This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and RogerEbert.com.
Because He Wanted To
The final episode of Breaking Bad was a tender goodbye. I’ve watched the entire series with my heart firmly planted in my mouth, but watching the last moments of Walt’s life, his look of contentment as he sees the gas mask he used to wear when cooking, that smear of his blood on metal as he finally collapses to the ground, felt gentle. The great Heisenberg went out with a sigh of contentment, rather than a roar of pride.
For five seasons critics have debated just what about Breaking Bad has captured the American zeitgeist. In some ways, the show is surely emblematic of some pressing cultural concerns—the desperation of the working class and the changing face of American masculinity, for example. But ultimately, the heart of Breaking Bad is not a public service announcement about the dangers of meth, the need for better health care or the importance of family. Breaking Bad is about existential terror. It’s about the choices we make when confronted with death and the disintegration of our own very identity. It’s about the limits of free will and the recognition that we have minimal control over our own destiny. And it’s about how we all push for some kind of a high, even though we know everything we do eventually has an expiration date.
In the end, Walt is a hero and a villain in equal measure. The same Walt who murders his enemies in cold blood is the one who ties his wedding ring to a string around his neck when his fingers become too thin to wear it, just as the same Walt who kidnaps Holly is the one who touches her tenderly in her crib in a final farewell.
Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Walter White rewrote his story in order to survive. In the final episode we see Walt claiming this story, owning his responsibility in the chaotic landscape that nourished and destroyed him. In the end, Walt’s relationships with the people who meant the most to him were faded fragments from a time when Walt was living a different story, a time when he truly believed that he was making moral choices to protect the family he loved. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final showdown, where Walt is forced to look at the life to which he condemned his former friend and partner Jesse. Even after respect and trust are long gone between Walt and Jesse, there always remains the weight of a sad, long dead love.
I cried watching that last moment of Walt wandering around what, at this point in his life, had become his natural habitat—a meth lab littered with bodies and blood. Walt died very alone, in every sense of the word. His meticulously planned out last hurrah to set things right was, certainly, a suicide mission. In the final episode of the series we see Walt, who had always resisted death at every turn, finally resign himself to it, even though, in true Heisenberg fashion, he went out in his own terms.
The final episode of Breaking Bad gives the illusion of closure, as if the entire world will fade away now that Heisenberg and Walter White are one and gone. In reality, there were things that Walt did that will never be healed. Walt was proud of letting Jane die and poisoning Brock, both decisions which he felt were made out of necessity. But this same Walt was terribly ashamed of his betrayals—leading Hank to his death and losing the love and trust of his only son. Walt’s confession to Skyler, where he says he did it all for himself, that he liked it, he was good at it and it made him feel alive, betrays the weight of his tremendous guilt, but doesn't necessarily give us the whole truth to his story. In earlier episodes one can clearly see a man who is struggling to make moral choices; somewhere along the way his motivations changed. The difficulty in pinpointing that catalyst is what makes Breaking Bad great art and it is what makes this touching, quiet finale emotionally wrenching.
For me, Walt’s guilt tempers those last moments of Breaking Bad, where we see Heisenberg wandering about the meth lab—his reflection beaming back at him, all stretched and misshapen. Walt’s tremendous pride in his creation, his love for his “baby blue” is palpable in that moment, but so is the image of his bloodied hand, tarnishing a space that requires cleanliness in order to make a dirty product a signature product: it got close, but was never 100% pure.
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Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.
Dave Bunting, Jr. is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink, and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and real estate. Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.