Series finale review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Felina’

“Breaking Bad” has come to an end. A review of the series finale coming up just as soon as I compare pizza to Thai food…

“I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really – I was alive.” -Walt

Moments after “Breaking Bad” concluded, Vince Gilligan joined Aaron Paul (and, of all people, Jimmy Kimmel) for the final installment of “Talking Bad,” whose host Chris Hardwick was very pleased that Gilligan hadn’t gone for an oblique ending that left viewers wondering what the hell had just happened. “The Sopranos” was cited, and that’s the finale that’s cast a shadow over everything that’s come after, asking creators what kind of show they want to be making and fans what kind of show they want to be watching. Gilligan praised “The Sopranos” ending, but added, “this show needed the ending that was perfect for it. This show was intended all along to be very finite. It’s a story that starts at A and ends at Z, as it were. It’s a very closed-ended thing.”

And we sure as hell got resolution in “Felina”(*). Short of finding out exactly why Don Eladio wasn’t allowed to kill Gus (an old piece of business that wasn’t going to be dealt with two years after the Chicken Man exploded) or what exactly went down between Walt, Gretchen and Elliott all those years ago (which could, in theory, have come up during Walt’s visit to their new mansion), all our questions were answered, all our plot threads tied up neatly. Walt arranges to get the remaining cash (which he was able to collect from the cabin before the cops closed in) to Walter Jr. on his 18th birthday. He admits to Skyler what we’ve known for so long – that “family” was his excuse for doing something that made him feel happy and powerful – and arranges for both the discovery of Hank and Gomez’s bodies and the end of Skyler’s legal troubles. He poisons Lydia with the ricin, somehow sneaking it into one of her Stevia packets, and takes out Jack and the Nazis with the machine gun he bought from Jim Beaver (with some help from one last bit of improvised engineering). Jesse kills Todd and drives off into the night, and Walt dies from a stray bullet wound he caught during the massacre of the Nazis, but not before he gets to admire the chemistry set he helped design one last time.

(*) As pointed out on the Internet earlier in the week, the title can be read as the chemical symbols for iron, lithium and sodium (aka “blood, meth and tears”) or as an anagram for “finale.” It could also be referring to the Marty Robbins’ song “El Paso,” which plays in the tape deck of the stolen New Hampshire car, and which features a Mexican girl by the name.

Every move Walt makes works to perfection – even the unexpected discovery that Jesse is Jack’s slave, rather than partner, and therefore needs to be saved. There is no ambiguity about what happened, and only some about what may happen down the road. (We assume, for instance, that Gretchen and Elliott will set up the trust for Flynn rather than risk the wrath of Walt’s “hitmen,” but we don’t know what the kid will do with that money.)

I admire Gilligan’s desire to dot every i and cross every t, and I adored many individual moments of the finale: the Badger/Skinny Pete punchline to the Gretchen/Elliott scene, Walt finally being honest about his motivations (and stroking a sleeping Holly’s face while Skyler watched and cried), and the sheer visceral thrill of Jesse giving Todd the choking he deserved, to name just a few. This was cathartic, this was definitive, this was as gorgeously-acted as “Breaking Bad” has always been.

But was it ultimately too neat?

As Gilligan said, he had to make the ending that’s right for his show. A hard cut to black in the middle of a confounding final scene that will be analyzed like the Zapruder film is not the way “Breaking Bad” should have wrapped up. This has always been a much more plot-driven and precise series. Each of the full seasons (not counting the strike-abbreviated first) concluded in a way that built on everything that came before, whether it was something planned from the start (the plane crash in season 2) or improvised later by the writers (Gus replacing the Cousins as season 3’s big bad).

That being said, for all that “Breaking Bad” itself has been very orderly and precise, Walter White has not been. Walt is reckless. He doesn’t think things through, and even when he does, his plans rarely go off without a hitch. He’s always been scrambling, always improvising, always trying to deal with one unintended consequence in ways that lead to three or four more. Even when he accomplishes the seemingly impossible – blowing up Gus, or taking out all of Mike’s guys in a two-minute window – he is helped enormously by both luck and by partners like Tio Hector and Uncle Jack.(**)

(**) So many important uncles in this show. Hector was Tuco’s, Jack was Todd’s, and of course Hank was Flynn and Holly’s.

So for the finale to feature Walt largely operating solo (with the occasional small bit of help from Skinny Pete or Jim Beaver) and having everything work out as planned – with the sort of precision one might have expected from the watch Walt left behind at the gas station pay phone – didn’t feel exactly like the kind of ending I might have expected from this show.

