By Sam Bertschmann
Warning: this article contains spoilers from the final season of Breaking Bad.
Heisenberg’s empire has collapsed.
After five incredible seasons, AMC’s Breaking Bad came to an end this past Sunday. The groundbreaking drama concluded with quite possibly the best series finale in the history of television, effectively tying up all loose ends and bringing the tale of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to a thrilling, satisfying close.
Series as intricate as this rarely reach such gratifying conclusions. Lost, for example, boasted a plot arguably as complex and riveting as that of Breaking Bad for much of its run before ultimately floundering in its final season. J.J. Abrams’ show left hundreds of questions unanswered, despite the fact that he had planned early on to end Lost after six seasons and should have been able to better plot his conclusion.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan chose to end his show on his own terms as well, but fortunately drove his story home neatly. I have no lingering concerns about Gilligan’s show, whereas I still wonder about the mysteries of the island on Lost.
Moreover, Gilligan brings each character’s narrative to a fitting end in “Felina,” Breaking Bad’s final episode. The remaining members of the White family have the money they need to support themselves for the rest of their lives. Marie (Betsy Brandt) calls a truce with Skyler (Anna Gunn) in a desperate effort to protect her from Walt, breaching the gap between the Schrader and White families out of love for her sister. Skyler gets the closure she needed with her estranged husband, who in turn is permitted a silent farewell to his children.
Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his band of neo-Nazis are massacred by a brilliant contraption of Walt’s (Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!), effectively stopping the threat against Walt’s family. Todd (Jesse Plemons) meets a particularly violent end, strangled to death by the very chains with which he imprisoned Jesse (Aaron Paul). