In the end, the character given the opportunity to sum up the full power and complexity of experiences that “Breaking Bad” delivered with unprecedented televised suspense over the course of five seasons wasn’t Walt, Jesse, Hank, Skyler or even poor, innocent Flynn. The task fell, almost like an afterthought, to longtime Jesse Pinkman pal Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), shortly after helping Walt trick his old business partner and ex-girlfriend into thinking their lives were in danger. “The whole thing felt kinda shady,” Pete says. “You know, like, morality-wise?”
That throwaway moment, an amusing reveal of yet another Walter White scheme not nearly as tough or foolproof as it initially appeared, summed up the essence of everything that made “Breaking Bad” tick so effectively until its grimly celebratory concluding shot. Indeed, morality-wise, creator Vince Gilligan remained a shady manipulator of traditional storytelling maneuvers particularly with regard to expectations of a redeemable anti-hero.
In its final episode, written and directed by Vince Gilligan as only he could do it, the show toyed with audience sympathies and played into many fan predictions while expertly working around them. Like that last, perfect meth cook that Walt surveys in the episode’s closing scene, “Breaking Bad” managed to be the sum of its parts, foregrounding compelling details involving the twisted nature of Walt’s universe that made its reasonably tidy conclusion beside the point. Walt got the end he deserved, but more importantly, so did we.
“Felina,” the sixteenth episode of the series, showcased every facet of talent that made “Breaking Bad” so persistently thrilling no matter how absurd and tangled its plot twists grew over the course of many close calls and brutal deaths. Gilligan’s script contained numerous subtle visual and auditory hints at eventualities that unfolded with a mixture of black comedy and dread. In less than an hour, the episode fused them together into a form of dramatic satisfaction particularly notable for being so specific to episodic television, as it artfully united several thematic ingredients kept in play throughout each season and gradually deepened from one episode to the next.
Because of the narrative’s pulpier elements, “Breaking Bad” got away with exploring its ideas with a fair amount of transparency. “Felina” contained no overambitious attempt to circumnavigate obvious devices, but they earned their place. Consider its music cues: The foreshadowing of the climax in the lyrics of the Marty Robbins song played in the opening scene (“Maybe tomorrow/a bullet may find me”) was only slightly less on-the-nose than the use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” at the end, when it provided a final wicked acknowledgement of Walt’s meth cooking mastery (“that special love I had for you, my baby blue”). Then there were the elegant visuals that staged the drama in wildly operatic terms: the wide shot of Walt exploring the smooth walls of Elliot and Gretchen’s posh home, and by extension the life he desired but could never have; the slow pan that revealed Walt lurking in Skyler’s shadowy living room, stuck on one side of beam that clearly symbolized the family divide he created and rendered unhealable.
Walt’s doomed state didn’t preclude him from getting the best lines. The finality of his gruff delivery carried the weight of his awareness that the end was near. Bryan Cranston transformed Walt’s despair into a triumphant statement with each growled utterance. “You’re going to need a bigger knife,” Walt told Elliot when the flustered millionaire attempted to threaten his old cohort after he broke into their mansion. Walt planned to coerce the couple into turning his earnings into a trust fund for Flynn and no feeble act of aggression could stop him. Devious as ever, Walt may as well have said, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” Like the shark in “Jaws,” he was unkillable by any traditional means. In fact, it turned out that no single tactic could take him down other than the one he devised himself.
Point by point, “Felina” managed to tie up loose ends. Of course the ricin had to go to Lydia (will Stevia packets ever look safe again?). Of course the machine gun was only way for the Nazis to go down (an eye for an eye, after all), naturally by way of one last Rube Goldberg contraption designed by Walt in his desert lab.
Like Pete said, it was a shady proposition, morality-wise, but Gilligan nailed it: “Felina” allowed Walt everything he wanted without letting him off the hook. His farewell to baby Holly was appropriately bittersweet, and it’s safe to say that neither Flynn nor Skyler will ever manage to shake free of the damage Walt inflicted on their lives. He won only once he lost everything.
Every devout “Breaking Bad” viewer had a theory for how this episode would go down and because Gilligan evidently believes in payoff, many people probably had the right idea. My own version of suspicions that I’m sure many possessed drew from the final moments of “The Shootist,” Don Siegel’s 1976 Western featuring John Wayne’s final role, as an aging gunslinger dying of cancer who decides to go down in a firefight. In his final moments, Wayne locks with eyes with the righteous young man (Ron Howard) he has tentatively befriended. Howard tosses Wayne’s gun away in disgust and the Wayne character nods in agreement. That’s more or less where Walt and Jesse concluded their storied relationship as the latter quasi-victim ducked into his vehicle and rode to freedom. No words could resolve their laundry list of tensions; a single, firm gaze did the trick. With a bullet in his abdomen speeding up an end he already saw ahead of him, Walt saw Jesse off and found an ending on his own terms.
Despite the specificity of its resolution, “Breaking Bad” left a fair amount of ambiguity in play. Will Jesse rescue Brock and finally settle down? Could Skyler’s plea bargain actually shield her from further persecution? Does Walt’s drug money actually make it to his family? And will the rest of the “Breaking Bad” ensemble, not afforded the luxury of watching “Breaking Bad,” comprehend the full extent of Walt’s destructive antics?
Gilligan’s brilliance in this concluding episode stems from an awareness that there’s no need to fully address any of these questions. “Felina” provides just enough parting exchanges to leave every unresolved aspect up to fate. The simplicity of such a proposition is a sly rebuke to Walt’s central flaw, which was perfectly illustrated by the episode’s opening gag in which he frantically attempted to jumpstart a stolen car only to discover its keys. Walt could never accept the possibilities of unknown variables, but life was ultimately too chaotic to adhere to his schemes.
Walt’s greatest enemy wasn’t the Nazis or Gus or Hank, but a universe that defied the cold rationality of his chemical equations. That outcome casts “Breaking Bad” in an otherworldly light far sturdier than his brilliant strategies, none of which could abolish the specter of defeat. It’s here that Gilligan’s roots as a writer for “The X-Files” really came into play, because “Breaking Bad” often felt like science fiction (no more so than when Walt relied on cockamamie plot devices like the ricin and automatic weaponry that figured heavily in the finale).
Broadly speaking, “Felina” took on the dimensions of a post-apocalyptic tale from a world that erupted at least one season earlier. It dealt shrewdly with the prospects of coming to terms with failure and diagnosed a malady more common than Walt’s cancer: the danger of blindly pursuing self-interest without regard for consequences until they’ve already arrived. It’s a disease inflicted by frail human emotions like hubris and rage, set in motion by a shady disregard for morality and put into action by desperation. It comes from a tendency to think first and feel later. It comes from a dark, awful set of motivations both objectively evil and universally familiar. It comes from Walter White.
Alison Willmore is on vacation, but will return to “Breaking Bad” with a final take on the series as a whole next week.