Walter White’s Wicked Felina

Yesterday I watched the finale of Breaking Bad. If you have not yet done so, please stop reading now: the rest of this post will be packed with spoilers.

In the run up to the conclusion, there was much speculation about the meaning of the episode title, ‘Felina’. An anagram of ‘finale’, some suggested that it ought to be read as FeLiNa—Iron, Lithium, and Sodium—blood, meth, and tears. Attractive as such an interpretation sounds, it fails: Walt’s methods of meth production never involved the use of lithium, employing methylamine and red phosphorous instead.

The primary reference was revealed by the Marty Robbins tape that dropped from the glove compartment of the car in the opening scene and the song that played as the engine started.

I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark
Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart

As Gilligan’s ‘postmodern Western’ (a genre suggested by the theme music), it seemed rather fitting that the tone of Breaking Bad’s final episode should be set by Robbins’ song about a cowboy in the old West. The protagonist of ‘El Paso’ falls in love with a Mexican girl, ‘wicked Felina’. Having killed a rival for her affections, he flees, only to find that, away from El Paso, there is nothing left in his life. His fatal yearning for Felina draws him to return. Pursued by a posse, he seeks to reach Felina’s door. He knows that he is doomed from the pain in his side, but he must continue. He rises up, but is then shot in the chest. As he is dying, Felina finds him and he dies in her arms.

The preceding episode, ‘Granite State’, ended with Walt in the bar. Completely defeated after Walter Jr. (Flynn) refused to accept his money and told him that he wished him dead, Walt then calls the police, orders a neat dimple pinch at the bar, and awaits his arrest. However, as he is doing this, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz appear on the TV. As they deny any significant contribution from Walt in the foundation of Grey Matter we can see a transformation occurring in Walt’s appearance. A flare of the nostrils, a narrowing of the eyes, a clenching of his fist, a tightening of his jaw, and the show’s theme kicks in. The face of the broken Walt hardens into the purposeful and focused countenance of Heisenberg.

The deep wounded pride, the catalyzed vice which first led to his transformation into Heisenberg, was reawakened in him. Those who look for a single ‘choice’ that turned Walter White into Heisenberg miss the fact that Heisenberg was part of Walter from the outset and only needed to be given occasion to emerge. This is crucial to recognizing the disquieting truth that there is some of Heisenberg in each one of us.

As Gretchen declares that the Walter White that they once knew had died, he finally acknowledges his transformation: the ‘colossal wreck’ of Heisenberg is his identity now, the final great expression of the pride of Walter White. At the last moment, he realizes that there is something that he is unwilling to surrender—the pride whose insistence first led him to cook meth, the pride upon which his empire was founded—and, before the police arrive, he leaves the bar.

This is the Walt that we see at the beginning of the finale—not a man in search of redemption, but a man who wants to establish his doom on his own terms. There is profound yet sterile remorse over what he has lost, but no true repentance. He has made his choice: while the ghost of Walter White that is the protagonist of the finale will mourn the losses it occasioned, willingness to sacrifice his pride still eludes Walter. He would prefer to die as the ruin of the great Heisenberg than as the anaemic and withered Walter White.

‘Felina’ begins in a snow-covered car, where Walter breathes out a prayer: ‘Just get me home, just get me home: I’ll do the rest.’ His prayer is soon answered as the key to the vehicle drops down onto his lap as he lowers the sun visor.

carkeys

Vince Gilligan’s world is one where a moral fate exists. People who complain at the utter lack of realism at certain points of the show—especially the air crash that concludes season 2—miss this point. Evil actions have a butterfly effect, unsettling the whole universe and will be answered by a poetic justice, which re-establishes order. The aesthetic character of fate and its justice produces many events and coincidences that would otherwise be completely implausible. It is this fate that leads Walt to see the Schwartzes on the TV at the crucial moment, for instance. It is this fate that makes Walt remarkably immune to capture throughout the finale.

Walt knows that he is doomed. However, he also knows that, if he is prepared to act as an axe in the hands of justice, he can at least face its doom on more favourable terms, without having to sacrifice the thing that means more to him than all else.

