Breaking Bad Parting Thoughts

I just finished watching the final episodes of Breaking Bad & I want to blather about how the show ended. So...spoiler alert. I loved Breaking Bad. And I loved it despite the fact that there came a moment, probably during the third season, when I got really angry at it. I'd  loved Breaking Bad as an unlikely hero's journey. I must have thought the title was ironic, or humorous, rather than a plot summary.

I'd loved watching Walter grow stronger. Seeing him stand up for himself, develop a sense of pride--oh, that was satisfying. When I realized that Walt wasn't morally grey but, increasingly, utterly immoral, I was disappointed. I'd been rooting for him. I wanted to root for him.

But I couldn't.

So I had to reorient myself towards the show. It wasn't what I originally wanted, but I like Breaking Bad better for its uncompromising morality. For giving us characters that are complex and relatable--lovable--but never losing sight of the bottom line: certain things are wrong, no matter who's doing them or why.

So I was ready to see Walt get what he deserved. I knew that meant something terrible--that the show would end with his fall from grace. I was pretty sure he'd die. I figured he'd suffer before it happened. I couldn't guess what would happen to the other characters, but I'll tell you the truth: I hated a lot of them.

Hank and Marie, for example. Hank actually did become an unlikely hero, as the show hammered away at his thick crust of smug dickishness to unearth a bedrock of uncompromising good guy. But from that very first episode, when Hank is delighted to soak up the sunlight at Walt's birthday party, he understood his place in the family as #1 male. Whatever else he doubted about himself, he always had Walt to kick around.

When Hank confronts Walter White not as a whipping boy but as a nemesis, he isn't just determined to put a bad man behind bars. He wants to put Walter back in his place--as a lesser, a subordinate. His pride won't allow for anything else.

And, you know, when it comes to the DEA agent and the drug dealer, that's natural. Even if Hank's professional and personal impulses harmonize in an ugly way. But when his last words were, "You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see--he made up his mind ten minutes ago," I was...not that sorry to see him die. Because five seasons down the line, Hank is still sounding the same note that he did at the beginning: no kind words without a 'but' at the end, taking them all away.

And Marie was worse. So much worse. Because she had all the attitude and none of the vocation. That scene in "Ozymandias" where Marie, having gotten a call from Hank that he'd arrested Walter, decides to march on down to the car wash and do a victory lap? She is so pleased to have won. She is so pleased to be in charge, dictating conditions, forcing her will on her sister.

Marie is there to rub it in. She wants to see Skyler fall apart. Her sister's naked pain is Marie's reward for all she's suffered. It makes her feel good. In miniature, that's the entire show: how fear and pride can make us cruel.

It struck me that as Walter became more and more evil, his flashes of goodness stood out. It was easy to focus on his better impulses because they were so extraordinary, in the sense of being...out of the ordinary, i.e., rare. With Hank and Marie, it's the opposite. They're both basically decent people, but it got so easy for me to focus on their petty impulses and small-mindedness.

My feelings about Skyler were more mixed. Because, again, I hated the way she treated Walt at the beginning. When she first finds out about his cancer diagnosis, she does not care at all what he wants. It's his life, and his death, and he should have a right to make his choices. But she wants him to get treatment, and he doesn't. So Skyler sets about bullying him to her point of view. She stages an intervention with her sister and brother-in-law--her allies, not his, people who are happy to bulldoze over Walt--because she knows he'll cave.

That's the status quo. That's Walt's ordinary world. Before the meth, before Skyler knew about the meth. And I hated it. So when the final season took us back to the backyard for a birthday celebration and Walter is going on about how grateful he is to Skyler, Hank & Marie for having convinced him to get treatment, I felt a certain vicious satisfaction. How does she like it when someone walks all over her? How does she like it when her wants and desires are just little nuisances to be batted aside so someone else can get his way?

