PART 2: HERO OR VILLAIN? YOU DO THE METH.
(We now join part 2 of our Breaking Bad discussion, already in progress).
Walter rolls into the neo-Nazi compound with his plan to defeat the Observers! smugly intact, a weird kind of luck hanging over him, the show at this point having almost fully given itself over to the Western genre (something which has been a part of the series' DNA from the beginning). Walt is indeed the outlaw who's back in town, whispers and rumors speaking about this near-mythic criminal who could be flitting through your backyard like some kind of meth-producing boogeyman. But he's here to kill Uncle Jack and all of his comrades, a lone gunman up against a rogue posse. Now, to use The Good, the Badwe just happen to know this beast particularly well. And of course it's played as a crowd-pleasing action piece. They told us sixteen episodes ago that Walt had an M60 in his trunk; obviously it needs to go off at some point, and it's likely not going to be one of the show's more subtle moments. But Breaking Bad is not always subtle and isn't above resorting to those classic action, horror and Western cinematic tropes at times, whether it's dissolving people in acid, severed heads on exploding tortoises, unstoppable Terminator-like assassins or a man getting half of his face blown off but still managing to adjust his tie. So I think they earned their action movie moment for the big finish. There's been some grumbling about the lack of realism in Walt's plan, but as much as Breaking Bad has always had one foot in the real world, it also has a foot in a kind of nightmarish surrealism, and another foot in a realm of Tarantino-esque self-conscious genre posturing. (Yes, it's true. Breaking Bad has three feet). So for me, there was nothing about this scene that was in violation of the world established on the series. Sure, it's convenient that Jack and Todd magically survive just so they can get their extra-special desserts, but it's worth it for the pay-off, as these have become some of the hateable characters to ever grace a television screen. Jack especially has no redeeming qualities whatsoever--though his up-front approach to his own awfulness is somewhat refreshing--so it's hard to feel bad for him when Walt pulls the trigger. And it said volumes that Walt was able to put a bullet in Jack's skull without needing to know where his money was. Not only was it repayment for what happened to Hank, but it showed Walt finally prioritizing something other than his fortune, and what that fortune means to him.
And then we get Jesse strangling Todd, a completely satisfying, purging moment that also is as cringe-worthy as it is bloodthirsty and cathartic, since it's painful to see Jesse kill anyone else at this point, accruing yet another stain on his soul, no matter how much Todd may have it coming. Not to mention, a certain sadness hangs over that scene, as there truly is a piece of Todd missing and it's clear he thinks Jesse is his friend and that he has no idea why Jesse would be hurting him, the way a dog would look at you right before putting it down for mauling your infant. (A brief note on Todd:it's probably true that he was dangerous and had to go. He killed a little boy without provocation, and executed Andrea in front of Jesse, and had an almost Trashcan Man-like need to please first Mr. White and then Lydia. But he's also the reason Uncle Jack didn't shoot Jesse, and he was the roadblock for Lydia's initial instinct to have Skyler eliminated, plus he brought Jesse ice cream! That being said, Todd could have just as easily eventually decided to kill Jesse at any point in his "aw shucks, sorry about this" manner. A truly strange character, who in his blankness and unpredictably was possibly the most threatening presence on the series).
Walt, of course, intended to kill Jesse along with everyone else. He arrived at that compound with no love for his former surrogate son, wanting to punish him for hijacking the Heisenberg brand and going into business with Jack (and making Walt-quality methamphetamine, apparently). But seeing Jesse's actual fate as the slave meth-cook version of a concentration camp victim activated the little burning ember of humanity still residing in Walter White. I've seen more than one person say the slate was wiped clean with Jesse and Walt. I don't really see it that way. Walt can never, ever make up for what he did to Jesse (just as Jesse cannot erase the many mistakes he's made himself). Walt saving Jesse's life, and even accidentally taking a bullet for him, was the one thing he could do to make some sort of restitution. At best, they part with a kind of understanding, but I'd say far from a tabula rasa. Walt's final gift to Jesse is letting him say no to the offer of finally putting a bullet in Mr. White's brainiac skull. If that's your parting gift, things have probably gotten pretty dark for you.
