Awhile back, I revisited the finales of Battlestar Galactica and LOST, two shows which started out strong but concluded to mixed reviews or outright hostility by fans. Fortunately, the finale to Breaking Bad evaded that fate. If I have any criticism, it’s that it was too short. On the other hand, the last episode was more of a coda to a story that really climaxed two episodes earlier in “Ozymandius” and all but concluded in “Granite State.”
In “Ozymandius,” the house of cards that Walter White maintained finally collapsed and he lost everything that he thought mattered to him: his family, his freedom, his fortune, and his powers of persuasion. This is the episode where all of Walt’s fears finally manifest and he definitively falls.
“Granite State” shows us a defeated man in exile, bereft of family and freedom. His only companion is a barrel of cash that he can’t spend or get to his family. Its only use is to pay a fixer to keep him alive for no obvious reason other than inertia. It’s a portrait of a man in the process of ego destruction, as he accepts that he’s not really his fearsome Heisenberg persona, nor is he the cowardly, self-destructive Walter White. What emerged at the end of that episode was a man who’s no longer afraid, because he’d already lost everything. He has no illusions about who he is or what he’s doing, and his only remaining goal is to get his money to his children and kill a few Nazis (because why the hell not?).
“Felina” shows us Walt in what may be his purest form. Freed from fear and greed, he can pursue his goals without looking over his shoulder for fear of retribution or discovery. It’s important to note that all of his previous schemes in the series were borne out of paranoia or fear to protect himself, his family, or Jesse. In this final episode, he finally gets to act with a clarity of purpose denied to him during the previous two years. He’s largely unemotional during this episode and the emotions he does show seem to be more manufactured for the sake of his plan than anything else. It’s a far cry from the fast-talking, often-blubbering Walter White, who always bargained like a coward with his enemies when he wasn’t putting on a show of false bravado for them. The Walter in “Felina” is more a force of will than a man.
Since Walt was defeated in “Ozymandius” and Heisenberg finally hung up his hat in “Granite State,” the man we see in “Felina” appears like a ghost to his family and former associates, and an avenging angel to his few remaining enemies. After he completes his two final tasks, he dies in the only place he truly lived: a meth lab of his own design and creation.
The ending to Breaking Bad was one of the most satisfying conclusions that I’ve seen in a very long time, but I was surprised to discover that some folks on the internet thought it was either too satisfying or that it couldn’t possibly have happened because Walt succeeds in his goals.
The opinion that the episode was flawed because it was too satisfying can’t really be addressed. These people are broken and it’s about as useful to address their concerns as it is to hold a rational discussion with a guy who’s yelling at a park bench because it keeps attacking his elephant.
The second opinion, that the episode was some sort of fever dream of Walt’s as he’s freezing to death in that car in New Hampshire, comes from the same feeling that the episode was too satisfying, but at least it’s a coherent theory. It’s puzzling, because there’s only a couple of things that Walt’s trying to do in this episode that, in light of all the other things he’s done in the series, are fairly modest and easily achieved for a man of his accomplishments. The criticism is that everything seems to go Walt’s way in this episode, which apparently defies belief, because Walt is never shown to be lucky or successful in any of his previous schemes during the series…
I mean, the high school chemistry teacher who created an impossibly pure and improbably colored crystal methamphetamine preferred by discerning addicts, and who in the space of a year completely destroyed the most sophisticated meth production and distribution network in the Southwest, could never spook a couple of squares and kill a half-dozen white trash nazis. That’s crazy, right?
The guy who rigged a bomb to the wheelchair of an invalid man, who just happened to be the former enforcer of a Mexican drug lord, to blow-up the Southwest’s premier meth manufacturer, who just happened to have seen his partner shot by the same enforcer 25 years before, and who had recently poisoned that same Mexican drug lord and his entire crew in one fell swoop, could never rig a remote firing mechanism for an M60 to shoot through the flimsy walls of a white trash nazi hideout, right? That’s just too clean. It’s too neat. How in the hell are we supposed to believe all these crazy coincidences that suddenly occur in the final episode? It’s completely out of character for a show with a personal injury lawyer who just happens to provide the exact criminal contacts our main characters need when they get in a fix or a need a plot complication resolved.
If you think that the fairly mundane tasks that Walt performs in the finale are so improbable, then why not just believe that the whole series is the fevered imagination of a high-school chemistry teacher who just learned he has terminal cancer? That makes about as much sense as believing that a man who excelled in the criminal underworld and destroyed all of his other enemies couldn’t drive from New Hampshire to clear-up a couple of relatively minor loose ends in New Mexico.
The practical reason why there aren’t any crazy shenanigans or plots-gone-wrong in the final episode is because it’s the final episode. You don’t need surprise complications to introduce new plots because the story is over. There isn’t another season out there waiting for the writers to tug on loose plot threads to see what happens, so everything seems to go Walt’s way because there’s no reason from a storytelling standpoint for them not to.
I think the folks who entertain this bizarre theory are puritanical moralists who, for all their professed love for sophisticated story-telling, really just want to see the guilty punished like in a run-of-the-mill ’50s TV show. For these moralists, crime cannot pay and the bad guys cannot succeed, so they instead choose to believe an ending that doesn’t make sense so that their illusions of cosmic justice can be maintained.
If they really wanted a stupid, shitty ending that badly, they should’ve been been watching another show the entire time.