The Breaking Bad Finale Broke Badly

 In Film & TV, Pop Culture

Is a spoiler warning even necessary? Seriously people: spoilers for all of Breaking Bad.

breaking-bad-final-season-posterThis week, Breaking Bad said its final goodbye to Walter Hartwell White, marking the finale of what is sure to go down in history as one of the greatest television shows of all time. With gripping plotting, amazing acting, top-notch production values and more, Breaking Bad delivered 62 episodes of consistent excellence that nearly never missed the mark.

More and more these days, though, television shows are remembered for how they resolve than anything else. The Shield will always be remembered for Vick Mackey’s amazing, awful, pitch-perfect send off. Lost, despite its insane popularity, massive pop-cultural impact and ratings, has become synonymous with failure to stick the landing after a final episode that left fans shrugging and wishing for more.

So for series creator Vince Gilligan and crew, bringing a series as ground-breaking and beloved as Breaking Bad to a close was a herculean task. As the final 8 episodes drew to a close, we all held our breath, wondering if they could do it. And as the dust settled on Sunday night, it seemed they’d nailed it. The internet was abuzz with adulations, many declaring Breaking Bad to be the best show with the best finale ever (even going so far as to compare it favorably to The Wire, which is clear tomfoolery).

Though the resolution was emotionally satisfying, the Breaking Bad finale betrayed the logic of the show.

Walt's come a long way. Did it matter?

Walt’s come a long way. Did it matter?

Since the first episode, creator Vince Gilligan has proclaimed that Breaking Bad’s stark moral universe is one in which “actions have consequences”. (This, by the way, is just one of the many themes my friend Blake Atwood explores in his excellent book The Gospel According to Breaking Bad).  We saw that horribly (and expertly) portrayed again and again this season: Walt turns on Jesse, but his choice to involve Uncle Jack’s Neo Nazis results in Hank’s death. Jesse tries to escape from Todd’s meth lab prison so Todd made good on his promise to kill Andrea.

Gilligan’s “actions have consequences” mantra has driven the show since the first season, from Walt’s original decision to reject Elliot and Gretchen’s money to recruiting Jesse. Allowing Jane to die brought a plane crashing into Walt’s house. Breaking into Gus Fring’s inner circle leads to Hank getting shot and that grisly showdown in the nursing home.

The show promised that Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg would have consequences. But that promise wasn’t paid off.

Be a Monster for Halloween!

Be a Monster for Halloween!

The Walter White we meet in the first episode is dying of cancer. His original goal in cooking meth was to earn enough money to care for his family after he died. Though his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen offer to pay for his treatment, Walt refuses out of pride manifested as little man syndrome. According to the logic of the show, this first refusal should’ve had dramatic consequences.

And in a certain sense, it did: the whole show is one inevitable step after another, driven by Walt’s unquenchable pride. But what ending do we get? Walt dies, and (we assume) his family gets all the money they’ll ever need. Walt vanquishes every enemy he created for himself and Skyler escapes every consequence of his actions. Walt even makes Elliot and Gretchen feel small, intimidating them into being the untraceable conduit for his money to reach his family.

Don’t miss my interview with Gospel According to Breaking Bad author Blake Atwood on #StoryMen!

In the end, Walt gets everything he wanted in the first episode. The monster gets a happy ending.

Granted, death doesn’t seem to be very happy, but Walt’s death has been a reality since episode one. Walt never wanted to live, he only wanted to provide a legacy for his family. In this sense, then, Walt faces no true consequences for his actions. He wins. Even his adopted son Jesse is free.

Despite the massive foreshadowing that at least Jesse (PINKman) and Holly (always dressed in pink), and possibly even Skyler (who wore a lot of pink in the last few episodes) might die as a result of Walt’s actions, they all survive Walt, finally escaping Heisenberg’s reign of terror.

All this provided for an emotionally satisfying ending, the ending we wanted. As several tweeps observed, this was by far the happiest ending possible for the show. But Walt didn’t earn his redemption. He finally confesses to Skyler that his actions as Heisenberg were “for me”, that they weren’t really about the family. He made a good drug lord. He felt alive as Heisenberg in a way Walt never did. As Heisenberg, he felt big.

Ultimately, Walt uses “Heisenberg” to conquer all his enemies. All he really proves is that he’s bigger than everyone else. He never actually repents.

