Breaking Bad: Why the Nazis Don't Work
I already said my piece about the ending of Breaking Bad long after everyone stopped caring, but I want to expound on an element that makes the ending feel unsatisfying: the place of the Nazis.
I’m not about to go through the history of Nazism in this article. We know that the Nazis did bad things (or at least some of us do), and in Western popular culture, Nazis are the go-to shorthand for evil. This is especially true of modern-day characters that use Nazi symbols, because while it is acknowledged that many Germans fought for the Nazis without allegiance to their ideology, modern adopters of Nazi iconography are viewed (correctly) as doing so to project hatred and intolerance.
This pattern holds true for Breaking Bad. The very first image we see of Todd’s uncle Jack is the Nazi tattoo on his hand, instantly telling the audience that we are to associate this man above all else with evil. This is backed up by Jack’s gang then orchestrating the single most violent event in the entire series.
You know the one I'm talking about.
The event represents the new moral low-point for Walt. How can you go lower than working with Nazis? Therein lies the problem with the Nazis: they only work as symbols of the Walt’s moral degradation, and they only serve that purpose when they are on Walt’s side. When used as villains they only serve to confer an undeserved aura of redemption on a character that has learned nothing.
What is Walt doing over the course of the series? Trying to get money to his family, killing rival cooks, and evading the law. What does Walt do in the finale? He gets money to his family, kills rival cooks, and evades the law. He acknowledges that he did all of these things for himself all along, and tries to make amends for some wrongdoings by giving the location of Hank’s body and saving Jesse, but he is fundamentally pursuing the same destructive ends he has throughout the series. The only difference is that his enemies are now Nazis, and in the words of Ben Croshaw, “Nazis are like Skittles, you can rid the world of as many as you like and never get a bad taste in your mouth.”
The redemption in the finale is implicit, Walt is fighting against the Nazis therefore he is doing good. The thing is, Jack and his gang barely qualify as Nazis. In there time in the series they never do anything to back up the idea that they are Nazis. The only thing we have to tell us there are Nazis is their tattoos. Without them they are just a particularly well-equipped biker gang.
Now you may say that Todd distinguishes himself as a villain that needs to be eliminated. Now it is true, Todd stands out from his Nazi compatriots, having more time to develop a presence on screen that the audience can revile. But Todd makes himself known as a threat before the Nazis ever come into play through the killing of the boy on the bike. Perhaps because he has a sinister presence beyond a Nazi association, Todd is the only gang member who doesn't sport tattoos. He doesn't need them to be identified as a bad guy.
Screw you Meth Damon!
Why does all this matter? Well, throughout the series, Walt’s antagonists have always had some characteristic that identifies them as a threat to Walt or his loved ones: Crazy 8 will kill Walt and his family if freed, Tuco is a violent psychotic, Jane will lead Jesse to overdose, Gus’ henchmen used and then killed a child, and Gus will kill his employees when they get out of line. The revelation at the end of the fourth season that Walt was willing to take a step farther than Gus for survival symbolized Walt’s passage into the Black. His supposed return to some kind of light is implied by the killing of Nazis, but that idea falls flat if they are Nazis only in name. Because when you get right down to it, Jack and his gang are no different from Walt.
We’ve already gone over how Todd mimics Walt’s outlook, so let’s focus on Jack and his men. What do they do that identifies them as evil? Eliminate people who are threats to them. Hurt Jesse’s loved ones to control him. Commit acts of extreme violence. Despite their framing in the series, all Jack’s gang end up being is Walt with swastika tattoos.
All of this comes together to create a finale that can’t decide what it is. It doesn't effectively evoke a sense of redemption, as the main character hasn't stopped doing the things that destroyed his life and the lives of those around him. And it doesn't commit to the idea that this character has gone too far down on this road to redeem himself, because it casts his enemies as Nazis, and therefore supposedly worse than him.
The most pertinent thing that the finale seems to say about its subjects was observed by Donna Bowman at the AV Club: “People and machines are usually predictable.” The M60 keeps spinning on its turret. Elliot and Gretchen protect the reputation. The massage chair rocks back and forth. Linda mixes her stevia. But where Bowman sees Walt changing his pattern, I see him doing the exact same thing he’s always done—to borrow a phrase—for the time he has left.
While this does say something about the cast of characters we've observed over the last five seasons, it feels somewhat insubstantial. Then again, perhaps that’s the point. The drug business wasn't wholly exhilarating or soul-crushing for Walt; perhaps the ending shouldn't be entirely one or the other either. The ending shares a characteristic of previous season finales, pairing one of Walt’s triumphs with a loss. Perhaps it is fitting that Walt should end his journey by destroying the avatars of himself seen in Jack’s gang in addition to his actual self through his machine gun. But as I said in my previous piece, the framing of events in the finale make me doubt that it was intended with this sense of ambiguity.
Still, despite my misgivings about the ending, it does nothing to impugn the quality of the show as a whole. Even if it couldn't complete the impossible task of satisfying everyone, you can’t say it didn't give people something to talk about.
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