Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 1)
(First part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. This post is light on spoilers regarding the actual final season; they are tackled in the next post)
A station wagon sits disengaged, tires sunk deep on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road, as the outside air breathes fierce and cakes frost on its windows. We’re in a quiet, claustrophobic corner of New Hampshire that’s served as hideaway – and slice of hell – for the man in the driver’s seat: Walter White, America’s most wanted criminal.
The car’s not his: having just broken into it, this is his first time in six months behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s taken what fight he has left to pull himself out of his frozen exile, determined to drive back home to New Mexico for one last, purposeful mission.
Purpose won’t start a stolen car, though. He searches the glove compartment, finds only a screwdriver, tries to key the ignition with it and regrets the idea. He sighs, exuding mist, leans back in his seat and wishes aloud: “Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”
And as if guided, his hand reaches up to the sun mirror and pulls down the visor flap…to find the car keys there, waiting for him.
This is how Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, chose to open the final chapter of his novelistic series: with fate taking the reins.
I’m thrilled that this last season has brought Breaking Bad the mass viewership it deserves, and the word of mouth it needs to live on as one of the most dissected and scrutinized television shows out there. Whether people decide it’s the best or anywhere near is irrelevant – it’s left enough of a legacy to be preserved and acknowledged as the very different beast that it was.
Once Upon a Time in the West
There are a number of reasons Bad stands apart from the shows it superficially resembles (like The Shield, The Sopranos, or hell, Weeds, which oddly enough was what Vince Gilligan most worried it would come off as aping) and so much to discuss on the creative front (the tobacco filters, the meth lab designs, the lighting of the cooking scenes, the minimalist music cues, and certainly the acting) that I’ll get into the majority of them in a follow-up post. For now, though, I’ll focus on the very notable thing that has made it special, and that has guided the way it began, the way each chapter unfolded, and the devastating way it ended, which for all the praise is proving divisive in the best way. The Bad finale is brutally memorable, yet just oblique enough to inspire argument, introspection, and varying degrees of anger on how satisfying it really is – all adding to the show’s longevity.
Because Breaking Bad has always accepted – and striven to make good on – what it is: a story.
Let’s return to that opening scene of the final chapter, then dial back even further to hold it up against the very first chapter. The Pilot episode begins in media res and also finds Walter White behind the wheel of a vehicle, but he’s driving a beat-up old bounder, careening through the badlands of New Mexico on an aimless run from approaching sirens. In the driver’s seat, he’s stripped down to his briefs wearing nothing else but a full-face respirator. Crashing the RV, he stumbles out into the blazing sun, and after pulling off the respirator (and putting on a shirt), we get a shot of him from behind to see a pistol holstered in his jockstrap.
This is Walter White – maybe the world’s most talented chemist, maybe even its greatest mind, caught with his pants off in the worst of situations. Nothing new for him – his career has been a series of bad decisions, reducing him from highly respected researcher to high school chemistry teacher. He barely makes ends meet, while his son (named after him) has cerebral palsy and his loving wife, Skyler, has another baby on the way. His brother-in-law, Hank, often gets all the attention from an exciting job as a drug-buster.
And only three weeks ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
With no money for treatment and nothing to leave his family, a desperate Walt visits one of his old students, Jesse Pinkman, who flunked chemistry, but graduated from trading weed to cooking crystal meth. To Jesse’s surprise, Walt offers to partner up with him. With his chemical genius, Walt declares, they can change the meth trade forever and yield the purest product ever seen. Potent enough to demand top dollar – and incur the envy of the most vicious players in the American southwest.
When asked why he’d even consider such a dangerous idea, Walt says with a smile: “I am awake.”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Since the drawing board, Gilligan’s concept was concise. “You get the good guy and turn him into the bad guy”, he sums up. Or, to use the more referential phrase that’s oft-repeated, you turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”. By anchoring the conceit on two very considered – and very, very different – fictional characters, this is above all else a fiction. In real life, there are no good guys or bad guys, certainly none that society as a whole may agree on. But the power of a storyteller is to construct a world where good and evil are manifest and where consequences spring from both; where good bestows a semblance of peace and evil must be punished.