We don’t see Walt “learn his lesson” – we’re supposed to assume it was during his months in the cabin, perhaps inspired by repeated viewings of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. But he returns to Albuquerque, announces his revelation to Skyler, then proceeds to fix everything as Heisenberg.

In the end, Heisenberg is the solution to Walt’s problems, not the cause. He gets to have his cake and eat it too. So as the final song plays, the lyrics proclaiming “I got what I deserved,” and Walter White collapses to the floor, he has a contented, relieved smile on his face.

Did Walt earn his happy ending?

Did Walt earn his happy ending?

Of course he does. Walt got everything he wanted. And we smile along, because we did too. We loved seeing Heisenberg humiliate and intimidate Elliot and Gretchen. Outsmart Uncle Jack. Give Jesse his chance for revenge. And take care of Walt’s family. It was a consummately satisfying resolution.

The problem is, for a show that prided itself on its moral realism, the ending couldn’t be more disingenuous. Walt’s actions, in the end, didn’t actually have any consequences.

Bottom Line: By giving Walt a happy ending, the writers betrayed Breaking Bad’s driving conviction that actions have consequences. We liked it, but it was the wrong ending.

YOUR TURN: What did you think of the Breaking Bad finale? Did Walt earn his happy ending?

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  • Adam Dickison

    I feel like the consequences aren’t laid out for us clear and plain. We have to deal wrestle with them. Walt’s family might get the money, but they’re in shambles. His son hates him, his wife hates him, his daughter will never know who he was. Jesse is alive, but he has nobody now. His family is long gone, every girl that he loved has died violently in front of him, and now his “father figure” image of Walt is ruined.

    Sure Walt’s family I supposed to get some money, but we never saw it. We don’t know. We hope though. We don’t know if Skyler will escape consequences. The DA could still nail her to the wall. We don’t know, but we hope not. Jesse may be able to turn his life around and get back to that moment when he made the box, but we don’t know. We just hope so.

    I think at the end, for me, I was left looking at a lot of lives ruined by the actions of one man. But I was also left with a lot of hope. Hope that wasn’t handed to me in a sure fire final scene. Hope that wasn;t guaranteed, but it’s still hope. I think the final message of Breaking Bad was that there are consequences for your actions and they can ruin lives. Our actions may be in our own best interest, but the consequences of self interest are never isolated. They spill over. But even in the brokenness of bad decisions and consequences that have ruined lives, relationships, and possible futures there is hope……

  • Kelly V

    I agree with Adam completely. Walt has lost a tremendous amount. His wife is hurt forevermore, his children will remember him as a monster, his students and coworkers will wonder if they ever truly knew him. When he set on this meth journey, he thought it was about leaving his family money. He never realized he would also be leaving a legacy of ruin. He never saw that because he was blinded by his pride.

    I think at the cabin he came to a realization of his actions. Yes in some ways (maybe) he achieved his ultimate goal, but he paid with something far more valuable—his name. Walter White. His family will run from that name for the rest of their lives.

    There was no way he could rectify all his wrongs. After all when he first spoke of killing Uncle Jack and the gang, his purpose was to take back the money and give it to his kids. By the time he left New Hampshire, he knew that wasn’t his reason. If he was going to reveal where Hank was buried, he had to kill them or they would kill Skyler and his kids.

    For Walter, having Eliot and Gretchen give the money to his family was a solution to get what he wanted. However, think about how prideful he had been about that in the past. Perhaps the trust will still be from his meth work, yet his family won’t know that. They won’t feel provided for and loved by him. They will think the world of this couple that Walter hated. Walter swallowed his pride (something he had never done) to let this couple be the heroes. It seems small to us, but I think for Walter White—that was a huge consequence.

  • I’m with the first two commenters. I think they nailed it – the ending didn’t betray anything in my opinion. The consequences were profound for him and those who survived. It was a perfect marriage of tragic and satisfying. Let’s use our imaginations: If it was a wrong ending, what do you propose would have been a better one? Based on your commentary, I suppose we could imagine an ending where everyone winds up dead (most in fact are, save 4, or 5 counting Marie), the money is gone, etc. How would that have been a right / better / more fitting ending? I’m not seeing it.

  • I hear what you’re all saying, but Walt seemed awfully content there with his Blue Meth at the end.