Walt’s visit to the Schwartzes is his first act as the rod of justice. While the ostensible purpose of his visit is to get his money to Walter Jr. and his family, in light of the ending of ‘Granite State’, it would seem that avenging his wounded pride was Walt’s initial driving motive. And Walt seems to know that the rod of justice is due to the Schwartzes.

The Schwartzes are essential to answering the question of how Walter White first became Walter White—how a brilliant chemist, involved in Nobel Prize-winning research, became an emasculated high school teacher working two jobs to get by. Walt, who was once romantically involved with Gretchen, accused her and Elliott of stealing his research in order to create the multi-billion dollar Grey Matter company. While Gretchen denied this, the course that events take suggest that there was some truth to Walt’s accusation.

The Schwartzes employ their immense wealth to buy moral capital, dulling their consciences to the reality of their sins. Walt’s refusal to accept the money they offered to pay for his cancer treatment was likely in part a result of his unwillingness to be party to their palliating of their sense of guilt towards him. Later, as they are interviewed by Charlie Rose at the conclusion of ‘Granite State’, they announce a $28million grant to drug abuse treatment centres, while washing their hands of any involvement with Walt.

By making them the launderers of the money that he wants to give to his family, Walt confronts them with the reality of their sin, bloodying the waters in which they would wash their hands. The very way that they are accustomed to securing their moral capital and superiority is poisoned as Walt forces these ‘beautiful people’ on fear of their lives to become complicit in the sins from which they have disingenuously tried to distance themselves. Assuming their responsibility would be the means by which they would ‘get to make it right.’

The amusing conversation that follows in the car with the Greek chorus of Badger and Skinny Pete (‘That whole thing felt kinda shady, you know, like, morality-wise’) serves to reveal that blue meth is still on the market, suggesting that Jesse is still alive. While Walt will later claim that he feels cheated out of the hit on Jesse that the neo-Nazis owed him, I would suggest that his chief concern is that he not be robbed of his blue meth, the product that he desires to stand as a lasting testament to his unique brilliance. Blue meth must die with Heisenberg.

carpentryThe scene that immediately follows reveals the sharp contrast between Jesse and Walt’s relationships to blue meth. Jesse imagines himself making his wooden box, the box that for him signifies the delight and self-fulfilment in personally fashioning an object of great quality and value. As the scene jolts into that of the chained Jesse producing meth in the lab, we see the sharp contrast between him and Walt. Jesse longs for the healthy delight that he could take in the production of something good and praiseworthy, shorn of all pride in the blue meth that, despite all that it has cost him, still dominates Walt.

Jesse sold his wooden box for weed. This box symbolizes his wasting of his talents, but also comes to symbolize his nostalgic longing for what might have been possible, had he taken a different course of action in his life. Unlike Walt, after tasting its bitter harvest, Jesse has been prepared to confess his evil, recognizes it for what it is, and finds no pride in it. Walt merely feels remorse about what he has lost: only Jesse truly repents. As the show progressed, we see that Jesse came to want to take responsibility for his actions, didn’t want merely to accept himself, felt the bitterest remorse over his actions, not merely their consequences, and longed for some sort of redemption. As Jesse escapes the compound at the end of the episode, having resisted the temptation to take Walt’s life, it seems to me that Gilligan wants us to believe that he will find some.

jesse

While a number have interpreted Walt’s meeting with Skyler to be a sign of repentance, it is nothing of the kind. While Walt obviously feels remorse as he sees the consequences that his actions have resulted in, he does not repent. While his statement to Skyler no longer excuses his crimes by claiming that they were done for his family, he never once truly apologizes and repents of his actions. ‘I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was, really … I was alive.’ This is tragic self-acceptance, not repentance.

In bringing about his final showdown with Uncle Jack and the neo-Nazis (as with his slipping the ricin to Lydia), Walt is once again constantly aided by the hidden hand of Gilligan’s moral providence. The car boot (or trunk, as my American readers might say) is never checked, the car is perfectly parked, all of the gang members seem to be present, the challenge to Jack’s honour leads him to bring Jesse to the scene, Walt is able to get his hand on the keys, and he is able to get both himself and Jesse onto the ground.

