Breaking Bad’s finale: the fallen, the victorious, and the question of what comes next
Breaking Bad’s cold opens set the tone for each episode, and they sometimes also teach us how to view the rest of the episode. So what do we learn from the opening of the last episode of what has to be one of the best series in television history?
There are two ways to go here: Either someone is looking out for Walter White and wants to make sure that he is able to exit his own personal hell with some kind of closure, or everything is just dumb luck. Walter says a quick prayer, and seems to cash in whatever chips he has with the man upstairs in exchange for a little bit more time.
Did God listen? That’s up to you, but the police car drives past, the car keys are found behind the visor, falling into Walt’s hands like manna from heaven. The moments of vulnerability, of bargaining, are over. Walter’s face hardens, he knocks the snow off the side window, and he’s back in action. There are things that need to be done.
One more run
The rest of the episode is spent touching base with every single loose end in Walter’s world. His old business partners are pressed into making sure his son gets the last of the meth money, and in this way it’s “laundered” in such a way that Walt. Jr. won’t feel conflicted in accepting it. And if they don’t set up the trust? One day they’re going to hear footsteps, and they’re going to be taken out of the equation.
“A kind of countdown will begin, maybe a day or so later. Maybe a week, or a year,” Walter explains. If they don't give up the money, in a safe way, they will footsteps behind them. “Before you can even turn around? Pop. Darkness.”
The truth is that Walter paid Badger and Skinny Pete to hold laser pointers, and that there is no ongoing threat, but Gretchen and Elliot will now have to be part of a criminal conspiracy, or wonder if they’re being watched for the rest of their lives.
“This is where you get to make it right,” Walter says, but this is an evil fucking thing to do to anyone, although in the world of Breaking Bad it’s okay to ruin someone’s life as long as they said negative things about you on Charlie Rose. A part of me also wondered if the line about darkness was a sly nod to the finale of The Sopranos, but I’m likely reading more into the conversation than is there.
A dream of a wooden box
Jesse Pinkman is fantasizing about the creation of a beautiful wooden box, a call back to the third season where he discussed being inspired by his woodworking teacher. He traded the box he made in class for drugs, but this seems to be a vision of what might have been, a happy, healthy Jesse doing something that created an item of worth, something of lasting value, and taking pride in it.
You can say a lot of things about the act of cooking a near-perfect batch of crystal meth, but it’s an act of destruction. All those beautiful blue crystals will end up in the greater world, ruining the lives of the people who consume it. There is no satisfaction in a job well done once you understand that, and the fact that Jesse now dreams of creation is significant.
This is a quick interlude, and serves mainly to give us a peek into what Jesse wants right now. And he wants peace. Whether he ultimately gets it is open to interpretation.
Still, the revelations come quickly. We figure out what Walter wanted with that ricin (he poisons Lydia, which is simply due to her predictability and love of Stevia) we see what the plan is for that giant machine gun (a simple mechanism that will allow the gun to autonomously spray bullets wherever it’s pointed) and we get some closure with Skyler (Walter admits his time as a drug kingpin was born out of selfishness and not concern for his family).
Walter asks to see Holly, and places his hand on her for a few moments. This is Walter giving his final goodbyes, and it’s important that he asks permission. This is Skyler’s house, and he lost the “right” to have access to his children. He watches Walter Jr. come home, and doesn’t try to make any form of contact.
So let’s try to shine a light into the future of these characters: It’s that lottery ticket, and the knowledge of Hank’s body, enough to get Skyler out of legal trouble? Is she free and clear, or is Walter being overly optimistic?
Still, at this point it’s time for the final play, and it’s a Hail Mary: Walter simply wants to straight up kill everyone. The machine gun is attached to a swivel and triggered by the panic button on his car keys. Everyone is going to die, including Jesse.
That is, until Walter sees that Pinkman is more or less a slave in this predicament. What follows are a few strokes of luck, as Walter is able to tackle the young meth cook, keeping him from the line of fire. The gun does its job, although Todd is spared due to trying to separate Walter and Jesse. He’s killed, in brutally personal fashion, by Jesse.
This is starting to read more like a play by play than any real analysis, and that’s always the fear of writing up such dense episodes. Jesse’s decision to leave Walter to die by his own hand is interesting, especially since he still has Todd’s blood on his lands, likely literally as well as figuratively. Our last moment with Jesse consist of him driving into the night, crying and screaming in rage / joy / catharsis. He’s free, but where is he going to go?
What options does he have? He was dreaming of creation and declined to kill his mentor, but he’s also wanted, was with Hank when he was murdered, and there’s a video confession floating around the compound, which was being overrun by the police. He’ll be on the run for the rest of his life, unless he’s able to cut some form of deal.
There is no pseudo-ending here, no retcons, no bullshit. Walter White dies from his bullet wound as the police come in, and everyone else has been taken care of one way or the other. His journey has come to a close, but only after giving his wife another chance to escape the law, millions of dollars for his son and daughter, killing everyone involved with bringing Heisenberg’s product to the people, and setting Jesse free.
The sins of the father
It’s a thrilling, satisfying way to close everything out, and of course it would be nearly impossible to end the series in a way that made everyone happy, but I couldn’t help wishing for more. I’m not sure what I expected, or what I wanted, but this was an ending that felt like a package sent to fans, wrapped in pretty paper and finished off with an intricate bow. Every question was answered. Every character accounted for.
The problem I have, and I’m curious if you share it, is that Walter White was never punished. He killed without remorse, he ruined dozens, if not hundreds, of lives. His actions directly led to the death and suffering of untold people suffering from the effects of his drug. His family was ripped off, their lives all but ruined. He watched a young woman die, and this decision caused a plane crash, for the life of all that is holy. His ingenuity, ruthlessness, greed, and inability to play it safe shocked even those in the criminal underworld.
And the final result of those decisions was that he died in a peaceful state, having fulfilled nearly everything he set out to do. His final actions hurt more people, and barely scratched the surface of his karmic debt. He died feeling satisfied that everyone he loved had been taken care of, even if that may not be the actual case. His life, at least to him, made sense in his final moments, and that seems criminally unjust.
Of course life isn’t fair, there are no heroes or villains, and everything is a shade of gray. But his final moments were peaceful, and he went out of this world surrounded by the lab equipment and scientific instruments that gave his life meaning, and allowed him to destroy so much.
It’s unclear how that would have changed if those car keys didn’t fall from the visor in the opening scenes, but he died the way he lived: Doing exactly what he wanted, for reasons that made sense to his skewed sense of logic and entitlement. He now joins the ranks of the victorious dead.