In an unconventional move, Jesse has been intentionally minimized in the final season of Breaking Bad. During the course of the sixteen episodes, his role has been reduced gradually, his screen time, dialogue and character momentum slowly sucked away. While on a per episode basis this looks like the show not utilizing what should be a main character, the cumulative effect is that we're seeing someone's soul draining out of them, almost as if he sprung a leak and his life force is escaping in front of us. While it may seem unfair to give the Schwartzes more to do in the finale than Aaron Paul, it's a daring story conceit to apply to a principle character, pummeling Jesse into a spiritual defeat that runs parallel to Walt's collapse. Near the end, Jesse's arc started to feel so cruel and sadistic that, frankly, I was ready for the show to be over. It was difficult to watch Jesse repeatedly force-fed the same shit sandwich episode after episode. But the sad truth is that Walt is not responsible for everything that happened to Jesse. Jesse not only opened many of these doors himself, he walked through them. Perhaps his punishment does not fit the crime, if something like that can even be measured, but it is what it is. Jesse's laugh at the end of the finale, as he speeds away from the compound, is a combination of relief and insanity, and others have pointed out that it brings to mind Sally at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a comparison I completely agree with. We're hearing the sound of a desolated person fleeing into whatever might be left of his life.
It's astonishing to look back at this series and see the journey these characters have taken. Walt's speech in the pilot about chemistry being transformation is apt, as almost every element of this show undergoes some type of transition from one state to another. The storytelling, characterization, themes, cinematography, use of music . . . all of this grows richer as the series goes on. Breaking Bad itself changes into something else right in front us, starting off as a black comedy with a fair amount of slapstick and even some Norman Lear-level sitcom humor (that amazingintervention scene from season one could have featured in a Maude teleplay), before turning the dials down on the bright and up on the dark, more and more and more with every episode until we wind up in an existential nightmare, a living hell of punishing hopelessness. Few stories have undertaken an intentional evolution quite like this; one of the only other examples I can think of is the Harry Potter series, which begins as a whimsical fairy tale for children and ends as a meditation on fascism and death. In recent years, television has slowly moved to a place where characters and the worlds they inhabit are allowed to change, allowed to move from a definitive Point A to a definitive Point B. Battlestar Galactica, LOST, and Fringe are all examples of series where the characters' perspectives shifted over time, or where we saw many different interlocking sides of their personalities, and even the world of the story would continuously open up and reveal new levels and dimensions.But Breaking Bad stuck to this notion possibly more than any other show, committing itself to a depiction of people sliding from one realm of being into another realm of being, and detailing each and every step along the way.
There's Walt, of course, and Bryan Cranston's portrayal of this man's growth and decay will rightfully go down in history as one of TV's greatest. And Aaron Paul has been absolutely stellar as Jesse, who went from burnt out druggie idiot to a borderline Christ figure, absorbing so much of the suffering for the horrible decisions and machinations of others, someone who could have just stayed a mostly harmless loser if Walter White had never come knocking on his door. But many of the people we've met throughout this story have transformed (or revealed themselves) just as dramatically, whether it's Marie moving from the neurotic and nosey busybody relative you want to strangle to a beautifully upstanding person in her own way, or Mike turning out not just to be a soulless hitman but also a loving grandfather, or even Gus Fring, breaking his exterior as a calm and collected businessman and unveiling himself as an extremely violent, unforgiving psychopath who's also experienced love and loss. Or look at Saul, he--um . . . nope. As for Junior, he remained a relatively static character, as uncorrupted as possible in the world of the show. But his emotional moments really land, whether it's putting up pictures of his missing father around town, or building a terrible but painfully sincere website (though not as ugly as Jesse's MyShout! page) to raise money for Walt's cancer treatment, or the way he's manipulated by his dad without realizing it. Junior finally turning on Walt and protecting his mother was such a well-earned move that it eased the pain of having to watch this kid learn the awful truth about his father.
