This review is written in some haste. Apologies for choppy writing.
Breaking Bad‘s finale aired last night, and at first, it felt a bit incomplete. There weren’t many surprises. The machine gun really was for Uncle Jack and his Nazi crew. The ricin actually did go into Lydia’s stevia. Walt died shortly after achieving what he needed to do– kill the remaining threats to his family, arrange his money to be given to his family, do his best to keep Skyler out of prosecution, and free Jesse. The finale was extremely tense, but everything went as it was supposed to. It was like the (intensely satisfying, and initially victimless) train heist “Dead Freight”– until Todd fucked it up and brought back the evil. Where was the horrible twist that everyone expected? There wasn’t one.
On reflection, I realized that that was the twist. Walt didn’t exactly “get away” with his crimes– he died alone in a meth lab, and his children will credit his ex-business partner for the benefit he’s conferred upon them. However, it was a happy ending, at least, as happy as it could be, given the horrors of the first 61 episodes. Let’s look at it:
- Eliot and Gretchen, who (regardless of the still unresolved backstory with Walt) didn’t deserve to die, lived.
- Walt finds an ingenious way to make sure the money will go to his children, as planned.
- No one more in Walt’s family died, and threats to them have been neutralized (machine-gunned, ricin-poisoned). Skyler has a good chance of escaping prosecution through cooperation (the coordinates).
- Walt was able to communicate, convincingly, to his wife that he didn’t kill Hank.
- Walt died at the height of competence, doing what he loved to do and achieving his goals brilliantly.
- At least for now, there will be no more blue meth in Albuquerque.
- Jesse went free.
It was as close to a happy ending as Breaking Bad could have, without losing credibility. (If Walt had lived another five years, or if Jesse and his family had forgiven him, that would break credibility). No more good guys died. That was the twist. The series is still, of course, a tragedy; tragedies can end happily (modulo the means, which are rarely justified by the ends) so long as they are pervaded with suffering.
So why did that happen? Here’s my theory.
Breaking Bad is fundamentally about a man and his lies. We don’t know, for sure, why his scientific career failed. In fact, he worked at Sandia for some time after his exit from Gray Matter, so he almost certainly can’t blame Eliot and Gretchen for his underachievement. Besides, all objective evidence the show gives is that they’re fundamentally good people; Eliot offered Walt a job. My best guess at why Walter failed? Impostor syndrome. To Walter, the excellent career he should have had– even after Gray Matter, he’d have had a lot of options– felt like a lie. Being a weak man when young, he let that sabotage him.
Walter White is not from a wealthy or happy background. His mother is still alive, as hinted early in the series, but he has no contact with his parents and, for a man who claims to be all about family, that’s weird. Are Eliot and Gretchen (who Walter attacked as being a “rich girl” in “Peekaboo”) at fault for Walter’s failure? Of course not. He would have had a million options even after that. Yet out of some cocktail of deep-seated insecurity, latent anger, and contempt for humanity, he threw his promise away in exchange for a thoroughly mediocre life: a wife who never fully respected him, a crappy financial situation, and a suburban lifestyle that bored him.
In Season 1, we’re confronted with the end of his first big lie: that he was happy in the humdrum life for which he’d settled. Cancer wakes him up. He begins down the road to Heisenberg. He swings from lawful-good (lawful neutral?) meekness to chaotic-good badassery, as seen when he destroys an arrogant investment banker’s car, terrorizes his son’s bullies, and nearly kills Tuco with (“this is not meth”) mercury fulminate. That chaotic good character, sadly, cannot live for long in the drug world, which is evil but has its own laws, and therefore pulls a person right toward a lawful-evil attractor over time. He swings toward chaotic evil (deaths of Jane and Gale, poisoning of Brock) and then, when he’s a fully-fledged kingpin, goes back to lawful evil. It’s a continuous C-shaped arc through the law/chaos vs. good/evil space that is imperceptible from episode to episode, but clear when the series is seen in totality.
Cancer strikes again, at Season 5′s midpoint, and kills Walt’s second big lie: Heisenberg. He was happy, he was good at it, but he refused to admit this to himself. He was doing this horrible thing– that he never needed to do, considering Eliot’s job offer given in Season 1– “for his family”.
Throughout Series 5b, Walter White’s lawful evil waned as the cancer weakened him, and as his life fell to ruin despite his best efforts to keep it together. Morally, he settled– into “dead to rights” neutral. Not good, not evil, not lawful, not chaotic. Walter is a bad man– a moral failure, a fundamentally weak person driven into bad choices by his own damaged personality– but not an evil one. Toward the end of 5b, his ability to be truly bad, even, waned. There ceased to be a point in it. At the end, he was a pathetic man who could only buy friendship, at a steep price of $10,000 per hour.
If Walter had become “good”, it would have been a fuck-you of sorts to the numerous victims of real-world methamphetamine. It would have made Walter’s trajectory “OK”. That couldn’t happen. Walter never became good again; one could debate whether he ever was. In that last episode he was, however, honest. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”
Liberated from his decades of lies– the seemingly good-natured Eliot as the cause of his professional failure, the idea that he was ever happy in his underperforming suburban lifestyle, and the Heisenberg wish-fulfillment– he was able, at least, to summon the highest level of competence. He ended that way not because he was a man without choices, forced to protect his family. He did it for him. Yet everyone who deserved to die did, and not a man (or woman) more. Then the one who knocks, knocked off, pretty much on his own terms.
Had Walter been still mired in his lies, the ending wouldn’t have been nearly as happy. He might have killed Eliot and Gretchen in a vindictive rage, losing any chance of his family’s escape from the misery he created. He might have done his family in out of some hideous “mercy” justification. There are a million ways that, had Walter not broken away from his old self-deceptions, he could have ended things in a much worse way.
Oddly, the lack of a twist ending was the twist. Often, twist endings deal with concealment and artistic “dishonesty” that is rectified at the end. Here, there was no place for that. The lies that are torn apart in a drama’s ending were right in front of us the whole time, and their demolition was exactly what had to happen.