“Skyler. All the things that I did. You need to understand – ”
“If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family – ”
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was…really…I was alive.”
“Felina” may be the most anticipated episode in Breaking Bad history, but it is not necessarily the first ‘series finale’ the show has produced. Both the Season 2 and Season 4 conclusions, “ABQ” and “Face Off,” could easily have served as spectacular send-offs, as each expertly culminated upon everything that had happened up to that point, and brought closure – either literal, thematic, or both – to the story and characters.
“ABQ” saw Jesse’s life utterly destroyed by Walt’s actions after the death of Jane, featured Skyler finally calling Walt on all his bullshit, and ended with Walt’s many sins becoming personified by two planes colliding in midair, right above his house. Had the show ended there, we would have been robbed of three all-time great seasons of television, but there would be no regrets as to the power of the conclusion.
“Face Off,” it goes without saying, was the grand final showdown between Walter White and Gus Fring, and in addition to being the single tensest and most nail-biting hour the show ever produced – climaxing, of course, in the eponymous bit of iconic, shocking violence – it also brought closure to nearly every ongoing story arc, left Jesse at a place of relative peace and stability, and completed Walt’s transition from mild-mannered chemistry teacher into all-powerful drug lord.
Both episodes are, I think, better hours of television than “Felina.” They are more emotionally affecting, more ambitious in scope, and filled with more all-time great moments that will forever stand tall in the TV drama pantheon.
Yet neither, I contend, is anywhere near as good an ending to the show that was Breaking Bad as “Felina.” And while there are many equally valid reasons for this – the general atmosphere of darkness and desolation, the self-reflexive quality of Walt’s final journey, the note-perfect send-offs given to Skyler and especially to Jesse, etc. – the one that matters most to me concerns the core emotion I felt while watching the show’s final minutes unfold. It was not the emotion I expected to feel before the episode began, nor after the majority of it had unrolled. It wasn’t sadness, or distress, or disgust, or fear, or tension, or even visceral exhilaration. I felt all these things and more watching “Felina,” and each, certainly, is a core emotion I will forever associate with the Breaking Bad experience. But the one that hit me hardest, and the one that has lingered with me most in the time since the final credits rolled, was something entirely different, though no less connected to the core of Breaking Bad.
It was laughter. Wild, raucous, all-consuming, uncontrollable laughter.
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As I sat watching the final moments play out, with a bleeding, dying Walter White walking through the Nazi meth lab, the slightest hint of a smile on his face as he spent his dying moments in the one place he ever truly felt alive, I could not help myself – I broke out laughing, and it was the use of the Badfinger song “Baby Blue” that really sent me over the edge. Listening to this immensely cheesy, completely overblown love song play out over Walter White’s dying moments, watching in awe as Vince Gilligan boiled down the entire arc of his all-time great television series into a strange, perverse, utterly pathetic ‘romance’ between a man and his meth, I found myself laughing harder than I have ever laughed at this series. Maybe as hard as I have ever laughed in my life.
Part of my unstoppable laughing spasm stemmed, I think, from the simple ‘release’ that ending provided. “Felina” is a quiet episode, a slow and methodical one that takes its time putting everything in place, but it is also an incredibly tense one, not quite so much as “Face Off,” but similar in how it keeps the viewer wound as tight as possible even when very little is happening on screen.
Is Walt going to kill Gretchen and Elliot? What exactly is Walt doing meeting with Lydia and Todd? Does Walt have something nefarious in mind for Skyler? How is this final standoff with the Nazis really going to pay off? Is Jesse going to kill Walt? What will Walt do now that Jesse has driven away? The viewer watches with gradually mounting pressure as all these moments unfold, right up until Walt steps into that meth lab, “Baby Blue” kicks in, and 62 episodes worth of tension snaps, like a rubber band breaking in one’s face. And I couldn’t stop myself. That sudden lack of tension, and the crazy feeling of whiplash it induced, forced me to burst out laughing.
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Yet moreso than that, I laughed because that final scene plays out like a perfectly delivered punch line. “Felina” is, up to and including that point, all about Walter White writing his own ending to his life’s story. It is different than any television finale I can recall, because unlike the characters of most stories, Walter White knows his time is up. He is just as intensely aware as the audience that this is his final hour, and that these are his final actions, and that his legacy will be set in stone by these final choices he makes.
