Is there such a thing as too satisfying? There’s definitely such a thing as too neat, and I’m afraid that’s what I take away from the final episode of Breaking Bad. I enjoyed it, definitely – but coming as it does after “Granite State”, the penultimate episode, it feels too much like the series was tied up with a bow. It’s an enjoyable finale, but it is also a safe finale, and that I find a little disappointing.
Now, “Granite State” (especially in combination with the episode that precedes it, “Ozymandias”), that would have been a more courageous finale, and a more frustrating one. Not The Sopranos, “Made In America” level frustrating, but close. It’s a deeply moralistic episode, but one that is very much in line with the series as a whole. Walter White may have wanted to be Heisenberg, criminal mastermind and all-round badass, taking care of his family and, well, taking care of his enemies at the same time. In practice, though, he was petty, vindictive, scared yet oblivious of – or, worse, indifferent to – what he was doing to his family and the people around him. He used others, he rationalised horrific acts, because he could always pretend to himself that he was doing it for his children.
“Ozymandias” and “Granite State” stripped all of this away and revealed what Walt had become: powerless and unable to save his brother-in-law, yet venomously evil towards Jesse for turning against him. Bit by bit, Walt either watched everything he cared about crumble or actively contributed to its destruction. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, he had left behind that road at this point and was safely in hell – which turned out to be a remote, tiny cabin in New Hampshire. Walter White’s hell was being stuck in a small room by himself, with only himself as company, his ill-gotten gains less useful than the month-old newspapers from which he cut articles about the exploits of the great, mythical Heisenberg.
“Granite State” was anything but easy to watch, revealing not only what Walt had achieved to himself but also that some of the things we enjoyed watching most had led him there. It was often as much fun for Walt to don the black pork pie hat and become Heisenberg as it was for us to watch him, but the episode no longer allowed us to indulge in the fantasy of there being two Walters: the one whose actions we despise, and the one we root for. Both of these were the same man, understandably acting out against the shit hand fate had dealt him, but relinquishing all responsibility for his actions in doing so. He didn’t kill Jane, and she was bad for Jesse anyway. He didn’t cause those planes to crash. Gale had to die because otherwise Mike would have killed Walt. Gus had to die because it was either him or Walt. That kid had to die because- The “Ozymandias”/”Granite State” double bill cut through the bullshit and said, “No, Walt. You got yourself here. Live with it.”
And then came the last five minutes of “Granite State” and the segue into “Felina”, which was largely Walter being badass, Walter finding some form of redemption, Walter shooting a dozen evil neo-Nazi fucks to bits. Some viewers theorised that most of the episode was Walt’s dream, and while this strikes me as an overreading there’s a kernel of truth in it: “Felina” does play like wish fulfillment. Not entirely – we don’t get a tearful, loving reunion between Walter Jr. and his father (most likely over breakfast, though with real bacon this time round), but we get the closest the series can credibly get to a making-up scene between Skyler and Walt. Our protagonist/anti-hero still dies, but he doesn’t die of cancer, going out in a blaze of glory instead – and saving Jesse to boot. It’s all very neat and it leaves you feeling considerably better than “Granite State” does, but it does feel like something of a missed chance.
Breaking Bad has always played with the ambivalence of Walter White. Is he heroic or an anti-hero? Is he the series’ protagonist or its bad guy? Are we rooting for him or are we watching him lose all sympathy as he’s got more and more blood on his hands? It’s the tension between those two that drove the series much of the time. “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” came down heavily on the side of consigning Walt to a hell of his own making, which I consider more in line with the series’ thematic thrust, but “Felina” pulls him out of that hell to give him the kind of ending he wants. Breaking Bad largely drops this tension, splitting up those two sides into separate episodes. (It’s like the series’ equivalent of that Star Trek episode where a transporter accident results in two Kirks: one gentle but weak, the other strong, ruthless and even more of a dick than Classic Kirk.) Ending on the episode that is Walt’s version of who he wants to be feels a bit like a cop out, even if it also gives us a scene where he finally admits, to himself as much as to Skyler, that he did it all for himself, that what drove the actions of Walter White wasn’t his family so much as his ego.
Looking back at the series, including its ending, I definitely consider Breaking Bad one of the best series I’ve seen. The writing, acting and directing are up there with the best of HBO. Even with my reservations about the final episode, I enjoyed the series, including its ending. It’s just… too neat. Too much what Walt, and we, might want, rather than what the series itself calls for. Breaking Bad most definitely decided at the very end that it wanted to have it both ways: it leaned more towards what feels good than what is fitting.
P.S.: For further reading on a series finale that aired more than half a year ago (!), I can very much recommend the AV Club’s review, as well as Alan Sepinwall’s original review and his revisit of “Felina”.