    Blake Atwood posited a fascinating ending I loved: that Walter, much like Dante’s Satan, would end up alive and alone, his whole family destroyed by his decision to cook.

    This to me would’ve been a more appropriate (and just) ending: Walt loses the very thing he set out to protect (his family) and ends up alone. Though I guess if what he really wanted was his meth, that would’ve been sort of happy in its own way.

  • I was surprised as well with the ending of BB. While a cinematic masterpieces, those last few seconds of Walter’s life showed his own contentment with himself and how he had managed to control and manipulate everything necessary.

    Yes-things got fixed and he lost, but Walt pulled it off. He was the hurter in the end instead of the hurtee.

  • Brannon Hancock

    One of the things I found intriguing about the show was that it was about far more than Walt’s decisions or pride. EVERY character on the show (maybe with the exception of Flynn… I can’t remember) made choices that were wrong and struggled with pride.
    Jesse continued to make bad choice after bad choice. Skyler had an affair (which I found myself more mad about than the meth cooking…interesting moral debate). Hank, in the beginning, was a complete jerk. He mellowed out later. But he went rogue and was out for revenge. Marie was a thief who couldn’t swallow her pride.
    In the end, Walt said it was all about him. However, in the beginning, I don’t think that was the case. I think his intentions were more tied to his family. However, over time, his heart was hardened and his pride got him deeper and deeper and more selfish.
    All in all, it was a fascinating show because of the moral questions and implications that rose from it. I fall somewhere in the middle. The ending was entertaining…even pretty good. IMO, in a way, it calls into question priorities. What did he care about most? At first, it was his family….and he definitely lost that. However, because of the hardening of his heart, I think he began to care about the money and power more.

  • Brannon Hancock

    By the way, I am thinking about joining the Concerned Nazarenes. Rob Bell is the devil.

  • Um…who is this posting either AS me or with the same name as me?

  • JR – I can buy that. Like Vic at the end of the Shield, being alive and alone is probably the most unthinkable outcome. But at the same time, you have to account for the fact that Walt is an antihero. We’re rooting for him (and so in a sense we’re morally culpable along with him). We know he has to pay for what he’s done. There must be some justice – but we care about him. We’re on his side, so we DO want him to both get his just desserts but also have a satisfying or fitting end. In the end he does lose everything, the very family he set out to care for is destroyed etc. I still say they stuck it.

  • Barack Obama

    That would be me Brannon. Don’t know why…but I thought it would be funny. My sincerest apologies.

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  • Spot on.

    I wish some critics would have understood this, getting into the internal mechanics of the show, instead of making their vaguely jesus-juked connections between Breaking Bad and total depravity.

    Seriously, some of the stuff out there is ridiculous – http://anirenicon.com/2013/10/03/christians-abandon-the-gospel-coalition-in-droves-after-positive-breaking-bad-review-citing-shows-brief-nudity-as-unwholesome/

    Thank you for an insightful review.

  • Thanks for the plug JR.

    I read an even more fascinating ending, one that Emily Nussbaum (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2013/09/breaking-bad-finale-reviewed.html) put forth after the show actually ended and used what was seen on film as fodder for the ending. The more I think about her proposed ending, the more I wish it would have ended just like that (partially because it fits well with what I thought might happen).

    While I definitely recommend reading the article, the short of it is that there should have been a final scene, a flashback showing Walter frozen dead in his car, the payoff being that every scene following his little prayer—”just get me home”—were his dying hopes.

    That would have been a just ending for Walter, in my humble opinion.

  • allessior

    This was a horrible ending. As with most things in today’s ass backwards society, we see evil once again triumphing over good. Lives are destroyed, killers run free, the good guys are fumbling idiots, families are torn apart, and we are supposed to believe that because Walt got what HE wanted in the end that somehow this is “satisfying” to the audience. Look at all of the carnage that he left in his wake, ultimately causing the most excrutiating pain to his own family that one could imagine. Oh yes, we are supposed to somehow cut Walt some slack because he puts a hit out on the nazi group that killed Hank and the other DEA agent. You see, the writer, this SICK-minded “writer” wants us to believe that even the most deranged and evil among us have virtue, because the drug money he made through the deaths of Hank and everyone else is planned for his family. Oh, this writer had me, with the great acting that could have turned any script into a winner. But he blew it for me as soon as Hank was killed, as soon as he took the baby,mas soon as he fought his own wife and grown son. You see, most of us still root for the good guy, what is good and right with the world, that the devil himself is defeated soundly and without question. But this SICK writer wants us to belueve the opposite: that it is EVIL that is ultimately good. Oh, this is so wrong in so many ways, where evil wins time after time, without any chance for good to win out, because the writer shows us that GOOD is so dumb and so wrong. I will NEVER EVER again watch any series that this writer is involved in, EVER. This series ended like the CRAP that evil and bad is, and this series was the EPITOME of BAD.

