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- Episode: FeLiNa (Season 5, Episode 13)
- Starring: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul
- Written By: Vince Gilligan (creator), Vince Gilligan
- Directed By: Vince Gilligan
- Network: AMC
- Studio: High Bridge Productions, Gran Via Productions, Sony Pictures Television
Breaking Bad: Felina Review
The Big Finale
By Michael Henley
September 30, 2013
And so it ends. For five years, if there was a king of all dramas on television, it was Breaking Bad. AMC’s second serious dip into cable drama territory began somewhat inauspiciously. It was created by a writer, Vince Gilligan, known primarily for the comic sensibility he brought to The X-Files. It starred Bryan Cranston, best known as the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle. It had an ad campaign that consisted primarily of Cranston in his tighty-whities in the New Mexico desert. And its premise, once we learned what it was, was so brazen (cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turns to making 100% pure methamphetamines to provide for his family) it felt like with a little tweaking it could become a Saturday Night Live sketch, not a groundbreaking, award-winning Sunday night prestige drama.
And yet Breaking Bad, as time went on, episode by episode, made the case for not just being the best show on television, but one of the best of all time. A pantheon entry. One for the canon. This deceptively simple story of a frustrated, timid family man who turns into a confident drug empire kingpin resonated with us in ways we couldn’t foretell. It struggled in the ratings for much of its life before gaining a significant boost in the past two years (Gilligan credits Netflix streaming with the turnaround, and he might be right). But thread by thread, it weaved a complex, layered yarn involving criminals, drug manufacturing, DEA agents, heists, tested friendships, the importance of family and the snowballing consequences of rash decisions. And beneath it all, Breaking Bad essentially became television’s answer to The Godfather, telling its own sprawling story about the hardship of family, the justifications people make to culture their own selfishness, and the war of attrition that good men can inadvertently wage upon their own souls.
And so how did it all wrap up? Pure satisfaction. Sunday’s series finale was like the devastating checkmate move of an epic chess match: in many ways inevitable, but that didn’t lessen its impact, it only increased the opportunities for somber contemplation. We all pretty much knew that Walter White was going to die; not only did the particulars of his cancer practically demand that (barring another remission), but it made sense as a tragic capper to five years of his increasingly complicit bloodshed. We figured that before doing so Walter would take bloody revenge on the Neo-Nazis that had cannibalized his empire, in a violent confrontation where Walter would share his own definition of “White Power.” We knew that Jesse would probably finally get a taste of happiness, and that his psychopath jailer Todd would get his own just deserts. We knew the ricin would come into play, and were not surprised that it came in the form of a phony sweetener to Lydia’s much-heralded tea. We knew Skylar would get a fraught farewell. We knew that Walt Jr. would probably not. We knew Walt’s former partners at Grey Matters would tie in. We knew…we knew…
But we knew all that not because we dreaded it. We wanted it. It made sense. And as finales go, “FeLiNa” makes perfect sense, even amidst its surprises. When Walter showed up at Gretchen and Elliot’s house, I doubted they were in danger; it seemed far too petty and gratuitous for Walter at this point to spend any of his last hours taking them with him. But intimidation was absolutely a possibility. And so his confrontation with them was a tightrope walk of desperation and implied violence as he gave them his remaining millions to set up a trust fund for Junior under their names. When the scene turned horrific as the sights of two snipers appeared from the darkness (actually Badger and Skinny Pete with laser pointers), reinforcing Walt’s menace and ensuring their whimpering cooperation, it was a stomach-turning highlight of the hour.
