There are only a handful of modern television shows whose finales seemed to be anticipated as feverishly as “Felina,” last night’s closing episode of Breaking Bad. The last one I can remember was Lost’s, and the interest swirling around that finale was mostly borne out of a desire to have the program’s numerous mysteries “solved” (for good or ill, as it turned out). There was a bit of that happening over the past few months (Who was that ricin for? Who all was going to die? How would it all end?); some of the hype was at least partially due to how many people have come to the show late, within this final half-season even (as the stunning uptick in its recent ratings can attest). But Breaking Bad also had its own reputation to live up to. Throughout the show’s run, it has knocked the air out of viewers with stunning set pieces: Hank’s shoot-out in the parking lot, Walt’s vehicular homicide, the combustion of Gus Fring, right up to that desert shoot-out three weeks ago. To go out properly, the final Breaking Bad would have to equal those moments. Breaking Bad went out properly.
“Felina,” written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan, is in some ways disarmingly direct. After all, its entire narrative arc is found in the couplet that blasts from the Marty Robbins tune in the tape deck: “Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me/tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart.” The episode concerns Walt’s pursuit of that bullet, and his attempt to ease that pain on his way there. The question, which has been asked throughout the season but with particular urgency over the last couple of weeks, is the degree to which Walt might redeem himself on the way there—if such a thing were even possible. You might hear, in the discussions that will surround this quintessentially water-cooler program over the next few days, some disagreement over whether that was attempted, and whether it was accomplished. Both notions strike this viewer as dull and restrictive boxes to try to smash a morally intricate story into.
Because the episode—and the series, really—is full of little bait and switches, moments where Gilligan, who has truly become one of the medium’s great storytellers, gets us thinking one way, and then blindsides us. Last week’s episode seemed to end with Walt back in bloodthirsty mode, the television appearance of Gretchen and Elliot triggering his anger and pride. The thick dread of this desperate man with nothing to lose slinking into their swanky digs as they chatter obliviously seems the setup for terror or bloodshed, but it turns out their appearance prompted merely a good idea, a new way to get his remaining millions to his children. So is a partial redemption still possible? And then, in a truly excellent double reverse, the violence we first expected and then are lulled away from reveals itself in an instant. And then the worm turns again. (Fare the well, Badger and Skinny Pete. Thing whole thing did, indeed, feel kinda shady, like, morality-wise; well said, good sir.)
The other major fake-out, it seems, was “Granite State”’s recasting of Walt as a powerless, neutered shell of his former self. His inability to browbeat Saul (Saul!) or even to make it out of his own Unabomber cabin seemed to indicate that he just didn’t have the danger in him anymore—which, in turn, lends genuine suspense to whether he’ll actually accomplish whatever he’s planning with that M60 and the well-traveled ricin. Throughout his reign, his remarkable ability to think on his feet and some astonishing strokes of luck combined to get him out of several very shaky situations; as he sets up the remote arm, the question becomes: has his luck run out, or can he pull it off one more time? Or as Marie puts it: “That arrogant asshole thinks he’s some criminal mastermind, but he’s not.” Of course, by the time she says that, we’ve seen Lydia drink her last cup of hot tea.
Breaking Bad’s final fifteen minutes are, make no mistake about it, enormously satisfying television, with thickly cinematic tension (note: big foreground close-up of his keyfob, just out of reach, on the pool table) and psychological gamesmanship (Walt preys on Jack’s pride by calling him a liar, knowing from his own psyche that this is the button to push) culminating in a shower of bullets and bloodshed. Of course fucking Todd survives, that cockroach, but only briefly, and I don’t think any one of us would begrudge Jesse the animalistic dispatching of that sociopath (albeit one with admirably witty taste in ringtones). Yet the curt manner with which Walt cuts off Uncle Jack in mid-bargain underscores the revelation of the episode’s emotional climax a few minutes earlier: Walt’s stunningly honest confession that, after all his pronouncements, he didn’t do it for his family after all. “I did it for me,” he admits. “I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was… really… I was alive.”
Coming to terms with that deep, dark, terrible truth within himself is what he must do before he heads off to the “clubhouse” on what he knows may be a suicide mission. There has already been some niggling that Gilligan tried to turn Walt back into a “good guy” at the eleventh hour, that he somehow sopped to those strange souls who were hoping Walt would still “win” (whatever the hell that means), but that’s insanity; anyone who thinks Walt “won” should recall his expression as he says goodbye to the daughter he’ll never know, the full weight of what he’s lost flashing across his face as he leans over that crib, and he leaves wordlessly. Yes, he finds a way to take financial care of his children; yes, he saves the life of his surrogate son (the complex mix of joy and pain in Jesse’s barbaric yawp as he drives away is one of Aaron Paul’s finest acting moments in a series lousy with them). But he is still, when you get down to it, a man destroyed by his own hubris, and by his decision to do something that he knew was wrong simply because he was good at it. And that’s why he spends his final moments on earth checking out Jesse and Todd’s lab, a strangely pleased look on his face, a teacher proud of his students. “Guess I got/ what I deserved,” sings Badfinger, as Walter White takes his final tumble. You got that right.