* Two notes on names: First, I’ll take to calling Walt Jr. “Flynn” here, because the end of “Granite State” made it rather clear that Flynn will never go by his birth name ever again. Walt has forever tainted his son’s own name. Second, I’m calling the Neo-Nazis “Aryans,” both because it’s easier to type, and because it’s more accurate.
In addition to the aplomb with which Walt settles all of his outstanding business, another quality that makes this series finale so satisfying is its suspense. It comes as no surprise that an episode of Breaking Bad is suspenseful, given that so much of this series’ narrative interest has derived from the suspenseful situations it creates, but the finale is particularly effective; I could feel my heart thumping in my chest in nearly every scene, wondering exactly what Walt was going to do next. One of the reasons the suspense is so strong is that the finale finally moves beyond the teasers that opened each half-season these past two years (Walt buying the machine gun, and then picking up the ricin) and heads into uncharted territory.
However, there is another, more powerful reason this episode is so suspenseful: for perhaps the first time, Walt has had the time and the foresight to plan for nearly every contingency. The finale features Walt at the height of his powers: his machinations are the epitome of calculated, unbridled manipulation, and the severity of his determination is magnified by his intention to die in the process of carrying out his plans. Walt’s restrained tone of voice – and even many of his gestures – crackles with the energy of a determined man executing his plans to perfection (while also conveying the frailty of a man dying from cancer – Cranston is phenomenal throughout the episode). With nearly nothing left to lose, and no one truly capable of his level of thought left to oppose him, Walt is finally free to execute his strategies without hindrance, quite unlike the series of moves and countermoves he was always forced into making when matching wits with all of his other brilliant and intuitive foils: Gus; Mike; Skyler; Hank, and even Jesse. In other words, in the finale, Walt’s performance as Heisenberg has finally lived up to the reputation Walt has created for himself (or at least, it comes closer to that reputation than ever before). Rather than the halfcocked, blustery man we know him to be, losing nearly everything has given Walt the proper vantage to finally be in cool control of himself and his surroundings.
Thus the scene where Walt invades the home of Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz is rife with suspense. As soon as it became clear that Walt was pursuing the Schwartzes, I began to doubt my previous assumption that the ricin was meant for Lydia and the machine gun for the Aryans. I began to wonder: what is Walt capable of when he has such a firm control of himself and his plans? Would he really kill his former business partners (and former lover) for their slights to his pride? After all, turning murderous over wounded pride is something we’ve seen him do before (as with Mike), but it has always been in the heat of the moment. What would he do when he has time to plan his actions?
My suspense was relieved when he reveals that he was being literal when he told them he wanted to give them something: Walt gives them the remaining barrel of cash (now sans barrel, and with an actual number attached to it: $9,720,000), and instructs them to set up an irrevocable trust in Flynn’s name on his 18th birthday. It is in this exchange that we get the first inkling of just how far ahead of everyone else Walt’s plans are, and how thoroughly he’s living the reputation he’s created for himself. Not only has he devised a feasible way to get his family his money (dress it up as the charity of rich benefactors), but he has also devised a way to both maintain his pride and ensure that the Schwartzes carry out his instructions. First, he adamantly instructs them to never use their own money in setting up the trust, and then he uses a pair of laser pointers and Jesse’s hapless friends, Badger and Skinny Pete, to trick the Schwartzes into thinking Walt has hired hit men to ensure that the Schwartzes carry out his instructions.
I truly enjoyed how much satisfaction Walt got out manipulating the Schwartzes in this scene; underneath his cold and distant demeanor is a man relishing his terrorization of the people who he feels cheated him out his business and then insulted his pride by offering him charity (recall from season one how galled Walt was at the thought of Gretchen and Elliot paying for his cancer treatments). We see Walt’s pleasure both when he mercurially throws back in Gretchen’s face her claims from the Charlie Rose interview about having once known Walt quite well, and then again when he threatens them with the “two best hit men west of the Mississippi.” He’s playing to the hilt the Schwartzes’ conception of him as a ruthless drug lord, and forcing them to atone for what he considers their ill treatment of him in the course of his life, as is evident in his cynical concluding words, “Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.” The Schwartzes will not sleep easy until Flynn turns 18.
Nowhere is Walt’s cool control of his plans more evident than in his poisoning of Lydia. He banks on her not deviating from the schedule (or even the table) she sat at when Walt used to meet with her, and he plants the ricin in a Stevia packet before she arrives, as he knows she’ll use it in her drink. Walt’s foresight in is even hinted at in the staging and framing of the scene: just like how Lydia and Todd are unsuspecting of Walt’s plans and intentions, so too is it initially difficult for viewers to notice Walt’s presence in the scene. He announces himself most obviously in the shot where he pulls a chair up to Todd and Lydia’s table, but he is also present (but hard to detect) in two different shots prior to Todd’s arrival (top right, bottom right). The first shot even has some nice staging meant to conceal him further: not only is he facing away, but before we have too long to investigate the image, he is hidden by the waiter's entrance (middle right). (I didn’t spot him until the second shot).
