Brilliant or cynical? Struggling with moral vision of 'Breaking Bad'
Cheaters never prosper, or so they say. And if they do, they’re probably biblical moralists or writers of film noir, the kind where desperate saps with immoral get-rich schemes get punished for their transgressive ambition one way or another, sooner or later. Double Indemnity. No Country for Old Men. And Breaking Bad, the extraordinary, many-things-at-once, neo-noir, desert-western, dark-comedy serial created by Vince Gilligan, which came to an end Sunday night. For five seasons, this bold and cold AMC series chronicled the downfall of a dying, dead-on-the-inside Everyman who sold out his principles (such as they were) to feel alive and strong; who betrayed and then just ripped up all of our culture’s explicit and implicit social contracts to score the significance he believed he deserved. Walter White was a man who could have been a tech king, but who chickened out and cashed out too early; who abused his neglected genius to enter the drug trade and build a grotesque, destructive substitute for the empire that might have been his; who tried to beat the reaper by becoming one himself, The One Who Knocks. In the end, this too-human monster was allowed a happy ending: He went to the grave on his own terms, and with all of his illusions about himself intact. He was, in his mind, a mythic Campbellian hero, a man who went on a journey to bring back an elixir of treasure to save his family (but oh, how they didn’t want it, his horrible blood money!); a Marvelous action hero, who emancipated slaves and destroyed an evil empire (that he had built himself, that had destroyed so many lives!). As an avatar of heroism, Walt was as meaning-challenged as the Lady Justice in Saul Goodman’s office, as the Nazi swastika on Uncle Jack’s arm. And so Walter White, the antithesis of what we really want from heroes — sincerity, selflessness, virtue we can believe in — was a critique of the antihero culture that spawned him. In his folly, we hear echoes of ancient wisdom. For what will profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul? (Jesus) How much land does one man need? (Tolstoy) We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy. (Dumbledore)
Breaking Bad was awesome. It was arty-fun pulp, profound but short of pretentious and never preachy, and proof that careful attention to the internal lives of its characters, the details of the world, and thematic possibilities of any story in any genre can create transcendent effects. It was not just a pleasure to watch, but it was a pleasure to watch the culture embrace it, especially here at the end. Given my regard for the show, I have long had that unreasonable fanboy desire for everyone to lovelovelove this seemingly unlovable drama about a brilliant meth-making skipper and his Bitch!-quippy little buddy trying to survive and thrive in the seedy wilds of underworld ABQ. I have also had that ridiculously demanding desire for Breaking Bad‘s last episodes to be perfect. I have not been as impressed with the last eight episodes as a whole as others have been (the Walt/Hank confrontation in the premiere, the all-time great “Ozymandias,” and the satisfying closure of the finale notwithstanding) — but 92 percent pure ain’t nothing to sneeze at. When I think about what makes Breaking Bad great, I think about the intricate, richly thematic design of individual seasons and the extraordinary mise-en-scène within each episode; I think about Cranston’s unfailing success at grounding every moment of his monster in some emotion or aspect of human experience that we can relate to, even when we didn’t want to; I think of the love-hate warfare between Walt & Jesse and Walt & Skyler; I think of the themes, like the value we put on human life and on our own; I think ofthe humor, the horror, and the endings. “Run!” “Everybody wins.” “Tread lightly.” The kicker to the pilot that resonated all the way unto the end: “Walt? Is that you?!”
And then there was the armchair sport of tracking the business of the title. The show pitched us Mr. Chips-to-Scarface; we wanted to understand the mechanics of that mutation. And for most of the show’s run, Walt’s evolution of evil proceeded logically and felt credible, and by the time we reached the last season, Breaking Bad was read as a “moral” drama. James Poniewozik of Time put fine words to it in August: “By ‘moral,’ I don’t mean preachy, or aimed at making you a better person, or a wholesome hour’s entertainment for you and your small children to enjoy together. Rather, from the beginning to (it would seem) the end, the show has systematically been about morality: how it works, how it fails, what makes a good and bad person, how the seed of evil finds purchase and grows.”