Walt shoots Jack without allowing him to use his knowledge of the location of Walt’s money to bargain with him. The money is worthless to Walt now, yet the revenge is priceless, especially as Jack dies pleading for his life, unlike Hank. Walt then gives the gun to Jesse, who has strangled Todd with his chains and released himself. ‘Do it,’ Walt says, ‘You want this.’ Jesse refuses to do so until Walt admits that he wants it, Walt’s fantasy that in some way he could be redeemed on his own terms through accepting his fate at the hands of poetic justice. Jesse refuses to be complicit in Walt’s self-serving script and leaves, at which point Todd’s mobile rings (he may have been a psychopath, but the kid knew how to choose a ringtone), leading to the revelation of the success of Walt’s poisoning of Lydia.

gaugeAfter a meaningful exchange of glances, Jesse, the other son that Walt has lost, departs, leaving Walt alone. Walt, fatally wounded by his own contraption, walks into the meth lab. He taps a gauge, picks up a gas mask, and caresses a stainless steel vat, as Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ starts to play. Walt collapses to the ground, his hand smearing the vat with his blood as he falls. As the camera moves away from Walt’s body in a shot reminiscent of the end of ‘Crawl Space’, the police come through the lab, finding Walt’s dead body lying on the ground.

Together with Marty Robbins’ ‘El Paso’, ‘Baby Blue’ serves to disclose the meaning of the scene.

Guess I got what I deserve
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
The special love I have for you
My baby blue

Walt gets what he wants. He gets to die in the arms of his true love, the meth lab. He protects his reputation as Heisenberg, the only man who could produce blue meth. The stains and fingerprints that he has left in the lab will ensure that no one else gets that credit. Blue meth dies with him, as do all who would usurp his title as the king.

There is no repentance and no redemption for Walt—Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret. Consistent with his character throughout the series, Walt has refused to contemplate any sacrifice of his pride and, clutching it like Gollum falling into the fires of Mount Doom, it has brought him down to Sheol. The ‘special love’ that he has for his ‘baby blue’—the meth that symbolized his power, brilliance, and pride—means that, despite all that he has lost, he can die satisfied. Like Ozymandias, he has erected a monument to his pride that will endure even as the sands of fate have swallowed up all other traces of what once was.

A number of people have complained about the moral ambiguity of the show ending in such a manner, on Walt’s terms, especially after the devastation of the episode ‘Ozymandias’. Yet Gilligan’s hand has not slipped here. Rather, the ending underscores the true tragedy at the heart of the show: Walt has chosen his fate throughout and continues to do so to the end. Whatever remorse he may have felt over the consequences of his choices, whatever qualms he may have experienced before committing some of his crimes, whenever he was given the choice, he chose to go with his pride. Even at the very end, even though he knew all that it had already cost him and the doom that it would certainly lead him to, he determined that it was still worth the sacrifice of all, which is why he returned to it.

His baby blue. His wicked Felina.

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26 Responses to Walter White’s Wicked Felina

  1. Chris E says:

    I think there may be more ambiguity than that – after all, with Walt’s traces on the scene, why would the police even suspect that someone else was actually involved in manufacturing blue ice. So he struggles with his pride and finally dies for it – but in doing so may have saved someone else. Both Jesse and Walt went into the grave – but only one emerged as a new man.

    Note to that in saving Jesse he is wounded – in a location I suspect is no coincidence.

  2. Jeremy Doan says:

    I think this is spot on. I completely agree with your assessment that Walt “is prepared to act as an axe in the hands of justice.” There is most certainly some deus ex machina in the finale, and that is exactly as it should be. This is a Greek tragedy, and the fates had foretold Walt’s demise in the first episode. And, like the irony of a Greek tragedy, everything he does do avoid his fate actually brings it about.
    Walt’s punishment is that he is completely given over to his lusts. He is allowed to become his own myth, and that is really a terrible thing. He owns his actions, and acknowledges his motivations, but that is hardly commendable. He almost relishes the fact that he is Heisenberg, and can finally admit it to Skyler.
    I agree with you. Walt got exactly what he deserved, and it was completely apropos.

