Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk
Writer: Vince Gilligan
Director: Vince Gilligan
Network: AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast: September 29, 2013
I’ve had some time to digest “Felina,” the series finale of BREAKING BAD, and while, like the series itself, this episode is a great achievement and has given me ample food for thought over the past week, I feel uneasy because I can only offer support for it that’s a mile wide but an inch deep.
That the show’s creators had enough of a handle on their dense and twisty plot to not only resolve every single open question before us for every character, but also plant all the details of their final act sixteen episodes before they actually got to it, is the kind of accomplishment that’s way too rare in television these days, and they deserve all the credit in the world for it. And “Felina” offers up a great catharsis by giving the audience exactly what it (deep down) really wanted – a chance to see Walter White (Bryan Cranston) own up to his misdeeds and try to achieve some measure of redemption. Despite giving every indication in the previous episode that we were about to burrow even deeper into the darkness with his finale act, this Vince Gilligan written-and-directed finale did a head fake and finally allowed Walt to stop digging. But while I’m comfortable with BREAKING BAD giving us the ending we wanted, I finished the episode wondering if it was really the ending we deserved?
“Felina” begins with a snow-covered car window. BREAKING BAD has an impressive history of beginning episodes with visual non-sequiturs that are explained later on, but the snow-covered window isn’t one of them. We know instantly that it’s Walt, he’s still in New Hampshire, the Sheriff’s Department is closing in on him, and he’s trying to steal the car to use it to get home to Albuquerque. “Felina” has apparently picked up right where “Granite State” left off, when Walt fled the bar where he’d just seen the Schwartz’s on the Charlie Rose show.
It would not surprise me if this opening sequence in the car winds up being the most talked about moment in the entire series, as there’s definitely no other moment like it in BREAKING BAD. As Walt tries to hotwire this Volvo, lights from a police car come through the rear windshield. He crouches down to try and avoid detection and mutters what sounds like a prayer. “Just get me home.” Apparently Walt’s prayer is answered, because not only does the cop car drive by without stopping, but Walt discovers that the Volvo’s key are under the visor and they descend, as if from the heavens, into his open palm. Walt’s path to return to Albuquerque and tie up all the loose ends in his life is now clear, and the show makes it about it as explicit as possible that this came about because Walt decided to prostrate himself, in a very vague way, to a deity he’s never previously been interested in.
After the commercial break, Walt’s out of the snow and back in the desert. At a gas station he uses a pay phone to call the Schwartz’s publicist and impersonate a New York Times journalist who wants to interview them. He gets their current address without much difficulty. From there, Walt’s return to Albuquerque in a stolen car reminded me of nothing more than Michael Myers returning from the insane asylum to Haddonfield in HALLOWEEN. As Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley) return to their home from a night out at dinner we’re given a series of wide shots that reveal Walt, stalking them from the shadows and the edges of the frame, then following them as they stroll obliviously through their palatial southwestern hilltop estate. There aren’t a ton of scenes like this in previous BREAKING BAD episodes, either, as it’s pure horror-movie suspense-building stuff. Finally Gretchen sees Walt and her scream breaks the tension.
Walt’s not Michael Myers, though. While he’s clearly a threat to them, he’s not there to do the Schwartz’s any grievous bodily harm. Instead he wants to use them as his only remaining method of laundering his drug money and give it to his son. He shows them the pile of cash he’s been keeping in a arrel and makes them count it. The Schwartz’s, being high-profile philanthropists who’ve suffered the P.R. fallout from their embarrassing early relationship with Walter White, are in the best position to make a cash grant to White’s “victims,” including Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) when his 18th birthday arrives in several months. Walt’s cancer will have claimed him by then and he won’t be around to see whether Gretchen and Elliot follow his instructions, so to drive his point home he gives a signal and two red laser dots appear on their chests. He says that he’s already spent $200,000 from his drug earnings to secure the services of hit men who will follow the Schwartz’s in perpetuity if they don’t do exactly what Walt wants. The hit won’t be immediate, Walt says, but sometime in the months and years afterwards it will arrive when they least expect it. Clearly the Schwartz’s don’t need further convincing.
So who did Walt hire to man those laser pointers? Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker)(!), who bear no resemblance to actual hit men as they scramble awkwardly out of the bushes and into Walt’s waiting car. They’re conflicted about being used this way, but much less so when Walt hands them a wad of cash. He also asks them why his signature blue methamphetamine is still on the streets, and when they tell him that they thought the person making the blue meth was Walt, which finally give Walt the picture of what’s happened with Jesse and the Nazis. It’s a nice final curtain call for Badger and Skinny Pete, as they get to play an integral part in the resolution of BREAKING BAD, but they still get to be goofy and not involved in the actual hard core violence or criminal activity that Walt’s wrapped up in, which has been the case for them throughout the series. It’s nice that they start out as small-time meth dealers and end up as small-time meth dealers, instead of either big-time meth dealers or dead.
