'Breaking Bad' Finale: As Pure As TV Drama Comes


The finale of Breaking Bad rewarded our addiction to the show with plenty of easy, endorphin-pumping answers to our pressing questions: Walt is dead, Jesse is free, and the White (or is it Lambert, now?) family will likely receive the unsavory cash for which Walt sold most of his soul. The series’ final episode, "Felina," achieved the same 99% purity for which Walt’s signature product was known, but Breaking Bad has never been about purity. Instead, it’s the episode’s ultimate, impure 1%, as Walt collapses in the meth lab, that represents the true legacy of Vince Gilligan’s superlative drama.

As others have rightly pointed out, last night’s finale wrapped up Walt's saga with a tidiness that felt somewhat dishonest to the often messy crime drama. In past seasons, Walt generally resolved his conflicts with all the subtlety and precision of a speeding Pontiac Aztek, which inevitably lead to more problems and even messier resolutions. Gilligan and company’s smart insistence on linking Walt’s radical independence with his moral decay underscored the narcissism and greed that often attend the American dream. In other words, when the ends start justifying the means, faces end up melted.

However, Breaking Bad’s finale made little attempt to subvert or destabilize the generic conventions of its progenitors. Walt rode into town, fulfilled his moral code, had his shootout at the O.K. Corral Nazi clubhouse, and even managed to die by his own hand. That’s the Western, gangster, and noir genres — all critiqued over the course of Breaking Bad’s six seasons — reaffirmed within 75 minutes. Well, nearly reaffirmed; Vince Gilligan had no intention of completely forgiving the (literal and figurative) skeletons in Walt’s closet.

Gilligan and his writing team cleverly inserted enough instability into the closing moments of both the show and Walter White’s life to maintain Breaking Bad’s disruptive critique. Throughout the episode, Walt’s mastery over events borders on the supernatural: he's not just the one who knocks, but the person who decides when the door opens. The unfortunate Schwartzes, Uncle Jack and the neo-Nazis, and even Lydia’s stevia habit all find themselves helpless before Walt’s designs. Yet Walt’s ability to control how his fate unfolds, as well as the fates of those around him, reveals the emptiness of his long-time justification for his moral decay. It’s not his family that he cooks for, it’s himself. Of course, he finally admits as much to Skyler in their final scene together (easily the best few minutes of the finale, and perhaps the entire series). But in executing his plan so that his last minutes alive can be spent in a meth lab, instead of with his family, Walt finally says his name to both himself and the audience: Heisenberg.

Thus, Breaking Bad’s subversion remains effective, as the camera slowly pulls away from Walter White for the last time. Each element in this final scene combines for an impressive closing tableau: the look of serenity on Walt’s lifeless face, the bloodstained lab equipment, the soundtrack playing Badfinger’s song about "the special love" for "baby blue." So while others may continue to argue that the finale welshes on the promises of past seasons, Breaking Bad’s denouement remains consistent with the series’ heady critique of white male privilege, middle class dissatisfaction, and the dubious American reasoning that family obligations can justify greed. 

He may have begun Breaking Bad as Walter Hartwell White, and lost himself in his Heisenberg identity over the course of six seasons, but Bryan Cranston’s character ended the series as an intractable mix of both selves. In the analysis that immediately followed the finale, "redemption" seems to have been the buzzword of choice. It’s most popular use has been as a pejorative, an accusation that Walt’s narrative closure rendered Heisenberg’s evil insignificant (certainly, the bad fans who generally miss the point of the show likely interpret the word as affirmation of their warped celebration of a murderer). However, perhaps because I'm channeling my inner high school chemistry teacher, I read the events of "Felina" less as redemption, and more as correction. Redemption and correction both make things right, but the former obviates the sins of the past, while the latter suggests new solutions and old mistakes crossed out in red.

Correction is an imperfect process of change and experimentation, like the science that Walt attempts to pitch to his disinterested students in the pilot. Though, on the surface, Walt ends his on-screen life as he began it — in beige khakis and a green button-up shirt — the elemental reactions of the past six seasons have transformed him into a new compound, neither abjectly malicious nor completely absolved. In the end, it’s the kind of dramatic transformation a high school chemistry teach might only dream of witnessing, and one we were lucky enough to observe for the last six years. The finale may not be perfect, but Breaking Bad has never been about perfection. It’s about purity and impurity, and how one can never ultimately eliminate the other.

With that said, few series have ever cooked up a story as engaging and challenging as Breaking Bad's, and it retained a level of purity I’m sure Walter White would be proud of.