The 'Breaking Bad' Finale
“Respect the chemistry.”
Vince Gilligan, the creator and producer of Breaking Bad, understood this concept quite well. On the surface, this series resonates with elements from the modern western gangster genre, but with deep undertones of classic Shakespearean themes. I suspect that this iconic original will be discussed, envied and copied for years.
A virtual tour-de-force of acting and storytelling, Breaking Bad is the perfect confluence of complex character development; meticulous attention to research, detail and continuity; stunning visuals and imagery; creative juxtaposition of humor and tragedy; and striking use of symbolism and metaphor. In other words, a brilliant chemistry.
Watching this superior series has been, for me, a privilege, and a surprising experience as well since I have an aversion to violence portrayed in film. The hostile aggression present in Breaking Bad is far more analogous to scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth. There have been many comparisons between Breaking Bad and the works of William Shakespeare and Herman Melville. During the several years the series aired, Breaking Bad was nominated for 262 industry awards, winning 110.
The story takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The central character, Heisenberg, is born from the gentle, cancer-stricken and over-qualified high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. His transformation into methamphetamine cook and drug kingpin is fueled, in part, by his initial desire to pay for the expensive cancer treatments not covered by his HMO. Money will also be needed for his family when the advanced disease eventually claims his life. A less magnanimous motivation, however, soon takes hold: Walt’s deeply ingrained resentment that his genius and value go unrecognized by his former research partners who have become highly successful.
The Finale titled, “Felina.” [Warning: Spoilers are ahead.]
Felina is meant to represent three elements in this perfect chemistry:
- The woman, Felina, from the song, ‘El Paso’
- An acronym for the word, finale
- Fe=iron, Li=lithium, Na=sodium, or ‘Blood, Meth and Tears’
This hub originated with my annoyance, or rather, my disagreement with some of the reviews. Although they hailed this series as brilliant, a few critics stated that the finale was a “happy ending,” and Walter White had “fully redeemed himself" -- both of which were a disappointment. I disagree. The finale was not representative of a happy closure or White's complete atonement for all of his actions.
I will not use this forum to argue whether or not Heisenberg’s final moments of clarity made up for his past deeds. Nor will I debate the moral illogic of cheering for a gifted yet ruthless man who left so many destroyed lives in his wake.
The purpose of this article is to clear up some of these myths certain reviewers have advocated, including one unrealistic supposition that Walter White froze to death in a car in the New Hampshire winter; the finale was a dream sequence he experienced while in the final throes of death. At minimum, there are two very important details in this closing episode that would have made such a scenario virtually impossible. (Vince Gilligan had to explain this during a brief news conference when these unfounded speculations went viral on the Internet.) In viewing any series, there is looking and there is “seeing."
In the finale, several months have passed since Walt fled Albuquerque for New Hampshire, leaving his family behind.
Before his departure, Walt had relinquished his drug business. In other words, he was “out.” His true identity as Heisenberg was discovered shortly thereafter by his brother-in-law and DEA agent, Hank. A chase ensued into the desert with tragic consequences. Despite Walt's frantic efforts to save Hank, he and another federal agent were murdered by some of White's prior associates – Jack Welker’s White Supremacist gang. Welker appropriated most of Walt’s drug money he had buried deep in the desert sand, while disposing of the two bodies in the same location.
While hiding in New Hampshire, Walt tried to think of a way he could leave what remained of his money to his family before he finally succumbed to cancer. He also learned that someone else was manufacturing his signature product and formula -- the coveted, 99% pure methamphetamine, "Heisenberg Blue."
In the finale, Walt returns to Albuquerque, seeking to avenge Hank's murder and protect his family and legacy. Upon his arrival, Walt surprises his former drug business associates at a cafe: The treacherous Lydia, the European distributor of Heisenberg Blue, and Todd from Jack Welker’s crew. His appearance shocks them. Walter White is all but unrecognizable due to his unkempt hair and grizzled beard, weight loss and creviced features. He walks quietly, slightly bent at the shoulders, with the fading essence of a man who knows he is dying. Nevertheless, Heisenberg is unwilling to go “gentle into that good night.”
White slides a chair over to their table and sits next to Lydia as she orders her favorite chamomile tea. She is unaware he had previously handled the packet of Stevia she now nervously taps on the table. Walt makes arrangements with Todd to meet Welker at their compound that evening under the pretext of discussing a more cost-effective formula for his producing his blue meth. He then leaves the café to drive into the desert.
