Essay: How 'Breaking Bad' cheated its way to a grandly cynical finale

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Walter White’s personal Fall myth was Gray Matter, the tech/research company he founded with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz. In the first season, we learned that Walt sold his stake in the company for $5,000 in the early days; we don’t know why. He had been in love with Gretchen; they were a couple; then something happened. After Walter was diagnosed with cancer, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz offered him a good job with great benefits that would have paid for his cancer treatments. He turned it down. Why? Maybe because Walt was certain he was going to die and was more interested in quickly making a nest egg for his family instead of prolonging his life; maybe because of pride. Whenever Walt spoke further of Gray Matter (which was rare), he implied he had been screwed by the Schwartzes, a narrative that was either a lie or spoke to facts not yet in evidence.  Our inclination was to pull out the world’s tiniest violin and mock his whining. I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum high school chemistry teacher-turned-murdering meth maven! Boo-hoo-hooey.

Gray Matter and everything it meant to Walt — including, ultimately, his call to action for his last “heroic” action in the series — always bugged me. Cranston could make me believe in every part of Walt in any given episode, but this part of him, his relationship to his murky What-Coulda-Been past, always fell apart on me upon reflection. I can buy that Walt turned down the job, for whatever reason. But making it the catalyst for diving deeper into the meth business as part of some grossly misguided second chance to prove his worth as a genius empire-builder? As much as I love the denial of death/immortality project of it all, it felt unfair to me if not implausible that Breaking Bad never let that old wound heal. It also felt like a cliche. These kinds of “issues” and motivations have become commonplace in this Golden Age of Drama, from The Sopranos to Lost to Mad Men to Dexter: People fueled by past damage, incapable of escaping historical patterns of behavior, flailing desperately for catharsis that can cure them and free them and remake them into moral, fully realized people. It’s fascinating how much audiences love/hate this characterization, how much they seem to both desire and doubt “redemption.” The Sopranos, Lost, and Breaking Bad (and currently, Mad Men) spent their long runs dangling the prospect of positive, healing change in front of its characters and audience like a carrot on a stick. We chased that bait into the depths of character depravity and across time and space. The Sopranos routinely denied Tony and his family this change — and us, closure — to polarizing effect, although now, for the most, we all applaud that final cut-to-black as intellectually tough. The message: It didn’t matter what happened next; the Sopranos were never going to change. Lost allowed the castaways countless shots at redemption, both in life on The Island, and in death in the Sideways world purgatory, all in service of making a point about the unfairness of Divine Judgments for souls stuck in an ambiguous, not-yet-fully-discovered universe. Or so I would argue. Some were inspired. Others barfed. We debate its merits still.

What we want from serialized dramas that concern themselves so much about good and evil, morality and ethics, redemption and damnation, is change we can believe in. When storytellers resort to cheats and reductive psychology or punt to generic fate and ambiguity in the process of getting to the ending that feels correct to them, they risk jeopardizing the project of tracking characters over time and tainting the final form of the story, that being that thing that lives in your memory. When I look back on a show I spent years watching and loving, I want to recall and feel what was beautiful and fun about it. I don’t want to be thinking: “Man, that just didn’t add up.” Or, to paraphrase Walt: “All of that, for nothing.”

Breaking Bad flirted with this kind of disaster during its final season, and never more so than in its penultimate episode, “Granite State.” Just when it seemed that Breaking Bad had completely forgotten about Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz reared their provoking heads at the worst possible moment for Walt, because it took away his best possible moment. Let’s talk it through.

The plot of “Granite State” finds Walter hiding out in a cabin in the New Hampshire mountains. His lung cancer is starting to kick his ass toward the grave. He should heed the counsel of Robert Forster’s ferryman and stay put in his snowbound limbo. He should make like the Cynics and commune with nature, apply his tremendous powers of reason toward introspection, clean his smoky soul. But he can’t bare to be alone with himself, and when his wedding ring slips from his withering finger, reminding him of his dwindling mortality, he puts on the black hat and runs. He has to take one last Hail Mary shot at legacy, at fulfilling his immortality project, which in the back half of season 5 has been symbolized by his selfish desire to leave his family his worldly treasure, his Meth millions. “All of this can’t be for nothing.”

Walter comes down from the mountain with a portion of the cash packed in a box and finds his way to a bar. He calls Walt Jr. and tells him he wants to get him the parcel by mailing it to an intermediary. Walt Jr. — the closest thing to a virtuous character in this show — rejects Walt’s blood money and rebukes him. Get behind me, Satan-Daddy! Just die, already!

Shamed, Walt decides to do an honorable thing, an even better thing than hiding out from justice in the mountains: He calls the DEA, gives up his location, and waits for his reckoning. It’s a petulant surrender, for sure. I do not dare call it “redemption.” But this self-justifying monster is submitting to judgment against him and punishment by law: It is a victory for moral virtue. A small one. But a good one. Let him have it.

But no. Breaking Bad‘s finger of cynical fate intrudes. Walt takes a seat at the bar. He sees something on the television as he’s drinking and as the bartender is clicking through the channels. It’s Charlie Rose. The guests are Elliott and Gretchen, who, as we know, embody Walt’s fatal flaw: jealousy. It provokes him to immoral action the same way that, say, Marty McFly got provoked to reckless action any time anyone called him “chicken.” Walt’s weakness is exactly that credible and exactly that reductive. Or so this scene makes it seem.

