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Does the destination change the journey? Ben and Andrew discuss Breaking Bad’s finale

Does the destination change the journey? Ben and Andrew discuss Breaking Bad’s finale

Breaking Bad has ended, and its series finale on Sunday was the biggest television event since the Red Wedding or the finale of Lost. So now it falls to us to ask the same question that's being asked at water coolers around the country: What did you think? Full spoilers ahead!

Ben already got 1500 words to discuss the final episode yesterday so that means I get to kick things off.

I really enjoyed watching the ending, and yet at the same time I found it quite dissatisfying. To me, this episode simply felt like the last episode of any other plot line in the series' history. This wasn't its high note crescendo. It was just its last note. The only difference between this and the ending of any other plot line was that instead of Walt shouting, “What do you mean 'what now?' Now we cook!” at the end, here he's dead. 

And how does Walt die? How is death visited upon one of the greatest characters in narrative history? Not by the destiny that's been chasing him since the first episode, but by a stray bullet. This kind of ending bothers me, because there's no narrative consequence here. He dies because the writer says he dies.

There's some poetry in that he was killed by one of his own master plans, but ultimately this is what he wanted. To die at the last after he achieved all of his goals. As a result we're left with a character who died because the series writer decided he needed to die, but had no other way to make it happen.

Beyond that, we have very little resolution for many other characters. Several other characters are left hanging, and we end up with this weird mix of a resolved ending, and an open-to-interpretation ending. If they didn't die then they were left hanging. Walter Jr? Skyler? The Schwartzs? Jesse? Badger? Skinny Pete? Brock? Who knows.

But before I get off on too many rants, what did you think, Ben? To me it's two seperate questions: did you find it enjoyable? Did you find it to be a satisfying conclusion to an epic series?

Ben's thoughts

Well, the fact that it was a stray bullet actually kind of works. You can only put yourself into so many situations before something unlucky happens, and Walter has been in the middle of so much violence that at some point his luck was bound to run out. Plus at this point he was improvising: The original plan was to kill everyone, but at the last minute he decided to save Jesse. That dive, and Todd moving in to break it up, was unexpected. It changed things. 

If the episode began with a plea to a higher power, the final moments of Walter may have been that higher power asking for a little pay back. Walter had nothing else to do, no one else to kill.

This was the end of the line, and even if we don't know exactly what happened to everyone, we know the path they're on. I don't think Skyler's legal problems are going to end, just as Saul predicated in the second to last episode. I don't think Walter Jr. is going to be comfortable becoming wealthy due to the connection with his father even if he has no reason to think the money is tied to Walter.

What I find interesting is that we never really found out what happened between Walter and Gretchen and Gray Matter. A few things were hinted at, but we were never given any kind of objective truth, nor is there any way to tell who was wronged in this situation. It's possible that Walter thinks his threats are just a way to get what he is owed, while Gretchen and Eliot may just feel that Walter is a sort of malignant ghost that continues to hang around their achievements, always playing the victim.

The answer is likely something in between, but the idea of almost having everything and instead getting nothing is one of the things that seems to drive Walter through the entire show. There is always a bigger pay off, as long as he hangs on and continues to move forward. There is never a safe spot to eject from the drug trade and collect his winnings. The value will always go up. The cancer may have made Walter take action, but it's Gray Matter that planted the seeds of a monster.

Andrew, what motivations do you think people are missing when they discuss the episode?

Andrew's response

I think we're all missing a bit of Jesse's motivations. The show doesn't give us much of a clear picture of the character in the end, which is a little ironic because Jesse began the show as the overlooked gem of Breaking Bad. He was never supposed to be a regular, and it took Aaron Paul's charisma to get the writers to keep him around through the entire run.

It took the writers quite a while to see that Walt wasn't the only great character on the show. I was disappointed that they didn't give Jesse a proper ending here. He's still arguably the best character on the show, and yet we're left wondering what happens to him. I think ultimately Jesse loses here. Perhaps more than anyone.

When I watched him laugh victoriously as he escaped only for it to turn into a crying-rage-wail I saw the Jesse who constantly repeated this season that he wanted to see Walt lose just once. He sees Walt's bullet wound and knows he's about to die and he's agonized by this, because everything went perfectly for Walt yet again, and Jesse owes his life and freedom to that.

You mentioned Walt's luck running out, but I don't think it does and that's my problem. His luck didn't really run out. He got exactly what he wanted: to kill everyone, shut down the drug trade so his legacy would endure, get closure with everyone else and then to die before being caught. His luck was perfect to the end. Ultimately, I think that bullet hit his side simply because the writers didn't want him to have to kill himself.

Beyond that, the show skips over the immense amount of luck it would have taken for him to achieve all of this in the first place. To travel cross country without being noticed by anyone. To find Badger and Skinny Pete and recruit them unnoticed. That he could elude the police to see his family again with nothing but a few crank phone calls. To rig the machine gun to just the right swivel angle to cover the room in which he met Jack and Todd.

It goes on. He was allowed to park right in front of the building despite the protests of Epic Mustache Guy. It was luck that Jack would care about Walt calling him a liar and bring Jesse into the room. It was luck that Jack didn't just have him killed on sight. That Jack would survive just long enough for us to see that Walt cares about justice more than money now. That Lydia would call at the exact moment Walt could get Todd's phone. The endless string of perfect luck got on my nerves, and you could really feel the hands of the writers, which is rare for Breaking Bad.

This piece from the New Yorker slightly mocks the last episode by saying it essentially amounted to Walt's fantasy. The piece jokes that it would have been more appropriate if the final shot showed Walt frozen, still in the car in New Hampshire, with the events of the episode revealed as his daydream. 

It wasn't a bad ending, but it's hard to call any ending bad once you've been through Battlestar Galactica. It was enjoyable and certainly did its job as the last episode decently enough if you give the writers some creative license.

I've ranted enough about my personal feelings on this, and I'm certain that everyone's mileage will vary. This is a show that's going to be great fun to discuss and disagree about for the next decade or three. What's your final takeaway from the show?

Ben's reaction

I've been rewatching the first season, and it's interesting how quickly Walter moves from the idea of cooking meth to his first kill. And Walter doesn't just kill Krazy 8 in some cold, clinical fashion, he strangles him with the bike lock while the gangster is trying to stab him with the broken piece of plate. The show wasted no time in putting Walter into life or death situations, and the only reason he came out on top is that he realized the shard was missing. He was clever, and prepared, from the jump.

Then you have the Gus Fring story, filled with a ton of great moments, including Fring's improbable but visually astounding end. You have the likable Gale Boetticher, whose death moved the story along, but I would have loved if he could have stuck around longer.

“Consenting adults want what they want,” Boetticher once said, “At least with me they’re getting exactly what they pay for.” He was another smart man who was willing to rationalize a dismal trade in order to make some money.

The show itself, from front to back, was brilliant, and now we can take a few steps back and appreciate it as a whole. The ending didn't diminish the show for me, which is always a risk and I'd argue that Lost's legacy suffered due to its ending, but the ending also didn't elevate an already amazing show. It did what it had to do and, while we don't know what is going to happen to many of these characters, Jesse included, the story itself is over. Walter White has come to an end.

If you believe that Breaking Bad is essentially a Western, an idea I've heard during a few looks at the final episode, then the tone has been consistent through the entire show's run. The fallen hero goes down in a hail of bullets. I don't think anyone “won,” here, but I think Walter would be satisfied by his end. After thinking about things for a few days, I think I am as well.