Season 5, Episode 16
Just to state the obvious - this article contains spoilers about the final episode of Breaking Bad.
Creator Vince Gilligan said the finalé of Breaking Bad would be polarizing. But at around 9PM CST, I swear I could hear a spontaneous cry of elation as Jesse wrapped his shackles around the throat of his baby-faced, dead-eyed, child-killing captor Todd and squeezed the life out of him. It was the payoff the vast majority of fans wanted, especially since it was at the hands of a character you hoped would walk away from the inevitable carnage of the final episode.
The finalé certainly took its time building up to the bullet-spraying catharsis audiences wanted to reign down on the white supremacist crew who were the antithesis of Gus Fring’s cool, level-headed calm. The show opens with Walter in a frosted-out Volvo in New Hampshire. Even bathed in blue-and-red police lights, we know Walter will make it to New Mexico to retrieve his ricin from his trashed Albuquerque home. It’s the one time in the finalé where we’re certain, this time, Walter will walk away unscathed.
The slow pacing of the first 45 minutes may madden some fans. A half-hour goes by and minor characters Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz are confronted by Walt and his $9.75 million. Before Gretchen can call the cops, two red lasers flash on hers and Elliott’s chest. For a second, you buy Walt’s bluff—it’s the work of hit men who will off Gretchen and Elliott when they least expect it if Walt Jr. doesn’t get his millions on his 18th birthday. Then, Gilligan starts handing out gifts to his fans, namely with a final appearance not by cold, efficient hitmen, but by affable, sci-fi obsessed Skinny Pete and Badger.
The gifts continue as the answer to “What will Walt do with the final vial of ricin?” question is answered at the hands of Lydia ,who tears open the last packet of Stevia and unknowingly pours her comeuppance into her chamomile tea.
As savory as these moments are, it’s likely fans are looking at their watches nervously as the time window to tie up any loose ends gets narrower. But under the careful direction of Vince Gilligan, the audience is still rewarded with a patient meeting between Walt and Skyler. Just as audiences are about to finish Walt’s sentence “Everything I did I… “, Skyler cuts Walt off, saying she doesn’twant to hear the predictable “I did it for you” bullshit justification. Anna Gunn’s dead-eyed, numbed response is enough to justify her well-deserved Emmy win. But Walt finally came clean after five seasons of denial, declaring all of this was done for him.
Even with a racing clock, Gilligan provides ample breathing room for the final 15 minutes. After Walter’s jerry-rigged automatic weapons made waste of Jesse’s captors, viewers are given the final showdown of Walt and Jesse. Fortunately, viewers aren’t given a “guns drawn” standoff between the two. Instead, Jesse leaves Walt in his “home”.
Just like Sam Malone chose to return to his “home” in Cheers, Walt proudly walks through what he created. His legacy. Today, “Felina” may be criticized by not offering enough surprises, but the thing about surprises is that it only works for the first viewing. What was sacrificed in unpredictability, Gilligan more than made up for in staying true to the characters’ behaviors.
Now Breaking Bad is in the history books. And after the near constant media barrage during the last month and the countless Tweets and parodies, it’s hard to imagine another current show that can capture the national zeitgeist like Breaking Bad. The main reason for this isn’t the cathartic explosions of violence Walter White iss capable of, but because of the insanely believable characters Vince Gilligan crafted.
Hank may not be everyone’s favorite character, but he’s the one that’s most likely to resemble who we are: well-intentioned, occasionally annoying, capable of moments of brilliance, but usually overshadowed by someone who is smarter. In the past three seasons, Jesse has shown sometimes the moral compass of a foul-mouthed drug addict can be stronger than a society-approved esteemed high school teacher. And going back to the pilot episode, Walter White’s dilemma personified our healthcare debate as the paycheck-to-paycheck high school teacher was faced with having to come up enough money to offset the tens of thousands of dollars it was going to cost his family after he was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
For as well acted and plotted as Mad Men is, because of its premise, it still feels like you’re watching it behind a red rope at a museum. With Breaking Bad, you’re pulled directly into its universe. You’re cowering in the backseat with Walt as Todd’s body-armored clad white supremacist family unloads hundreds of rounds at Hank and Steve Gomez. You’re in Walt’s cobweb-infested crawlspace as he discovers his only way of escaping Gus’ wrath evaporated when almost all of his money was sent to the guy who slept with his wife. And your in Lydia’s room, beside her, as she’s told that what she thought was a stubborn flu was actually a fatal dose of ricin.
Even before the finalé, I concluded that Breaking Bad had bested both The Sopranos and The Wire as the best drama in television. The Wire continues to be the definitive look at how our legal and criminal system is broken, but that series was slightly hampered by a problematic fifth season that was plagued by a few ill-chosen plot points (see the manufactured serial killer storyline). With Season 5, few can argue that Breaking Bad is exiting at a creative peak, thanks to the triple nerve-frying episodes “Rabid Dog”, “To’hajiilee”, and “Ozymandias”.
“Ozymandias” may have been Breaking Bad‘s peak episode, but “Felina” no doubt belongs in the “win” column for series finalés. Time will be best judgment whether it belongs on the shortlist of “best finalés of all time”, but the day after it aired, it gave Breaking Bad an ending that stands with the series’ best episodes.