See title: Obvious spoilers ahead.
When the finale of Breaking Bad wrapped the show’s celebrated five season run on September 29, creator Vince Gilligan promised a divisive finale, one that would split audiences and critics. However, that proved not to be the case. Fans widely proclaimed the finale to be “perfect,” and it was rare to hear anyone say a bad word about it. This is because Gilligan created a crowd-pleasing finale that provided all the resolution that fans could have hoped for along with a close-ended final scene that tied up what could have been nagging loose ends. No Tony Soprano snacking at a diner with his family or Dexter sailing off to be a lumberjack. This is what the fans asked for, and it was the finale they got.
Of the finale’s smattering of critics, which were few and far between, Emily Nussbaum smartly questions the closure that the finale offered us. Walt got the finish that he was hoping for, where Walt Jr.’s college tuition is provided for and Skyler is taken care of, but did he deserve it? The finale breaks from the rest of the show in offering us full-on Heisenberg, an episode in which Walt is totally invincible. As if he’s Abu Nezir, Walt is able to walk around his hometown unnoticed, despite being a now infamous criminal, and rig up the Rambo-like destruction of all his enemies. In previous episodes, all of Walt’s plans backfired, whether right away or slowly over time, but this provided payoff for his best laid plans. All’s well that ends well.
Nussbaum commented that she felt like she was watching the dying fantasy of Walter White, as the show “sands over the spiky edges” of the previous few episodes. Instead of the more “ambiguous” backstories set up in the show’s run, everything becomes Walt’s version of the truth, a “journey to his redemption.” Nussbaum writes, “The story ended by confirming Walt’s most grandiose notions: that he is, in fact, all-powerful, the smartest guy in the room, the one who knocks.” It was if the show became the masturbatory fantasy out of Mulholland Dr., an alternate universe that imagines a life where you get to play the hero in your life, rather than an agent in its destruction. Walter finally got to be the one who knocks, and it was like Vince Gilligan was on Team Walt all along.
For many, this sort of critique got at a lingering issue with the finale — that it was too happy to provide closure, answering all of our questions. The gold standard for great finales has long been cited as the harrowing conclusion of The Shield, after Vic Mackey is chained to his desk job at ICE. The final scene shows Vic getting a gun out of a lockbox and walking out of the building and police sirens wail in the background. The problem is that The Shield was a very different show than Breaking Bad was and holding it to the same standards of ambiguity feels strange, as if we were holding Vince Gilligan to Shawn Ryan’s creative vision. Breaking Bad could be ambiguous in its own ways, giving us what we think we want but then questioning if this is what we really wanted at all. Is closure enough?
In the conclusion of Breaking Bad, Walt gets what he wants at all costs, including the wills and desires of all those around him. We can see how his presence affects Gretchen and Elliott, now petrified to see the man they once called their friend. As Walt stands in Skyler’s kitchen, his presence only confirms the hollowed-out existence she now lives, the deadness that took over her soul in Season Five, as she lost the will to resist him. Walt Jr. wants nothing to do with him, so Walt must watch his son go to school from a distance. Walt is able to provide for his son’s college education, as he always intended, but do the costs outweigh the rewards? Was this what he really wanted all along? In an earlier season, Gus Fring told Walt that “a man provides.” “He does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved, Gus said. “He simply bears up and he does it. Because he’s a man.”
For many viewers, this conception of what masculinity is sounded like martyrdom, the ultimate sacrifice at the altar of the family, where you do what you do not out of recognition but out of total self-gift. However, Walt’s intentions have been anything but altruistic throughout, or he would have ended his quest for an empire early in Season 5, when a buyout would have provided all he needed for his family. His family hated him less then than they did in the finale, before Walt Jr. found out or Hank had been killed, so what changed? The turning point that set up the final episode wasn’t Walt’s need for sacrifice but for redemption, after he saw the Charlie Rose interview with Elliott and Gretchen. It was the need to prove his worth as a man once more, the factor that set his entire quest into motion.
At The Good Men Project, Alastair Roberts discusses how this idea of toxic masculinity pervades the show, one in which Walt’s quest for dominance demolishes the family unit rather than elevating it. His family members have made clear many times that they don’t need his support — because Walt was the danger they needed to escape. Skyler informed him that “ “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” and Roberts argues that in this moment, “the selfishness of Walt’s vision of being the man for his family is exposed.” Walt later admits to Skyler that providing wasn’t his quest all along. Walt sold drugs and built a criminal empire because he liked doing it. His journey was about his own rewards, not theirs.
