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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

American Outlaws

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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”.

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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.

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(continued next post)