Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Finale

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(Note: This post will contain spoilers.)

Immediately following the conclusion of the Breaking Bad series finale, I texted a friend of mine (the same friend I called when I thought my cable went out at the Sopranos series finale). I asked my friend a simple, three word question.

“Greatest finale ever?”

The answer, of course, is that a question like that can’t be answered immediately after the fact. The episode must be given time to settle. The initial reaction must subside to make way for the nitpicking to begin. Then, after the last nit has been picked, the true value of the finale (and sometimes the series as a whole) begins to shine through. The whole process usually takes about a week. After the Sopranos, I was viscerally angry for about two days. I couldn’t understand why David Chase decided to end his show in such a jarring way. I felt that I had been promised something that had not been delivered. That was the initial reaction. The nitpicking process, it would turn out, revealed the brilliance of Chase’s work. Was the ending befitting of the series as a whole? Probably not. I think that’s why people are still so angry about it. Was it a bad episode? No.

As it turns out, the first question is more important than the second. A finale must first suit the show it completes. Everything else, including whether or not the episode itself stands alone as great television, is secondary. It can be a fine line, and some shows will fail to stand on the right side of it.

It’s been three days since Breaking Bad ended. The initial reaction has washed away. The nitpicking, in some corners of the internet, has already begun. The general consensus among television writers seems to be that the finale was satisfactorily fitting of its series, but that it wasn’t a particularly great ending. And I probably agree with that. The episode will not be transcendent, nor did it lift up Breaking Bad to any heights it had not already reached. Breaking Bad was a top two or three show of all time before the finale, and by the time Walt lay there, dead, as Bad Finger’s “Baby Blue” played us out to the credits (with the lyric “I guess I got what i deserved,” no less) nothing had changed. Breaking Bad will always be on the pantheon of the greatest television series of all time.

But there were some nits.

In a way, the flaw with Breaking Bad’s finale is that the story wasn’t resolved in its contained episode. Rather, the final three episodes (“Ozymandias,” “Granite State,” and “Felina”) were the series’ denouement in three acts. Had AMC decided to air the final three episodes as one, three-hour event, it may very well have been the greatest anything in the history of ever. “Felina” wasn’t so much a resolution of the series as it was the resolution of the resolution of the series.

While we’re examining the dental records of the horse Vince Gilligan so generously gifted us, we were denied some of the catharsis we had been seeking ever since the point in the series where it became clear that Walt probably wouldn’t survive to the closing credits of the finale. I’m speaking, mainly, about the conversation between Walt and Jesse, the one where everything got laid out on the table. It never happened. So much time had been spent with these two characters tolerating, liking, and eventually hating each other, that a simple nod between ex-partners seems like it wasn’t the proper send off to that relationship. It seemed as though, in its final season, the relationship between Walt and Skyler replaced the one between Walt and Jesse as the most important of the series.

In fact, Jesse’s entire final season seemed all too brief. The little time we did get with Jesse was spent with him in a catatonic state that he only really snapped out of for about an episode (when he realized that Walt poisoned Brock). I wouldn’t go so far as to say Jesse seemed like an afterthought to this season, but he certainly felt like a nuisance the writers had to keep paying attention to.

There were other problems (Why would anyone leave the keys to their unlocked car behind the visor? Did Walt memorize Badger and Skinny Pete’s phone numbers? How did Walt get the ricin in Lydia’s stevia packet? How did Walt know where Lydia would sit in the cafe (It was a table she’d never sat at before in the show)? Would Uncle Jack really take the time to trot Jesse out in front of Walt, when the whole point all along was to kill Walt in the next minute anyway? Why do Elliott and Gretchen still live in New Mexico? Does the DEA just not stake out the rear entrances of houses?) but to flesh them out seems petty, especially when the amount of chance and luck involved in making Walt’s plan work was pretty much in line with every other master plan Walt’s ever needed to work throughout the duration of the series.

This isn’t all to say that “Felina” wasn’t a great episode of television. It was. The conversation between Walt and Skyler, when Walt finally admits to her, and to himself (not to mention all the Walt-ophiles who supported his every action because “he was doing it for his family”) that he did everything for himself, because he liked it, and because it made him feel alive was, for me, the crowning moment of the final episode, and maybe the entire series. I’ve read some critics say that Walt’s sudden self-awareness didn’t feel earned, but I think he’s known all along who he built his empire for. Notice, it was only when he was afraid he might die of cancer that he ever invoked his family. When he was no longer afraid of his fate, the shroud of his greatest lie fell away.

So, “Greatest finale ever?” No.

As far as finales go, “Felina” was satisfying, well-made, brilliantly acted, and in line with the rest of the series. And that’s good enough. Vince Gilligan didn’t abandon the qualities of the show that made it worthy of following to the end in the first place, which can’t be said for all series finales. The final eight episodes of the series are quite possibly the best eight episode run by any series in the history of television, and “Felina” did nothing to bring that run down. I have the sneaking suspicion, however, that four or five years from now, we’ll remember flashes of this finale – Walt’s “I did it for me” speech, the Rube Goldbergian M60 making Swiss cheese of Jack and his merry band of Nazis – and little else.

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