Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long my love
All that time without a word
Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret
The special love I have for you,
My baby blue.
What we just watched was not a finale. I mean, Breaking Bad is still over and we’ll still have to struggle to rediscover meaning in our lives, but last night’s end-of-the-line “Felina” was not a finale. No, this was one of the rarest final episodes you’ve seen on television, befitting of BB‘s iconoclastic and violently inventive legacy. An epilogue: slow and heavy. It’s a beautiful, gut-punching, elegant hour, and it’s not letting you leave without scars so deep they’ll never heal.
We already had our finale, you see. Vince Gilligan wasn’t kidding when he called third-to-last “Ozymandias” the best episode they’ve ever done. There was your classic BB: the unrelenting tension, the action, consequences raining down on the innocents like hailfire, a Walt/Jesse showdown, and Hank’s terrifically crushing death. But after it all came crashing down, we had the sad, post-apocalyptic “Granite State” to punish us for our vicious fun. This is the GENIUS of Breaking Bad. Action and reaction. Vince Gilligan knows that silence often speaks loudest. And when it all ends, you’re going to lie down as Walter White does, in a dark room full of meth vapors and irredeemable sins, all fucking alone.
Ah, the rewards of watching this show. They’re myriad and they feel a lot like torture, but trust me. They’re rewards.
Personally, I feel the principle theme carrying “Felina” is divine retribution. Which is a really weird thing to say about Breaking Bad, especially since last week I went onnn and onnnnnn about how logically grounded this story is. But this show has also always been hyperrealist, kind of like “you just can’t make this stuff up”, underpinning feasible plot with crazy strokes of luck and weird coincidences. Season 2’s plane crash stunned a lot of us at the time, because it just felt so on-the-nose and Butterfly Effect-ish, but now I’m thinking it wasn’t such an odd thing to happen in this universe after all. Someone is watching over Walter White. For a long time, it was a dark force; a deal with the devil. Now in this final hour, good must be rewarded with good and things MUST work out. Walt is ready to repent.
You can feel this just from the opening scene, in the cold confines of a stolen car in New Hampshire. We’re not sure exactly where Walt’s going, but it’s clear the journey will be his last. Heisenberg can’t live inside that waxy skin and pair of shaking hands. This is just Walter Hartwell White, a man with cancer that’s metastasized far past his body. Without that porkpie hat and its trappings of ego, he now feels the weight and panic of mortality more than ever. You see how he prays?
“Get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”
When have you ever seen him send up a plea like that? And I can understand his extra bit of faith here, but it was that shot of the car keys that really convinced me that “Felina” was going to be about something more than human consequences. He doesn’t find them in the glove compartment, or under the seat. So he looks upward.
One tug on the visor, and we watch as the keys fall into his hand. A magnificent bit of cinematography and a subtle moment of deus ex machina that lets us know that more is at work than an evil genius and a machine gun. Wow. I really do get the chills even watching that gif.
Next stop on Walt’s journey is the Denny’s from Season 5, Episode 1, “Live Free or Die.” We last saw him there arranging bacon for Mr. Lambert’s birthday; now we get a longer look at exactly what kind of shenanigans a dying charlatan gets up to during a routine pit stop. Great moment after he makes that sneaky phone call to find out Gretchen and Elliott’s address, where he leaves his watch on the phone booth. Ouch. Jesse gave Walt that watch back in “Fifty One,” so I presumed this portended terrible things for the chained-up protege. However, I watched Vince Gilligan and the cast get interviewed after the show, and he BRILLIANTLY addressed that moment. In fact, that scene was inserted to cover the continuity error of Walt not wearing the watch back in “Live Free” – but, as Vince says, it can also be interpreted as Walt shedding another layer of baggage related to his now-former life as Heisenberg. Another small marker of the off-the-cuff perfection that marks Breaking Bad.
I’m going to be honest. I thought the Walt/Gretchen/Elliott scene was a bit of a misstep. Now, in BB, missteps are so minute they might have been made by ants, but still, I wasn’t sure they got the tone exactly right. Of course, it was essential to return to those two, as they feed the hottest fires of Walt’s self-loathing, allergy to failure, and misguided ambition. I thought it was a great decision not to have Walt murder them, as expected, but to reveal them as a surprise conduit for Walt’s dirty money.
