By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
After two years of lying, fighting, and dying, Walter White was a man who came to terms at the end of his life. When it all began, he appeared to be a decent, kindhearted man but a bit of a milquetoast. He had a good job, a nice home and a loving family, but also harbored a burning resentment. In his mind, Walter White deserved more. And so, he turned a debilitating illness into an excuse to push his life into a new, self-serving direction. For (officially) five seasons, we watched him break bad over and over again in attempt at finding self-actualization. Time and again, he rationalized that everything he did was for the good of his family until he simply couldn’t justify it anymore. We always knew it, but he could never see the truth. It was all for him all along.
But nonetheless, we breathlessly watched as he improbably parlayed his superior chemistry knowledge into a career in the criminal underworld. Early on he proved himself to be a scientific genius, but he also displayed a capacity to be a cold, calculating one, as well. And yet he had a tendency to let his pride get the best of him. Relative victories piled up in the early going, but he never learned to quit while he was ahead. There were numerous chances to get out of his life of crime; he just didn’t want to take them. Although not in a literal sense, Walt became addicted to the meth that he so expertly and proudly manufactured. However, there is no place for pride and impulse in the objective and meticulous world of science. In the outstanding bottle episode, “The Fly,” Walt preached about the dangers of contamination and the necessity of absolute purity. Ironically, it was his arrogance that proved to be the true contaminant.
He steadily rose to the top, but not without affecting others, including the people closest to him. His ego-fueled addiction destroyed – and ended – lives. When it all inevitably came crashing down, he didn’t just lose part of his humanity, but also his hard-earned money, his good name and the family that he repeatedly vowed to protect. “Yes, you reap what you sow, but your actions don’t happen in a vacuum,” Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan seemed to be saying. In chemistry, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, but in life, the blowback can be much more potent. As Malcolm Gladwell once said, “Little things make a big difference.”
All of which is to say that for 61 episodes, Breaking Bad was a show about consequences. However, in episode 62, Gilligan the mastermind flipped the script. In the series finale, Breaking Bad was a show about redemption. After months of isolation and exile, Walter White returned to Albuquerque with a new purpose. He wasn’t back to reclaim his meth empire or proclaim his righteousness; he was there for justice. He had come to terms with the man that he was and was there to finally do right by the family that he had so callously neglected and damaged. He began by manipulating the old friends that once betrayed him into providing a nest egg for his family. The relationship with his son who once worshipped him had become irreparable, but at least he made an honest attempt to make amends. He then made a final visit to his wife, where we saw him bare his soul to her for the first time. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive,” he finally admitted. But he did more than that; he gave her a bargaining chip that could save her from prosecution, and in the process, give his sister-in-law a little bit of closure to the tragic loss of her husband. He also got to see his kids one more time before he had to deal with the serious business at hand: revenge.
At the end of the first half of season five, Walt went into business with the most despicable, unsympathetic criminals imaginable – a ruthless gang of neo-Nazis – purely out of his own greed. They then proceeded to murder his brother-in-law, steal his money and threaten his family. (Unbeknownst to him, they also enslaved his former partner.) That is what happens when you sink so low as to do business with such a depraved group. The final act was Walt grandiosely exterminating an evil that he had aided and abetted. It had to be, for him to reclaim what was left of his soul.
It was undoubtedly a thrilling and cathartic finale, yet I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that Walt didn’t exactly get what he deserved as the song “Baby Blue” suggested at the finale’s end. I mean, sure, he lost pretty much everything and died at the end, but it’s not nearly as bleak as the ending that I had in my head. I imagine – or imagined, rather – an end in which Walt returns to Albuquerque with revenge on his mind. As in the actual finale, Walt has a change of heart and wants to set everything right. He concocts yet another genius plan that will vanquish his enemies. He has spent months going over the details and it will certainly go off without a hitch. But when it’s time to spring his plan into action, the cancer gets the best of him. Walt always thought he was in control; he did everything on his own terms, but in the end the universe prevents him from righting his wrongs. No matter how smart you are there are some things that are just out of your control. And once you break bad, you open up a new world of uncontrollable consequences.
It’s an unquestionably dark and haunting ending (not to mention severely cruel to Jesse!), but, to me, it seemed to be a fitting one. I think the reason that I expected something like this is because I was conditioned to think that way from enduring gut-wrenching thrill rides each week throughout the last half of this season. The third to last episode, “Ozymandias,” was, after all, among the most exhilarating and traumatic hours of television ever produced; I had every right to expect Murphy’s Law. It was just jarring to see everything work out so well. I don’t really feel like that warrants much of a complaint, though. I wholeheartedly believe Vince Gilligan earned the right to end the story on his own terms, and I’m happy that he came pretty close.
Perhaps Walt’s final transformation would have felt more natural if AMC had granted Gilligan half seasons of ten episodes to wrap everything up, (as he originally requested) instead of the eight that he was given. Really though, I’m just picking nits. I suspect that over time I’ll come to appreciate the finale more for what it is – an exciting conclusion to one of the best shows ever, filled to the brim with closure and feel-good moments – rather than what I expected it to be. I mean, there were some pretty terrific moments throughout. The swiveling machine gun Nazi extermination scene alone will linger in my head for some time, as will Walt’s last walk around the lab before dying. Everything that Walt accomplishes in that last hour makes you wonder what he could have done if he had used his powers for good, instead of, well, bad.
“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change,” Walter White innocuously told his students in the series pilot. The quote proved to be something of a mission statement for the whole series. Throughout the series, Walt never stopped changing. His last change felt a little abrupt, but in the last act of his life he was a man who had come to terms. Now, we, too, must come to terms with the end.
Goodbye, Breaking Bad.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.