Monday, September 30, 2013

An Elegy for Baby Blue: Breaking Bad Series Finale, "Felina"

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” -Sigmund Freud


"Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise." -Sigmund Freud

Gray Matter

Who is Walter White? He is a liar, a murderer, a manufacturer of methamphetamine, and a criminal capable of monstrous evil. He is a man who has, for nearly two years, actively deceived and betrayed every person whom he ever cared about, ultimately ruining each of their lives. Above all else, however, he is a man who is exceptionally skilled in the art of self-deception, one who has so effectively lied to himself that he has, up until the final episode, been unable to effectively recognize his own arrogance, venality, and pride. It is this enormous capacity for denial that has been his greatest sin, as it has been the ultimate source of all his misdeeds. It is what has caused the enormous buildup of repressed rage that would eventually manifest itself through the Heisenberg alter-ego.

And yet Walter White, even at his most depraved, has still exhibited a capacity for human decency. He saved Jesse's life from the two drug dealers in "Half Measures"; he offered his entire fortune of $80 million in exchange for Hank's life; he even willingly surrendered to his brother in law when he could have ordered his murder. Such wild fluctuations in behavior and decision making had previously led me to believe that Walter White had become completely unhinged. The reality, however, is that Walter had been lying to himself for so long that even he didn't know himself anymore. His incapacity for self recognition was an effective coping mechanism for guilt in the short term, but it led increasingly to a fragmented character who no longer was recognizable to himself. And this was the central idea and source of genius behind Breaking Bad: that people are always lying to themselves, and that this pathology more than any other is what enables individuals to engage in true evil. As Vince Gilligan has previously stated, "it doesn't take a doctorate in psychology to figure out that Hitler probably thought of himself as a pretty good guy."

And so only in the climactic scene between he and his wife do we finally come to know the protagonist/antihero/antagonist amalgamation that is Walter White. It is only here that in a long overdue overture to Skylar that he is able to admit to himself and his wife the truth about who he really is. Abandoning the nauseatingly transparent lie that he has been rehearsing for two full years, he finally admits out loud why he became a criminal: "I did it for me. I like it. I was good at it. And I was...really...I was alive." This is an enormously selfish, proud man, one whose arrogance has often made him difficult if not impossible to empathize with; but when he finally summons the courage to stop lying to himself, he becomes a human being to whom we can once again relate. He became the man we first met in the pilot, a man who feels embittered about life passing him by, who feels betrayed by fate, a man whose anger conceals an immense wound and profound desire to feel alive. By the time that he has suffered and lost enough to discard his commitment to self-deception, it is far too late (I couldn't help thinking of Dr. Melfi from the Sopranos telling Tony, "How many people have to die for your personal growth??), he'll never be able to redeem himself. He's simply committed too many unforgivable acts. But what he does do is come to a better understanding of himself, and it is this candid, unapologetic acceptance of self that allows him to achieve some small degree of atonement, and ultimately leave behind some kind of legacy besides suffering and destruction.

The Walter White that we see in "Felina" is markedly different from the man that we have seen throughout the entire series. He is unburdened and completely at ease; he knows that he is going to die, but more importantly, he knows himself. Walter White is Heisenberg, and Heisenberg is Walter White. He no longer has to divide himself into parts to maintain an illusion of control; in order to regain any form of agency, Walter simply had to stop lying to himself. When he does, he becomes liberated, almost to the point of carelessness, eating openly in diners, abandoning his stolen Volvo in a Denny's parking lot, even unashamedly greeting Carol (Carol or Betty; whatever). This is, as he told Gretchen and Elliot, where he gets to make it right, and the first step toward reconciliation was self-acceptance.

And so we see a newly empowered Walter Heisenberg, one who shocked me with his clarity of intention and logical thinking, a man unencumbered by delusions of grandeur or an insatiable need for recognition. His uninvited visit/surreptitious home invasion of Gretchen and Elliot is not, as we are initially led to believe, driven by a desire for retribution, but rather a brilliantly thought out, logically driven goal: to leave his fortune to his children. In one enormously clever act, he manages to simultaneously ensure that his family will be financially taken care of and scare the shit out of two people by whom he feels he has been betrayed. And he does it all without violence, just a little Jedi mind trick executed with the help of Skinny Pete and Badger ("the two best hitmen this side of the Mississippi").

