Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Here is their final correspondence.
It’s over. Jesse lives. Walt Dies. And I think “Felina,” the series finale, was the most beautiful episode of Breaking Bad’s entire run. Let’s not bury the lede: Vince Gilligan and the entire cast and crew went out on top.
My first instinct, writing this email, is just to rave about everything, so I’m going to indulge that impulse for a moment. It started in stark, snowy New Hampshire, with Walt praying to the gods of fate to let him make it back to Albuquerque. Breaking Bad is at its best when it communicates through visuals, rather than snappy dialogue or crazy plot twists or razor-thin escapes. In five years, I’ll probably have forgotten all the best lines and the daring reversals, but I can guarantee I’ll always remember the pink bear in the pool, and the Mexican workers crawling to worship the saint of death, and Tuco’s head on a turtle, and the dozens of other indelible images that make this show so unique. Including, now, the overhead shot of Walt lying dead among the vats, while the perfect song played the story to its end.
Tracking back, my point is this: When the red flashing lights of the cop car flooded through the snow-covered windows, reflecting off Walt’s glasses, I knew we were in good hands. That one moment conveyed Walt’s desperation and isolation better than any monologue, and it was visually gorgeous, like something out of Fargo. And it proved to be an accurate portent of what was to come. Last week, I worried that there was so much ground to cover that the finale might be frantic, but instead they pulled off the amazing feat of sticking to a slow, aesthetic style that drew us subtly in toward the perfect conclusion.
I’ve always been a fraction less enthusiastic than you on Breaking Bad’s place among the pantheon of great television shows, and a big part of that was that I wasn’t watching the show from that aesthetic standpoint. I haven’t completely overcome that tic; the shoot-out scene at the end still sparked a vague sense of frustration because of the sheer amount of things that had to go right, like some kind of Rube Goldberg machine that felt too unrealistic. And in the past, you know I’ve complained about the dialogue as hackneyed. But I’ve also come to realize that I’m missing the point; the genius of the show is in the lingering, iconic pictures that really are worth a thousand of the best words. That’s where we see the heart of Walt and Jesse, and for the series to end with Jesse screaming with joy and pain at his newfound freedom, and Walt collapsing with an unexpected serenity among the implements that breathed life into him despite a medical death sentence…well, it was a stroke of sheer fucking brilliance, is what it was.
There’s so much to think about, and I realize I’m not being very funny right now, but this one got to me emotionally in a way that I’m still trying to sort out. If there was a Really Big But Subtle Moment here, it was obviously when Walt stunned Skyler by admitting that the meth-cooking had always been for him and him alone. He’s dropped the family schtick, which was necessary because the writers had always been smart enough to undercut that silly notion anyway; Walt may have convinced himself that he was doing something noble, but none of us believed it. Still, the even bigger surprise is that he didn’t seem to have an ounce of guilt with his confession. I’m not sure Vince Gilligan was celebrating Walt’s selfishness, per se, but he did allow Walt to celebrate it, if that makes sense. (Then again, the closing song was called “Baby Blue,” so maybe Vince was exalting him in his own cheeky way.) The upshot is that Walt went out on his own terms, with one happy exception; Jesse declared his independence in the terrific scene when he refused, at last, to do Walt’s dirty work and pull the trigger. It was the reversal of his lowest moment, when he ignored his better angels and murdered Gale Boetticher to keep Walt alive.
A question for you, Josh: Was it right to let Walt die an antihero’s death, free of messy comeuppance in the form of dead family or some other soul-killing device (beyond Hank, but hey, that happened two whole episodes ago, in the distant reaches of memory)? In the initial reactions, there were a few voices who thought he got off easy. But that reaction strikes me as a bit hypocritical. We’ve freed ourselves to root for a bad man, even when it’s clear that his actions affect the innocent. To deny him some measure of tranquility or vindication at his death would be like having your cake and eating it too. We don’t have to admire Walt’s decisions, because the truth is they could easily have led to the destruction of everything he loved. But like it or not, we identified with the ecstatic energy and pure thrill of a nerdy chemistry teacher becoming a kingpin. It made Walt feel alive, and deep down, we fed off that adrenaline. So why not own it? It’s television, and we’re allowed to accept the things that hook us on a level beneath the morality that (hopefully) governs our real lives.
Whatever you think about Walt, he had courage. And I think he deserved a last expression of that incredible life force in his dying moments. Comeuppance in art is for ethical puritans; a black-and-white outlook that punishes people for their boldness. With Walt, that’s the exact element I wanted to celebrate.