We all have our theories about why Walter White broke bad. Some will tell you Walt was always as bad as he wanted to be, and that cancer simply broke the chain that kept that beast leashed. Some will tell you that Walt’s story could be read politically, as a critique of white-male privilege gone ballistically mad. (Interesting how both fed/challenged this reading. More on this later.) Some will tell you that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle explains it all: Walt’s impossible-to-measure Determinism; his duality; other stuff Wikipedia tells me. I’ve looked at Breaking Bad through a variety of perspectives over the years. I have thought Breaking Bad was dramatizing a theory of behavioral psychology that says post-Enlightenment secular man, lacking faith in received wisdom, institutions, or symbolic ritual to assuage terror of mortality, chases after “immortality projects” — legal or otherwise — in which the actual self (in this case, Walt) creates an aspirational self (the pork-pie, black-shaded godfather) and adopts a “heroic” project to obtain a sense of mastery over life that yields a useful self-deception, a denial of death.
Overthink much? Maybe. “Who cares? Who cares, who cares, who cares?” opined Linda Holmes, a Breaking Bad admirer, in an essay earlier this season about our interest in parsing Walt’s evil. I do wonder if all our psychoanalyzing/philosophizing was just us trying to rationalize and justify the “morally shady” pleasure of watching a man pursue abhorrent bliss. (“It can’t all be for nothing” = us?) Here at the end, as we reckon with a finale that felt to some like an affirmation of Walt’s immorality than a critique of it, I no longer see a show that was remarkable for its seemingly fair, rigorous observation of human behavior. I see a story led by a cynical view of human nature that was determined to reach a predetermined destination by any means necessary, for better and worse. A feeling of inescapable inevitability emerged throughout season 5. This was not just the byproduct of two flash-forwards that teased a violent climax. Gilligan and his writers mushed Walt, Jesse, Skyler, and Hank to their final destinations by using — sometimes with a knowing wink — tried and true storytelling “cheats.” This invariably happens in any kind of serialized storytelling, especially at the end, as writers try to make rationalize and reconcile an accumulation of making-it-up-as-we-got-along storytelling. The Contrived Coincidence (see: Hank’s Lucky Crap, when he found the incriminating Leaves of Grass in the john; Walt’s chance viewing of Charlie Rose, the catalyst for the finale). The Thunderbolt Epiphany (see: Jesse suddenly realizing Walt has poisoned Brock). The Idiot Stick (see: Hank’s Keystone Kop pursuit of Walt). Hear me: I am not trying to be a nitpicker, and I’m not trying to argue that Vince Gilligan is a bad writer — no, he’s a brilliant writer and I can’t wait to see what he does next — or that Breaking Bad wasn’t a great show. But I am wondering if it was a different show than what we thought it was, and I do question the value of its treatment of moral concerns: The final season felt like scientists meddling with an experiment to achieve a desired result; or the clumsy intrusion of capricious, morally ambiguous Fate, something like Maxwell’s Demon, regulating with bias the actions of particles within a closed system. Either one confuses — or makes more interesting, depending on your point of view — our understanding of Walt’s character and the show’s depiction of human nature.
Nothing summed up the overt Fate-or-cheat? dynamic more than the opening scene of the finale, in which Walt tried to steal a snow-covered car that would take him to his final destination. He saw police headlights and and began begging/bargaining (with God? Satan? Death? Vince Gilligan? The Audience?) for passover. The cruiser cruised by — and an idea struck him. He reached up to the visor… and car keys fell like a gift from heaven. Deus ex machina, indeed. It was as if a morally sensitive universe was giving him more chances to surrender and submit to The Law; or an impish universe seducing him to more evil. Either way, Walt’s world comes off as almost mystically alive and supernaturally — or unnaturally — active. And it begs questions. Here are mine: Did Breaking Bad really give us a plausible portrait of a man breaking bad? What was the show’s philosophy of human nature? Did we get artfully rendered determinism and or artfully rendered fatalism? Let’s drag in George Bernard Shaw, shall we? “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” Point taken. But which is Breaking Bad: Accurate observation or cynicism? Both? The truth, perhaps, is in the plastic teddy bear eye of the beholder.
