So that’s how it ends. With no alarms and no surprises.
What most of us surmised to be Walt’s plan was pretty close to what Walt’s plan was: the machine gun was for the Nazis, the ricin was for Lydia (though I thought it was for Walt himself right up until the Stevia scene), and Walt knew he was driving down a one-way street when he traversed back to Albuquerque.
After five seasons of pulling the rug out from under us, Vince Gilligan ran out of rug. There were no more shocks, no more twists, no more shell games: this story ended in the most logical, predictable way possible, a way that was laid out the moment when Walt answered Jesse’s phone call in “To’hajiilee.” It turns out that “Ozymandias” served as the showy finale, and Granite State served as the contemplative one. “Felina,” then, is a settling of debts, an almost-gentle ushering of this story to its natural conclusion.
In his podcast discussing the finale, Alan Sepinwall said that the last episode wasn’t transcendent in the same way “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” were. I agree, though that’s far from saying I consider “Felina” disappointing. To the contrary, the ending felt appropriate to the series, it offered great moments both mesmerizing (Walt’s “I did it for me” speech to Skyler) and cathartic (Jesse’s freedom cry), and it didn’t let down, betray or condescend to Breaking Bad viewers. Gilligan and his writers didn’t fail in any way by not having a shocking ending, or by allowing many viewers to guess how the last act would play out.
If you’ll allow me to torture an analogy like the Nazis tortured Jesse, “Felina” is like “Continuous Thunder,” the closing song on the Japandroids’ Celebration Rock.
“Continuous Thunder” is quiet for a Japandroids song, and it doesn’t work nearly as well on its own as it does in the context of the album it completes. The first seven songs of Celebration Rock are driving, rousing rockers, bombarding you one after another. Then “Thunder” offers one chance for reflection before the album slips away.
“Ozymandias” is “The House That Heaven Built,” the song you’ll put on every playlist and that you’ll still be listening to in 10 years. It’s pure ignition. “Granite State” is “Younger Us,” the stunningly excellent, deeply felt dive into the darkness.
Then, rather than trying to outdo those episodes on their own terms, Gilligan ended Breaking Bad by showing us a haunted, whispery Walter White, going through the motions of his final plan, making things right way in the small ways he still could. Many have been critical that “Felina” is too redemptive for Walter, but that concept pretends that the previous four episodes never happened. The end of Breaking Bad really began when Walter raced out to that doomed spot in the desert. You can’t consider “Felina” without including the three hours or so of television that preceded it, in the same way that you can’t truly judge “Continuous Thunder” unless you’re hearing it after the rest of Celebration Rock.
The finale is like a hangover…a deserved, desolate nightmare for Walt…a hazy, cold episode in which wrongs couldn’t be righted, so you merely try to survive. Your head is pounding, your eyes are bleary, your outlook is bleak. You just try to get to your bed at the end of the night and hope everything turns out OK. It doesn’t, but you tried.
Is Skyler the Worst?
In the end…no. At least not in this last season. While Skyler will always be among the least interesting characters on Breaking Bad, in this final season she finally gained the consistency, shading and subtlety that she’s lacked for so long. She even pulled off a heroic moment when she grabbed that kitchen knife and shielded her son from the evil she’d allowed in her home for too long. Her pointed, repeated, “Where’s Hank?” certainly echoed D’Angelo’s “Where’s Wallace?” from the climax of The Wire’s first season.
And Anna Gunn seemed to find the right emotional space in which to occupy Skyler in these final episodes, particularly in her last scene, as she portrayed a broken abuse victim who somehow still couldn’t bring herself to loathe the monster standing in her kitchen. Compare Gunn’s acting in the back half of this season to her showier, dip-in-the-pool turn from last summer, which unjustifiably won her an Emmy. Maybe too little too late, but the writers and Gunn finally found the key to making Skyler a compelling character — and more important, a character who made sense.
Where does Breaking Bad’s final season rank in the history of great TV final seasons? How does the last episode measure up? Most importantly, what is Breaking Bad’s place in the all-time television drama pantheon? Those are questions to be considered soon, but we need at least a little distance from this emotionally draining conclusion to figure it out.