Ahhhhhh there is so much more, Josh! I promise to dish out some real zingers in the next email, and I also want to talk about the episode title, “Felina,” whose origin Slate nailed back in August. Since this is our last Breaking Bad email exchange, can we just write each other like 15 notes and publish it sometime next week? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.
Oh, and how can I forget: Thanks for not dying, Jesse Pinkman!
At about 10 minutes to nine last night, I realized I was actually nervous about this episode, which is kind of weird. I’ve loved this show for so many reasons, and a couple of them were on the line tonight. I’d been let down before (cough, Lost, cough), but this felt too big to fail. I knew there would be moments of mundane beauty (like that first scene in the snow-covered car or Jesse’s woodworking daydream). I knew there would be great final encounters (like Walt and Skyler’s “proper” goodbye in the kitchen). But, as far as getting some kind of moral to the story, I didn’t even know what would feel satisfying (besides Jesse getting to kill Todd). Walt failing in the end? Walt winning?
I’ve described the show in the past as a morality play, but grace is often more satisfying than judgment, and I didn’t want Walt hauled in front of TV cameras in an orange jumpsuit. He’s caused so much pain over the last five seasons, but he’s suffered as well. I still wanted judgment for Lydia and Todd and the Peckerwoods, and that was delivered with all the style we could have asked for. But mostly, I wanted all of Walt’s sins to not have been for nothing. In the end, he wins, and I felt just fine rooting for that. Everything he did, he did for himself, as he admits to Skyler, but his final actions were all for the benefit of his family—and even for Jesse.
First, in a brilliant twist that neither me nor you nor anyone I’ve read predicted, he uses Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz as a way to launder his money into his family’s hands. When he tracked down their address on the phone, all I could think of is, “Why would he murder this couple?” Sure, they didn’t give him credit for helping start the business, but Gretchen offered to pay for his cancer treatments. There was awkwardness to their split, but that’s beyond Heisenberg-level cold. That’s approaching Defcon Todd. But seeing him hiding in the shadows, casually looking at family photos…Vince Gilligan wrote and directed the finale and deserves all the praise getting heaped upon him tonight. What gripping television. And then to find out that it’s Badger and Skinny Pete with laser pointers outside Casa Schwartz? I can’t pretend I wasn’t giddy seeing them in that car.
And then, Walt’s trip to see Skyler, hidden behind an inelegant post in the tiny kitchen? Credit where it’s due: Anna Gunn has been fantastic down the stretch. That whole scene was superb, especially your Really Big But Subtle Moment. But also, the detail of Walt making sure that Hank gets a proper burial. He actually cares about his family and not just what they think of him. It’s good to see his humanity before the final showdown—to see that it’s not just about getting revenge because they stole his money, or even to avenge Hank. There’s also an element of protecting his family from the thugs who are still a threat.
And that showdown. We may not be able to celebrate Walt’s morality, but we can celebrate his love and mastery of science! The garage-door-opener-operated M-60 is one of those little bursts of genius that make the greater Rube Goldberg machine of a show feel of a piece. Yes, Walt gets lucky as hell time and again, but he often makes his own luck, manipulating both people and the elements to get the results he needs. And I can be glad that he went out on his terms, especially when his terms included giving Jesse his life, his vengeance and his freedom. And giving us a shootout to remember.
So, yes, Shane, it was right to let die Walt the anti-hero and not the villain. We don’t have to condone his actions to love him as a character. Hell, that’s a good life lesson—people all around us are going to screw up and we don’t have to stop rooting for them or loving them. Walt’s not repentant, but neither is he deluded. You could argue he got off too easy, but he certainly didn’t get off easy—suffering from cancer, riding cross-country in the empty tank of a propane truck, two months of solitary, a son who hates him, getting written out of the history of Grey Matter and a final death by bleeding out from a bullet to the abdomen. It’s not like he’s laughing all the way to the bank. You’re absolutely right that we fed off his final two years of living.
It turned out to be an incredibly satisfying ending to one of the great shows of our time. I was worried for nothing.
You were not the only one giddy to see Badger and Skinny Pete in that car. Frankly, I’m amazed they were able to turn their laser pointers on and off on cue without screwing it up completely. I also liked the revelation that Jesse told them he was heading for Alaska, and they had no compunction about revealing that to Walt. Hey Jesse, rule for the future: Those guys might not be the best ones to confide in when you’re considering the outlaw version of witness protection.
