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'Breaking Bad' recap: None of this had to happen

September 30, 2013|By Todd VanDerWerff
  • Walter (Bryan Cranston) has his final showdown in the "Breaking Bad" series finale.
Walter (Bryan Cranston) has his final showdown in the "Breaking Bad"… (AMC )

The world of “Breaking Bad” is a moral one. I’ve said this over and over in these final reviews, and if there’s one definitive point the series seems to want to underline and highlight in its final episode ever, “Felina,” it’s that this is the kind of world where sin is ultimately punished, but altruism and doing the right thing are rewarded somehow. It’s right there in the first scene: Walter is about to steal the car that will carry him back to New Mexico, but the police drive up.  He begs some power greater than himself (in what reads almost as a prayer), only to find the police pulling away and the keys underneath the visor. Some other power has need of him to still be alive.

Walter White must die for his sins, but the world he occupies can use him as an instrument of justice, righting wrongs that have festered in his absence. Doing this will require letting go of everything he believed to be true about himself, but that’s been a process he’s gone through in the last two episodes, ever since Uncle Jack put a bullet into Hank’s head. It’s powerful television. It’s a stunning ending. But is it a fitting conclusion to “Breaking Bad”?

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Since some point in its second season, “Breaking Bad” has effectively been two shows in one. The first of those two shows was the one we thought we were watching in the pilot: A mild-mannered chemistry teacher breaks bad and discovers how thrilling it can be, then drags us into the thrills right alongside him. In general, he is someone we’re supposed to root for, someone we’re supposed to cheer.

In the second show, “Breaking Bad” was all about a man who made a choice to break bad and revealed untold depths of bleak awfulness within himself. It was a series about a man who broke himself open and revealed a monster driving the controls, then decided he kind of liked that version of himself. “Breaking Bad” was always great at playing both sides of this equation, even in episodes like “Ozymandias,” where you really feel for the guy about losing all his money, right before he turns Jesse over to the Nazis and you hate him all over again.

(Sidebar: Most of my criticisms of this season boil down to a frank consideration of what I want this show to be, but when it comes to terms of actual storytelling quality, I think the Jesse arc was, ultimately, a dud. It was repetitive, particularly when considered in light of things the show has done before, and sort of pointless, and he was severely underused in “Felina.”)

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What “Felina” attempts to do is to get back to show one via show two. By slyly acknowledging all that Walter had become in his pursuit of power, the show hoped to have him not redeem himself, exactly, but push just far enough over into the “not entirely evil” side of the ledger to stay alive long enough to get back to Albuquerque and carry out his own form of justice. Things go right for once. He seems able to simply slip past the police. His machine gun contraption works perfectly to rid the world of the Nazi menace. And he’s able to see both of his children one last time – and even gets to smooth baby Holly’s curly hair while she sleeps.

Walter’s actions get increasingly grandiose in terms of trying to buy enough time to carry out his plan. He over-tips a waitress. He leaves that expensive watch Jesse gave him to help pay for gas. His revenge against the Nazis turns into a rescue when he realizes Jesse has been held in captivity all this time. And the “not entirely evil” actions carry over in terms of his own internal revelations. He finally admits to Skyler that he did what he did not for the family but because he liked it, because he was good at it. And when Jack tells Walt that if he kills Jack, he’ll never know where his money is hidden, Walter doesn’t hesitate to immediately plug him in the head, finally letting go of some of that corrupting pride and greed, even if it’s just a tiny amount. When Jesse drives out of the Nazis’ compound, he looks back to see Walter, mostly in darkness, but framed with a slight blur of light. That light only seems to have returned to him in this episode.

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