Skyler started off almost as unhappy as her husband in their joint middle class hypnosis, a frustrated writer making up for her discontentment by needing to control the minutiae of her family life, unintentionally henpecking and emasculating Walt. We see her go from this state to being a hesitant accomplice in her husband's criminal empire, and then from this to someone who's tempted by the forbidden fruit of doing something wrong and getting away with it, until finally she becomes a prisoner in her own marriage, having exhausted all of her options, her own bottoming point coming in the form of assuming the Lady Macbeth role and asking Walt to have Jesse killed as a last ditch means of saving their family.
Skyler cannot claim to be innocent in this story. She cheated on Walt, and helped Ted to cook his books long before she decided to become Walt's personal money launderer (though there's a pretty good argument to be made that Walt cheated on her, repeatedly, with Heisenberg). Her involvement in Walt's enterprise starts as a way to keep her family secure, and the cover stories she invents put the writer in her to work, but along the way she is seduced. Skyler's attempt to help Ted with his IRS problems only winds up adding him to the significant pile of human wreckage accumulating under the White family; her final scene with him, where it's clear that he fears her and she enjoys it, demonstrates that Skyler has become corrupted by the world of her husband. But unlike Walt, Skyler has a conscience, and an unsettled one at that. Her refusal of Hank's offer for help comes as much out of awareness of her own guilt as it does out of protecting her family by staying loyal to Walt. She ends her story similar to where she began, again as a numb person but more somnambulant than before, watching her life in a daze almost as if it's a late night movie unfolding before her. The moment when Skyler pulls the butcher knife on Walt, finally deciding to draw a line she should have drawn long ago, screaming "Get away from us!" to a walking tumor that does not realize it spreads rot wherever it goes . . . that moment will haunt me forever. It's a shame Skyler had to become the latest scientific proof that under no circumstances do you want to be the lead female role on an AMC drama, or else both the character and the actress who plays her will be subject to death threats. That aside, I will not dwell on the Skyler haters, but instead want to leave her character with these immortal words: Her name was Skyler White, yo.
Hank too underwent an amazing metamorphosis, in the beginning acting as little more than an off-the-charts alpha male douchebag jock, another person in Walt's life whose simple gestures repeatedly cut off Walter's nuts. As we gradually got to know Hank and see that, yes, he's kind of a jerk, but he's also a good man who suffers by trying to appear tougher than he is, and who holds himself to a high standard and doesn't make flimsy excuses when he fails (essentially the exact opposite of Walt), he became not only a likable character but someone who provided a clear-headed relief to the endless overgrown dark path that Walter voluntarily walked. Plus, he's an ace detective (his only flaw being that he trusts and likes Walt too much to ever suspect him), and watching Hank slowly put the pieces together, getting ever closer to Heisenberg, has been one of the highlights of the series. His relationship with Marie is another standout component; despite Hank's occasional unloading of anger onto her (especially in his recovery plotline, at times brutal to watch), and despite the fact that Marie has run the risk of purple-ing her husband to death, they emerge as a couple who truly support each other and are able to forgive one another. Their marriage works, in a way that the marriage between Walt and Skyler does not, and one of the more tragic aspects of the story comes from seeing that Hank and Marie actually make better parents for Junior and Holly. It's difficult not to feel that the Whites in some way don't deserve their own children.
