September 23, 2014 / Mediation
“I don’t wanna talk about time travel ‘cause if we start talking about it then …
September 30, 2013
Zachary Thomas Settle:
Ambivalence in the End: Breaking Bad Series Finale
Breaking Bad did not end as a happy story. The show’s final episode did not serve to fully redeem Walt, and all was not made well in the end.
In a strangely unique fashion, the final episode of Breaking Bad was far from affective; rather, it was affective is a unique way. As we’ve previously discussed on this roundtable, one of this show’s most powerful forces is the profound affectation it projects onto the viewer. The final episode, though, was so quiet; it cut through the noise and let the pieces fall into place. In true Vince Gilligan form, we were informed of the series’ essential premise from the very beginning: “Chemistry is the study of change.” The series was an exploration into the consequences of actions, which is why the episode was an appropriate ending to the series. Walt broke bad long before last night, and the last few episodes have been about the inevitable playing out that which he put into motion.
Even Walt was aware of the way that everything needed to end. This was obvious from the beginning of the episode when he whispered a prayer after seeing the cop’s lights, “Just get me home; I’ll do the rest.” And then we saw a fascinating shift in his visit with Skyler. The interesting, non-affective part of this last episode was that he came to terms with everything. As he confessed to Skyler, “I did it for me,” he says. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.” Walt’s confession was definitely a shifting point, and it seemed to inject a bit of reality into the finale. Walt, for the first time in some time, seemed to come to terms with the inevitability of his own demise. He owned up to the fact that he did what he wanted most in life. He pursed his love until the end, and it was his commitment to being the kingpin that undid his family. The lie was finally undone, and we all rested in a moment of absolute clarity when Walt said the cops would be coming for him tonight.
Everything that needed to be answered was answered in last night’s episode. Walt managed to get his family the money, and Jesse ended up free, at least from the bondage of the lab. We are left wondering whether Walt set Jesse free out of some level of genuine concern, or whether it was a colder apathy resulting from his newly developed perspective. I think this was an intentionally ambiguous relation, and it served to confront us as viewers with Walt’s essential humanity. Walt had to die, but he still refused to go down without getting his family the money, and he did dive to take Jesse to the ground as the gun was firing. Walt’s actions caught up with him last night, but not without a certain level of complication.
Walt’s demise, though, cannot be read as his final redemption, as if he somehow managed to stop the massive monster he created in its tracks. Hank and Gomez are dead, Marie is a widow, Skyler is driving a cab in order to feed her two children, Walt severely sickened Lydia, if not killed her, and he murdered a dozen neo-Nazis before trying to manipulate Jesse into killing him. Walt’s demise was not redemptive, but it was not without ambivalence. And that’s precisely why it was so believable, so fitting.
The shift we saw last night was not Walt’s redemption as much as him discovery of a certain level of freedom when accepted his own fate. He came to terms with his true love, with his own system of value, and he died in the arms of a cold lover. He was true to her until the end.
One Hell of a Story: Breaking Bad Series Finale
The series finale of Breaking Bad was, in a word, perfect.
I couldn’t be more satisfied – and that is saying something, seeing as my level of fanaticism for this show manifested in much real-world anxiety in the hours leading up to the final episode. In other words, this show matters to me. It carries deep significance. And its end carried the potential for deep disappointment (perhaps even a sad sort of TV disillusionment).
Ever since Ozymandias, I, along with many others, have been making predictions for this episode. Those predictions were, to be sure, the product of series-long plot elements and character development, alongside those few futuristic glimpses of bearded Walt given to us throughout season five. But they were also projections of my own hope for the series – perhaps even my theology of the series. I have been working out that theology in these reviews, and have, throughout, been fearful that I may be wrong somehow. Is Walter White damaged beyond repair, beyond redemption? Has his humanity been so overcome by the Lie within him, the deep and hideous flaw, that he is, really, only the devilish Heisenberg and not, at all, the mild mannered and well-intentioned teacher, husband, and father known as Mr. White?
