“Buy the RV; we start tomorrow.”
When the A.V. Club collected the first three season’s worth of these writeups in a Kindle book, that’s the quotation that was chosen for the title. Here we are, almost six years after those words were first uttered onscreen, in the pilot episode. And I can think of no better summary, no more appropriate monument, for this staggering work of televised drama that has played out in front of us, an hour at a time and cratered with agonizing pauses, than this phrase.
The first thing we see in that pilot is a bewildering flash-forward to a moment of absurd crisis. How, we wonder as the show settles into its premise-setting after the cold open, are we going to get from Walter White, henpecked husband, humiliated car wash employee, and underpaid teacher, to a pantsless, gas-masked figure waving a gun on a desert road? Answer: “Buy the RV; we start tomorrow.” Breaking Bad isn’t afraid to move at light speed from action to consequence, thrilling us with its boldness, trusting us to keep up, and most importantly, leaving the characters as whiplashed by the pace as the viewers. What’s after you, whether it’s cancer or unemployment or cousins with shiny axes, is coming faster than you think. Breaking Bad makes its storytelling as relentless—and as unpredictable—as the forces of death that have been on Walt’s tail since we first met him.
That quotation also functions as a switch that sets in motion, irretrievably, the gears that will bring us to these final moments. Everything that has happened is a consequence of this decision. And yet where we find ourselves isn’t appreciably different from where we might have ended up if Walt hadn’t started cooking meth. He’s out of his family’s life; they are destitute. The only distinction is that they are notorious, bathed in shame because of their association with him. And of course, the collateral damage of the path Walt chose to take when he said those words is immense: lives taken, futures ruined; temptation, greed, fear, hatred, and vengeance driving those he loves to do horrible things of their own.
And finally, what those words signal is Walt’s fatal flaw: his lust for power. This is the first moment when he assumes command. His delight in outwitting the universe, then in building his own legend, starts right here. His rage at anyone who stands in his way stems from the intoxication of mastering circumstances and manipulating lesser beings. He truly believes he has no peer, and therefore, no one has the right to judge. Just look at how he completely reshaped his world with six words. He would try to replicate this exercise of power (with longer and longer speeches) for the rest of his life.
What Walt did not know in the pilot was where true power lies. It’s not in money; no matter how much you earn, it soon will be stolen or spent. It’s not in an empire; that’s bound to be picked apart by ambitious predators. What’s more, either of those goals make your legacy a target. Whoever inherits what you’ve built will be hounded and attacked for the rest of their days. No, true power lies in your name. Your legend. If you can make that bulletproof, then you are immortal—just like Jesse James.
After the heart-in-the-throat violence and suspense of the last few episodes, tonight’s finale is quiet. It doesn’t try to impress. A legend has no need to do that, as Walt shows that he understands when he quietly scares Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz out of their wits. Nobody can believe Walter is right next to them because his modus operandi has never been to remain unseen. Over and over again in this last appearance, Walt remains in the background while his legend does the work for him. When Marie calls Skyler to warn her that Walt’s been seen in town, she mentions that, Pimpernel-like, he’s been spotted everywhere; of course, Walt’s already there, hidden from our view by a strategically-placed column until the camera moves forward to reveal him. Lydia and Todd walk right past him in the coffee shop. And when he finally confronts Uncle Jack’s gang at their compound, his sickly appearance and pathetic plea to sell them a new blue-meth process convince them that he’s no threat. Finally, with all the bluster and porkpie hats behind him, Walt is truly as dangerous as he always wanted people to believe he was.
Because now he only cares about one thing, and that’s justice. It’s the only thing he could conceivably be asking of a power from on high when red and blue flash on the snow-covered windows of the car he’s about to steal. And when the keys fall from heaven into his hands, he believes that his request for a tiny bit of redemption has been blessed. The best part of tonight’s episode is that he didn’t find justice where he thought he’d left it. The snap decision to save Jesse one last time is the only improvisation in his final act—but it’s his best moment. It may be too exact an echo, and too neat a summation of their relationship, when Jesse demands that Walt ask him baldly for death and then refuses to kill for him any more. But it’s justice. After enduring the dehumanizing descent of their relationship for so long, it’s the best we could hope for. Walt even admits that his actions were about him, about feeling alive. The bullshit is finally over.