The performances Walt gives throughout this episode – including those with Elliot and Gretchen, Lydia and Todd, and later with the Aryans – makes Walt’s final exchange with Skyler all the more poignant, for here, he finally drops some of his pretenses, and levels with Skyler about who he believes himself to be, and why he did everything he did over the course of the series. Nevertheless, despite Walt’s partial honesty here, his behavior is still a part of his program of manipulation. Walt’s goal here is to get Skyler to accept his help in relieving the pressure the DEA is exerting on her life. He gives her the coordinates of Hank and Gomez’s grave, and encourages her to trade this info for a deal with the DEA prosecutors. However, in order for Skyler to accept Walt’s help – help which Flynn has already made crystal clear is unwanted – he must first lie to her about having spent all of the money in getting to Albuquerque, and he must then exonerate her from the guilt she feels over her complicity in his affairs.*
* Walt’s lie about having spent all of the money is crafty in that it sews the seeds for Skyler to later encourage Flynn to accept the trust money from the Schwartzes. If she believes Walt spent all of the money, she should not have any qualms about the legitimacy of the trust (and doubtlessly she’ll tell Flynn as much if he gets suspicious about its source).
Having exonerated Skyler and given her a path out of the hell he’s put her in, having done his best to provide for Flynn’s future (while also putting a nice scare into the Schwartzes), and having set in motion Lydia’s eventual death, there remains only one thing left for Walt to do: settle accounts with the Aryans (and Jesse), and secure his legacy by preserving his name. To that end, he comes up with his last ingenious do-it-yourself death contraption: he rigs his new machine gun to automatically fire a spread pattern from the trunk of his car, all at the push of a button on his keychain. Of course, Vince Gilligan can’t resist adding one more layer of suspense to the final confrontation between Walt and the Aryans: Walt has his keychain confiscated, and must maneuver his way into retrieving it before the Aryans decide to kill him. It’s the only hitch in the otherwise flawless plans Walt has executed throughout the episode. When Walt finds himself separated from
Walt’s original plan was probably to either die in the barrage of machine gun fire along with the Aryans (and to get them to bring Jesse into the room so he could kill Jesse too), or to kill the Aryans, and then to seek out Jesse to settle their score in a more personal fashion. Once he reasons out (with the help of Badger and Skinny Pete) that Jesse has been cooking for the Aryans, he seems just as determined to kill Jesse as he is to kill the Aryans. After all, in Walt’s view, Jesse’s betrayals were more personal and grievous than the Aryans’, as Jesse betrayed not only Walt’s trust, but also his affection. However, once Walt realizes that the Aryans have made Jesse their slave, rather than their partner, his sympathy for Jesse blossoms once more, and he decides to save Jesse’s life, tackling him to the floor in a fit of mock-outrage before activating the machine
And of course, Todd lives through the blast of machine gun fire, allowing Jesse the catharsis of killing Todd by choking him to death with the chains of his slavery. I’m of two minds about Jesse’s vengeance. Part of me reveled in it. Finally, Jesse gets the upper hand on Todd, and kills this loathsome creature in brutal fashion. It’s a just demise for one of the most insidious characters the show has ever created. On the other hand, this is what has become of poor, sweet Jesse; Walt, Todd, and the other Aryans have reduced him to a savage beast that kills his tormentor without a second thought. It’s fitting that Todd died by Jesse’s hand, and that his death is both drawn out and painful, but it’s unsettling that this is probably the best possible action Jesse could have performed in this moment.
With the Aryans gone, Breaking Bad concludes appropriately enough with a series of exchanges between its two most central characters, who are once again standing amidst the wreckage of the chaos that each of them had a hand in creating. To call Walt and Jesse’s tumultuous relationship “complicated” would be a gross understatement; their always-reluctant partnership has oscillated between friendly, ambivalent, and loathing so many times that it would be nearly impossible for anyone aside from them (and us) to understand it (although Hank and Gomez come close after Jesse’s confession). Their final exchange provides a satisfying conclusion to the trajectory of their relationship, picking up almost right where it had left off previously, with Walt trying to manipulate Jesse under the pretense of being concerned about what’s best for Jesse, and with Jesse angrily resisting that manipulation. However, Walt has also just saved Jesse’s life once again, leaving some question about where they stand with one another. Do all of the checks and minuses between them balance out, or is there enough positivity or negativity to tip the scales in either direction? Even the two of them don’t seem to know for sure.
