Over the past five years of Breaking Bad, the chemistry of fate has run its course.
By Robert Ribera
His bloodied handprint left not just on the shiny meth lab equipment that he helped build, but on the lives of all those he touched, Walter White fell to the floor, done in by by his own pride, avarice, and ego — that and one of the bullets that shredded through his side and the Neo-Nazis he came back to destroy. And with that, one of the finest television shows of this or any other time came to a fitting close. In the last episodes of this final season, during the inevitable disintegration of White’s empire and family, all the terrible decisions finally came full circle. Series creator Vince Gilligan, stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, and the rest of the cast and crew did not disappoint. The fall has been difficult to watch at times, but it has been impossible to look away.
Over the past five years, the chemistry of fate has run its course. We watched as a man was transformed (as Gilligan so aptly put it, from Mr. Chips to Scarface) through his struggles with cancer and his increasingly bloody decisions, leaving a trail of death and ruin throughout the American southwest. A mortally ill chemistry teacher decides to start cooking methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for his family when he dies. Out of this simple yet diabolically dark premise Breaking Bad has proven, yet again, that a character-driven drama written by people who treat viewers with respect can raise the level of scripted television drama to a fine art. For mass appeal measure, throw in dynamic directing, explosions, and thrilling plot twists.
At the beginning of the final episode, we find Walter on the run back home, something having clicked while watching his former Gray Matter partners explain to the world that the sweet man they once knew is gone. It turns out that what has fallen into place is his final plan to terrorize them while still getting his money to his family, killing his enemies, and leaving this world as the true genius behind his “baby blue.” Along the way he makes time to try to make some peace with his family.
His admission to Skyler, his long-suffering (though not entirely innocent) wife, felt like the gut-punch revelation of the entire series. “If I have to hear one more time about how you did this for the family,” she says to him before being cut off. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really, I was alive,” Walt tells her, coming clean in a way that makes him even more villainous and somehow sympathetic at the same time. He admits what we suspected all along: that there may have never been a Heisenberg and that Walt’s life as a meth kingpin suited his genius just fine without the pseudonym. He enjoyed being the bad guy. Jesse admitted that to himself a long time ago and became a tortured soul because of it. Perhaps Walt knew this about himself all along too. The great thing about the complicated character that Bryan Cranston embodied so well is that his original intentions of saving his family were just as true and just as valid as his admission that he enjoyed the ensuing violence and destruction his actions caused.
The usual allusions to other great works, particularly movies, littered the episode, from The Searchers to Taxi Driver. In a very self-conscious way, Breaking Bad celebrates its part in the hallowed lineage of literary anti-heroes whose intentions were good but faulty. And it ended with signature moments of levity mixed in. Walter’s use of Skinny Pete and Badger as laser pointer marksmen was darkly comical: it was a welcome final glimpse of the two dealers who feel just fine masquerading as expert gunmen after they have been paid off with a stack of cash, a reminder of Walt’s power of persuasion. Walt’s humming Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” as he builds his machine gun contraption left me imagining him playing that old cassette over and over again in his stolen car on the 30+ hour ride from his hideout back to Albuquerque. And Todd’s ever-amusing ringtones made the voice of Groucho Marx singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” one of the last things we will ever hear from the show.
The final moments between Jesse and Walt brought their relationship to a fitting, if tortured conclusion. Walt, finally admitting that he needs something from his adoptive son, gets no such reprieve. Jesse, dragged through the ringer of Walt’s schemes for years — not just as a partner but as a pawn — is finally able to say no, though after violently snapping the neck of one of his other tormentors. Whether through screams of rage or teary-eyed confessions, these two actors have accomplished the nearly impossible over the course of the show’s five years. They have created two meth-dealing murderers who grabbed our attention and never loosened their grip.
In the end, the show stayed true to its characters while presenting a satisfying conclusion, which is the best that can be said about any ending. Most of the storylines were resolved, and Chekhov would be pleased that the ricin finally coursed its way through some villain’s veins. Much will be made about White’s redemption, though I maintain that to see him in any flattering light, just because he had good intentions and killed a bunch of bad guys, is the wrong view.
In a way, though, Walt does find some peace of mind. Gretchen and Elliot may well be Walter Jr.’s benefactors, Jesse has been saved by Walt for the umpteenth time from death, Skyler has her ticket saving her from jail, and a whole slew of Nazis are dead. Walt is left to die in the place where he felt happiest, where he was “alive” in the midst of death: his lab. Will as many people quote the line “I am the one who knocks” as currently proclaim “Say hello to my little friend”? Perhaps. Many challenging characters are misinterpreted, chewed up, and spit back out as icons. Heisenberg will be no different.
What Breaking Bad has accomplished is quite impressive. It made a man responsible for hundreds of deaths, some by his own hand and others indirectly, seem sympathetic. Whether you believe that Walt, Jesse, or really any of the characters, find redemption, the fact is that powerful art forces us to take a deeper look at ourselves, often through the darkest of lenses. Sometimes what we see is troubling, and it is not often that a television show can accomplish such illumination through such tragedy. Walter White can now be placed among the great anti-heroes of film and literature, his family’s destruction under his drug empire is just another story to fade away into the desert, the lone and level sands stretching far away.
Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website Sleepovershows.com, and is currently working on his PhD.in American Studies at Boston University.