It is logical necessity that drives Walter's confrontation with Uncle Jack in the final act, as well. As Skylar tells him, the Aryans and Lydia represent an existential threat to his family; as long as they are alive, Walt's family will continue to be in danger. And so, emboldened by a sense of purposefulness not informed by vanity or ego (ok, maybe a little bit) but legitimate concern for his family's survival, we see Mr. White, once again, channel his inner Macgyver and use that science. Yeah M60, yeah SCIENCE! Admittedly, the final confrontation between Jack's gang and Walter demanded an enormous suspension of disbelief, but this has always been a show that has had a tenuous relationship with realism. Depending upon genre, film and television can get away with enormous departures from reality so long as the story still feels within the emotional orbit of the story's characters, and it is for this reason that the scene works.

Walt probably initially wanted Jesse brought to the Nazi club house so that he could die with the rest of his enemies, but upon seeing his former protege and surrogate son in such an unimaginably horrific state of suffering, a paternalistic empathy is involuntarily elicited. He instinctively moves to protect Jesse, covering him when the bullets begin to fly, and in so doing ends up taking a 7.62 mm round in the abdomen. But that's not enough, and he knows it, so after shooting Jack Welker in the face (in an unambiguous decline of Jack's 'keep me alive and I'll show you where the money is' offer), he offers Jesse the opportunity that they both know he deserves: to finally kill Mr. White, the man who ruined his life. Again, however, Jesse remains consistent to his character; he simply isn't a killer (Todd isn't a human being and therefore doesn't count), something he has come to understand fully through his involvement and participation in so much violence. He's done doing Mr. White's bidding, and leaves his former teacher to clean up his own mess (himself).

And this is the focus of the series' final act- that the consequences of actions be borne out. And there are no free lunches in the moral universe of Breaking Bad; the fate of each character is not given arbitrarily but earned. Only after months of humiliation and angst is Walter's family rescued from legal trouble and poverty; only after he has suffered torture and enslavement is Jesse given a chance at a new life; only after he admits his own selfishness to himself and his wife is Walter given a chance at dying on his own terms. Much like the greatest of Dostoevsky's novels, Breaking Bad does not allow redemption to occur until change has been produced through suffering and the breaking of edifices that obscure truth and prevent growth. Like the bodies of Hank and Gomez, the lies that have become such an integral part of Walt's identity must be unearthed, and only then can he salvage anything from the wreckage that he has produced. In so doing, he manages to achieve greater dignity in death than he ever knew in life.