After the commercial break we’re in the dream sequence that may wind up being the second most talked about scene in the BREAKING BAD finale: Jesse (Aaron Paul), now clean-shaven and in a state of bliss, appears in some glowing woodshop as he lovingly finishes building some sort of wooden box. He holds up his prized creation, then kisses it, then that entire world disappears and we find Jesse back looking like hell and hooked up to a tether in the Nazi’s meth lab prison.
Then it’s time for more flashbacks, (either that or we’re catch up to the flash-forward – I’m not really sure), as we go “back” to look at Walt’s return to Albuquerque at the diner, the scene that began season 5. We see the machine gun in the Volvo’s trunk, as well as Walt’s recovery of the ricin from its hiding place in his old house. Then there’s a (legit) flashback as we see footage from an even earlier scene where Hank (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quesada) and younger versions of the surviving cast are gathered at the White residence during a happy family celebration. On the surface, there seems to be no greater meaning to the inclusion of these flashbacks except to show what it is that Walt and Jesse gave up when they headed down their criminal path. I’m resistant to look at these scenes (or even the scene in the beginning with Walt in the car) as indications of some deeper meaning hidden in the narrative that was presented in “Felina,” maybe because I’ve always been resistant to conspiracy theories in real life, and don’t feel that engaging in a conspiracy theory regarding the true meaning of “Felina” will ultimately enhance my enjoyment of it. Generally, I think obsessive viewing and scrutiny of the hidden meanings behind the elements of certain TV shows, like LOST, for instance, is rarely rewarded, but this is usually because the show’s creators have no actual idea where their story is headed, and throwing out meaningless red herrings is only their way of distracting viewers from that fatal flaw. BREAKING BAD is a vastly superior show that achieved a level of mastery over the story it was telling, however, and now there’s part of me that almost regrets not obsessively checking fan sites and re-watching episodes to find the Easter eggs that are supposed to be hidden here. But, as of the writing of this review, I still have not done so.
In any event, once we’re done with these flashbacks, it’s time for Walt’s final plan to unfurl. In the next scene Lydia (Laura Fraser) meets with Todd (Jesse Plemmons) at their usual time in their usual diner to discuss their business arrangement. From the edge of the frame, a disheveled, homeless-looking Walt suddenly appears and sits at their table, to both of their surprise and chagrin. Walt has studied Lydia’s love of schedules and certainty and knew she’d be there to meet with Todd and drink chamomile tea with soymilk and Stevia at Tuesday morning at 10AM, just as she had many times when she was doing business with him. Walt tells them he knows they’re running out of methlamine and that he has a new, sure-fire way to cook more product without using that particular ingredient. Both Todd and Lydia have their guard up, and tell him they’ll think about his offer. After he leaves, Lydia tells Todd that of course they won’t be doing any business with Walt. “Look at him – you’d be doing him a favor.” She means by killing him, of course, but in this particular instance it’s clear from the outset that Walt is the smartest guy in the diner, and Lydia and Todd are just too many steps behind him. This becomes clearer when Lydia pours her Stevia into her tea and the camera focusing on the white powder as it’s stirred in.
Next we see Walt building some contraption in the back of a stolen car in the desert. There’s not much ambiguity about what the contraption is, either; Walt’s rigged up the machine gun to fire in wide spray pattern from the car’s trunk once he hits the car alarm button on his key ring. It was at this point that I started wondering how exactly Walt, (who was ostensibly the most wanted man in Albuquerque) has evaded capture even this long. So it was strange that immediately after we get a scene of Skyler (Anna Gunn) on the phone with Marie (Betsy Brandt) that deepens that mystery. Apparently Marie’s willing to call a truce and warn her sister that the rumors are flying all over that Walt’s back in town. People are spotting him everywhere, and the police have doubled down their protection/surveillance on any person Walt may try to get to. (This free-floating citywide paranoia also made me think of Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN, minus the part about the cops being on the lookout for the boogeyman). Anyway, immediately after Marie’s warning, the camera angle shifts and we see that Walt has been in the room with Skyler during that entire phone call. Apparently the cops aren’t protecting her in a particularly effective way.
What follows is the scene where Walt wins our hearts back, in as much as it is actually possible for him to win anyone’s heart back. It’s a tender scene where Walt tells Skyler it’s all over for him, and that this will be their proper goodbye. Not only does Walt give Skyler the lotto ticket that has the GPS coordinates that show where Hank and Steve are buried in the desert, (to trade with the DEA in exchange for a deal), but he refuses to offer his normal rationalization for his actions. In a piece of dialogue that sounded suspiciously clumsy by BREAKING BAD’s standards, Skyler feeds him the set-up for his moment of redemption by saying “Don’t tell me again how you did it all for the family-“ and Walt cuts in with “-I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was, really…. I was alive.” Hearing Walt take responsibility for his actions is a really, really strange thing, and the one thing that almost certainly classifies this as a happy ending for BREAKING BAD no matter what happens next. Then Skyler lets Walt see both his children – first Holly in her nursery, then Walt Jr. getting off the school bus, from a distance. Watching Walt see his children for what will undoubtedly be the last time ever was really touching, even given the circumstances, and it comes as a great and pleasant surprise.