Near the end of his life, Hank does make a handful of mistakes as pride gets the best of him. The tactics in his investigation of Walt are sketchy at best, he overplays his white knight routine with Skyler, and, in a definite low point echoing Skyler's, indifferently admits he doesn't care if he gets Jesse killed, as long as he can catch his brother-in-law. And Hank's drawn out victory lap/end zone dance after finally slapping the cuffs on Walt may have cost him his life. But he still leaves the story as a person who tried to do the right thing and mostly succeeded, if making some violent stumbles along the way (which is oddly how any attempt at defending Walt sounds, but I would argue it's much more true for Hank than for Walt, just as it's true Skyler was actually better at protecting the family than Walt). Hank's final words to Walt aren't even filled with anger and righteousness, but with sadness and disappointment, as he ponders something we all have to ask in this story: how can Walt be so smart, but so incredibly stupid? The image of Uncle Jack and his gang dragging away Hank and Gomie's corpses, like a pack of animals feasting on their prey, is a nightmarish send-off to Dean Norris, who like all of the actors brought so much to his character.
(I was going to make a crack about his performance here rivaling his turn as a regular on Tremors: The Series, but I couldn't do it. Hank's death hit me too hard to even joke about, plus I totally love Tremors. Of course, now I'm wondering how people would have felt if the show ended with Walter being eaten by a giant Graboid. Fun fact: Dean Norris' character on that series was a government agent charged with protecting an albino Graboid called El Blanco. And in the original movie, a character named Walter IS eaten by a Graboid. And both stories are set in the desert! And what is the main character's name in the upcoming Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad? Walter Blanco! Is Tremors actually a prophecy predicting the coming of Breaking Bad????? I shall consult the scrolls of Pythia!).
A great many interesting people wander through the dusty streets of this story, but the finale really does not serve to bring any of these other characters to a close. Marie is only briefly featured, Junior has no lines, Skyler has one scene, Jesse is barely present, and Saul is totally absent by this point. We don't see Hank's body being properly buried, or learn the fates of anyone. This begins and ends as Walt's story, thus the last episode focuses almost exclusively on him, and how he comes to the clearing at the end of the path on his 52nd birthday, the two-year anniversary of when he originally turned down this road. Though the tendency to get the whole cast together for a final group hug is a typical fallback for a last episode, avoiding that particular approach actually makes sense for Breaking Bad, given the structure of this season.
The narrative reason for this is that "Felina" really wasn't the climax of the series. That honor goes to "Ozymandias," which was the boiling point for five years of tension that couldn't stretch any further and finally snapped, sending a rain of flaming shit in every direction. The last two episodes have been the fallout, the debris field underneath that particular 737 collision, and this final installment in particular is almost like the epilogue. However, epilogue doesn't mean afterthought, and I'm not sure it's fair to write this episode off so easily, the way some critics have. "Ozymandias" may have been the climax, but "Felina" is the actual ENDING. Walter dying in the lab, getting the final say but also having at least made an effort to undo a fraction of the damage that his choices have caused, THAT is the ending of the story which began with a man in his underwear, standing in the desert and holding a gun he didn't know how to operate, while his pants flew away in the wind. I understand not wanting Walt to get the chance to write his own legend, as it seems to validate his behavior in a show which unflinchingly displayed his vile decisions and toxic motivations. I understand why that feels like an about-face. But the ending was more layered and complex than just "Walt wins" or "Walt's a hero" or even "Walt's dead". The show steadfastly refused to condone or condemn Walter, when most of us were expecting one or the other. Because the truth is, Walt is more complicated than that, and Breaking Bad is more complicated than that.
