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.
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.
The 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.
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.
After 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.