Just Get Me Home; I’ll Do the Rest
It’s hard to believe it’s all over. In some ways, I thought this episode was brilliant, in others I was disappointed and, in one, I’m just left annoyed. So first, the brilliant. For much of the episode I felt like it didn’t even know it was the finale. Breaking Bad’s storytelling mode is near genius in terms of pacing. In all the seasons leading up to this one, we all marvelled at how little time passes in this incredibly packed narrative universe. And this season, we’ve had minutes take hours to show and months take seconds – giving us some form of temporal whiplash at moments that nevertheless satisfied. The temporal confidence (I’m not sure what else to call it?!) of this final episode shocked me. At no moment were we rushed. This storytelling wasn’t economic; it wasextravagant. Almost every character got his or her own ending, and a moment to linger on it – to ponder the moral complexity, character finality and, in a sense, to recollect their whole journey over these seasons. Finales usually move so quickly, trying to tie up every loose end and fit worlds of story into them (I love the montages at the end of each season of The Wire, but they offer a prime example of how much we expect our season, and certainly series finales to convey). But if anything, this one slowed down – such that the weight of each moment was palpably felt. And I loved it!
Now my disappointment – I’m not anti-redemption, I’m just fine with redemption, a fan usually, actually. But as I’ve been harping for the last few weeks, I didn’t want redemption here. And in reading some interviews with Vince Gilligan, I’ve come to realize that I’m in the minority with this – apparently the writers considered killing all the Whites except Walter, and leaving him alive to be stuck in the horrific consequences to his actions. But they thought that would be “too much of a kick in the teeth to the audience.” I guess I just wanted to be kicked in the teeth.
Because watching Walt admit the truth (to Skylar that he’s really done this all for himself), and thus truly repent, humble himself completely (by giving the two people he least wants to be able to take credit for his genius the means to take credit for his generosity), have a change of heart on his protege (in saving Jesse’s life, if only accidentally) left me feeling a little bored. Sure, he doesn’t get full redemption – nowhere close. Skylar’s life is clearly ruined. He still gets the thrill of outsmarting Elliot and Gretchen. And I can’t see a good ending for Jesse materializing out of this at all! He’s not going to become a carpenter in Alaska after that shockingly violent outburst to kill Todd – something I couldn’t even have imagined Jesse doing even a handful of episodes ago. But that for the first time in the series Walt was walking towards goodness rather than towards evil matters, I think. It feels like pulling a punch in a world where you need to see punches land.
This show has shown us bodies disintegrated in bathtubs, mass co-ordinated killings, a bad guy’s face half blown away – it doesn’t shy from going up to the line and over it. So it’s not that I want to see Walt punished, or that my desire for horror has been built up by these other events, such that I want to see Walt endure the same. Rather, it’s that I feel like the show ushering in a little redemption at the end somehow justifies all that other stuff. It doesn’t justify Walter so much as it justifies me, the viewer. Walt doesn’t get to walk away unscathed, but in a sense I do. The moral turn at the end lets me, the viewer, off the moral hook – and I guess I thought it would be more interesting to make me hang there for a while.
Ok, and here’s where I’m annoyed – I have rewatched that cafe scene and I cannot see a moment when Walt was able to slip Lydia the ricin. She has the tainted packet in her hand the whole time she’s talking to Walt, which means he had to get it in there before she arrived…which is just too risky. We have to suspend disbelief so much with this show, accept that things just work out well for Walt (seriously, Jack really had to show that Jesse was his slave, not partner!?), and this one felt a bridge too far. Especially given how significant the ricin has become in the viewers’ imaginations.
It feels like a silly thing to point to, to get annoyed by, but for me it points to a larger problem with the show – for a television program so hailed as brilliant, the best show on television, it frequently treats its viewers as stupid (and I say this realizing, with embarrassment, the number of pregnancy-brain addled mistakes I’ve made tracking this season…for which I’ve been grateful for your gentle corrections, dear friends 🙂 I also say this as someone who didn’t mind the airplane crash storyline of season 2, which others thought was just too impossibly neat. But the impossible ricin trade off, the late introduction of the neo-Nazi evil guys so that we’d have a bigger evil to deal with than Walt – these feel cheap to me in the final act. Easy outs that facilitate an ending I’m not all that bothered with wanting because it doesn’t really challenge us as viewers.