Walt slides a gun toward Jesse, and encourages him to kill Walt. “You want this,” Walt tells him. Walt probably genuinely feels that this is both what Jesse wants and what is most cathartic for Jesse, given the extremity of their most recent conflicts, even if it is also what Walt wants himself. However, in telling Jesse,” You want this,” Walt seems to fall into the old habit of manipulating Jesse, and Jesse reacts accordingly, demanding that Walt level with him by admitting that this is about what Walt wants, not what’s best for Jesse. Walt relents, replying, “I want this,” but before Jesse shoots, he sees that Walt is bleeding from a wound in his side. No matter how much Jesse might want to kill Walt, what he wants most of all is to definitively reject Walt’s manipulation, and extricate himself from Walt’s life. Seeing that Walt is bleeding from a potentially fatal wound, Jesse realizes he can have it both ways, so he drops the gun and tells Walt to do it himself. It’s a powerful moment, as it represents the (near) conclusion of their relationship. Jesse is done with Walt, and Walt is done with life.
Their final exchange outside of the clubhouse, then, acts as a sort of coda. Jesse looks back at Walt before getting into a car, and Walt gives him a knowing nod, which Jesse returns before driving off. The exchange is somewhat ambiguous, and can probably be interpreted in different ways, but it seemed to me to be an acknowledgement of mutual respect. In the short view, Walt and Jesse are acknowledging that they’re square with one another: Walt respects Jesse’s refusal to kill him, and Jesse acknowledges this respect by nodding back. In the long view, they end their relationship as they had lived most of it, with a tenuous peace and a mutual ambivalence, but one now augmented with a modicum of mutual respect. Finally, they are equals.
As for Walt, he makes his way over to the Aryans’ meth lab to indulge in the accoutrements of his first love: chemistry. He falls to the floor as he’s appreciating the equipment, and dies just before the police can arrive to arrest him. As my roommate pointed out, by dying in the Aryans’ meth compound, Walt is effectively securing his Heisenberg legacy. Even though Walt hadn’t been producing his trademark blue meth for months, the police will undoubtedly credit the Aryan’s meth operation – and the continued circulation of the blue meth – to Walt, ensuring that Walt’s Heisenberg infamy will never be diluted (and by taking out the
- The finale gave us a nice little scene in the beginning, as Walt sits silently in the car he’ll soon steal, waiting for the police to pass. The show has rarely missed any steps in how Walt and Jesse have gotten out of their jams in the past, so why should the finale be any different? Once again, Walt is incredibly lucky; much like in his earlier brushes with death or discovery (particularly his narrowly missing the twins waiting for him in his bedroom with an axe), he is saved from discovery by his neglecting to check the sun visor for the car’s keys. Had he thought to check there first, rather than checking the glove compartment for a way to hotwire the car, the police would have surely found him as he tried to drive away from the bar.
- One thing the finale does skip is Walt driving back to the cabin to retrieve his final barrel of cash, and his subsequent evasion of the police. Walt evades the police a lot this episode, most notably when he pays his final visit to Skyler, and then sticks around to catch a glimpse of Flynn. I was mildly skeptical that Walt could be so stealthy, but I’ll let it pass, since he had such cool command of everything else in this episode.
- I’m glad we got one final moment with Badger and Skinny Pete. Oh, how much smoother things would have gone for Jesse if he had had the moral flexibility of his witless friends. Alas. What’s bad for Jesse, however, is good for viewers. His moral torture was one of the series’ most consistent means of creating drama.
- Walt’s plans seem to extend even beyond what the finale actually shows us: Marie tells Skyler that Walt (or probably Skinny Pete and Badger) has been making calls all over town, making threats, reading off a manifesto, demanding air time on the six o’clock news. Walt places all of Albuquerque under the thrall of Heisenberg.
- Note that Walt ditches his dirty shirt and oversized black jacket when he reconciles with Skyler, instead returning to the green dress shirt and khaki pants he wore so often in the early days of the series, except now they look rather baggy on him. He wants to look his best for her, but as she says, he looks terrible.
- This scene with Jesse is also paralleled with the scene of Walt assembling his automated machine gun contraption in the desert. Both men get lost in the craft of making something; we can tell Jesse enjoys his “woodwork” based on the music, the care he puts into his creation, and the look on his face as he works. The process seems much the same for Walt, who hums and sings to himself as he assembles his gun. The two men have more in common than they would ever admit to themselves, let alone to one another. In another life, under different circumstances, they could have been close friends.