  3. Jake Meador says:

    Alastair – Great post, but I’m not sure I agree. (Though you’ve made the case better than anyone else I’ve read.) I think there is a kind of consolation happening, if not complete repentance.

    a) Why does Walt kill the neo-Nazis? If it’s about the blue meth, they’re the wrong ones to kill. He needs to kill Jesse–the one person he actually doesn’t kill even though he has the perfect opportunity to do so after killing Jack. But if the attack on the Nazis is about dispensing justice, both for Hank and for the stolen money, then it’s a different sort of act. It’s still morally problematic, but it’s a different kind of problem than “Heisenberg wants his meth to die with him.”

    b) One of the big conflicts in the early seasons is that Walt wants to provide for his family and he wants them to know that HE did it. That’s why he objected to Junior’s website, why he turned down the Schwartz’s money (though your point about that probably also played a role), and why he takes Holly out to the garage in, I believe, season 3 and shows her all his money and says, “look what daddy made.” But in the finale he goes out of his way to conceal that from his family. He had to have the Schwartz’s give it b/c that’s the only way it’d get through, but he didn’t have to tell Skyler that he had spent all of his money, which would, hypothetically, eliminate any doubt about the money’s origins when the Schwartz’s give it. Walt goes out of his way to NOT take credit for the money.

    c) It’s easy to get messed up on the timeline, but the show takes place over exactly two years. And Granite State covers about 1/8 of that time. So it takes up an enormous amount of chronological time, even if it’s only a single episode. Isn’t it possible that he makes a discovery or two about his motivations and the darkness of his heart during that time? That seems to be what the finale implies.

    d) That prayer seems significant to me. This is the guy who laughed off the idea of the soul and said, “There’s only chemistry here.” This is the guy who sneered at the cancer patient who talked about not having control of his life. And yet in the finale he manages a prayer? It’s a vengeful prayer, but it is a prayer.

    I think it’s too much to say Walt “repents,” but I also think it’s wrong to say that the finale is the same Heisenberg we’ve seen all along. Something changed in Walt while he was in New Hampshire and it was a positive change. I’m just not sure how to quantify it. What do you think?

    • Thanks for the stimulating comments, Jake. Some brief thoughts in response:

      a) The neo-Nazis were the ones continuing the meth operation. Jesse was a pawn in their plan. If they were destroyed, Walt know that Jesse would not go back to making meth. It was the Nazis, not Jesse, who had stolen his blue meth from him. Walt knew all along that Uncle Jack would not go into a ‘partnership’ with Jesse.

      b) On the other hand, it is important to remember that Walt used Gretchen and Elliott’s generosity as a cover for his own funding of his treatment. While he would like his family to know that he provided, he is prepared to hide the fact behind a charade, provided that he knows the truth and can maintain his pride. Gretchen destroyed Walt’s initial plan to use their charity to cover his own funding of his treatment. The plan that he deployed in the finale forced them knowingly to play the role that he had originally assigned to them.

      c) All of the evidence seems to point towards the opening scene of ‘Felina’ following immediately after the closing scene of ‘Granite State’. In that scene it seems clear to me that Walt’s leaving the bar is motivated by his pride and deep resentment towards the Schwartzes, not some desire for redemption.

      d) Yes, it is a prayer (some have suggested that it is a Samson-style prayer—’O Lord God, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!’). I don’t believe that there is any piety in Walt’s prayer, though. Walt’s prayer is of a man who knows himself to be damned. However, unlike the man who once denied the existence of the soul, Walt now recognizes and accepts his place within the moral universe. Like the demons, Walt now believes in God (or at least moral fate), requesting permission, as Satan does at the beginning of Job or in Luke 22:31-32, to fulfil his personal ends, even though that he knows that, in the final analysis, he is a rod in the hand of God or fate, doomed to final destruction.

      ‘If I am to be damned, at least give me the rope with which I can hang myself.’

      • John Gale says:

        I think your analysis overall is absolutely stellar, but I think you’re misreading Walt’s reaction to the scene with Gretchen and Elliot on Charlie Rose. I don’t blame you because the show *wants* us to misread it, I think. It’s only revealed in the finale what was going on. While I have no doubt that Walt resents Gretchen and Elliot and took great offense to their minimization of his contributions to the company, I don’t think getting back at them was his primary reason for heading back to New Mexico.

