Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 2)
(Second part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. From here expect major spoilers on the final season, prior to the series finale. For a recap of the themes introduced in prior seasons, see the previous post; for the finale, see the next and concluding post)
Through the course of the series, you can say that the arc of Walter White has been two-fold. There’s the obvious spiral from good to unquestionably bad, but also the subtler side of him moving from classical science to acknowledging the artistic soul. Yet both sides can be distilled into one pure and potent encompass: the break from rational into the irrational, the release of logic and acceptance of an inexplicable – and almost romantic – power.
When asked the specifics of the phrase “Breaking Bad”, creator Gilligan describes it as “to raise hell”. This alludes not only to Walt’s moral decay, but his uprooting from passive order into fiery action. A change of his own design, hence the name “Heisenberg”. As Walt breaks bad, his chemistry expertise evolves from chalkboard theory into an almost magical weapon, bewildering all who witness it, fully realized in the flawless crystal meth he cooks.
As his product spreads throughout the country, Walt becomes increasingly protective of it – even against those he trusts. When Jesse at one point demonstrates that he can cook the meth formula entirely on his own, Walt turns furious, forbidding that he ever do so again.
But why be so ambitious? What’s he doing this all for, really? Jesse asks him one day, as an opportunity comes for them to cash out of the twisted game with a big enough retirement package. Walt scoffs at the notion, and Jesse raises the question: is he in this for the meth, or the money?
“Neither”, says Walt. “I’m in the empire business.”
He relays a story: decades ago, over an unexplained disagreement with his partners, Walt opted out and sold his stake in a technology firm called Grey Matter – the first thing he ever built. Today it’s over a hundred thousand times richer. With his old colleagues still cashing in on what he considers his hard work, his genius.
Back in the early stages of his cancer, those same colleagues – now the married Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz – offered Walt recompense: full payment for his treatment and even his old position back. Had Walt taken it, there would have been no need for Heisenberg, no need to cook, no need for the pain and suffering he both felt and caused. Not only did he reject it, but he has never looked back, never regretted turning them down. It’s the first real instance of him snapping at the easy way out and taking the more reckless – and to him, more gratifying – path.
Perhaps this, the monument of Heisenberg, is the way to set things right, the universe providing his motivation and means. A way to be glorified, even perversely, and wipe the stain of that lasting insult. To touch the life of kings, and let no one stand in his way. Not his wife, Skyler. Not Jesse. Not business partners like Gus Fring, or the DEA, or the Mexican cartel. No matter how brutally he may have to strike back at them.
The Great Silence
That cycle of recklessness reaches its peak when, faced with ten imprisoned associates who might give him up to the law, Walt does not even consider buying their silence. He silences them permanently; hiring a man named Jack, the deadliest killer this side of the Aryan brotherhood, to perform a mass execution. It’s Heisenberg at his most chaotic and irredeemable – and brings him the crown he so long desired.
Except that this is a story, and Walt’s at the finish line. His crystal meth trade has expanded into a business grand enough to make hundreds of millions a year. A business he fully controls, at the cost of his soul. The success is real, his transformation complete. The arc of Walter White is over.
And then it comes back: the cancer that started it all, flaring out of remission. Reminding us that, for the story to end, Walt has to die.
Killing Walter White can’t be easy. The Bad creative team gives the devil his due, breaking it into stages as Walt – and those around him – brace for the impact.
Denial – end of “Gliding Over All” to “Rabid Dog”
If there’s one person Walt has most impressively lied to, it’s himself. Every moral question that’s raised, he casts aside with a universal cleanser: this will benefit his family.
So Skyler wakes him to the facts. She shows him the physically massive pile of money that his “empire” has produced. It’s too much to launder. Too much to spend. Too much for his children to even know about without having to learn where it came from.
That, and there doesn’t seem to be anything left to fight for. Jesse has called it quits. Every danger to him – and his secret – is gone. Even the DEA’s fresh out of leads.