And is he an example of something more than the “original sin” within us all, the shadow self we seek to overcome with good? Is he really an example of a borderline sociopathic core that has only been nurtured by catastrophic choices and events to reveal to the world around him the truth of who he has been for a very long time? And can there be any sympathy for this kind of detached, murderous, merciless devil?
I think that last night’s episode, when taken together with episodes fourteen and fifteen, proves this theological perspective – mostly. It proves Gretchen Schwartz’s perspective – “…whatever he became, the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago, he’s…gone,” – mostly. Yes, Walter White is Heisenberg, and last night he died as Heisenberg. Walter’s own sarcastic comment to Gretchen in the house – “My children are blameless victims of their monstrous father,” – reveals the tragic reality.
But what I did not expect in this final episode was to be hit by feelings that I have been trying to avoid all along. I did not expect to feel, right from the first scene in the snow-encrusted car, a profound desire for Walt – Heisenberg – to succeed in his final mission. Indeed, I did not expect to suddenly feel the assurance that his cause had become just, when he uttered what seemed to be a prayer:
“Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think Walter White was beyond redemption. There is no sense in which his actions last night atoned for his past behavior, or made things “right.” There is, in fact, no sense in which Heisenberg was overcome by the good in Mr. White. And that is precisely the point. Walter’s last act was poetically just, but it was not redemptive. It brought closure, but it did not bring healing. It was, really, the Final Judgment in the great Revelation of Walter White – a judgment as much on Walter himself as on the perpetrators of death and destruction who had gathered around him like so many demons to the devil.
And the power behind this judgment, as is the case with all judgment, was the truth. While Walter had been, up to this point, the very embodiment of his deep Lie, last night saw a man who finally accepted the evil he had become. His time in the cabin, his phone call with Flynn, and his viewing of the Schwarz’s on Charlie Rose, left him bereft of any energy to continue lying to himself or anyone around him. It was over. What seemed so often to be a borderline personality disorder in the character switching between Walt and Heisenberg was revealed to be a big hoax. This is who Walter is. There is no “other” Walter. The Lie gave way to the totality of the darkness.
And when he said his final goodbye to Skyler, it was the darkness coming into the light: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was really…I was alive.”
His acts, then, of forcing the self-absorbed Gretchen and Elliot to channel the money to Walt Jr., of poisoning the poisonous Lydia, of killing the wicked neo-nazi gang, of protecting and freeing Jesse (and unleashing Jesse’s righteous rage on Todd), of willfully submitting to his own death, were somehow noble in the same biblical sense that God sending a brutal pagan nation to judge an unjust and cruel Israelite nation is noble. Protection and liberation were secured for the innocent victims, and a more humane future was opened. All of it was terrible and nothing was guaranteed – even Jesse’s freedom was only an excruciating shadow of his warm fantasy in the lab – but new possibilities were unleashed, an already-but-not-yet taste of potential hope and peace.
And one thing was utterly finished: the satan was cast down.
At this point, there is only one question I am still asking myself. If, as Mr. White taught his students in the pilot episode, “Chemistry is the study of…transformation,” then could all of this have been avoided? Could the deep Lie that came alive in Walt when he was betrayed by his partners at Grey Matter and embittered by his difficult life thereafter have been quenched by some goodness within him? Was there ever a chance that he would not break bad?
Part of me believes that the deep sociopathic core of Walter White was always bound to manifest. Part of me thinks he could have chosen a more honest, healing path. With God, perhaps we may hope that anything is possible.
And the truth can set you free.
The final scene last night had Walter White dying in the lab. He was, as series creator Vince Gilligan says, “with his Precious.” A slave to himself, slayed by the truth, enjoying the last breath of his thrilling, tragic evil.
And there, unexpectedly, I felt sympathy for the devil.
That was one hell of a story.
