In the end, the question wasn’t what was going to happen to Walter White (he’s been lurking at death’s door since his cancer diagnosis in the pilot episode) or how he was going to use the M62 in his trunk (to take out a bunch of skinheads, obviously) or even what the ricin capsule was for (he intended to kill someone with it). Rather, the important thing was how Breaking Bad brought these events and threads and conflicts to their final conclusion. And it did so masterfully.
For a piece of television that had merely 55 minutes to tie up six years’ worth of dangling plot threads, “Felina” impressed me most by remaining true to the show’s tone and upholding its slow, almost languorous pacing. The episode spends its first three minutes on Walt sitting in a dark car, shivering and masked by a cloak of snow that obscures the world beyond, for crying out loud. It’s just him in a near-total white silence. But that’s always been one of the key differences between Breaking Bad and pretty much everything else on television or in theatres these days: It doesn’t rush. It takes its time. It lets its scenes breathe, allowing the actors’ expressions and the camera work and the editing tell a story, often in complete silence. Most media has been compressed with ruthless efficiency, with not a second of screen time wasted on anything that doesn’t directly propel the plot; but Breaking Bad to the very end was happy to give ample screen time to mood, emotion, and character — all of which served to flesh the plot into something richer. Like I’ve said before, Breaking Bad at its best always pulled the neat trick of making it seem like nothing much was happening… and yet at the end of the episode you were left reeling from how much had changed.
Nowhere in the series has that stylistic device been used to better effect than in Walt’s confrontation of his erstwhile partners, the Schwartzes. He stalks them eerily into their home, silently slipping behind them under cover of darkness, lurking just out of sight as they go about their mundane lives. His motives are as veiled as the corner of the courtyard in which he waits for their arrival, and because of this principled uncertainty the tension grows palpable as they idly chat mere meters from where he glowers in the other room. What will he do to them, you wonder? Is this what the ricin capsule is for? Is he so bent on revenge for their public insults (and whatever long-ago rift Walt has twisted into a one-sided betrayal and sulked over for the seeming entirety of his adult life) that he’s going to murder them in their own home?
But no. Walt’s sudden jolt into action at the sight of his former partners on television wasn’t precipitated by revenge or anger, but rather by pragmatism. He doesn’t want to harm them — quite the opposite. “If it’s going to go that way,” he says with exasperation as Elliott brandishes a tiny paring knife in his direction, “you’re going to need a bigger knife.”
Instead, Walt recruits the Schwartzes into the consummating his entire scheme to enrich his children’s lives. In his time as Heisenberg, Walt has learned true arrogance, but he’s also learned to play the part of a confident criminal to hold power over rivals, competitors, and associates. His façade of confidence had bested entire drug cartels and methodical criminal masterminds; not surprisingly, it blows away a pair of dippy billionaire scientists like an M62 blasting on automatic through the walls of a prefab clubhouse. Which isn’t to say his bitterness over the Gray Matter schism isn’t at play, as he coldly refuses to let the Schwartzes spend a single cent of their own money on Walt’s family; the White’s providence will be entirely of Walt’s own making. It’s all on his terms.
And really, the finale features something truly new for Breaking Bad: Walter White in full control, wielding the Heisenberg persona as a precision weapon. The knowledge that, as he tells Skyler, it’s all over for him after his coming showdown gives him an enduring confidence we’ve never seen. For once, it’s not bravado or the bluster of adrenaline, but rather the satisfaction of knowing his goal — securing a financial future for his family — has been achieved and he has nothing more to accomplish save destroying Jack’s fascist militia in revenge for their theft and the death of Hank. Walt truly has nothing to lose, and he wagers accordingly.
