Monday, September 30, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.16 - "Felina" (The Series Finale)

"Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me...tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart."
-Marty Robins "El Paso" (as heard in the snowy cold open of "Felina")

I have a tendency to react to emotionally or physically draining events with deliberate self-amusing understatement. Be it fictional or real, my common refrain is often a nonchalant "Well, wasn't that something?" I save my blustery overreactions for the more trivial and silly. The big stuff? Not so much.

But last night, before that moment of winking pseudo-acceptance, I had one reddened eye on the clock. The countdown that had begun at 9:00 (or 5 years, 8 months and nine days ago) was winding down all-too quickly. And as we rose above the lifeless body of Walter Hartwell White with a God-like view last seen at the end of Season Four's amazing "Crawlspace", whatever tears I found myself wiping away were those of happiness.  Tears of not simply contentment, not just settling for something, but a true feeling of satisfaction. The Series Finale of Breaking Bad reflected the series as a whole. 

It gave me everything I could want. Yet, I was still left wanting more.
Even though I knew full well, there was no more to give.

That is the definition of a truly transcendent experience. And for me, that's what this series has provided, and what this finale underscored and then buttoned up. Was it the greatest TV finale of all time? I don't know. Is To Kill a Mockingbird better than Great Expectations? Is The Godfather better than Casablanca? It becomes a question more based on the individual's own sensibilities and tastes.  It's more the fact that it's even in the conversation. 

And even if one can rank other dramatic TV finales ahead of BREAKING BAD (though outside of THE SHIELD, most memorable finales are often due to the overall character "wrap-up" method used in the final minutes of series like SIX FEET UNDER and THE WIRE), it may be truly difficult to make the case for another series being a finer overall work from top to bottom. I know that's a case I can't make. Perhaps someone better call Saul?

In my previous blog, I ended my conversation about "Granite State" by positing that Walt was coming back to New Mexico to settle scores. And the structure of this episode -- the methodical way Walt takes care of was as if he had a "To-Do" list once he reached the Land of Enchantment.  Or to be more precise considering his health and overall plan -- a bucket list.

When Walt is hiding inside that Volvo, the red-and-blue police lights penetrating the snow-covered windows, he is literally hiding in plain sight. Much the way he always did before his one-way trip to New Hampshire several months ago. But after evading the authorities and loading the trunk full of cash, we discover the first things to be checked off Bad Santa's list are ensuring his family's financial future...and sticking it to Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz. I will freely admit I did not think we would see the Grey Matter duo again after that Charlie Rose interview, and that they were merely the catalyst in this latest reaction -- the spark that lit Walt's fuse. Clearly I whiffed on that one!

But after Walt lays out his plan for the Schwartzes to create an irrevocable trust for his son for his 18th birthday, that pride and ego of Walter White is still very much alive and well, even if his overall health isn't. He makes it clear that any and all financial issues arising from this trust -- be it the actual gift of the money to taxes or lawyers' fees -- must come from the $9.7 million dollars he's given them. 

And to hammer that point home, and more importantly, to further ensure that THEY carry out this task for him, he has them lit up with the red dots typically associated with laser scope rifles.  The scene plays both tense and funny, and far funnier still when we discover the so-called hit men are in fact just Badger and Skinny Pete with a pair of laser pointers. It's a moment of levity which has become quite rare over these last few episodes. And, it's also nice to see these beloved drug addled comic foils one more time, even if I didn't get my wish fulfillment of hearing them discuss BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

After daydreaming about making the perfect box, we learn that Jesse is still trapped inside one. His almost lifeless and vacant stare will serve him well if he decides to audition for one of AMC's other flagship TV series (and I don't mean MAD MEN -- and BTW, one wonders if this final season of BREAKING BAD may be just one more nudge for Matthew Weiner to raise his already impressive as fuck game -- but that's a blog for another series and time). 

When we reach the sequence that begins with brief snatches from the flash-forwards (the bacon forming the numbers 52, the M60 rifle in the trunk and removing the ricin vial from the outlet) and ends with fifteen seconds from the pilot episode, I was struck by a simple thought. I had previously stated that Walt's initial descent into this meth-madness wasn't the ride-along with Hank, but when Hank flips on the TV during Walt's 50'th birthday party to bask in the glory of his major crystal meth bust. 

