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With its final episode, Breaking Bad transforms its protagonist

By in Culture
The glory days for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).
The glory days for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

There’s a certain equation — a formula, if you will — that makes for the ideal conclusion to a long-running television series and, with equal parts closure, excitement and nostalgia, the Breaking Bad finale makes for a concoction that echoes the purity of Heisenberg’s own legendary product.

Fair warning to those who haven’t watched the finale yet: the following article is littered with spoilers.

“Felina” opens with Walter White, ragged and derelict, attempting to hotwire a vehicle using the lone screwdriver he scrounges from its glovebox. Fans have watched countless times as Walt has dragged himself from apparent downfall with little more than his inherent genius and the tools on hand, but this time it’s the unexpected variable of luck that saves Walt’s skin — for the time being, anyway.

“Just get me home,” Walt whispers as red and blue lights bleed through the car’s snow-covered windows. “Get me home. I’ll do the rest.” Walt tips the visor down and watches as the keys fall with a clatter directly into his open palm. The engine roars, a delightfully appropriate Marty Robbins track, “El Paso,” washes over the scene and, with a quick clearing of the windshield, we’re off.

What follows is a slowly paced episode that sees Walt painstakingly, even delicately, picking up the shards of his shattered life and piecing them together into an entirely new puzzle.

The task at hand for Walt is the tidy plucking of loose hanging threads, including insuring the financial security of his family, revealing his fallen brother-in-law’s final resting place and settling the score with a clubhouse full of skinheads that have been profiting off his particular brand of methamphetamine.

Although each of these goals are accomplished, Walt’s plan proves intricate in design but frayed at the edges in a way that only narrowly avoids falling apart in entirety.

An attempt at menacingly laundering money through Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, his former business partners in Gray Matter Technologies, hinges on the unreliable Badger and Skinny Pete; a daring plan to level a gang of Nazis is dependant on a set of modified car keys that are immediately confiscated and left just out of reach. This isn’t the shrewd and confidant Walt that viewers are used to seeing.

The man seen in “Felina” is not the calculating megalomaniac that wears a black pork pie hat nor the beaten down chemistry teacher left dizzy at his cancerous diagnosis, but an empirical tyrant finally sobered by the sudden and inescapable loss of everything that he holds dear.

There are many arguments to be made for what it is that Breaking Bad stands for: the scientific method as filtered through masterful storytelling, a clock-like diligence for specificity and purpose or the seductive nature of evil over good as reflected in Walt and his alter-ego.

But with the super-lab long since left in ashes, Walt’s wristwatch abandoned on a stray fuel pump and Heisenberg’s trademark bellow replaced by a raspy cough, what remains is a finely tuned experiment on the inevitability of change.

The true emotional payoff of “Felina” comes not in its bloody final moments nor in Jesse Pinkman’s screeching, bat-out-of-hell escape from captivity but in a quiet scene shared between Walt and his lost wife, Skylar.

“All the things that I did, you need to understand,” Walt says to the woman whose life he’s left in shambles. “I did it for me. I Liked it. I was good at it and I was really … I was alive.” After five seasons worth of using his family’s best interests as an excuse even as his actions slowly ripped that very group apart, Walt is finally able to accept responsibility for what he’s done and, in doing so, completes his transformation from humble family man to monster and beyond.

Let’s go back to that opening scene in the car. Is Walt praying for some higher power to guide him? No, he’s speaking to that piece of himself that has always stepped in with some increasingly daring plan to pull him from the burner just before he boils. The part that lusts for more even when what he has is more than he’ll ever need. The one who knocks. Heisenberg.

It’s a piece of himself that Walt had long let run rampant, destroying his life in a reckless pursuit of the almighty dollar. But in this admittance of guilt to Syklar — a revelation to Walt and no one else — the two pieces dissolve into a single element that is as volatile as it is doomed.

The episode closes on Walt, alone in the Nazi stronghold and dripping from a bullet wound, stumbling through their closest approximation of a super-lab. He pauses and admires a particular canister, polished to the point of reflecting his own distorted visage.

The man who the series began with is gone, as is the meth maestro that once lauded the infallibility of a plan simply because it was his creation. Left in their place is a twisted combination of the two, both aware of his own ruinous decisions and able to plot one final scheme. And as the camera careens above him, collapsed and bloodied on the floor, this Walt fades alongside his former personas.

Photo: Show Still

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