Walt listens to Elliott and Gretchen tell Charlie that they are donating millions to drug treatment programs in New Mexico. He listens to them insist that their philanthropy has nothing to do with shoring up their falling stock price due to Gray Matter’s association with White. He listens to them say that Walt gave little to Gray Matter beyond half of its name. He listens to Charlie drop a nugget of intel that he didn’t know until now: that Blue Sky was back on the street. Someone had stolen his awful greatness; had robbed him and replaced him. Gray Matter all over again. Finally, he hears Gretchen — his ex-lover; the one who got away — say: “The sweet, kind man we once knew? He’s gone.” Something stirs within Walt. The police arrive, but Walt is not there.

This crap-luck Charlie Rose moment was The Last Temptation of Walt. And to quote a certain knight of a better crusade: He chose… poooooorly. It was also another contrived coincidence, another example of Breaking Bad‘s demonic Fate goading him to indulge his demons, to do the wrong thing, to believe that he was and could be nothing more than Heisenberg. Worse: It sabotaged his meager morsel of redemption.

And so we got the cynicalpalooza of the series finale. It was a transporting hour of artfully crafted escapism about a man who got to exit his gone-rotten life living an action hero fantasy and playing Ironic Christ, setting captives free, shaming moral hypocrites and destroying evil, and insuring happily ever after for the ones he loved the most. I emphasize “ironic.” To be clear: I do not believe Walter earned “redemption.” What does that term even mean? What does that look like? Did a couple “good” acts and some long overdue honesty at the end of a very long run of wrong and deceit atone for and effectively purge from the psycho-spiritual-historical record all of Walt’s sins? Of course not. And apart from a hint of a gracious smirk from Jesse at the end, I don’t think the finale offered Walt any real exoneration or absolution. The show allowed Walt to die thinking he had accomplished something — leaving treasure for his family, a treasure which the show made clear was not only unwanted but immoral — but that is not the same thing affirmation. Gilligan prosecuted a compelling case against Walt; now, we render the verdict. I enjoyed the finale while I was watching it, and the more I think about it, the more I like it even better. I don’t know what it said, if anything, about human nature. But it felt true to Walt, and true to the series. I may not have always admired how Breaking Bad got to its finale in its last season, but the finale itself felt, for the most part, correct.

We got the Schwartz stuff out of the way quickly, and cleverly. Walt got to parade his fat stacks to the Schwartzes — proof that he was every bit as “good” as them — and bullied them into becoming partners in a conspiracy to get the cash to Junior when he turned 18, under the guise of a donation from a benefactor. Interesting: Were we supposed to conclude that Gretchen and Elliott really did screw him over back in the day? “Cheer up, beautiful people,” he said. “Here is where you get to make it right.” Gretchen and Elliott were not given the chance to respond. I didn’t read the line as a slam against the wealthy in general; I read it as an expression of Walt’s view that — contrary to what the Schwartzes told Charlie Rose — these rich people owed their wealth to his ideas. “Here is where you get to make it right” = “You can repay me for the life I made for you and for the credit you’ve denied me by executing my living (but not for long) will.”

But make no mistake: Walt’s will was wicked. His family didn’t want his blood money. Saying no to Walt’s ill-gotten riches was their attempt to salvage and redeem their lives with a virtuous choice — by breaking good. How dare he desecrate that heroic project and rape their meaning by forcing his vile legacy and his meaning upon them!

Walt then proceeded to take down the Meth empire (put THAT into your anti-drug crusade pipe and smoke it, Schwartzes!), but for all the wrong reasons (pride), and with the most extreme and immoral of ways. Murdering Lydia. Slaughtering Uncle Jack and his men. The law could have taken them out, and in a better fashion. But Walt got the visceral satisfaction of vengeance (but did he deserve it?), and anyway, like Walt gives a crap about “the law.”

Walt liberated Jesse, maybe because it was the right thing to do, but also because his plan, as conceived, required someone to do what he didn’t have the balls to do himself: Put a bullet through his brain. This facilitated a very nice moment for Jesse, who got a chance to make a choice about his own personal meaning and break toward good by throwing aside the gun, completing the arc that began with his coerced assassination of Gale with a redemptive mirror moment. Yet Jesse was incorrect when he told Walt that he was done doing what Walt wanted him to do. By refusing to kill Mr. White, Jesse was fulfilling the great moral command that Mr. White gave him back in high school: “APPLY YOURSELF.” But Jesse also got to turn it back on him too. You want death? Apply YOURSELF, bitch! The student had become the teacher.

Is it possible that Walt was hip to these ironies and how significant all of this might have been for Jesse? We’ll be debating that one for years, most likely in the context of the larger question that I suspect fans will be debating and arguing over for years to come: Did Walt redeem himself even a little bit in the finale?

Question: Who killed Walter White? It wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t murder. And it wasn’t suicide. He died from a bullet fired from the product of his own evil genius, a machine gun mounted on a garage door opener. But it wasn’t a direct strike: The bullet was one of many, sprayed randomly, that (I think?) hit him off a ricochet. He died… by accident? By incidental precipitant of the epic chemistry experiment that transmuted Walt into Heisenberg? By Fate? By contrived coincidence? By… Vince Gilligan, the God of this universe, taking responsibility for his creation and putting this rabid dog out of his misery?

Regardless, Walt got a great parting gift: He went into the abyss with all of his heroic, great-man delusions intact, feeling proud that he had built something as beautiful as Jesse’s pinewood box. Consider it a reward for five years of breaking bad for our amusement. Well done, my good and faithful servant. I guess you got what you deserved.

Goodbye, Walter White, you dirty little cheater. You made me think. You made me feel. You made me mad. You made me look at myself. And you made me mad again. You weren’t perfect. But 92 percent pure ain’t shabby. That’s Breaking Bad. And oh, the humanity!

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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