This post discusses the series finale of Breaking Bad.
Tony Soprano had to live on in perpetuity, picking at onion rings in diners with a wife whose affections were bought, a son in perpetual crisis, and a daughter who’d chosen a life a little further from her father’s than Michael Corleone’s proved to be from Vito’s, but still not far enough to achieve the American dream. It’s an existential vision of hell, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit by way of New Jersey. In that context, it feels almost unfair that Walter White gets to die, to avoid prison and the ongoing shame and pain of his family’s hatred.
But there’s something fitting about the fact that Walt dies, like the cowboy hero of Marty Robbins’ “Felina,” with “a deep burning pain in my side” that’s the result not of chemotherapy, but a bullet. Walt’s initial justification for cooking meth was that it would allow him to build up a nest egg for his family after he was gone, and to a certain extent, he resisted treatment, focusing more on accumulating money than on the worth of his own life. When we met Walt, he may have felt that he was not particularly valuable to anyone. His brother-in-law, Hank, commanded the room at Walt’s own birthday party with his stories of busting meth cooks and meth dealers. He didn’t feel able to defend his son. The tragedy of Walter White’s life and his decisions was that he didn’t recognize his value to his family when he was nothing more than a chemistry teacher. He spent the remains of that life making choices that caused his family pain, and that laid a foundation for them to continue to feel that pain after his death. And Walt’s decisions shortened that life–he was clearly ill by the events of the finale, but he was taking his pills, and we don’t know how long he might have lived.
It seems that Walt knows all of this, that he was blessed with something like self-awareness before he died. “I did it for me,” Walt tells Skyler, simply, in the quiet coda to their marriage. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really–I was alive.” Whether Gilligan intended it that way or not, watching Walt stroke his daughter’s hair and be able to take pleasure from that act without the adrenaline rush of stealing her, without the transgressive thrill of sitting her in front of a screening of Scarface with him, is as powerful rebuke to the thrill of the anti-hero as I can imagine. The pleasures of a gentle touch, of powerful love, of bacon–be it turkey or pork–on your plate on the morning of your birthday are the things that really matter, not a machine gun in your trunk, laser pointers in the dark to terrify your enemies, ricin in a Stevia packet. And no matter how much Walt was a student of chemistry, he seems to have forgotten that events on a larger scale often function the same way as his nom-de-meth’s Uncertainty Principle. By the time you know how your family will react to the news that you’re cooking meth, the family that you claimed to do it for in the first place is long gone.
It’s a realization that seems to dawn on Jesse Pinkman as he drives away from the Nazis’ encampment, laughing and crying, our final sound from him a scream. After first outsourcing his moral decision-making to Walt, then becoming an actual slave, Jesse finally makes a choice that’s truly his own, telling Walt that if he wants to die, “Then do it yourself.” There’s no question that Jesse is a damaged person who’s done great damage in his own turn, but in turning responsibility back on Walt, he frees his ideas as well as his body. As much as it’s gratifying to see that happen, to see that torture and time with Walter White haven’t stripped Jesse of all potential capacity for decency, that scream is a reminder of a grimmer reality. Who does Jesse, who in the depths of his imprisonment dreamed of building something good, and natural, and clean in a shop of his own, have left to be good to? Andrea is dead. Brock, presumably, has vanished into the foster care system, and would never be available to someone with Jesse’s record, not that Jesse would necessarily be capable of raising a small boy. Once upon a time, Walt failed to teach Jesse the basic principles of chemistry. And when he finishes with Jesse’s moral education, Walt and his student have changed the world around them such that the lessons Jesse has learned are no longer of much use to him.
I think we’ll be debating Breaking Bad‘s position in the anti-hero canon for a long time to come. But I also think we’ll end up discussing it as part of a larger conversation about pulp and realism in the so-called Golden Age of Television. Breaking Bad has always had deep roots in the pulps in the same way The Sopranos is in conversation with mob movies like The Godfather, in their depiction of crime and all the life that’s lived so vividly around it. Those pulpy elements tended to define Walt’s antagonists, whether they were violent Latino drug dealers and cartel members like Tuco Salamanca and the Cousins, or the Neo-Nazis who became Walt’s partners, and who he dispatched tonight to provide a measure of protection to his family and to provoke a final confrontation with the police. These antagonists tended to flatten Breaking Bad‘s moral worldview both by making Walt more sympathetic because of how intensely violent and amoral they were, and in the case of the Salamanca family, contributing to marginalization and simplistic treatment of the show’s characters of color.
The Gus Fring arc on Breaking Bad was the height of the show’s run in part because of the ways it transcended pulp. In Gus, Gilligan and company gave us a deft if limited sketch of a man of color who disguised his criminality with a deep investment in his community, who like Walt was motivated by love, though Gus’s was lost (and there’s a great deal more to be written about gay men of color and their curious status in prestige television), and who may not have been a technical genius, but was often a consummate professional, a man building a sustainable life of a sort, while Walt careened towards an inevitable end. When that arc reached its end, it did so by means that were heavy on plot and technical scheming, but that were also profoundly rooted in the show’s relationships. Walt’s poisoning of Brock to manipulate Jesse, his ability to enlist Tio Salamanca, a man from whom he’d taken everything–if sometimes in self-defense–as a suicide bomber against Fring, and the way that chain of terrible events ended, with poison growing in Walt’s own back yard, had a profound complexity to them that got at each character’s truest nature.
By contrast, the series finale pits Walt against a series of threatening but less meaningful antagonists: however fabulously creepy Todd was, and however strong Jesse Plemons’ performance was, the crew’s Nazi beliefs, their use of chemicals, and their inability to cook pure meth were never well-developed enough to tell us much about Walter White’s position within the pantheon of the Southwest’s angry white men. It was heavy on plot, on Walt’s cleverness and how exhausting it had become. But the episode was at its best in the moments when it dispensed with all of that, when, as Jack’s illustrated, there were no more deals to be struck or gambits to be made. “Before I go, may I see her?” Walt asked his wife, respecting her wishes in asking for permission in matters of Holly, the daughter he once stole from her, in not even asking to see the son whose respect Walt understands is forever forfeit. The best thing, it turns out, isn’t being the one who knocks. It’s in being someone who doesn’t need to be kept from the door.