Last post, I announced that my wife and I had just finished watching the final episodes of Breaking Bad. That previous post was a season recap that probably everyone skipped reading (not an unwise decision: either you’ve seen the show and don’t need the recap or you’ve not seen the show and SHOULDN’T read that recap)
This post will my observations on the final season. (Post 3 will be my observations on the entire series.)
Season finales have a tough task in general. They have to wrap things up in a satisfying way, there’s a pressure to refer back to things that have happened over the years, besides resolving plot issues, there are emotional closures that need to be crafted, and the final episodes need to be surprising. It’s no fun if it’s too obvious or predictable what’s going to happen. But things can’t be too surprising. Things should make sense.
How did Breaking Bad’s finale work for me? It scored pretty high. Shocking, I know. (Don’t worry, I have some complaints too.)
The Death of Possibilities
The job of a finale, a series finale, is to shut the door and turn off the lights. That’s all folks. We’re so glad we’ve had this time together…
Since this show was largely the story of Walter White, his death at the end pretty much took care of that. But getting there had to be meaningful. And if not enjoyable, then engaging.
I can’t say Season Five was my favorite season, but that’s largely because:
- I’m going to miss the show and I can’t help but blame the final season for being the final season.
- The previous seasons were equally good in quality but have the added bonus of opening up new possibilities. The story was being laid out with expanding options, not having them closed off. So they’re… better.
Although I might enjoy previous seasons more than Season Five in particular, that’s an emotional decision really. Intellectually, I can respect the challenges that went into the final season, particularly the artistic choices that were made.
The Lack of a Big Bad
In the final eight episodes, who was the Big Bad? Coming out of Season Four and the epic battle of wits Walt had with the enigmatic Gustavo Fring, one might feel that we’d need an epic opponent to challenge Walt. But there really wasn’t one.
Hold on, I’m not saying we don’t have contenders.
Hank was certainly Walt’s opponent this season in a very real and emotional way. If Hank had lived to the end of the season, he’d definitely get my vote, but he was dead with episodes to spare. And I couldn’t root against Hank. I was rooting for Hank.
Todd’s Uncle Jack, the leader of the local Aryan Brotherhood was certainly a problem for Walt. The season kind of led up to the final conflict at the end of the last episode, but Jack just wasn’t necessarily engaging enough to be a Big Bad. He’s not going to get near Gus, or the more interesting uncle, Tuco’s tio Hector Salamanca.
Jack isn’t entirely one/two dimensional. I think he did serve a purpose in presenting an unromantic, unglamorous aspect of the crime trade. I’m not saying Tuco was that engaging a character, but Tuco was interesting and engaging in a manic, almost cartoonish way. Gus Fring was engaging in a sophisticated and enigmatic way.
But I like to think that Jack was a more realistic villain. So I appreciated him being a part of the last season.
Lydia was a peripheral villain, so she doesn’t count.
We could also label Walt (or Heisenberg) as the big bad, but that doesn’t really work out. In the second half of the final season, Heisenberg was pretty much gone. Walt tried to “summon” up his Heisenberg persona to intimidate Saul at the end of their time together, but it wasn’t working. The last time we see anything like Heisenberg was when Walt coerced Elliot and Gretchen into setting up a trust fund for Walt Jr. And this isn’t even Heisenberg being evil, I don’t know if there’s anyone overly concerned about Elliot and Gretchen taking care of Walt Jr, and by extension Holly.
It’s not like Walt is fighting with himself, as if he had a split personality.
I think the decision not to present anyone in particular as a primary antagonist is a good one. The is the final season, things need to be closed down. I wouldn’t want someone mysterious and overly complicated introduced just to vanish when the season closes. Walt dealing with the mess he has created is enough. The show having to juggle emotional closure and hanging plot threads is enough.
Breaking Bad is a joy to watch. There were hallmark shots where the camera was in impossible places, striking cinematography, and unusual prophetic scenes that would take their time to play out. In Season Two, the image of a pink burnt stuffed-weasel (maybe it was a teddy bear, but I’m skeptical) caused a great of amount of speculation until the final episode made it clear how it ended up in the White pool. In the first half of season 5, we get to see Drew Sharp hunting tarantulas in the opening seconds of the Dead Freight episode. I don’t know about you, but I forgot all about him until Todd shot him.
But the beginning and middle of Season Five featured two visions of the future, a 52-year old Walter White, with hair, a fake id, new Hampshire plates, and a machine gun is back in town. His house has been vandalized and looks as if it has been seized for eventual auction. Walt’s neighbor Carol is terrified of him. And he’s packing the ricin capsule again.
I’ve seen this done before, the television show Lost had for seasons and seasons presented flashbacks alongside things happening on the show’s mysterious island. Unexpectedly, the off-island storyline jumped ahead in time which generated an incredible amount of excitement.
The rebooted Battlestar Galactica series started one of the seasons with a significant of time skipped, and that season was similar to Lost in providing an engaging viewing experience.