And while we’re here, Josh, I have some more advice that might prove helpful to the characters of Breaking Bad.
To Lydia: As you know from your long experience as an addict, Stevia is a sweetener. Ricin, on the other hand, is a poison that tastes bitter. If you put Stevia into your tea, but for some reason it tastes bitter, unlike all the other times you’ve consumed it, you might want to stop drinking that tea. (Side note, Josh: My research indicates that ricin poisoning takes several days to affect the major organs, and doesn’t guarantee death. We might have to come to terms with the fact that the Breaking Bad world goes on with Lydia among the living. I also called this in our mailbag, kinda.)
To Gretchen: When confronted by a crazed person who breaks into your house, is a known drug kingpin, and may be out to kill you as a final act of revenge, perhaps it’s best to just tell him what he wants to hear and save your indignation for a safer time. Also, who taught you how to shake hands? MY GRANDPAPPY TAUGHT ME TO LOOK A FELLOW IN THE EYE AND SHAKE FOR NO LESS THAN 13 AMERICAN SECONDS! (My grandfather measured time in “American seconds,” which were exactly the same as normal seconds.)
To Skyler: Try to choose a home that receives more than just a few slivers of natural light. It might improve your mood.
To Uncle Jack: Look, you’re about to kill Walt. It’s not a super big deal if he insults you as a business partner moments before he dies. Just let it go, and kill him. It’s not important to play semantics about some trivial point of honor. You could even have just said, “Actually, Jesse is tied up and working as our slave” and been done with it. Haven’t you ever watched a Bond movie? Don’t engage with the person you’re going to kill!
To Flynn: Did you notice that I called you Flynn even though I really hate that affectation? I’m throwing you a bone here in the hopes that you don’t become a huge dick when you inherit the $10 million. I know you’re an angry kid now, and you’ve earned it, but please, try to be cool.
To Elliot: Next time, go after him with the butter knife. You’ll probably lose and get killed, but can you imagine how much of a badass you’d be if you defeated a home invader with a butter knife? You almost have to go for it at that point.
Back to serious notes, you’re completely right about Anna Gunn. She brought out the heavy artillery for the last few episodes, and hit all her targets. I don’t withdraw my earlier criticisms, but I do tip my cap to her on a job well done.
So, the episode title, “Felina.” It was a purposefully misspelled version of “Feleena,” which is a Marty Robbins ballad about a girl who dances her way from Santa Fe to El Paso, finally falling for a tall cowboy who gets shot in a fight over her, after which she takes her own life Romeo & Juliet style. Walt sings the song while he’s tinkering with his garage door opener/machine gun contraption, but a little piece of trivia I found interesting is that Feleena first makes an appearance in the far more famous song “El Paso” by Robbins (“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl…”). There, the song is told from the cowboy’s point of view, and includes this line after the cowboy is forced to flee when he commits murder:
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless
Everything’s gone, in life nothing is left
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death
And it ends like so:
From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for
One little kiss, then Felina good-bye
To me, Walt is the cowboy and his Felina is the pure thrill from cooking meth and everything that went along with it, which made the rest of his life feel somber and dull by comparison. How could he ever stay out of the game? In the face of something that gave him so much life, even the threat of death was no deterrent. And when he died, it was in the arms of the only thing he really loved.
Gus Fring was a real nemesis with a talented lieutenant in Mike Ehrmantraut. Hank had his moments of insight. But nobody who was alive at the beginning of “Felina” was a match for Heisenberg. When he said “I did it for me,” he followed that with “I liked it. I was good at it. I felt alive.” What made most of those Aaron Sorkin shows so enjoyable—or any Bond or any Bruce Lee film—was watching people do what they were most gifted at. For Walt, that wasn’t just cooking meth—it was outsmarting his enemies. But Walt vs. Lydia was like Chuck Norris vs. well, a corrupt business exec in high heels. She might have survived the ricin, but most likely he gave her a slow, painful death. Uncle Jack’s gang was only a challenge because of their numbers. Todd may have been cruel, but in the end, he was as tough as a confused child—his last words were “Mr. White?” So you can dispense your advice—they could all certainly have used it—but you’re talking to characters who would’ve needed more than a few handy tips to bring down the king.
I love the thought of Breaking Bad as this tragic romance between Walt and the Crystal Blue. You’re right that it was the thing he loved the most. I believe in the idea of a calling—of being most alive when you’re doing what you’re best at, what you love—but I’d never before considered the question, “What if what you’re best at is something completely immoral?” It was a fun question to ponder at the series’ end, and if a TV show can introduce an original idea like that, it’s doing something right. And if a show can leave you with philosophical questions instead of practical ones it’s done even better.