Cynicism comes in many forms, and a few of them aren’t all that bad. In fact, upper-case Cynicism — the ancient philosophy — is a revealing lens through which to look at Breaking Bad. Let’s start old school. The first Cynics were anti-establishment eggheads who envisioned a culture where the individual had boundless freedom to undertake that great heroic act of self-fulfillment, the pursuit of happiness. But they defined that project differently from how we Americans do: The Cynics defined the pursuit of happiness as the unfettered chase of Eudaimonia (human flourishing) through the attainment of moral virtue — what we ought to do — through the power of reason and reason alone. They saw themselves as counterculture heroes; they took Hercules as their idol. Breaking bad? No, Cynics were outlaw personalities fixated on breaking toward the transcendent Good. They were also nature-loving ascetics who eschewed the materialistic values of society — specifically wealth, fame, and power — as toxic elements that poison judgment and perfect clarity. They wanted liberation from a cloudy, diseased mental condition created by any enterprise that cultivates pride, viciousness, and greed. They called this condition — how fitting — “smoke.”
I might be as delusional as Walter White, but I would like to think all of Breaking Bad was an ironic communion with Cynicism in service of producing a sly comment about a culture where “the pursuit of happiness” is all about satisfying our desire for fulfillment with stuff and status — by becoming “the beautiful people” to borrow from Walt. The Cynics might watch the credit sequence of Breaking Bad, see those letters from the periodic table — essential elements of nature, symbols of transcendent natural law — come together to form the title, watch them transmute into meth smoke, and think: Metaphor! And then they see Walter White and start pelting him with rotten figs, for Walt is the embodiment of everything that they would say is the enemy of human flourishing and an insult to their beliefs. Here is a man of great mental powers — all will and reason — who applies them to attain material satisfaction, not moral perfection, and worse, who makes and sells pure smoke and impudently calls it “Blue Sky.” He desecrates the philosophical conception of the pursuit of happiness by chasing after wealth (I only need $700,000! No, wait: Make that $82 million!), power (“I am in the empire business!”), and fame (“Say my name!”). Of course, Walt was also an immoral expression of the American dream as articulated by the Declaration of Independence: His entire arc has been a fight for life (the first battle with cancer; the Death symbols of The Cousins), liberty (the epic struggle for emancipation from Gus Fring), and the pursuit of his black-hat, Heisenbergian happiness (“You’re goddam right!”). But Walt’s perverse notions of fulfillment leave him vicious, greedy, and judgment-impaired: The height of his smoky monstrousness, from a Cynical perspective, comes when he shoots Mike in a fury, then realizes he didn’t need to. Oops. Sorry. My bad! If only I was more Cynical! Let me sit here in the quiet by the river and contemplate nature and higher virtues — no, wait, gotta go. See ya! One episode later, Walt’s greed-hazed gray matter goes crude-oil dark: He orders the assassinations of 10 people during two minutes of Manic Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop shivving.
Walt should have been Superman. Instead, he went Bizarro. Individualism and self-realization run amok. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive.” And Breaking Bad says: But ain’t that America? Little pink(man) houses and Rage games, for you and me.
Yet the true tragedy of Walter White was that he bought into a profoundly cynical — not Cynical — moral vision of himself.
He never had much of one in the first place. If he did, what was it? An atheist can have a rigorously developed code. The Christian has the example of Christ to follow. What did Walter have, besides the law of the land and obligation to family? Breaking Bad seemed to take the Cynical view that the rules and norms of society are insufficient to save us from our worst selves. For Walt, that worst self had a name: Heisenberg. Walt created a whole persona for that man: Bald head, black hat, black T-shirt and glasses, black muscle car. An ensemble that seemed to be inspired by generic images of cool Hollywood criminality. There are those who argue that Heisenberg’s ruthless qualities belonged to Walt’s true self, that they’ve always been there and that sooner or later, one way or another, they were going to get out, whether Walt got cancer or not. But this view makes it sound like Walt was at war with elements that were forged long ago and are now immutable. Yet is it not true that evil acts cultivate evil character? I find it interesting that some Breaking Bad fans are actually uncomfortable with the idea that “Breaking Bad” was a present-tense phenomenon occurring within Walt; they want to make the premise and title of the show “Broke Bad Years Earlier and Is Finally Getting Around to Acting Like It.” It’s interesting to consider that we simply can’t accept the idea that a person, fictional or otherwise, would actively choose to be “bad.” (Just as we find it corny when people, especially in fiction, choose to be good simply for goodness’ sake.)