Walt takes it as a chance to leave the business and put Heisenberg away. Maybe it’s the cancer, too: the horseman of death, warning him that if he wants the end to come easily, he’ll need to set his affairs in order. Make what amends he can. To rest in peace, going quietly into that good night, and have a happy ending.
And he’s gravely wrong, because peace is for the just. Death has something far, far more terrible in store for the evil Walter White, rearing its head with a second horseman: Hank.
Having all but given up on the untraceable Heisenberg, a defeated Hank decides to keep the troubling case out of mind. He and his wife enjoy a ritual lunch with the Whites, shooting the breeze with Walt about beer and chemistry. And it’s on this day that he finds the unlikeliest of clues in their house: a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with a very telling inscription. Vague, but just enough to spark the epiphany…and bring home the horror of who Heisenberg really is.
Viewers questioned why Hank couldn’t put together Heisenberg’s identity when the man himself was in plain sight. Something tells me every time a clue tempted him in Walt’s direction, he’d subconsciously push it away, nobly prioritizing justice for his family – and downtrodden brother – over justice to the law.
As the second horseman, Hank must now step up as the counter-force to evil, but the other layer to his role is the sin of Walt’s deceit. The lies of Heisenberg haven’t just perpetuated his reign; they’ve toyed with his loved ones, taking advantage of the filial affection Skyler, his son, Hank, and even Hank’s wife had extended to him for so long.
The face-off doesn’t wait. “All along, it was you”, Hank growls, hissing Walt’s crimes at him like curse words. Except that Walt actually holds to his denial. Telling Hank there’s no purpose to the case, now that he’s given up the game.
True enough; in terms of evidence and witness, Hank doesn’t have much to go on. He also knows now how devious Walt is, and that he’ll have to come up with an unpredictable strategy to catch the kingpin red-handed.
Leading him to round up the third – and unlikeliest – horseman: Jesse.
As of late, Jesse’s been a shadow of himself. Freedom from the business isn’t the alluring goal it used to be. He doesn’t have Jane. He’s turned his back on lovers and friends, restless in anyone’s company. Worst of all is the weight he’s carrying from working with Mr. White: the crimes, the murders, the betrayals.
Since Jane’s death, he’s declared himself “the bad guy”, believing the meth trade was all there was for him, and that money would soothe any pain. But Mr. White’s dragged him through far more than he ever bargained, and the retirement package he’s encashed isn’t making him feel any better. What bothers him the most isn’t guilt; it’s the nagging idea that it isn’t over, that Mr. White might have plans for him yet.
Walt does – but it’s a plan Jesse can agree with: knowing Hank might try pressing Jesse about Heisenberg, Walt suggests he buy a new identity – and a new life – in Alaska. Jesse’s aware this is tilted to Walt’s benefit, but with little else left for him, he acquiesces. Troubled as he is, Jesse has no intention of rolling over for Hank.
Until right before he leaves. In one of the most electrifying sequences in the series (note-perfect acting, lighting, scenery, and a brilliant cue from composer Dave Porter), Jesse puts together – for the first time – the full extent of his teacher’s sadistic betrayal, and just how unforgivably the man has used him.
It sends him into a determined rage; grabbing a gas can, he charges for the White house intending to set it aflame. Birthed in a fit of passion, it’s not the smartest idea, and we already know beforehand that it won’t work. What matters is the message; that Jesse’s turnaround is the lever of reckoning, and he’s about to set Walt’s world on fire.
His rage is halted by a very resourceful Hank; having tracked Jesse down, he quickly talks sense into him. Reasoning that their desire to get at Walt is now mutual, Hank proposes that Jesse instead confront his mentor with a wiretap handy. A good play, except that the thought of meeting Walt again face-to-face puts Jesse on edge, his fear of the man now practically instinctual. Representing the sin of manipulation, Jesse’s role in the endgame isn’t just to exact revenge, but to show the damage that his mentor’s careless abuse has brought to those around him, even the ones he professes to love.