That’s what Breaking Bad embraces. It’s a labored point by now, but bears repeating because Bad doesn’t dabble in the mold of ambiguous antihero that we see in The Sopranos or The Shield, nor does it build a stage grounded in realism like The Wire or The Newsroom (all fantastic in their own right, certainly – just taking a different, less classical track). We can relate to and sympathize with Gilligan’s rendition of evil – appropriate, as that’s what makes it so dangerous – but at the end of the day, evil is evil, and all evil in the Bad world is damned. “I want to believe there’s a heaven”, says Gilligan, quoting his girlfriend’s philosophy, “but I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Walt is still the good guy when he contracts cancer (there are hints, sure, of a reckless ego, a venomous temper and a lethal self-preservation instinct, but nothing concrete, nothing that deserves punishment. Yet) And this might be a fictional world, but practical science is a main theme, hence Walt’s doctor confirming that, yes, the cancer is terminal, and best-case scenario he delays it for a couple of years. But we know that death is coming for him; the same guiding force that will lead him to car keys left carelessly behind a visor flap has, right from the outset, carved the ending to this story.
Breaking Bad loves establishing the inevitable. The best storyteller knows there is no true crime in a predictable plot; what matters is how well you tell it. That’s why Bad baits us frequently with flash-forwards (as in the aforementioned Pilot), showing the ending ahead of time so we won’t question the destination and can absorb the ride. That’s why the cliffhangers (of which there are few) do not lead to sudden twist resolutions – they lead to exactly what you’d expect, whether it’s the murder of a “problem dog” or a gunman’s last stand under a shower of bullets. That’s why the best moments are not the shocking ones, but those telegraphed for an hour or more before they occur, like the explosive Mexican standoff at the end of the fourth season (complete with a gunslinger’s death-march preceding it).
We know the good guy will turn into the bad guy – and we know that it will end in his demise – but just watching the transformative process is enough to involve us by the guts and balls. The steps are predictive science, but the artful swagger burns them into memory.
“You’re a goddamn artist.”
Jesse’s breathless when he sees the first batch of crystal meth that Walt cooks up, shards massive in size and stainless as the sky. His view of the boring uptight teacher who used to give him a hard time has been turned upside down, especially after Walt shrugs off, “It’s just basic chemistry.”
Even as he taunts Walt over his nebbish transition into the drug trade, Jesse will live from then on in awe of this man and the power he represents. Being practically ostracized from his family, meth isn’t just how Jesse makes his living – it’s what makes his life worthwhile, the one thing that grants him a shred of respect from his junkie friends and the kings of the street. But when crotchety old Mr. White calls him on his moronic chili-powder-infused recipe and shows him how it’s done, the game is changed. Suddenly he has a reason to stop slacking and start applying himself, determined to meet his teacher’s standard. He steps up his salesmanship, too, as Mr. White pushes him to spread their product into more and more dangerous territory – all to grab as much market share as possible.
That often puts Jesse in harm’s way, like when a junior cartel don rips off his stash and leaves him in the hospital. But with every setback, Mr. White is there to pull him back to his feet, both encouraging and demanding, and with a clear level of trust. When Walt passes Jesse a respirator in the middle of a cook and tells him to finish the job, goading, “You can do it”, it’s an affirmation he rarely gets.
Still, though he might not be very independent, Jesse isn’t (completely) stupid. As the risk piles up he wonders more and more if maybe, just maybe, there’s a different kind of life out there for him. One that won’t drag him deeper into the cesspool each day, that doesn’t have Mr. White stringing him along at every juncture.
A sliver of a chance arrives when he meets Jane, a sassy painter with a sharp angle on living. After Mr. White’s endless litanies on the science of meth-cooking and market share, Jane’s words on Georgia O’Keeffe come to Jesse as fresh air. “Should I just smoke this one cigarette? Should we just watch one sunset? Or live just one day?” she asks, challenging Jesse’s insistence that O’Keeffe had unhealthy fixations on her subjects. “It’s new every time. Sometimes you get fixated on something, and you might not even get why. You open yourself up and go with the flow wherever the universe takes you.”
Jane’s sense of carpe diem shakes Jesse awake, and he decides – at last – to claim his share of the money from Mr. White and start anew. Much to Walt’s anger, certainly, but Jesse fends him off, asserting his freedom. Thrilled, he and Jane elect to celebrate: one last shot of heroin, Jane’s drug of choice, for a final careless night in each other’s arms, before cleaning up their act the next morning and leaving their old lives behind.
Only for Jesse to wake up and find that Jane has overdosed – rolling over in her sleep and choking to death.
