How good was the last episode of Breaking Bad?

As the title suggests, this blog contains spoilers.  It is dedicated to my good friend James MacDowell, king of endings.

Last night I watched ‘Felina’, the final episode of Breaking Bad.  I also watched the preceding three on the same night; as usual, I am late to the television party, but also as usual, what I lack in punctuality I try to make up for in speed!  However, even though the episode aired nearly four months ago (29 September last year), when I did my first spoiler-immune Breaking Bad internet search this morning, I didn’t find the volume of critical commentary about it that I was expecting.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places (and all suggestions are welcome), but in the absence of much criticism to engage with, it made me want to write down my own thoughts.  What follows will not try to cover all the bases, but will mainly focus on the characters present in the programme’s final scenes: Walter, Jesse, Todd, ‘Uncle’ Jack Belker, and Jack’s gang.

In his very interesting discussion of Walter’s character transformation, which was written after the end of the show’s fourth season, Jason Mittell suggests that Walter’s moral trajectory can be ‘benchmarked by those who die or are injured at his hands.’  Walter’s first act of violence is one of self-defence committed on the spur of the moment and under duress, and directed towards a dangerous criminal.  By the end of the fourth season, Walter has poisoned a young boy whose only connection to the trade in crystal meth is that he is loved by Jesse, Walter’s partner, whom Walter is trying to manipulate.  In the (first half of) the fifth season, Walter orders a Michael Corleone-esque simultaneous hit of ten prisoners who pose a threat to his interests.

The turn that events take in ‘the final season’ (or the second half of season five, depending on how one chooses to divide up the last sixteen episodes) might come as a surprise then.  Walt ceases to outdo those around him in terms of brutality, ruthlessness and remorselessness, and becomes a victim once more.  The turning point comes in ‘Ozymandias’, the series’ pre-penultimate episode.  Walt has been lured to his millions, buried out in the desert, by Jesse, and is arrested there by Hank and Steve.  Before the cuffs go on, Walt summons Jack and his crew, giving them coordinates for the location.  He tells them not to come at the end of the phone call, but they come anyway.  The result: Hank and Steve are killed, and Jack takes most of Walt’s money and, because Walt tells them where he is hiding, Jesse too.  Todd tortures Jesse and then keeps him in a hole in the ground by night, and by day forces him to cook crystal meth.

If Heisenberg’s ‘unique selling point’ is the blue colour of his meth (and, of course, its high purity), the thing that is often suggested as a near-USP for Breaking Bad is the scope of the transformation that the main character undergoes – from Mr Chips to Scarface, as creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan would have it.  ‘I like the idea’, Gilligan has said, ‘of approaching a bad guy character from a starting point of zero, from never having jaywalked or littered to doing some of the crazy shit Walter White does’ (I read this quote in Mittell’s chapter, cited above).

Gilligan (unsurprisingly, given that he is the show’s mastermind) identifies here something that gives the programme much of its cumulative power.  It turns out to be a double-edged sword, however, because it can also help us to put our finger on some problems with ending the series with a group of villains like Todd, Jack, and Jack’s crew (hereafter ‘the crew’).

Like many of Walt’s former antagonists, the crew appear to have known nothing but a criminal existence for most of their adult lives, at least.  However, unlike those other antagonists – I am thinking mainly of Tuco, Hector and Gus – we are given no backstories to invest the characters with a sense of history.  This is not just a point about devoting time to developing fleshed-out characters.  It is fitting that such development does not occur, given what the crew represent, and how they function.  They are given no redeeming characteristics, and what makes them, and Todd especially, peculiarly terrifying, is that criminality and violence seem to be for them not means to other ends, but ends in themselves.  Breaking Bad shows us men committing horrible acts in the name of avenging family members and other loved ones, in the pursuit of recognition and self-actualisation, and in the name of trying to protect or provide for one’s family, but never in the sustainedly brutal and dead-eyed way that the crew do.  To be sure, all of the crew’s members will have been ‘made the way they are’ by events in their past, but they are neither connected (chained?) to the past nor oriented to the future in the way that most of the series’ other characters are.  Money in Breaking Bad is often tantalisingly held out as the opportunity to start a whole new life (even if it does not occur in practice).  But it is hard to imagine the crew transforming (that word again) their lives in any significant respect.  They are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, but it does not appear to have affected their lifestyles at all.  (It might be worth noting that near the beginning of the final episode we see a pair of people who certainly do know how to make their money work: Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz.)  These are a purely death-dealing bunch of men, a monstrous perversion of a family.  (This may be one of Breaking Bad‘s more interesting debts to the Western.  There is a clear precedent for the crew in, for example, the Clanton family in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.)

Gus was such a perfect foil to Walt because like Walt, as Gus himself observes, he ‘hide[s] in plain sight’.  In the character of Gus, Breaking Bad dramatises the thin line between legal and illegal enterprise.  The way in which Walt goes about trying to amass a private fortune is not endorsed by the culture he lives in, but the aim itself most certainly is.