When Walt returned to bid goodbye to Skylar and baby Holly, Gilligan’s master plan for his protagonist’s ending became clear. Despite his sullenness, this was not a weakened Walt, but instead a darkly idealized one: a shambling specter with an almost-supernatural aura (notice the eerie camera shot after Skylar’s call from Marie which shows he was present in the room the whole time, hidden by a pillar). This was a Walt not only able to rig a car trunk with an auto-firing M-60, but one finally comfortable with doing so. A Walt who freely gave the coordinates to where Hank was buried rather than leaving him, well…buried. A Walt who, in his little time left, had finally understood his own violent side, and his motivations. He’s fully embraced his own sociopathic nature, with a disturbing, zen-like grace.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it,” Walt admits to Skylar, contradicting his endless protests of doing it for family, and allowing Skylar to find some modicum of satisfaction in their last encounter (it’s a very complicated look Anna Gunn gives). The series has always played the game of distinguishing between Walter and Heisenberg, but Walter is Heisenberg, and this finale showed us that Walter has finally accepted that. He’s someone who can provide for his son’s future through threats, and someone who rescues his estranged business partner through wanton destruction and then begs for death. When he surprises himself by sparing Jesse’s life from his wrath at the last minute, it’s essentially his soul giving one last gasp of a moral choice before giving out once and for all.
For Jesse the future is more uncertain, if only because the finale leaves his fate decidedly up in the air. Arguably, Jesse’s arc throughout the series has been the most emotionally upsetting, because instead of being someone who thirsts for power under the pretense of family, Jesse has always sought true happiness, only to have it repeatedly stolen from him. So it’s fitting that his final scene is one of maniacal glee, escaping the compound after Walt’s suspenseful massacre of the Aryans. His final gift to Walt, tossing a pistol back into his face after being urged to shoot, was a perfect place to finally take Jesse’s independence, and his last message, “Do it yourself!” succinctly allowed him to see right through this former mentor, and indict him in his final moments for the way he likes to shift responsibility towards others. By that point he already sees that Walt is perhaps mortally wounded, and they share a look of mutual, fractured understanding…allowing this relationship between two men to end at the level it was on: in a fluid, complex state of shifting power dynamics and loyalties.
And so Walt ends the episode—and his life—happily cocooned within the world that transformed him: the meth lab that ended up being the only place he was truly happy. The show’s final moments, as Walt surveys the drug factory and all that remains of his once-impressive kingdom, put the period at the end of Breaking Bad’s sentence in a thematically trenchant way. Not just because of the bloody “W” that Walter leaves behind on a pressure tank, or the vertiginous zoom-out that frames Walt in a grid of rafters that recall—inevitably—the periodic table. What struck me was how the arriving police barely regard this fallen king as they explore the compound, not even kneeling to check for a pulse. For all his bluster and hubris, his ambitions and good intentions, Walter White’s empire ultimately falls in a way that is unmarked by anyone. His legacy—the one thing he had left to protect—will be a silent one; the best things he ever did will now be filtered through the actions of other people, and his greatest achievement will be devoid of anyone left to remotely care. An early episode this season was named after Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” which makes such fatalistic sense: the winds of time are strong, and all is dust.
The episode’s title, “FeLiNa,” is an intriguing one. It is an anagram for “finale,” of course. It’s the name of a femme fatale in Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso,” which underscores the episode at a few different points. And it’s also a compound: Fe, Li, Na: iron, lithium, sodium. Iron being the major element found in blood, lithium a key ingredient in meth, and sodium being a necessity in the production of tears. The blood is supplied by the spray of Walt’s final ingenious contraption (a robot!), the meth represents the home that Walt entombed himself in. And the tears? You could say they’re Skylar’s, and that’s fair, but I prefer to think they are our own.
Why the tears? Because we will miss Walter White. Not because we liked him…if anything sometimes it was very hard to like him. But he fascinated us. He was a mirror held up to our worst traits: pride, selfishness, narcissism. He was a good man seduced by evil, and his life became a Shakespearean-level tragedy that was ostensibly about the drug trade but in actuality was about how many of us walk the edge of darkness. At its heart, the series was a gradual revelation of how good it can feel to go bad, an elemental truth that we crave to be reminded of. “Science is the study of change,” said Walter in the pilot episode, and so was Breaking Bad: the study of a man—a teacher-- slowly changing into a monster. And by pursuing that change, he taught us elemental truths about ourselves. Because Walt isn’t just Heisenberg—he’s us, and everything is inextricably intertwined. That’s the truth behind chemistry. And it’s also the truth behind stories that we remember for a long time, long after every empire has fallen.