Break Down: A Delayed Look at the Breaking Bad Finale
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The final season of Breaking Bad has come and gone. This chapter of incredible television and incredible critical and financial success for AMC is over, and we are left to reflect on its legacy. I loved this show, and I loved the final season. But despite that love, and my respect for the cast and crew, I am left uncomfortable by the show’s finale.
It feels strange to be dissatisfied with this ending, as it does an admirable job wrapping up its various plot-lines and providing resolution for the characters. As we close on the show Walt has made peace with himself and his family, Hank and Steve Gomez will get a proper burial, which will bring peace to Marie, Walter Jr. is going to get Walt’s money, the Nazis are dead, Lydia is dying, Jesse is free, Todd died by his hand, and Walt dies happy. This episode seems to have been written with wrapping up all dangling plot-lines in mind. And therein lies the problem.
While tying up plot threads is something that satisfies a show’s fans, it normally comes second to creating a compelling narrative. There has been a lot more talk about plot holes on the internet in the last few years. But if you ignore the people who nitpick for the sake of it, most complaints about plot come up with works that are already flawed on a narrative level.
Look at two of the properties that helped really bring this nonsense to prominence: Mass Effect 3 and The Dark Knight Rises. The ending of Mass Effect 3 was roundly criticized for its plot contrivances and failure to tie up its story. But these issues were spawned by the fact that the creators chose to finish their game with an artistic statement that could at best be called vague and confusing. Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises was roundly criticized online for being riddled with plot holes, but these issues were brought up largely because that film was unable to maintain the same narrative flow that encouraged audiences to ignore similar issues in the previous films. Plot holes became issues in these titles because audiences felt there was something wrong with them, but couldn't articulate the deeper problems, so they grasped onto the obvious plot holes and dangling story-lines.
As such, in Breaking Bad, though we have resolution as to the fates of all of the major characters, we are left with a series of larger story issues that have left many saying that the show wrapped things up “too neatly.” But once again, it’s not really the plot that’s the problem, it's the larger narrative issue underneath.
Let’s start with the general tone of the episode, and the feeling it imparts to the audience. This episode is shown as a complete victory for Walt. He eliminates all of his enemies, frees Jesse, gets his money to his family, and gets to die in peace. I’ve seen many people online comment that the ending made them feel warm inside.
When has that ever happened on this show?
Breaking Bad is a show that has made its audience feel many things, but it has never been known to let the audience be happy for its characters at a point of resolution. Throughout the series, Walt’s lies, manipulation, and violence have brought nothing but pain onto himself and those around him. Even his victories—the executions of Crazy8, Tuco, and Gus, the train heist, the elimination of Mike’s men—have corrupted him and those around him. Yet in this final episode, those things are shown either as neutral or even positive actions.
Moving chronologically, there is something deeply wrong with the scene in which Walt gives his money to Eliot and Gretchen. Now, that’s not to say that it wasn't a well presented scene. It played with audience expectations, created a great deal of tension without much action, and the moment that the lasers turned on was the tensest moment of the episode. But it needs to be considered in the context of the show as a whole.
Walt has continually gotten deeper and deeper into the drug trade through lies and manipulation, and up until now, this final season was where his lies fell apart. He’s unable to convince Hank to back down on his investigation, he’s unable to convince Jesse that he was right to poison Brock, he’s unable to stop Jack from killing Hank, he’s unable to get his family to stop asking questions about Hank and come with him to a new life, and he’s even unable to get his son to accept $100000 to help his family. That phone call to Walter Jr. symbolizes the final loss, the erosion of everything he worked for. Walt denies it, tries to bargain with his son to somehow justify his actions--“It can’t all have been for nothing.”—but fails. Then in the finale he ensures that Walter Jr. will get the money anyway.
The previous episode, Granite State, showed how Walt had fallen. He can’t order around Saul, he has lost the authority brought by his empire, and his $11 million can only serve to keep him alive in a dingy log cabin, bound to the whims of the man who brings him food and incapable of getting his son to take his money. He can’t manipulate anyone around him with money or fear any more. And thus it’s fairly jarring when, in the first scene of the next episode, he simply finds people who he can manipulate again, tormenting Gretchen and Eliot with fear and coercing Badger and Skinny Pete with money. All to force Walter Jr. to bear the burden of money that he explicitly does not want.
And it’s not unreasonable for Walter Jr. to not want this money. The allure of that money corrupted his family, lead to the death of his uncle, and acts as a permanent reminder of his father's lies. Through this action, Walt is condemning his son to have to contend with that legacy, to be haunted by the blood spilled to bring that money to him. After everything that happened, it doesn't seem right for Walt to succeed in getting that money to his family.
