Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Breaking Bad's finale is about accepting defeat

I didn't write up a Breaking Bad post for Monday because I wanted to give the finale a little time to sink in.  So many web columnists were going to be putting up reviews within minutes of the episode airing that it felt like folly to try to compete with the other immediate reactions, even if it meant delaying my thoughts a day, which is an eternity in the modern blogosphere.  I've read some of those other reviews and there's one observation that I don't believe I've seen yet.

This finale was about Walter White doing something he'd long been incapable of doing - accepting defeat.  Nothing he does in this last episode would have been possible before he did that.  Everything here comes as a result of him accepting that this is the end.  In virtually every other circumstance where the odds were stacked against him, Walt refused to concede defeat. He stubbornly pursued a solution as if it were a puzzle that he could solve by properly assembling the pieces before him.

And then when he did manage to prevail, it often came at the cost of his amassed fortunes, which in turn led him back into the fray.  He had multiple chances where he could have walked away from this life clean, but it would have meant that he would have at best broken even.  That was a loss he refused to accept, even knowing the costs of the life he was diving back into.  Arrogance played heavily here, no doubt.  He'd outwitted his enemies before, surely he would again.

Until he didn't.  Until he couldn't. His most recent attempt to turn the tide in his favor resulted in a shootout that claimed the life of his brother-in-law and resulted in the loss of about 7/8ths of his fortune.  The fallout from that laid bare all his evil deeds to his family and the authorities and forced him into hiding.  His parting gesture was a phone call to his wife, which on one level was intended to exonerate her, even as it allowed him to vent his resentment of her on another level.

And even then, he refused to accept it was over.  Walt still is trying to plot a reversal even as he's hiding in a basement, preparing to be shipped off to New Hampshire.  No matter how much his world has collapsed around him, he's steadfast that there's some equation that will recover his fortune and redeem him in the eyes of his family.

It's not until Walt finally acknowledges that he can't come out of this ahead, does he become capable of at last ending the apocalypse he began. Way back in the fifth episode of the series, Walt had an opportunity to stop all of this insanity before it started.  His former partners Gretchen and Elliott - now multi-millionaires after the success of a company that Walt helped found (and accepted a low buyout from early on) - offered to pay all his medical bills.  His ego couldn't take being their charity case, being the object of pity to people he believed he should have been equals with.  And he refused.

In the final hour of the series, Walt at last allows himself to ask Gretchen and Elliott for help.  True, this "asking" is largely in the form of threats at the end of what they believe to be gunpoint.  He insists they launder his $9 million in drug money and put it into a trust for his son.  They're rich enough that it won't be questioned, particularly since they've already donated far more than that to drug treatment centers in the area as a sort of penance for Walter White being tied to their company legacy.

Even though he has the upper hand in this conversation, acknowledging he needed Gretchen and Elliott's help is something Walt would not have been capable of before.  And that makes all the difference.

Think back to the moments that led up to Walt formulating the Gretchen-and-Elliott plan.  He had just called his son Flynn, trying to tell him that a package containing $100,000 in drug money was coming to him.  Flynn is in no mood to hear his father's justifications for what he did, even as his father sobs, "It can't all be for nothing."  Flynn vents months of rage on a target that evaded him, saying "Why won't you just die already? Just die!"

That's when Walt realizes there is no victory in this.  He's not getting his family back.  So he calls the DEA and leaves the phone hanging, allowing to them to trace his location.  In what he surely expects are his last few moments of freedom, he sees Gretchen and Elliott on the Charlie Rose Show.  Rose brings up their connection to Walter White, which gives them an opportunity to first minimize his role in their company and address their charitable donations in the name of fighting drug abuse, even as Rose notes that Walt's trademark "blue meth" is still out there.

Walt leaves, and with that being the end of the previous episode, many viewers inferred that he was gunning for Gretchen and Elliot - out for revenge.  But that wasn't the case, and if we all realized Walt had truly given up in those moments before, we would have understood that he finally saw an avenue that long been invisible to him while he was playing to win.

