Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 3)
(Concluding part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. This covers the finale in detail and contains major spoilers for the ending. The themes discussed here are introduced in the previous posts, which recap the series prior to its conclusion)
Grief – “Granite State”
Dwelling in a New Hampshire mountain cabin (one of the few places he can stay as he waits for the now-public heat on Heisenberg to die down) is a long way from an ideal life. It’s also the furthest thing from home Walter can imagine, darkly cramped and rigidly cold in contrast to the dry open New Mexico desert, adding to its apocalyptic tone. Fitting, as he’s fallen all the way to the bottom, the traces of fight and hope fading into quiet desolation while the cancer chips away at what remains. It’s punishment, after all, and maybe the ending he was meant for.
He says as much to Ed, the man he’s paying a small fortune to make supply runs and keep him hidden. “One of these days when you come up here, I’ll be dead”, he guesses. It’s more and more likely his demise will see him alone and forgotten, washed under the snow like a bad memory.
Left to a similar fate is Jesse. In the hands of the Aryans, he finds that Jack isn’t exactly keeping up his part of the bargain. They’ve long finished interrogating him, as the disfiguring scars on his face attest, but – at Todd’s insistence – rather than put him out of his misery, they’ve forced him to cook the Heisenberg formula, to make even more millions on top of what they took. Chained to a lab and made to sleep in a pit, this is Jesse’s adulthood nightmare literalized: being forever shackled to the meth trade, deemed useless at anything else, with nothing but that to call home.
Walt, on the other hand, sits hundreds of miles away from any meth lab. Ready to surrender, he orders one last drink in a bar where he expects the law to eventually find him, waiting for the end. It’s during the grief stage that the prospect of death is most unbearable, leaving the mind to its grimmest ideas: that his family will never love him again. That he’s left them penniless. That this was all for nothing. And maybe the ideas that bother him even more – that the world will move on, the perfect meth of Heisenberg becoming a ghostly footnote, if that.
In this stage, though, a final alchemy is taking place, catalyzed by it being the first time the chiral sides of our main protagonist have been truly confronted. Walter White and Heisenberg. Good guy and bad guy. Scientist and supernatural legend. The victim doomed by disease, and the mastermind it birthed. Now that both have loved and both have dearly lost, the once-dueling personas find themselves sharing the same headspace, stripped down to their naked cores to see each other as they are.
And all it takes is a spark to ignite the magic: by the slimmest of chances, Walter catches a TV interview featuring none other than his oldest colleagues, Gretchen and Elliot of Grey Matter, billionaires rolling in attention for their philanthropy. And when the topic of Walter White and Heisenberg comes up, as it must for the thread to complete, enough is said to join the personas into an ultimate synthesis.
He is no longer Heisenberg, nor is he Walter White. But he carries the finest elements of both men as he breaks into climactic action, gliding into the night to raise the baddest level of hell.
Acceptance – “Felina Has Found Me”
Walter White’s manufacturing of crystal meth at near-absolute purity is, many critics believe, a metaphor of Breaking Bad’s own creative process. Distilling modern archetypes of serialized drama down to the intrinsic nature of the theatre to unveil one of the most potently engaging works we’ve had the pleasure to consume. This is no more evident than in the final chapter, an ending so raw in purpose it’s almost unrecognizable as a chapter of the series it bookmarks.
There are few of the trappings we know. The lighting, even in the desert shots, is thoroughly cold and morose; familiar sets like the White house are either absent or grossly altered; the characters are long removed from their typical appearance and demeanor. It serves to emphasize that, unlike with most televised dramas, the Bad world is definitively dropping the curtain. It is not a fictive universe designed to continue (even in our own minds). There is no status quo left unchanged, no never-ending cycle to perpetuate. Dialogue is coarse and sparse in this last hour because all has already been said. Music is mostly diegetic (there are only about five minutes of external cues, from either Dave Porter or existing tracks) as befits a funeral march, and even the sendoff cue is one we wouldn’t have suspected.
Since this is Walter’s story, there really is no proper ending for him than the only indisputable one: death. It shuts the door on any what-ifs and wherefores. But we’re left to consider the characters he’s touched on his way out; on the surface, their own finales are ambiguous, and so we defer to the rules of story, discerning each resolution by the final state they’re left in.
Walt’s goodbye to Gretchen and Elliot ends with a partnership that will extend past his own trip to the grave. He makes their Grey Matter empire a mere extension of his own, as they are coerced into cleansing Heisenberg’s money of its stain and getting what’s left of it to his family. Using them, he’d deem, in the same way they used him, almost as if it were a grand plan from the start, designed to his benefit and come to its apex.
