|By Seth Levi|
For those in the musical know, the final episode of Breaking Bad began with some heavy foreshadowing (I wasn’t one of them).
In the car Walt steals a car to drive back to New Mexico, Marty Robbins’ Streets of Laredo is cued up in its tape deck. As a friend explained to me, it’s about a dying cowboy.
We know then how it will all end.
While there weren’t too many unexpected surprises in the finale, Vince Gilligan still managed to defy expectations.
After leaving New Hampshire, Walt shows up to Elliot and Gretchen’s house in Santa Fe. I don’t think anyone can claim they saw that coming.
And for a moment, it seemed like Walt would kill them and everyone else who had ever wronged him.
Instead, he enlisted them against their will to give Walt’s remaining drug money to Walter, Jr., pretending that it was from them so the police wouldn’t seize it. And in another twist that I’m sure no one foresaw, Walt had Badger and Skinny Pete pretend to be sharpshooters who would kill Elliot and Gretchen if they didn’t go through with Walt’s plan (a brilliant way to bring back these characters one last time).
In a sense, this was a more fitting punishment for Gretchen and Elliot then killing them. They’re now roped into Walt’s underworld, and will spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders, thinking that one day Walt’s assassins may be coming for them.
At this point the show finally caught up with the flash forwards.
After retrieving the ricin, Walt crashes Lydia and Todd’s weekly meeting at the café (and right at the moment when Todd is awkwardly trying to compliment Lydia on her “shirt” — apparently he hasn’t gotten very far in wooing her).
Walt asks for a meeting with Uncle Jack, saying that he knows they’re running low on methylamine, has a way to cook meth without it, and it will only cost $1 million. Over Todd’s objections, Lydia agrees to setup the meeting. Walt leaves, and Lydia unknowingly dumps a bag of artificial sweetener that has been spiked with the ricin into her tea. Now that a lot of people did see coming, but it was so natural and unforced that it worked.
Next up on his list of settling all business was Skyler.
At her house he offers an apology, saying that he didn’t want to leave things how they were after their last phone call. He gives her the lottery ticket with the GPS coordinates for where Hank and Gomez are buried, suggestion that she use it as a bargaining chip for getting a favorable plea deal.
In perhaps the climax of the episode, if not the season, Walt admits to Skyler that he did it all not for the family, but for himself. He was a master at cooking meth and he enjoyed doing it. When Walt walks out of her apartment afterwards and the show cut to commercial, I felt like the show could have just ended there without dealing with the last piece of business: the Nazis and Jesse.
In Walt’s final plan, he builds an apparatus out of a garage door opener and the assault rifle he purchased in the flash-forward, and takes it to his meeting with Uncle Jack.
At the compound, Uncle Jack is uninterested in Walt’s new cooking method because they can get more methylamine through Lydia. He’s about to kill Walt, but Walt manages to catch his attention by accusing him of partnering with Jesse. Outraged at that suggestion, Jack has Jesse hauled in to show that he’s his prisoner; Walt grabs Jesse, pushes him to the floor, activates his machine gun — which is hidden in the trunk of his car — and kills all of the Nazis, except Todd, who Jesse strangles.
Walt hands over a gun Jesse, and asks him to kill him. Jesse is about to, but after seeing Walt has been wounded, tells him if he wants to die, he’ll have to do it himself.
On Jesse’s way outside to get a car, Lydia calls Todd’s cell phone to find if Walt is dead yet. Walt takes the call, tells her that he knows she’s experiencing symptoms of a cold, and says goodbye. About to drive away, Jesse looks back at Walt, Walt gives him a nod, and Jesse drives off screaming in joy.
Mortally wounded and with the sound of police sirens in the background, Walt limps over to Todd’s meth lab. Being in the lab makes Walt happy — it’s a bizarrely sentimental moment — and he dies from the gunshot wound in the place he’s most happy moments before the police arrived.
On a high level, it would seem that Vince Gilligan gave fans what they wanted, wrapping all the lose ends up. There was no ambiguity a la The Sopranos, no completely defying expectations for the sake of it a la Seinfeld, and no “what in good god was that crap?” a la Lost. And I’m sure a lot of people took some comfort in thinking that Walt redeemed himself. But I’d argue he didn’t.
As I’ve been saying for the last several weeks, if Walt really wanted to help Skyler, he would have turned himself in, and confessed to everything. But he loves being a gangster more than he loves her. Giving her the location of Hank’s body is kind of worthless — maybe the feds take a year off her jail time, assuming they believe Walt told her the location, that she didn’t know it all along — and the whole apology to her was rather self-serving. I saw it more about Walt feeling better about himself, that he wasn’t a total asshole. While the call to her in the third to last episode was meant to help convince the feds she wasn’t part of their meth operation, I do think his criticism of her was sincere — he really does blame her for all of his misfortune.
While Walt certainly saves Jesse’s life, I don’t think that was ever his primary intent with killing the Nazis, and it’s kind of too little too late. Because of Walt, Andrea is dead, Brock is probably in foster care, and Jesse’s life is over. He’s a known accomplice of a meth lord, with no money, no ability to get out of the country. Whatever’s next will obviously beat being tortured, but his life is going to be a pretty miserable existence. In the episode Jesse daydreamed of being a carpenter — applying his craftsmanship to something more useful pursuit — but all that potential is lost.
Perhaps the one sacrifice Walt made was removing the blue meth — his opus magnum, his legacy — from the market. Without someone cooking his recipe, the name “Heisenberg” will eventually be forgotten.
The one thing I really didn’t like about the episode was Walt figuring out a way to get Walt, Jr. the drug money. I just don’t think Walt deserved to get that kind of break. He should have gone to the grave without having helping his family.
I also don’t think we needed to get confirmation that Lydia was going to die from the ricin. While there was never any doubt that she had been poisoned, I would have preferred it if there was never 100% certain she was dead. There needed to be a little ambiguity.
Final thought: one of my friends made a really good point that the episode made the case for why there should be commercials. Each one was perfectly placed, heightening the drama by temporarily pausing the narrative. They were like well placed rests in classical music.
For example, when Walt tells Gretchen and Elliot to walk out to his car and then the show cut to commercial, pausing it right there made that moment so frightening and exciting. I was blown away.
Had there been no commercial and the scene immediately cut to them piling up Walt’s money in the house, it would have lacked all of the impact. The same thing is true of the previously mentioned scene when Walt admits to Skyler that he cooked meth for himself. There simply needed to be a pause there for the audience to soak up what he was saying.
Overall, as a series finale I’d put it in the 70th percentile. Very satisfying; it definitely resonated, but not as good as Star Trek: TNG, The Sopranos, and Seinfeld. The show on the whole, though, ranks with The Sopranos, The Wire, and Seinfeld as one of the all-time best.