared for the boy, that he was taking care of him, that he was not such a bad guy, even when he was doing bad things. To the extent that Walt still thinks of himself as a teacher, as a family man, as a father, he needed Jesse to let him play those roles even in the criminal context. Jesse was his surrogate son, the one sliver of humanity Walt never quite let go of.
Until now. Walt has decided to have Jesse killed even before their confrontation in "Ozymandias," but this—while unforgivable—was a reluctant, practical act, devoid of anger. ("Jesse is like family to me," he told Jack. "I want what you do to be quick, and painless. No suffering, no fear.") But now, at the site of their very first cook together, after Hank's death, that sliver of humanity has been obliterated. He begged for Hank's life, but he doesn't beg for Jesse's: in fact, he goes out of his way to try to get Jesse killed, pointing out his hiding place and demanding that Jack fulfill their contract. It is anger at Jesse's "betrayal," obviously, but I suspect it's more than that: he kept Jesse around in part to be the mirror through which he could still see himself, and his fury now is at seeing himself for the monster he really is. His final confession—about Jane's death—is both a sadistic twist of the knife and a final shattering of the mirror: you know the rest, he is saying, you may as well know it all. Everything is out in the open now: it's probably the most honest moment two human beings share in this entire series.
There's much more to say about this, but I am running terribly long as it is, and I still haven't talked about Walt. I'll come back to Walt and Jesse below, but, for now, there's just a couple of more things I want to touch on in regards to Jesse himself.
"Ozymandias" leads all of our major characters into their own private circle of Hell, and it's worth noting that Jesse's, fittingly, is a symbolic reliving of everything he's been through. He spent the series being used, and here is the ultimate version of that: he is basically a slave, chained up and forced to produce meth for Uncle Jack and Todd. It's a darker parody of the situation with Gus—when Walt basically felt like a slave chained in Gus's basement—and a summation of Jesse's entire arc with Walt, trapped in a meth-producing nightmare he never really intended to be in. It's also a tragic reward for Jesse's finally achieving what he wanted: to be good at something. He is every bit as good at cooking meth as the famous Heisenberg, and that skill—far from being a source of pride—has led to his enslavement. (He should have stuck to boxes.)
And then there's Todd, who—speaking of mirrors—is a dark reflection of Jesse himself. I haven't talked much in these reviews about Todd, but Jesse Plemmons—a personal favorite from Friday Night Lights—gives a brilliantly creepy performance. Todd is pleasant, soft-spoken, cheery, and unfailingly polite—and he's also absolutely immoral and evil. ("I'm sorry for your loss," he says to Walt, sincerely, after Jack has shot Hank in the head.) Todd is a hellish version of Jesse himself, the young apprentice who craves approval, who obsessively pursues perfection of the skills he is learning, and who—most importantly—kills innocent people. It was Todd who killed Drew Sharpe, ruining a plan Jesse came up with to avoid having to hurt anyone; it is Todd who kills Andrea, in order to get Jesse to cooperate; it is Todd who keeps Jesse imprisoned in the hell of making meth. Todd is the darkest side of Jesse's own soul given life and form, and so he's the last person Jesse has to kill to escape from this life once and for all.
Not Walt: having wrestled with and vanquished his own demon—almost literally—Jesse is done. Walt wants Jesse to kill him—and I admit, part of me wanted Jesse to kill him—but Jesse is done with killing. He's done with being used. He's done with worrying about what Walt wants, and he's done with being manipulated to fulfill Walt's plans. The final shot we get of Jesse is fantastic: he is roaring away from the scene, from Walt, from this entire life. He is laughing, and he is crying, and he is screaming—with grief, and relief, and joy. He is alone, and he is no one's student, or partner, or pawn. He is, at long last, free.
I like to picture him in Alaska, making perfect little wooden boxes. I like to think of him clean, and living a simple life, and making peace with himself. I like to think he will never hurt so much as a fly again. I don't ever want to know if I am right—please, Vince Gilligan, don't ever tell me—but I like, somehow, to imagine Jesse Pinkman happy.
And so, after all of this—after 62 episodes, and 12 posts, and over 50,000 words of my rambling—what is there left to say about the Short and Miserable Life of Walter White?
At this point I've written enough, I think, about my take on Walter White himself, and I doubt you want to hear me rehash my theories about pride, and about pop-culture romanticizing of power and violence, and about toxic notions of masculinity that are incompatible with compassion, the capacity for nurturing, and love. If you've been reading this series all along, you know it's well-covered ground.