Seeing the personas of Walt and Heisenberg come together at long last in the man’s own words may be this final episode’s most powerful moment. For the first time in two years, Skyler finally hears unadulterated truth from her monstrous husband. Whatever Walt set out to do, however noble his intentions, it’s been clear from the moment he exploded Tuco Salamanca’s office and let out that primal scream in the aftermath of the detonation that his criminal career has been a trip of ego and power for Walt. After years of rationalization and equivocation, he finally admits it both to himself and to his wife. And with this newfound self-awareness comes the unflinching ability to take on long odds and have faith in the ultimate outcome, whatever the personal consequences.
There’s no surprise about how things go down with Jack’s white supremacist group. We saw the assault weapon in the season premiere, and we see him constructing a jerry-rigged automated gun mount midway through this episode, so when those high-caliber tracer rounds start tearing through the clubhouse like angry, glowing hornets, it’s not a twist; it’s a culmination. The pieces fell into place between the premiere and finale. The story here is how Walt dealt with it all: His downfall at the hands of greed and revenge, his humbling in isolation, his personal resolution. Can there be redemption for a man as evil as Walter White? No, but as we see here, there can at least be a good death. Walt passes away on his own terms, only seconds before being apprehended by the law, his family’s financial future secure, his former partner liberated from two years of hellish existence, his enemies dead or dying. (Also, as a perhaps unintended side effect of all of this, a major global source of a destructive narcotic has been destroyed — though crime, like nature, abhors a vacuum, making this a temporary perk… and hardly just recompense for all the damage Walt’s empire surely caused over the years.)
“Closure” is the operative word here, and it’s no coincidence that Walt’s final act neatly parallels the standoff that gave birth to Heisenberg. Now, as then, he walked into a room of dangerous men seemingly unarmed and triumphed with his wits, planning, and scientific ingenuity. The difference between the two incidents isn’t just in the use of a S.A.W. to take out an army of paramilitary killers versus a volatile chemical meant to merely take some drug dealers by surprise, but rather in the fact that he uses his own reputation and failings as his chief weapons. To the world that sees him as a ruthless criminal, he sows chaos in Albuquerque long enough to settle his business unmolested by the law; to the militia that saw him as a craven genius, he plays up his vulnerability in order to slip into their compound.
And he finds personal resolution, to a degree: He tenderly spends a last moment with his infant daughter, watches his son come home from school, sets things as right as possible with Skyler, passes along the location of Hank’s final resting place (and the fact that it was Jack’s group that did Hank in), and perhaps most importantly, forges something akin to a truce with Jesse. And Jesse — poor, abused, soulful, unlucky Jesse! — still remained true to himself even when given the chance to murder the man who handed him over to become a meth slave and twisted the knife by boasting about his role in the death of Jesse’s true love. A gun in hand, he refuses to give Walt the satisfaction of a quick, retributive death… but in truth, it seems he acts not out of spite but rather out of a mix of pity and his own conscience. He sees how little time is left for his former partner and choses to drop the weapon, allowing Walt to die in the course of time rather than claiming another death on his hands. Jesse, who still grieves over his part in the deaths of Gale Boetticher and Drew Sharp, may have been willing in his desperation to escape to snap the neck of the man who held him captive for months and murdered his last girlfriend, but in the cold aftermath of the battle he can’t bring himself to take Walt’s life. Instead, he gets what he’d been seeking since losing Jane so long ago: A clean way out, a fresh start. And keeping with the circular nature of this episode, his primal scream of freedom as his stolen El Camino bursts through the gates recollects Walt’s shout of triumph after blasting the windows out of Tuco’s office that first time. Jesse feels alive, something he surely thought impossible this past half-year.
And now it’s all settled, with Walt dead: Surrounded by the accoutrements of his scientific accomplishment and business acumen, the tools that shattered his family and forever destroyed his reputation in the public’s eye, taking one final step to stay ahead of the grasp of the law.
Which means it’s time for me to go back and watch the whole thing in sequence, forearmed with knowledge of the ultimate outcome. I want to soak up every last slow, lingering shot and all that they each portend. Something tells me I won’t be seeing much of them again.