If Jesse had worn the police wire and followed Hank’s plan, they could have wrapped the case then and there and spared everyone – including Walt – the terror to come. Unfortunately, that’s not how morality plays work; the mental torture Walt’s dealt must exact its part of the toll. When Jesse can’t bring himself to face the devil on his own terms, he goads Hank towards a sneakier route.
“I’m coming for you”, Jesse tells his old partner over the phone. “I’m going to get you where you really live.”
The threat startles Walter in a way that none of Hank’s accusations could. And as he finally rises from the false peace, it’s Walt himself who calls in the fourth horseman: Jack.
Anger – “To’hajilee”
Across Breaking Bad’s rich cast, Jack is unique. Decently mannered and thoroughly amoral, he’s the last major character introduced, halfway through the final season, and has the least amount of screen time. That he plays such a large role in the endgame is unusual, yet he grows into one of the show’s scariest villains (no easy feat) by representing the darkest of Walter White’s sins.
While Gus Fring embodies the business of the meth trade and Walt embodies the chemistry, Jack embodies the violence. We’ve seen many instances of gruesome retribution in the game, whether from Walt himself or one of his enemies. Jack quietly tops them all in record time, pulling off a mass execution order – and later laying waste to a rival dealer – with ease. The bloodletting in Bad is never overused, but has hung over every deal Walt and Jesse have made, reminding us of how crime costs the body and soul. Jack is the culmination of that – and of Walt’s own indulgence of it.
Like every other violent player, Jack’s taken an interest in the crystal blue product and the money it can raise. When Walter contracts him for one last hit, the only named price is for Walt to teach Jack’s nephew, Todd, how to brew the meth himself. Walt balks, but agrees to one cook – thinking Todd won’t learn enough from it, anyway.
Walter has stayed adamantly clean of the game since his “retirement”, enjoying the peace, the pretense of a happy ending. When Hank found him out, he refused to do any harm and simply covered his tracks – burying in the desert the massive pile of meth money that was too big to launder. When Jesse flew off the handle, Walt struggled to keep the demon at bay, believing he could talk his old partner into reason.
But Jesse makes good on his threat. Sending Walt a photo message, Jesse claims to have found the buried money and says he’ll burn every last stack unless Walt comes to face him. And just like that, Heisenberg snaps out of his reverie into blistering fury. Driving off to the burial site without a backwards glance, he pours out venom over the phone at Jesse – and calls Jack, telling him to meet him and bring backup.
It turns out, of course, to be a clever ruse on Hank’s part, and when Walt makes it to the burial site, he realizes he’s been had – and that Jesse and Hank are working together, the permutation that in his anger he hadn’t dared consider. With that he turns pale, having no intention of making Hank, or any part of the family he’s sacrificed for, a casualty to the game.
It’s significant that, when Hank holds him at gunpoint and orders his surrender, Walt doesn’t lash out; instead, he appears almost relieved. Far removed from the composure he wore only minutes ago, when he thought his hard-won wealth would be lost to a raving junkie. And as Hank slaps on the cuffs, promising that the law will find and seize every last buried dollar of his, one can imagine a different peace crossing Heisenberg’s mind: that the world will know exactly how much his product – and his genius – is worth.
Think of that as the second alternate ending to the series, much like his earlier retirement…and similarly too good to last.
Cue Jack’s Aryan crew closing in fast on the burial site – and even with a shocked Walt barking at them to stand down, the same thought of the profitable meth formula sees them pull out the heavy artillery. Every last piece of Walter’s dangerous game has come together in a melancholic picture, and it takes just one itchy trigger finger to bring hellfire ripping through the air and a front row seat to the most terrible judgment unfolding.
Bargaining – “Ozymandias”
As a wounded Hank lies struggling on the ground, Jack raises his pistol and aims for the killshot. No way is he letting a DEA agent live, not with a meth operation in the cards.
So Walter pleads, frantically and pathetically, for Hank to be spared. As Jack shrugs him off, Walt makes the biggest pitch in his arsenal: to give Jack all of the money that he buried in the ground.