While Breaking Bad is certainly open to many interpretations, I’ve always read it this way: “Heinsenberg” was a means to an end. It was Walt’s Mr. Hyde — and his hiding place. It was a constructed personality — a part to play — that helped him cope with, and deny, the evil things he was doing. Yes, Heisenberg allowed Walt to exercise certain qualities that were essentially Walt. But Heisenberg became a thing unto itself, and Walt increasingly allowed it to take him over, in part because he needed it more, especially when he began craving more and more. The Walt-Heisenberg duality becomes a metaphor for schizoid homelife/worklife thinking, that we behave one way in our “personal life” and another way in our “professional life,” and that each of these personas have different, even contradictory moralities — but that’s okay because that’s just the way we do things, and it’s the only way we can achieve material-world success.
But season 5 judged this cynical perspective and demolished it. As Walt segued into empire-builder mode, as greed set in, he gave himself over fully to the wish-fulfillment fantasy of Heisenberg. The lines between Walt and Heisenberg blurred, and he lost touch with reality and humanity. The cost of this was measured in the lives of the “family” he allegedly loved. He forced himself back to Skyler’s life and bed — forced his perverted concept of “family” on her — turning her into a hostage, sending her from despair (the swimming pool “suicide” attempt; telling Walt, “I’m waiting for the cancer to come back,” maybe the most chilling moment ever in the show), to sell-out resignation. Fine, Walt. I’ll be your Bride of Heisenbergerstein. Can I have my kids back now?
Meanwhile, Walter’s surrogate son, Jesse, unsettled by Todd’s needless killing of The Tarantula Kid, yearned for his father figure to feel just as upset. Instead, Walt went about his work, whistling. This ambivalence, as much as his own despair, catalyzed Jesse toward his endgame. As with Skyler, Walt refused to take Jesse’s suffering seriously, and refused, for the longest time, to take seriously Jesse’s desire to quit. For Walt, Jesse and Skyler had become things, accessories for his black-hearted persona, or, at best, supporting characters in the grotesque cosplay of his life. But then the cancer returned, a big bad wolf to blow his Heisenberg straw house to smithereens. It shattered the lie of his internal matrix, and it was back to the desert of the real for Walt: no morality, no immortality, just a whole lot of money and family who despised him. He would lose those things, too, and in the end, during a final temptation in a Granite State bar, he chose to become the only thing he had left, the only thing that felt real as rock: Heisenberg.
In this way, Breaking Bad was as bracingly, usefully cynical as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and even Christ himself in their nasty-wry attacks on self-deception and hypocrisy. In the Whites’ money-laundering car wash, and especially in Gus’ superlab of iniquity hidden underneath a laundry, I hear echoes of Jesus scolding insincere moralists for being “whitewashed tombs.” We also recognize in Breaking Bad the kind of cynicism dramatized by the Coen brothers and Stanley Kubrick in their stories of foolish men who degrade themselves by chasing worldly significance, who are tempted to such folly — and degraded further — by the corrupt influence of society and culture. Breaking Bad is The Shining exorcised into crime fiction. Walter White is Jack Torrance, blind to the demons that drive him. And the capricious shadow world of ABQ, built to expose and inflame your darkest self, is Walt’s Overlook Hotel.
But the truth is that the whole Chips-to-Scarface thing has always been a misleading frame to view Breaking Bad. Walt was never a solid, decent square who melted into moral quagmire under the duress of everyday heat. He was a product of an artistic vision that we need to be led by moral vision, lest we make a sh-t-happens world sh-ttier. The fact that I often agree with the show’s dim view of people doesn’t make Breaking Bad “accurate observation.” But it doesn’t need to be. Breaking Bad is designed to inspire personal reflection. It is an opportunity to reflect on and question my own worldview, my own attitudes about goodness, my own moral code, or lack thereof.
