It is impossible to think of another program in the history of television (golden age or otherwise) whose final moments were more certain, determined and captivatingly earned than the last few minutes of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad. An extraordinary examination of moral transformation, guilt, conscience, complicity and control, the series has become a cultural phenomenon and its execution and delivery a television milestone unlikely to be repeated or surpassed in anyone's lifetime.
As the final episode opens in the wake of last week's penultimate 'Granite State,' Walter has embarked on what will be his final transformation – he'd undergone another state of change that left him gaunt, wan, and alone with his thoughts when he wasn't paying $10,000 dollars for an extra hour of Robert Forster's time. Make no mistake, after all he had done in the name of family, Walter White's illusion of being some savior or hero for those that he supposedly held above all else had been completely shattered. Walt had been reduced to a man with a barrel full of money and no one to give it to; the legacy he dreamed of – someone to be remembered for snatching from the icy grip of death a future for his family that was both stable and comfortable – was forever out of reach.
Worse yet, he came to find via Charlie Rose that his dual life as Heisenberg resulted in him being scrubbed from the history of Gray Matter, the company he helped create with Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz. And now, with $70 million of his ill-gotten fortune in the hands of Todd and his family of Nazis, the cruel joke had become that Walter's true legacy was to lose his life's work not once but twice – and, as far as the latter is concerned, in the most damning way possible. As is inevitable when a series reaches its conclusion, it can be entertaining (and sometimes necessary) to take a look back and see how things went from A to B to C (or in this case from Walt to Heisenberg to Mr. Lambert) and one thing is incredibly clear: for a man so convinced that everything would work out fine - had everyone just listened to him and done as he said - it becomes painfully obvious that every deed undertaken by Walt (in any of his forms) simply made things worse.
It was bad enough that a high school science teacher with a terminal illness would suddenly begin manufacturing a potent and deadly stimulant with a former ne'er-do-well student, but as with most things from which a person receives a buzz and sensations of dominance or strength – which are often misinterpreted as something good – the need and desire for more becomes all consuming. And in the end, you're left with the rise of a kingpin and the utter destruction of the man he once was; a fact that cleverly granted the audience the opportunity to turn away from and be repulsed by Walter White, while still being utterly captivated by the approaching end to his story.
And in 'Felina,' all roads lead back to Albuquerque. After the beating his ego took from the Schwartzes and the phone call he'd placed to Flynn, Walter had chosen his next and final move: It is better to die chasing what he loved, than to wither away and quietly disappear in a cold New Hampshire cabin. Once we're all clear on that decision, the episode works to seamlessly integrate everything we've known about Walter White's final run since last year's 'Live Free or Die.' Here, the flash-forwards are part of the narrative: the bacon on his fifty-second birthday, the machine gun in the trunk and the collection of the ricin from his bedroom socket all happen in the span of mere seconds, and pay off over a year's worth of wondering.
After the last few episodes managed to chew up and discard all other possible scenarios that might've seen Walt drive off to an undisclosed location or die cold, alone and surrounded by newspaper clippings on the other side of the country, 'Felina' works with the kind of laser precision Badger and Skinny Pete can really appreciate (especially if there was a bundle of cash in it for them). So, like a scientist in his lab, Gilligan goes down the checklist of encounters that need to happen before the inevitable conclusion. But he manages to ratchet up the tension in each and every scenario, so that, for the briefest moment, you think it could all go another direction.
Walter intimidates Gretchen and Elliot into using his money to set up an irrevocable trust fund for Flynn, so that he can salvage something from the wreckage of his life. It's not the goodbye he was hoping for, or the legacy he intended to leave behind, but he knows it is his money, and as he admits to Skyler after some clever cinematography reveals him to be in her presence, Walter White only does what makes Walter White feel good and alive – family was just a smokescreen.
Gilligan manages to tie that sentiment self-interest to Walt's final encounter with Todd, Jack and the rest of the Nazis. Walt didn't pop in on Todd's meeting with Lydia so he could later go out as a hero. He's not there to save Jesse, either (we can only imagine that was an afterthought of seeing him in chains); it was retaliation for someone once again making a profit off of his life's work. And that retaliation (with the possible exception of Lydia's agonizing end) was swift and precise – the way someone obsessed with precision would do it. A scientist to his dying breath, Walt spends his final moments left alone with his one true love, and we're left to wonder: would Heisenberg have ever really let Walter quit?
What's remarkable about the series finale is its unique understanding and implementation of what it means to follow through. Both written and directed by Gilligan, the episode remains so wholly true to the essential principles set forth by the series' narrative from the very beginning that the overall quality of this superb denouement begins to mirror the story at hand. Essentially, the series began life as a small, niche program that was a remarkably well-made product, and soon the quality of Gilligan's creation saw its reputation grow and its impact became something far greater and more influential than anyone likely could have imagined. Similarly, around the midway point it became clear that the future of Walter White and the future of Breaking Bad were pretty much set in stone. One would end badly, and one would be heaped with praise for that fact.
In terms of storytelling, Vince Gilligan and his fantastic room of writers seemed at times to have been channeling Walter White themselves: They were obsessed with creating as pure a product as possible. And like White, it didn't matter which of their characters wound up being the next victim, as long as the result was a distinct creation as near to flawless as it could possibly be.
Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC
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