Up until the end, Walter White is a difficult person to grasp. His behavior in the final few seasons is generally atrocious, but even going back to the beginning, he made choices which were questionable to say the least. Indeed, his scorecard looks pretty grim. Throughout the course of the series, Walt goes Chemical Ali on Emilio, strangles Krazy-8, allows Jane to choke to death on her own vomit, runs someone over with his car, shoots several other people, orders the death of Gale, poisons Brock, uses his elderly neighbor as gangster bait, bombs a nursing home, kills Mike for what amounts to no reason, calmly pays to have 10 men beaten, stabbed and burned to death, and finally takes out the Rodarte-Quayle/Jack Welker organization in a flurry of ricin and bullets. His indirect actions are just as ugly, with Jane's death setting off a chain of events resulting in the Wayfarer 515 disaster (which kills 167 people), something that Walt goes to great pains to convince himself is not that big of a deal (it's only the 50th worst air disaster on record!) and has nothing to do with him ("I blame the government"). He whistles his way past the death of Drew Sharp, not all that troubled that he had to dissolve a young boy in acid. He coldly tries to use Andrea and Brock as tools to bring Jesse out of hiding, thus making the neo-Nazis aware of her importance to Jesse, ultimately resulting in Andrea's murder. His arguable laissez-faire nadir is cruelly telling Jesse that he watched Jane die, before handing Jesse over to assured torture and death, taking pleasure in having just destroyed what amounts to his only friend. And then of course there's the simple fact that his entire business is founded on manufacturing toxins to sell to people who are dependent on his product, his customer base literally decomposing from the inside out.
And yet, Walt could not hurt his family. When push came to shove, Walter backed down from killing Hank and surrendered, and then offered his entire $80 million in a vain attempt to save Hank's life. It was a line he could not cross, which is significant for a man who continuously readjusts his moral boundaries like they were traffic cones. Likewise, he couldn't live with himself for kidnapping Holly, and made sure she was returned to Skyler safely. It breaks Walt's heart to unleash his inner monster on Skyler in that phone call, and his call to Junior is just as upsetting, as he really does want his son to still love him, and it's a knife in his soul to hear "Just die!" as the response. This doesn't mean that Walt never hurt his family, or didn't want to hurt them at times. He lied to his loved ones repeatedly, to the point of living a double life. He threatened Skyler, directly (intimidating her in their argument following her pool stunt) and indirectly ("I am the danger!"), and deceived her so often she couldn't believe anything he said, and in one heated moment he almost raped her. He casually played his son as an emotional bargaining chip. He made a malevolent video, absolutely hateful in its attention to detail, meant to implicate Hank in criminal activity if Hank didn't call off his investigation. Indeed, Walt may not have wanted Hank to die, but he essentially caused Hank's death. But Walt's reaction to Hank's murder shows that he did care about his brother in law, and beyond a certain point he would rather surrender than see Hank die. In all other cases, when Walt wanted to hurt someone, he eventually would. Even Jesse (whose life Walt originally wouldn't consider taking) became a problem which had to removed, and Walt removed it. But Walt seemed physically unable to intentionally harm the people he cared about, and the fact that he had this limit showed there was something still resembling a loving person writhing around like a perverse tapeworm of goodness in the otherwise rotten gut that was Heisenberg. Unfortunately, he may have loved his work just a little bit more than anything else.
In many ways, Breaking Bad is a story of addiction, with Walt as the casebook addict. Yes, Jesse obviously was literally the addict, and his struggles with meth, heroin and cocaine throughout the series provided ample opportunities to explore his dependencies, not just on substances but on people and relationships. However, Walt is in some ways more of an addict than anyone else in the story, an irony highlighted by the fact that Walter refuses to sample his own creation, and even feels he should not have to associate with the presumed lowlifes who occupy this particular trade (which adds a certain edge to the fact that his final enemies are a gang of brutes). Nevertheless, Walt behaves like a junkie. He is positively addicted to the surge of power and control that he feels, and like any addict, he sacrifices more and more of himself along the way, trading his soul piece by piece to the drug which is slowly taking over, eventually becoming a withered, grotesque, insect-like shadow of himself. Walt repeatedly quits, walking away from the business, insisting that he's done, he's out. But he would always come back for more, finding normal life boring and restless. When Walt does finally hang the Heisenberg villain hat on the proverbial antlers for good, he learns that one doesn't simply wash their hands and go back to cookouts and friendly hobnobbing. There has to be an accounting, and that accounting is something Walt spends most of the show avoiding.