        Remember what had just happened right before that scene. Walt had a barrel with more than $10 million that he couldn’t use and couldn’t get to his family. Knowing that his time was short, he came up with a plan to get it to his family through his son’s friend, Louis. When his son rejected his offer and told him to just die already, Walt basically resigned himself to his fate, which is why he called the DEA. But he changed his mind when he saw Gretchen and Elliot. Why? I think that while getting back at them was a bonus, the real reason was that he realized that there was a way to get his money to his family after all, and neither they nor the government would ever know (for sure, at least) where really it came from.

        This is not the first time the show has had Walt facing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, resigning himself to his fate and then having an epiphany due to the chance observation of something he hadn’t considered. For example, when Skyler gave most of Walt’s money to Ted, which thwarted his original plan to disappear, he knew that he was pretty much screwed. Gus threatened to kill Walt’s entire family if he interfered with the planned hit on Hank, which Walt did when he thought he could disappear. So he’s sitting in a depressed state and spinning his revolver on the table. It points at him the first two times, but on the third time, it points at the Lilly of the Valley plant. Walt suddenly realizes that he can use that in his effort to win Jesse back to his side.

        Another example: In “4 Days Out,” Walt and Jesse are stranded out in the desert. The battery is dead. The generator is destroyed. Skinny Pete can’t find them. Their cell phones are dead. They’re out of water, and they’re slowly dying. Again, Walt essentially resigns himself to his fate until Jesse starts throwing out a bunch of “scientific” ideas to get them out of their predicament. Walt is amused until Jesse mentions a battery, and Walt realizes that they can indeed build another battery. Hell, if not for his brother-in-law’s job with the DEA and the meth sting he sees on the news, he may not have even thought to start cooking meth in the first place. There are probably other examples, but I think the point is made. The scene with Gretchen and Elliot fits perfectly with the history of these kinds of epiphanies.

        So that’s why I think Walt went back, which is supported by what happened in the finale. Once there, he figured that he might as well try to salvage whatever else he could, which is why he took out the Nazis and Lydia and ultimately (though it was a last-second decision that wasn’t his original plan) saved Jesse.

      • Thanks for the comment, John!

        I think that it is important to watch the scene in question again. There are a few key details to notice, most importantly that Walt’s reaction isn’t one of epiphany, so much as anger and purpose.

        There are three claims that he seems to react to in particular (and it is important to remember that these are being voiced by people who he already has deep resentment towards):

        1. That he had nothing to do with the foundation and growing of Grey Matter save the company name.
        2. That blue meth—’his signature product’—is still seemingly being sold.
        3. That Walter White, ‘that sweet, kind, brilliant man’, has gone.

        Each of these claims awakens his primary driving force—his pride—and they provide convincing motives for the actions that follow. Knowing Walter White, we should expect him to react to these claims. In each of them, he sees his identity being nullified, or his legacy being stripped from him by his enemies.

        While the $28 million donation from Gretchen and Elliott to a drug abuse charity later seems to spark Walt’s plan to get his money to his family, his reaction is not to that crucial detail, so much as to the others that I have mentioned. Within the framing of the final episode, the use of Gretchen and Elliott to get the money to his family really isn’t given the prominence that it would have if it were his primary goal. Even in his use of Gretchen and Elliott he is in large measure motivated by his desire to get back at them, so that they will set right the ways that he feels that they have wronged him (and also to force them to do what they once rejected).

        We should also recognize that Walt’s laundering of his money through the Schwartzes to give it to his family isn’t the same now that his family have completely rejected any attempt on his part to give money to them. His forcing of his money upon them unawares is not about ‘providing for his family’, something that he later admits, but is about getting his own way in his stubborn pride.

