We gave it an A
It’s all over now, baby blue. Walt is dead. Jesse is free. But Huell is still sitting in his hotel room, waiting.
So many loose ends were tied up neatly in Breaking Bad‘s series finale. Walt (Bryan Cranston) figured out how to get his money to Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte) without the DEA trailing it. He found a good use for that ricin that’s been clogging up his electrical outlet, and the machine gun that’s been taking up space in his trunk. He arranged for Skyler (Anna Gunn) to escape her jail sentence, and ensured that the cops would find Hank’s (Dean Norris) body. Most important, he finally admitted that this wasn’t really about family. ?I did it for me,” he confessed. ”I liked it. I was good at it… I was alive.”
A lesser drama might’ve tied up Huell’s (Lavell Crawford) story, too — say, by sending him ”on a trip to Belize,” where he could make Scrooge McDuck snow angels in the sand for the rest of eternity. But Breaking Bad is way too smart for that. We may never again get to watch a show that’s as meticulously, ingeniously crafted as this one. We’ll never again experience the thrill of watching Walt lose his khaki pants in the pilot, only to unearth them four seasons later in the desert. We’ll never again get to follow that ricin over the course of the entire series, from Tuco’s (Raymond Cruz) lab to Lydia’s (Laura Fraser) chamomile tea, made just the way she has always liked it, with soy milk and just a splash of deadly poison. So the fact that Huell’s fate might be the only thing left unsolved must tell us something, right? He’s still out there somewhere, just to remind us how one’s luck can suddenly run out, how quickly everything can change.
It might be hard to remember now, but way back when Breaking Bad first premiered, it wasn’t the sweeping gangster epic we just watched. It was a small-town drama about an even smaller man, a common chemistry teacher with bad facial hair, whose greatest pleasures in life were eating low-cholesterol bacon, staring at the awards he earned at a company he no longer ran, and getting half-hearted ”happy endings” from his wife once a year on his birthday*. Walt wasn’t a hero, but he was a man of his time. The year was 2008. The recession was just kicking in. Guys like him were getting laid off from their jobs. Soon, journalists would be forecasting ”The End of Men”. And there was Walter White in the middle of it all, getting scolded by Skyler for using the wrong credit card at Staples because he couldn’t afford to pay off his MasterCard. Even Jesse (Aaron Paul) couldn’t help telling him, ”Good job on wearing the pants in the family.” Who could blame him for finally taking control of his life, even if he did it by cooking meth?
The fact that Walt was a relatable guy helped Breaking Bad tell a different kind of gangster story. Sagas like The Godfather or The Sopranos are usually about immigrants trying to make it in the U.S., building their own little slice of the Roman Empire in the New World, but still trying to blend in with the nice folks living in the same cul-de-sac. Walter White never wanted to fit in. He didn’t want to build an empire. He felt that the empire was owed to him, simply because he was a smart guy who grew up out West, where every college-educated family man is entitled to the American Dream**. Earlier this week, the critic Todd Van Der Werff wrote about Walter White as the typical ”angry white man,” and the fact that he’s called ”Mr. White” does underscore a certain type of privilege. Just think about the difference between him and Krazy 8, the meth distributor he chained up in the basement long ago. Walt assumes that Krazy 8 is just a burn-out from Mexico, but it turns out that the man was born right there in Albuquerque. He worked hard at his father’s furniture store, studied business administration at the university, and had delusions of grandeur just like Walt: he wanted to be a musician one day. ”Small world,” Walt tells him. ”The paths we take, eh?” But it’s telling that only one of their paths ends in a tub of hydrofluoric acid. Krazy 8 pays for his sins. Walt just gets rewarded for them. And, in his mind, he’s never rewarded enough. He takes Todd’s credo to heart: ”No matter how many millions you got, how do you turn your back on more?”