  • allessior

    Oh, and did I say that I wish that Walt had died in the end without the satisfaction of knowing that his family would be cared for? Yes, a more satisfying ending would have been an excrutiatingly painful death without one ounce of satisfaction in Walts puney little, evil mind. What a DISASTROUS ending!

  • allessior

    There is no real message to this ending other than as in society today, evil aways wins. Today, good is bad and bad is good. The cop that stops the evil criminal, by protecting his own life, is evil for having done that. We see large protests today in support of the evil that runs rampant in the streets. We see Israel as a target, not only by terrorists, but by politicians who try to justify the most evil of terrorist attacks by supporting terrorist groups and criticizing those who would protect themselves from the terror. The “writer” ofthis series attempts to make us believe that Walt’s actions had virtue, because he was working for his family ultimately. But in order to do that we have to forget about the utter carnage that Walt left in his wake. He destroyed so many good lives, and he destroyed his own family, yet somehow the writer believes we will be “satisfied” in the end because Walt wants all of his drug money to go to his family? How utterly absurd. How deranged, how sick can one writer be?

  • allessior

    The “right” ending would have been the shooting of Walt by DEA or police, or his incarceration and ultimate conviction for all of the EVIL he had committed. This series was BULL SHIT because it conveys the message the utter EVIL has redeeming qualities, but it doesn’t

  • allessior

    You can’t murder innocent people for the sake of “your family”. The character “Walt” was flawed from the beginning with an over-valued sense that if it is good for the family, then somehow it is morally justified. It was just a twisted view of life by the writer, who showed us how evil is winning out over good. Skyler’s affair was presented as though one could have affairs with no moral consequences, just as all of Walt’s deeds had no moral consequences, just death and destruction. Skyler’s affair was evil, but somehow ok, justified by Walt’s behavior, just as Walt’s actions were evil, but somehow ok because there was money “for the family”. Evil is good, and good is evil. WHAT A JOKE!

  • Adam Dickison

    O RLY?

  • @allessior:disqus I don’t disagree with your analysis of the show, but I don’t agree that the writer was glamorizing it. I never got the sense (from any of the interviews conducted with Vince Gilligan throughout the course of the show) that the writers saw Walt as a hero. Quite the opposite – they saw him as a villain. This was an origin story for a terrible person.

    That said, I find it fascinating (and troubling) that so many people were satisfied by the ending. I wasn’t satisfied. I was heartbroken, for many of the reasons you’ve elaborated. That said, it also felt fitting. This was a morality play inverted. It showed that if, like Walter White, you choose to live a life of violence, you can. But the price is death.

    That’s a great message, IMO. And it sounds like you agree with it.

    Further, I’m a bit troubled by the violence in your tone. You seem to crave that Walt receive the violence he’s meted out on the world, rather than some redemption for him. Why is that?

    Thanks for your comments 🙂

  • allessior

    I am a strong believer in vengence for evil acts. As we know from history, and as I know from personal tragedies, the perp more ofthan than not finds some way to either beat the system or is not punished commensurate with the devastation they have left in their wake. Example, someone is brutally raped, and the lives of that person and the entire family are in essence ruined forever. Pick your crime and the same impacts apply.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not inherently violent, but, I do believe that today the punishment metted by “the system” does not satisfy the public’s desire for justice. Most people believe in righteous might, and if it is not applied by the law, then at some point either God or someone else MUST do it. Otherwise evil will triumph in the end.

    The ending of Breaking Bad did the same thing to the viewer. It robbed us of the satisfaction of righteous might, and so evil was not vanquished and all of the suffering that Walt left in his wake was never avenged.

  • Again I agree with you… but that was the point the show was making. It sounds to me like what the show does (allow Walt to “get away”) mirrors what you think too often happens in real life (a lack of full justice). So… you’re not really mad at the show, right?

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