One of the things I loved about Jason Katims’ work as head writer on Friday Night Lights was his ability to take a drama with relatively low stakes and manufacture an incredible amount of tension. Each season (except for the second, which never happened), no matter how lofty the highs of the season before, Katims would bring his characters back down and stack the deck against the them again. Over the course of the season, he would slowly erect obstacles — dropping minor victories along the way, to keep us from losing spirit — until the characters would fall to their lowest point in the penultimate episode, until they were once again true underdogs. Katims would then use the finale of each season to redeem the characters, or provide us with that emotionally satisfying wallop that would feel so much more gratifying because the characters were in a position of weakness. He would also always leave one unhappy subplot hanging — the Panthers losing the Championship, or Riggins going off to jail — so that the sweetness would be offset by the bitter, which made the wins that much more satisfying. There were no completely happy endings in FNL, only bittersweet ones.
I bring that up in the context of Breaking Bad because I don’t think that is what Vince Gilligan is doing here.
I think many of us want to believe that Vince Gilligan is building these huge monsters out of Todd, Uncle Jack and the Aryans in order to make an underdog out of Walter White so that when he finally takes them out, we will get a bigger sense of satisfaction, even if it means that Walter White dies in the process. We want to think that Walter White goes out guns blazing, destroying the very people his hubris created. The more evil Uncle Jack and Todd are, the better that’s going to feel, which is why the death of Andrea may have been necessary: To show just how evil, ugly, and awful the Redneck Aryans really are. Their deaths are going to feel so deserving, right?
Except that I don’t think their deaths will feel good. I’m beginning to think that that’s not the direction that Vince Gilligan is taking. I don’t think that Gilligan is creating bigger monsters in Jack and Todd to make us feel sympathy for Jesse and Walt. I think he’s building Todd and Jack into the monsters they have become to show us what Walt has wrought. Jack and Todd are Heisenberg’s creations, and while it’s easier to separate the two in our minds, the reality is, they’re one and the same. Mike Ehrmentraut’s death was just as pointless as Andrea’s, and while Walter has no apparent prejudices against minorities, he’s just as cold and calculating as Uncle Jack. The day after Todd murdered the child on the motorcycle, Walter White was whistling at work. NEVER FORGET.
Walter White is a terrible human being.
During press rounds before the season began, Vince Gilligan made a point of suggesting that he’s not all that comfortable with the way that some viewers are reacting to Walter White. He doesn’t think that Walter White should be at all likable or sympathetic, and it’s only our built in perceptions of Bryan Cranston that’s keeping our rooting interests in him alive. I think Vince Gilligan wants to snuff that out, once and for all. The #TeamWalt business, I think, makes him uncomfortable.
Granted, it’s hard not to feel a little something for Walter White when even his own son rejects the money he spent so much sweat creating, after killing so many people to get it. With that phone conversation between Walt and Walt, Jr. in “Granite State,” we learn that all of his efforts over the last 61 episodes meant nothing; not only will his family not get the money, they don’t even want it. They’re rejecting Walter White and his ill-gotten gains.
But that’s also the point.
It may sound simplistic, but that’s what I believe Vince Gilligan is trying to demonstrate: Crime doesn’t pay. He taken everything away from Walter White. All he has left now is revenge. In the end, I’m not so sure that Gilligan can give him (and the audience) even that, because it would allow Walter White a semblance of victory. Walter White has done nothing to deserve even the smallest of wins. I’m not saying that Jack and Todd will survive the finale (although, who knows?) but if they die, I doubt there will be a lot of fist pumping. I anticipate a bleak ending for everyone involved. There will be no blazes of glory, only crushing defeat. There will be no bad asses, only the husks of once powerful men. There will be no winners, only degrees of losers.
No one will be celebrating when the Breaking Bad fades to black.
When it comes to Vince Gilligan and this final season of Breaking Bad, anticipate the worst. After you’ve done that, expect it will be even worse than that.