Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Eric Kohn
September 30, 2013 9:00 AM
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In the 'Breaking Bad' Finale, Walter White's Saga Reaches a Satisfying End, But Leaves the Right Questions Unanswered

Bryan Cranston in "Felina," the series finale of "Breaking Bad."

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.

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  • John McGrath | September 30, 2013 4:07 PMReply

    The main reveal about this final episode was Walt's syaing that he did it all for himself, he liked it, he was good at it. Couldn't very careerist "father" say this about the career that consumed him and kept him from his family?

    We went from powerless chemistry teacher to powerful drug lord, based on the same skill he used to earn his teacher's pittance, chemistry. Any release from powerlessness is heady, intoxicating, as shown at the end by Jesse. But to go from powerlessness to intense power is especially intoxicating. he wanted to take care of his family out of love, then duty. But he did his cooking with a love that never ended, even at the end of his enterprise and the wreck of his life.

    Freud said that love and work are the two most important things in life. In our society many of us choose work and exclude love.

    Yet Vince Gilligan alludes to "the Searchers" as an inspiration. In that movie a young mother is killed by Apaches and her baby daughter is kidnapped and raised as Apache. For years the baby's father and her uncle, her mother's brother, search to find her. The movie opens with a song that asks a question: Why would anyone leave everything and roam, what's the motive, it is love, is it hate? For teh uncle it's hate, he hates Indians and wants to kell his niece for turning Indian. For the father it is love, he wants to tell his daughter that he loves her no matter what. All along it is not sufficient for the uncle to plan to j=kill her, he feels compelled to win the father over as the killer, or co-killer. The undle has always despised the father as a weakling. But in the end he recognizes the strength of the father' s love, and converts to the father's view.

    at the end of Breaking Bad we are left with love, as in the Searchers. Love for craft, the dominant love. But also love for Jesse, as both a fellow master craftsman and a substitute son, and love for Walt's biological family. For his biological family Walt is still driven to be the provider-father. And he makes that happen. Missions accomplished. Time to die. Walt moves from classical tyrant to classical heroic warrior, capturing his lost youth and redeeming his misspent life. he dies as a warrior, with a form of warrior honor.

  • Mark | September 30, 2013 1:23 PMReply

    Brilliant recap and review. Thanks

  • LW | September 30, 2013 10:41 AMReply

    Holly, not Hallie.

  • Eric | September 30, 2013 10:45 AM

    This is fixed. Thanks.

  • Luke | September 30, 2013 10:33 AMReply

    That is a brilliant review! You should do it ore often than anyone else here on indiewire.

  • Addison | September 30, 2013 9:49 AMReply

    Check out my Breaking Bad finale recap podcast right here: http://bit.ly/1blmJyW

    Let me know what you think and thanks for listening!