Last night, AMC’s cult hit turned cultural phenomenon Breaking Bad came to a close, and while the finales of previous great television shows such as Lost and The Sopranos failed to satisfy audiences creator Vince Gilligan was able to craft a measured, subtle, and nuanced final episode which tied up all major loose ends and provided emotional closure, without betraying the central themes that have carried the show through 5 seasons.
As Walter White states in the very first episode, chemistry is the study of change; growth decay, and transformation. And like a balanced chemical equation Breaking Bad took us through Walt’s transformation from middle class chemistry teacher to meth kingpin, honestly and meticulously, accounting for every detail, always getting the formula just right. It was this scientific, almost obsessive approach to quality storytelling that allowed Breaking Bad to become perhaps the most politically relevant show during this Golden Age of Television.
Just like Lost and The Sopranos before it, Breaking Bad has been put under the microscope and analyzed from all angles. Much has been said about Breaking Bad being a show that was designed with its ending in mind from the start, which is true, but that’s not the only reason it now stands above the other great dramas of the era. Breaking Bad succeeds where other shows fell short due mainly to the fact that it was an honest reflection of American society that never compromised or strayed from its vision. The end, when it came, wasn’t meant to shock or take the audience by surprise. It had a feeling of inevitability, derived from the momentum the show built from the beginning.
Vince Gilligan has said publicly that he doesn’t care much for politics and that he doesn’t give the subject much thought. Though generally vague about his personal political views, he’s stated that he considers himself more conservative than most of the entertainment industry. Yet Breaking Bad has emerged as a genuine progressive television series, clearly indicting the system of capitalism that rules over society, and the way it infects all aspects of life, including the way the “traditional” family unit reinforces greed and the exploitation of others.
All art puts forward social and political messages, even if making a political statement isn’t your primary objective. Perhaps Breaking Bad is simply greater than the sum of its parts. Even if Gilligan doesn’t consider himself a progressive, and even if members of his writing staff sometimes publicly misinterpret aspects of their own story during interviews, through their creative collaboration a piece of progressive art was born. This isn’t to say that Breaking Bad‘s progressive position is purely accidental. By crafting of a narrative about the nature of greed and the pursuit of power in a detailed, almost scientific way, developing characters honestly and realistically, always making sure the chemical equation was correct, Gilligan and his team were able to accurately reflect the horrors of the capitalist system, and the moral truth was allowed to shine through their work.
Breaking Bad is about a man who’s been beaten down, victimized by a capitalist way of life that champions a man’s ability to provide for a family, and his inability to live up to that standard despite being a kind, respectable man. He’s been conditioned to believe that he’s a failure, and when he’s diagnosed with cancer that will most likely end his life in rapid fashion, he sets out to reclaim his manhood, to prove to the society that he’s been victimized by that he can provide after all. While we empathize with Walter’s plight, his decision is ultimately a selfish one in that it’s designed primarily to satisfy himself. Even though his choice is rooted in legitimate pain caused by the system, he sets out to master that system for his own selfish pride.
The series takes us through Walt’s entry into the drug trade and through his transformation into a murderous monster as he’s corrupted by capitalism’s need to expand no matter the cost to others. Through the entire show he lies to his family (and to himself), but Breaking Bad always shows the audience Walt’s true motivation. His wife, Skyler, eventually finds out and attempts to resist. Defiantly she says, “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” but she, too, eventually succumbs to the corrupting influence of accumulated wealth. While she originally objected to Walt’s drug manufacturing on the grounds that it would bring danger to the family, ironically, maintaining the perfect image of the “traditional” family unit is what allowed her to ultimately give in and assist Walt with his criminal dealings, rather than turning him in.
By the time we approach the final episode, Walt’s pursuit of wealth and power, which had been negatively impacting society in ever expanding concentric circles for some time, which he was fine with, has finally damaged his own family, the very thing he always said he wanted to protect and provide for. His brother-in-law, the DEA agent Hank, has been killed by the very forces he unleashed. His son, Walt Jr., finally learns the truth about his father, and with his family in shambles and no where to turn Walt is forced to go into hiding. He takes refuge in an isolated New Hampshire cabin with virtually no contact with the outside world, which gives him time to reflect on what he’s done and who he has become. When we arrive at the finale, Walter White’s growth, decay, and transformation is complete, and the show has been the study of his change.
When “Felina,” the last episode of Breaking Bad, begins, Walter White has come to terms with the evil man he has become. While he may regret the bad things that have happened, it appears Walt has made peace with who he is and what he’s done. He’s not remorseful, he simply has no more need to lie to himself or anyone else, and he glides through the last days of his life completely at ease, his criminal instincts having become second nature. During his last conversation with Skyler he admits for the first time that he did it all for himself, not for the family. “I liked it,” he says. “I was good at it.” In this moment Gilligan is rubbing the truth in the faces of those who argue that Walt remains a good person.
Even Walt’s final plan, which he returns to Albuquerque to set in motion, is still mainly motivated by selfish pride, rather than any genuine altruism. He’s come back to find a backdoor channel through which to give his money to his son, and to eliminate the organization that stole his drug money and is still selling his signature blue meth. Walt Jr., who would rather be called Flynn, has completely rejected his father and doesn’t want any of his blood money. Walt forcing that money upon his son is more for his own peace of mind, so he can die knowing that he actually did provide for his family despite everything that went wrong. And getting rid of Jesse, Lydia, Todd, and the gang of neo-Nazis isn’t really about setting things right or getting any sort of justice, it’s about making sure that his product, the blue meth, dies with him. It’s an act of reclaiming ownership over what he considers to be his property, rather than trying to rid the streets of a toxic drug for any sort of humanitarian reasons. Even at the very end, Walt is still out for himself, trying to maintain his image and solidify his reputation.