It’s enough, and it satisfies him. There is little need to gloat on it (though he does for just a bit, in his way). He doesn’t even need to bring up the article that many viewers expected he’d bring up: the conflict that dissolved their original partnership. To the frustration of a few fans, it’s left a mystery, but maybe that’s because we knew enough all along. Maybe Walt was too damned proud of himself, even way back in his youth. Maybe he did break up with Gretchen – his first known relationship – out of little more than paranoia and spite. Maybe the trigger that set him down his vengeful path was no more complex than Walt being…well, the Walt we’ve since come to know.
Just ask Skyler, who knows that Walt better than anyone. He sneaks into her new house in what might be the series’ most powerfully-acted scene, where husband and wife exchange not so much goodbyes as final words in the five minutes she’ll tolerate.
“You look terrible”, she whispers blithely.
“But I feel good”, he replies.
He promises her that none of the evil he empowered will threaten her again, but admits at last why he kept it in motion in the first place. Not for the good of the family. “I did it for me. I was good at it. I was alive.”
On his way out, Skyler allows him to visit baby Holly’s crib. He strokes her head longingly, and then exits to watch, hidden from view, as his son steps off his school bus and comes home to greet his mother. This is his family’s ending: to heal the wound he’s left and once again become whole, more than it has been in a long time.
As Walter tends to his last affairs, we see him as never before: in calm, collected control. He has come quite a way since the Pilot, when he could barely keep circumstances from spiraling into confusion. The struggle reconciles with his acceptance of fate, and through that, destiny ceases to beat against him and steers to his hand. Every item on his list is accomplished with nary a hitch…save one.
Having heard that the Heisenberg meth is somehow back on the streets, Walt believes that Jesse and Jack have partnered to brew his product. So he engineers the bloodiest and most punishing end for them he can imagine, and sets it as his final destination…until he actually sees with his own eyes what Jesse has become.
There are plenty of explanations for why Walt chooses to shield Jesse from the onslaught he’s prepared, the unexpected step in a flawless plan. But they mostly defer to this being something that both Walt and Heisenberg (and, by transference, their now-seamless fusion) want to happen. He is finally struck by just how much – and how long – Jesse has suffered on his account, how deep into the mire of the game he has fallen in no small part by Walt’s own machinations.
Walt’s newfound acceptance extends to all of that, and so he gives Jesse what he has most desperately needed: a way out. Out of his prison. Out of the game. Out of the blackness, and into a chance at redemption. Even a way out from under the shadow of Walter White, as he offers Jesse a gun, a clear shot, and even absolution of the murder.
But Jesse sees the bloody hole in Walt’s side – a stray bullet from the onslaught he set off. He drops the gun and denies Walt of an immediate death, deciding that his freedom will begin with no longer following his mentor’s orders. Giving Walt a parting nod – not so much a pardon or even a goodbye, but an acknowledgement that their mutual misery is done – he gets into a car and breaks through the gates of the massacred Aryan compound, wailing in ecstasy.
Jesse’s ending is the most complete of anyone’s – he is free. As he comes roaring out of the most inescapable depths of the game, we needn’t be concerned with what happens to him next; he will find his way out, as he never before thought he would.
Walt watches his protégé leave, and then readies himself for his own ending – now more prepared than he has ever been. Clutching the fatal wound in his side, he stumbles through the compound and finds the meth lab that the Aryans had Jesse brew his product in. Seeing the configuration just as he originally designed it. Pressure set at the level he’d always specified. The tools and ingredients he requisitioned from his and Jesse’s very first cook. And he smiles, basking in how far it’s all come since that first cook, how much was set in motion by his hand and how much it brought to what had been such a plain existence.
He’ll never be redeemed, but has accomplished the good he once desired. He’s met a miserable demise, as the cancer long dictated he would, but has celebrated the most glorious form of living. He’ll leave life unloved, but can die the most romantic of deaths – in the embracing, equipment-laden arms of his one true passion, as presented in the masterful, final unfurling shot. He has broken free of the learn’d astronomer’s drudged world of castrated theory, and relished a shining year in the mystical footsteps of the gods.
As he strokes a kettle in the lab the same way he stroked his baby girl, his final breath leaves him, and, gliding out, brings his perfect silence. Punishment and consolation, negation and completion. The most classical of stories are those which capture that complex breadth of human essence in the purest and simplest of ways, and that’s what Breaking Bad achieves like no other work of its kind.