And so “Breaking Bad” ends roughly where the season five began, with Walt celebrating his 52nd birthday and seemingly having all of his wishes come true. To say that excitement has been feverish coming into “Felina” would be an understatement, and expectations have been sky high for creator Vince Gilligan—who wrote and directed the finale—to the give the show a fitting sendoff. But the result is an effort that feels compromised to some degree, leaning a bit too hard toward fan service and winding up feeling thematically empty by time the credits roll. For all the hardship Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has faced in reaching his destiny, he ultimately gets it pretty easy here, with almost every part of his plan coming off perfectly, and the show nearly forgiving the monstrousness he’s shown over the last two seasons.
Right from the start, Walt is lucky, managing to dodge the cops who come looking for him at the bar where he watched that crucial episode of “Charlie Rose,” and he finds his way into an unlocked car. “Just let me get home, I’ll do the rest,” he prays and after a failed attempt to try and hotwire the vehicle, like a miracle from heaven, a set of car keys are found behind a sun visor and a Marty Robbins cassette in the tape deck. And as “El Paso” rocks out of the speakers, it’s the first in what becomes a handful of overplayed moments. The song tells the story of a Mexican outlaw who guns down a man coming after his beloved “Feleena” (“Felina” is an anagram of “finale”) and declares, “My love is stronger than my fear of death,” which is certainly a sentiment that can be applied to Walt. But placing it so firmly in the show almost takes away from its power; it’s the kind of detail best relished as a trivial aside, but feels forced when pains are taken to point it out.
Hitting the road and heading back to Albuquerque, Walt’s first stop is at the rather magnificent home of Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley, Jessica Hecht), whom we last saw promising to fund meth rehab centers. And their sudden reappearance perhaps provides the episode’s sole moment of real narrative inspiration. While many thought that Walt had something more sinister in mind for the duo who took his work and got rich off it, his plans for them were far more practical and meaningful: he dumps roughly $9 million in their living room, and asks/demands that they set it up in trust for Walt Jr. and the rest of his family. Why? The feds may raise an eyebrow, but won’t be able question them too closely, if the funds come from the millionaire Schwartzes. They agree and reluctantly shake on it, but just to oversell the moment, Walt signals outside their east facing windows and two red laser targets land on their chests. He warns them that if they don’t give Walt Jr. the cash, sometime, somewhere, somehow, an assassin is going to take them out. But when Walt leaves and gets back in his stolen Volvo, it’s revealed that Badger (Matthew L. Jones) and “Skinny” Pete (Charles Baker) were those “assassins.” But really, they weren’t needed at all. There would be no reason for Elliot and Gretchen to deceive Walt at this point, and bringing these two street hustlers back in at the last moment is the first in what becomes a series of contrived, strained and hard to believe moments over the next hour.
Walt’s next stop is the coffeeshop, where he interrupts the weekly meeting between Lydia (Laura Fraser) and Todd (Jesse Plemons). He begs them to hear him out, he’s got a plan: he needs money, so he’s willing to sell him his new meth formulation, one that doesn’t require any methylamine, that hard to find chemical that required a train heist to obtain in “Dead Freight.” Whether they buy the idea that he’s concocted some miraculous new chemistry while on the run or not is beside the point, as Lydia agrees (with a sinister motive in mind) and a meet is set up for later that night. Walt leaves, and Lydia pours her always required Stevia into her tea, with Gilligan’s camera looming steady overhead, watching that white powder pour into the cup … if you haven’t figured it out, it’s the ricin (with Gilligan flashing back earlier in the episode to Walt grabbing it out of his now derelict house). But wait, how did Walt pick the right table? How did he know no one else would sit there? Or that someone out of Stevia at another table wouldn’t grab a packet? Did the staff not notice some disheveled man fooling around with the sugar at one table? It strains credulity but it’s one of a few instances in the finale where Gilligan is hoping the story will trump the reaches he makes to get where he wants to take us.
After putting that chess piece in play, Walt makes his way to Skyler (Anna Gunn). Just before he arrives, Marie (Betsy Brandt) gives her a call warning that she’s heard Walt is back in town and the cops are doubling down on watching any places he might show up. But apparently law enforcement officials are keeping it so loose around Skyler that Walt manages to walk right in undetected to see her, and if his angry phone call in “Ozymandias” wasn’t enough to exonerate her from charges, his last gesture just might be. He gives Skyler the battered lottery ticket containing the GPS coordinates in the desert, telling her that she can let the DEA know they’ll find the bodies of Hank and Gomez out there, and perhaps trade that information for leniency. But perhaps his greatest gift to Skyler is the truth. Trying to explain one last time why he did everything and what he put himself and his family through, he says, “I did it for me. I liked it, I was good at it … I was alive.” It’s a moment of thorny honesty and complicated truth “Felina” could’ve used more of. And after a touching his daughter for the last time, and sticking around outside—again, with the DEA failing to notice him—to catch one last glimpse of Walt Jr., Walt goes to meet his fate.