The difference here: Lost and BSG did their flashforward reveals with many more seasons to follow. Although they were basically providing constraints on how the story could progress (since we know at least who lives, and where people will end up in the future) the show could once again branch out into unknown territory once the story caught up to the future point.
Breaking Bad was doing this at the end of the series. To some, that was too constraining on the story, and was a bad artistic choice.
I don’t agree. I mean, it might have been a bad choice if the show had crap writers. Instead, I was always on the edge of my seat, even if I had some inkling what had to occur.
I have a friend, Scot (yes, I have a friend) who once said that he has a hard time watching mystery shows that encourage speculation and prediction of what might happen, because if he correctly guesses what might happen he’s let down, and if he doesn’t guess what happens, he feels like the show cheated or was being inconsistent.
I think the flash-forward took that notion head on and provided the right framework to focus attention on what had to happen, which satisfied to overall need to predict, but also could make that future happen in a manner that engages and surprises in a satisfying way.
Not everyone agrees. That’s cool.
While some people might get hung up on what’s going to happen, I was very interested in how the characters’ relationships were going to end up.
Walter White was the center of Breaking Bad’s story, so I’m primarily concerned about his relationship with his family. Everything clearly broke apart when Hank died, and the final episodes’ emotional beats were Walt saying goodbye. He couldn’t overtly provide money to his family, which has all that crazy irony since that had been his driving force during the run of the show. Getting Gretchen and Elliot to set up the trust fund for Walt Jr. had a nice feel, since it didn’t harm the Schwartzs while still giving Walt some measure of satisfaction due to his grievance with them. (If only Walt had let them pay for his chemo. IF ONLY!)
Walt unexpectedly(to me) earned positive closure with Skyler in the final episode. It was helpful that he had set up reasonable doubt about her involvement in his call to her prior to going to New Hampshire. But in his final visit, Walt told her this:
Walt spends much of Breaking Bad lying to Skyler, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Often he was lying to get her to do something that would be convenient for him, or to cover up his activities, or something else along those lines.
This time, he’s lying for her benefit. There is some truth in what he’s saying. There was a time when he didn’t need anymore money. He’d satisfied his goal of 700 thousand (I forget the actual figure) that would take care of the mortgage and college tuitions for the kids. But he needed more for himself. He was good at it (well… we’ll give Walt that for now) and he was alive. But he started this for the family. The family was definitely a driver for him.
But Skyler doesn’t need to think this. She needs to hear that she wasn’t an important factor in Walt’s life of crime, that the children weren’t an important factor in Walt’s life of crime. Walt’s giving her this gift. It doesn’t matter if she believes him or not, he’s said these words, she’s heard the words, and it’s something that she can hold on to.
And so she lets him say goodbye to Holly, the last member of his family that doesn’t hate him. (For all we know.)
Jesse is not family to Walt, but he kind of is. There had always been this kind of father-son relationship between them (Or if not “always”, then starting when Jesse and Walt had a fight in the kitchen in Season Two. That’s my opinion.)
Walt kind of gets closure with Jesse, but in many ways the closure happens during Ozymandias when he tells Jesse that Walt watched Jane die, and could have saved her, but didn’t.
In no way am I saying Walt meant to do Jesse a favor. He said this to hurt Jesse, to punish him for cooperating with Hank, and for Hank’s death. But I’d argue that Walt had at least given Jesse the option to forgive himself about Jane. Jesse’s spiral down pretty much started after Jane’s death, and he blamed himself. Now he can blame Walt.
After every season of Breaking Bad, I’ve commented on the progress of Walt’s cancer, my impressions of his oncologist, the effects of chemo, etc. Fourth season and the beginning of Season Five, Walt was in remission so my talk about cancer was more metaphorical.
This season, Walt’s cancer came back, and that’s bad news for Walt. Walt tells Hank that his cancer’s returned and he’d be dead in six months. Walt’s approximating, that’s cool, but he’s probably right in the ballpark.
It’s interesting to me why Walt didn’t tell anyone. Undergoing chemo alone is really quite sad.
I guess he’d rather do chemo alone with no one knowing about it then tell his family and have them not be with him as support. After all, Skyler did say she’d been waiting for the cancer to return.
When Walt was in New Hampshire and Robert Forster’s character, the relocation expert hooks Walter up for chemo, Walt bribes him to stay awhile. Obviously, Walt’s extreme isolation has been getting to him, but I’ve never felt sadder for Walt than when he was facing chemo alone in the middle of frozen nowhere.
I don’t know if I’d wish that on Todd.
Anyway, the show bringing cancer back for Walt I felt was right in the spirit of the show’s final season task: to close off possibilities. And in some ways, it kept the future a surprise. Walt might survive the events of the season, and die from cancer after the show ended. He might succumb to cancer in the finale. I respect that ambiguity.
