Breaking Bad Countdown: Season 5, Ep. 16, “Felina”
This is a Breaking Bad episode recap by Thought Pollution writers Liam Green and Colin Neagle. Spoiler alert.
The finale of Breaking Bad ostensibly lets the main character off easy. A lot of people have pointed that out, rightfully so. Walter’s redemption trip was largely unexpected. At the end of “Granite State,” we watched Walter’s reaction to Gretchen and Elliot’s interview, and we interpreted rage. He’d given up, but something about Gretchen and Elliot’s comments stirred something within Walter, prompting him to put together one last crazy plan for old time’s sake. That so many fans of the show, myself included, inferred anger or vengeance from that scene says more about us than the series.
It is, however, perfectly fitting for Walter to see the opportunity afforded through Gretchen and Elliot’s faux-charitable publicity stunt. It wasn’t so much the Schwartz’s public denial of their benefit from Walter White’s genius that thrust him into action; it was the potential they provided him to succeed on his own terms, one last time. The Schwartz charity was to Walter’s final scheme as the Lily of the Valley was to his conflict with Gus. It was a long shot, but he had to take it.
Just like that Lily of the Valley was the catalyst to a series of events that brought Walter out ahead of Gus, Gretchen and Elliot’s “war on drugs” led Walter White to his preferred resolution. He was assured that his children would eventually receive his money, thus fulfilling his insatiable desire to provide for his family. He freed Jesse from the prison that he put him in, thus righting his last, most hateful wrong. He even came clean about his dirtiest secret – that his “I do it for my family” mantra was only a lie to justify his selfish, destructive behavior. Once that was off his chest, he could go die among the tools that made him feel alive. Badger and Skinny Pete thought he had been cooking the blue meth they were buying since he disappeared. Dying in the lab where it came from would make that myth history. Heisenberg would live on forever.
So Walter died satisfied with his own outcome – his family was paid off, his legacy maintained, his final and most complex plan to date had been well-executed. Everything looks great until you consider what’s left behind.
When Flynn is presented with the donation from Gretchen and Elliot, Skyler will see through it. She knows Walt, and better yet knows his relationship with Gretchen and Elliot. While she might not know exactly why it’s happening, she will know that Walt is somehow, from beyond the grave, manipulating his family into accepting what they had previously rejected. If she chooses not to tell Flynn, she’ll live with the same guilt that’s driven her back to chain-smoking. If she tells Flynn and they turn down the money, she’ll live with as many regrets as she can fit in that tiny apartment.
“How could you go along with it?” Flynn asked Skyler when he found out about his father’s crimes. “I’ll be asking myself that for the rest of my life,” she responded. Whether or not this answer changes when Walt’s money comes through a different medium doesn’t change how she’ll feel about it.
Then there’s Jesse. He rode off quite happily. How long do you think that lasted? Yes, he broke free from Todd’s leash, killed that little shit and got a free El Camino out of the deal, but what happens when that gas tank runs dry? He probably has no money, he’s still wanted as Heisenberg’s partner (Lydia mentioned this when Todd told her Jesse reached 92 percent), and he’s lousy with depression and addiction issues. Now consider that he’ll feel at least somewhat responsible for Andrea’s murder. Even before being locked up by Todd, Jesse floundered without Walter and the meth business. Post-“Felina” life for Jesse may not be much better than it was when he was chained to Todd’s meth lab.
What was true last week remains true now, and will forever when we think about the trajectory of Breaking Bad: when it looks like Walt is doing something for his family, he’s actually just benefiting himself. Had Walter’s interest actually been in redeeming himself for his family’s sake, he would have taken Saul’s advice, finished his Scotch and gone to prison peacefully. He would have absolved Skyler of all responsibility, testified against Todd, Jack and Lydia to bring down the Heisenberg empire, and likely died in solitary confinement.