Freedom in Death: Breaking Bad Series Finale
Walter White’s story has finally come to a close, brought to its inevitable end at the hand and behest of the man who created it. The Walter we see in the final episode of a series of metamorphoses is undoubtedly the most compelling of the many faces of Walter White – a Walt empowered by a resolute resignation to his fate. It is telling that the episode begins with a kind of prayerful invocation: “Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.” Walt is a man resolved to die well, and to find some measure of reconciliation, if to no one else, then at least to himself. For the first time in perhaps the entire series, Walt is honest with himself and those around him. There are no more lies to tell. He can at last express what was true the entire time, that his will to dominate and control was ultimately what drove him to the height of his power and finally to destruction. In a last tense but touching moment with Skyler, he confesses, “I did it for myself. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.” It is telling that in this first and final confession about that which gave his life purpose and meaning, to a wife who has come to despise him, Walt is embodying fully that which most frees him – he is finally authentically attending to his death. Herein lies a key distinction for understanding the close of Breaking Bad: namely, that Walter, while not the same as redemption, finds a kind of liberation in his death.
Much of the criticism surrounding the finale episode has been leveled at the positive and ‘redemptive’ close of the series, with Walt finally finding some measure of redemption. This seems to me an absurd assessment, insofar as Walt is not reconciled in any way to any of those who’s lives he has destroyed – his family still reviles him, Jesse, though opting not to kill Walt outright, makes no attempt at a conciliatory gesture before abandoning Walt to his fate, and Walt’s final acts are to threaten his former friends and murder any outstanding enemies. The fact that the viewer is vindicated through a series of murders further renders the notion of Walt’s “redemption” as a fanciful but ultimately unrealized dream. What Walt finds instead is a profound sense of freedom. Freedom to finally act in such a way that he can care for his family, eliminate his enemies, save Jesse, and ultimately die well. In his final moments, Walt actually realizes and authentically becomes himself.
While watching Walt’s behavior and actions in this finale episode, I was mindful of a profound insight from the work of Martin Heidegger. His writing on death and being was strongly realized in the final hours of Walt’s life. “If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself.” This, I believe, is the final insight to be taken from the life and death of Walter White. That, in spite of being unreconciled – unredeemed – in every way to any person for whom he may most desire it, there is still some freedom, albeit a tragic freedom, in being immersed deeply and truly into the presence and urgency of one’s death. Freedom to act decisively and honestly, if not rightly. This is the final lesson to be learned from the tragic story of Walter White, which makes no promise of ultimate peace or final hope, but instead claims that in the face of a corrupt and reprobate life, there is perhaps some freedom in an honest death.
Fast as You Can: Breaking Bad Series Finale
Let me first of all admit that I have not sheltered myself from the barrage of commentary that already exists on “Felina” twelve hours later, on Twitter and elsewhere. Opinions on the finale are polarized in a way that no other episode this season has provoked. If there is one thing I am not good at, it is staking out a strong opinion in the midst of volumes of well-reasoned prose on both sides. I’m too fascinated by the dazzling displays of logic and critical thought and confidence that I feel I could never offer.
Nevertheless, the conflict is this: did Walter’s successes in “Felina” provide natural, satisfying closure, or were they “fan service,” an undeserved “happy ending” for the series? I must first reckon with the fact that I got what I wanted. In previous recaps that I have written for this season, I wrestled with my desire for redemption and comedic structure. I had the thought that there might be a conclusion to Breaking Bad that would make me wish I had never started down the path of the series, that would make me not wish this journey on others asking for my recommendation. In “Ozymandias,” the idea of Hank serving as MacDuff to Walt’s MacBeth was buried. To me, that is the “neat” ending, the longed-for ending, that Breaking Bad denied us. Anything less than that is, well, less than that.
What must also be dealt with is what exactly the band of Nazis as ultimate antagonist says about this season, morally and structurally. There are two ways to think of this that come to mind. Jumping in with Uncle Jack and Co. was the only way for Walt to carry off the prison murders that he needed to tie up his loose ends in “Gliding Over All.” Theory one about the Nazis is that they reveal to Walt the true, bald ugliness of a utilitarian view of human life, willing to kill whoever Walt needed them to kill but also eager to tie up every loose end, including the family for which Walt claimed to be doing it all. Theory two about them is that they were introduced to provide badder bad guys for Walt to bring to justice in the finale with that sick badass gun contraption.