      • John Gale says:

        Well, I’m not disputing that Walt isn’t prideful or didn’t take offense to their (understandable, really) effort to distance themselves from him. I agree. I’m just skeptical that he went back just to settle a score with them. If Walt was *solely* motivated by pride, I’m not sure why he would have felt the need to visit Skyler and Holly one last time or to reveal Hank’s burial site, which he hopes Skyler can use to get a deal that will settle her legal troubles. Given his failed attempt to get them money through Louis immediately prior (and his subsequent admission of defeat by calling the DEA and waiting for arrest), I still think delivering the money was his primary motivation.

        And I don’t agree that he was forcing them to launder his money to “get his way.” I think he relished forcing them to do so, but it was still more about getting the money to his family. If he just wanted to force them to launder money out of spite, I don’t know why he would insist that they not use one dime of their own money to do so. I’ve always maintained that whatever else can be said about Walt, one can’t persuasively argue that he doesn’t care about his family on an emotional level. And a big theme throughout the series has been Walt’s fear that everything he’s done and gone through will ultimately be for nothing if his family doesn’t get the money. Yes, he admits that he cooked meth for himself, not his family. That doesn’t mean that he wants the $10 million that he made from that enterprise to go to waste or end up with Robert Forster.

        Also, I think getting his family the money *was* given the prominence it deserved, as that was the first thing he did once he got back to New Mexico. But I suppose everything I’ve said can be read the way you interpret it as well. We can agree to disagree. In all honesty, it’s probably a combination of both, and we’re just debating about percentages. At any rate, I appreciate the thoughtful response.

      • Getting the Schwartzes to launder his money was designed to kill two birds with one stone: it definitely wasn’t merely out of spite. However, it wasn’t the thing that made him leave the bar that evening. The Schwartzes weren’t even his primary target: that was Uncle Jack and his crew. His main purpose was to establish his pride, which necessitated securing a reputation that would last beyond his death. The interview with the Schwartzes gave him a premonition of what his lasting reputation would be if he died then, and he didn’t like it.

        Walt doesn’t really care about his family at all, no matter what people say (and whatever Walt often claimed). His actions show this again and again. He is quite prepared to terrorize his family and to mistreat them. All Walt cared about was his ability to be the ‘man’ for his family—the self-reliant provider, the one who could be ‘strong’ and not betray weakness, the one who ‘protects’. Flynn and Skyler really do not want Walt’s money, they don’t want his ‘protection’ (Skyler’s ‘someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family’ statement shows just how much they need Walt to perform this role), they don’t want him to be the ‘man’ for them any longer. Walt’s ‘provision’ is not out of care and love for them, but out of macho pride. Gus’s ‘A Man Provides’ speech is crucial background here. This is masculinity at its ugliest, a terrorizing domination of selfish will dissembling as selfless concern and love for others. It is nothing of the kind.

        In his pride Walt must be the ‘man’ and the final episode is about Walt’s final coercive attempt to be the ‘man’ for his family. If his family will not willingly and lovingly accept him as the ‘man’, he will force himself upon them in that role. His plan to give his money through the Schwartzes is not out of genuine love for Flynn, who would be disgusted if he knew, but out of a desire to save himself from the emasculation of not being able to be the ‘man’ for his family. His visit to Skyler is similarly motivated. He gives her information suggesting that he has no money left, so that she won’t be able to dismiss his ‘provision’ when it comes. His giving her the lottery ticket is another act of selfish ‘provision’, giving her the location of the grave of her brother-in-law, in whose death Walt was complicit. His killing of Uncle Jack and his crew is also an act of proud ‘protection’ of Skyler and his children from their threat.

        It is crucial to recognize that Walt’s claim that he is truly doing any of this for his family is his deepest self-delusion of all.

      • Chris E says:

        “It is crucial to recognize that Walt’s claim that he is truly doing any of this for his family is his deepest self-delusion of all.”

        Well, it is equally crucial to realise that someone can be completely self delusional whilst still stumbling on the edges of truth.

        I think Walt really did intend to ‘provide for his family’ – but the single minded way in which he pursued this turned that goal in a personal-molech of sorts which demands greater and greater sacrifices. In a way, it’s a brilliant example of how the truly demonic stems from the mundane and ordinary evils that end up being writ large (Walt’s pride).