He comes home initially just to tie up those loose ends. Even as he struggles to start a stolen car, he pleads silently, "Just get me home. I'll do the rest."  Sure, once he finishes with Gretchen and Elliott, he ends up deducing that the blue meth means that Jesse is still alive and that Nazi Jack has double-crossed him.

At that point, he plots to take Jack and the others out in a manner that puts him in a fair amount of danger. When he plotted to kill Gus a few seasons ago, his first plan involved triggering a car bomb at a safe distance and his eventual plan relied on getting someone else to deliver the bomb.  When Walt has control of the circumstances, he never places himself at ground zero.

Until now.  Because he's not playing to win. He just wants to end the game.  Only then can his family truly have peace.  Only then can Walt find peace.

Fighting for the win would have brought Walt an eventual death in a lonely cabin.  Accepting he had long since lost at least gave him the chance for catharsis.


  1. I officially declare it impossible to avoid spoilers on the internet. I've been trying desperately not to read anything about the final, since I'm in Australia. I haven't read your article but the heading in my rss feed was enough. This is why piracy happens in the instant information age. It still boggles my mind that there's no legal way to stream the latest shows in Australia (that I know of) and that delayed releases still exist. Have they forgotten that we don't have to ship VHS tapes any more?

  2. Uh, the headline contains no spoilers. Breaking Bad is a tragedy. That this ends in defeat was baked into the show from episode 1. If the headline went into specifics, you might have a point.

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    With that out of the way...

    I'd counter that the finale isn't so much about Walt "accepting defeat," but rather accepting responsibility. Season after season Mr. White contended that he merely reacted to his circumstances: he needed money so he used his skills to make as much as quickly as possible, he had to save Jesse from thugs, he had to act again and again to self-preserve and "protect his family." Finally, standing like a specter in Skyler's kitchen, he was able to accept that none of it was a reaction. It was empowering. It sent fight-or-flight LIFE coursing through his veins rather than chemo. He did for himself.

    I think it's important to note the difference between "defeat" and "responsibility" because I don't think Walt would ever say he "lost," even in the finale. He accepted the fact that he could no longer ignore death's knocking, but he did not accept that it meant things were over (hence his odd little prayer in the frozen car to...just get me home). A huge part of Walt may have died when his actions led to Hank's murder, and the rest of him may have evaporated in that lonely New Hampshire cabin, but Walt willed a way to ultimately achieve his earliest goals: create something wholly HIS and leave behind a huge chunk of money for his family. Fucked up and twisted as the details are, the man succeeded. Though he'll get no credit and he'll be forever remembered a monster.

    Gliding Over All would have been a fitting title to save for the finale. Walt seemed to move like a disembodied spirt: unseen by the police, slipping through the shadows at the Schwartzes, standing motionless in Skyler's kitchen, the man was more mission than flesh and blood. Perhaps it's semantics but there is a precedent for Walt placing himself at "ground zero," evidenced by the fulminated mercury trick with Tuco.

    I'm glad Vince Gilligan mentioned The Searchers. It's an apt comparison regarding our flawed protagonist and his oscillation between self-righteousness, selfishness and self-sacrifice.

  5. Obvious spoilers....

    I'm not so sure. If he hadn't been shot, do you think Walter would have killed himself? I don't think he would have. I think he would have taken off with either Jesse, or if Jesse hadn't gone with him, he would have taken off on his own.

    I think Walter was willing and ready to die to do what he had to do, but if push came to shove, and he hadn't been mortally wounded, I think he would have still tried to escape the police and get away.

  6. Like the aftermath of a gluttonous Thanksgiving dinner, most of us are laying on the couch satiated with the well crafted closure of Breaking Bad. While we now say that the desire to have a meal followed by three pieces of pumpkin pie will never be justified in the future, I wonder if years down the road Vince and the BB fandom will want another helping. Are we 100% certain that Walt is dead?