It’s not that I don’t love the show – I do! I find it wildly entertaining! I just want us all to stop saying it defines the new television, that it’s the smartest show on tv or, gasp, of all time, or that it’s soooo revolutionary. I don’t think it is. In the end, I think it’s a fabulous show about a dickish man (like, um, most shows on AMC). And that’s good enough for me.
Can’t wait to hear what you all thought!
Hi Natalie, and everyone else,
Thanks for getting this started. This is going to be long, but after some avid Facebook discussions where I am seemingly the only one who thinks that this finale ruined the whole show and turned this seemingly great artistic achievement into little more than weak and limpy (and crass) bourgeois apologetics for liberalism and its views of human nature.
And let me say: Vince Gilligan has turned out after all to be a complete joke.
Honestly, even the Lost finale didn’t disappoint me this much, since by that point Lost was horrible and my expectations were quite low.
This episode (and really the two that preceded it) single handedly trashes and wastes all of the immense psychological capital the show has built up over the last 5 years. It takes the complex psychology of Walt, Skylar, Hank, and Jesse (and the relationships between them) and turns them into some silly redemption story (and, I agree, Natalie, I’m not opposed to redemption stories, nor is this a full redemption story), where just enough tragedy is left so as to try not to make it feel cheap. But cheap it is. The true villain of this show is the Nazis, Walt is just the ordinary misguided family man who was led astray by excitement and personal desire, and the women of the show are reduced to little more than casualties (as is Jesse). It’s as if the writers went from reading Henry James or Dostoevski to reading John Grisham for inspiration.
The whole show refuses in the end to be much of anything: it’s too weak to be a proper redemption story, too weak to be a morality play, and too silly even to be properly noteworthy as a cultural landmark. (Again, It’s as if Michael Crighton or John Grisham turned out to be writing Breaking Bad all along). As viewers we should feel a little guilty for empathizing with Walt, but not too guilty, since in the end he’s not such a bad guy…after all, there’s Nazis in the world. It’s 21st century petite bourgeoisie morality and ambition wrapped in some flashy (and admittedly innovative) visuals, and proves to be as empty as Walt himself, who turns out not to be much of anything (not even banal let alone radical). The last shot of the hand falling away from his reflection packs no punch and telegraphs only boredom, mostly ours, since all of the complex psychological musings of the last 5 season’s turned out to be little more than the expression of petty desires, first for family, then for recognition, and eventually just for escape (or death, no one even cares which anymore). And yet, even these desires fail to amount to much of anything because none of the characters (least alone Walt) actually care about them anymore (it’s hard to see what they care about at all in the end…which would be ok if the writers weren’t doing their best to show how much they care about wrapping everything up and making sure to show us how the show was about being bad…but not that bad).
People seem to like this finale because it delivers completion (and that it does, it completes almost everything), but this completion turns out to be that of a coitus interruptus, that in the end produces nothing, not even pleasure.
Presumably Walt is now on an island with Jack and Kate, where he will soon be reunited with his loved ones and a whole bunch of haphazard religious symbols,
Well, it’s no surprise that I disagree with you, Martin (we have a great history on that point!), and I really respect the vitriol you brought to this post (having been there a couple of times myself). And Natalie, I really appreciate your nuanced reaction to the finale; I, too, wondered how he got the ricin in the Stevia, but that’s one of those details I’m willing to let go, as it’s clear Walt was there long before they were, and the whole scene is premised on Lydia’s predictability – always the same table, always the same time.