So, point one: Heisenberg badassery has always been part of the core appeal of the show. To me, a final act without any of it is, in some way, not true to the spirit of the show. Every season finale of the series has included a daring plan a hair’s breadth away from failure. As Jesse told Hank earlier this season, the guy is lucky. Anyone claiming that Walter’s “success” in the series finale is not consistent with the spirit or trajectory of the series is forgetting that for all its moral gravity, Breaking Bad has always been a consummate thriller.
Point two: I believe that the presence of Todd, Jack and the rest is a continuing outgrowth of the show’s exploration of sin and crime as slavery. Time and time again, Walt and Jesse have found themselves chained up and backed into corners. Gus Fring was the embodiment of the slavemaster for seasons 3 and 4, and the Nazis took on the role as season 5 went on– even as Walt thought of them as his mercenaries. Rather than mere hired criminals, they went on to kill Hank against Walt’s will, threaten his wife, literally enslave Jesse, and send Walter to his cabin jail across the country. They are the thing that Walter thought he was using for his advantage that turned out to take away everything that mattered to him– a clear metaphor for the entire meth business over the series.
And so, did this finale with the closure that I asked for satisfy me? Yes. I know there are those who wish the show had ended with “Ozymandias” or something like it. “Ozymandias” is the clear masterpiece of the final season, towering in its tragedy. It was the third to last episode, but it left us all reeling as if it were the very last, a true gut punch. I wondered how in the world things could get worse– and how I would survive emotionally if they did. It turns out they didn’t. That was the nadir. The final two episodes were the unwinding of that climax, and to some, this must be disappointing. But for 62 hours of narrative, I believe these last three hours serve as a proper sendoff, an explosion and a denouement to savor.
Look, Walter never got to say goodbye to his son. His daughter will never remember him. His family is broken in ways that can never be repaired. The fact that we finally got to hear Walter tell Skyler the truth he would never admit to himself is a bit miraculous: “I did it for me.” That is enough. That is what all of us needed. Paired with the image of Walter’s peaceful death among the lab equipment, it gives us a sad, sad portrait of a man who could only feel alive by wreaking destruction. The fact that he did one last act of justice does not bother me amidst all this. Walter has never been all one thing.
But what I am most grateful for out of everything at this series’ end is Jesse’s liberation. I truly believe that if Jesse were not set free at the end, I would not be able to recommend Breaking Bad in good conscience. It is simply too much to attach your heart to this deeply loyal little punk over five seasons and then watch him break and break again. The fact that the writers originally meant to dispense with Jesse early on is mind-boggling to me, because Jesse is the soul of this thing.
The most beautiful scene in the episode let us see Jesse making that box that he so memorably spoke of in a rehab meeting in season 3’s “Kafkaesque.” I’m just going to reproduce part of the monologue here, because it’s lovely:
He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself, “Yeah, man, I can do better.” So I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebra wood. It was fitted with pegs, no screws. I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put your nose in it and breathed in, it was… it was perfect.
Whether any of this is true, whether the scene in “Felina” was a flashback or a flash forward or a fantasy, Jesse is expressing something fundamental about himself: he is a craftsman. His last few batches of meth were rising in purity to Heisenberg standards. He is loyal to the end, and will keep trying until it is perfect. We’ve seen it all along—all Jesse wants is to be told he is good at something, that he has worth, that he is believed in. The fact that the Nazis enslaved him to make meth is actually a twisted testimony to his talent, and the cut from Jesse the woodworker to Jesse the chained methmaker reminds us that, in so many ways, Jesse has grown beyond the wangster hawking his “chili p” in the premiere. Despite the hundreds of ways he has been broken, he has learned to care—about Jane and Andrea and Brock and Mike and craftsmanship and, tragically, that devil Mr. White. And to watch him cry with joy, driving away from it all as fast as he could: we needed that. We all needed it. Jesse is the only shot any of them has at making something good, and we need to know that he might make it.
Vince Gilligan et al: it was Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebra wood. It was rich and dark. It was perfect.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a PhD student working in political theology in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. He is also the editor, alongside Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film: Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.