WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE EPISODE.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
— Walter White, saying goodbye to Skyler
How do you end a series as titanic as Breaking Bad? As it turns out, the writers managed to pull it off in the most satisfying way possible, at least by my estimation. The hardest part now is saying goodbye.
Let’s dive right in. “Felina” managed to do everything I had hoped for in a series finale. It tied up all loose ends and provided closure for every major character. Although many fans predicted some of the major plot points of the episode (including the ricin being used in Lydia’s Stevia, the assault on the neo-Nazis, and Walt rescuing Jesse), the finale still had a few special surprises in store that I didn’t dare hope for. For one thing, Walter ingeniously finds a way to give his family the drug money when he’s gone, circumventing both the law and his wife and son’s rejection of it. But most surprising of all, after all that Walt has done and all the horrific consequences those actions have wrought, creator Vince Gilligan decided to give Walter White something resembling redemption. I expected this episode to feature an untethered Heisenberg, free of family obligations, looking for nothing more than revenge and a last stand. What we actually got was a fully self-aware Walter determined to use Heisenberg for justice. True, Walter was ultimately the cause of those evils he sought to expunge, but in the end he accepted this fact and chose to mitigate as much of the damage as possible before he checked out. And he still got that hail of bullets he hoped to go out in.
This rebuttal of my expectations is, in hindsight, exemplified by the cold open. As Walter attempts to start a stolen car and sees the flashing red and blue of police lights through the snow covered windshield he quietly prays, “Just get me home… I’ll do the rest.” Moments later, seemingly in answer to his prayer, the police disperse and the keys fortuitously appear hidden behind the driver’s seat sun-visor. On first viewing, it seemed strange to me that Walter’s murderous, hate-filled intentions were symbolically rewarded. In retrospect, it is obvious that Walter is praying for one last chance to right some of the wrongs he has done. He is praying for the opportunity to enact justice, so that he can die with a slightly cleaner conscience. After all, Walter “still [has] things to do.”
“Felina” also challenged my expectations in the first act with a cleverly orchestrated red herring. While rampant internet speculation held that Walter might choose to use the deadly ricin on his old associates Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, I found this highly unlikely. But, to my surprise, as soon as Walter arrived back in New Mexico he was impersonating a New York Times reporter in order to find out when Gretchen and Elliott would get home. Now it seemed entirely plausible that Walter was bent on violent revenge against his former colleagues (although I figured the ricin would not be involved). After all, he blamed them for cheating him out of his legacy and even for his initial decision to cook meth, leading to the utter ruination of everything Walter cared about. And at the end of “Granite State” they reignited Heisenberg’s anger by publicly denying Walter’s role in their company’s success on Charlie Rose. So as Walter casually prowled around in the shadows of Gretchen and Elliott’s mansion just out of sight as they made idle chit chat, remaining blissfully unaware of his intrusion, my heart raced. For me personally, this scene delivered the most visceral tension of the entire season (outside of Walter’s long march in “To’hajiilee” or Walter and Skyler’s grappling over a kitchen knife in “Ozymandias”). I don’t know why it affected me so strongly, when the emotional stakes were higher in other episodes, but my heart was pounding so hard and fast that my chest hurt. Apparently Gretchen and Elliott felt the same way in the ensuing confrontation, as Elliott meekly dropped the small knife he was brandishing after Walter said with supreme confidence, “Elliott, if we’re gonna go that way, you’re going to need a bigger knife.” Just one of the many examples in this episode where Walter quietly flexes his Heisenberg legend to ‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’
But the show managed to surprise me again, as Walter revealed his plan to smuggle his drug money to his family through Gretchen and Elliott. He instructed them to send Junior the money on his eighteenth birthday in the form of an irrevocable trust, under the guise of a charitable donation to “victims of methamphetamine abuse.” Walt outlines the foolproof nature of the plan by reminding them that they are incredibly wealthy, regularly donate to charity, and have a strong personal connection to him and his family, thereby completely deflecting any suspicion.
To seal the deal he scares the living daylights out of them with the ruse that he hired the two “best hit-men west of the Mississippi” to ensure delivery of the money after his death. In an unexpected moment of humor it is revealed in the next scene that these two hit-men were actually just Badger and Skinny Pete wielding laser pointers (I’m so happy we got to see them one last time!). As much as this endeavor was meant to secure his family’s future, it was also clearly a chance for Walt to confront Gretchen and Elliott so he could enjoy watching them squirm. He relishes in his sneering observations about their wealth and the cushy lives he feels they owe him. He describes in theatrical detail just what might happen to them if they do not comply with his demands and makes them jump when he touches them, as if he is telling a particularly animated ghost story. He delightfully terrorizes them to fulfill his own need for catharsis. He ends his speech with the spiteful implication that they robbed his family of the life they deserved and they are now going to atone: “Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.”