Maybe that’s why, even as he morphed from Mr. White into ”The One Who Knocks,” Walt was never the kind of bad-ass most people fantasized about becoming. He was the type who made you wonder why you’d root for him at all. There was something sad about him. While other dramas romanticized their anti-heroes, Breaking Bad showed just how mundane it was to be the villain. Walt loaded his gun on the same kitchen counter where he packed his brown-bag lunch. He mowed down meth kingpins in the same cracked Aztec he used to drive his kid to school. He removed the crusts of the sandwiches he fed to the criminals he strangled. This was the show’s brilliant twist on the banality of evil: the idea that the Heisenbergs of the world flip burgers at your family cookouts, polish your minivan at the car wash, clean the blood off their hands at your local Denny’s. This was the type of evil that hits you where you live, especially if you live in the suburbs. So it felt like poetic justice that Walt’s epic journey ultimately gave way to the most ordinary fate. There he was in New Hampshire, stripped of his family and his money and his respect, doomed to live out the rest of his days watching Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. In the end, he was wearing the exact same outfit he wore when he cooked meth for the first time. Poor Walt had done all of the dirty work for none of the glory, which is why he just had to return to New Mexico for one final, legend-making blowout.
The truly brilliant thing about Breaking Bad‘s finale? It proved that viewers can be entitled just like Walt. We didn’t just want the perfect ending. We felt that one was owed to us. All of which made it incredibly difficult for Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan to wrap up the show. If he had let Walt live, some people would’ve complained that the Breaking Bad was amoral. If Gilligan had arranged for law enforcement to drag Walt down, Heisenberg fans would’ve felt judged by implication. At times, the finale seemed to riff on the idea that, like Walt, we often don’t want to face the consequences of our actions. When Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) said, ”The whole thing felt kinda shady. You know, morality-wise?” he was speaking for those of us who’ve been rooting for Walt all along. When Kenny (Kevin Rankin) got gunned down in his massage chair, where he’d been waiting for Walt to beat Jesse to death, it almost felt like a warning: This is what happens to people who want to enjoy violence from the comfort of their armchairs. Even Walt’s message to Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliott (Adam Godley) felt like a wink at viewers who might be looking for justice in that final episode: ?Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.”
Unable to please everyone at once, Vince Gilligan gave us the best kind of ending: the kind where no one really gets what they want***. Jesse gets his freedom from the Nazis, but he’ll return to an empty life, now that Andrea (Emily Rios) is gone. Marie (Betsy Brandt) will realize her dream of making Walt suffer, but Hank won’t be there to help her celebrate. Walt’s prayers are answered — ”Just get me home, I’ll do the rest” — but he dies unceremoniously, especially for a man who always wanted to be a legend. He doesn’t go down in flames. He bleeds out slowly, shot by his own stray bullet with no family to mourn him. And the rest of us are left with an ending that wasn’t shocking like The Sopranos, but still felt like the finale we deserved, the one that offered a deeply satisfying conclusion to this story, at the great expense of our favorite characters’ lives. Everyone died, or ended up miserable. There was no big twist beyond that. But sometimes the most devastating ending is the one you’ve always seen coming, the one you’ve been dreading all along.
As for Huell, well, he never got the decency of a proper ending. Hank told him to never leave that hotel room, and now that Hank is dead, Huell will probably stay frozen there forever, only occasionally checking the locks. And we’ll be right there with him, trying to remember the world outside his door. There are so many things I’ll miss. The hold-your-breath intensity of every episode. The suspenseful, back-Walt-into-a-corner-and-see-if-he-can-get-out plotlines. The genius science experiments. (”Magnets!”) Badger and Skinny Pete’s inspired Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conversations. Most of all, Jesse, the heart and the conscience of this show. But also Huell, with his fingers like hot dogs. Maybe that’s the real reason he’s still out there. Many of us are probably feeling a little like Huell right now: still glued to our chairs, trying to wrap our minds around what just happened — not just to Walt and the other guys, but also to those of us who loved and will miss this show. A
? Other characters were very different back in the first season, too. Marie was meaner, giving Hank flack for looking fat on TV, and allowing a very pregnant Skyler to paint the walls while Marie just stood back and offered, ”You missed a spot!” And Jesse was dumber, telling Walt that he’s not the infamous meth dealer Captain Cook, even though his license plate clearly says ”THE CAP.”
? It’s no accident that when Todd brings Jesse some ice cream, the flavor is Ben & Jerry’s ”Americone Dream.” It’s a tribute to the show’s bleak sense of humor that Jesse would have to eat it while he’s chained up as Todd’s meth slave.
? Gilligan recently told GQ that this was his favorite kind of ending, the same kind that wrapped up M*A*S*H. ?From the first episode, these people sit around and say, ?All I want to do is go home,?” he explained. ?So of course they all get to go home in the final episode. Sometimes the best moment in a TV show is an unpredictable moment, but sometimes it?s actually being predictable.”