Breaking Bad’s series finale, “Felina,” fulfills the implications of last week’s “Granite State,” which restored Walt (Bryan Cranston) to us as a proletariat avenger, and the truly shocking element of this episode is its sentimentality. Writer-director and creator Vince Gilligan, who occasionally appears to forget how far Walt has drifted over the years into the realms of the self-absorbed, crazy, and downright cold-blooded, strives to toe a line that waffles between providing heartwarming closure and often formulaic catharsis. “Felina” offers an abundance of riches despite its flaws, but if fans feel a little hung over this morning after the intense speculation and anticipation, it’s for two reasons: Firstly, the usual unfair reasons with which a series finale has to contend with failing to embody the whims of our private imaginations, and, secondly, because Gilligan briefly boiled much of the ambivalence out of his wonderful series. Or simply: Walt became a good guy unencumbered by the rich ironic context with which Breaking Bad has so often excelled.
I hate to sound so bourgeoisie in my allegiance to conventionality, but good guys don’t bomb nursing homes. They don’t frame other bad guys for attempts on children’s lives or kill a countless number of innocent people either. They certainly don’t rope troubled former students into stewing up drugs for them. At times, “Felina” forgets that Walt has perpetrated acts every bit as disgusting as those which he goes about avenging in the episode’s final minutes. Gilligan indulges one of the oldest manipulative dramatic sleights of hand, one that’s commonplace of the vigilante film: He divorces his hero of responsibility for his actions by stacking him against opponents who’re too overtly disgusting to invite much concern over. Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and Todd (Jesse Plemons) are Nazis with a prisoner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), in their basement, after all, and Walt is their agent of reckoning.
On the program, Talking Bad, that immediately followed the episode, Gilligan tellingly listed The Searchers as an inspiration for “Felina,” and it shows. Walt, who’s wanted to kill Jesse for the last several episodes, finds that he can’t bring himself to off his former partner when he sees what the Nazis have allowed to become of him. Jesse’s obvious bedraggled misery reaffirms his humanity in Walt’s eyes, and the latter invites the former to kill him in the episode’s finest and most resonant moment. Flexing his hard-won sense of self, Jesse tells Walt to own the fact that Walt wants to die for his own reasons, not to provide Jesse with a sense of closure, and, in a beautiful moment of self-awareness, Walt concedes this assertion. Jesse tells Walt to kill himself, then, in an exchange that perversely fulfills the traditional coming-of-age obligation of the devoted teacher/troubled-student narrative that Breaking Bad superficially resembles.
“Felina” could’ve used more moments that allow us to see Walt as a perverse doomed hero while also fully allowing us to process the severe amount of damage that his escapades have wrought. The theme of the episode is atonement: Walt finally casts his selfless pretense aside and admits to everyone, particularly himself, that his actions were committed for his own interior reasons, not for “his family” as he was so fond of claiming. In another beautiful moment, Walt admits to Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he never felt so alive as when he was cooking meth, a sentiment that supports the notion, perhaps too directly, that Walt was acting out of a misplaced, and deranged sense of anger over the metaphorical castration his poverty represented, particularly considering the success his ex-friends, Elliot (Adam Godley) and Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht), enjoyed with their company Gray Matter, for which Walt had provided much of the initiating intellectual foundation.
The Schwartz arc is also paid off, in a fashion that’s deeply ironic as well as troubling in this new light of Walt as a conventional doomed hero. It seems fitting that Walt would finally find a way to give his money back to his family by laundering it through the Schwartzes as a trust fund for Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), as that serves to effectively moot most of Walt’s real reasons for getting into the meth business to begin with. Walt violently chafed, if you recall, at Gretchen’s offer to help him financially near the beginning of the series, and so this new scheme constitutes a dawning awareness and diminishing of pride on Walt’s part: Walt’s finally tending to the important at the expense of the larger egotistical pissing contest that’s destroyed him.
Thematically, then, the moment with the Schwartzes is fitting, but the execution is off; for once Gilligan doesn’t seem to be aware of the full range of ironies he’s playing with, as he too heavily favors the idea of the scene as a conventional payback catharsis. Walt wields considerable power over the Schwartzes in this scene, as he threatens them in classic Walt fashion with the implication of professional hits should they fail to meet his demands. Disappointingly, we aren’t allowed to feel the Schwartzes’ pain in the slightest: They’re traditional rich saps in this beat, and while everything we’ve been told about this power couple would reasonably lead us to believe that they’re smugly hypocritical schmucks, empathy for their plight as Walt commits a potentially catastrophic invasion upon them would’ve been, not only reasonable, but necessary.