The plot was all there, and fitting, but I found the execution a little heavy-handed. I did gasp when those lasers appeared, but my anxiety gave way to a snort with Walt’s next line: “I hired the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi.” Really? And then all those other threats, delivered with such bravado: “If you do not do this, a kind of…countdown will begin.” “Don’t worry, Beautiful People. Now you have a chance to make it right.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I sat on the remote. Are we watching 24 here? There’s no need for those kind of theatrics.
I mean, I get it. Breaking Bad is a Western; always was, and in this finale, the genre has to sing. I mean, even last episode, Saul appealed to Walt by painting a picture of “John Dillinger” walking through an Albuquerque prison. The episode title, as well as the throwback to Marty Robbins in the opening shots, drives home the point that you are supposed to see Walt as a modern outlaw, trapped by his past and dying with style. But why did that feel so wrong in this scene? I think that’s a point I’ll re-approach later. Put a pin in that.
Anyway, we get the home-run punchline of the season shortly afterward, with Badger and Skinny Pete revealed as the gunslingers with naught but skullcaps and laser pointers. Perfectly executed bit of comedy to even out the tension – something we’ve come to expect and love from BB. God, I love Skinny Pete’s line here: “The whole thing is kinda shady. Like…morality-wise.” Out of the mouths of babes. I’ll be sad to see these two go.
There’s a short respite between this and the final stretch of the episode, when Walt goes home to pay Skyler one last visit. First, more cinematography kudos on that absolutely stunning reveal of Walt behind the beam in Skyler’s kitchen. He’s a bit of a ghost these days, isn’t he? Materializing everywhere he couldn’t possibly be, haunting those he loves and those who once loved him. This scene is a complete knockout. So many tears. As Marty Robbins’ “Feleena” tells us, once you’ve done your killing you gotta go on home to your sweetheart.
Anna Gunn again proves how indispensable she was to this series. Her vulnerability during that phone conversation with Marie becomes immediately offset by Walt’s presence, revealing that Sky’s still got it: she is a marvelous actress when she needs to be. By all rights, Skyler should be completely broken by now. But she’s more of a lone cowboy than Walt at this point, defending the ruins of her homestead with a cloud of cigarette smoke framing her steely features. Look at the state he left her in. Look at this marriage. It is so poignant to watch them together, to watch Gunn’s face struggle to hold composure as Walt finally, finally tells her the truth:
What a terrible and crushing relief for Skyler, to hear those words. Too late, of course. I think it’s clear that she never really stopped loving Walt, but she made her peace with the fact that that sweet husband of hers had died long ago. It must have been unbearable to see him climb out of the rubble of Heisenberg and briefly see him again in those glassy hazel eyes. This relationship has layers I’ll be puzzling out for years to come. Quite satisfying to see it end on this note, with such cruel resignation.
Okay, everybody. You ready? Because after that family visit, “Felina” begins its bloody, elegaic swan song.
No finale is complete without a callback to beginnings, to the hopes and dreams that fueled the story and drove it ever-forward. My nomination for the most unexpected, chilling and perfect moment of this episode is Jesse’s box scene, providing us an ESSENTIAL reminder of exactly how integral he is to Breaking Bad. Remember Vince Gilligan’s one-word clue for this episode? “Woodworking”? If you didn’t shiver and grab for the tissues here, you are an unforgivable monster.
Christ, did I get some feels. That’s Jesse in high school – not quite the chemistry class flashback we were all holding out for, but in fact, something even better. Killer choice of callback.
As Aaron Paul so touchingly observed post-“Felina”, Jesse is an artist. He is bright, and he seeks out pleasure he can make and touch and feel. He lives to create and is forever offering parts of himself to others, straining to connect: his meth, his box, his heart. Recall the first time he praised Mr. White’s Blue Sky meth in wonderment: “This is art.” Not a science, but a beautiful creation he desperately wished to be a part of. He wanted an A+ and he wanted to excel. In the end, they both might have mastered the process, but it was that gorgeous and deadly final product, a sheet of azure glass, that made them dream harder and drove them both mad.
From “Kafkaesque,” Season 3:
Jesse: My project for his class was to make this wooden box. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked. You know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade, he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but…it was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. 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 zebrawood. 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 nose in it and breathed in, it was…it was perfect.
Group Leader: What happened to the box?
Jesse: I…I gave it to my mom.
Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes, adult extension program at the University…
Jesse: You know what? I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.
Jesse just picked the wrong project. The wrong teacher. Mr. White and his product weren’t anywhere near a source of redemption, but this kid couldn’t figure that out fast enough. He was too eager for love. Too easily beaten and chained. A problem dog who was never, ever going to get that bone.
