This post discusses plot points from the September 22 episode of Breaking Bad.
I wouldn’t dare speculate about what’s going to happen in “Felina,” the series finale of Breaking Bad, which airs next weekend. Vince Gilligan and company have been far too tricky for me to be that arrogant. But after this night’s episode, I’m left wondering if I won’t end up feeling that last week’s installment, and that final image of Walter White getting into an undistinguished red mini-van that’s even more humble than the Pontiac Aztek he drove in his pre-Heisenberg days, might have been a more fitting end for this tremendous series. In that moment, we knew how Walt’s grandiose dreams for his family had ended, in a slashed palm, a domestic violence call, and a dead brother-in-law. I suppose that after tonight, I know that Walter White’s ego can survive even those disasters. But I’m not actually sure that leaves me with a deeper understanding of this miserable man than I had before.
The strongest parts of “Granite State” emphasized Walt’s alienation from his family. The image, delivered by Saul’s fixer, of Skyler working part-time as a taxi dispatcher and using her maiden name, just barely keeping her family afloat, cut me nearly as deep as Flynn’s agonized response to his father’s phone call. If Walt’s worst nightmare was to not be able to provide for his family, Flynn’s furious rejection of his assistance certainly opens up new depths of misery for Walt. “I don’t want anything from you. I don’t give a shit. You killed Uncle Hank,” Flynn spat at his father. “Will you just leave us alone, you asshole. Hank would be still alive. Why don’t you just die already? Just die.” But it doesn’t actually tell me anything new about Walt to see that he’ll abandon his plan to send his family money–a gesture that, by the way, could have fueled his sense of being a basically good person whose undeserving relatives will never recognize all he’s done for them–to pursue some other, more self-involved goal. Maybe the big gun is for the Nazis and the ricin is for Gretchen and Elliott. I’m not actually sure I care to know, though.
The problem with an episode of television as strong as “Ozymandias” is that everything that comes after it risks seeming like a letdown. And in this case, it even felt like Breaking Bad was repeating itself. It’s dreadful to see Jesse, gagged and screaming for Andrea’s life and then hysterical after Todd shoots her, insisting as he murders her that “this isn’t personal.” But we saw Walt go through the exact same thing the week previous, and the proximity of the two events, for me at least, served as a vaccine, or at least an anaesthetic. There’s probably no character on Breaking Bad to whom I’m more deeply attached than Jesse, but the show seems to have shorted me out a bit, leaving me with limited capacity to react. And the truth is, I’m not actually sure I want to watch Jesse in pain anymore. It’s a testament to the power of his character that witnessing his suffering feels like a violation of his dignity, as if I’m participating in Todd and Uncle Jack’s cruelties.
And watching Walt show up to rescue him doesn’t seem like it would be much consolation, either. If that comes to pass, I’ll feel like I’ve joined in Walt’s self-aggrandizement by giving him my attention for so long, for being open to the idea that he’ll go out active and self-mythologizing. Vince Gilligan has suggested that the ending of Breaking Bad may not feel like justice, or even provide the kind of moral clarity about the show’s worldview that a show like The Shield did. And there’s an extent to which “Granite State” played with that idea, giving us a sense of what it might be like for Walt to die of cancer, and to do so alone, suggesting that we’d find it less gratifying than pitiful.
But if that’s a tease that’s meant to prepare us for something more satisfying, I’m more confused than ever about what that might look like. There’s an awful lot of plot left hanging for us to wrap up in the final episode. Are Skyler, Flynn, and Holly alive? If so, where are they living, and what’s Skyler’s legal status? Is Jesse kept alive to cook for the Nazis? Will Lydia simply vanish somewhere into Madrigal’s corporate infrastructure, or will her actions have consequences, too, perhaps in the form of Todd? How will Marie survive? What about Brock? Do Badger and Skinny Pete even notice that Jesse’s gone? Is Huell still waiting for Hank to come back for him? How does Walt get that big gun anyway? And what has Walter White’s legacy really been? Charlie Rose, in his interview with Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, notes that Walt’s blue product has been popping up as far away from Albuquerque as Europe, but that’s a rather bloodless way of alluding to what it means to have an enormous quantity of extremely pure meth on the market. Walter White’s surely killed many more people than we’ve actually see die directly at his hands, but I don’t know if Breaking Bad, which has always been rather stubborn in its disinterest in how large organizations work, has the bandwidth to deal with the real extent of the damage Walt has wrought.
Breaking Bad probably couldn’t have ended like The Sopranos, with a blackout and a refusal to tie up its loose plot ends. If our last glimpse of Walt had been the tail end of that mini-van, the fury of fans might have driven Vince Gilligan into the arms of a fixer of his own, and sent him a lot further away than New Hampshire. Breaking Bad was always more plot-driven than The Sopranos, without the digressive, thematic episodes, and it needs to end in its own way. And for all The Wire built a much bigger universe than Breaking Bad, it didn’t seem to entire its finale with quite so many urgent unanswered plot questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if Breaking Bad finds a way to surprise and gratify me next week. But sometimes the requirement that if you pack a giant gun in the trunk of your car in the first act of a season, it must be fired by the final act seems less like a tense, frightening promise, and more like an obligation.