This scene’s problems are compounded by its flip, fan-pandering, checking off the checklist punchline: The assassins training their laser sights on the Schwartzes are revealed to be Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). Why would Walt, who correctly regarded all of Jesse’s associates as morons, trust them with such a sensitive and important assignment? Blossoming sentimentality toward Jesse, whom he may be aiming to consciously rescue, even at this point? Maybe, but I don’t buy it: Badger and Skinny Pete are obvious Easter eggs and a creaky plot necessity.
If I sound nitpicky, it’s because Breaking Bad, particularly in its otherwise finest season, achieved the stature of a true contemporary American tragedy; a friend on Facebook isn’t being hyperbolic when she says this is the closest our generation has come to a Citizen Kane. Both are narratives that track, often ruthlessly, the price of that most American of human foibles: the compulsion to realize a personal fulfillment regardless of its attendant costs. Walt’s a brilliant man without a vehicle with which to nurture that brilliance, and the bitterness he felt at his understandable perception of the waste of his talents connects directly with the frustrations so many of the American working class feel as their responsibilities and compensations are relentlessly whittled away. Walt’s such a chilling character because we felt for him even at his most debased and disgusting: He’s the specter of the perversions of an American dream that most of us can’t help but still partially believe in at the cost of our potentially greater personal and social realizations.
Which is why it’s disappointing to see “Felina” so often resort to genre hijinks that are, at best, thematically tidy and, at worst, completely insensitive to the severity of the social ramifications of Walt’s campaigns over the years. One of the ironies of “Felina” is that it portrays Walt’s blossoming social awareness at the expense of its own: All of the speeches and redemption cheapen the mysteries and resonances the series was otherwise clever enough to impart to us seemingly indirectly. The Sopranos was mentioned last night on Talking Bad as well, and that’s fitting too, as that show’s controversial and flawed but ambitious and admirable conclusion casts a pall over “Felina”: Gilligan is clearly aiming not to be similarly accused by fans of fucking things up.
“Felina” is still a tense, unsettling piece of work, an almost self-contained thriller that ties you up in anticipatory knots. I took more pleasure than I probably should have in the ultimate pay-off to the long-running ricin plot strand, which concludes with Walt fatally poisoning Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), that despicable operator who embodied the worst of Walt’s propensities for farming out the dirty end of his work. And Uncle Jack affords Gilligan the opportunity to fulfill his western motif while parodying hubris one last time, as the Nazi outlaw’s misplaced sense of pride ultimately dooms him. Walt accuses Jack of taking Jesse in as a partner, therefore betraying their original contract for the latter’s murder, and Jack, for some unknown reason that scans as both logical and poetic, feels the need to disabuse his intended victim of this misapprehension. This indulgence triggers the last of Walt’s famous do-it-yourself home-remedy assault stunts, as that huge gun we saw him purchasing at a diner at the beginning of the season is revealed to have been rigged as a lethal jack-in-the-box that pops out of the trunk of Walt’s car and proceeds to level the compound. Afterward, the wounded Jack attempts to barter for his own life with the millions he stole from Walt, but there’s no negotiating with the teacher-turned-death-dealer—not now, not anymore.
However bumpy the ride, “Felina” concludes the series on a perfect note of ironic melancholia with Walt dying in a meth lab (as Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” astutely plays on the soundtrack), a setting which represented both his downfall as well as his own sociopathic grab at glory and self-respect. There’s a brief image of blood on one of the steel (read: gray) chrome gas tanks that succinctly literalizes the cost of Walt’s quest to trump Gray Matter, and this serves to unsettle the convenience of some of the episode’s earlier platitudes about Walt’s remorse. Because part of Walt’s tragedy is that he can’t truly feel remorse, not deep in his bones, as he’s too preoccupied with a quest of, to paraphrase a famous line from Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, being able to walk into his house one day justified. As he dies, Walt is briefly the man he’s always hated himself for not being: a man fulfilled, content, exactly where he’s supposed to be the moment he’s supposed to be there.
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