Breaking Bad’s finale is neat, clean, and tidy. And that’s bad.

October 4, 2013


Remember Heisenberg?

Before the name was borrowed by everyone’s favourite meth-dealing alter-ego, it belonged to Werner Heisenberg, a German Nobel-prize-winning physicist. My knowledge of science stopped expanding in grade 12, so I can’t possibly explain his contributions to science, but he’s largely known for the uncertainty principle. Loosely speaking, it says that when you try to measure something, you affect that thing, possibly in ways you can’t expect.

Breaking Bad has been largely defined by its attention to unforeseen, or unforeseeable, consequences. It’s most obvious in season two, where the death of an addict results in an airplane crash, but it shows up repeatedly: Walt tries to gas the drug dealers who plan to kill him, but ends up with a prisoner in Jesse’s basement. Skyler only wants to frighten Ted Beneke, but puts him in the hospital instead. Walt and his gang can execute a flawless train robbery, but it all goes to hell when a kid on a dirtbike shows up. Most of the major conflicts of the series arise from Walt thinking he can work with – even control – men like Tuco, Gus, and Uncle Jack, only to see things spiral out of control.

If there were a moral to Breaking Bad, it would surely  be something about hubris; references to Ozymandias were not coincidental. But to reduce the series and its protagonist to a moral lesson is simplistic, and beside the point. Instead, let’s say that Breaking Bad had a principle, and that principle was uncertainty; that real life, real human beings, are messy and unpredictable, and that the more you try to exert control, the faster you lose it. And that in its final episode, it threw aside the principle it had worked so hard to define in an attempt to tie everything up.

Make no mistake: Felina is an attempt to tie up as many loose ends as possible, and to offer as much redemption to Walter White as the series can justify. Walt finds a way to give money to his children, and stick it to stupid Elliott and Gretchen in the process. That’ll teach them to try to pay for his medical treatment. Badger and Skinny Pete get an amusing final appearance. Walt evades heavy police surveillance and manages to sneak in to visit Skyler, where he confesses his sins. He exacts vengeance on Lydia and the Nazis, rescues Jesse, and then dies, as fulfilled as he’s likely to get.

There are a variety of problems with this scenario, chief among them that it’s all way too easy. Gretchen & Elliott resurfaced out of nowhere at the end of Granite State, seemingly just to mock Walt and remind him of how much he hates them. For a couple of millionaires who just belittled a wanted murderer on national TV, they don’t seem to take security particularly seriously around their mansion.

Gretchen & Elliott’s complacency is nothing compared to that of good old Uncle Jack. One wonders how he even got to lead his own Nazi gang with this sort of attitude: Having stolen Walter’s money and murdered his brother-in-law, Jack invites him into the clubhouse and, in a fit of ego that wouldn’t have been credible in a 1970s James Bond villain, trots out Jesse from captivity to prove he hasn’t partnered with him.

Then Walt kills everyone, which is just as well, because these Nazis probably just would have forgotten to eat and died of starvation. It was practically humanitarian.

Jesse, as ever, is the fly in Walt’s ointment, refusing to fulfill Walt’s death wish. But it’s okay, because Walt was fatally wounded by his own remote-control machine gun.

Walt also manages to sneak in to see Skyler, despite Marie expositing that the police know Walt is in town and expect him to try to contact her. Walter White, who had to be smuggled out of town in an oil tanker, can apparently come and go as he pleases.

This part, at least, I’m willing to forgive, because the final scene between Walt and Skyler is the best and most honest thing the finale has going for it: “I did it for me,” Walt tells her, and for the first time his lies and justifications fall away. In this case, at least, the dramatic ends justify the means.

Lydia’s fate is both more and less frustrating. That Walt could sneak in a poisoned stevia packet is certainly plausible – as Walt notes, Lydia is a creature of routine and habit, thinking it will protect her from the messy people with whom she does business. But Walt’s quiet triumph is overplayed in a way that Breaking Bad usually eschews – first with the most prominent shot of a woman adding sweetener to her tea in the history of film, and then by Walt detailing exactly what he did later on.