It takes Jesse a while to climb back from that. Weeks in a rehab clinic. Several therapy sessions. Coming to grips with blame and grief and the black mess his life is – one he now understands he can’t escape. A Narcotics Anonymous group teaches the concept of self-acceptance over self-loathing, and so he confronts the devil by releasing it. Meeting back up with Mr. White, who has helped him through this terse period, Jesse declares his acceptance with unsettling resolve: “I’m the bad guy.”
The Naked Spur
Hank Schrader is a lot of things. Crass. Abrasive. Fond of expletives and racial slurs, even if mostly in jest. But as one of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most effective agents, he’s a man who stands for justice, making him the unlikely moral center of Breaking Bad. He works round-the-clock on meth lab shakedowns and investigations, not for the thrill of it (though he does enjoy himself), but because he’s well aware of how damaging the crystal trade is. He’ll work his own time when a lead bugs him and manpower comes up short, even when he has to do so from a sick bed. Most meaningful to us, though, is how he looks out for his brother-in-law, Walt.
Hank knows that Walt hasn’t had the easiest life, and while he may poke fun at his brainiac qualities, he considers his brother-in-law a good man who deserves more than what he’s been given. He scolds Walt’s son when he goes to Hank for advice he should be getting from his dad. He calls to apologize when he accidentally raises Skyler’s ire, giving his buddy a heads up. He even trusts Walt enough to help him out on real police work. When Walter contracts cancer, Hank genuinely reassures him that whatever happens, he will take care of Walt’s family.
The truly revealing moment comes when Skyler asks him to talk a resistant Walt into getting chemotherapy. While initially submissive to Sky’s request, Hank hears advice from his wife (and Skyler’s sister) Marie, and resigns to let Walt make his own decision. “Maybe Walt wants to die like a man, all right?” he blurts out, the admiration clear.
It isn’t a light statement, not even for someone as free with words as Hank. Death can be a very real thing to a DEA agent – which Hank experiences firsthand in several near-brushes with the Mexican cartel. Facing mortality is as tough as it gets, and after surviving a gruesome bombing, a shell-shocked Hank is counseled by his grateful brother-in-law. “I have spent my whole life scared”, Walt shares sagely, “But ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. That fear… that’s the real enemy.” Turning to look Hank in the eye, he closes, “You kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth.”
Interesting how many similarities Hank and Walt actually have, even on the brainy side, as Hank is an extremely capable detective who knows his share of meth-related chemistry and has a knack at putting leads together. But it takes everything he has to handle the trickiest case of his career: the rise of Heisenberg, a mystery man pushing the world’s most dangerous drug.
My Darling Clementine
Sharing a table with New Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpin, Walter White plays his card. “Are you familiar with my product?” he asks. “It is the purest, most chemically sound product on the market anywhere.”
Walter can speak with confidence because he knows the man, Gustavo Fring, is indeed familiar with it. By this point, everyone in the game is. Difficult as it’s been to push his way into a pool dominated by professionals like Gus, Walt has experienced firsthand how much power his crystal clear meth affords him, how much respect and fear it commands. Cartel dealers have sold out of it in droves and called for more. The Drug Enforcement Agency – led by his own unsuspecting brother-in-law, Hank – dubs it “Blue Sky”, and works overtime to crack down on it. As far as accomplishments go, Walt couldn’t be prouder. He’s even fashioned a nom de guerre that’s spread to every corner of the drug world: Heisenberg.
Through a deal with Gus, Walt finally manages to score a considerable amount of cash – quite close to the exact sum he’d hoped to leave his family. It’s also enough for his cancer, which he beats successfully into remission.
After all the stops and starts, the victory tastes sweet, the smile on his face awash with satisfaction. Except it’s all been achieved through criminal means – either by his hand or insistent demands on Jesse – and the first real cost hits hard when his wife, Skyler, uncovers his double life.
Though not a chemistry genius, Skyler is quite intelligent, and has long suspected that Walt’s been keeping a secret from her. She also loves him deeply and, given his cancer, never pushed him to reveal it. Even when his frequent absence pointed to an affair. But the truth comes to light, and it’s worse than she could have imagined. Her husband, god forgive him, was now a dangerous man.
Leaving him and preventing him from seeing their children (from whom she keeps Walt’s secret, preferring they not know), Skyler forces Walt to reconsider his actions. He’d done all this for family, but was he now a danger to them? Maybe Jesse’s suffering proves Skyler’s point: there’s no happy ending for anyone in the game. “I am not a criminal”, Walt tells Gus at their next meeting, announcing his withdrawal from the business. A statement in direct opposition to Jesse’s own self-acceptance.