Any good addict will rationalize their behavior no matter what it is, relying on justifications that increasingly make sense only to them. Walt has this ability in spades. In fact, his capacity to rationalize dovetails with his nature as a scientist. When he has to, Walt will detach emotionally just enough to protect himself, and will break the situation down into its logical elements, treating people and events as a mere collection of moving parts to be understood and manipulated to his benefit. The man is not a people person. This trait goes beyond the idea of the addict . . . this is actually the classic mad scientist, the genius who excuses all manner of horrid and inhuman behavior by reducing everything to cold logic, believing himself to be a sane and rational person when in fact he is a raging egomaniac. In the final frames of the show, we see Walter dying on the lab floor from above, a God's eye view of Walt with a smile on his face. Sharp viewers have pointed out that this recalls the famous apocalyptic overhead shot in Taxi Driver, also about a noxious lunatic whose blaze of glory is a masturbatory attempt to look like a hero. But it reminded me of the final moments of Requiem for a Dream, one of the more harrowing depictions of not chemical dependency, but the triumph of obsession and delusion over the human spirit, and the way people bypass those things that truly matter while they instead chase madness over the edge of a cliff. (Hubert Selby Jr., author of the book from which the movie version of Requiem was adapted, had a track record of creating characters consumed by the need to compensate for existential emptiness by feeding the demon of illusion, their souls overtaken by darkness to the point where they become either a monster destroying everyone in its wake, or a pathetic husk waiting to be picked off by the callousness of others. I've always felt Walter White would fit in quite well among Selby's collection of lost people torpedoing their lives while thinking they're making everything better). Walter White is intoxicated with the madness, and he's in love with his badness, blah blah some other Billy Corgan reference, so it makes sense for him to die with his creation. In that last shot of the series, Walt is the mad scientist, he is the addict, and he's alone with his baby, and boy did they have some good times together.
There are, of course, those who rooted for Walt up until the end. Perhaps never in the history of TV fandom has there been such a heated argument about which segment of the audience is watching the show through the correct lens, trying to single out those whose take is skewed. Vince Gilligan himself has taken a step back and refused to judge any individual interpretation of the series, while admitting he finds it personally perplexing that anyone could still be rooting for Walter White. Now, given this, I understand why it feels "Felina" may actually have done a 180 and attempted to pander to the segment of the audience which has become known derisively as Team Walt. And yet I think a distinction should be made here, as there is a difference between rooting for Walt and excusing his behavior. In all likelihood, the majority of people cheering for Walt are coming from the perspective of "I know Walt is a self-aggrandizing jerk and that what he does is horrible, and in real life I would never be okay with it, but since this isn't real life I'm in his corner, because he's a fascinating character and I want to see what he'll do next." This type of perspective is the more common one, and the same approach that allows the audience not just to identify with and root for Walt, but also Hannibal Lecter, Scarface, Jason Voorhees, Tony Soprano, Bonnie and Clyde, Dracula, etc., characters we know are terrible but are just so damn interesting. This simply speaks to that age-old dramatic dilemma: our villains are typically more intriguing than our heroes.
This is in stark contrast to that very vocal portion of the audience which literally supports what Walt is doing, almost as if he's a real person (and it's only fair to mention that some segments of the audience hate Walt almost as if he were a real person, yet are met with much less criticism, probably because they aren't making a case for murder, emotional abuse and child poisoning). For some, Walt really is a heroic figure, and they will justify his actions by saying "Walt was screwed over and now he's stepping up and being a man and taking what's his. Yeah, he made mistakes here and there, but you know who's way worse? Skyler. That stupid bitch needs to shut up and learn her place and get out of his way. And she cheated on him, so she has no right to talk. Same goes for that little crybaby Jesse. He ratted on Walt, and that's more evil than anything Walt did. And Junior needs to go. That fucking little retard is always trying to make everyone feel sorry for him. Walt deserves a better son." Jesus, how I wish I was kidding, and that this wasn't based on actual comments people have left online. But indeed, there are folks watching the show who feel that way. Yet it doesn't matter whether you agree with it or not, because no one's opinion should be expected to change, even if you think they're wrong.
