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Was 'Breaking Bad's Finale Too "Tidy"?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire September 30, 2013 at 2:53PM

Reaction to 'Breaking Bad's finale episode splits between those who found it satisfying and those who found it a little too much so.
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There's been a lot of talk in the last few weeks about the different perspectives from which people watch -- or, sob, watched -- Breaking Bad. Are you a Skyler-hater? Are you Team Walt? But as the reviews from the show's final episode, "Felina," started to accumulate, the divide was less between those who wanted Walter White to "win," whatever that might mean, and those who wanted him to be punished for his sins than between those who found its finale satisfying and those who found it, well, a little too much so.

Words like "tidy" and "neat" recurred in the write-ups of those who felt Vince Gilligan had sacrificed thematic heft for the dotting of I's and the crossing of T's. Grantland's Andy Greenwald called it "television as a science experiment."

"It's not that the Walt needed to suffer, exactly, for the show's finale to be challenging, or original, or meaningful," wrote the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, "but Walt succeeded with so little friction... that it felt quite unlike the destabilizing series that I'd been watching for years."

In the runup to the series finale, Gilligan called himself "a closure guy," and closure "Felina" provided, at least in the sense of answering just about every "What happens to...?" question anyone might have cared to ask. But while Walt did get to go out in a blaze of glory, taking Uncle Jack's Nazi brigade and greedy, deceitful Lydia with him, the show didn't end quite as triumphantly as it might have seemed. There was red meat aplenty for those who wanted to see Walt get even with Jack, or Jesse get even with Todd. Justice, after a fashion, was served. But fast-forward a day or a week or a year and things no longer look so rosy.

For Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz  "Felina" wasn't "just a finale, but a comment on finales, and the finale's creative and marketplace need to satisfy as many viewers as possible, whether they saw a show's main character as a super-cool antihero, a pathetic scumbag, something in between, or none of the above." I'm not sure such metacommentary was intentional, but I do think that "Felina" is meant to play on several levels, and to reward initial and subsequent viewings in different ways.

That said, I don't think anyone regards "Felina"'s final act as Breaking Bad's finest hour. Walt rigs up a robot machine-gun mount to take out the Nazis, and Uncle Jack responds to Walt challenging his honesty like a cut-rate Bond villain? ("I'm going to shoot you in the head, but first let me tell you my evil plan.") Not great, Bob. But go back to the beginning of the end, the magnificent scenes that lay the groundwork for that action-packed climax. Take the (literally) cold open, where a freezing Walt can only wait and pray for the New Hampshire police to pass him by. Or the chilling scene where he sneaks in behind Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, invading the sprawling mansion built with Gray Matter's profits.

For Nussbaum, the scene shows Gretchen and Elliott as "cartoon assholes," "monstrous foodies" arguing over the food at Per Se. But I see it differently, or at least as a scene that's meant to be seen from different perspectives. For Walt, it's a nightmare come true: the woman he once loved and his former friend, enjoying their hyperbolic wealth, and -- even worse -- visibly in love with each other. Bad enough they're rich; do they have to be happy? But while their privileged babble has a tinge of caricature, or at least of the theatrical strain that runs all through Breaking Bad, there’s nothing inherently despicable about it, anymore than it's inherently foolish when a trembling Elliott threatens Walt with a kitchen utensil. Sure, Walt gets the Crocodile Dundee zinger ("If we're gonna go that way, you're gonna need a bigger knife"), but his bravado falls flat. He's not staring down Gus Fring or Krazy-8, but a good-hearted husband who's not equipped to deal with an armed sociopath in his living room. Perhaps we're supposed to feel some matter of satisfaction as Walt puts one last trick over on his supposed betrayers, passing off laser-pointer-wielding methheads as deadly snipers, but the scornful glee Walt takes in making Gretchen and Elliott fear for their lives is ugly and mean -- or, as Skinny Pete put it, "kinda shady, like, morality-wise?" (When you've pricked Skinny Pete's conscience, you have truly crossed a line.)

In her review, titled "Breaking Bad Lands Its Finale a Little Too Cleanly," NPR's Linda Holmes wrote that she "could not escape the feeling that by earning anyone's sympathy, Walt was getting away with one last self-aggrandizing con," and she wasn't the only one who felt that in allowing its hero to die on his own terms, the show effectively forced its audience onto Team Walt. But while it superficially closed the book on Walter White, the show left its most important questions unanswered -- not questions about what will happen to the rest of Walt's money, or whether Huell will ever make it out of that motel room, but about who Walter White was, and whether even the worst of us can be redeemed. In his Grantland piece, Greenwald wondered if the finale, while punishing Walt with death, "was too easy on us." But we're the ones left to sort through the mess Walt left behind.

This article is related to: Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston, Reviews, From the Wire


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