The series always had to end with Walt and Jesse. See, I had a prediction. Not that Jesse would kill Walt – too neat, too revenge-y – but that Jesse would kill Walt Jr. For all their parallels, the two had never met, and I felt that the surrogate son murdering the real son would finally prove to Walt, and us, just how far the pendulum had swung. And while that didn’t happen, we did all realize how far outside Walt’s immediate orbit his children lie, and how close Jesse always is in comparison. His last moments were spent rescuing that poor child he once flunked.
Of course, at first Walt’s still on his revenge game, even when it comes to Jesse. When he rolls up in that Nazi camp with a pocketful of sunshine (that’s a euphemism for trunkful of machine gun) he’s ready to take Jesse down with those swastika-wearin’ Hank-killin’ chain-smokin’ basterds. But the sight of Jesse, haunted and thin and topped with a head of matted six-month prison hair, does something to Walt. That paternal instinct, the partner instinct, that we know has been so warped for so long, returns in a way he probably can’t muster for his real son even if he tried. Suddenly, it all seems to make sense to Walt. This is the kind of legacy King Ozymandias leaves: a broken prince in rags and chains. He’s fucked it all up, but he’s going to do one last good thing before death takes him.
While the bullets empty into his enemies, Walt protects Jesse. Finally. And, of course, in one of the most fitting moments of all, he takes a stray ricochet to the stomach, which would undoubtedly have hit the kid instead. It’s far past loyalty with these two, but damn does it feel good to watch Mr. White take a bullet for Jesse.
It’s. About. Time. Jesse has always been Walt’s pain, externalized. What our cold antagonist could not feel, our protagonist could, and did. The endless fear, doubt, pain, even flesh wounds endured by Jesse make him a Jesus-y representation of the human horrors wrought by Walt over so many years. Jesse is basically walking scar tissue, and his status as a garbage dump for trauma does not escape him. It is cruel justice, cruel and right, that he should finally be shielded by the corporeal body of Mr. White, who finally gets the bullet to the gut that he’s been dodging all along.
Of course, our problem dog also deserves one more revenge bite. Todd HAD to go, and of course we all shrieked in savage delight when we heard that graphic neck-crunch:
And another hugely significant moment here, when Uncle Jack thinks he can still turn this uber-shitty situation in his favor. Money is Heisenberg’s Achilles heel, right? 80 fucking million dollars and there’s no way he walks away. But Uncle Jack doesn’t know that he’s no longer dealing with Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s gone. He’s talking to a walking dead man with scores to settle and zero to lose.
After that, it’s all Walt and Jesse. Last moments. Love this scene where Walt essentially asks the freed Jesse to kill him. He assumes Jesse wants revenge, regardless of the fact that Walt just saved him last-minute. He knows it’s never going to be enough, and this debt will never be repaid, and Jesse’s probably going to bleed a little bit forever as a result of his association with Mr. White. But he thinks that Jesse killing him might offer some small comfort.
Again, he’s wrong about Jesse’s instinct for destruction. An artist is not interested in decay, but growth. Transformation. He never had a taste for vengeance. Probably because, almost always, he was never gaining vengeance for himself, but for Walt. He is so fucking over being someone else’s tool:
That’s right, bitch.
Before he goes out with a bang, Walt makes one last phone call to Lydia, to helpfully let her know that he laced her precious Stevia with the ricin. Many people predicted that the poison was meant for her specifically, but I have to admit I never thought it’d go that way. It makes sense, though. She never wanted to get her hands dirty with the fallout of the Madrigal criminal enterprise. Walt’s making sure everybody meets their appropriate end. For Lydia, it’s going to happen alone, afraid, and with a weak little humidifier.
For Breaking Bad, it’s never gotten better than these last moments with our two gunslingers:
Can you DEAL?! God, how many multitudes were contained in those looks? At this point, who’s won? Who’s lost? Does it matter more that Walt watched Jane die, or saved Jesse at the last moment? Will he shoot himself? Was there ever any love here, any hate? Are they the same? Does it matter anymore? Jesse may be raw and confused and angry and ruined, but he’s in control. This is a goodbye, said by two pairs of eyes, each on their own terms. An “acknowledgement” seems like too gentle a word for the look that passes between these two lost souls. Watch them leave a piece of themselves, right there on that concrete, a gulf between.
And finally *gulp sob* FINALLY, Jesse gets away.
