Breaking Bad Finale was a Fitting End for Walter White
You have to take a show on its own terms.
It’s really easy to forget this. Shortly after the series finale of Breaking Bad aired on Sept. 29, fans took to Twitter and began passing judgment on the episode and how (or whether) it illuminated all that came before it. The reactions ran the usual gamut of hyperbolic polarization that is all too common nowadays: the series was declared everything from the best finale ever, satisfying if unsurprising, perfect, too perfect, and, probably the most appropriate, definitive. Very few of the reactions tried to dissect the finale in the context of the series. Even recaps appearing in respected publications like HitFix and Vulture were too focused on expectation. It seems that too many audience members only cared about whether the show would reinforce their own worldview.
I understand that it’s hard for people to escape their own notions about a show and what it’s trying to do. Just think of the reactions to the final episodes of The Sopranos or Lost, where the notions of the audience were shown to be in direct opposition to the intentions of the shows’ creators. People wanted Tony Soprano to be punished, and people wanted the mysteries of the Island to be definitively answered. When fans were denied a definitive ending to either, they failed to realize that Chase and Lindelof/Cuse weren't after definitive endings.
Chase set his show in a morally ambiguous universe. When his series cuts abruptly to black — not letting us know whether the dude in the Members Only jacket came out of the bathroom and shot Tony — he withheld any kind of retribution towards his evil main character, and the moral satisfaction that would’ve come with it. Lindelof and Cuse refused to explain many of Lost’s biggest mysteries, and instead focused on an afterlife reunion between the show’s characters. They jettisoned the mythological focus in favour of giving us emotional closure.
In both these cases, audiences misinterpreted the world of the show. The Sopranos had plenty of moral lessons, but it was mostly interested in showing how bad guys can get away with their evil. Lost may have been mired in dense mythology, but it was really a show about broken people learning how to heal. I mention the reactions to both these shows because it explains so many of people’s reactions to Breaking Bad. If people thought Breaking Bad was a show that operated on ambiguity of plot, that had a shady moral worldview, and that would work without closure, of course the finale disappointed them — but they’d be completely wrong in their assumptions.
What I thought was most appropriate about the Breaking Bad finale is how it played right into everything we knew about Walter White (Bryan Cranston). I suspect that people weren’t surprised by the events in the finale because we had come to know Walter White so well over the course of the previous 61 episodes. His actions reeked of inevitability. He was bound to do what he did. It was the only way the show could have ended and make sense in relation to the characters is portrayed.
In the episode “Rabid Dog,” Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) rightly tells Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) that Walter White is supernaturally lucky. Everything he does is the complete opposite of what you expect, and everything turns out his way because he is the luckiest man alive. “Felina” played right into this notion of Walt’s almost supernatural luck. It even started with Walt hiding in a stolen car, praying to God for the opportunity to finish what he started, right before he taps the sunscreen and the keys fall right into his lap. It’s almost as if his last hurrah in Albuquerque — where he convinces Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz to give the remainder of his money to his son, says goodbye to his wife and daughter, and kills the neo-Nazis that stole his money and killed his brother-in-law, freeing Jesse and killing himself in the process — is ordained by a higher power.
Walt killing Uncle Jack and his men at the end of the episode shouldn’t surprise us. There’s nothing wrong with a show delivering what we expect, albeit in a very satisfying way. Breaking Bad had even done this before in the ending of its fourth season. We all knew Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) had to bite the bullet. The show couldn’t keep going on if Gus won and Walt was killed. We all knew that the episode “Face Off” would end with Gus’s death, but none of us knew that it would result in such a gruesome and iconic sendoff for Gus. We also didn’t know that by eliminating the series’ Big Bad and dealing with the chaotic fallout that arose from removing the power player, the series was able to dig deeper and explore darker parts of Walter White. Vince Gilligan let his antihero win, and turned him into a villain in the process.
And let’s not forget the fact that “Felina” was surprising, but not in how it ended. When the penultimate episode “Granite State” ended with Walt in a New Hampshire bar watching his former partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz on Charlie Rose, people expected the finale to deal with Walt paying them a visit and reaping bloody revenge. Instead, we got a brilliant maneuver that allowed Walt to finally get his money to his family, and left the Schwartzes alive as unwilling accomplishes to Walt. The show subverted our expectations, as it did at almost every turn throughout its run, and the result was both more satisfying, and more appropriate to the series, than anything the fanbase could hypothesize about.
Even more surprising was Walt’s final confession to Skyler about his motivations. He finally admitted he did everything for himself. He liked it. He was good at it. It made him feel alive. Of all the moments in the finale, this one cut the deepest.
The series ending was definite. Breaking Bad was never a show that operated on narrative ambiguity. But it had plenty of emotional ambiguity, which makes sense since its biggest influences are Shakespearean tragedies like King Lear and Macbeth. Few narrative events in Shakespeare’s tragedies are outright ambiguous, but the depth and complexity of the characters he created allows us to endlessly debate why the characters did what they did. Walter White is a character who operates in this way. Every decision he made defied easy classification.
The phone call in “Ozymandias” is the pinnacle of this emotional ambiguity the show excelled at. It became a sort of referendum on how viewers saw Walter White. If they believed it was purely a ploy to exonerate Skyler, they were pro-Walt, and if they thought Walt was merely spewing evil feelings at her, they were anti-Walt. The truth is something in between, where the intention of misleading the police is there, but so is the genuine rage he spews at his wife. The moment forces us to question every other action of Walt’s throughout the show.
Walt was always driven by his own actions, and many of his actions resulted in evil, but his motivations for them were never purely good or evil. Walt may have become a monster over the course of the show, but monsters can still love an abandoned child, or forgive and choose to save a man he had previously paid other men to kill. If we look at Walt this way, the small act of redemption in the finale, his saving of Jesse at the cost of his own life, makes sense.
Walt reaped the rewards, and the punishments, of his choices. Being a show so heavily about damnation and sin, it is fitting that Breaking Bad — the show with the most refined moral sense of any show in TV’s Golden Age — would also explore redemption.
Walt was never fully good or fully evil. He was always a person capable of both, and driven by both his rotten pride that boiled just beneath his surface and the larger lies he told himself to justify his actions. He was a human character, full of contradictions and passions. That he was afforded some small measure of redemption in the end was not a cop-out. It was a reflection of the choices everyone is faced with in reality.
Walter always had a choice, and in the end, however destructive his previous actions had been, however driven by hatred and malice and pride he was, he chose to do a little bit of good. This choice doesn’t eliminate his other actions, or make us forgive every evil that Walt had committed. Walt was free to commit good or evil. He always was. He got to choose his own way, and no one, not the other characters on the show, and most definitely not the audience watching the show, could choose what he would do for him.
Breaking Bad ended on Walter White’s terms, just like it had started. How fitting.
This article was originally posted on The Rooster (therooster.ca), Spareparts' now-defunct community culture blog.