Little was left unresolved, but since this is the last time we’ll get to enjoy guessing at what happens next, I’ll ask for your thoughts on the following…
1. Where does Jesse go from here? Does he try to raise Brock? (How would he ever get custody?) Does he move to Alaska? Was that daydream about the wood shop a literal flash-forward?
2. Are Skyler and Marie able to repair their relationship? Marie started that phone call with the word “truce,” so there’s still tension there.
3. Where does Saul go from here? Does he stay in hiding in Nebraska?
4. How high are Badger and Skinny Pete right now?
5. Is Huell still in that safe house? Oh wait, that one got answered.
1. I don’t see Jesse trying to raise Brock. I think he’s a little too unstable to take on that responsibility right away, and I think he needs some solitary wood-shop hours to clear his brain. Yes to Alaska, for the imagined purity, and because he’ll think it’s cleaner than anywhere else until he learns about the great thaw. (I think this is the second time I’ve linked that scene, but I don’t care…Five Easy Pieces is the best.) In all honesty, I think he ends up becoming the hermit-like guy with a huge beard who barely talks to other people, never marries, and just enjoys his time alone. Question for you—does he have any money now? Would he even want it at this point?
2. I loved how Marie said “truce.” Skyler’s husband killed Hank, and Skyler herself was complicit, but still Marie has to bear the olive branch. In terms of their relationship, I think it’ll eventually recover. From watching my own family, sisters have a permanent bond that can survive lots of skirmishes, whereas if you get two strong-willed brothers who disagree on something big, they’ll go years without talking. I also think Marie is resilient; I see her bouncing back, marrying again, new family, finding some happiness, while Skyler will probably be pretty bitter for a long time.
3. Does Saul stay in hiding? Josh, I believe you’re ignoring the thematic lyrical centerpiece of our mutual favorite song: “Starships are meant to fly.” There’s no keeping Saul down. He’s going to see an ambulance while driving one day, struggle to ignore it, tap his fingers on the steering wheel anxiously, and then give in and chase those beautiful spinning lights.
4. So high, and I give them approximately four days days before they blow every last dollar of their laser pointer money.
5. Wow, that trailer is amazing. I also didn’t know Huell’s last name is Babineaux. I’m a sucker for Cajun names.
I can’t believe it’s over, Josh. If I’m not mistaken, we shall be reprising our email recap art (I pronounce the word recap as “ruh-CAP” in the French style) for The Walking Dead, but this still feels like the end of something special. Before I begin weeping copiously on my computer (I ruined one computer that way at the end of our Game of Thrones recaps, and I ruined another on a long lonely night listening to “Starships” on repeat for seven hours), I’ll leave you with a final question:
Despite all the death, there are a few living characters remaining in the Breaking Bad universe. We’ve got Jesse, Flynn, Holly, Saul, Huell, Skyler, Marie, that other Saul henchman, the mustache guy from the FDA, and Carmen from the school. That’s an even 10, though I’m probably forgetting someone major. Who is most and least likely to break bad and become the new Heisenberg?
A pleasure as always, and I look forward to analyzing Sheriff Rick’s acting prowess in a couple weeks.
Jesse’s bags of cash ended up in Saul’s hands, which means the cash was either in Walt’s barrels or Saul has one heck of a manor on his wheat farm. The house is in his name, but those assets are probably frozen. I think it’s all blood-money to him anyway, and I think he’s starting over from scratch.
Least likely to break bad: Jesse. No one has seen or felt the damage it caused more than our redeemed junkie. I think he finds an AA group in Juno and never looks back.
Most Likely to Break Bad: Marie harbored thoughts of murdering Hank. Flynn has the genes, but he’s also got $9 mil coming way, and it took some desperation to get Walt where he was. But Holly has both nature and nurture working against her. We already know she’s whip-smart—she’s the only one who beat Walt at his little manipulation game with her “Mamamama” routine. Don’t tell me she didn’t know exactly what she was doing there. Plus she’s going to grow up only ever knowing luxury, she’s got a money-laundering mom, and she thinks her dad killed her uncle. She’ll break bad before she turns 16.
This has been a special ride, indeed. Fortunately, we’ll all get to hear plenty more from Mr. Shane Ryan, as he officially becomes Paste’s first ever full-time writer tomorrow!
Thanks for five great seasons, Vince. And thanks for not killing Jesse.