So for me, this finale worked almost perfectly – it’s not quite the Sopranos, whose in/famous ending (in my interpretation, at least), basically broke the fourth wall with a brilliant meta-genre commentary. It’s not Lost (though I love your last line, Martin), which actually worked for me up until the last half hour or so, when it did retroactively ruin the entire show. The closest parallel to Breaking Bad, I think, is The Shield, which relentlessly followed the collapsing moral space of a man who was successively stripped of all the falsehoods he used to legitimize his brutal and lawless actions — stripped by the irrevocable consequences of those actions — until his motivation was revealed for what it really was: pure power and self-interest. Vic Mackey even used his family as his biggest trump card to justify his actions, until, like Walt, his family was lost to him permanently. Then, with even that lie gone (one that did elements of truth in it, to be sure), he himself has no recourse but to follow the path he himself had laid down, because his character — his habits become chains, to evoke Augustine — was fixed on the course of self-destruction. And if he was the agent of that destruction, well, that really doesn’t make a difference in the outcome. Except to himself, because the illusion of self-determination is the last lie he held onto. So when Walt finally confesses to Skyler, “I did it for me. I did it to feel alive,” I don’t see that as repentance at all. Walt didn’t look contrite to me — he looked proud and a bit exultant to me. Less “I’ve made a huge mistake” and more “I am the one who knocks.”
Breaking Bad is an awfully close parallel to The Shield‘s arc. I have to confess that I’ve been kind of perplexed by all the talk (here and elsewhere) about redemption, because I don’t think Breaking Bad in general, and this finale in particular, is about redemption. I’m not at all sure redemption exists in Breaking Bad’s moral universe. A virtuous action does not redemption make, but the accumulation of actions and habits do lock in one’s fate; Walt saving Jesse is a virtuous act, yes, but Walt fully intended to have Jesse killed, only to change his mind at the last second. But that doesn’t erase the destruction of Walt’s family, two of Jesse’s lovers, Hank’s death, or Jesse being utterly ruined. And let’s not forget that Walt’s relationship with Jesse was always one key way to maintain his lust for power — Jesse was never the beloved protege, but more the terrorized, bullied, and cowed underling. If there was a hint of fatherly affection in Walt’s feelings for him (and sure, there totally was), it was also the condescending love of the patriarch.
So let’s talk about the Nazis. I totally understand how one could watch this show and see them as a more-evil-than-thou caricature to equalize the moral calculus a bit, or how one could criticize the spectacular burst of violence that closed out the show. It was over the top, yeah; but let’s not forget how often this show went to the wildly implausible scenarios to get Walt out of confrontations with increasingly over-the-top villains: blowing up Tuco Salamanca’s hideout; Hank’s confrontations with the Cousins; and of course Walt’s assassination of Gus Fring. Breaking Bad could pull off that kind of hyperrealistic thing because it established itself as a realist narrative — crazy plot twists worked because they were always grounded in character work with Walt. To me, what is happening with Todd’s uncle and his associated dirtbags is not so much a way to give Walt redemption, as it one more set of collaborators who turn out to be more than he bargained for (literally, in this case), whom he destroys less out of a sense of justice, or even revenge, but rather pique. They did murder Hank, and again, I’m sure there’s a genuine sense of retribution there; but Walt never mentions Hank’s death — his murder of the Nazis, like Lydia, is born of wrath that they dared to create his “baby blue” without him.
Because in the end, that’s what this show was about: it’s a Faustian tale, one of a man selling his soul for power and knowledge, where his love for his craft was surpassed only by his desire to build an empire out of it. As the Badfinger song closing out the episode puts it, “Guess I got what I deserved…the special love I have for you, my baby blue.” Breaking Bad didn’t let Walt off the hook, nor, I think, did it cheapen his motivations: it gave him his last lie, that he was the agent of his own destiny. But the irony of the closing scene is that Walt was destined for this end long, long ago, by something far more relentless and impersonal than choice: hard, cold fate.
Well, I feel bad for you Martin. I don’t discount your argument at all, but I feel bad because I loved the finale. I enjoyed just about everything in it. Natalie mentioned the pace, which felt perfect for Breaking Bad (unlike many shows, who force too much into the finale in an attempt to check in with everybody). I thought the cinematography was stellar (like it often is on this show). The dolly shot that revealed that Walt was in the kitchen with Skylar was beautiful. There is a shot where we see Walt building his automatic turret through the window of a gutted out abandoned house in the desert. It was fantastic. And I’m a sucker for God’s eye view shots like the final shot of the series.