So the first question left to us, I think, is whether Walter White changes in these final episodes. Does he learn anything, in the end? Does he evolve? Does he at any point step off the path of destruction and damnation he has been barreling down since the beginning? If you do not change direction, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu counsels, you may end up where you are headed. Does Walter White ever change direction, or does he simply end up at the logical and inevitable place he's been heading all along?
It's debatable. There are moments—few and fleeting—where Walt seems to have changed his spots. He begs Jack to spare Hank, and is willing to give up everything he has worked for—the entire $80 million legacy of Heisenberg—to save his brother-in-law's life. He nobly spares Skyler the consequences of his (and her) actions. He returns Holly to her mother instead of selfishly running away with the one member of his family who might be able to love him. He arranges the financial security of his family in a way that ensures he will not get the credit, funneling the money through the very ex-friend whose charity he once spurned. And he does, in the end, save Jesse's life and set him free. There is an argument to be made, certainly, that Walter White earns some small measure of redemption.
But I don't buy that argument: not for a moment. I confess, I am not objective about this: I hate Walter White. I don't even love to hate him: I just hate him. I have hated him for a long time, and nearly every single thing he has done has made me hate him more, and I am no longer inclined to grant him even the slightest benefit of the doubt. I do not trust Walter White, any more than anyone else who knows him does in the end, and I do not trust a single one of his motives enough to read goodness in it.
Part of the problem, for me, is that I don't think Walter White knows himself at all: I think his is a wholly unexamined life, a life of inarticulate impulses and urges and reactions. One would never think it just to look at them, but between Walt the Genius and Jesse the Clown, Jesse is the one who is thoughtful, the one who examines himself and grapples with difficult questions, the one with a rich and complex inner life. Walt, on the other hand—for all his intellect—is an empty shell, an assemblage of fucked up impressions of what a man should be. I think the absolute limit of his self-awareness is that part of him knows this, and knows enough not to look too closely at himself. (I think back to that scene in the "And the Bag's in the River"—just the third episode of the series—when Walt wrote out a Pro/Con list about killing Krazy-8. The token entries for "Judeo-Christian morality" and "murder is wrong" were probably the last time we saw him pretend to wrestle with an ethical dilemma, and they now just seem like his shallow parroting of things he thought he was supposed to feel.) When have we ever seen Walt really ask himself hard questions? When have we seen him racked with guilt? When have we seen him ask himself if he is a good man? He's not even a good enough man to ask the question.
So when Walt does something "good"—like giving up everything to save Hank's life—it registers as hollow to me. It strikes me as coming from a place of desperation, not morality: it's a fight-or-flight impulse to avoid consequences, and to postpone the crossing of a line from which there is no return. (Even after he has failed to save Hank's life, he tries—pathetically—to convince his family he succeeded. This is not guilt: this is the frenzied, desperate lie of a child who has broken something that can never be repaired.) As I've already suggested, his phone conversation with Skyler is as rife with pettiness and ego as it is with nobility, and the same could be said of his bequeathing his fortune through Eliot and Gretchen. (He terrorizes them: he does not ask them for help. And he makes it clear to them that he will still not accept a dime from them to help his family: even if no one else knows the truth, it is important to his ego that he did this, and he alone.)
And let us not forget that—though he saves Jesse in the end—he does not go back to save Jesse. He probably goes back, in fact, to kill Jesse, believing him to be working with the neo-Nazis voluntarily. He learns from Badger and Skinny Pete—a very welcome, if totally improbable final appearance for two favorites—that blue meth is back on the streets, "better than ever." He knows that only Jesse could be behind it, and this final insult to the legacy of Heisenberg can not be tolerated. After everything that has happened, his pride in his empire still demands that he enact his revenge.
The best thing I can say about Walter White's final days is that he arrives, finally, at an ability to see himself honestly. In his final conversation with Skyler, she tells him she doesn't want to hear one more time how he did all of this for the family. "I did it for me," he finally admits. "I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive."
That's probably the clearest moment he has had since this entire adventure began: it's a confession of how pointless, and how pathetic, and how selfish all his decisions have been. He has been responsible—directly or indirectly—for what is, by my count (aided by the Breaking Bad wiki), the deaths of more than 200 people, including his own brother-in-law. (That's not even counting the countless, faceless victims of his drug dealing—the morality of which, as I've often mentioned, is never discussed.) He has destroyed his family, lost the love of his wife and children, widowed his sister-in-law, and terrorized and traumatized everyone he ever knew and cared about. And for what?