        At least in the earlier series, Hank had an equal amount of pride in his ability to be able to catch the criminal mastermind – but his own downfall is shown in a much more sympathetic light. His death was also an indirect effect of the need for self justification and to be seen as protecting ‘his’ family.

  4. Alan Jacobs raised some great questions for my reading here. I thought that I would repost his remarks here, along with my response, for any who might be interested:

    1) Almost all narratives have occasional implausibilities, but this concluding episode is made up of nothing but implausibilities: from the cops inexplicably disappearing, to the dropping down of the keys “from above,” to the ease with which Walt gets Elliott and Gretchen’s home address, to the ease with which he gets into their gated property, to the flawless performances of Badger and Skinny Pete, to his ability to wander freely in and out of his old house without being seen, to his magical appearance in Skyler’s new place and disappearance from it without being seen, to the whole poisoning-Lydia episode in which he is seen but recognized by anyone he doesn’t want to recognize him, to the Nazis’ allowing him to park where he wants without checking out his car, to the whole convo with the Nazis happening in the one precise place where Walt needs it to happen, to the appearance of Jesse just so Walt can save him, to the survival of Jack so Walt can kill him and Todd so Jesse can kill him — it’s all a little much, don’t you think? Noticeably, and suspiciously, like a wish-fulfillment dream….

    2) We need to parse the question of whether “there is any redemption or vindication intended for Walt” a little more closely. If we mean by that, as you do, that Walt’s decisions are not justified or vindicated by some moral standard that we might apply from outside his ethical cosmos, then you are exactly right. But if we mean that Walt experiences no redemption or vindication — well, obviously he does. His final plan goes off like clockwork, he gets to see all his enemies dead or dying and even gets to taunt Lydia, he gets to feel that he has rescued Jesse and provided for his family. He dies with a smile in his face in his beloved lab. And that’s what is making some viewers uncomfortable: that Walt gets to feel both redeemed and vindicated, by ending things “on his own terms,” as Vincd Gilligan says.

    My response:

    1) The implausibilities of the finale that you mention are extremely minor compared to some of those earlier in the show. Here is a list of just a few of the dozens of chance events surrounding the air collision that concludes season 2: 1. Jesse’s receiving his money the morning before he’s due to go into rehab with Jane; 2. Walt’s unwitting chance encounter with Jane’s dad—a complete stranger—in a random bar (in the season 3 episode, ‘Fly’, Walt himself comments on how odd this was, because he never went into bars alone); 3. Walt’s decision, prompted by the conversation with Jane’s dad about family, to return to Jesse’s; 4. The fact Walt decides to go into the house even though he sees that Jesse is asleep in the bed with Jane; 5. The fact he can easily do so without leaving a trace as the door hasn’t been repaired; 6. Walt’s inadvertently causing and later witnessing Jane’s death by turning her onto her back as he tries to shake the drugged Jesse into consciousness; 7. That Jane’s dad is an air traffic controller; 8. His confusion of the name of a plane with the name of his daughter on account of his grief, leading to a mid-air collision; 9. Some of the wreckage falling in Walt’s back garden.

    While this might be pure plot contrivance in the hands of someone else, Gilligan pulls it off because such events are perfectly in keeping with the moral logic of the show’s universe and deeply integrated into the development of the plot and its characters. In ‘Fly’, the drugged Walt reflects on his chance encounter with Jane’s dad, giving us insight into the way that the event has changed his mind:

    Think of the odds. Once I tried to calculate them, but they’re astronomical. I mean, think of the odds of me going in and sitting down that night, in that bar, next to that man… My God, the universe is random, it’s not inevitable, it’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?

    Walt, who started off the show denying the existence of a soul, comes to believe in a moral fate. In ‘Fly’, Walt ponders what would have been the perfect moment to quit cooking meth without facing the consequences of his actions. He suggests that it was that evening, before he went into the bar.

    At the end of ‘Granite State’, for the second time, Walt enters into a bar alone. By now, Walt has come to the conclusion that the universe isn’t just random chance, but that moral reckoning must be made. The ‘prayer’ that he prays in the car at the beginning of the finale is plea bargaining with his imminent fate: if fate will permit him to act as its instrument, he can go out without the sacrifice of his pride. When we consider the power that moral fate has already demonstrated in Breaking Bad’s universe and to Walt himself, I don’t think that it is a stretch to believe that Walt could think it powerful enough to make the most jerry-rigged plan work out perfectly.