But Walt having that memory while standing in his old living room (where it started) -- and on his 52nd birthday (so exactly two years later -- math, bitch) is another in a long line of things coming full circle on BREAKING BAD. Using past clips is exceedingly rare on this series, and it's done only to clarify a point that would otherwise remain an internal thought of the character with no realistic way to convey the information. Think of Hank sitting on the toilet at the end of "Gliding Over All". 

These fifteen seconds inform us of exactly what Walt is think and recalling at that moment, and being a very specific memory, its use is justifiable. Thankfully, Vince Gilligan knows that certain scenes later on, particularly the last few -- do not require our hands to be held in such an expository way.

Next up on the bucket list -- or perhaps now I should it Walt's hit list -- is one Lydia Rodarte-Quayle.
I was reluctant to embrace the more obvious speculation that the ricin was intended for her, but the moment we see her wheeling her little luggage trolley into the Grove Cafe, the writing was as clearly spray-painted on the wall as the word HEISENBERG. And this idea had been planted since we first encountered Lydia, with her reliably precise order of Chamomile Tea with Soy Milk and extra packets of Stevia.  So now I understand the danger in ordering the same food or drink all the time, meaning I better watch it with the Jameson & Ginger and those chicken fingers...

Having placed a bloody X on Lydia in his mental checklist, Walt merrily hums a happy tune while constructing a device to help deliver a final message later that evening. But he's reminded of another big task awaiting him when he tucks his wedding ring string necklace back into his shirt: a proper goodbye to the love of his life that was neither blue nor green -- Skyler.

After Skyler speaks with her still rightfully angry and protective sister Marie, she gives Walt five minutes. She tells him about the 3 masked thugs who threatened her and Holly if she ever blabbed about that woman she saw at the car wash. Which will only make a later conversation with a certain skittish brunette that much more satisfying for Walt. But Walt is there to give Skyler something that will finally pry her free from the boulder he rolled atop her a long time ago. It's the lottery ticket with the GPS coordinates -- to find the burial site for Hank and Steve Gomez.

He tells her to make up a story about how he forced his way in, and she now has this as a bargaining chip she can trade with the prosecution. Skyler than hears the true story of what happened to Hank, and one can speculate that Skyler will soon be telling her son and her sister the truth as well, as they will undoubtedly want to know what was said to her when Walt appeared at her home.  

Is there a reason for Skyler NOT to tell them?  It may not redeem him in their eyes, but it might help to some extent.  At least Flynn can know his father wasn't actually his uncle's murderer, and in fact killed those who were directly responsible. 

But the most important thing in this scene (and possibly this episode) happens next...

After Skyler testily cuts Walt off when it sounds like he's going to yet again repeat his mantra of how everything he did, he did for the family...he says something decidedly different:

"I did it for me. I liked it.
I was good at it. And, I
was...really, I was alive."

And more than anything else that Walt has ever said that wasn't based on a scientific principle or mathematical fact -- this is the most honest he has ever been over the past two years. Finally, an admission that's free of the denial and delusions (of grandeur and in general) that have plagued his words so often before. The truth, in all its unvarnished ignominy. Skyler sees this is the case, and even allows him a final moment with the daughter who will never know him. Something we see he will never get with his son. Unlike his closure with his wife and baby girl, that's one item on his list he will never be able to check off.

The final act or denouement features the payback we all knew was coming. My friend, paraphrasing the movie "Tombstone", put it well when he said "It's not about revenge, it's a reckoning." As one would expect in the final minutes of any BREAKING BAD episode, it's about tension growing more and more taut until it is snaps -- and here, it is released in a ballet of violence which was part Batman and part Sam Peckinpah (kids, just pretend I said Tarantino). 

I'd like to note that before the bullets start flying, Jack makes a decision that is completely based on impulsive anger and emotion and nothing else. As I've pointed out before, practically every time anyone does that on this show, there are severe consequences for what is invariably a bad decision. Why he needs to prove himself to a man he's about to kill is probably one of those villain cliches that BREAKING BAD would normally avoid, but it's so much damn fun here it's easily forgiven.

Walt lunges at Jesse, and it's reminiscent of the Walt/Skyler wrestling match, only instead of a knife, it's a car keys remote that's being held above them. CLICK: The crew is slaughtered in the most satisfying display of Nazi-killing carnage since Inglourious Basterds (I brought it back to Tarantino after all). 