Once Walt’s done with settling his personal affairs, he drives to the Nazi compound to settle his business ones. The Nazis let Walt drive in through the front gate in his modified muscle car, and he draws attention to his plan by pulling in backwards in front of the building that houses their office. What follows is not as tense as it could have been, although it has its moments. Walt is frisked and has his wallet and keys (and car alarm button) taken from him and placed across the room on the pool table. Head-Nazi Jack (Michael Bowen) tells Walt that they won’t need his services and that they’re just going to put a bullet in his head instead. Walt’s calm, Heisenberg demeanor disappears and he becomes the panicky, craven Walt we’ve seen many times before, and he frantically starts trying to talk his way out of the situation. He questions Jack’s honor by accusing him of partnering with Jesse to continue to cook blue meth instead of killing him, like he had promised Walt he would do. This leads to a not-at-all convincing chain of events where the Nazi’s forestall Walt’s execution by bringing a chained, beaten Jesse up into the office to show Walt that Jesse’s their slave, not their partner. Somehow Jack even draws the moment out by jerking Jesse’s chain and mocking him for an extended beat, which gives Walt a chance to scoot towards his keys on the pool table, grab them, then pretend to attack Jesse by leaping across the room and knocks Jesse over, then click the car alarm, which causes the office to be riddled with high-caliber bullets.
The machine gun fires every last bit of ammo, and the result apparently leaves everyone hit except Walt and Jesse, (who were on the ground), and Todd. While Todd turns his back on them to look out the window and see where the shots came from, Jesse chokes his arch-nemesis to death with his chain. Jack, having taken a number of bullets, tries to writhe his way from the room on the floor, but Walt then holds him at gunpoint. Jack lets Walt know that he’ll never see the rest of his money, (which the Nazis stole and have hidden), if he pulls that trigger, but he doesn’t even get the word “trigger” out of his mouth before Walt shoots him dead.
Walt then slides the gun over to Jesse, who has every reason to want Walt dead at this point, but Jesse won’t shoot him, because he knows it’s what Walt wants. And Jesse slides the gun back to Walt and tells him that if he wants to die he needs to do it himself. This is probably the best ending to Walt and Jesse’s relationship possible at this point, and I found myself having no problem with it.
After Walt and Jesse part ways, Todd’s phone suddenly rings, and the ring tone is some kind of sing-songy ode to Lydia. Walt has one final moment to stick it to his last remaining enemy as he takes Lydia’s call and we get to see the look on her (make-up free) face, as he explains to her that all of her associates are now dead, and that the flu-like symptoms she’s experiencing are not going to get better. He hangs up, his victory complete and total.
Jesse gets in the car, drives at full-speed through the gates, busting them wide open, and he escapes into the night, suddenly laughing maniacally. Walt walks slowly to the meth lab and we finally see the blood on his shirt from the bullet he must’ve taken in the showdown earlier. “Baby Blue” by Badfinger plays as Walt puts his hand the edge of the cooking vat, smearing blood on it as he falls to the ground. The camera zooms out from the ceiling as Walt looks up from the floor. He dies. And BREAKING BAD is over.
In “Felina” Walt did some very bad things. Extorting old friends to launder your drug millions so you can pass them on to a son who now hates you is not a good thing, for instance, and especially when the Schwartz’s will spend the rest of their lives in fear of imaginary assassins. So this finale doesn’t offer a complete undoing of Walt’s “Heisenberg” personality. But in the rest of the episode Walt directs his vengeance only at bad people and tries to put everything right for his friends and family. It was the first time we’ve finished a BREAKING BAD episode without the sense of Walt plumbing new depths of evil, and seeing it was an incredibly strange experience. “Felina” was wildly entertaining and a great catharsis, but that catharsis was impossible to enjoy in a straightforward way because of all the pain and misery we’ve watched Walt inflict on everyone close to him for five seasons. There was no real redemption possible for Heisenberg, but what little Walt was capable of achieving we got to see.
The fact that we liked this hollow, vain, evil man enough to follow his story through each new atrocity he gave birth to wasn’t exactly a moral failing on our part. (This is just a TV show, after all, and one of the greatest ones ever). But if BREAKING BAD wanted to punish its audience a little more for its attachment to Walter White, (as it had been doing incredibly effectively with the death of Hank and the horrific suffering of Jesse in the previous two episodes), it had a little more room to do so. Instead it offered this great release of an ending, which, in retrospect, has to seem a little too good to be true. Maybe that’s the best way to end this series, though: Leave the viewers feeling like we didn’t quite deserve it, and wondering whether there isn’t some hidden meaning in there that invalidates the whole thing. Maybe it’s appropriate that we say goodbye to BREAKING BAD feeling not only sadness, but some guilt as well?
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Article: TV Review: BREAKING BAD – Season 5 – “Felina” – Series Finale