TV finales are tough for some reason. They’re either far too neat or far too messy, and for a show as nuanced, spare and, well, lauded as Breaking Bad, a lacklustre ending would have been devastating to its reputation. True to form, they nailed it.
We had a lot to get through. One of the hallmarks of the show is the leisurely way in which it allows itself the time to set its big moments up just so, usually to give themselves the chance to wreck our hopes and dreams as comprehensively as possible. This time out, there were a lot of loose ends that desperately wanted tying, all the show’s remaining hooks tantalisingly there. Unusually though, things went as we might have wanted, rather than as we feared.
All the surviving characters had their moment of closure, one by one. Skyler, Marie, Todd and the Nazis, Lydia, Jesse and Walt got their just deserts. Even Badger and Skinny Pete received a fitting send-off. Perhaps this systematic box-ticking is too neat for some tastes, but if nothing else, the show stayed utterly true to its characters; no-one’s ending rang false. And frankly, closure is more often than not what an audience is after. We don’t look at, say, the ending of The Sopranos, and feel like justice has been done, either to the characters or to the legacy of the show.
What becomes of Walt, then, is probably closest to what the Breaking Bad fandom wanted. It’s a cathartic ending: he meets his end, but not before partially righting the wrongs he’d done to his loved ones. He gets to go out with his own closure, on his own terms. Perhaps that’s unfair to those whose lives he’s undoubtedly ruined, but the compensation he offers them is clearly due reparation in his own mind. Meanwhile, for our benefit, he solves these problems with a last burst of fiendish Heisenbergian invention, before succumbing to peace in the true mode of classical tragedy.
The first wound cauterised is that of his erstwhile partners, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, last seen disavowing him and his (legitimate) achievements on national TV. The direction in this scene, as Walt gradually approaches the inside of their beautiful mansion, is masterfully tense. The time it takes for them to realise he was there as they chit-chat about Thai food and their holidays is agonising.
Of course, we’re pushed to think that he’s going to kill them in revenge for whatever it is they did to him that arguably set him off on his darker path. This is his, and the episode’s, first triumph; he does nothing of the sort. Instead he forces them to put his huge stack of money into trust for his family, and pass it off as their own donation – the perfect ruse to funnel unlaundered dough to a family that hates him. It’s a cunning misdirect, and a gambit that feels worthy of him.
This is the tone for the whole episode: a man who’s come to terms with his personal failures and is simply trying to make amends. We see this when he visits Skyler, not, at last, for selfish reasons, but to hand her the location of Hank’s corpse. As a bargaining chip for the DEA. He doesn’t win her forgiveness, or their son’s, and he doesn’t ask for it. He’s just doing something for someone else, at last.
We see it too at the showdown with the neo-Nazis, when he tackles Jesse out of the firing line: a final redemption of sorts there, too – nothing that could salvage a ruined relationship, but that at least sets the other man free.
We get redemptions of another kind, too, with many characters freeing themselves of their burdens. Walt finally admits that he wasn’t cooking to provide for his family, but because “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”
Then there’s Jesse’s freedom. He hasn’t had so much to do or say recently, as this season has become increasingly about Walt’s collapse. But that simply makes what he had been saying that bit more potent. Here, in the face of his mentor’s final manipulation, he throws off the yoke and refuses to be used to free Walt of his own burden. The savage glee on his face as he makes his escape was clearly as much about this psychic freedom as it was the physical.
Perhaps there was one more freedom for Walt, as he finally shot Uncle Jack in a scene that mirrors Hank’s end. As he pulls the trigger halfway through Jack’s last words, we see Walt free himself from the burden of his greed. This is probably his greatest moment of catharsis, as he finally makes his own escape, and can die with a smile on his face. He dies, incidentally, from his own bullet, a ricochet from the M60. None of his enemies could best him, nor the cancer.
There are a million other details to delight obsessives too. Lydia and Todd both die in gruesomely apt fashion. The Heisenberg/Walt duality is explicitly referenced, as he looks into his rear-view mirror and, Gollum-like, tells himself to get him to Albuquerque, where “I’ll do the rest”. There’s also a little dream sequence for Jesse, as he imagines himself making the wooden box he referenced in his tragic NA confession in Season 3.
All in all, perhaps you could argue that it is too kind to Walt, who gets to die with everything to his satisfaction, and without suffiecient punishment for his crimes. I don’t think that’s the right attitude – we’ve had a fitting end to high art. The best we can hope for now is that someone else accepts the TV baton and makes something that can compare.