And, I liked the ending of the story. It didn’t feel like redemption to me. It felt like Walt’s last dying push to do one more power move. We got to see one more set of Walter White magic tricks. He went out in one last orchestration. It might not have been his most incredible or his biggest, but it was vintage Walter White magic. He was the conductor and the pieces were following his baton. And, I don’t say that to glorify him. Walter White is a man who has done evil things. He deserves no glory. But, it was fascinating to watch every chapter, including this last one. Walt’s admission that he did it all for himself and to feel alive said, to me, that he needed to go out feeling alive. He only felt alive by seeing people who he thought had wronged him, “make things right.” At the end of the wonderful scene at the Schwartz home, Walt says, “Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.” I thought that was great.
Anyways, I really enjoyed discussing this show with you all. I will miss this show a lot. Thanks!
The whole thing felt kind of shady, you know, morality-wise,
OK, I had to chime in again:
Bryan, I absolutely agree about your first paragraph. The visuals, style, and pacing (all of the technical aspects of the show) were beautiful and flawless in the finale. I can’t fault it there.
Travis, I’ve got to take issue with almost everything in your past. (Of course, solely in the spirit of deep respect for the points you make, and an even deeper respect for our long history of, well, disagreeing!) I think the idea of Walt having one last lie is interesting and almost convinces me, but, in the end, to my mind, rings hollow.
I do think you and others (hi Alex!) are right to suggest that ‘redemption’ is not the right word here, what with its loaded moral and religious baggage. I don’t think think Walt being redeemed has to do with Walt feeling, say, guilt, or him atoning, or anything else. Rather, what we are given is an uncritical affirmation of Walt’s character, a presentation of the most banal liberal worldview, and a sense of completeness and wholeness for Walt. What all of that amounts to is a sort of redemptive quality to all past events–because Walt is granted a complete victory, all past events are redeemed in the most basic sense of the word: they are, as far as the writers seem to be concerned, paid for in full. Call it narrative redemption. Walt is intended to be redeemed in the viewer’s eyes. And here, Bryan, I have to say that the meticulous form of the finale betrays this point, as it pursues utter completion in every detail and of every outstanding debt of Walt’s, whether actual or metaphorical. Walt is able to bequeath an inheritance to his son, to re-establish his patriarchal role (the scene with his daughter), to reconnect on some small level with Skylar, to affirm his sense of agency (“I did it for me”), to get a little revenge on the Grey Matter duo by forcing them to his will, to save Jesse, to kill Lydia, to revenge/avenge Hank, to fix his wounded pride, and ultimately to die a death of his choosing (it seems obvious that Walt intended to die in the last firefight). The Heisenberg legend lives on. I don’t see what about it is a lie, Travis. The only element of fate here is the fact that Walt, like any other person, is fated to die.
And all of that amounts to an insulting and almost silly reaffirmation of Walt’s basic view of himself (and then it doesn’t even matter whether Walt is right about this view). Furthermore, Walt’s view of himself (which prior to this point was psychologically complex, with different motivations and factors, and the especially interesting idea of ‘acting for family’) turns out in the end to be nothing more than the fairly vapid liberal view of satisfying one’s desires. There’s nothing Faustian about that. Walt already always had all the knowledge, and so there was never a need for Mephistopheles.
And for that reason, I have to resist, and do so strongly, the comparison to The Shield, whose finale was absolute genius in its ambivalent attitude to Vic. Vic was given his freedom but at the price of his family, and as he opens that drawer and goes out at night, we get the sense that he is unsure whether it was all worth it (something we never get from Walt). The Shield‘s seven seasons showed a Vic convinced of his freedom as involving exactly the satisfaction of his desires. We as the viewer, however, saw how his freedom was just another set of chains. In the conclusion, we are presented with a Vic whose desires are satisfied and who ultimately gets what he wanted (full immunity and a new job), but does so in such a way that what was clear to us all along becomes clear to him: that one’s desires chain one as easily as the desk job (= ordinary life) Vic always sought to avoid. This ambivalence and complexity (which I’m surely not giving justice to here) is ultimately nowhere achieved by Breaking Bad (see my last paragraph).
Now, if as Emily Nussbaum suggests, this whole last episode had turned out to be a fantasy and Walt actually froze to death in the car trying to get it started, then this last episode and the whole show would have been absolute genius.