If you weren’t convinced by the overt significance of the stevia packet in the diner, surely Lydias’ pale and haggard appearance later on should have sealed the deal. But Walt tells Lydia that he poisoned her, which seems unwise: While we understand that Walt wants everyone to know how brilliant he is, it defeats the point of using a poison that is hard to identify. Ricin poisoning can be treated, if it’s detected, and Walt needed to make sure Lydia was dead to protect Skyler. This wouldn’t be the first time Walt’s pride thwarted his plans, but it feels more like the writers trying to tidy up the often messy world and characters of Breaking Bad with some pretty paper and a nice bow.

The finale is such a smooth and easy ride that it’s easy to agree with Emily Nussbaum’s feeling that the entire episode “must be a dying fantasy on the part of Walter White, not something that was actually happening.” And indeed, had the final shot of the series been of Walter White dead, alone, and distinctly unvictorious, I might have been more satisfied, if a little annoyed at the cliché.

It’s hard to argue for this interpretation too seriously, as the rest of the series doesn’t back it up. The early-season scenes of post-Ozymandias Walt aren’t presented as fantasies, but as hints of the future. As Nussbaum says,  it’s “a cinematic fantasy that never declared itself, except in my own tiny head.” “Walt’s Deathbed Fantasy” is something that must be read into the finale, and isn’t supported by anything in the series, which has never indulged much in fantasies or dreams. (That the finale depicts Jesse’s woodworking fantasy is probably an indication the episode itself is not a fantasy – this would be an odd thing for Walt to imagine. In the comments of Nussbaum’s article, people point out that Walt’s conversation with Skyler reflects events in Granite State that Walt never witnessed. )

Warren Ellis interpreted the finale in a way that almost convinces me:

He fully commits to being Heisenberg. And that’s why, in this last hour, his schemes finally work. They don’t work because he’s dreaming it. They work, without backfiring (almost), this time, because Walter White isn’t getting in the way of Heisenberg.

There’s some support for this in the series: Walt eventually triumphed over Gus by becoming just as cold-blooded and manipulative, and he consolidated his power in the first half of season five with more of the same.  You could argue that Walt’s fatal flaw was not killing Jesse Pinkman as soon as it became clear he was cracking up.

Ellis argues that the Walter White of Felina embraced his villainy, and found salvation in it. And that, once again, Jesse Pinkman was his undoing: “faced with Jesse, he throws his old partner to the floor and clear of the fusillade. That’s something Walter White would do, and so Heisenberg gets killed for it. “

But this misses the central point that Walt was always going to save Jesse. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Walt drops to the floor alone and the Nazis remain upright and unsuspecting while the machine gun cuts them down. Saving Jesse was always part of the plan; it’s only after Jesse is safe, and the Nazis are dead, that Walt’s plan breaks down. Unpredictable to the end, Jesse won’t kill him.

If there’s a lesson here about the benefits of being a cold-hearted bastard, it’s trumped by the recurring point that you cannot predict or control Jesse Pinkman. Many people have tried to control or manipulate Jesse, and all of them have failed.

The finale of Breaking Bad can be the subject of many theories, but it resists a rigorous application of any one interpretation. Perhaps this is the source of its flaws: The series was many things to different people, from a meditation on corruption to the totally awesome tale of a guy who made himself into a total badass. Any attempt to encapsulate the series, to tie it all up, was going to disappoint some people.

What we’re left with is a plot-based rush to the finish line that reduces most of Breaking Bad‘s supporting cast to cardboard cutouts standing in a circle around Walter White as he outmaneuvers a bunch of antagonists who have lost all critical thinking skills.

Felina gave Walter White some closure and redemption, but made it far too easy. Breaking Bad ended with Walt killing a bunch of Nazis, rescuing Jesse, and finding a way to give his innocent children millions of dollars, and it didn’t even look that hard. In the end, Breaking Bad forgot about how messy and uncontrollable people can be, embracing a nearly invincible Walter White who’s such a master strategist that no one even bothers putting up much resistance.

Of all the ways Breaking Bad could have ended “According to Plan” was the last thing anyone would have expected.