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'Breaking Bad': Did Walt deserve a triumphant ending?

September 30, 2013|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, on AMC's "Breaking Bad."
Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, on AMC's "Breaking… (Ursula Coyote / AMC / Associated…)

The “Breaking Bad” finale left little to the imagination, allowing Walter White, the show’s anti-hero, to swoop back into town one last time to tie up loose ends in an adrenaline-fueled, action-packed episode that ended on his terms -- just the way he planned to all the way back in season one. Whether the ending was satisfying, however, depends on your worldview.

“I’m really surprised by how I feel about the finale. I expected to be sad. But I’m giddy -- thrilled that the best drama in television history didn’t blow it at the end,” wrote The Wrap’s Tim Molloy.

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, on the other hand, would have preferred a quieter, more psychological ending. “I mean, 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?” she asks. “Walt succeeded with so little true friction -- maintaining his legend, reconciling with family, avenging Hank, freeing Jesse, all genuine evil off-loaded onto other, badder bad guys.”

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Did Walt deserve a triumphant ending?

There’s no one way to read “Breaking Bad.” For Walt-sympathizers, the show is a meditation on what can happen in a country that doesn’t care for its sick people, that doesn’t place enough value on its teachers, that divides people into haves and have-nots, that stirs resentment, that leaves ordinary people with a sense of hopelessness. For fans of Walt, it makes sense that a dying man wants to regain some control of his life and leave a legacy, so they let him off the hook.

“Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own choices. I mean, my entire life it just seems I never had a real say about any of it,” Walt tells his family in the first season. “For what time I have left, I want to live in my own house. I want to sleep in my own bed. I don’t want to choke down 30 or 40 pills every single day, lose my hair, and lie around too tired to get up, and so nauseated that I can’t even move my head. You, cleaning up after me. Me, some dead man, some artificially alive, just marking time. No. That’s how you would remember me. That’s the worst part.”

The irony about Walt is that for him, his terminal cancer diagnosis isn’t a death sentence. It’s permission to start living again. And is it any wonder that Walt finds his version of redemption off-the-grid in a world that hasn’t let him down?

Todd Van Der Werff, however, calls foul on the notion that Walt is a victim, arguing that he’s a classic example of white male privilege. From Salon:

Walt’s justifications for why he should have what he wants stem almost entirely from believing that he’s owed in some way, that the universe has screwed him over. Yet when the series begins, he has a pretty good life. He has a beautiful wife, a loving son, a baby on the way, and a house with a swimming pool. Maybe he doesn’t like either of his jobs, but who does? And when he gets cancer, old friends who feel a debt to him offer to pay for the treatments. Yet all Walter needs is the slightest provocation to look around himself, reach out for anything within reach, and cry out, “I want that!” like a spoiled toddler. […]

Walter White was a smart, capable guy who expected, at some level, to be rewarded simply for being a smart, capable guy. And why wouldn’t he expect that? He lives in a culture that regularly rewards men who look like him simply because of who they are, rather than any other particular qualities. The genius of “Breaking Bad” lies in the fact that it can look with clear eyes at this privilege and entitlement and can see that even when Walter has millions upon millions, it will never be enough. It’s the center of the show’s portrayal of the American white guy psyche, the man always pointing at something somebody else has and saying, “Gimme that!”

In the end, after he ensures his family will receive his money, but before he kills anyone who may interfere with his legacy, Walt stops by to see his wife and, in a moment of truth, finally admits: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really ... I was alive."

When you consider all of the lives Walt, the greedy, frustrated white man, destroyed just so he could feel alive, it does make you wonder for a moment whether he’d have been better off with an anti-climactic, Nussbaum-ian ending.


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