So far, so high-minded. On some days, even I didn’t buy it. Fracking Breaking Bad for deep goo was always dubious exercise. The crime genre naturally skews lower-case cynical, populated with people highly motivated to not do the right thing and possess no love of virtue. And hey: Meth-making scuzzballs are probably not the test subjects for researching virtue, especially ones that are, like, totally made-up, and were as compromised with burdens like Walter White. He came to us in a state of Falling Down, boo-hoo-hooey distress. Squashed dreams. Humble, humbling jobs. Pregnant wife. Handicapped teenage son. Modest savings and crap health insurance. And that was all there before they gave him terminal cancer. Of course Walt was going to break bad — he was utterly baroque with brokenness. The characteristics of Walt’s internal world — specifically the festering wound of Gray Matter that oozes jealousy and bitterness throughout his being (more on this later) — were chosen to create a personality that would resist, reject, revolt against any other course of action, righteous or otherwise, so much so that by this last season, he’d be proudly proclaiming to Jesse that he knew he was going to hell, and dammit if he wasn’t going to reign like Lucifer until he got there. (Not that Walt even believes in hell; maybe if he did, things would be different.) Put another way: Walt was going to break bad, and then reallyreally bad, whether he wanted to or not. There’s no show if he doesn’t.
Which was fine with me. Really, it was. It did bother me that Breaking Bad didn’t dwell more on the devastation caused to individuals and communities by Walt’s meth-making. The show leaned too much on an unspoken compact with the audience: Let’s take as a given that drugs are reallyreallyreally bad. Okay? Now, let’s focus on other things. I was also bothered when it seemed like the show was actively denying Walt legit opportunities to do Good or redeem himself, and when the show indulged in cruel joke storytelling and maximized the consequences to grotesque extremes. Sometimes, the temptations placed in front of him felt credible; other times, forced. Walt lets Jane choke to death on her vomit to advance and protect his awful interests; Jane’s distraught father returns to work too early and allows two airplanes to collide in mid-air. Breaking Bad was using gross exaggeration to make a point about the ripple-effect ramifications that any action, selfish or altruistic or neutral, have on the world, but the exaggeration was so gross that it begged an incredulity that undermines our want to engage and embrace the wisdom presented. Put another way: That was just f—ing mean. When I think of Breaking Bad‘s worldview, I think of the season 1 episode “Cancer Man,” and I flash on the drawing in Jesse’s brother’s bedroom of the Hindenburg aflame and falling from the sky and the words “Oh the humanity!” The people of Breaking Bad are buggy Hindenburgs, their doomed voyages made all the more certain by the direction of some really twisted and manipulative air traffic controllers.
Other examples of the show’s storytelling strategies and philosophy were sooooo damn bleak that I just say: No. In Breaking Bad, murder was routinely depicted as, like, The Worst Thing You Can Possibly Do… Except Slavery. Okay, no debate there. But exceptional death often had other special properties in Breaking Bad, too, especially when it involved children and family. Jesse’s slow what-have-I-become? meltdown began in season 5 when Todd kills The Tarantula Kid; he finally applied himself to rebellion when he realized that Mr. White poisoned Brock. Skyler made peace with Walt’s evil and even agreed to frame Hank for her husband’s crimes, but when she realized Walt’s wickedness had cost her brother-in-law his life, she finally took a stand against her husband. Walt’s motivation for quitting the meth business? The return of that indomitable buzzkill, cancer. (The on-off-on of Walt’s cancer was perhaps the clearest proof of Breaking Bad‘s capriciousness.) In the “moral universe” of Breaking Bad, death-horror is pretty much the only reliable prod that can move the soul toward The Good, and even then, only when it involves innocence incarnate or loved ones. If that’s true, then we’re all screwed, and The Hunger Games starts to look like a pretty reasonable idea.
Breaking Bad revealed the depth of its cynicism this season with its most heartbreaking storyline. The conventional wisdom seems to be that Hank went out a hero. But Breaking Bad went out of its way — maybe too far– to deconstruct heroism by showing that Hank’s “heroism” was far from virtuous. After Hank discovered that Walt was Heisenberg, he should have immediately told the DEA — but he didn’t. Why? Pride. He had been scammed by his own brother-in-law. How humiliating, for himself, and for the DEA, and Hank was certain the embarrassment would cost him his job. He reasoned that the only thing that he could do to salvage his ruined rep was to collar Walt himself. And to make sure the DEA didn’t take that away from him, he broke the rules of proper police work and decided to conduct the final phase of his investigation in secret. One of the season’s most audacious moments was also one of its most preposterous: Walt’s blackmail tape, framing Hank for his crimes. Hank was effectively cowed and controlled by it, further insuring his fate. I refuse to believe a cop of Hank’s caliber would have succumbed. And I refuse to believe that the tape couldn’t have been easily debunked.
