Cousins, Critically: The Final Season of Breaking Bad

Goodbye.

Again, I am joined by my cousin and frequent contributor to Aweful Writing, M. Liam Moore. This post will be our last on the fantastic series known as Breaking Bad. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” We have written about seasons 1, 2, and 4, and podcasted about 3 and 5

J.T. Moore: The Final Season” of Breaking Bad is one for the record books. This isn’t because it’s ridiculously good, but it’s because it held nothing back. These last eight episodes ran like one, 300 MPH kick to the throat. It was fast, it was fun to watch, it started to hurt, it turned devastating, and it was like nothing we’d ever felt before. They almost killed us.

Where Breaking Bad pandered in its “Fifth Season” when trying to make eight episodes into a compelling, cohesive narrative, the “Final Season” knew exactly what it was doing and where it was going. Each episode was intensely calculated, knowing where to make the viewer think it would end, and pushing miles past that. Every scene made up a breathtakingly high-speed and amazing story, even when some episodes slowed down. When episodes like “Rabid Dog” took a step back and took a moment to stew in its characters, it measured up to the insanely great standard Breaking Bad set for itself in its last eight episodes.

But even though these eight episodes are truly fantastic, they don’t make up the best season of Breaking Bad, or even the best show of 2013. The season was closely calculated to perfection, and the series finale tied literally everything up perfectly, but it was just perfectly fine. It’s not like it was bad or anything, but the show’s last two “seasons” were constructed in a way where it was necessary for them to fulfill the plot. As I alluded to in Season 5’s podcast, I wasn’t too crazy about both of the seasons’ flashforwards (being Mr. Lambert and his machine gun, and Mr. Lambert retrieving his ricin). In its prime, Breaking Bad was never a show about fulfilling plot, but a show about a character’s story. The Final Season just happened to end the character’s story earlier than the show’s plot was wrapped up.

M. Liam, should I be allowed to use so many superlatives on top of finding “Felina” disappointing, or should I be put in some sort of crazy superfan facility?

M. Liam Moore: We should chain you up to a dog trolley and make you watch all six seasons over and over again until you come to your senses – that’s what we should do, J.T.

The final season left me completely satisfied, which is odd for a show that seemed at times to be hell-bent on disturbing its viewers, or at least making them uncomfortable. It tied everything up neatly plot-wise (not a minute of wasted air time!), it meted out an acceptable amount of justice and – most gratifying from my perspective – it allowed the characters to simmer in their own juices a little bit, to reflect on where they’ve been and what they’ve become. Walt’s character has made a grand transformation over the course of six seasons, and so has the show itself, evolving, as you’ve pointed out, into an action-packed thriller built solidly on the foundation of characters it took the time to develop early on. And just as we glimpsed flashes of the “old Walt” in The Final Season, I think we similarly glimpsed flashes of that old, quiet Breaking Bad, so intensely focused on character and ideas.

But yes, it was a wild ride too! I think the enduring image from this season, for me, will be Jesse, wild-eyed and free, screaming as he crashes through the Nazi compound’s gate, making his escape not just from the Nazis, of course, but from Walt as well.

And how about those Nazis? In previous seasons, I found myself frustrated that there was so little contrast to illuminate Walt’s “bad-ness.” Every character around him of consequence was either impotent or, like Walt, bad. How do you know something is dark if there is no light? Bring in something darker – like Nazis, I guess. This gets a little cartoonish – much like the zombie cartel twins did in previous seasons, I suppose – but it works to cast Walt’s crusade in a sympathetic light. I’m curious, J.T., does Walt achieve redemption in your eyes? And what can a show with so little good tell us about morality, good versus evil, right versus wrong?

JTM: What irked me about this final season (besides those nazis) was how it hinted at redemption but never fully got there. Walter White is a terrible human being, and one of the worst persons ever to grace our television sets, so why should he be given the opportunity to even ponder the thought of redemption? Every time I think about the finale, a read it in a different way. Was Walt redeemed? Probably not, but he did get the last say. Instead of dying in strife and desperation (like if he were to die in “Ozymandias” or in a slightly altered “Granite State”), Walt got to die in his happy place, having solved all his problems that had solutions. But one could argue that Walter White had died long ago, and The Great Heisenberg perished with his money, so was that Walt who died, or just a sad and empty bag of bones?

It’s not like Walt was totally redeemed though. Instead of living the happy life, making snow angels in New Hampshire with his wife and kids, Walt died alone, with his tarnished legacy living long after him. So, I dunno, I guess he got what he deserved. But still, he died in happiness, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake that. I guess that’s the consequences of having the writers live with this character for so long. Instead of viewing Walt from a morally weighted outsider’s perspective, the writers (and even some viewers) eventually entered his headspace (probably around the beginning season 5) and fully embraced him as their hero.

As for morality, that’s a pretty loaded question. Do we as viewers have the right to judge where these characters should end up? I’d say yes, but the argument could be made otherwise. Because I’m unable to see past Walt’s slightly redemptive end, I don’ think I have the in-depth, philosophical answer we’re looking for. So do you, M. Liam, think Breaking Bad says anything about morality? Obviously throughout the entire series there is a moral focus, but what does “Felina” in particular have say as an ending point?

MLM:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Walt may not gain happiness in the end, but he does gain serenity. After seeking to control everything in his world at all costs for so long, Walt becomes at peace with his fate as a consequence of the decisions he’s made. This acceptance is hastened, no doubt, by his deteriorating health. Combined, they make him more sympathetic – like a death-row inmate reflecting on his crimes. I’m OK with that character growth. “I liked it,” as Walt might say.