I also take issue with the way the violence is framed in this episode. It may seem odd to criticize violence in this show, but the way that it is used in this episode feels contradictory to how it has been characterized in the rest of the series. In virtually every violent encounter in Breaking Bad, violence has harmed both the victim and inflicter of violence. Walt feels sorrow and has his life partially unravel when he has to take a human life, and at the point that he no longer suffers for his actions (i.e. the poisoning of Brock, the deaths of Mike’s men), he has lost his soul, and the level of his violence is meant to reflect how far marooned he has become from his former self.
Here, the violence has little impact. By showing Walt building the rotating gun turret, it is clear what he is going to do, killing the tension. It rises again when Walt loses his keys, which were shown to be the trigger mechanism, but he is only without them for about 30 seconds. After that, things play out exactly how you would expect. The violence does not surprise, because the audience knows it will happen, and it does not convey greater darkness, because Walt is killing Nazis, and characters are always justified killing Nazis.
Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, as this last act of violence does prove to be Walt's ultimate undoing. One could also say that Jesse recognizes the way violence has destroyed the people around him based on his refusal to kill Walt. Still, in a final confrontation as bloody as this one is, the action itself feels oddly bloodless.
Adding to that point, I'm uncomfortable with Jesse personally killing Todd. Many view this as a victory, Jesse triumphing over the Nazis and getting revenge on his former tormentor, but this sort of savagery is wholly uncharacteristic of him. Jesse doesn't relish murder the way that Jack and his gang do. The first half of season four is dedicated to how broken up Jesse is with murdering Gale. Seeing Jesse inflict that kind of violence so willingly, even on someone who has done so much to harm him, reflects an idea that seems unintentional, but casts a damper on his fate: through physical and emotional torture, the Nazis were able to kill something inside Jesse.
This is perhaps an issue of personal taste in characterization, but I don’t think this feeling is mine alone. Aaron Paul, the actor who plays Jesse, commented during the post-episode discussion show “Talking Bad” about the possibility of Jesse killing Walt, “The more episodes that were revealed, I realized that I didn't want Jesse to take another life,” before quickly adding, “besides Todd.”
On the subject of killings, while I'm not opposed to the death of Lydia, I do have a problem with the way it is displayed. I have mentioned that the violence in the finale feels too morally clear-cut, and lacks the impact that the series has previously given death. Here we see the same thing, with Walt gloating over having poisoned Lydia and the show doing nothing to subvert this stance, as they did in the similar scene that ended season four with the conversation between Walt and Skyler. What seems odd to me is that a single line could have added a lot more meaning to the scene, deepening the impact of Lydia’s death and adding one final moral blot on Walt’s actions.
Lydia having a young daughter is what humanized her when we first came in contact with her at the beginning of the fifth season. It’s what allowed Mike to empathize with her enough to keep her alive. Leaving the daughter out of Lydia’s final moment seems like an attempt to make her death less morally ambiguous.
Finally, on a dramatic structuring note, it feels wrong to me for Walt to die with a smile on his face. Yes, he made peace with himself, and yes, he dies with his lab (which I maintain was not actually the most important thing to him, but was the only thing that never judged him for his actions). But it feels wrong on a dramatic level for a tragedy to end on a happy note, even if that note is bitter sweet. It suggests that Walt got what he ultimately wanted, providing for his family and doing something different before he died. While his life is destroyed before our eyes, that peace that he finds in the lab suggests that it was somehow worth it, and that idea feels completely dissonant with the rest of the show and what we've seen of his family and friends' lives during this episode.
None of this is to say that there weren't strong moments in the finale. As I said before, the scene in Gretchen and Eliot’s home is appropriately tense, and Walt saying goodbye to Skyler and relieving her and the family of the burden of being the justification for his actions was as sweetly sad as it needed to be. While I am uncomfortable with his final kill, I am happy that Jesse got away, and has the opportunity for a new life ahead of him. But as much as I love parts of it, these nagging issues taint my final perception of Breaking Bad’s swan song. The creators have served us a magnificent chocolate cake that we have devoured eagerly, each bite better than the last, despite the fact that we know that the cake is destroying us on the inside. But as we taste the last bite, we find that though it is still good, it is watery, and leaves an odd after-taste that is hard to shake. As much as I enjoyed the cake as a whole, the melancholy feeling of having the cake gone is mixed with dissatisfaction with the final bite.
I wonder if Malcolm in the Middle is on.
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