The entire time, he is looking for the perfect ending, just the same as the fans. First, he thinks manipulating Gretchen and Elliot to deliver the last of his money – which still amounts to a pretty massive fortune, over ten times more than his original Season 2 goal of $747,000 – is the right way to cap his journey. Then, upon hearing his beloved blue meth is still in circulation, he chooses to extend his plans, because letting someone take credit for his signature product is patently unacceptable. So he takes out Lydia with ricin, and devises to infiltrate the Nazi base with a hidden machine gun, and says goodbye to Skyler along the way. His strategy works, and with the Nazis dead, he chooses to let Jesse go, and even give Jesse the option to kill him, which seems like a fitting ending. But Jesse declines.
So what does Walter White do with his final moments of life? Where does he decide to go to take his final breathes? Where does he wish to leave his final, blood-stained mark on this Earth?
He goes to the meth lab. And dies with a smile on his face, as these lyrics play:
“Guess I got what I deserved/kept you waiting there too long my love,
All that time without a word/Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget.
Or I’d regret.
Special love I had for you … My baby blue.”
And all I could do was laugh, because that is an absolutely hilarious way to end the series. To all the world, Walt dies the most pathetic death imaginable. A dirty, hideous murderer, lying dead on the floor of a meth lab in a Neo-nazi compound. He dies as nothing more than a common, two-bit criminal, and many of his actions throughout the episode – hijacking a car, hiding in the shadows at Gretchen and Elliot’s, buying a machine gun, poisoning Lydia, gunning down his enemies, etc. – are not those of the great and powerful Heisenberg, Emperor of meth, but of an absolute low-life.
Yet in his own head, Walt dies happy, exactly where he wants and needs to be – with all his enemies decimated, his family taken care of, and surrounded by the beautiful meth equipment that gave him purpose in life. It is, as I said, the punch line to the entire series, with the entirety of this complex, sweeping, harrowing six-year tale summarized as a corny teen ‘romance’ between Walter White and his meth.
And I could not love that ending any more if I tried.
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I write these reviews in a vacuum, without looking at anybody else’s reactions to the episode in question, so I have no idea whether or not any other viewers found the conclusion as side-splittingly funny as I did. Doesn’t matter. I laughed uncontrollably at that final scene, and it could not have felt more fitting to me as a longtime viewer of the show. Because while Breaking Bad is many, many things, it has always had a darkly comic core, and though there has hardly been any humor in these last eight episodes – understandably so, given that the power of this final season came from seeing Walter White’s crimes taken to their natural, horrific endpoint – it felt unspeakably right for that humor to return in the show’s final minutes.
This is especially true when one considers exactly how humor functioned over the life of the series. Breaking Bad was often compared, in its early years, to the works of the Coen Brothers, and that is an apt comparison, because this story, like many told by the Coens, is rooted in the notion of crime as something ‘absurd.’ And many crimes are absurd, when you get right down to it, even as they are also terrible and disturbing and life-destroying. Walter White’s sins hurt many, many people, including those he loved the most, but to properly study the scope of his transgressions, we must also be willing to admit that there is something inherently funny about what he did. A middle-aged Chemistry teacher, stricken with cancer, choosing to cook meth to earn a living for his family? That’s funny, as are many of the actions he and Jesse took after making that fateful decision. And while Breaking Bad could alternate brilliantly between soul-crushing darkness and riotous black comedy, those two tonal realms never existed separately. They are two sides of the same coin, and Vince Gilligan is a great writer in large part because of his ability to analyze a criminal life such as this holistically, never pulling a single punch in the tale’s darkest moments, but also allowing the brevity to surface when the absurdity rose naturally to a fever pitch.