——–I am probably the last devoted fan of the series to watch the finale. And despite the fact that pretty much swore last week that I couldn’t imagine a scenario where Walt killed the Nazis and chose his own death as satisfying, I was deeply satisfied by it on a visceral and emotional level. I think, Martin, that we’ve been on pretty much the same wave length these last few weeks and for that reason I feel a lot of sympathy for the arguments you are persuasively mounting, but I just can’t feel your pain. Or at least, the entire series has not been ruined for me in retrospect. A few thoughts to add to the hopper:
I think I, for one, have been guilty of underestimated the sheer pleasure the show takes (has always taken) in Walt’s virtuosity. We’ve discussed this in the past and at the beginning of this long season (back in summer 2012), I felt this keenly: a huge part of the moral complexity of the show lay in its ability to suck the viewer into the story of a seemingly normal man who broke bad. Like all the anti-heros birthed by the existential anguish of a New Jersey mobster, we feel for the bad guy. But this bad guy started out like a good guy who only slowly, and incrementally, gave himself over to his petty jealousies, pride, and competition. Even as that happened, as we knew he was a wicked, awful man, we were lured to his side by how good he was at being bad. Unlike Tony Sporano, we didn’t wait to see if he would “turn good” (or get cured by therapy), we waited to see just how bad he would become. In this sense, the finale gave us (and here, Natalie, I think your point is key) the Walt we’ve come to love to hate. As I was drawn back into the improbability of his cleverness (the bravado of planting one, single stevia packet at the precise table where Lydia always sits!) and his deadly can-do-it-ness (soldering a remote control, car trunk machine gun!), I thought: “oh, that’s right!” I had gotten sucked down the rabbit hole of my own careful analysis of Walt’s motives and twisted psychology I forgot the aesthetic pleasure the show has always taken in watching Walt outsmart his nemeses, even if we are not sure that he *should* (morally) outsmart them or if we are justified (morally) in hoping that he does.
But l don’t think that this aesthetic pleasure is meant to get Walt off the hook, or is the final word in his character. Here, Martin, is where we disagree. I don’t see, Martin, how we can possible construe Walt’s story as a victory – even if there is a petty moment of triumph in a sad sort of way – unless we pretend that everyone else involved in his story are really as instrumental as Walt fundamentally treats them. But the show, for me, has worked long and hard to make sure that we can see them beyond Walt’s myopic view, which was always part of the complex psychology of the show. We’ve said many times over that Walt’s pride was always tied up in convoluted ways with his thinking about his family. And that “the family” was always a cover or ruse for deeper pathologies, which he basically admitted to himself and Skyler. But even if Walt just came to realize and admit that really, deep down, he was doing this to compensate for his inadequacies, to be seen and recognized as you so eloquently put it yourself, Martin, that does not mean that the fate of his family (and Jesse or even others) is incidental to how this story ends. The trauma and pathos – the kick in the teeth – for me was in the lives of everyone else. Even Jesse’s vengeful disbelief to be free of his chains almost made me weep: all I could think about was the confused, punked out kid who began this journey and what a hollow, despairing, murdering, wounded shell is left. And Skyler. Damn, she is going to pay for the rest of her life for her own confused complicity. Maybe Walt Jr. will take the money, maybe he’ll give it all away. But either way he is angry, disillusioned, and alone. In every possible conceivable way, Walt has left everyone he cared about worse off than when he was just a washed out chemistry teacher dying from cancer. That, in the end, Walt cared more about his “baby blue” than about his family was the most damning indictment of his character. He was not free to make his own choices and “get away” with it. Many people are paying with their souls (and some with their lives) for his displaced pride and I think we have to discount the incredible work the show has done weaving Walt’s story into the lives of his family (in true and false and misguided ways) to think that his end is only about him. Walt’s death was not a victory. It was one last attempt of a blind, foolish, egotistical man whose suburban pathologies would not subside even as he destroyed every single person he professed to love. That he got to “choose” to die alone in a meth lab after a drug shoot out was only proof that he was just as twisted and complex as I had long thought he was. This was Dostoyevsky all the way – all I could think as he wandered gut-shot through the drug compound was what a sad, confused, fucked up man this was, who destroyed the kingdom to make himself king for a day.
I have loved talking about this season with you all and I love disagreeing about it with you too. I was talking about good TV with some undergraduate students the other day and realized that most of them were 12-13 when this show started airing. It made me feel old. But also like I have been alive in a beautiful moment and glad to share it with the rest of you.