Because he liked it. Because he was good at it. Because it made him feel alive.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.
This, to me, is the ultimate point of Breaking Bad, and why I call it a devastating critique of its own genre. Because we love these kinds of stories. We love crime stories. We love stories of outlaws and renegades. We love stories of common men who buck the system, and break out of the constraints of societal rules, and dare to do bold and dangerous things. We love rags to riches stories. We love stories of violence and revenge. We love to live vicariously through them, and dream of ourselves as courageous and resourceful and dangerous. We all love to imagine what it would be like to "break bad," and so we romanticize such men, and we rarely stop to think about the death and destruction and despair that such men would—that such men do—leave in their wakes.
This, to me, is the ultimate value of Breaking Bad, and it's also why I am troubled, slightly, by the way the series ends. After so many perfect music cues in this series, Breaking Bad ends with just one more: "Baby Blue," by The Iveys. Guess I got what I deserved, the first line goes. But did Walt get what he deserved?
Because it feels to me like Vince Gilligan and his writers got caught up in the romance themselves, just a little bit, right at the end.
They knew Walt needed to be punished, and they knew they had to show the toxicity of his choices, and so these are brutal episodes. As I've said, everything up to and including "Granite State" works for me, leaving Walt where Walt should be left: completely alone, and utterly unloved, and totally unredeemed, and knowing that, in the end, he did everything he did—this is the important part—for no reason.
But then it feels like they had second thoughts: that either they wanted to give Walt a happier ending, or they thought the audience would want to see Walt go out as more of a success. The series finale of Breaking Bad is not happy, exactly—it's still a pretty brutal hour of television—but it is triumphantly brutal. Walt gets to snatch one more brilliant victory from the ashes, through his remote-controlled machine-gun ploy. He gets to redeem himself to his wife—a little—and to Jesse—a little. He gets to succeed in what he set out to do in the beginning: leave a fortune in ill-gotten gains to his family. (He originally wanted to leave them $727,000; he ends up leaving $9,727,000.) He even gets to secure the legend of Heisenberg, the name passing into the immortality of urban legend.
Yes, he dies, but he was always going to die, and he gets to die when and where he chooses, by his own hand. No one beats him: his death is a form of suicide, as it always was: one long, slow, self-destructive act that happened to leave countless ruined lives in its wake.
Walt gets to win, even as he loses everything. He gets to be cool, to be dangerous, to be respected, one last time. He dies with a satisfied smile on his face, and that bothers me. I begrudge him those victories, and I can't help but feel Vince Gilligan betrayed his own purposes in the end, swept up in the very romanticized notions of an anti-hero that he spent five seasons deconstructing. If Walt had died alone of cancer in a cabin in New Hampshire, hated and despised by everyone he knew, unable to help his family even if they would take his money, that would have been a more honest, appropriate, thematically consistent ending. It would not have been as popular—Breaking Bad would not have ended with such a bang—but our craving for that dramatic bang seems to me to be part of what Gilligan was critiquing all along. The show should have ended with a whimper, not a bang.
And this is where I return to the wise words of David Milch, who never got to write a finale. "The whole idea of an ending of something being its source of meaning is something I find problematic," Milch said. We are all tempted to allegorize experience, and find to significance in destinations, but one final hour is not the sum and total of the meaning of an entire series. Endings are tricky things, and they don't always satisfy, and they're never perfect. I take issue with the final hour of Breaking Bad, but that does not redefine—let alone invalidate—everything that came before. It doesn't for a moment take away from how smart, how provocative, how well-crafted and fiendishly entertaining this show really is. It doesn't change my reading of Breaking Bad, though it might complicate it, and that might be a good thing: readings should be complicated, and challenged, and fluid. Someday—though not soon—I'll probably revisit Breaking Bad, and no doubt I'll find a lot of new things to think about it. That's as it should be.
So, as I bring this series of posts to a close, I'm reminded again that endings are never perfect. I wish this post was perfect. I wish it could have wrapped a nice neat bow around all the themes and theories I've discussed for eight months. I wish it could have said everything I wanted to say, and more eloquently than I've said them here, and definitely more succinctly than I've said them here. I wish I, too, could have arrived, at the end, at something that felt like justice, like meaning, like grace.
Instead, we've just arrived at an ending—such as it is—and maybe that's okay. This binge-watch didn't go quite the way I imagined, and it took much longer than I thought it would, and—to be honest—I'm kind of relieved that it's over.
But I'm glad I finally watched Breaking Bad. And I'm grateful that some of you were willing to keep me company along the way.