If Walter White doesn't die on Sunday's Breaking Bad series finale, that's just fine with me.
That's not to say I'm rooting for Walt (Bryan Cranston) to storm into the neo-Nazi's meth-making compound full of anti-hero machismo and mow down Todd (Jesse Plemons), Jack (Michael Bowen) and maybe even Jesse (Aaron Paul) with a hail of M60 bullets. I'm by no means advocating that, after all the horrible things Walt has done in the name of money and power, he still deserves to win. I'm just saying he doesn't have to lose for the show to "stick the landing."
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The fact that some viewers identify themselves as Team Walt while others try to one-up their fellow Baddicts by pinpointing the exact moment they stopped pulling for Heisenberg proves that the show has already done its job. This story, which set out with the simple goal of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, has repeatedly asked viewers to think about and question matters of morality. As Walt has become more and more morally compromised, so have the people surrounding him. Everyone, the show argues, has the capacity to "break bad" given the right set of circumstances. The question for the audience: Given those unique circumstances, which lines are OK to be crossed and which aren't?
I made up my mind about Walter Whiter around the time he watched Jesse's girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) choke on her own vomit and did nothing to save her. (To be honest, I truly gave up on Walt a couple episodes later, when, after Jane's grieving air traffic controller father failed to prevent a plane crash over Albuquerque, Walt tries to minimize his own guilt by telling his students the crash wasn't even in the top 50 deadliest crashes ever.) I find it baffling that some viewers still cheer Walt on, even as he wrestles his wife to the living room floor with a butcher knife or kidnaps his own daughter on selfish impulse. But I think that ultimately says more about viewers' moral code than the show's. In fact, in some ways, the devastating episodes in the show's homestretch at times have felt like the writers rubbing viewers' noses in just how awful Walter White has become.
But the show does have a moral code. Actions have consequences, and for the most part, bad things happen to bad people. As series creator Vince Gilligan is fond of saying, Walt's chickens are coming home to roost in these final episodes. But is death the only acceptable punishment for Walt? It's not like if he lives, he will escape unscathed. When he first began cooking meth in the RV, Walt's only concern was earning money for the family he would soon be leaving behind after his cancer conquered him. At this late date, Hank's death has utterly destroyed what was left of Walt's family, and Jack & Co. have the vast majority of Walt's money. He's lost the only two things he was fighting for.
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I will concede that Walt's original M.O. was just another of the many lies he's told himself, and therefore, perhaps he didn't lose as much as one might think. But let's look beneath Walt's lies to his true motivation: Walt yearns for significance. He wants to be seen, heard, feared, and, as the final season's poster reminds, remembered. For a man like Walter White, sitting alone with his thoughts in a snowy New Hampshire cabin and paying a virtual stranger $10,000 for an hour of his company is a fate worse than death. If losing his family and his money didn't cripple Walt, losing his empire certainly would. It's that fear that drives him back to Albuquerque, where his ultimate fate will be decided.
And if Walt's fate is death, that's fine. In fact, it's almost inevitable. Gilligan has on several occasions referenced the predictability of M*A*S*H's finale in relation to how he and his writers approached Breaking Bad's final chapter. "I always think of M*A*S*H, which, for my money, has one of the great endings in all of TV history," he said. " And it's in large part because you see it coming a mile away. In the first episode, everyone says, 'I hate this place. I want to go home.' Then, at the end of M*A*S*H, they go home." In Breaking Bad's pilot, Walt is told that he has terminal cancer. Why wouldn't it stand to reason that the cancer ultimately finishes the job?
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But whether Walt lives or dies — and whether he dies by bullets or tumors — that won't change the experience of the show for me. The recent trend of re-judging an entire series based on its series finale is a frustrating one. I am guilty of this way of thinking: Lost's ultimate endpoint made me feel like the ride I was on for six seasons didn't truly pay off. But that show operated on mystery and suspense and set itself up for disappointment by asking so many questions it may or may not have had good answers for in the end. (Not surprisingly, though, all the character work in the final hour struck a chord with me.)
Breaking Bad has never operated the same way. Am I curious to find out what Walt has planned for that machine gun and on whom he's planning to use the ricin? Sure. But however the show resolves those mysteries, Walt's journey — his transformation — has been about so much more than those answers. Walt made his choices. I've made my judgments. I answered the one true question the show asked of me long ago.
Dead or alive, I will remember Walter White's name.
Breaking Bad's series finale airs Sunday at 9/8c on AMC. How do you think the show should end?