This is why I love that final scene so much. On one level, it is very dark, and I can easily understand someone walking away feeling disturbed, rather than laughing like a maniac. Trust me, even as I did the latter, I absolutely felt elements of the former. But that humorous side does exist, and it is intentional, and it is just as organic a part of the Breaking Bad story as the incredibly dark material immediately preceding it. Because by allowing us to laugh at Walter White, to see him for the pathetic, insular man he truly was and find humor in his lonely, deluded death, we take away his power, just as laughing at the absurdity of crime helps to reduce the sway those crimes hold over us – and, by extension, understand it better. If the series ended with Walt getting murdered, or going out in a blaze of glory, or any number of the other ‘serious’ ways it could have ended, Walt would have retained at least a modicum of his power. But because he dies smiling in a meth lab, accompanied by the sounds of a corny love ballad, he is exposed for what he truly is: Sad, pathetic, and, yes, funny. Not on his terms, but on ours.
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But enough about Walt, for the time being. I have no regrets whatsoever in devoting 2000 words to the final scene, but “Felina” was excellent throughout, and there are plenty of other topics to touch upon before saying goodbye to this great, great show.
As noted before, this was a highly reflexive ending, with Walt’s knowledge of his own impending demise coloring not only every aspect of the hour, but the specific ways in which supporting characters were sent off. Nearly every major (surviving) character earned some form of ‘poetic justice,’ and while that could easily come across as a tad too contrived or tidy, I feel it all stems naturally from Walt’s self-aggrandizing desire to end the story on his terms. So when it comes to Gretchen and Elliot, for example, Walt does not kill them, but forces them to carry out his will, not only using them as a means to an end – whether Walt Jr. wants it or not, he will have that fortune soon enough – but making them submissive and cowering in the process. Whatever they say about Walter White in public, Gretchen and Elliot will now be forced to do his bidding in private, and live in fear of him for the foreseeable future (even though they will likely hear of Walt’s death on the news, I assume that encounter will keep the two shaken for a long time to come).
For Lydia, Walt uses his knowledge of her obsessive-compulsive habits to poison her with the ricin, and for Uncle Jack and the Nazis, Walt unleashes the same heavy-weapon hellfire they directed towards Hank – and in the process, wipes out everyone who had been peddling his precious blue meth.
For Skyler, Walt just wants to say goodbye, and to help in some small way to clean up the mess he left her with. It is one of my favorite scenes in the history of the series, operating on several different levels – Walt’s legitimate guilt versus his drive to end this relationship on his terms, Skyler’s hatred for this man mixed with the grief over the love she has lost, etc. – and building to the absolutely devastating exchange – “I did it for me” – quoted above. This is most likely something Walter White has been thinking for some time – ever since Hank’s death, with plenty of time to mull it over in the cabin – but for Skyler, it is a revelation, not because she can’t see Walt’s selfishness on her own, but because hearing him say it does allow for some small measure of closure. Skyler will always be scarred by what her husband did, and probably never fully recover from the horror of these past two years, but she is an immensely strong person, and especially after hearing Walt finally give a straight explanation for why he did what he did, I do believe that she will be okay in time.
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As for Jesse, the future is far less clear – few people have endured the sheer number of horrors he has – but where I firmly believed, a week ago, that Jesse could never survive this finale, I am now amazed at the emotionally uplifting note Gilligan and company chose to end his story on.
Earlier today, in preparation for the finale, I was watching the show’s all-time best episode, “One Minute,” in which, among many other eventful happenings, Jesse is hospitalized after taking a beating from Hank, and finally, near the episode’s conclusion, confronts Walt on what a poison he has been from the beginning. It is a defining scene for Jesse, because for the first time, he is full cognizant of just how manipulative Mr. White has been, and just how much he has suffered as a result of their partnership. Jesse is truly strong in that scene, stronger than ever before, but ultimately, he is too weak to walk away, too weak to fully extricate himself from Walt’s toxic orbit.
And that, in a nutshell, is Jesse’s arc – I believe he is a good person deep down, but he is not completely a victim in everything that has happened. He knew, at least from that scene in Season 3, what a destructive force his partner was. And he could have walked away there, or any other number of times before and after. But Jesse was too weak to walk away, too weak to reject his surrogate father, and in the end, too weak to stop horrible things from happening to those he loved the most.
