TV SEPTEMBER 30, 2013
Everything happened as it should on last night’s “Breaking Bad” finale. The Nazis went down in a blaze of machine gun fire, Jesse escaped, Gretchen and Elliot were jolted out of their smugness, Walt copped to his own terrible selfishness in a final conversation with his wife. For a show that makes a point of not giving viewers exactly what they want or expect, the finale was uncharacteristically satisfying. There was no gut clench as the credits rolled, no wave of disgust for humanity—just a sense of inevitability and relief. And it was perfect, down to the jaunty Badfinger song "Baby Blue” as Walt lay bleeding among the lab equipment that had brought him so much elation and so much ruin.
The finale opened on Walt’s birthday, of course—a tidy narrative bookend. He ate bacon in the shape of “52.” There were flashbacks to his hastily recorded video in the desert, the absurd promise to his family “No matter how it may look, I only have you in my heart,” and to all of them gathered around the television set as Hank urged Walt to “get a little excitement" in his life. Walt posed as a New York Times reporter to track down Gretchen and Elliott’s address. “This should make one helluva story,” he said. The episode overall was ruthlessly expedient. One close-up of Stevia swirling into Lydia’s tea and we knew what would become of her.
Another accomplishment of the finale was the way it undercut its own drama: Badger and Skinny Pete’s cameo in the backseat of Walt’s car, complete with red laser pens, Todd’s “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” ringtone. As Gretchen and Elliot bantered in their roomy kitchen, Walt ran his hands over their walls—feeling the stability of the place, all the uncontroversial prosperity. “Cheer up, beautiful people,” he told them. “This is where you get to make it right.” He didn’t kill them, needless to say. That would have been far too unwieldy a loose end. Instead he used them, just as they had used him to launch Gray Matter all those years ago, terrifying them into laundering the last of his money for his family.
Part of the brilliance of “Breaking Bad” was the vividness of its villains. Tuco’s hopped-up sadism was scary and mesmerizing. It was impossible not to marvel at Gus’s suave efficiency. And in both cases their deaths felt like a real outsmarting. But the Nazis were as close to cartoonish as we got on this show. They had swastika tattoos; they were evil. When Walt’s machine gun contraption began firing rounds into that room it was like shooting fish in a barrel. No one could have had any doubt that the Nazis would die, and their execution was as quick and total as a video game. (The massage chair that continued massaging its lifeless occupant was a nicely campy touch.) Their deaths offered none of the awestruck chill we felt when Gus emerged half-exploded to straighten his tie. In the end the Nazis made fitting final adversaries because they were a straw man for Walt’s confrontation with the show’s most formidable, complicated villain—obviously, himself.
And that final scene with Skyler delivered the confrontation we’d been waiting for. Within the world of the show it felt a bit farfetched, but that didn’t really matter. “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family—” Skyler said. “I did it for me,” he replied. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.” It was an answer to “Breaking Bad”’s fans, absolving their consciences for all those hours spent breathlessly watching this man become a monster; he knew, at least, how far he’d fallen. It was the only way to redeem him, and the queasy fact at the heart of the series was that Walt ultimately, in some way, had to be redeemed. “My god,” Walt told Jesse in season three. “The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos.” But “Breaking Bad” was designed at every turn to argue with that premise, from the improbable plane crash to the cosmic neatness of the series’s end. And that neatness was so satisfying because this was a show that meted out justice in precisely titrated amounts, its whole arc a beautiful chemical reaction. Walt got what he deserved, as the lyrics of the closing song declared. It had to be a stray bullet from the machine gun he rigged in his trunk, the last gasp of his scientific genius, that finally killed him.