A week later, the Breaking Bad finale is starting to grow on me. I didn’t like it at first. I thought the second to last episode would have made a better ending, with Walt sitting alone at the bar, waiting for the police, knowing that he’d done all this for nothing. That his son wouldn’t even talk to him, wouldn’t take his money.
And the revenge plan went off too well in the final episode. The only complication was the neo-nazis taking Walt’s keys away from him. Everything else went off without a hitch. Yeah, he got shot, but he wanted to die anyway.
So I decided to think of the final episode as Walt’s fantasy, concocted in part during his time up in the cabin and in part on the spur of the moment at the bar before the police arrive. Basically the same idea Emily Nussbaum had:
It’s not that Walt needed to suffer, necessarily, for the show’s finale to be challenging, or original, or meaningful: but Walt succeeded with so little true friction—maintaining his legend, reconciling with family, avenging Hank, freeing Jesse, all genuine evil off-loaded onto other, badder bad guys—that it felt quite unlike the destabilizing series that I’d been watching for years. If, instead, we were watching Walt’s compensatory fantasy, it was a fascinating glimpse into the man’s mind—akin to the one in the movie “Mulholland Drive,” a poignant, tragic attempt to fix a life that is unfixable.
In my interpretation, Jesse didn’t live long enough to be killed by Walt — the whole idea of him being kept captive would have been a figment of Walt’s imagination, a way for him to redeem himself by saving Jesse instead of condemning him. Jesse dying is probably a kinder fate than being turned into a slave and having to see yet another girlfriend killed.
But my ending would have been too much of a traditional “crime does not pay” story. Sure, in that version Lydia and Jack’s gang get away, so crime would have paid for them. But the series is about Walt and Jesse, not Jack. So I’m starting to come around on the ending.
In the real ending, Walt did manage to leave a tidy sum to his family, accomplishing exactly what he set out to do in the first episode. But in the process he lost everything. He ruined the lives of his family. He got Hank killed. He spent six months sick and dying alone in the cabin, which was probably worse than being in prison. So crime did pay, but it also cost dearly.
As to to the ease with which he was able to dispatch his enemies, Warren Ellis proposes a interesting explanation: things go well for Walt only when he’s in “full Heisenberg” mode. When he lets the Walt side make decisions, things get fucked up. The reason the schemes in the end work so well is that Walt is damn near dead by the end — just like Gretchen said. Heisenberg is making all the decisions and everything goes smoothly — up until the end, when he gets hit by a ricocheting bullet. But that happens because he saved Jesse, and saving Jesse was a Walt move, not a Heisenberg move. So he dies only because Walt takes over for a moment.
I still find it a bit unsatisfying, but hey, it was good enough.