But, oh, it made me heartsick as well. That moment when Skyler says, "I'm not your wife, I'm your hostage," with such bitter self-awareness. Her slow realization that she was powerless, that she was afraid, and how it weighed on her.

Whatever Skyler's misdeeds, she didn't deserve to have them fall back on her--let alone in such a terrifying, strengthened form. If the show did anything right, absolutely right, it was to show that 'an eye for an eye' is a foolish motto, that it can only lead to escalation and endless slaughter.

Which brings me back to Walt. His refrain this last season was: this is the last bad thing I'm going to do. After this, I'll wash my hands of evil. But, of course, he was wrong and with increasing frequency. His assurances grew shrill; his insistence that he only resorted to evil under duress, after exhausting all other options, grew unconvincing.

I think my single favorite line of the whole season was Mike's--when he says to Walter, "Just because you shot Jessie James, don't make you Jesse James." The show rushed us through two attempts to fill the void that Gus' death left. The Irish cooks led by Declan and then the white supremacists that Todd brought into the picture. Both of these gangs were thinly drawn, Declan and his gang especially, but they served a purpose.

If the show hadn't ended, they could have followed the Lydia/white supremacist clan with a third group, and then a fourth. One part of Walter White's fall from grace was the destruction of his myth. He wasn't special, he wasn't necessary. He did not change the business; the business changed him.

In the final episodes, Breaking Bad revealed the motivations (justifications?) that drove the entire show to be hollow and false.

I mean, in particular: money and family.

The show took it for granted that most people will do things they believe to be wrong, if you pay them enough. Maybe it only takes ten dollars. Maybe it takes ten thousand, or ten million. Money was the irresistible temptation. But by the end, every single one of the main characters had found a line in the sand, a place where money didn't matter at all. Where it was repellant.

When Walter Jr. says that he doesn't want his father's money. When Skyler says she doesn't want Walter's money. When Jessie tosses his millions out the window of his car, and drives off into the sunset penniless.

Walt crosses the line twice. First, when he offers to trade everything he's hoarded in exchange for Hank's life. He's desperate. The offer is sincere and clearly hard for him--a major sacrifice. He thinks he's doing something good, something moral, but it's hopeless. He can't redeem himself by buying someone's life. That's the poison talking. The belief he's developed, as a major player in a drug empire, that blood and money can be exchanged like currency.

The almost-very-last moment of the show, when Uncle Jack promises to lead Walter to the rest of his stash, is the second time Walter reaches that line in the sand. But it's the first when Walter really doesn't care about the money at all. It's the first time when money doesn't move him, or change his mind.

And the second thing. Family. It was very tempting, especially at first, to root for Walt because his intentions were good. Everything he did, he did for his family! Which is why it was so important, so necessary, that Walter have that final conversation with Skyler.

That's when Skyler and Walter Jr.'s anger is validated, clarified, by Walter's confession. Every time he said he'd committed a crime for 'his family', he was giving them a share of the responsibility and absolving himself. He was making them carry his burden. He takes full responsibility for his acts only once in the show, when he says, "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it."

By the end, Walter had become so terrible. A monster. A devil. Everyone who knew him rejected him, and that hurt him but didn't change him. He had passed the point of redemption. I thought, when he killed Mike or tried to sweet-talk Jesse into fleeing the country, that he might have passed the point of any self-awareness, too. A moment of clarity was the best I could have hoped for him. Not remorse--he showed none; he died committing murder; and that was absolutely right for him--but he had the moment of clarity, and that's made the episode work for me as a finale.

And Jesse.

I read a few complaints that Jesse was absent during the final season, or didn't have enough of a role to play. I was grateful. His repeated attempts to withdraw from the business, to give away his cash, to flee or turn witness made me hope he might survive. And I wanted him to survive.

I'd like to believe that his time in the cage, being forced to cook for the white supremacists, is all the punishment he's going to get.

And I like that when Walter passed him the gun, offered him the revenge he had to be craving, he didn't pick it up. He'd taken enough lives. He was done.