This week in beautiful Breaking Bad imagery (aside from everything I already mentioned):
- Also beautiful: Nearly everything involving the machine gun tearing through the Aryans’ club house. The editing here is rapid, but the sequence is filled with many meticulously crafted close-up compositions. It’s like the furious culmination of Breaking Bad’s series-long tendency to feature extreme close-ups of the various objects or processes related either to cooking crystal meth, or to the other grisly parts of Walt’s affairs (like cleaning up human offal).
- Two last beautiful (if grisly) shots: Jack’s blood spattering all over the camera lens after Walt shoots him, and the rotating crane out from Walt, dead on the floor of the meth lab as the police storm the compound. It's a gorgeous shot with which to end the series, in what was an excellently directed episode from Vince Gilligan.
- One of the dying Aryans’ hand twitches, just like sleeping baby Holly’s. A sick visual parallel?
- The only thing I found lacking in this finale: I would have liked for Jesse to have had a little more agency in all of the action. Breaking Bad is ultimately Walt’s story though, so I suppose it’s good enough that Jesse was able to avenge Drew Sharpe and Andrea, and make a choice about Walt.
- The potential remains for Walt’s legacy to become tarnished; after all, Jesse is still out there and knows not only the truth, but also the seven spices in Walt’s secret meth recipe. Granted, it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll ever cook again, given all that’s happened to him, but Badger and Skinny Pete also know that it was Jesse cooking these past few months, and not Walt. But who would listen to a couple of spacey meth-heads, anyway?
- This week in “The Adventures of Todd, Lothario at Large,” Todd espouses the reasons he like’s Lydia’s “shirt.” Mercifully, Walt cuts this week’s adventures short. One other Todd note: his creativity with ringtones continues. For Lydia, he uses Groucho Marx’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” from At the Circus.
- I like how Walt manipulates Jack into giving Walt the opportunity to both confront Jesse and retrieve his keys; he plays on Jack’s pride and his adherence to codes of criminal conduct when he accuses Jack of not killing Jesse. Perhaps Walt recognizes some of himself in Jack. I also liked that Jack lived through the initial blast of machine gun fire, as it gave Walt the opportunity to definitively reject Jack’s attempt to entice Walt into sparing him with the offer of Walt’s remaining money. Given Walt’s history of associating his money with his pride and respect, his killing Jack before he could learn the money’s whereabouts is a rather definitive way for Walt to indicate that he’s ready to die.
- One way we can tell that Walt is just as concerned with preserving his legacy as he is with exacting revenge upon the Aryans is by considering alternatives to the plan he eventually executes. For instance, he could have easily loaded the trunk of his car with enough homemade explosives to take out a large part of the Aryans’ compound (and himself with them), but doing so would have rendered his body unidentifiable, thereby preventing people from accrediting him with the continued production the blue meth.
- For a moment, the staging and framing of Jesse leaving the Aryan compound makes it appear as though Jesse is going to run over Walt with his new car. It momentarily throws into doubt the peace they make with one another, although retrospectively, it seems to strengthen my interpretation of their final exchange.
- Another possibility of the meaning of Walt and Jesse’s exchange of knowing nods is that it concerns Walt having taken care of business with Lydia, or their mutual knowledge that Walt is about to die (either from the machine gun wound or from Walt’s actually taking Jesse’s advice and killing himself). However, I prefer to see it as the culmination of all the ups and downs they’ve had over the years, rather than (or at least as much as) an acknowledgement of the events of the last five minutes.
UPDATE: Some critics have complained about the ending of the series offering too much closure. It comes down to what you wanted out of this show: a condemnation of Walt's selfishness and immorality, or a celebration of his ability to manipulate others and come out on top. Ultimately, the series allows us to have it both ways: "Granite State" offers an ending for those who would have liked Walt (and other characters) to suffer, while "Felina" offers an ending for those who want Walt to emerge victorious. Frankly, I think that those who complain about the season finale's being "unrealistic" or too pat have a rather selective memory for the series as a whole. Considering how frequently Walt was able to escape seemingly insurmountable odds and impossible situations throughout the entire series, I have little problem with him being able to do so once again in the finale. Moreover, while questions about Walt's morality and the cost of everything he's done have been an important component of the show, in my estimation, they never really supplanted Walt's successful navigation of suspenseful situations as the dramatic focal point of a given episode, or even a given season. So while I can understand the viewpoint of those who would have liked more emphasis on the moral costs of Walt's adventures, by concluding the series with an episode devoted to Walt once again accomplishing his goals in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the finale stands as a true testament to the spirit of much of the series.
* Incidentally, the combination of suspense and issues of morality is what made so much of "Ozymandias" so powerful. The dissolution of the White family as Skyler, Walt, and Flynn fight with one another manages to combine both suspense and the cost of Walt's actions simultaneously. The scene offers something for all viewers.