My own feeling is that many of those people are wrestling with the same issue of powerlessness as Walt, as most of us in the audience probably are, but for them it's become a fetishistic way to live out this ridiculous macho fantasy vicariously. Essentially, Walt is their stand-in, because his virile power game has become theirs. (Also worth noting there are likely many viewers for whom watching Breaking Bad is the equivalent of playing GTA: ABQ, where meaning is created solely by awesomeness). This undermines the actual intent of Vince Gilligan and his writers, which is to take a traditional protagonist or hero, turn him into an anti-hero, and then allow him to become the story's villain for a good share of the final stretch. For these viewers, the series becomes something that wasn't intended by its creators, which puts the writers at odds with portions of the audience.
This same issue has actually plagued The Walking Dead for most of its run, and in a much more ridiculous fashion. All that series has to do is focus on characters, dialogue or story--you know, like some sort of dramatic television series or something--and the internet falls apart because the fans aren't getting their quota of nonstop zombies, gore, action, and Daryl killing shit. The producers of Walking Dead want to be making a show about how we retain our human connections in a world which has devolved into kill or be killed amorality, but many viewers are watching a Roman gladiator slaughtertorium where the intent is to cheer for the weak/annoying characters to be fed to the zombies and the Duke Nuke 'Em characters to continue being boss, which is the exact opposite series from what Robert Kirkman and company are trying to make. Season three even contained a literal depiction of the gladiator scenario, an unintentional commentary akin to how Walt's phone call to Skyler eerily echoed the wording of many online posters. Whether or not Walking Dead is successful at being the show it wants to be is up for debate (it works for me, but one could make an argument that in the current climate a zombie apocalypse scenario precludes being able to have a serious discussion about human nature, both for professional critics and avid gorehounds), yet the series stands as another example of its producers making one show while its own audience perceives a different experience.
But as already mentioned, Vince Gilligan has been very gracious in not telling the viewership what to think about his show, even if he personally doesn't share the same sentiments as his audience, and even if they are not watching the same TV series that he is. He has notably not made an effort to guide interpretation to his own creative intentions. A cautionary tale here would be Damon and Carlton on LOST, who were always making a character-based drama with a generalized underlying mythology, whereas many people wanted to be watching a mystery series which would be solved with a specific concrete answer (an expectation cultivated by teasing viewers with an endless parade of clues, hints, easter eggs and cryptic details). Their very straightforward, honest explanation that it was "all about the characters," and that the deep mythology of the series was meant more as a cool bonus than an artistic emphasis, created such an avalanche of rage-fueled nerd eye-rolling that no one in television will utter that defense for seasons to come, even though Lindelof and Cuse had been futilely offering this clarification for years before the series ended. Dissatisfied viewers simply heard "well, you watched the show wrong," which did not smooth over an already thorny issue. One could speculate that Vince Gilligan, in not wanting to alienate any segment of the audience, has gone out of his way to avoid finger-pointing and telling anyone their priorities with the show were misplaced.
Yet I take issue with the idea that Breaking Bad saw fit to cater to the element of the audience who thinks Walt is a badass, and that the touch of victory in the ending is an attempt to please them. For me, any element of triumph is there as part of the intricate web of emotional notes the finale is attempting to play, not as part of an effort to be something for everyone. If the episode withheld a delicious E.C. comics-style fitting punishment for Walt, denying those in the audience who are repulsed by him the chance to put their fingers together and smile and say "Payback's a bitch, isn't it, Walter?," that doesn't necessarily mean it gave a handjob to those who just want to see Walt blowing everything up and being awesome.