What I Liked and Didn’t Like
I mostly liked everything, but I don’t think anything can achieve perfection, and things that didn’t work for me (or maybe didn’t work spectularly, everything pretty much worked) can be listed off.
At first I didn’t like Walt using the ricin on Lydia. “Didn’t like” is kind of the wrong phrase.
I was expecting something else from the ricin, and him poisoning Lydia at first seemed out of left field. She wasn’t really a threat to him, and as far as I was concerned, she hadn’t betrayed him or caused him harm. The suggestion that Walt was just tidying up loose ends seemed weird to me. Does that mean he’d also arranged for Badger and Skinny Pete to die? I mean, they’re in the know too!
Eventually it dawned on me that Walt was killing Lydia because she was too dangerous to his family to let live. What’s Lydia’s go-to response? Kill someone.
Gus’ operation gets busted? Lydia wants anyone who knows who she is killed.
Declan’s goons cook crappy meth? Cancel the contract and have them all killed.
Walt’s on the run? Have Skyler killed. (At least Todd wouldn’t do that, and he just threatened Skyler.)
Walt shows up, looking like a bum? Order Todd to kill him.
What would Lydia do when word got out that Todd’s Uncle Jack and his jack-booted Jackholes were all dead? Well, Skyler’s still alive, so Lydia would have had her killed.
So I’m fine with this. Lydia, don’t be so blood-thirsty! There’s less ricin that way.
- The Machine Gun
Killing Lydia with the ricin was pretty awesome, but other deaths in the final episode were only okay. I’m not sure I buy into Walt and his incredibly deadly autocannon.
The M60, which I am sure is super deadly, had to shoot through the trunk of a car, shoot through the walls of the clubhouse, and kill everyone inside (mostly.) It probably easily had the power to get shells through the barriers, but odds are something would go wrong with the entire operation. The machine gun is probably very reliable, but the mechanism Walt constructed could easily get screwed up, tip over, etc. Stuff like this never works right the first time. I’ll accept it, because it was pretty awesome, but it was only okay. It’s wasn’t like the surprise of the “this isn’t meth” moment with Tuco.
But maybe that’s not so bad that isn’t wasn’t something as cool as the explosives in Season One. I’ve already mentioned that we don’t need too many surprises. We just have to have the job done. If I can handle the explanation for the flash-sideways in the Lost finale, I should accept this.
I don’t know if I was much of a fan of Jesse Pinkman moping around at the beginning of the final eight episodes. I feel like we’ve been-there/done-that a little too much with Jesse the entire series.
Don’t get me wrong, Jesse is an amazing character and he’s the lynchpin on which so much of the show was connected. I was just so much more engaged with his story when he finally ended up in Hank’s custody.
I also wish I knew what happened to Jesse after he sped off into the darkness. He really has nowhere to go, nothing he can do.
- Unsolved Mysteries
– Just how did Walt poison Brock? I don’t really need to know I guess.
But it’s bugging me!
– Just why did the cops show up at the Aryan Brotherhood compound? I assume the APD was on high alert because of Heisenberg sightings, and the gunfire brought them. It just seemed like the compound was out in the middle of nowhere.
– Walt’s past is a mystery, between his breaking from Gray Matter to teaching High School. There was a moment when he was working at Sandia National Labs. That sounds awesome. What happened?
Both Jesse and Walt Jr. were too traumatized by events to buckle up. Hank and Skyler had two different approaches, Hank just went ahead and buckled Jesse up, but Skyler unsuccessfully tried to reason with Junior.
- There’s Impersonal and There’s Rat Patrol
When Walt makes the arrangements for a hit on Jesse, Uncle Jack asks if this is a Rat Patrol. Walt understands that Jack is asking if Jesse needs to be killed in a manner befitting an informant, and Walt shuts that down that avenue. He wants Jesse killed relatively painlessly, no fear. Shouldn’t know that it’s coming.
Jack assures Walt that it would be something like a bullet to the back of the head, he wouldn’t know it’s coming.
That describes exactly how Andrea is killed by Todd as an example to Jesse. Impersonal and sudden.
Earlier in the episode, Uncle Jack was planning on killing Jesse for ratting out Todd to Hank about the Drew Sharp murder. I have a feeling that it would have been anything but impersonal.
I really only bring this up because it shows that no matter how we regard these vicious thugs, they operate under some kind of code. There was no need to cause Andrea pain, so she was taken out professionally. Jesse was the one to be harmed by it.
This adherence to a code worked in Walt’s favor when he accused Jack of breaking their deal and partnering with Jesse.
Final Thoughts on the Season Finale
It was excellent, bitch.
Okay, I’m taking a break. Next post will be my super-final Breaking Bad post (or will it?) Where I try to be terse and concise, with some observations on the entire series, yo.
Images are obviously from AMC’s Breaking Bad.
I make no claim to any of the artwork obviously, but I do make some claim to the text of this posting. So there.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved