“Felina” brought Breaking Bad to a close in the most perfect way imaginable. It squared each circle. It righted all the wrongs. Everything that had been done was undone. The pieces fit together. The keys were in the car. The car was in the compound. The gun was in the trunk. The cat was in the bag. And the bag’s in the river.
In the end, there was no art. Only science. And this was sort of the problem, wasn’t it? After five-plus years of watching everything break bad, the finale gave us 75 minutes of watching everything break just right. There was plenty of sweet coincidence and even sweeter revenge. The timing was deliberate, and immaculate. Where Heisenberg’s plans once rained down on Albuquerque with all the grace and subtlety of an exploded airliner, Walt’s endgame tumbled like dominoes. Everything, even the promised M60, fizzed and popped so perfectly it felt almost sterile. Walt — and at the end it was only Walt — finally got his clean lab, his pristine experiment. As he lay dying, surrounded by the beakers and tubes that were his most constant companions, he could smile and rest easy knowing that the purity of his last cook was 100 percent.
But was it equally satisfying? I’m not so sure. In many ways, the story of Breaking Bad ended last week: a dying, bitter man got away with murder; his punishment was surviving long enough to see his empire reduced to recriminations and dust. “Felina” gave Walt a chance for a rewrite and Vince Gilligan and his merry crew of chemists a chance to take every loose end remaining from the preceding 61 hours and tie them together in a decorative dragonfly knot. There weren’t many surprises — yes, the gun was for the Nazis; the ricin, now and forever, meant for Lydia — but there was closure. There’s been a great deal of talk these past few weeks about how Gilligan is a moralist, but I have to say, I have my doubts. After last night, I’d say he’s an aesthete, one who admires clean lines and elegant design above all else. In this, Jesse’s golden-hued woodworking fantasy seemed more like an OCD dream on loan from his creator than the actual imaginings of an imprisoned meth cook. Appreciating Breaking Bad is like appreciating architecture; its form is inseparable from its function.
To be clear: I admire this outrageous attention to detail! Gilligan’s achievement is just a different kind of beauty than what I’m used to. I’ve never been one to swoon at the interlocking exactitude of a fine wristwatch (like the one Walt left atop the pay phone, as if it were a signature in the corner of a painting) or the flawless symmetry of a snowflake (like the ones covering the window of the stolen miracle car, chilly crystals that obscured Walt from the flashing lights of the oncoming heat). I suppose on some level I prefer my fiction when it looks a little more like Walt himself did at the end of his story: shaggy, stumbling, reeking of bad living and worse choices. Even though he and Jesse engaged in an epic beard-off, the mechanism that reunited them was as smooth as their formerly bald heads. The only real moment of tension was whether Walt would be able to reach his car keys across the felt of a pool table. Once those were safely in his hand, the doors of fate were all too easily unlocked.
But to complain about these things now seems almost peevish. Breaking Bad has been obsessed with neatness and order from the beginning. It unfolded itself with such elegance and purpose that it’s difficult to imagine it leaving the scene any other way. “Felina” felt like the best kind of dinner guest, one who washes his own plates and sweeps under the table before leaving. (At times it felt like it even managed to unbutter its own bread.) Perhaps it’s a byproduct of Gilligan’s own Southern manners, but Breaking Bad, though shocking, never completely surprised: rather, it announced itself at nearly every turn. “Chemistry is the study of change,” Mr. White told his students at the start, and everything that followed did so accordingly. There was nothing in the final exam that hadn’t been covered in class. This was television as a science experiment: Every action had a purpose and, more important, it had an equal and opposite reaction.
And so, while it may have been tidy it was also unquestionably satisfying to see Walt use Gretchen and Elliott, the squeaky-clean former colleagues who screwed him out of millions, to launder Heisenberg’s dirty money. (The use of Badger and Skinny Pete as laser-pointing “snipers” was a rare bit of fan service, but one I’m more than willing to overlook. Pete even had a chance to recap the entire series in a manner much more economical than mine: “The whole thing felt kind of shady, moralitywise,” he said, speaking about what had just happened and, maybe, everything that had happened. Then Walt flashed some Franklins and made all his hesitation disappear.) The sugar-free dispatching of Lydia was plenty sweet, and while I usually abjure gun violence of any kind, I’m willing to make an allowance for gun violence against a room full of neo-Nazis. Especially ones who, upon gaining a windfall of more than $70 million, adjust their poisonous lifestyle only enough to allow the purchase of a massage chair from the 1987 edition of the Sharper Image catalogue. (I was actually impressed with Uncle Jack’s spiffy new look until I began to wonder if his eggplant crew neck was actually a present for himself or just something he stole from Marie’s house right along with Jesse’s confession DVD.)
Relating to Walter White was never easy, but, from the fulminated mercury to the great freight train robbery, one of Breaking Bad’s strengths was its ability to make even English majors swoon when its literal-minded protagonist pulled off yet another well-oiled bit of DIY ingenuity. That the rifle and the ricin were long foretold took little away from the kinetic pleasure of seeing them go off. In fact, Gilligan did Chekhov one better: Not only did the gun fire in the third act, it did so in the trunk, the exact same place it had been all along. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating: Breaking Bad, at its best, was a magician who shows you how the trick is done and dazzles you anyway because the real-life dexterity involved is much more impressive than any hocus-pocus could ever be.
I guess where I’m still hung up is that after seeing us through a transformation never before attempted on television — not just the tired “Mr. Chips to Scarface” thing, but the way Breaking Bad itself set like the sun throughout its lifespan, so that what began as a comedic frenzy ended with a season as dark as midnight — Gilligan and his writers suddenly seemed to invoke something other than chemistry to change things back. After successive weeks spent watching terrible things happen to non-terrible people, it was a little strange watching Walt tiptoe through the minefield he himself had laid: securing a hassle-free inheritance for Junior, getting revenge on those who had wronged him, and taking his greatest intellectual property with him to the grave — or perhaps it would be better to say, to his blue heaven.
Breaking Bad has always been unique among the great television dramas in that it never wavered, never digressed or dabbled in B-story; it was a show about Walter White, from beginning to end. This made our final glimpse of the show’s world remarkably pointed — Cranston, brilliant to the last, played this final iteration of Walter like some unholy combination of boomerang and machete — but also a little lonely. Anna Gunn earned her Emmy all over again with the pain and resignation on her face during her solitary scene, but even in that, Walt got the last word. Flynn was filmed respectfully, from a distance. By leaving Marie to grieve for Hank in peace, we never had a chance to grieve for him at all. And it’s now clear that the usefulness of Jesse Pinkman, once the unstable agent that sparked the entire show, had, like one of his ever-present cigarettes, long since burned out. Aaron Paul’s dialogue this season was almost nonexistent, his suffering utterly silent and his marginalization more or less complete. Still, it was a nice touch to give Jesse his agency back at the end: first by squeezing the life out of Todd and then by refusing to do the same favor for Walt. It’s impossible to guess just how far he’ll go or how he’ll manage to survive when (and if) he gets wherever it is he’s headed. (Alaska? Brock’s elementary school? That great Ed Hardy store in the sky?) But the visuals told a fine story: Jesse, a prisoner long before Todd chained him to the ceiling, was finally free. (His actual escape, while exuberant, seemed to me like an oddly timed promo for Need for Speed.)
I don’t know if “Felina” let Walt off too easy — I mean, he did die — but maybe it was too easy on us. In its final weeks, Breaking Bad had dipped its toes into the kind of muddy water nearly all popular entertainment does its best to avoid: one in which sentimentality and preexisting notions of justice played no part, one where breaking bad itself is an impossibility since everything was already so irreparably broken. And its audience was, for the most part, ready to dive right in with it and splash around. Instead, in the final hour, the show stayed high and dry, allowing Walt to pull off the happiest of all possible endings for himself. Like a critic, he was able to swoop in and point out his own failings. His final conversation with Skyler was magnificently staged and played, but it felt jarring to hear Walt say the words that those of us on this side of the screen had been repeating for months: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was … alive.” This level of self-awareness, like the teary good-bye to a sleeping baby Holly, struck me as undeserved.
In a world governed by Bunsen burners and scales it’s silly to talk of things being “deserved.” I’m not a judge. Walter White never even saw the inside of a courtroom. But still, it seemed both odd and at odds with everything that came before to see Walt redeemed like this. In the end, he really did outsmart everyone. Not to parse Pinkman’s proverbs, but wasn’t this a touch too much “Yeah, bitch!” at the expense of the science? All the swaggering outlaw clichés turned into Swiss cheese by agonizing, bullet-ridden episodes like “Ozymandias” were made whole again last night. The story of a man became, in its final hour, the story of a legend. It seems Walt’s hollow boast at the end of Season 4 was premature, not pathetic. In the end, he really did win.
That I don’t necessarily agree with this outcome is irrelevant. Scientists react to facts, not hopes and conjecture. And regardless of what this unprecedented, five-year experiment ultimately proved, its final result in no way invalidated the staggering originality of its approach, the bubbly cocktail of giddiness and dread that was its most addictive byproduct. Breaking Bad was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and it’s something I doubt we’ll experience again. Aligning all the elements that made it great, from actors, to writers, to that impossibly blue New Mexico sky, is unlikely to be repeated. Another series capturing the country’s imagination and its attention in such a way — transforming Sunday-night appointment viewing into a nationally calibrated heart attack — seems even more improbable. This sort of consistency and focus — in TV shows as in chicken kingpins — is rare, awe-inspiring, and, if we’re being honest, more than a little terrifying.
Breaking Bad wasn’t a procedural and it wasn’t (exactly) a period piece. It was a mystery box filled with working gears and expertly soldered wires. It grounded dizzying flights of visual fancy with a blue-collar love of process, a dedication to the solid, unglamorous work of getting a story from point A to point Crazy and back again. It was, at once, flammable and controlled, the charming Winnebago and the ruthless superlab. For good or bad, there was always a scientific method to its madness. This was a breathtaking, risky story that always remembered to keep its gas mask on, its hazmat suit zipped. In the end, as in the beginning, Breaking Bad was just too smart to go totally wild.