There was probably no wholly satisfying way to end “Breaking Bad.” Not only was this a consistent, sustained single narrative that lasted five seasons and about 47 hours — it was a machine, one that offered constant hairpin turns, many of which weren’t all that logically far-fetched. (Or at least seemed plausible when first seen.) Stopping it is like stopping a speeding Eurorail train.
The ending that show creator Vince Gilligan dreamed up is, admittedly, satisfying — just not immediately. There was never any ending of “Breaking Bad” that didn’t end with anti-hero/meth king/egomaniac dad Walter White (Bryan Cranston) dead. Let him live — even in shackles, in some miserable prison, with no hope of escape or release — and there would still be the chance for a sequel, which would ruin the mood. (Just look at how many fans railed against the end of a certain Showtime serial killer program last week.)
Walter White had to die, and when he did it wasn’t too uncouth to feel a bit let down. His death was inevitable — which is the problem. “Breaking Bad” has spent five seasons (or really five and a half, or whatever) avoiding predictability, writing itself into walls then plotting out an escape that few could have guessed. One of the great pleasures of the show, apart from the show itself, has been watching as friends and professional commentators made educated predictions that proved utterly, hilariously wrong. Now that most of us were right about how it would end, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment.
That being said, this is not the way many imagined Walt would die, especially given the vengeful note on which the previous episode ended. Boozing on rotgut scotch in a dive bar, disowned by his son (RJ Mitte), he happened upon his former Grey Matter associates — now millionaires, with a company he helped found — tarnishing his legacy to Charlie Rose and his viewers.
When the final episode opens, it appears he’s out for blood. He shows up at Schwartz’s expensive home, slinks in and stands there, waiting for discovery. Will “Breaking Bad” end with Walt just killing everyone? And then maybe getting everyone else (Skyler, his kids, Marie, Jesse) killed?
It doesn’t end that way, because of course it doesn’t. Gilligan and his writers have never taken the obvious route, and Walt has something else up his sleeve. As it becomes gradually apparent, Walt has a plan: He’s going to die, and he wants to arrange his death in a way he sees fit. He can’t just get busted or killed by the neo-Nazis who stole his millions and imprisoned Jesse (Aaron Paul) as a kind of meth-dog on a leash. He has to go out in a way that’s both satisfying to him and which ensures the livelihood, or at least safety, of his loved ones.
The rest of this final episode finds Walt essentially as screenwriter, taking the reins to plot the perfect demise. The excitement of the episode comes from how this plan doesn’t always go right. He winds up settling for something less than he would have wanted.
The only things that really worked were the murders. Perhaps killing the neo-Nazis made his family safer from repeat visits, but his mass killing of them was clearly also about vengeance. Lydia (Lauren Fraser) probably didn’t have to be slipped ricin, which also leaves behind her young daughter. And his former associates now have to live their lives fearing hitmen who don’t exist — an even more cruel fate than simply killing them.
But the more charitable stuff didn’t go smoothly. The farewell chat with a traumatized, quiet yet seething Skyler is appropriately meandering. He begins to offer the usual explanation: He did this for his family. But Skyler cuts him off before he can say “family,” at which point Walt admits he really did it all for himself. It comes off as atypically sincere and forthright for Walt — and it comes off as improvised. Had he not been interrupted he surely would have once again given the canned line about his family — a lie even Walt seemed to have come to believe.
With Jesse it’s even thornier. Even after saving him and letting him strangle the last season’s most fascinating and charismatic baddie — the banally evil Todd (Jesse Plemons) — he does not receive his wished-for assassination. Instead, after asking Jesse — politely and sincerely, without a trace of menace for a change — to shoot him, Jesse doesn’t. He appears to see through Walt, noting that he thinks he can be redeemed by orchestrating the ending everyone thought would happen: that severely abused Jesse would kill the man who got him in this mess in the first place.
Instead, Walt has to settle for another, less iconic death. He stumbles into his former meth lab, symbolically strokes the equipment and, gazing into a distorted version of himself, collapses to the floor while Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” plays. As he lies, finally dead from an accidental wound given to him by the machine gun thingamajig he himself constructed, the cops pass right over him, looking for bigger fish to fry.
Meanwhile, nothing is settled. His family is not financially clear; they are, in fact, destitute. His cryptic plan to tip the cops off to the whereabouts of Hank and Gomes’ bodies might not pan out. His son hates him and will almost assuredly grow up malcontented. His infant daughter will never know him, and will likely only know the version given to him by bitter Walt Jr. This is to say nothing about Hanks’ widow Marie (Betsy Brandt), nor the untold victims of his near-pristine meth, nor Jesse, who’s too happy to simply be alive and free to worry about what comes next. There was no way Walt could, even with another season, completely clean up the epic mess he created.
At the end, this final episode is about a man trying to plan the perfect death, but having to settle for a mixed bag. The Badfinger song that closes out the show — as always, Vince Gilligan’s iPod is a fount of songs with lyrics that accidentally highlight specific aspects of the show — opens with the line “Guess I got what I deserved.”
But did he? Did we, as viewers? Honestly, Walt deserved to live in a state of agony — disowned by his family, ridden with guilt over his actions. It’s common in our culture to treat death as just desserts, but in many cases it’s a relief. Surviving on through a living death will be the real punishment.
As for viewers, we got a capper that avoided the ambiguity of the ending of “The Sopranos” — however amazing that ending is — but one that didn’t fully satisfy our bloodlust or need for the impossibly perfect ending. We got one whose power may not hit with the sudden force of one of the show’s many shocking plot twists, but one that grows in the mind. It was a deeper look at death than had Jesse simply shot Walt in the end. It’s the ending we deserve, even if it takes some reflection to realize that.