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. – Badfinger
Though I’m often adept at summarizing complex subjects in a succinct, blog-worthy manner, it would be impossible for me to compose a condensed analysis of the psychological underpinnings of the brilliant serial drama Breaking Bad. Such a study could fill a book and believe it or not, several such books have been written.
Vince Gilligan had to know what a risk he was taking when initially pitching a show about a middle aged chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer turning to the manufacture of methamphetamine to leave a sufficient posthumous financial legacy to his family. Fortunately, AMC took a chance on this exceedingly dark premise and thus we the viewing public were treated to the most meticulously crafted, gorgeously filmed, impeccably acted morality tale ever aired.
If you did not watch the show, feel free to stop reading now. Your time will be much better spent Netflixing all five seasons and watching it in a non-stop, coffee-fueled marathon. Now. Why are you still here? Go. Watch the show.
If you’re still here, I’m going to assume that you are quite familiar with Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, Skyler White, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmentraut. This post will confine itself to the final episode of the series, Felina. The title itself had a double — perhaps triple — meaning. To indicate the end of the series, the word is an anagram of finale. Also, as we witnessed Walt slip back into Albuquerque sight unseen to utilize his intellect and some tricks of the trade he had learned during his two year odyssey as a drug kingpin to exact revenge and tie up loose ends, he did so with the subtle grace of a cat — felina. The third meaning is my favorite.
As the episode begins, Walt is still hiding out in a cabin in rural New Hampshire. He made his way down to the local watering hole where the TV was tuned into an episode of Charlie Rose, who was interviewing Walt’s former business partners, Eliot and Gretchen Schwartz. Since Walt was now a nationally renowned criminal on the lam, Charlie asked the Schwartzes to comment on him. Their condescending response spurred Walt into action. He used the bar’s pay phone to call the Albuquerque office of the DEA and asked to speak to the head officer on the Walter White case. When asked who was calling, he deadpanned, “Walter White'” and dropped the receiver, letting it dangle from its metal coil. He threw the authorities off his trail by bringing them right to his doorstep.
There is an old car outside the bar covered in ice and snow. Walt delicately lets himself into the driver’s side, being careful not to knock any of the obscuring frost and snow from the windows. When the police descend on the tavern, Walt slouches low in his seat and waits for them to leave. He then hot-wires the vehicle and notices a cassette tape case on the passenger’s seat: Marty Robbins’ Greatest Hits. When the engine turns over, the stereo kicks on: Out in the West Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl. Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina, music would play and Felina would whirl. This old country classic was the perfect choice for this scene. The narrator in the song ultimately dies of a bullet wound in the arms of his love, Felina. A death, but a death done his way, on his terms. This was precisely what Walt was planning to accomplish with his return to New Mexico.
The series began on Walt’s 50th birthday: the same day he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It ends on his 52nd birthday. In that brief time span, we watched him transform gradually from a henpecked, underachieving and mild-mannered family man into a dangerous, cutthroat, power mad drug kingpin. (“Say my name.” “Heisenberg?” “You’re goddamn right.”) Many of Walt’s colleagues and family understood long before he did that he was not motivated solely by the welfare of his family for very long. During his final visit to Skyler, she won’t suffer his tired altruistic explanation any longer and tells him to level with her. Understanding that at this point he owes her the truth, he admits for the very first time: “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”
Walter White, like all of the amazingly nuanced characters in the show, cannot be pigeonholed as either good or evil. Just like all human beings, he is far more complex than a black or white description can do justice. Our sympathy is with him right out of the gate, even after he makes his fateful decision to partner up with his former student Jesse Pinkman and cook an incredibly pure form of crystal methamphetamine for distribution throughout the city. He quickly learns that murder comes with the territory, but at first, he’s extremely disturbed at having to take a life even in self-defense. As time goes on, killing becomes second nature. Finally, it becomes his method of cementing absolute control over the entire Southwest meth market. Gus Fring’s former enforcer, Mike, sums up how much Walt had let the whole thing go to his head shortly after Walt’s brilliant nursing home coup that took out Gus: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no! You just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man.” Mike was right. Walt did have to be the man, because never before in his life had he ever been so feared and respected; he had never before been “the man”. This is why I found myself rooting for Walt to successfully pull off his final coup even though just two episodes prior, he had spoken the most intentionally devastating and evil words imaginable to Jesse before his former partner was taken as a meth cooking slave by the group of Neo-Nazis with whom they’d recently done business. As Jesse struggles to free himself from Jack’s grasp, Walt looks him in the eye and referring to Jesse’s late girlfriend, says with matter-of-fact malice: “I watched Jane die. I was there and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her, but I didn’t.”
How could I possibly still have been pulling for a character that would say something so abhorrent to a young man he had grown to view in an almost paternal way? It’s hard to explain. And this was the genius of Breaking Bad.
Freeing Jesse from his nightmarish servitude to Jack, Todd and the rest of the scumbags in that crew was, of course, on Walt’s agenda when he drove across the country to make things right in Albuquerque. He also wanted to ensure that every penny of his ill-gotten wealth would be left to his family. Looking emaciated and ill, an unshaven Walt arrives home on his birthday and sets his multi-faceted plan in action.
With a self-crafted MacGyver-style gun turret contraption hidden in the trunk of his car, Walt arrives at the Neo-Nazis’ hideout and coaxes Jack to bring Jesse into the room. When Jesse appears, Walt tackles him to the floor, covering him with his body, as he presses a button on his keychain that activates the revolving gun. The entire gang is killed by machine gun fire except for Jesse’s main tormentor, Todd, who Walt allows Jesse to choke to death with the chains Todd had bound him in weeks before. Walt kicks a lone pistol on the floor over to his now liberated former partner (and student) and tells him, “Do it.” Jesse notices that Walt has a serious bullet wound in his gut, kicks the gun back to Walt and tells him to do it himself. He then hops into a car, crashes through the gate of the compound and drives to freedom.
We hear multiple police sirens approaching as Walt slowly and wistfully walks through the former meth lab, stopping here and there to caress the pristine cook tops with a bittersweet smile on his face. As his hand touches a metal vat, it slips down leaving a bloody trail as Walt falls to the floor, smiling, and dies.
This was when I began to cry. Real tears. The kind of tears I usually reserve for the most devastating of personal losses. I was crying for a fictional character. A morally ambiguous drug manufacturer, liar, manipulator and murderer. A fictional character whose journey took all of us along for the frightening yet exhilarating ride. Because none of us are purely good or evil. Because all of us have made regrettable decisions and have hurt the ones we love most. Because nothing and no one is black and white.
The ghost of this fictional character still haunts the desert metropolis of Albuquerque and the outlying areas, and probably always will. Those who believe in the supernatural claim that ghosts tend to stick around the very area on which they had the biggest impact and where they left the biggest emotional traces. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that no single person, real or fictional, has had a bigger impact on the Duke City than Walter White.
And he leaves us with a profound question to ponder: if any of us were to find ourselves in the situation that Walt did on his fiftieth birthday, what would we do? Until you can answer that question with unflinching honesty, please don’t judge me for grieving the passing of a fictional meth cook.