Thoughts on Breaking Bad, after the finale
From August through Sunday night, I watched almost nothing except Breaking Bad. I streamed the first 5.5 seasons on Netflix, then AMC TV’s site for most of season 5.2, and watched the finale live.
And instead of subjecting people on Twitter to more of my random thoughts, I’m doing a semi-coherent blog post with a few notions that have been pinging around my head, most of them for a while.
And just in case I have to say it: spoilers ahead for the entire series.
The three things Breaking Bad has most reminded me of: the works of Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, and the Coen brothers.
O’Connor is at least partly an extratextual connection: Vince Gilligan, who created the show, is like O’Connor a southerner who was raised Catholic. His Gothic is more Southwestern than Southern, but the overall feeling of people who find grace in weird and horrible experiences feels similar, too. (And grace itself is not the pleasant experience we think of, for either creator.)
The Coen brothers are almost self-explanatory. Fierce intelligence, gorgeous cinematography, crackerjack performances of memorable characters. And the sense of a moral bent to the fictional universe — terrible things happen, of course, but there’s a force there to help out when people (rarely) make a choice to be good. (Todd Van Der Werff was the first critic I read who pointed this out, and I wholeheartedly buy his take.)
Which all makes sense to me anyway because that kind of universe reminds me vividly of Stephen King. King’s books are full of horrors and evil people and weak people making evil choices, but they’re also full of moments where the universe helps someone who’s decided to do good. It doesn’t shield them from awfulness, but it guides their hand. This is probably most overt in The Stand, but comes up in book after book.
But the specific character that Walter White reminds me of is Jack Torrance, from The Shining. Not the Jack Nicholson version, but the book’s, an unsuccessful brilliant man who flirts with darkness and decides to plunge in full-force, shattering his family in his wake. It’s not an exact parallel, by any means — Walt isn’t possessed by an evil hotel, for starters. But they’re both creatures of malevolent addiction, Jack for booze and Walt for power.
Which sort of nudges us to “Felina,” the finale.
Here’s what I think: I think the end is tremendously sad. Walt figured out that he broke his family. His daughter won’t remember him. His son will always remember that he used his last words to his father to wish for his death. He dies having realized that he could never rationalize his way into fixing things. He chose, long ago, his love and his obsession, the creative project that demanded the sacrifice of everything else in his life, bit by bit. He may not regret the choice, in the end, but I can’t fathom envying it.
Some people think Walt achieves redemption, or partial redemption. I think, in the end, Walt lets the universe use him as a force for justice, which isn’t the same thing as redeeming himself. I doubt he wants redemption, or believes that it’s possible.
His final conversation with Skyler, where he admits that he did what he did because he liked it, is powerful because it’s not Walt admitting a terrible wrong. He’s horrified by what he’s done, sure, but not so horrified that he’s sorry he did it. He’s also smart enough, in the end, to realize that he can’t possibly make things right — but he can take action.
One of the enduring themes of the show is that intentions don’t matter nearly as much as actions. Walt is the most obvious example; until almost the end he’s certain that if he explains things well enough, if he could just make people understand, all the things he’s done would make sense. It’s the classic distinction between reasons and excuses, and he’s unable to see the difference until it’s almost too late. The show is about Walt breaking bad and making horrible, horrible decisions. But almost everyone around him makes terrible decisions as well. The evil that he does inspires people to indulge in evil themselves, often with the best of intentions.
So I’m sure his motives are impure — certainly not crystal blue — in the end, when he kills the Nazis and Lydia. I’m sure that a primary driver is still an urge to keep his own creation. He can’t get rid of meth in the world, nor does he want to, but he can get rid of the blue meth, his patented formula, and if he’s doing it because of pride, in the end he’s still killed a bunch of Nazis who were getting rich off the stuff.
Three other moments I liked, and then I’m posting this and being done:
Another piece of his conversation with Skyler: He tells her what really happened to Hank. That it was other men who killed him. And the way he says it, I’m pretty sure she believes him — there’s grief there. So in addition to the geo coordinates, she (and Marie) get some knowledge of what actually happened, without Walt dodging responsibility. He can’t make it right, but he can be truthful.
As with so many other things, Walt’s revenge against the Nazis is a bloodier, cruder riff on something Gus did — the 20-year plot against the cartel that comes to fruition in “Salud.”
And of course the final moments, when Walt strokes his lab equipment as affectionately as he stroked the cheek of his young daughter. Walt may regret the price of his obsession, but he is not over it. He may wish that his family wasn’t the final price, but he still might have been willing to pay it. Because in the end, he chose the cook, the empire business, being alive in an intense and selfish sense of the word, over the love of his family.
He may be content with his choice, dying there on the floor, but it’s hard to believe anyone outside his head could think it was a good one.