But the real business at hand happens after that M60 runs out of ammo. Jesse wraps his slave chains around Meth Damien's throat.  As Walt watches, one is struck by the notion that they're like Cain & Abel, and certainly represent Walt's two surrogate sons -- even if he only ever truly cared about one of them. Back in Rabid Dog mode, Jesse strangles Todd to the point of eventually breaking the now truly Dead Eyed Opie Piece of Shit's neck. 

Meanwhile, Walt is holding a gun on Uncle Adolf/Jack, who's comically reaching for his cigarette while trying to reason with the former Lord of the Blue. It's a distorted mirror reflection of how Jack executed Hank. Except Hank went out with a sense of dignity, accepting his inescapable fate...whereas Jack is bargaining for his life, telling Walt if he wants to find the money they stole--

And just like Hank, Jack's words are cut off by a bullet to the brain, blood gruesomely spattering across the camera lens. FINALLY, it wasn't about the money.

After that, just as I and a million other bozos predicted, Walt and Jesse are the last men standing. Walt slides the gun over, encouraging Jesse to kill him. He never planned on leaving here alive, and if he ever had a thought to kill Jesse, it's clearly gone now. Actually, Walt's original intentions are debatable, as one could speculate that Walt would have easily deduced that Jesse was being forced to cook and was being held prisoner -- it's actually less of a leap that realizing that Hank took his "signed" copy of Leaves of Grass and then checking to see if there was a tracker on his car.

"Do it." "Say the words -- say you want this! Nothing happens until I hear you say it!" "I want this"

As Jesse sees the blood seeping out of Walt's side, he lowers the gun. "Do it yourself."

Walt takes a call from Lydia on Todd's cell phone, and he also takes some obvious pleasure in telling her he poisoned her. After all, this is a woman who had his family threatened and even ordered his own death. Tossing away the phone, he shares one last look and a nod with Jesse, and that moment says more about these two men than reams of dialogue ever could. Jesse is free, and whether that freedom is short-lived due to the cops snaking their way up the road or he makes a new life for himself -- that's all post-credits and up to our own imaginations.

Weakened by his general health as well as the blood leaking from his side, Walt takes his first and last tour of the meth lab. As he gazes lovingly at the equipment, including a gas mask, one can just make out the sound of police sirens far away.  Much like those calls to scramble the police earlier in the day (according to Marie), I imagine Walt made sure either Badger or Skinny Pete called the cops at a certain time, as the Nazi compound is way too far from civilization for anyone to hear anything, even an M60 machine gun. 

As we hear "Baby Blue" by Badfinger playing on the soundtrack, Walt finally succumbs to his ultimate fate, but with a look of...if not contentment, then satisfaction. His list has been completed, ending with being found in a meth lab so that it will now be assumed he was always the one manufacturing the drug, no one else -- including Jesse Pinkman.

Again, whether one chooses to compare this series finale to others is an individual choice. I will say that the quality of a story should never be measured by the weight of tears alone. BREAKING BAD has never been a "tear-jerker" style show; it doesn't go for sweeping music that plucks at the heartstrings nor does it go for either extended tear ridden reunions or goodbyes. So any tears shed are truly earned, and not wrung out of the audience by the easiest employed of manipulative story machinations.

But my final tears actually had nothing to do with the story...they were induced by our collective farewell to the most well crafted, exquisitely acted and beautifully written television series I have ever and possibly will ever see. 

Although they will never read this silly blog, I want to thank Vince Gilligan and his spectacular team of writers as well as Bryan Cranston and his superlative roster of co-stars for amazing me and inspiring me with each and every episode. I'm even a little choked up as I type this, so all that's left for me to say is...

"Well, wasn't that something?"

Whoops, almost forgot -- I'll just cut & paste what I did last time (as this blog wore me OUT).

PS: Some of you may know that I've been a featured guest on the Breaking Geek podcast. It's a fairly free-spirited, occasionally ribald and always entertaining conversational podcast with the gang from Geek Girl Soup. We've been recording Tuesday nights, and they're usually available to feed your ears the next day. You can find them here:

However...I am ALSO going to be co-hosting a LIVE Breaking Bad podcast with Jack (of the Jay & Jack Podcasting Empire) starting tonight at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time. 

Not only will you get the full recap that I've largely abandoned in these blogs, but there should be some LIVE-ly discussion, especially when we open it up to the listeners to call in with comments, questions and whatever heck else they wanna say (but without cursing). Here's a link with the information on how to access that podcast tonight:

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it certainly was something, as are you and your blog.

    Thanks for enhancing my Breaking Bad experience.