Although Breaking Bad has long been compared to other modern anti-hero dramas — fare like Justified and Mad Men — it’s closest spiritual predecessor is All in the Family, Norman Lear’s influential and wildly popular 1970’s family sitcom. The nuclear foundation of the show looked like any other program of the era: a father dealing with the dysfunctional behavior of his wife and children. The show set Archie Bunker up to be the hero, yet it was precisely his own ego and selfishness that set up most of the show’s conflicts. He was All in the Family’s not-so-secret antagonist, as a commentary on the falsity of traditional patriarchy. Even when the show wraps in a nice, happy bow, all of Archie’s plans slowly crumble. Even when he gets what he wants, it’s not in the way he intended.
All in the Family was a landmark show not just because of the ways in which it used the family unit to comment on race, class, gender, sexual orientation and many of the hot-button issues of the era, but because it offered a commentary on our need to root for the hero — at all costs. Having many of the same conservative values as Archie Bunker, my grandfather counted himself a huge fan of the show, despite the fact that the show was designed to question his beliefs. My grandfather was Team Archie, no matter how much the show pointed out the consequences of rooting for Archie. By the finale of Breaking Bad, fans were cheering for Walt to go on a total rampage — the more destruction, the better. We wanted resolution at any costs, even if it destroys everyone around Walt.
Take, for instance, the example of Jesse Pinkman. Many fans applauded Gilligan for giving Jesse the happy ending he deserves and freedom after being a ice-cream-eating meth slave. After Walt saves him from the clutches of the neo-Nazis, Jesse rides off into the distance like the hero in a Western, celebrating that he made it out of the gunfight alive. However, what is Jesse driving toward? Every woman he’s ever loved is now dead. The child he felt like a father to is now an orphan. Jesse has been disowned by his entire family, and the only “family” he had left was the mentor who let his ex-girlfriend die and poisoned a child. The only thing Jesse has now is the money that Walt helped provide for him, the millions that have brought him nothing but death, destruction and misery.
When we imagine a future for Jesse now, what do we see? The man will be wracked with guilt over his losses and deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the foreseeable future. Most likely, Jesse will go back to where he was during the show’s third season, where Jane’s death led him to see empty respite in meth use, partying and video gaming. Jesse didn’t crave the lifestyle of wealth but genuine human connection, the one thing repeatedly denied to him throughout the show — all because of Walt’s inability to let him go. We believed that this was because Walt cared for Jesse and wanted to provide for him in the way he was for his own son, but it has ruined Jesse’s life. Even after Walt’s death, there is no escaping the legacy of what he’s done. Just ask Skyler, who will be constantly surveilled by police for the rest of her life, if not imprisoned.
For Walt himself, death serves as a release from his own jail. Walt always knew he was going to die, and he knows that at this point, it’s what he deserves, which the Badfinger song on the soundtrack explains. However, when you detach the fantasy of Walt’s redemption, how the finale looks from his perspective, from the reality of what is, you see a very different picture. At first glance, it looks like all of our loose ends are tied up, yet that closure is impossible and destructive. Walt claims that without providing for his family, he will have “accomplished nothing,” but the final accomplishments of Walter White aren’t much greater. What will his son say if he ever find out that the father who destroyed his ability to lead a normal life is still pulling the strings beyond the grave? Walt Jr. will never be able to move on — because Walt won’t allow him to.
Many have suggested that Walt Jr. is the real hero of Breaking Bad, as he tries to close the door on the one who knocks, providing for his family not through wealth but by courage and loyalty. In the final episodes, Walt Jr. finally becomes “Flynn,” the swashbuckling savior that gave him his name. Just as much as the show is about Walt becoming Heisenberg, it chronicles Walt Jr.’s journey as well. If that’s true, does Breaking Bad present us with a world where evil is overcome through death and cancer is the great equalizer? In Vince Gilligan’s world, death is not an end. Death is only the beginning of more suffering — but if there’s a payoff here, it’s that we no longer have to see its effects. This is the “resolution” we get. Isn’t it what you wanted?