In season 5 especially, one can also detect similarities between Walt and his non-criminal antagonist, Hank.  Both are not only supremely driven men, but they are also prepared to sacrifice others to their aims.  Steve worries about the risks of sending Jesse to Walt in case Walt plans to kill him; Hank dismisses the worry by disregarding the value of the life of a drug-addicted murderer.  Hank is also one of a series of men who meets his end as a result of his overwhelming drive to best another man, and do it personally.  Hank ends up in the desert with Walt and only minimal back-up because his dogged pursuit of Heisenberg has left him at some distance from the procedures and support of the DEA.  If Jesse had gone to Walt wearing a wire and not come up with his own ‘better idea’ for revenge and conviction, he would not have been tortured and enslaved by Todd and the rest of the crew; if Gus had not felt it necessary to go to Hector and gloat, he would not have left himself open to Walt’s attack.  This strand continues right until the end.  Jack’s pride – his honour code, we might say – dictates that Walt, even though he is about to die, must see and know that Jesse is not his (Jack’s) partner but his slave, thus giving Walt the chance to retrieve the trigger for the weapon that kills the crew.

It would be impertinent to construct one’s own hypothetical ending, and I will not attempt to do so here, but I do think, nevertheless, that we see some dissipation of the show’s central concept in its final three episodes especially.  For me, Breaking Bad works best when, along the lines I sketch (inadequately) above, it places Walt’s actions uncomfortably close in some respects to drives that are not only tolerated but endorsed and celebrated: the pursuit of money and recognition, enterprise, prudent economic thinking, rationalised production, giving the consumer the highest-quality version possible of the product that they want…  The crew take us to another (ideological) place.  For me, this is less satisfying, but I am prepared to acknowledge that perhaps I am imposing my own pattern of coherence upon the series as a whole, a pattern which cannot quite accommodate its final movements.  Both Jason Mittell and Jason Jacobs have highlighted the show’s commitment to the creation of a world where bad actions have dire consequences.  Taking this step back, it does become easier to see the crew as a capstone to the series.

For the first time in a long time, we are (I would say) unequivocally on Walt’s side once more when he enters the compound to murder the crew.  Clearly, this is ‘relative morality’ at work (see, once again, Mittell’s chapter).  But should we submit unquestioningly to being given an ending where a man who has committed despicable acts gets to go out in a blaze of glory (and to act as Jesse’s avenging angel to boot), simply because he is (probably) less morally reprehensible than those he kills?  Should we count this as sleight of hand?  Likewise: it is, on one level, deeply satisfying to see all the loose ends of the story tied up, and for all characters to be left in a place where most viewers would (I would venture) want, or at least expect, to leave them.  But again, it is Walt doing the tying up.  The mechanics of well-wrought storytelling and the final acts and desires of a villain dovetail here to satisfy our desire for neatness and certainty.  Of course, this is nothing that film and television has not done countless times before.  But if the ecstatic reception of Breaking Bad is to be taken seriously, then we should hold the programme to the highest standards possible.  Should we be satisfied with the invitations to satisfaction we are offered?

I like to end on a grateful note wherever possible, so I will end by talking about Jesse.  Aaron Paul is a beautiful gift, who is better at conveying thought and feeling by just looking at other characters than any other actor I can think of.  It was not far into the series that I became much more interested in charting Jesse’s development than Walt’s.  I have no complaints about Jesse’s trajectory, or his actions in the closing minutes of the programme.  In his final exchange with Walt especially, Jesse is shown to negotiate perfectly the possibilities presented to him, making exactly the right choices, and saying exactly the right things.  Painful though it is to watch, Jesse’s time spent as the gang’s slave can be seen as a form of purgatory and atonement.  When Jesse breaks free from them and from Walt, and breaks through the chain link fence of the compound, there is a genuine sense of exhilaration and freedom.  One feels that Jesse has not only escaped his captors and his manipulative would-be father, but that his ordeal may have finally allowed him to come to terms with his guilt.  Gilligan chose well by making Jesse the character whose fate appears least-sealed, allowing him to act for the viewer as a much-needed repository of hope.

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James W Carey on Harold Innis

Electronics, like print in its early phases, is biased toward supporting one type of civilization: a powerhouse society dedicated to wealth, power, and productivity, to technical perfectionism and ethical nihilism.  No amount of rhetorical varnish would reverse this pattern; only the work of politics and the day-to-day attempt to maintain another and contradictory pattern of life, thought, and scholarship.  As Innis pointed out, the demise of culture could be dispelled only by a deliberate cutting down of the influence of modern technics and cultivation of the realms of art, ethics, and politics.  He identified the oral tradition with its emphasis on dialogue, dialectics, ethics, and metaphysics as the countervailing force to modern technics.  But support of such traditions or media requires that elements of stability be maintained, that mobility be controlled, that communities of association and styles of life be freed from the blinding obsolescence of technical change.  However, the demands of growth, empire, and technology put an emphasis – in education, politics, and social life generally – on those media that fostered administrative efficiency such as print and electronics.  Only by supporting the countervailing power of substantive rationality, democracy, and time would the bias of technology be controlled.

James W Carey. ‘Space, Time, and Communication: A Tribute to Harold Innis.’ In his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised Edition. Routledge, 2009.