We fast-forward to the evening, and Walt goes to the Nazi Jack’s compound under the pretense of a meeting. Gilligan gives us multiple shots of the red car keys in case we miss the fact that they will be very important to the events that are about to transpire, which already takes some of the wind out of sails of this showdown. So too does an earlier scene in the desert, with Walt going full on MacGyver and setting up some crude mechanical device for the M60. While Uncle Jackboots’ crew pat down Walt and even have him raise his shirt to make sure he’s not wearing a wire, they don’t bother checking the trunk of his car, because why would they? However, they do hang on to his wallet and keys for the time being, and bring him in to meet Jack (Michael Bowen). And the Nazi wastes no time in turning down Walt’s offer of a new recipe and gets ready to send him out back to get killed, when Walt desperately accuses Jack of reneging on their deal and partnering with Jesse. For some reason, Jack thinks it’s a big deal to be called a liar by a man he’s about to kill and so Walt is kept conveniently alive so that Jesse (Aaron Paul) can be brought up from the meth lab and shown off as the slave laborer that he is.
Using this brief pause in their meeting, Walt edges toward the pool table where his keys have been tossed manages to get them back … just in time to see Jesse hauled in, shackled at the wrists and ankles. Walt seizes his opportunity and wrestles Jesse to the ground. He hits the trunk button on the car keys and the hood flips up, the M60 roaring to life and killing everyone in the room except Todd, who managed to hit the deck fast enough, and Walt and Jesse, who are already there. When the bullets run out, Jesse doesn’t waste a moment, and chokes Todd with his shackles from behind, killing him, grabbing the key from his pocket and setting himself free. Meanwhile, Walt puts a final bullet into Jack, with no concern anymore about where his tens of millions of dollars are. And then… it’s time for the last meeting between the two men who started it all …
It’s Walt holding a gun ready to finish his former partner, but looking at Jesse, worn out and battered, he can’t bring himself to kill him. He drops the weapon to the floor and kicks it over to his partner, saying, “You want this,” with his eyes already calling for death. Tired of his manipulations, Jesse yells at him to tell the truth. “I want it,” Walt says, but Jesse, who has been through hell and too many manipulations, finally realizes that the ultimate response is to put the ball back in Walt’s court. “Then you do it,” he says, dropping the gun to the floor and walking out. But it would have simply been speeding up the inevitable. Walt has been wounded by his own plan—a bullet from the M60 piercing his torso—and he’s bleeding out. But there’s one more piece of business to take care of.
Todd’s phone starts ringing (the ringtone? “Lydia The Tattooed Lady“) and Walt answers, but it seems Lydia doesn’t recognize his voice, as she asks, “Is it done? Is he gone?” Walt replies, “Yeah, it’s done” when Lydia finally realizes who she’s talking to, Walt informs her that Todd and everyone else is dead, and by the way, the reason she’s feeling so shitty? He admits to swapping her Stevia with ricin. Some have questioned his motivation in killing Lydia, and there are a few reasons why he’d want her gone, with pride being up there, as Lydia continues to sell product under the Heisenberg brand. And killing her off essentially closes the loop on everything Walt started since the day he first got into an RV to start cooking. With that last thread knotted off, Walt is ready to die, and he takes one last walk through Jack’s meth facilities before passing out as the cops roll in …
But over top that moment is Badfinger‘s “Baby Blue,” which plays out the show, and simply, it’s wildly inappropriate. Yes, it starts off with the line, “Guess I got what I deserved,” which is kinda winky, ha-ha funny but like much of “Felina,” it seems tonally ajar from what the (mostly) deadly serious season five—and the series as a whole—had been setting up. “Breaking Bad” is the saga of one man completely losing his moral compass, and being overtaken by power and hubris to the extent that his sins leave deep and lasting ramifications on his family, friends and even on his own life. While Walt did rise the top of the game, much of the last sixteen episodes have been about his descent to the bottom, where it looked like even for all his methodical planning and crafty evasions, he would get what was coming to him.
And in a sense he does, clearly, by losing his life, but of all the characters on “Breaking Bad” who deserve closure, Walt isn’t one of them. The key to his suffering, and something that was nearly Shakespearean at times, was his struggle for his family to recognize what he perceived to be a sacrifice to provide for them. He was blinded to his own ego and thirst for power, to the point where he was continually perplexed why Skyler couldn’t see the merit of his actions. But “Felina” lets Walt have his way. Nearly every part of his plan goes off the way he wants, and he even gets his death ushered in more quickly than expected. But more importantly, he’s given a chance to reconcile and see his family, and waste everyone who double crossed him. Walt gets a fantastic blaze of glory to go out on, but this character, and the show, have never been about that. All of his victories until now have been hard won, with collateral damage that always weighed in some part on his conscience. That was what made Walt the kind of character we tuned into week after week, year after year. But “Felina” spends too much time tying up the story of “Breaking Bad,” to the point where the multi-faceted character of Walt is rendered one-dimensional. There is such a thing as too much closure, and there is an argument to be made that a slightly more ambiguous ending, where Walt’s plan half-worked, and he didn’t get what he wanted, the fate of his family—and even his own life—was left in serious question, would’ve been far more fitting.
But instead, we get Jesse driving a muscle car and woo-hooing his way into freedom, which is sort of indicative of “Felina” as a whole. It seems like an episode written for the fans instead of for the show, and it falters because of it. For five seasons “Breaking Bad” cooked up some the best drama on television, hands down, but unfortunately, for its final hurrah, we got an unsatisfying batch. [C+]