Afterwards, Walter meets up with Badger and Skinny Pete in his car. The exchange that follows comically sums up the entire series. Badger tells Walt that he doesn’t know how to feel about what they just did as Skinny Pete emphatically agrees, chiming in “Yeah fo’ real, yo! Whole thing felt kinda shady… you know, like, morality-wise?” Walter dismisses their concerns by handing each of them a stack of cash. “How do you feel now?” They quickly reply, “Better!” “Yeah, totally improving.” When it comes right down to it, Breaking Bad is largely a meditation on how the lure of money and power corrupts moral judgment.
One of the saddest and most beautiful moments of the finale was Walter’s final visit to say a proper goodbye to Skyler (“Not [like] our last phone call” Walt says ruefully). Marie, who appears to have reconciled with her sister, calls her in a panic to report that Walt has been spotted back at their old house on Negro Arroyo Lane (by neighbor “Becky/Carol whatever!”). She warns her that Walt has been spreading some sort of manifesto and there have been anonymous sightings and bomb threats all over the city to spread the police thin. She tells her on the “million-to-one” chance that Walt makes it past the cops to be on the lookout. It’s nice to see her genuine sisterly affection and concern for Skyler after all they have been through. Presumably they bonded over the shared trauma of Holly’s abduction and Hank’s death. But as the camera slowly zooms in on Skyler, who appears to be an emotionally drained husk of her former self, it is cleverly revealed that Walt has been in the room with Skyler the entire time, hidden conveniently from our view by a wooden column in the apartment. Skyler tells him he has five minutes.
In those five minutes, Walter and Skyler trade wry pleasantries (“You look terrible.” “Yeah, but I feel good.”) and Walter attempts to finally do right by his wife. He tells her about Hank’s murder and gives her the GPS coordinates of his burial site to trade the DEA for a deal with the prosecution. He doesn’t want Skyler or his children to suffer for the decisions he alone made. He also does the one thing that truly demonstrates his love for Skyler: for the first time ever he tells her the bald truth. He tells her that he didn’t do everything he did for the good of his family. He tells her “I did it for me,” and that in the last two years, despite all the horrors that his decisions led to, “I was alive.” And that’s really what it all came down to. Despite the awfulness of this revelation, Skyler smiles for the first time in a long time and we see a small flicker of the love these two shared return. Because Skyler always knew this and just wanted to hear him say it for once. She just wanted the endless fountain of bullshit to run dry and for Walt to finally tell her the real truth. As a reward for his honesty, she allows him to see his baby one last time. As he leaves the house, he catches a final glimpse of his son and says a silent unseen goodbye from afar. It’s too late for him to get any real closure there, but at least he knows his son will get the money in ten months.
So finally Walt goes to confront the neo-Nazis to safeguard his family’s future and make them pay for what they did. Heisenberg may be ‘the one who knocks’ as he so infamously told Skyler in season 4, but this is the first time we’ve really seen him make a house call. He finally lives up to the Heisenberg legend. He is no longer a blustering, posturing man wearing a porkpie hat and shades who calls himself Heisenberg. Now he really becomes ‘the danger.’ That M60 machine gun he rigged to oscillate automatically and rain death on his enemies from the trunk of his stolen car? “Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, SCIENCE!” Walter White is always at his most badass when acting as the MacGyver of Death. In the past few reviews I wrote about the theme of consequences; chickens coming home to roost for Walt and his loved ones. Now the bell tolls for Jack and Todd and the whole neo-Nazi crew. You can’t say they didn’t have it coming.
The most important moment in this confrontation and the closest Walter comes to redemption is when he decides to save Jesse. After Jack drags him out of his hole in chains and Walt looks at his former surrogate son and partner in crime, his expression softens into a sort of muted sorrow. He sees how deeply Jesse has suffered and realizes he is responsible for this extreme dehumanization. At the last moment he pretends to attack Jesse, dragging him to the ground and covering his body to protect him from the M60 he activates to fire on his enemies through the wall. This redemptive act is made even more poignant as Walt takes a ricocheting bullet for Jesse as he shields him. This also gives Jesse the opportunity to commit his first murder on his own terms as he strangles his psychotic keeper Todd with his chains (and murder has never felt this satisfying). Walt also demonstrates to Jesse that he no longer values money over human life as he shoots Uncle Jack in the head mid-way through his pitch. Finally, he gives Jesse the chance to kill him if he wants. Jesse demands that Walt admit that he wants to die before dropping the gun and telling him to do it himself, honoring his promise to never again do what Walt wants.
