The following is a written conversation between Editor-In-Chief Evan Tognotti and Senior Editor Matthew Milewski about this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. Spoilers, you guys. Obviously.
ET: “Heavily serialized, the series is known for positioning its characters in seemingly inextricable corners…”
That quote comes straight from the first paragraph of Breaking Bad‘s Wikipedia page, and it caught my eye for a couple reasons. Firstly, it’s weird to have that level of self-assured editorializing at the front of an ostensibly professional encyclopedic entry. More importantly, it sent my head in a weird direction after watching “Felina,” the series finale.
Is that really what Breaking Bad is known for?
I suppose the more pertinent question would be, “is that what Breaking Bad will be remembered for?” I would wager that most people will remember the circumstances, the characters, and the big, audacious moments before working around to the slightly cynical realization that all those things hinge upon the show’s main (only?) trope.
It’s an interesting question to ask, since so many people, myself included, reserve an undue amount of emotion and criticism for endings. It’s the last page they read before closing the book. The last shot they see before they leave the theater. The last episode they watch before Low Winter Sun starts.
If anything, “Felina,” and my problems with it, helped me highlight a lot of what I don’t like about Breaking Bad, and an awful lot of what I do. There are staggeringly excellent moments in this episode. I’m talking about Walt’s final admission that he got into selling meth for himself, and not his family; the expert staging of the climactic one-sided shootout; the last moments between Walt and Jesse, as well as Jesse’s demented laughing/crying fit after getting out alive.
And while “Felina” is, in totality, a very good ending, it’s not an ending to the Breaking Bad I love. It’s an ending to the one I don’t. This is partly because Breaking Bad is better in motion than it is at hitting the brakes. The highpoints of the show for me, seasons 2 and 3, hinge on uncertainty and messiness. Yes, Walt and Jesse keep getting themselves in seemingly inextricable corners. And yes, they keep getting out in equal measure. But there was always an anarchy to the show. It kept things unpredictable. It kept the viewers engaged. It kept all the main characters on the verge of breaking down.
“Felina” exposes, to some degree, that Breaking Bad couldn’t possibly be anarchic. It’s pulp. A crime drama. A cat-and-mouse game. An expertly told one? Sure. What’s disappointing to me now is that the act of viewing Breaking Bad is so different from the act of having viewed Breaking Bad. One is rebellious, dangerous, and innovative. The other is measured, calculated, and… normal.
I could be wrong, and I am frequently. But the defining aspect of “Felina” seemed to be Walter White visiting every character like some kind of introspective Jacob Marley, assuring both the cast and the audience that it’s defintely okay for Breaking Bad to end here. The show I love would’ve taken a bigger risk.
MM: I can’t say you’re exactly wrong Evan; this is the ending that many fans were expecting, almost to a T. I can’t say that there were many surprises in this episode (perhaps excepting Walter’s visit to Elliot and Gretchen’s home), and it lacks Breaking Bad‘s characteristic messiness. I also think this was purposeful.
Vince Gilligan has repeated ad nauseam that Breaking Bad is a story about one man’s transformation “From Mr. Chips to Scarface”. That is, of course, a bit of an oversimplification, but it does highlight a pretty important element of Breaking Bad: change. “Ozymandias”, for all intents and purposes, is where the main story of Breaking Bad ended, with “Granite State” and “Felina” playing as a sort of extended epilogue.
“Felina” sees Walter as a drastically changed individual returning to a place where the people have barely changed at all. It’s evident in how Vince Gilligan chooses to shoot him; Walter is often in the background at the start of scenes, and Cranston plays him rather subdued. You mention missing a lot of the messiness that normally happens in Breaking Bad, but I think it’s a sign that the show sympathizes with Walter’s mission here.
Indeed, the one thing that proved shocking to me about “Felina”, and what ultimately made me love it, is its surprising empathy towards its protagonist. Vince Gilligan leaves us with a fairly positive message here: even someone as wretched as Walter White is capable of redemption. It’s clear when he mentions his true motives to Skyler, when he decides to save Jessie, when he refuses his money and kills Jack. He’s not left off the moral hook or anything; he’s irrevocably scarred his family and Jessie. But his intentions here are to make amends.
I might have liked a little more Jessie in “Felina” (and honestly, this whole second half of the season), but what we got was very appropriate. Not killing Walter showed that he was finally free of his mentor’s control, and his scream of exultation after exiting the Nazi compound is rather well-earned. The “payoff” to the Todd and Lydia stuff didn’t really excuse its earlier time wasting, but I liked seeing the two of them get their just desserts.
It’s clear we both have different impressions about “Felina”, but how do you feel about the episode’s lack of ambiguity? It personally doesn’t bother me.
ET: It’s not so much that the episode has a lack of ambiguity, it’s that it has a strained wealth of closure. I’m not going to sit here and say Breaking Bad should’ve ended like The Sopranos, but I really have trouble getting behind how clean “Felina” feels, at almost every turn.