Of course, Gilligan has also talked in the past about the idea of a moral force in the “Breaking Bad” universe. When he and I discussed season 2’s plane crash, he described it as “a rain of fire coming down around our protagonist’s ears, sort of like the judgment of God.” From that perspective, maybe Walt’s sudden ability to settle all family business with minimal fuss isn’t too much narrative economy, but rather the God of “Breaking Bad” deciding that after all the harm Walter White had caused to so many people, matters needed to be set right before he died, and he was the man to do it. Note that Walt – a man of science, not faith – prays when he sits in the snow-covered car in New Hampshire, desperate to get it started and escape the arriving cops; maybe once his actions were genuinely selfless and penitent, and once he was so close to death anyway, all his remaining prayers were answered. 

I don’t know. I’m going to be mulling over “Felina” for a while, and mulling over what, if anything, it has to say about this show’s place in the larger pantheon. This last stretch of episodes has been so incredible that nothing short of epic failure at the very end would have knocked “Breaking Bad” off its perch. This was far from epic failure, and to a degree the previous three episodes were so messy and so devastating that the show practically earned the right for this vaguely happy ending. Walt defeats all his enemies, but dies in the process. Flynn may be getting $9.7 million (give or take taxes and legal fees), and Skyler may be avoiding prosecution, but I imagine both would rather have Hank alive, and their family intact. Jesse goes free, and for a moment seems genuinely happy as he roars down the open road, but he’ll be carrying the physical and emotional scars of his association with Mr. White for the rest of his life.

Because of all that, “Felina” doesn’t feel like a cheat, or a massive misstep, or an overreach. This is one of the greatest shows of my lifetime, and nothing in this concluding chapter changes that.

But it also felt so neat, and so orderly, in such an un-“Breaking Bad” sort of way, that I don’t think I can give the show bonus points for its last episode in the same way that “The Shield” or “Six Feet Under” get extra credit for their finales. Most of this last half-season was astonishing, but I don’t think Gilligan was just being self-effacing when he said “Ozymandias” was the best episode they ever made. That was, essentially, where the story of Walter White ended. These last two weeks have been an extended epilogue, the first half (“Granite State”) gut-wrenching, the second half satisfying and tidy.

I understand why Hardwick, and so many of the people I follow on Twitter, were so pleased with the ending. In an era where the great dramas so often overreach, obfuscate or stumble in their conclusions, this was definitive. These were the final, unmistakable steps on the path Walter White put us on nearly six years ago.

But given everything that Walt had been through, and put us through, over these 62 episodes, I think I might have preferred the whole package be wrapped in a bow that wasn’t so tight. “Granite State” suggested a world in which Heisenberg was dead and useless, but “Felina” brought him back to life, briefly more potent than ever before. It’s a more cathartic, upbeat conclusion than if the series had ended with Walt getting into Robert Forster’s van or living alone in that snowy cabin, but is it ultimately a more fitting one for this series?

Some other thoughts:

* I didn’t put a clock on whether the episode actually had a bigger ad load than the last few, but by keeping ads out of the conclusion altogether, that meant that the opening acts had to start and stop very abruptly. Bills have to be paid, and I also appreciate Gilligan’s desire to have the concluding moments uninterrupted, but it didn’t play very smoothly – and I imagine was maddening for the people who caught up via Netflix (with no ads at all) and were watching live for the first time this season.

* In our brief revisits to the flashforwards from “Live Free Or Die” and “Blood Money,” we unfortunately do not see Carol again, but Skyler and Marie spend an awful lot of time discussing her (and Marie’s trouble distinguishing her from other neighbor Becky) on their phone call. I’ll take it. That phone call also provides some closure to the Lambert sisters’ relationship, as whatever schism there was earlier this summer is put aside so Marie can try to protect Skyler.

* Jesse’s fantasy about making the perfect wood box, rather than being Todd’s meth slave, was a callback to season 3’s “Kafkaesque,” where he tells Jere Burns and the rest of the 12-step group about a similar box he made in woodshop, then traded for an ounce of weed even though he loved it so much. Jesse was more marginal in this last episode than I would have liked, but that was a nice moment dwelling on his history before he later gets free, kills Todd and declines to kill Mr. White.

* Todd’s ringtone for Walt was Thomas Dolby, and the one he has for Lydia is a version of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

* Elsewhere musically, we get the Marty Robbins song early, and we close with Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” whose lyrics allude to both Walt’s beloved meth and to a man who gets what he deserved.

Again, I suspect I’ll be writing more – about the series as a whole, if not the finale – later in the week, but in the meantime, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at