And yet, the results of these dubious storytelling choices succeeded more often than not at producing interesting, worthwhile effects. As much as I didn’t like what happened to Hank, and didn’t like some aspects of how it was done, I enjoyed thinking about and talking with people about the provocative question that Breaking Bad was trying to dramatize, namely: Did Hank = Walt? What’s the difference between heroism and villainy? Because after all: Hank’s most “heroic” action in the series ended up morphing into a self-serving “immortality project” designed to cheat the inevitable, deny the destruction of his identity, and produce a self-serving legacy. Hank’s final, defiant moment said it all. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f— yourself,” he spat at his executioner, Uncle Jack. Note it: Not “Hank.” ASAC Schrader. His symbolic self. His “Heisenberg.” This was his declaration of identity — never mind the irony that what brought him to the place of his death was technically his own damn “f— himself”: an off-book police action. It was Hank saying: “This is how I want to be remembered.” It was his “Say my name!” moment. We eulogize the failure of his “heroic” quest with the words of the Cynical/cynical poem that inspired the title of the episode that killed him:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
”My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Walter White’s personal Fall myth was Gray Matter, the tech/research company he founded with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz. In the first season, we learned that Walt sold his stake in the company for $5,000 in the early days; we don’t know why. He had been in love with Gretchen; they were a couple; then something happened. After Walter was diagnosed with cancer, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz offered him a good job with great benefits that would have paid for his cancer treatments. He turned it down. Why? Maybe because Walt was certain he was going to die and was more interested in quickly making a nest egg for his family instead of prolonging his life; maybe because of pride. Whenever Walt spoke further of Gray Matter (which was rare), he implied he had been screwed by the Schwartzes, a narrative that was either a lie or spoke to facts not yet in evidence. Our inclination was to pull out the world’s tiniest violin and mock his whining. I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum high school chemistry teacher-turned-murdering meth maven! Boo-hoo-hooey.
Gray Matter and everything it meant to Walt — including, ultimately, his call to action for his last “heroic” action in the series — always bugged me. Cranston could make me believe in every part of Walt in any given episode, but this part of him, his relationship to his murky What-Coulda-Been past, always fell apart on me upon reflection. I can buy that Walt turned down the job, for whatever reason. But making it the catalyst for diving deeper into the meth business as part of some grossly misguided second chance to prove his worth as a genius empire-builder? As much as I love the denial of death/immortality project of it all, it felt unfair to me if not implausible that Breaking Bad never let that old wound heal. It also felt like a cliche. These kinds of “issues” and motivations have become commonplace in this Golden Age of Drama, from The Sopranos to Lost to Mad Men to Dexter: People fueled by past damage, incapable of escaping historical patterns of behavior, flailing desperately for catharsis that can cure them and free them and remake them into moral, fully realized people. It’s fascinating how much audiences love/hate this characterization, how much they seem to both desire and doubt “redemption.” The Sopranos, Lost, and Breaking Bad (and currently, Mad Men) spent their long runs dangling the prospect of positive, healing change in front of its characters and audience like a carrot on a stick. We chased that bait into the depths of character depravity and across time and space. The Sopranos routinely denied Tony and his family this change — and us, closure — to polarizing effect, although now, for the most, we all applaud that final cut-to-black as intellectually tough. The message: It didn’t matter what happened next; the Sopranos were never going to change. Lost allowed the castaways countless shots at redemption, both in life on The Island, and in death in the Sideways world purgatory, all in service of making a point about the unfairness of Divine Judgments for souls stuck in an ambiguous, not-yet-fully-discovered universe. Or so I would argue. Some were inspired. Others barfed. We debate its merits still.