The brilliance of “Felina’s” climactic scene, then, is how it tests Jesse’s strength point blank. Walt drops his gun. Jesse picks it up. “Do it,” Walt urges. “You want this.” Like always, Walt is tempting the boy – giving Jesse the option to do further evil for his own selfish benefits. And after all he has been through, Jesse can finally understand this. “Say the words. Say you want this. Nothing happens until I hear you say it.” Jesse cries. He probably wants to kill Mr. White more than anything in the world, but he knows that if he does so on Walt’s terms, then he will forever be Heisenberg’s prisoner.
“I want this.” Walt admits. And that is all Jesse needs to hear. However hard it is to walk away, he knows he cannot give in to Walt anymore, not even to get revenge. So he drops the gun, and drives away, laughing and crying hysterically while he does so (a similar emotional ‘release’ to what I felt watching the subsequent final scene). Whatever happens next, Jesse is finally ‘free,’ in more ways than one, because he finally said ‘No,’ to Walt, finally refused to do Mr. White’s dirty work, and finally proved himself the bigger, better man by rejecting the opportunity for revenge. I think many will read Walt’s actions in that scene as guilty or apologetic, giving Jesse the chance to kill him as a way of setting things right, but I strongly feel that what Walt did was purely sadistic. Like telling Jesse point-blank about Jane’s death, it is a way of sticking the knife in further; Walt will get the death he wants, and Jesse will be destroyed even further in the process, caught indelibly in a circle of violence.
But Jesse rises above that violence, something he always had the potential to do, and while the chances of him having a normal, healthy life after this are extremely slim, Jesse does have a future. He is free, for the first time since the pilot. What happens next is a mystery, but that Jesse’s future is no longer set in stone is, in and of itself, a minor miracle. He does not have to be shackled by the horrors of his past. He can move on, if he is able and so chooses, and he can have a life outside of Walter White. It is not where I predicted we would leave this character, but I could not be more satisfied by the resolution he received.
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And so it goes for Breaking Bad as a whole, which ended about as perfectly, to my mind, as it possibly could have. This was a reflexive episode for a reflexive series, a story about a man who, from the very first episode, wanted to forge his legacy on his own terms, cooking crystal meth and committing increasingly unspeakable crimes in an effort to be the arbiter of his own fate. In the end, Walter White ultimately got what he wanted – an ending he dictated himself – and yet as “Felina” makes clear, through its own reflexive structure and beautifully comic ending, the image Walt built for himself, and the story he tried so hard to construct, was never as grand as the one he had in his head.
This show could have ended in so many ways, and at so many points – including this season – but I am overjoyed it ended here, on a complex note that encapsulates, to me, everything that Breaking Bad was about: The mixture of darkness and absurdity in everyday life; the distance between self-perception and outward image; the self-fulfilling drive of criminal actions; the weight of consequence, and how we react when we feel it settle in; and perhaps most interestingly to me, the nature of storytelling as something we all engage in to justify our own failings and transgressions, and how the narrative webs we weave for ourselves (and all the characters, not just Walt, try weaving for themselves at one point or another over the life of the series) are as delusional and destructive as they are inescapable.
And on a production level, “Felina” was a fabulous tribute to the amazing performances and craftsmanship that built this wonderful show. Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul each delivered some of their very best work to date. Dave Porter’s original music was hauntingly beautiful throughout. Michael Slovis’ cinematography was, as always, immaculate. Vince Gilligan’s direction was precise, controlled, tense, and effective, his writing sparse and powerful.
In short, Breaking Bad left the television landscape reminding us why it left such a big impression in the first place. This was bold, zany, audacious, intelligent, emotional, and exhilarating television, one of the finest programs ever to air on TV, and one of the great pieces of modern American fiction. “Felina” did not need to be as good as it was to ensure that legacy. But Breaking Bad nearly always went the extra mile, and here, at the very end, I might even say that legacy was heightened for me. For in making me laugh, unexpectedly and uncontrollably, “Felina” reinforced what an endlessly rich piece of fiction this was, putting Walter White’s story in perspective even as it guaranteed this tale as one I will never forget.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack. And be sure to check out our companion piece to this review: 6 Outstanding Moments From The Breaking Bad Finale.Previous