    2) Once again, understanding the moral operations of Breaking Bad’s universe is crucial here. In order to go out as he does, Walt has to acknowledge that he is damned. The only line that fate now affords him is the rope with which he must hang himself. He dies in his pride, but he dies the death of the damned, the knowing victim of moral fate. It is a sort of Satanic destiny.

    That in many respects he dies satisfied that he has achieved something great, even if morally reprehensible, needs to be read in terms of the morality of the show’s universe, within which a protagonist’s self-perception is not the final arbiter of his condition. That fate should permit him this final triumph of his vice is not a victory for Walter White but his utter destruction at the hands of his satanic Heisenberg, the loss of the soul that he once denied.

    • Allen Jones says:

      Wow…I agree with everything! I think everyone has their “Heisenberg” moment. That moment where you know that this just can’t be all there is to life. There HAS to be something…someone…that is in control. And we have to make our decisions. Thanks for you thoughts…enjoyed it!!

  5. George Davis says:

    Thanks for this. Your post comes closest of anything I have read (and I’ve read a ton) to articulating my feelings on the finale. Wandered over here via your comment on Emily Nussbaum’s fantastical “analysis” and very glad I did. Amazing that so many critics seem to have missed the point entirely. Thanks again for your insightful analysis!

  6. Harry Schaffer says:

    I agree with George (and yourself). Love the debate but think that your conclusion is the most apt

  7. Kimberly says:

    I still say that that was one helluva ending. And I was satisfied….even if most were not. Oh well, you can’t please everyone!” :-)

    • I agree: an extremely satisfying ending!

    • John Gale says:

      I don’t think “most” weren’t satisfied. Everyone I know personally loved it. It has a 9.9 IMDB rating (98% of the 22000+ votes were an 8 or higher, and 94% were a 10) and an “A-” (effectively an “A”–not even Ozymandius has an “A” on the AV Club. I think there is a very vocal minority that isn’t happy with it. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of those people happen to be TV critics. But I think a substantial majority really liked it. And with good reason. The finale was quite satisfying.

  8. This was so great, Alastair. I love (and will miss!) your analysis of the show. I particularly liked your insight into what some people perceive as an unrealistic element:
    ‘Evil actions have a butterfly effect, unsettling the whole universe and will be answered by a poetic justice, which re-establishes order.’
    The ‘Greek chorus’ of Badger & Skinny Pete and Jesse in the workshop were two of my favourite parts of the finale too. I remember that scene when Jesse talks about making the box as one of the most moving and revealing moments for his character.
    Also totally agree that Walt’s statement to Skylar, ‘Everything I did …I did for me’ was certainly ‘tragic self-acceptance, not repentance.’ There is no redemption here.
    Great post, mate. Really going to miss ‘breaking down’ Breaking Bad on twitter with you!

  9. Dawn Madison says:

    I found my way to your post from the literary connection article in “The Atlantic” and I’m so glad I did! Thank you so much for such an excellent, thoughtful, and well-written post. It’s a pleasure to (finally!) read an intelligent take on the finale, and the series as a whole. I’m sure that Vince Gilligan himself would enjoy reading this, knowing that there are people who actually “get it”. Thank you, Alastair!

  10. Rebecca W says:

    Love these insights, thanks!

  11. Andrew says:

    Here’s a fun thing: I was watching the season 3 finale and there’s a scene in Gale’s apartment. There are piles of books lying around. An at the top of one there is, what appears to be, the 2009 reprint of Beveridge’s edition of Calvin’s Institutes!

    https://www.evernote.com/pub/view/agmckinley/publicnotebook/2e626df3-ffb5-41d8-a125-9ee4fd149c29?locale=en#st=p&n=2e626df3-ffb5-41d8-a125-9ee4fd149c29

  12. Pingback: Links 11 – 18/10/13 | Alastair's Adversaria

  13. Pingback: Retrospective on 2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

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