It’s the first instance of Walt’s bargaining – not just for Hank, but for himself. Allowing his brother to die will see the end of what good he has fought so hard to cling onto, the last chance for the happy ending he and his family can have.
A bemused Jack puts the question to Hank, if he should accept the money and let him go. To which Hank shoots back: “You can go fuck yourself.”
With the click of a barrel, Hank is fulfilled. Unshakably moral to the end, he achieves what he once admired Walt for many moons ago – choosing to die like a man.
It’s full minutes later when Jack helps a devastated Walt to his feet. In a show of respect, he extends a parting consolation: he’ll be taking the money anyway, having his men find it and dig it out, but will leave Walt a seventh of the original share – as well as his life. So long as they agree to go their separate ways and never seek payback. As his demeanor slowly changes – and Heisenberg propping up his spine – Walt murmurs one more thing he’ll need to make them square: “Pinkman.”
Jack has his men pull Jesse out of his hiding place, but rather than kill him then and there, his nephew Todd suggests they first bring him back with them and find out what he might have told the feds. Delighted at the prospect of Jesse being interrogated in an Aryan compound, Walt agrees, so long as they promise to finish him when they’re done. A second instance of bargaining: having been dealt a bitter blow, he’ll at least see the rat suffer for leading Hank to his death.
So as a coup de grace, before a screaming Jesse is dragged away by Jack’s men, Walt looks him straight in the eye and drops passively, “I watched Jane die.”
Jesse stares in disbelief as Walt continues, “I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.”
The momentous confession closes one of the longest running arcs of both characters. Jane’s death made Jesse commit to his self-destructive trajectory, but it was also Walter’s most crucial turn. He not only let a young girl perish (to remove the wedge she drove between him and Jesse), he flat-out pretended it never happened. Weeks later, he’d still refuse the label of villain, allowing Jesse to shoulder the blame.
Now Walt’s finally owning the sin, absolving Jesse just as the door is shut on his freedom. Jesse’s too stricken to reply, but he’ll have a lot of time to think this one over – and how his guilt-driven descent may have all been for nothing.
For Walt, the satisfaction is short-lived, as he has to wearily trudge his way back home…and face his family. They’ve gotten wind of Hank confronting him in the desert. Skyler demands to know what happened, where Hank is now. Walt evades the question and urges her and his son to start packing bags – they need to run. But the lies are fragile as ever now, and sensing what the answer to her question is, a visibly tenuous Skyler draws a kitchen knife.
She’s at the end of her rope – unsure anymore of what in her life is real or reliable, if she belongs in hell or has a chance at heaven. All she knows is that if harm has come to Hank, she’ll stop at nothing to protect the rest of the family from the man who’s wrought it.
The same thought dawns on Walt – that he and he alone has brought the danger home, paying the full cost for only a seventh of the prize. Or, if the prize was his family’s security, then for none of it – not if they’re unwilling to accept it.
Shattered, Walter makes a final desperate bargain: he grabs his baby daughter, Holly, from her crib, taking her away with him before a hysterical Skyler can stop him. The one member of his family who can’t reject him, whom he can raise and give the world to if he buys them new lives far from home.
It’s a nice fantasy; it might even be doable. But it isn’t right, and the last vestige of Walt’s humanity can still see that. As he owned the monstrosity of letting Jane die, he decides to stop bargaining and accept that from here on, touching his wife and children will only bring them harm.
Over a phone call he knows is tapped by the police, he delivers to Skyler the one thing she wanted all this time: her freedom from him. Wiping her hands of any blood and owning every last evil deed he committed, using the acting proficiency he’d long mastered through falsities and deceit. Remembering, perhaps, a phone call to her from long ago when he made a similar lie to cover up his first cook. And after anonymously leaving baby Holly with her home address in the hands of the authorities, Walt grabs his bags and takes exodus of the life he’d long destroyed.
(concluded next post)