The theme of “Felina” seems to be this: People and machines are usually predictable. Lydia meets her business partners like she always did, tears open the only stevia packet on the table like she always does. Gretchen and Elliot betrayed on television how much they fear losing their reputation and their elegant lives, and that means that they can be manipulated. Walt has always used this predictability—this scientific certainty about action and reaction—to get what he wants. But it’s taken him until now to realize the corollary: If you can change your pattern, those predictable people and machines will miss you. Walt changes; he’s the only one who does. After their purpose is fulfilled, the machines stay in motion. The massage chair keeps rolling even though its occupant is dead. The M60 keeps sweeping even though it’s out of ammunition. But Walt’s purpose is fulfilled, and he just stops.
I don’t know if we’ll remember Walt’s fate with as much resonance as we remember the last shot of Vic Mackey in The Shield, still the gold standard for an antihero's dramatic catharsis. And “Felina” won’t be controversial the way the ambiguous last moments of Tony Soprano were. But Jesse survives. More than that—he’s alive, screaming with shock and joy as he drives away, the kind of alive Walt used to feel when he pulled off a victory. Those other shows didn’t have room for that kind of win, and so the best they could give us was vengeance or our own imagined possibilities. I’ll take the very tiny nods Walt and Jesse share as an erasure of the awful, cold nods with which Walt, months ago, sent Jesse to his fate. It’s too late to ask for anything more.
We’ve all been asking ourselves what we want from this show. I’ve tried not to commit myself in writing to wanting anything, beyond Jesse’s getting out alive, because more than anything I wanted to let Vince Gilligan take us where he wanted us to go. But now I can say what I wanted. I wanted the special thrill that comes when the forces of luck and the forces of human will coincide to make miracles happen. And on this show, that has happened to Walt again and again in the service of his own ego. The end has been dreadful, but the means have been intoxicating. When Walt pounded the window of that stolen car with his fist, causing the snow to fall away, it was like the Fonz thumping the jukebox: a moment of supreme efficacy, endorsed by the universe. That’s what I wanted, one last time. And there it is. I’m grateful. Now I can say goodbye.
- As many people predicted after the title of this episode was made public, Marty Robbin’s classic cowboy ballad “El Paso” plays a major role (playing in the stolen Volvo, and hummed by Walt as he constructs the gun mechanism). The relevant lyrics: “Back in El Paso, my life would be worthless. Everything's gone in life; nothing is left. It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden; My love is stronger than my fear of death. … Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel a deep burning pain in my side. Though I am trying to stay in the saddle, I'm getting weary, unable to ride.”
- Many beautifully staged scenes here, courtesy of Vince Gilligan in the director’s chair. I especially liked the frequency with which we see Walt out of focus in the background, leaving a room without fanfare, fading away like a ghost who is done haunting the place.
- Badger and Skinny Pete aren’t so sure about playing hitmen with laser pointers (“The whole thing felt kinda shady, like, morality-wise?”) until they get their bundles of cash.
- In the annals of Walt’s clever plans, I give his scheme to have the Schwarzes put $9,720,000 in trust for Walt Jr. a 10, and his gift of Hank and Gomie’s burial location to Skyler to get the prosecutors off her back a 6. I hope Walt’s final legendary caper satisfies the police, but I’m not as confident as he seems to be. He always did underestimate the law.
- I started writing about this show for the A.V. Club with its pilot episode in in January 2008. It was just a lucky break that I got the assignment, and have managed to stay with it all the way to the end. As an educator in an obscure discipline in flyover country, I never could have imagined that my writing about Breaking Bad would reach hundreds of thousands of readers. It’s been tremendously stressful and rewarding, a real privilege, to try to do justice to a piece of storytelling that has astounded me more and more with each passing season. Many thanks to everyone who has been reading all along; to everyone who came in as the show became more popular; and to all those who might look these recaps up when they discover the show in the future, as long as the Internet preserves a trace of them. You are what I’ll miss.
- “You look terrible.” “Yeah. But I feel good.”