Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul
[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the series finale of Breaking Bad. Read at your own risk.]
At the end of Breaking Bad, TV's greatest liar finally stopped lying to himself.
In the most emotional scene of the AMC drama's series finale, high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) visits his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) for one final goodbye. She's no longer in the house on Negro Arroyo Lane — the house a younger, more cocksure Walt once called their "starter house" in a Season 3 flashback. She's living a meager existence in the only apartment she can afford working as a part-time taxi dispatcher. Skyler gives Walt five minutes to say what he has to say, but, understanding that her current station is a direct reflection of the terrible choices Walt has made, she refuses to let him say he did it all for the family.
Breaking Bad comes to an end: Does Walter White have to die?
And, finally, Walt tells the truth. "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really ... I was alive," he says. Alive. The word harkens back to the series' pilot episode, during which Walt tells his soon-to-be partner in crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) that he is "breaking bad" because he is "awake." Walt's terminal cancer diagnosis wasn't so much a death sentence as it was a reminder to live. It just turns out that Walter White's bucket list featured items a little darker than skydiving or seeing the Eiffel Tower. But murders and child poisonings aside, living for Walt was about being significant. Being respected. Being remembered.
It was, after all, Walt seeing his former partners at Gray Matter dismissing his memory that drove Mr. Lambert to get up off that New Hampshire barstool and go back to Albuquerque to finish living. Knowing his days are numbered, Walt leaves his watch at a gas station pay phone. Walt is once again awake, but he knows he isn't going to come out of this alive. And although Skyler doesn't want to hear Walt's speech about family, Walt is going to protect his legacy before he goes — even if it takes another lie and a couple of laser pointers to threaten Gretchen and Elliot into delivering what's left of Walt's $9 million to Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) on his 18th birthday.
But protecting Walt's legacy requires more than the passing along of his drug money to his family. Walt can't let Heisenberg's blue meth populate the streets of the Southwest and the Czech Republic if Heisenberg isn't the one making it. After dispatching an unwitting Lydia (Laura Fraser) with a ricin-filled packet of Stevia, Walt turns his sights on Todd (Jesse Plemons) and his uncle's crew of neo-Nazis.
Breaking Bad postmortem: "This was Walter White hitting bottom"
It wouldn't be Breaking Bad without one final bit of showmanship. In this case, once Walt is inside the Nazis' clubhouse — and, it should be noted, after he sees to it that Jesse won't catch a stray bullet — Walt triggers his MacGyver-esque machine gun to take out all of his remaining enemies in one fell swoop. Well, not exactly. Jack tries to barter the location of the rest of Walt's money to save his life, but Walt opts to blow his brains out instead. Walt, who actually took a bullet from the spray, never intended to walk out of the compound and certainly not with barrels full of cash.
Then there's Jesse, who gets his own final act of revenge when he strangles Todd to death with the chains that have kept Jesse bound to the meth lab like a slave all these months. It's a brutal, visceral scene, but unlike many of the monstrous things Walt has done, it's hard not to cheer on Jesse, who so often the show — and Walt — has abused. But when Walt offers Jesse the chance to shoot and kill him, Jesse refuses. In a scene that mirrors when Jesse shot Gale on Walt's orders, Jesse won't pull the trigger, both maintaining some of his soul and also making good on his promise to never do what Walt told him to again.
Breaking Bad postmortem: Can Walter White be redeemed?
For a show so bleak, especially in its final episodes, it seems almost odd to see Jesse speeding away from his hell on Earth with a smile on his face. But it's a relief. After all the crap he's suffered through at the hands of Walt and others, Jesse is finally free. That's definitely something worth smiling about. But Walt also can't help crack a smile as he walks through Todd and Jesse's meth lab one last time. Perhaps being near the tools that helped him build his empire made him feel alive one last time, even as he fell to the floor and died.
Creator Vince Gilligan often talked about the feeling of inevitability when discussing the series finale. He compared it to M*A*S*H, which started with soldiers wishing they could go home and ended with those soldiers doing just that. Similarly, Walter White began this series with only months left to live, and in the end, he does die. But he did an awful lot of living in between. And at least he could be honest about why he did it all at the end.
A few other thoughts:
• Gilligan & Co. went out of their way to tie up as much of this story as they possibly could. It's certainly a different approach than the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos, but the finale felt at times a bit too conscious that this was the final chapter. I could have lived without the flashbacks to the pilot when Walt was walking through his abandoned house. It's pretty clear already how far Walt has fallen. (Of course, it was nice to get one last glimpse of Hank. RIP.)
• I can safely say this wasn't my favorite Breaking Bad episode ever. It's probably not even in my Top 5. But it was satisfying and brought the story to a conclusion I can appreciate. As I said in an earlier piece about Breaking Bad's end, re-judging a series based solely on the series finale is a foolish practice that is becoming frustratingly common. I loved this series, and this last stretch of episodes might have been the best final run of a series ever. That doesn't change just because I only liked the finale.
• On the other hand, I loved the previously unseen flashback to Jesse crafting the wooden box he spoke of so lovingly in Season 3's "Kafkaesque." It was heartbreaking to see that dream shattered by the cut back to Jesse chained in the meth lab. But knowing that Jesse is now free, I hope more woodworking — or whatever brings him that kind of happiness — is in his future.
• I don't think it's an accident that Walt died in a green shirt and khakis, the same outfit he was wearing (albeit minus the pants) when we first meet him in the pilot.
• "The whole thing felt kinda shady. You know, morality-wise." — Skinny Pete on making Gretchen and Elliot believe they were about to be killed by snipers. Also, perfectly summing up Breaking Bad.
What did you think of the finale?