Walt actually makes good on it…until a determined Gus presents a gift: a massive, house-sized, state-of-the-art superlab, organized and calibrated to Walt’s specifications. The ultimate site for methamphetamine production, if he accepts it. Walt’s speechless, the Heisenberg fire rising within, ecstatic that his product demands an operation this grand. Envisioning, perhaps, how much grander it could still be. When thoughts of Skyler and his family pull him back to earth, Gus shares with Walter his own wisdom: “A man provides. Even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved.”
But as Walter accepts the gift, the change in demeanor is hard to ignore, the joy too real to stem from simply wanting to provide.
Alongside the lab, Gus provides Walt with a new assistant: a cheery, passionate chemist named Gale. As the lone speck of brightness in Gus’s bleak operation, Gale helps Walt further separate the element of criminality from their work. “I love the lab”, Gale admits. “It’s all still magic.” He recites the Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, which speaks to the beauty in nature that is absent from a rigid world of rules and requisites. “It is”, Walt concurs, his tone swelling. “It is magic.” Hard to imagine the practical-minded Walter attaching an irrational description to his field of choice – the kind of musing we’d probably have heard from Jane, before she passed.
During a later moment of delirium, Walt again strays from reason to entertain another Jane-like thought. He recalls to Jesse that, just a few hours prior to her death, he met a man at a bar, and learned only afterwards that this man was Jane’s father. “The universe is random”, he opines. “It’s not inevitable. That’s what science teaches us, but what is this saying? What is it telling us when on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him?”
Up to then, Walt had needed a reason to keep cooking. For family. For security. For just reward after everything he’d been through. Something to frame his choices as, above all, logical. But following Gale’s words, he listens to the inner voice that awakened when he first brewed chemical perfection in crystal form. The voice that, so close to the end, has made him prouder of himself than he’s ever been.
The overlooked Breaking Bad scene marks Walt’s first acceptance of a stronger force at work, defying logic and science and reason. One not unrelated to the force that brings him back to the meth lab, time and again.
For a Few Dollars More
There’s peace again in the White house. Relenting to his claim of having their best interests at heart, Skyler allows Walt back into her life – and the children back into his. Things won’t return to normal, but she can pretend they will.
Then at dinner one night, Hank talks about a case at work: a methamphetamine chemist found dead at home, shot through the eye. For some reason, hearing this leaves Walt rattled. Skyler urgently demands what he knows, and if the same danger from that murder will arrive on their doorstep. It sends her husband into a seething rage.
“I am not in danger”, he snarls. “I am the danger.”
In addition to chemical mastery, Walt’s rise is steered in large part by another significant skill, the one Gilligan considers his true talent: his ability to lie. It’s delightfully meta that Walt becomes both actor and storyteller as the series progresses, keeping the secrets of his double career from family and his DEA brother-in-law, coming up with every plausible excuse to throw off suspicion. Fugue states caused by cancer. Weekend treatments at Navajo medicine lodges. Projecting the innocent, pathetic version of Walter White that all are familiar with, far removed from a life of excitement. Even after Skyler discovers what he’s been up to, he manages to keep the worst of it – the murders and near-deaths – from her knowledge.
He even deceives Jesse, now the closest to a genuine friend he has. Walt is the clear architect of their mutual descent into hell, but every time Jesse comes around to that, the teacher plants shreds of doubt in his mind, convincing his student to stick with him. Stay loyal. Join him on the long way down, accepting their lot as “the bad guys”.
At the opposite end, Walt has built the fiction of Heisenberg; portraying a natural criminal so confident and ruthless that his actions become underworld legend. From his first cook, men have tried to seize a share of his profitable product, often with murderous intent. The first of them fell to a basic chemistry trick: phosphine gas instead of meth, Walt’s own lethal bait-and-switch. One could overlook how easily the kill came. Chalk it up, perhaps, to cancer kicking his self-preservation into overdrive.
Since then, more of the underworld has infringed on his territory: the Mexican cartel, rival gangs, even his own business partner, Gus Fring, whom Walt can feel tightening his leash. Each time he’s backed into a corner, seemingly helpless, he resorts to the fullest of measures to claw his way out. Each time, it seems to come easier to him, even as the methods grow dramatic. Synthesized toxins. Mercury tweaked to combust. Makeshift bombs planted on vehicles. Soon enough, the advice on mortality he shared with Hank becomes mantra. When faced with death, kick that bastard right back in the teeth.
(continued next post)