Random Insights

  • Perhaps more than any other episode to date, "Felina" tested the outer threshold of suspension of disbelief. Upon second viewing, however, I was much more comfortable with the liberties taken by the writers with respect to realism for two reasons. First, as I stated before, this is a show that has never committed itself fully to complete believability. Unlike The Wire, this isn't a series that is dependant upon gritty naturalism, it is a morality tale that is character driven. The ending felt natural to me within the emotional structure of the characters, and therefore I was ok giving some allowances with respect to some of the episode's more unbelievable moments. Second, Walter was an amazing character, and, like Gus, deserved (not morally, I still maintain, but just in terms of the magnitude of his character) a colorful exit.
  • The close up of Walt's face in the cold opener may have been the single best shot of the series; half dark, half light, Walter is Heisenberg, Heisenberg is Walter.
  •  Great Marty Robbins song in the cold opener, "Riding Alone in the Dark"-Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me/today nothing's worse than this pain in my heart
  • Walt's ice calm detachment as he coldly surveyed Gretchen and Elliot's new home reminded me of Hannibal Lecter. I wonder what his plan was if they didn't comply (I'm almost positive that he wasn't armed).
  • "If you really want to go that route, you're gonna need a different knife."
  • "Cheer up, beautiful people...This is where you get to make it right."
  • I thought Walt's plan to have Gretchen and Elliot deliver his money to Junior was absolutely some of the most brilliant writing in the series. Like the extortion scheme in "Confessions" and the fake phone call in "Sunset," I found the details of this plot line to be exceptionally well crafted and believable. 
  • And just when you think a scene can't get any better-the return of Badger and Skinny Pete! "Whole thing felt kind of shady-you know, like, morality-wise..."; "Right on Jesse, passing the torch!!!"
  • Loved the flashback of Jesse doing woodworking, making the box that he talked about in NA. Memory is probably the only way to cope with hell. 
  • "I like your um...shirt.""My blouse??" "Yeah, yeah, it's nice, that's a nice color on you. It's kind of, uh, I don't exactly know what you'd call it, it's kind of a cornflower?" Child killing sociopaths apparently don't always have Ted Bundy's penchant for superficial charm.
  • "You're rather schedule oriented, I guess..." Lydia's downfall was her predictability. Punctuality and adherence to schedule is a virtue in the corporate world, but not in the meth trade. I'm glad she got the ricin, it couldn't have happened to a nicer person. "Todd, please, don't make me walk you through this..."
  • Walt knows that they won't turn down meeting with him because he knows Lydia won't pass up the opportunity to have him murdered. Again, anal predictability is her downfall.
  • "Becky, Carol, whatever..." I'm glad Marie was in the finale. Glad to see that she and Skylar have reconciled.
  • Great use of body language by Anna Gunn in her last scene; her posture alone made it look as if she had aged five years.
  • "If you're in custody, what stops those people from coming back..." Skylar brings up a very legitimate point-if Walt had ever been apprehended, he would have been shanked to death in prison by the Aryan Brotherhood, and his family may have been killed as well. 
  • "Tell them I wanted bacon and eggs on my birthday...And that I gave you that ticket." This needed to be done. This was the last skeleton remaining in Walt's closet, and it needed to be brought into the light. 
  •  Brilliant camera work in the scene with Walt and Skylar, as he is initially obscured from our view by a wooden beam. As the camera slowly rolls to a different angle, we learn that Walt has been there the whole time, and our entire perception of the scene is changed.   
  • "I did it for me...I liked it." Best scene in the entire series.
  •  I wish we got to see more of Kevin Rankin (Kenny), he's an excellent actor.
  •  "That is one fine head of hair...I mean otherwise, you look like shit, but..."Uncle Jack sporting a light purple V-neck? Has this Nazi gone all pussy now that he's rich?
  •  The Aryans were the best villains in the series because they represent the true face of criminality. These are the types of people who truly inhabit the world of methamphetamine production. It ain't cinematic...
  • Jesse jogging to the clubhouse in chains, completely subservient to Todd-a very tough sight to behold.
  • "Take a look at him, have a gander. This is my partner. Right partner? Right buddy? Hard working, good partner. 50-50 partner..." Jack Welker is a vicious, mean son of a bitch.
  • "Jesus...Mr. White." I loved Todd's reaction to the machine gun massacre. He's so in awe of Mr. White. I also thoroughly enjoyed watching him get strangled to death by Jesse.
  • Great special effects and acting for Uncle Jack's death. Again, it was good to see him suffer. Also good to see Walt not be such a greedy bastard for once.
  • Todd's Lydia ringtone was priceless.
  • The scene between Walt and Jesse reminded me a lot of Pulp Fiction, when Butch and Marcellus Wallace give each other a pass.
  • Lydia looks rough without her makeup on. Not sure how Walt managed to get the ricin in that packet of Steevia, but again, it was fitting for her character and felt appropriate within the thematic structure of the show (karma's a bitch). 
  • I was wrong, Jesse lived. Good for him, he certainly earned it. He has a new lease on life, and I like to think that he'll take full advantage of it.
  • Wonderful closing shot of Walter. Did he deserve to go out on his own terms? Sure, they may have let him off the hook a little bit, but deep down, don't we all feel attached to his character on some level? Did any of us really want to see him getting shanked by the AB in prison? 
  • Here's the song played in the final scene, "My Baby Blue," by Badfinger. Thanks to everyone for reading, I'll probably do another post just to wrap things up totally before the end of the week. Until then, let's all soak this in, shows like this don't come along often.