That, however, doesn’t fulfill Walter’s actual desires. He wanted to cease the production of blue meth, but didn’t want to do it legally and let the world know that anyone else had been making it. Walter lost the opportunity to take credit for Gray Matter long ago. He wasn’t going to allow anyone to take his work from him this time.
Breaking Bad was truly compelling to us because Walter White had a family. To ignore the effects of Walter’s behavior on his family is to miss the show’s point. I’ve said in the past that the show’s greatest irony is that Walter can’t provide for his family, at least in the way that he chose, without tearing it apart. This was proven two episodes ago, in “Ozymandias.” What appeared in the finale to be an act of redemption was actually one last, desperate stroke of the ego. He knew he’d die soon, so he set out to write an obituary that focused more on the legend he created than the family he destroyed. But that doesn’t change the story. The bad guy doesn’t always live with the consequences of his actions. Even when he does, they’re never as powerful or undeserving as those felt by the people who were unfortunate enough to have loved him.
This ending was foretold in the show’s pilot. Given his cancer diagnosis, Walter could have chosen to spend his remaining time with his family. He chose instead to exploit his family so he could feel better about himself. When it was all over, he’d face the results of that decision.
And Bryan Cranston played it well. He looked truly happy in that meth lab – arguably happier than he did in his goodbye to his infant daughter – even though the lab wasn’t his and he’d never made anything in it. There’s a reason for that. Holly would grow up as a sign of Walter’s faults. That lab, where Walter’s body would be found surrounded by blue meth, would be a monument to his genius.
He won, but everyone else lost. Worse yet, he was happy with this resolution. The transformation was complete.
Overall Final Thoughts
Liam: Breaking Bad had immense pressure on it as a result of some many shows’ inconsistent final acts. For me, it seriously stuck the landing. It allowed Walt to correct some of his mistakes without escaping them – literally killed by his own invention and plot, in the same manner that he killed his conscience by cooking meth. It seamlessly fused the many tones the show has exhibited throughout its run, everything from black comedy to heart-rending dramatic darkness. It was always Walter White’s story and it told that most completely, but everyone had their send-off, ambiguous as some of them were.
Colin: I want to start this off with something important: when Walt walked away from Gretchen and Elliot, I said, jokingly to the handful of friends I watched it with, “it’s gonna be Badger and Skinny Pete with laser pointers.” I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life.
Liam: Total show-off. His story was plausible enough that I thought “shit, real hitmen,” but I’m glad I was wrong.
Colin: I’m so glad Badger and Skinny Pete returned and ended up playing an important role. A lot of people have pointed out the lack of depth in their dialogue about how they felt “morality-wise,” but I like how they enlightened Walter to the fact that most methheads thought Heisenberg was producing blue meth, even with the entire world looking for him. This was important, because Jesse doesn’t want to be known for a “meth empire” – he once asked Walter if it was even something to be proud of. Walt, meanwhile, still has a chance to cement his legacy. It’s important that Heisenberg lived on against Walt’s will, because it gave him motivation for this last string of events.
Secondly, consider reading Emily Nussbaum’s review in The New Yorker. Her basic theory is that the entire episode was Walter’s dream in his last moments, as he actually froze to death in that Volvo in New Hampshire. To support this, she cites how perfectly everything went – the keys falling into Walter’s hand, the Fonzie-like bump to clear snow off the window, his ability to outsmart police surveillance outside Skyler’s apartment, and the Nazis’ unnecessary dramatics when murdering him. It’s an OK theory, but I’m glad the episode didn’t do it on purpose, closing with a shot of Walter frozen in the car. It’d be even more selfish if Walter were to dream it up that way. In the world he imagines, he gets his revenge and “redemption” while his family ends up with the short end of the stick. If he were dreaming it, why wouldn’t he dream up a slightly bigger apartment or some newer appliances for Skyler and his family?
Liam: If they’d gone all St. Elsewhere on people for real, can you imagine the tweets that would ensue? There’d be a fake account within minutes of airtime, much like @redweddingtears. Honestly, Vince Trilligan himself would prooooobably be receiving death threats.