If Aaron Paul does not win an Emmy for this stretch of episodes, especially this finale, this moment, I’m going to have to drive a heavy trunk to next year’s Emmys (to all law enforcement: I am merely being facetious BUT AM I?). When he busts out of that Nazi compound, engines roaring, the freedom is so overwhelming he can only cry and laugh and scream. He’s free. He’s escaped the vice grip of Mr. White, and there’s no words for these feelings. Did you not feel the goosebumps rise during this joyful, tortured howl?
That shot reminded me of the ending frame of Oldboy, when the hero finally finds happiness, but he’s so irreparably drained and damaged by its cost that his face freezes in a rictus, a horrifying combination of ecstasy and agony. Who knows where Jesse can go from here? I want to believe that his spirit is indomitable, that he will find some place, some small place, where he can finally inhale clean air and build a life. But much as the viewers, Jesse will carry the burden of Mr. White, of Breaking Bad, for the rest of his life. Like I said, there are scars we can’t see. Jesse has a long way to drive before the sun ever breaks again. Bless you, baby.
And then we return to Walt in our last few minutes. Where it all begins and ends.
He doesn’t share this moment with Jesse, with his baby daughter, or son, or wife, or any human, really. For all he’s done, Walter White doesn’t deserve a companion in death, and to be honest, I don’t think he’d want one. As Walt dies, he’s alone with his masterpiece: the most perfect chemistry set he’s ever created. This 99.2% meth is his life’s work – not the money or the empire. He knows that know, and he caresses the metal like the cheek of his most precious darling. This is what makes me feel for Walter White, suddenly and intensely. Just a man and his work of art. A legacy that burns in a million glass bowls, and a dream that literally turns only to smoke in the end. Wow.
So, before I conclude, I want to come back to that whole “divine balance” thing, and the tone issues I had with small parts of “Felina.” I think I have something substantial to say. I have that twitchy feeling in my typing fingers.
Walt’s able to die satisfied here, because his last and best-laid plans worked. He made it back to New Mexico. He exacted revenge against Uncle Jack and his crew. He slipped Lydia the ricin. He evaded the police entirely.
But how did that work exactly? Doesn’t it beggar explanation that all this stuff went off without a hitch? Walter’s had inspired plans before, but most times, he found a wrench in the works. He had ricin for Tuco, but Jesse had to go and tell him that it tasted like chili powder. Hank found the laundry, so Walt had to drive into full-speed traffic. Gretchen showed up to expose his insurance scam to Skyler. Baby Holly wanted her mama after all. Life isn’t a Western. It’s not a spy novel, or a thriller. Breaking Bad is beautifully choreographed, but it’s grounded in practical reality, and Walt often had to improvise when his plots were thwarted by logistics and coincidence.
Not so in “Felina.” It’s my belief that because Walt finally chose to Break Good, so did fate. Karma stopped raining fire on him (and Jesse) once his intentions were pure and he acted as Walter White would, the way he was always meant to be. The keys dropped out of the sky.
This is why I preferred “Felina” in its expansive, philosophical moments. Stuff like that Elliott/Gretchen scene was a necessary bit of fan service, to remind us of the suspense and thrilling action that hooked us all in the beginning. I suppose it felt kind of nice to see Walt as a badass again, after the humbling emptiness of “Granite State.” But I didn’t need that. Breaking Bad can end as a fantasy where Walt goes all Scarface and we cheer…or as a reality where an old man dies all alone with only science for company.
Action and reaction. Whether it’s something as small as swatting a stray fly in the lab, or something as big as setting Jesse free forever, every move will garner consequences for Walter White. So his ending, you see, cannot categorically be happy or sad, but right and just. This episode, this genius piece of television, works because it pulls most of its punches. A show and not a tell. Cold, unforgiving, gorgeously rendered chemistry, is “Felina.” A teacher’s lecture is fleeting, but the image of a bright red flame, conjured by matter and set aglow by change, is indelible. And all bad things must come to an end.
Some last words:
– I am really going to miss writing these reviews. I’m sure I’ll write more about Breaking Bad in the future, but it’ll never be the same. That’s the way it has to be, and it feels good. Thank you from the bottom of my heart if you’ve been reading. These words are my wooden box.
– Huell is still in that hotel room.
– Here are some photos from my own finale party, complete with Blue Methoritas and Pollos Hermanos chicken. An awesome night, and being around people probably helped my grief process.
– Better Call Saul…you got a big hat to fill. I’ll be excited to see how that pans out.
– As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments, where we can all hold one another as we’re riddled with emotional bullets. We did it, guys.