A battered structure of what used to be a dwelling opens up into the desert where we see a few stone remnants in the shape of broken pillars. It is surreal in the sense that this is Walter White’s Ozymandias. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.” (This also reverberates elements in a previous episode. Similar echoes, symbolism and metaphor abound in the finale.) Two empty window frames at the front of this broken facade are the eyes of a torn and embittered soul. What is left in the shadows and splintered wood is a harbinger of the death and destruction that are still to come. The deadly white ricin Walt injected into the Stevia packet now courses through Lydia’s body as he toils in the desert beyond, assembling his M60 killing device in the mid-day sun.
Walt kneels on the desert sand, singing the words to ‘El Paso’ as he completes his final creation. The wedding ring attached to a length of twine around his neck falls forward;it no longer fits due to the weight loss from his cancer. Tucking the ring inside of his shirt, he stares across the barren landscape.
Percy Bysshe Shelley's 'Ozymandias' from 'Breaking Bad' Read by Bryan Cranston as Heisenberg
During Walt's flight from justice, the White home was Rico’d by the feds and their bank accounts, frozen. His wife, Skyler, and their two children have been forced to live in a small, bleak apartment. In the final afternoon of his life, he slips into the apartment like a shadow, undetected, to bid farewell to his devastated wife. He has no intention of surviving the events he has planned for that evening.
“It’s over. And I needed a proper goodbye,” Walt tells her. He leaves the tearful Skyler with two gifts: Information on the location of Hank’s body and how he was murdered; and finally, the truth as to why he became the notorious Heisenberg. Rather than repeating the false, “I did it for the family,” his admonition provides some measure of relief to Skyler after lying to her for two years: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really...alive.”
They do not touch in this poignant scene. Skyler remembers the love she had for the man her husband used to be, and grieves for the family they once shared that has been irretrievably desolated.
Before Walt leaves the apartment, his hand tenderly caresses his infant daughter as she sleeps in her crib. His teenage son, Flynn, will spend the rest of his life believing that his father murdered his beloved Uncle Hank. He will bear the psychological scars from this lie – as well as Walt’s infamous deeds as a drug kingpin -- for the rest of his life. So will his beautiful wife and daughter. The awareness of this is deeply etched in Walter’s expression as he stares through a glass window across the apartment courtyard, watching his son for the last time.
Walter managed to maneuver, covertly, some of his drug money to his son and family – the one goal he sought to achieve before Heisenberg was fully realized. What he does for his family during the last 24 hours of his life – born from whatever humanity that remains in his soul - will never be known to them. He neither asks for, nor receives, recognition or forgiveness.
During a previous scene, we see Walt’s former meth cook partner and young friend, Jesse, in a fantasy memory. He recalls the beautiful box of Peruvian wood he made while still in high school where Walter White was his chemistry teacher. (Rather than giving the cherished box to his mother, he traded it for drugs.) As Jesse leaves his fugue daydream, he is in a harness and chains, imprisoned in the lab at the Welker compound where he has been forced to create Walt’s perfect creation -- his signature crystal blue meth. This is unknown to Walt as he assumes Jesse is cooking for Jack as a willing partner.
Night falls, and Walt arrives at the compound. The final madness of Heisenberg explodes. Bullets from the M60 tear through the front of the house, killing nearly everyone inside. Repulsed by the way in which his former partner has been treated by the Welker gang, Walt hurls Jesse to the floor and saves his life. He is released from his chains and Heisenberg’s world, and flees into the night.
As Jesse is given another chance at life, Walter's journey ends. Tragically and deservedly, the only peace he will know is amid the equipment in the meth lab from which Jesse is freed. Moments before he succumbs to a gunshot wound, Walt smiles as he wanders the path Jesse was forced to walk for months. He gently strokes a lab boiler with the same tenderness he showed to his daughter only hours before. The cold glass and steel would never recoil from him, nor judge him. He smiles in admiration of the chemistry he created, the power and money it generated – the only success in life that made him feel alive.
Walter Hartwell White died on the lab floor, surrounded by his signature product -- his baby, “Heisenberg Blue” – the final, inhuman fix from his drug of choice.
Walt's final moments in 'Breaking Bad' ('Baby Blue' - Badfinger)
Did the finale provide us with a “happy closure,” and did Walter White find “redemption”?
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