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Friday, October 4, 2013

BREAKING BAD Broken At Last

Article first published as BREAKING BAD Broken At Last on TheTVKing.

One of the most anticipated series finales in a while, AMC's Breaking Bad aired its swan song, "Felina," last night. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) returns to New Mexico to settle some scores and preserve his legacy, in danger of being gone completely. It is a very satisfying end for the chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook, though the episode did not serve the supporting characters as well.

It's surprising to see "Felina" start with Walt going to the home of Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley). Their part of the story was way back in the early episodes of the show, and they aren't mentioned much after. Yet, there's a nice full-circle feel to Walt confronting Elliot and Gretchen now. At the end of a series, one wants it to tie back to the beginning, and because Walt needs them, it doesn't feel forced to revisit them in this last hour.

Everything that leads Walt to his former business partners is a natural happenstance. We realize that they are the first ones that screwed him over, in his opinion, and so set him on the path of changing from powerless to powerful. What happened with them shaped Walt into the man we've seen him become. Instead of taking revenge, though, as Walt has on others, he uses them as a tool to get money to his family. Their offense is minor, by comparison, and so is their punishment. Though, since Walt needs them alive to fulfill his purpose, that could contribute to the decision not to hurt them.

Is it necessary for Walt to scare and threaten them? His entire interaction with Elliot and Gretchen, from sneaking into their house, to nonchalantly examining things until they notice him, is designed to strike fear into their hearts. We've seen Elliot be generous with Walt before, and it's likely Elliot would have cooperated without the danger of a hit man looming over him. But there's always the chance Gretchen would block Elliot from doing so, and Walt is nothing if not thorough. He leaves nothing to chance.

The fact that Walt's "assassins" are Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) is a perfect twist! Walt sells the idea that he has hired professionals, but part of me was thinking it just might be them, and hoping for it. We get an amusing scene with these two wonderful characters, and I can't help but think they really deserve to be part of this finale, glad that there was a logical way to work them in.

Now, not every important Breaking Bad character gets to be part of the finale. Hank (Dean Norris) is dead, though we see a glimpse of him in flashback. And Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is absent completely, but he already had his ending, disappearing. So while I will not say Skinny Peter and Badger are more essential to the last episode than these two, because Hank and Saul have already had their endings, it's OK that they are missing, and no other important players are excluded.

Even Marie (Betsy Brandt) gets one moving scene. She calls to warn Skyler (Anna Gunn) that Walt is back in town. It's clear the sisters are still estranged, but this conversation shows that Marie has not given up on Skyler, and still cares about her. They will face a very long road if they ever want to get back to having a relationship, but at least there's still a window left open.

Walt is nothing if not brilliant, and he has figured out how he can move around town freely, as he needs to: he simply calls in lots of tips on himself. Marie mentions "two or three voices," so Walt probably has Skinny Peter and Badger calling, too. But how smart is that? Knowing that he will be spotted and that the authorities really want him, he distracts them by appearing to be everywhere at once, spreading the DEA's resources thin.

Walt and Skyler's final scene together is tense, and most of what occurs happens between the lines. We can see that Skyler still loves Walt, evidenced by the fact that she not only lets him in, but lets him see his daughter. And Walt loves Skyler, not telling her the money is coming to her, so as not to sabotage his own efforts, and giving her the coordinates to where Hank and Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) buried to exchange for leniency from the authorities. But their time is over, and their lack of kiss or hug is very telling. Walt has lost his family.

It's even sadder that Walt can only glimpse Junior (RJ Mitte) through the window, knowing that approaching his son would be his undoing, as Junior would not hesitate to scream for the officers guarding the apartment. In that moment, watching Junior go into his run-down home, Walt has got to feel very guilty and helpless, as he deserves to be.

Then, it's time for Walt to take down his enemies. This is purely in order to satisfy his own selfish feelings, as doing so does not help his family nor anyone else. Walt goes after Jack (Michael Bowen) and crew, and mows them down by outsmarting them, not exactly hard to do with their less-than-stellar brain power, but still impressive. He even thinks to poison Lydia (Laura Fraser) ahead of time, to make sure all the bases are covered. "Felina" needs one good action scene, and the shoot out at the compound takes care of this, but because it's an exhibition of Walt's intelligence, it doesn't feel gratuitous.

Walt's rescue of Jesse seems incidental. Walt doesn't know Jack still has Jesse until he gets to town, and while it could be argued that Walt may want to save Jesse, it feels more like that he wants to get even for having his money stolen, and Jesse being there is just convenient, though not in a false way. That being said, once Walt sees Jesse, he has to tackle him and not just let him get shot.

No matter what has happened between them, Walt still thinks of Jesse as family. In their final scene together, Walt is saying he's sorry without uttering the words. Walt isn't about to grovel and beg for forgiveness, nor is he bogged down in regret about handing Jesse over to Jack. But he sees Jesse has paid his penance, and doesn't want to make Jesse suffer any further. And, as Walt knows he isn't making it out of the compound alive, it doesn't cost him anything to offer Jesse the chance to put him down.

Jesse doesn't feel the same sense of reconciliation. He hates Walt, and has every reason to, blaming Walt for pulling him into this ugly business that has led to the death of not one, but two women he loved. The only reason Jesse doesn't kill Walt is because Walt wants him to do so, and says it. Jesse would rather Walt suffer, and knows Walt isn't having a good life, whether he lives to leave the compound or not. Jesse wants Walt to be miserable as long as possible, and leaves him to be so.

It's a triumphant moment when Jesse escapes. He gets to kill Todd (Jesse Plemons), Jesse's personal torturer, the only one quick-witted enough to duck the bullets, but shocked dumb enough to stare out a window and turn his back on his enemies. Jesse is now free of both the gang and of Walt. It's just a shame he doesn't take a few minutes to find some of Walt's money so he has some cash to start a new life.

The last scene is of Walt, who has been shot protecting Jesse, dying in a meth lab, the melody "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" playing. This is very powerful and fitting. Walt's product, his "baby blue," was the thing he loved, and it couldn't turn it's back on him like everyone else, not being a person, so he dies in it's company. The bullet Walt takes while shielding Jesse is not redemption; that, Walt will not have. But he has accomplished what he set out to do, and he's ready to lie down and be done.

The story of Breaking Bad is Walt's personal journey, an amazing character study, with the protagonist fundamentally changing from one end to the other. In this, "Felina" serves as a very well-done ending, hitting the beats Walt needs to go through to finish his life, and giving him the death he wants when he wants it. Perfect.

I'm a little sad we don't get to see what happens to Jesse, Skyler, and Junior down the road. I'd hoped, after Walt died, for a montage to let fans know these others are OK. The show isn't about them, though, it's about Walt. That kind of montage could have only been post-Walt's death, but that would robbed the final shot from being of Walt, which it needs to be. So while I really wish for a glimpse of these people down the road, that has to be let go and appreciate that the show did exactly what it should do.

Thank you Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, and company for creating one of the best shows ever made. This is the reason those who previously only read books, looking down on the visual medium, are beginning to turn to television, as excellent examples of storytelling can be done on the small screen, too. The entire five-season epic will stand as a shining example of what TV can and should be.

Breaking Bad will be missed.

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