Colin: I don’t think any of that really matters. Is it that hard to believe he was able to operate without being caught? Whitey Bulger spent decades on the loose, and claimed that after going off the grid he walked in and out of South Boston whenever he wanted. If you’re going to nitpick anything on Breaking Bad, this shouldn’t be it.
In general, I was definitely satisfied with the finale. But I’ve been thinking about the idea of a series finale all week, and it seems strange to me. I don’t like the build-up from fans, and I’m more guilty of it than most. I feel like we’re demanding to be satisfied, when the show doesn’t owe us anything.
We didn’t get into this show because we wanted to see a good finale. We hadn’t even thought about it until AMC told us it would happen. We were entertained, consistently, for almost six years. You don’t get that from anything but TV shows on the golden-age level, like The Wire or The Sopranos. Even the Yankees have a bad season once in a while. A truly great TV show doesn’t.
That’s why I feel bad for Damon Lindelof. He still hears about the end of Lost every day. And if you were upset with it, cool. It’s got to be frustrating to be dissatisfied with the end of a story you’d invested in for so long. But you can’t say it ruined the entire show for you. It reminds me of one of my biggest sports pet peeves. Some Patriots fans, for example, criticize the team because they haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004, even though they’ve been in the playoffs in all but one season since then. Your team doesn’t have to make the playoffs. Those are extra games that a lot of people (Bills fans, Browns fans) almost never get to see. We sound selfish complaining that the way something ends isn’t perfect. Good enough is never good enough.
I’m glad Vince Gilligan anticipated this, and crafted a finale that was sure to satisfy most fans. He kinda played it safe, and I don’t blame him. More than anything, I’m relieved, because if it hadn’t gone well, we’d hear about it for years to come, the same way people still complain about The Sopranos to this day. Like a wise man once said, “It’s over. Find a new show.”
Liam: By a wise man you mean “a rotund Hawaiian in the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but I like that movie, so no worries.
I’m unfortunately one of those people who sort of complain about bad finales or final seasons, and almost wrote a whole paragraph detailing every semi-lackluster or bad one among the great shows – Sopranos, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The only perfect finales I ever saw were OZ and Friday Night Lights.
This one, though…it came close enough that I’m fully satisfied. Would’ve liked a bit more certain closure for Jesse Pinkman, because I’ve never identified emotionally with a character more than I did with him. I hope that in whatever fictional universe he’s in, he got truly free. But everything else was well-handled. I didn’t mind that he said nothing else to Flynn/Walt Jr. – the kid’s better off not knowing. The Skyler scene was appropriately short – all Walt had to do was be honest with her, and he was, even though it was ultimately selfish, like everything else he did.
And although it may have been tonally odd following the Cormac McCarthy-esque horrors of “To’hajilee,” “Ozymandias” and “Granite State,” “Felina” was a succession of blackly comic capers that remained in sync with what the show had always been. We initially thrilled to the “YEAH SCIENCE!” satisfaction of seeing the M-60 contraption slaughter the Nazis, because WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEEING NAZIS DIE HORRIBLY? (Seeing Todd die horribly was also satisfying, but the smartly-deployed throat-crushing sound effect prevented me from enjoying it, rightly so – fictionalized violence in drama should always be unsettling even when it’s people we hate who are dying.)
But like everything else – as Colin made clear – those plots only allowed Walt to truly succeed. We’ll never know if Jesse makes it somewhere safe, or if Skyler and Flynn and Marie and Holly manage to have lives that aren’t completely miserable. The life and death of Walter White/Heisenberg/Mr. Lambert wrought nothing but havoc to those connected to it, family, enemies and innocent bystanders alike. As Shelley wrote in his poem, “Nothing beside remains, ’round the decay of that colossal wreck.”
God, what a motherfuckin’ ride. For my money, only The Wire has this series beat, and like that show, Breaking Bad never faltered, never flinched away from the initial dark promise of its vision.