It echoes nicely the unforgettable scene in which Jesse rejects Wynn Duffy his AA group leader for making peace with his mistakes, for forgiving himself or, as Jesse sees it, for excusing the bad things he’d done in his past in order to carry on in the present. Jesse is, as you’ve pointed out, never really comfortable in the gray area between right and wrong. But that’s where Breaking Bad lives (unless you’re a Nazi or a Mexican druglord, of course). All of us, Jesse learns, make moral compromises – and excuses – in order to advance our own interests, no matter what side of the law we occupy. If right and wrong are malleable things, then where do we draw the line? Is Marie’s thievery, as a coping mechanism for an unfulfilling home life, more excusable than Walt cooking meth in the face of a terminal illness? If Hank cuts corners to get ahead at the DEA, is that more excusable than Skyler using drug money to start her own car wash? It’s telling that Walt re-engages in his quest after seeing Gretchen and Elliott tout their “good works” on TV. It’s pride, yes, but in his jaundiced eyes, those two are just as tainted as the rest of us.

“Felina” also serves to strip Walt’s motives bare. He’s forced to admit his decision to “break bad” was less about providing for his family than about his own ego. There was no better scene (or episode), for my money, than the one in which Walter Jr. hugs his father poolside. (Perhaps I’m going soft in my impending fatherhood.) It captures the disconnect between Walt’s stated motives and what his family, in fact, really wants out of Walt – honesty, love, emotional availability. But what Junior gets are more manly platitudes from his clueless, almost indignant father.

I said in the first installment of these rambling back-and-forths that I thought gender was key to any critical viewing of Breaking Bad. I’m curious, J.T., since we’re both men now (happy birthday, BT-dubs), what you think of that claim now that it’s all said and done. Also, you’ve told me Vince Gilligan has expressed disdain for anything political in TV series. I’m wondering, especially in light of the final season, if you think the creator has since modified his views?

JTM: For my money, Breaking Bad, was always, and will always be a man’s show. This doesn’t mean that it’s a show built for male viewers (though the bros do love it) but that its core will always be relating to manhood. Even until the very last minutes of the show’s run, it was the most masculine thing on TV. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself,” Hank said as he accepted his death sentence. When Walt visited his old pals Gretchen and Elliot, he flexed his power and brooding masculinity, and without Gilligan’s finessed direction of the scene, it would have just seemed masturbatory. Walt and Jesse’s last moment together was a sturdy nod, seeming to connote that “It’s been fun, dude” feeling in the simple, man to man setting. Gus Fring described the narrative’s core best in his “a man provides” speech in season 3.

But like you said in our first post, there’s so much more to the show than its “fist-pumping, engine-revving, loogie-hocking” surface. There will always be the profound silence that the show is built on, or the deep and focused character moments that we love so much. Even in “Felina” there is that tremendous scene between Walt and Skyler that you already mentioned, or the extremely beautiful sequence of Jesse building his box that he described in season 3. And this is why we love the show. It can be so many things at the same time, and we constantly have to step back and think on it.

Yet the politics of the show still seem peculiar. I’ve always thought that the show is an argument for raising teachers’ salaries, rather than affordable health care. Walt’s problems come from the fact that isn’t making enough money, even though he’s a Ph.D certified genius. This stems into the Libertarian, survival of the fittest situation that we described before, and that stays true until the end. Walt has to take care of things himself, without any help from anyone. The government is out to get him, and even worse, they cornered his innocent wife into a new and terrible life.

This is all really nothing new to Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s statements that I brought up before were made after everything was said and done, so I think he’ll still remain by them (or at least remain coy). M. Liam, do you think that the final season takes us to any interesting or new places in the context of gender, politics, narrative, or really anything else? Do those places change anything about the show now that it’s over?

MLM: J.T, if “Cousins, Critically” empowers you to deliver the term “masturbatory” in a semi-respectable setting, then as far as I’m concerned, this whole experiment has been a triumph. Page views be damned.

At the risk of … spouting? … a masturbatory rant myself, I will say the search for allegory in Breaking Bad, particularly as a meditation on America’s spirit of rugged individualism and its social costs, has been a rewarding way to approach the show. The final season is littered with references to libertarian ideology. “Who washes a rental car?” is classic ownership-society rhetoric, and when Jesse pulled Reagan’s biography, Dutch, off Hank’s shelf — well, I’m not sure there’s any mistaking the symbolism there.

Whether the show espouses or critiques the Gipper’s worldview is a tougher nut to crack, and it goes to your question of whether the final season takes us to any new places, J.T. At the start of the series, I was convinced Breaking Bad was subversively anti-capitalist, with a little Occupy populism mixed in. (Remember the scene where Walt torches the rich guy’s car?) It’s a credit to the thoughtfulness of the writers and complexity of the show that, while watching the final season cast Walt in a more sympathetic light, I began to suspect I may have been wrong about everything.

When Walt asks Ed what he will do with Walt’s millions upon inevitably finding him dead in New Hampshire (State motto: “Live Free or Die”), Ed’s answer, in short, is that Walt should know better at this point than to trust anyone but himself. Except the Nazis and Mexican drug lords, everyone in Breaking Bad‘s world is good — until being bad suits his or her interest more. Even when characters do good — charitable donations by Gray Matter and Gus Fring are obvious examples here — it out of self-interest, self-preservation or other nefarious motives. In a world like this, maybe we are better off on our own. And certainly it’s better to recognize the truth than to end up like Jesse.

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