While it’s unclear as to whether Walt goes to the neo-Nazi compound with the intention of killing Jesse, or to rescue him, ultimately Walt takes pity on him and spares his life once he sees him in chains, and Walt offers Jesse the chance to kill him once the Nazis have been dispatched. But even this isn’t really a genuine sacrifice. Walt knows he’s about to die anyway, and with nothing left to accomplish, offering himself up on a platter for Jesse is more about assuaging himself of guilt than helping Jesse recover from the terrible abuse Walt has put him through. To Jesse, it’s just one more way that Walt wants him to do his dirty work for him, just like he did with Gale Boetticher. This time, though, Jesse refuses to comply and tells Walt to do it himself.
This is Jesse’s moment of moral triumph. While many often mistakenly describe him as “weak,” in reality he is the only major character on the show who actually reverses course and rejects the status quo. While Breaking Bad is primarily about Walt’s transformation, Jesse has also undergone some major changes. His transition is in many ways opposite of Walt’s. While Walt became increasingly greedy and power hungry, Jesse ultimately went from wanting to make “fat stacks” of money by selling meth to rejecting the pursuit of money based on exploitation and violence. Given that Breaking Bad has been an allegory of capitalism from the very start, one could argue that Jesse’s reversal, representing the moral compass of the show, is a symbolic rejection of capitalism all-together.
Jesse eventually learns that Walt and his endless manipulation is the source of his pain and that Walt’s greed is a negative force on all of society, and he chooses to stand up to him. It can take a great deal of strength to confront a tormentor, especially a manipulative abuser like Walt, and Jesse summons the will to do just that, at great personal cost. But once he drives away from the neo-Nazi’s compound, simultaneously crying tears of sadness and joy, pain and relief, he’s free in a way that no other character on the show is. We get the sense that Jesse has actually learned something, both about himself and the world, and his future is a blank slate which will likely be very different than his past. He chose not to kill Walt. He’s grown and evolved and will no longer allow himself to be manipulated, which is an indication of strength, not weakness.
By contrast, what has Skyler learned? Has she learned a lesson about using her family as an excuse to become complicit in violence and exploitation for profit and security? It doesn’t appear so. She hates the damage that Walt did to her comfortable family, but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in the madness. By the end, she was advising Walt to kill more people to protect the family. “What’s one more?” she asked. Jesse’s evolution is much more righteous and the show rewards him with the chance to atone for his mistakes. Skyler will make a deal with the prosecutors and rest easy knowing that Walt won’t be around to threaten the family’s stability any more, and in doing so she will avoid accountability. But make no mistake, Skyler broke bad, too, though she will likely never admit her complicity, even to herself. Anything to protect the family.
Breaking Bad was a magnificent show, and it represents the very best the medium can achieve. It was cinematic in a way no other current show can match, other than possibly Game of Thrones, with an extremely high quality of cinematography, acting, writing, and directing all coming together in perfect measure, combined with an obsessive attention to detail, narrative, and theme. Because of this perfectly balanced equation Breaking Bad was able to avoid the pitfalls experienced by other great television dramas and end on its own terms, gracefully, while staying true to itself and satisfying the audience at the same time. Six Feet Under was able to pull off a similar feat, but Breaking Bad was able to elevate the medium in ways even Alan Ball’s brilliant show didn’t, by raising the technical aspects to the highest level possible, and crafting a completely absorbing drama that incorporated questions of morality as its central focus.
Gilligan, whatever his personal views may be, managed to guide the ship home in a way that was consistent with what the show has been from the beginning. It didn’t end with a lame “drugs are bad” message that upholds the war on drugs. And it also didn’t end with Hank, representing the establishment, ultimately prevailing. A lesser show might have had such an ending, perhaps showing Hank and the DEA leading Walt away in handcuffs to face justice in a court room. Thankfully, Breaking Bad is Breaking Bad, and its ending was consistent with the essence of what made the show great.
The final moments of Breaking Bad show Walter White, dying, but at peace with his monstrous deeds. He has nothing left to do. There’s no one left to lie to, manipulate, or kill. His work is done. While he waits to die he surveys the last lab used to create his infamous blue meth. He’s accepted who he became and embraced the pursuit of wealth and power as his true love. The Walter White in these last moments is the full expression capitalist-imperialism, rotted to the core and withering away. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” provides the soundtrack as Walt admires the lab set-up. “Guess I got what I deserved…”
Walter White smears blood on a tank as he finally collapses and dies, alone in the dark with the chemistry he used to give himself value at the expense of thousands of others; both Walter White and Heisenberg laid bare and exposed with no more lies left to cover the truth. “Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget or I’d regret the special love I had for you, my baby blue…”
The camera slowly rises and rotates, and if you look with the right kind of eyes you can see it, from the aerial view of Walter White’s lifeless body on the floor, an equals sign, formed by the tables upon which the lab equipment rests. Breaking Bad, down to the last shot of the series, balanced the equation.
Please see FedRev’s previous analysis of Breaking Bad…