I've seen the reasoning that Walt simply represents a different take on morality, a kind of Darwinian, Nietzschean ethic which elevates strength and will above conventional ideas of right and wrong. That's an interesting take and it definitely resonates to a certain degree, but ultimately it doesn't work for me, because it denies one major factor in Walter White: he is fundamentally dishonest with himself, and therefore many of his actions are based in that dishonesty. This is not really in keeping with the notion of an Ubermensch, who, embodying a passionate but emotionally cold intellect, would favor brutal honesty regardless of accepted notions of morality, casting aside sentimentalism and compassion for unfettered truth. Even if lying to and manipulating others, this being would be honest with himself about his true nature and motivations. I'd say characters like Gus or even Mike represent this better than Walt, who absolutely cannot see himself for what he really is, at least not until the last episode. Walt may want to embody this ideal (and he may convince himself that he does), but he really falls short, as he runs from having to face himself and is constantly manipulated by emotions he pretends not to have. By the time the curtains fall, Breaking Bad just does not feel to me a story about the virtues of willpower, though of course there is something to be said for Walter's boundless determination. But Walt's resilience is more like Gollum crawling through any amount of detritus and filth to reach his precious ring, than a type of testament to power and dominance. He may be tenacious, but his small victory at the end is tempered with the feeling that some divine force has thrown up its hands and said "Enough of you. You want this so badly? Fine, have your moment. Then you're done."
Walt's accomplished mission aside, a view of the series as a whole makes it clear that what we've been watching is a tragedy, a truly abject story about a man ruining his life in order to finally live. Go back to the beginning, where Walter is a suburban zombie sleepwalking through his existence, his only happiness the portion of the day when he gets to talk about his real passion, chemistry!, in front of glazed over kids who don't give a shit about the knowledge he's trying to impart to them. Compare that to where he ends, as a man who's lost everything, who built an empire on blood and poison and watched it crumble, many of his loved ones serving as some form of collateral damage, and the most he can say is that being the one who knocks made him feel alive. It's gruesome and depressing to look back and watch nerdy Walter White standing in his classroom, a sad little man trying to make a difference to kids who don't care, and think about the road before him.
Nothing that happens in this final episode erases the fact that Walt threw away his many second chances following his cancer diagnosis, and that he ultimately spent his final two years of life destroying the family that he wanted to protect. His is a violent midlife crisis that involved deforming and mutilating many other lives simply to, when you cut right down to it, feel better about himself. There is no way he can fix that, but the finale represents the best that Walter can muster at this point, given his mindset: to leave a legacy that isn't just that of a power-hungry suburban monster disguised as a fumbling chemistry teacher. His legacy is mostly that, yes, but he also means to show that he loved his family, and that he was a man who provided for them, and who protected them and killed the enemy. A delusional view, certainly, and one lacking insight, but there is also some truth to it. (Again, "all of the above"). For better or for worse, Walt exits stage left on his own terms, but the show leaves us with the question of whether or not that was a good thing, and whether or not his attempt to pull the remains out of the fire really made a difference. After all, those who've been lucky enough to survive this ordeal are damaged permanently, their worlds scorched; as much as we want to imagine bright futures for these characters, there are no promises, no happy destinations set in stone. And the person who pushed the big red detonation button is now no more, but he's assured that no one will forget him.
So, what was Walter, in the end? A good man who went astray? A deranged mad scientist? A wimp trying to be a tough guy? A desperate addict? A loving family man? A tragic fool? A misunderstood genius? A horrible asshole? A regular person dealt some unfair cards? A calculating crime boss? A pathetic liar? An unleashed id monster? The answer is yes. There are too many versions of Walter White to list, and the final episode had many of them vying for our attention whilst at the same time finally making peace with each other, revealing a complicated, difficult person who can't be reduced to mere easily decipherable elements (as Walter himself so often tried to do). We saw many aspects of Walter Hartwell White throughout the years, and even if you do for a moment want to get binary and simplify it and say there was a Decent Walt, and there was a Monster Walt, the answer still isn't very easy. Because in reality, they both won. And they both lost.