What we want from serialized dramas that concern themselves so much about good and evil, morality and ethics, redemption and damnation, is change we can believe in. When storytellers resort to cheats and reductive psychology or punt to generic fate and ambiguity in the process of getting to the ending that feels correct to them, they risk jeopardizing the project of tracking characters over time and tainting the final form of the story, that being that thing that lives in your memory. When I look back on a show I spent years watching and loving, I want to recall and feel what was beautiful and fun about it. I don’t want to be thinking: “Man, that just didn’t add up.” Or, to paraphrase Walt: “All of that, for nothing.”
Breaking Bad flirted with this kind of disaster during its final season, and never more so than in its penultimate episode, “Granite State.” Just when it seemed that Breaking Bad had completely forgotten about Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz reared their provoking heads at the worst possible moment for Walt, because it took away his best possible moment. Let’s talk it through.
The plot of “Granite State” finds Walter hiding out in a cabin in the New Hampshire mountains. His lung cancer is starting to kick his ass toward the grave. He should heed the counsel of Robert Forster’s ferryman and stay put in his snowbound limbo. He should make like the Cynics and commune with nature, apply his tremendous powers of reason toward introspection, clean his smoky soul. But he can’t bare to be alone with himself, and when his wedding ring slips from his withering finger, reminding him of his dwindling mortality, he puts on the black hat and runs. He has to take one last Hail Mary shot at legacy, at fulfilling his immortality project, which in the back half of season 5 has been symbolized by his selfish desire to leave his family his worldly treasure, his Meth millions. “All of this can’t be for nothing.”
Walter comes down from the mountain with a portion of the cash packed in a box and finds his way to a bar. He calls Walt Jr. and tells him he wants to get him the parcel by mailing it to an intermediary. Walt Jr. — the closest thing to a virtuous character in this show — rejects Walt’s blood money and rebukes him. Get behind me, Satan-Daddy! Just die, already!
Shamed, Walt decides to do an honorable thing, an even better thing than hiding out from justice in the mountains: He calls the DEA, gives up his location, and waits for his reckoning. It’s a petulant surrender, for sure. I do not dare call it “redemption.” But this self-justifying monster is submitting to judgment against him and punishment by law: It is a victory for moral virtue. A small one. But a good one. Let him have it.
But no. Breaking Bad‘s finger of cynical fate intrudes. Walt takes a seat at the bar. He sees something on the television as he’s drinking and as the bartender is clicking through the channels. It’s Charlie Rose. The guests are Elliott and Gretchen, who, as we know, embody Walt’s fatal flaw: jealousy. It provokes him to immoral action the same way that, say, Marty McFly got provoked to reckless action any time anyone called him “chicken.” Walt’s weakness is exactly that credible and exactly that reductive. Or so this scene makes it seem.
Walt listens to Elliott and Gretchen tell Charlie that they are donating millions to drug treatment programs in New Mexico. He listens to them insist that their philanthropy has nothing to do with shoring up their falling stock price due to Gray Matter’s association with White. He listens to them say that Walt gave little to Gray Matter beyond half of its name. He listens to Charlie drop a nugget of intel that he didn’t know until now: that Blue Sky was back on the street. Someone had stolen his awful greatness; had robbed him and replaced him. Gray Matter all over again. Finally, he hears Gretchen — his ex-lover; the one who got away — say: “The sweet, kind man we once knew? He’s gone.” Something stirs within Walt. The police arrive, but Walt is not there.
This crap-luck Charlie Rose moment was The Last Temptation of Walt. And to quote a certain knight of a better crusade: He chose… poooooorly. It was also another contrived coincidence, another example of Breaking Bad‘s demonic Fate goading him to indulge his demons, to do the wrong thing, to believe that he was and could be nothing more than Heisenberg. Worse: It sabotaged his meager morsel of redemption.
And so we got the cynicalpalooza of the series finale. It was a transporting hour of artfully crafted escapism about a man who got to exit his gone-rotten life living an action hero fantasy and playing Ironic Christ, setting captives free, shaming moral hypocrites and destroying evil, and insuring happily ever after for the ones he loved the most. I emphasize “ironic.” To be clear: I do not believe Walter earned “redemption.” What does that term even mean? What does that look like? Did a couple “good” acts and some long overdue honesty at the end of a very long run of wrong and deceit atone for and effectively purge from the psycho-spiritual-historical record all of Walt’s sins? Of course not. And apart from a hint of a gracious smirk from Jesse at the end, I don’t think the finale offered Walt any real exoneration or absolution. The show allowed Walt to die thinking he had accomplished something — leaving treasure for his family, a treasure which the show made clear was not only unwanted but immoral — but that is not the same thing affirmation. Gilligan prosecuted a compelling case against Walt; now, we render the verdict. I enjoyed the finale while I was watching it, and the more I think about it, the more I like it even better. I don’t know what it said, if anything, about human nature. But it felt true to Walt, and true to the series. I may not have always admired how Breaking Bad got to its finale in its last season, but the finale itself felt, for the most part, correct.
