Breaking Bad: A Tale with 3 Endings
Breaking Bad may very well be one of the greatest, most well sustained, television series of all time but it still didn't escape what looks to be the curse of the modern serial conclusion. From The Sopranos to Lost, it seems any recent popular long running television serial is bound to have a divisive ending be it through a frustrating lack of closure or a controversially definitive climax. On first impressions it looks like Breaking Bad chose the latter, more definitive option. Vince Gilligan certainly put as large a full stop at the end of his series as he could, tying off an absurd amount of loose ends before culminating in a crowd-pleasingly cathartic rain of loud gunfire. In many ways it was the safest way to end his messy, morally murky story. Walter White inevitably dies but manages to very cleanly tie up every loose end before poetically passing away in his spiritual home, the meth lab.
The neatness of this conclusion cannot be underestimated: Walt concocts a scheme that gets money to his children, wreaks bloody vengeance on the evil neo-nazis, liberates Jesse from his living hell, kills Lydia, and has a moment of humility in front of Skylar before offering up the location of Hank's body as one of his final, near-redemptive acts. Sure this isn't a traditionally happy ending, Walt has destroyed his family, leaving Skylar and his son living in a crummy apartment; Marie's happy marriage with Hank was destroy and she was left a grieving widow; Jesse is alive but destined to live a broken PTSD existence; and the general trail of death and destruction brought on the world is huge. But, despite all this, Gilligan still allowed Walt a wholly cathartic victorious final episode in which several elaborate schemes unravelled in absurdly perfect ways. Gilligan in his god-like omniscience, gave Walt an almost super-heroic coda strangely at odds with the progressive breaking down of the man over the prior episodes.
The only way we can properly understand why the finale felt so out of sync with the previous couple of episodes is that Breaking Bad didn't have just one ending, but rather it gave us 3 separate climaxes. Each of the three final episodes could justifiably act as a series finale (I admit there would be loose ends due to the flash-forward structure but one could argue in the value of the mystery left behind in each instance).
Ozymandias, the third last episode – and arguably one of the greatest episodes of television ever produced – feels to me to be the most thematically appropriate ending to the series. The episode is a cascade of emotional crescendos with Walt destroying everything he holds dear as the Heisenberg personality spits venom over all around him. The final shot of the episode is sublime - a momentary reflection of gaze onto the audience as Walt, being driven off to an anonymous relocated future, breaks the fourth wall and stares at the audience through a mirror. The sharp cut to black is traumatic, as every associated consequence of his supposedly “badass” actions had come to a violent end.
The following episode, Granite State, is the much more sedate conclusion. Filled with a sense of solemn melancholy we witness an empty broken Walt alone with his money and nothing else. Everything he has worked towards and killed for amounted to nothing more than a barrel of cash he can't ever really do much with. As Saul makes clear to him in the magnificent opening scenes, he will never be able to get the money to his family. Walt struggles to manifest Heisenberg, vainly attempting to threaten Saul before falling to his knees, a truly defeated animal. The episode ratchets up the hopelessness as Walt is relocated to a snow covered shack in New Hampshire. As he pathetically offers Ed, the extractor, $10,000 to just spend some time with him, we are witness to a man who has lost everything. This is the moral and spiritual climax to the series. The crime doesn’t pay ending so to speak.
Gilligan ends on a brilliant cliff-hanger that could comfortably again act as a series finale. Walt, in an act of climactic hubris, apparently heads back to Albuquerque after having his good name soiled by Gretchen on television. Its an appropriately bad-ass moment tinged with a bitter 'won't he ever learn' fatalism. Who is he going back to Albuquerque to kill? It doesn’t matter at this point. Its the futile act of a vain man with nothing left but monstrous violence.
The final episode, anagrammatically titled Felina, opts for total wish fulfilment. In fact the episode is filled with such a strange series of narrative ellipsis and strategic perfections that it could confidently be interpreted as Walt's personal fantasy ending. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum succinctly sums it up saying,
“wouldn’t this finale have made far more sense had the episode ended on a shot of Walter White dead, frozen to death, behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start? Certainly, everything that came after that moment possessed an eerie, magical feeling—from the instant that key fell from the car’s sun visor, inside a car that was snowed in. Walt hit the window, the snow fell off, and we were off to the races.”
Walt's elaborate plans have been a hallmark of the series – magnets, train robberies, the poisoning of Andrea's son – and they all have been undeniably exciting. Walt, and the audience, embraced the myth of Heisenberg, a super smart and successful drug baron, so the series ending with a procession of elaborate schemes is not out of character for the series as a whole but it is out of sync with the downward momentum of the preceding episodes. Gilligan leaves just enough grey areas in the episode to allow more conscientious viewers to interpret this as a bitter ending. Sure, his plot to leave all his money to Walt Jr via a trust run by Gretchen and Elliot may not work in the long run but this future narrative hypothetical is irrelevant. The scene is presented as a series of fist pumping twists concluding with the revelation that the hit men were an illusion allowing us a little ethical escape clause so we can marvel at Walt's tricksy way of getting money to his children (an admirable goal right?). But as Skinny Pete literally says in a meta-throwaway joke, it all feels a bit morally murky doesn't it?
Vince Gilligan ultimately constructed an amazingly clever finale where he had his cake and ate it too. Walt doesn’t get a happy ending but he does win. Fans of Walt are allowed to celebrate at his attempts to set things right while there is still enough blurry space to interpret this as a sad ending. A man who didn't learn, didn’t repent and damaged a whole bunch of people's lives.
It's this latter reading that makes me uncomfortable though.
While all the moral murkiness of the show is still present in the finale it is almost deliberately obfuscated by some brisk storytelling. Walt appears and disappears from scenes with an ethereal quality (again validating Nussbaum's interpretation that this entire episode is a death dream) that serve to propel the narrative but also pragmatically make things way too easy for Walt. How does he escape at the beginning of the episode as the cops descend on the bar? How does he so easily get in and out of Skylar's place? How did a well known criminal on the run get ricin into a stevia packet in a busy cafe without arousing the suspicion of an employee? He was also pretty lucky the Nazi's have a front room positioned the way they did and he could pull his car up perfectly into position.
The smooth stylings of Felina jarringly interrupt the downward spiral of the series to offer a crowd-pleasing 'easy' ending with a concealed sense of complexity. We can read this episode in numerous ways, and many clever critics are, but the immediate visceral response to Felina is one of victory. Walt doesn’t exactly achieve redemption but we are offered a portrait of a character trying to set things right before he dies and he is given several moments of grace and success.
The three endings Gilligan offers us present a brilliant tactic at appeasing all audiences while still ending the show on his own terms – much like Walt. Gilligan has learned from prior showrunners and did not want to alienate his audience with a brutal, obscure or loose ending. For my money I’ll take the Ozymandias climax. It was Breaking Bad at its most destructively harrowing and uncompromising. And Felina, well, let's just say it was one hell of a fantasy Walt had as he most likely died alone and beaten in his woodland shack.