Walter answers Todd’s phone and breezily informs Lydia that he took out Jack and the rest of the neo-Nazi crew, and oh by the way, “Kind of under the weather? Like you’ve got the flu? That would be the ricin I gave you. I slipped it into that Stevia crap you’re always putting in your tea.” He nods at Jesse who returns this small show of affection with an almost imperceptible smile before driving out of the hell hole at 70 miles per hour laughing hysterically at finally having found freedom. Despite all the reasons they have to hate each other, these two lost souls have been bound together right from the start and leave each other with a look of mutual understanding. They are far from best friends, but this is the closest we’ll get to an impossible reconciliation and I for one couldn’t be happier.
During the episode, both Walt and Jesse have moments of reflection on what their lives could have been if they had made different choices. When Walter went back to his old house on Negro Arroyo Lane to fetch the ricin he had a brief flashback to the exact moment–surrounded by friends and loved ones–when he first thought of making crystal meth. For Jesse, still leashed up like a dog in the superlab, the moment comes when he thinks about his beloved woodshop box he made (callback to season 3’s “Kafkaesque”) and the promise of potential it represented. The box he carelessly traded for an ounce of weed. These regrets from the past underline another central theme from Breaking Bad. Namely that our choices define us, and making the wrong choices can lead to disastrous consequences.
In some ways, all series finales are about saying goodbye: to the fans that supported the show, to the cast and crew who worked together closely for years, and most importantly to the characters who live on forever in the hearts of those the show has touched. I think anyone reading this can agree that this show has touched us all in some indelible way and that these characters will live on. If I had to condense Walter White’s ultimate desire in Breaking Bad, I would say he wished to make himself a legend, whose name would survive his cancer. I think he accomplished this both in his world and in ours, but there were a lot of casualties in his wake. “Felina” focuses on two very important goodbyes before allowing the audience to say a final farewell to Walter White. In the way he chooses to say goodbye to both Skyler and Jesse, Walt seeks to give each of them some measure of justice in the end. In AMC’s epic promos for this episode (see embedded video below) the song “Line of Fire” by Junip poses the question: “What would you do / If it all came back to you?” In Walt’s case, I think this episode answers that question. He can’t make up for all the evil he has done or all the poor choices he made along the way. He can’t rectify his own life or pick up the shattered remains of those he destroyed. He can’t stop the chickens from roosting or the bells from tolling. These are the consequences he must accept. Make no mistake; this is still a tragedy. But at least he can go out with a little dignity and own his mistakes while still dying on his own terms, just as he set out to do in the very first episode. Walter may be beyond redemption, but this is about as close as he can get. Walter White dies appropriately to the strains of Badfinger’s excellent song “Baby Blue,” smiling slightly as he admires a gas mask and gently caresses the meth lab equipment leaving behind a blood-stained handprint as the cops roll in. Feeling like he accomplished everything he needed to, all Walt has left is the one thing he always loved: the chemistry.
I now feel confident that Breaking Bad is the greatest television drama ever made. No other show has told such a singularly focused story about one man’s journey (from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Vince Gilligan once described it). And the thing is, it was consistently great for five seasons. It was like the best movie I’ve ever seen extended to sixty-two hours! Everything from direction to cinematography, writing, character development, acting, thematic resonance, and that amazing soundtrack were perfect. I will also sorely miss the most stylish montages and time lapses ever to grace the small screen. In fact, Breaking Bad was so good that I feel like I don’t want to watch TV anymore, because nothing else can compare. Of course this is ridiculous and the feeling will eventually wear off (I’m a HUGE TV junkie). But it will be very difficult to fill Breaking Bad’s considerably well-polished shoes or the hole it has left in my heart now that it’s over. All I can say for now is, thank god for Game of Thrones.
Also: Be sure to check out the video embedded below. It is an extremely well-edited fan video documenting the transformation of Walter White over the course of the series set to music and it beautifully captures the show’s overall flavor! I love it! Very emotional and a great way to celebrate the end of an era.
Awesome Fan-Edited Walter White Transformation Video
Breaking Bad Series Finale Video Promo ‘Felina’
Inside Breaking Bad’s Season Finale ‘Felina’
Follow the Breaking Bad chat on Twitter
Get more Breaking Bad