We got the Schwartz stuff out of the way quickly, and cleverly. Walt got to parade his fat stacks to the Schwartzes — proof that he was every bit as “good” as them — and bullied them into becoming partners in a conspiracy to get the cash to Junior when he turned 18, under the guise of a donation from a benefactor. Interesting: Were we supposed to conclude that Gretchen and Elliott really did screw him over back in the day? “Cheer up, beautiful people,” he said. “Here is where you get to make it right.” Gretchen and Elliott were not given the chance to respond. I didn’t read the line as a slam against the wealthy in general; I read it as an expression of Walt’s view that — contrary to what the Schwartzes told Charlie Rose — these rich people owed their wealth to his ideas. “Here is where you get to make it right” = “You can repay me for the life I made for you and for the credit you’ve denied me by executing my living (but not for long) will.”
But make no mistake: Walt’s will was wicked. His family didn’t want his blood money. Saying no to Walt’s ill-gotten riches was their attempt to salvage and redeem their lives with a virtuous choice — by breaking good. How dare he desecrate that heroic project and rape their meaning by forcing his vile legacy and his meaning upon them!
Walt then proceeded to take down the Meth empire (put THAT into your anti-drug crusade pipe and smoke it, Schwartzes!), but for all the wrong reasons (pride), and with the most extreme and immoral of ways. Murdering Lydia. Slaughtering Uncle Jack and his men. The law could have taken them out, and in a better fashion. But Walt got the visceral satisfaction of vengeance (but did he deserve it?), and anyway, like Walt gives a crap about “the law.”
Walt liberated Jesse, maybe because it was the right thing to do, but also because his plan, as conceived, required someone to do what he didn’t have the balls to do himself: Put a bullet through his brain. This facilitated a very nice moment for Jesse, who got a chance to make a choice about his own personal meaning and break toward good by throwing aside the gun, completing the arc that began with his coerced assassination of Gale with a redemptive mirror moment. Yet Jesse was incorrect when he told Walt that he was done doing what Walt wanted him to do. By refusing to kill Mr. White, Jesse was fulfilling the great moral command that Mr. White gave him back in high school: “APPLY YOURSELF.” But Jesse also got to turn it back on him too. You want death? Apply YOURSELF, bitch! The student had become the teacher.
Is it possible that Walt was hip to these ironies and how significant all of this might have been for Jesse? We’ll be debating that one for years, most likely in the context of the larger question that I suspect fans will be debating and arguing over for years to come: Did Walt redeem himself even a little bit in the finale?
Question: Who killed Walter White? It wasn’t cancer. It wasn’t murder. And it wasn’t suicide. He died from a bullet fired from the product of his own evil genius, a machine gun mounted on a garage door opener. But it wasn’t a direct strike: The bullet was one of many, sprayed randomly, that (I think?) hit him off a ricochet. He died… by accident? By incidental precipitant of the epic chemistry experiment that transmuted Walt into Heisenberg? By Fate? By contrived coincidence? By… Vince Gilligan, the God of this universe, taking responsibility for his creation and putting this rabid dog out of his misery?
Regardless, Walt got a great parting gift: He went into the abyss with all of his heroic, great-man delusions intact, feeling proud that he had built something as beautiful as Jesse’s pinewood box. Consider it a reward for five years of breaking bad for our amusement. Well done, my good and faithful servant. I guess you got what you deserved.
Goodbye, Walter White, you dirty little cheater. You made me think. You made me feel. You made me mad. You made me look at myself. And you made me mad again. You weren’t perfect. But 92 percent pure ain’t shabby. That’s Breaking Bad. And oh, the humanity!
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.