In the time since you last sent your message (a couple days, for the person reading at home), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this finale, and I’ve come pretty close to talking myself out of liking it. It all ties back to what you’ve mentioned briefly: redemption.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: no one’s saying Walter dies a saint. He’s clearly miserable, his family hates him, and Jesse’s decision to leave is clearly indicative of their problematic relationship. What Walter does achieve, much to my chagrin, is a redemption on his own bullshit terms. By the time he finally collapses in the meth lab, cops swarming, he’s the smartest guy in the fucking room.
It left me emotionally detached from many of the events in the episode. Especially Walter’s conversation with Skyler, which I lauded in my first entry, but have soured on since. Consider this: you say Walter is an irrevocably changed man returning to a town that hasn’t changed in the slightest. He explains to Skyler that he got into the meth business because it made him feel good. Then, he cleverly kills everyone he wants to kill, secures money for his family through manipulation, and dies smiling.
What am I supposed to take from this? How has he earned redemption? Where you see a positive message, I see something flatly contradictory to the spirit of everything that’s come before. In its way, it’s the single most cynical thing the show’s ever done, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a good reason why it exists.
Unless I am to subscribe to a certain theory that’s been floating around recently. In short: Walt dies in the car at the beginning, and the rest of the episode is what he’s thinking before he freezes over.
If that were true, well. Pretty much every one of my criticisms would be turned on its head. Walt’s unearned redemption that plays sentimentally for seemingly no reason? Check. The way he can weirdly be wherever he wants to be, despite being one of the most wanted men in the country? Check. The fact that he dies from an improbably lengthy gunshot bleed-out phase, more fitting of a film noir from 1943 than anything I’ve seen on Breaking Bad? Check.
I don’t think authorial intent has a ton of import in criticism or dissection. Obviously, I’d love it if Vince Gilligan wanted this to be true all along. But the foundations of studying pop culture academically are rooted in guesswork. It’s art. It’s there, on the screen, and you can’t tell someone they’re wrong for thinking it means something you don’t.
All of this is leading to my final, paradoxical conclusion: “Felina” is either an episode I somewhat structurally and morally detest, or it’s a subtle masterpiece designed to infuriate. There is no middle ground. That scares me a little.
But enough of my dramatics. You clearly think “Felina” is a great ending without any read-between-the-lines dreamscape business. How are you feeling about this season as a whole? That is, if we want to view the whole thing as an ending, rather than this very last hour.
MM: If I may Evan, I’ll briefly address your criticism. Your point about Walter’s redemption being ultimately self-serving made me revisit my opinion on “Felina”.
I still stand by my conclusion that Walter has changed, but it’s more subtle than I initially surmised. His methods remain the same, because it’s what he’s used to; the reason he’s so successful with them this time around is due to a renewed sense of honesty about his work. He knows his work is self-serving; best to have one more go and make things a little better off in the process. That would give his finally scene in the meth lab a new context; the place is practically home. This, honestly, also makes me a bit less keen on “Felina”, but I still enjoyed it a lot overall (the metaphorical version you suggest does sound better though).
To get to your question though, I think season 5 of Breaking Bad was an overall success as an ending. It plays out as a sort of “Rise and Fall of Walter White” story, and I think it wrings a lot of great material out of both sides of the coin. As you’ve mentioned before, the universe should have been condensed instead of broadened, but I think in retrospect everything except Lydia had a good payoff. There were also plenty of episodes that I loved in this season: “Fifty-One”, “Buyout”, “Gliding Over All”, “Rabid Dog”, and “Ozymandias” (sort of on the fence with “Felina”). So I’d say that the season was successful in both theory and execution (barring some inelegant introductions of plot points). How about you?
ET: I think that to a certain degree, these last eight episodes might be the most polarized “season” in the show’s history. The highest highs (“Ozymandias”) and the lowest lows (seriously that goddamn ricin cigarette revelation/Andrea’s death) fit snugly together, often minutes apart. And I kind of like that, even if it’s infuriating, because it lets me talk and think about Breaking Bad in a way I can’t with most shows.
Whether or not I end up regarding Breaking Bad as a great show is somewhat irrelevant. It’s certainly given me some of my favorite episodes of TV (“Fly,” “Ozymandias,” and “Peekaboo” are standouts), and I can’t deny the brilliance of Walter White as a character, especially if I were to subscribe to the more metaphorical interpretation of the finale.
Throughout all my complaints and praises, though, there’s the absolutely inarguable fact that Breaking Bad will be, for years to come, an immutable touchstone in the land of cable dramas. For all of its operatic moments, pitfalls, and messiness (some intentional, some not), I can only hope those who take inspiration learn the right lessons. Until then, let’s all not watch Low Winter Sun.
MM: I’ve come away from Breaking Bad feeling extremely pleased. It’s by no means a flawless show (as we’ve pointed out a few times), but it is a hugely entertaining, often thought-provoking one. When Breaking Bad is at its best, it delivers a blend of plot and drama that’s hard not to be astounded by. I’m going to miss this show.
If you’re feeling sad that Breaking Bad is over: Better Call Saul!