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Was ‘Breaking Bad’s Finale Too “Tidy”?

Was 'Breaking Bad's Finale Too "Tidy"?

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about the
different perspectives from which people watch — or, sob, watched — Breaking Bad.
Are you a Skyler-hater? Are you Team Walt? But as the reviews from the show’s
final episode, “Felina,” started to accumulate, the divide was less between those
who wanted Walter White to “win,” whatever that might mean, and those who wanted
him to be punished for his sins than between those who found its finale
satisfying and those who found it, well, a little too much so.

Words like “tidy” and “neat” recurred in the write-ups of
those who felt Vince Gilligan had sacrificed thematic heft for the dotting of I’s
and the crossing of T’s. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald called it “television as a science experiment.”

“It’s not that the Walt needed to suffer, exactly, for the
show’s finale to be challenging, or original, or meaningful,” wrote the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, “but Walt succeeded with so
little friction… that it felt quite unlike the destabilizing series that I’d
been watching for years.”

In the runup to the series finale, Gilligan called himself “a
closure guy,” and closure “Felina” provided, at least in the sense of answering
just about every “What happens to…?” question anyone might have cared to ask. But
while Walt did get to go out in a blaze of glory, taking Uncle Jack’s Nazi
brigade and greedy, deceitful Lydia with him, the show didn’t end quite as
triumphantly as it might have seemed. There was red meat aplenty for those who wanted
to see Walt get even with Jack, or Jesse get even with Todd. Justice, after a fashion,
was served. But fast-forward a day or a week or a year and things no longer
look so rosy.

For Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz  “Felina” wasn’t “just a finale,
but a comment on finales, and the finale’s creative and marketplace need to
satisfy as many viewers as possible, whether they saw a show’s main character
as a super-cool antihero, a pathetic scumbag, something in between, or none of
the above.”
 I’m not sure such metacommentary was intentional, but I do
think that “Felina” is meant to play on several levels, and to reward initial
and subsequent viewings in different ways.

That said, I don’t think anyone regards “Felina”‘s final act
as Breaking Bads finest hour. Walt
rigs up a robot machine-gun mount to take out the Nazis, and Uncle Jack
responds to Walt challenging his honesty like a cut-rate Bond villain? (“I’m
going to shoot you in the head, but first let me tell you my evil plan.”) Not
great, Bob. But go back to the beginning of the end, the magnificent scenes
that lay the groundwork for that action-packed climax. Take the (literally)
cold open, where a freezing Walt can only wait and pray for the New Hampshire
police to pass him by. Or the chilling scene where he sneaks in behind Gretchen
and Elliott Schwartz, invading the sprawling mansion built with Gray Matter’s
profits.

For Nussbaum, the scene shows Gretchen and Elliott as “cartoon
assholes,” “monstrous foodies” arguing over the food at Per Se. But I see it
differently, or at least as a scene that’s meant to be seen from different
perspectives. For Walt, it’s a nightmare come true: the woman he once loved and
his former friend, enjoying their hyperbolic wealth, and — even worse — visibly in love with each other. Bad enough they’re rich; do they have to
be happy? But while their privileged
babble has a tinge of caricature, or at least of the theatrical strain that
runs all through Breaking Bad, there’s
nothing inherently despicable about it, anymore than it’s inherently foolish
when a trembling Elliott threatens Walt with a kitchen utensil. Sure, Walt gets
the Crocodile Dundee zinger (“If we’re
gonna go that way, you’re gonna need a bigger knife”), but his bravado falls
flat. He’s not staring down Gus Fring or Krazy-8, but a good-hearted husband who’s
not equipped to deal with an armed sociopath in his living room. Perhaps we’re
supposed to feel some matter of satisfaction as Walt puts one last trick over
on his supposed betrayers, passing off laser-pointer-wielding methheads as
deadly snipers, but the scornful glee Walt takes in making Gretchen and Elliott
fear for their lives is ugly and mean — or, as Skinny Pete put it, “kinda
shady, like, morality-wise?” (When you’ve
pricked Skinny Pete’s conscience, you have truly crossed a line.)

In her review, titled “Breaking
Bad
Lands Its Finale a Little Too Cleanly,” NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote that she “could not escape the
feeling that by earning anyone’s sympathy, Walt was getting away with one last
self-aggrandizing con,” and she wasn’t the only one who felt that in allowing
its hero to die on his own terms, the show effectively forced its audience onto
Team Walt. But while it superficially closed the book on Walter White, the show
left its most important questions unanswered — not questions about what will
happen to the rest of Walt’s money, or whether Huell will ever make it out of
that motel room, but about who Walter White was, and whether even the worst of
us can be redeemed. In his Grantland piece, Greenwald wondered if the finale, while
punishing Walt with death, “was too easy on us.” But we’re the ones left to
sort through the mess Walt left behind.

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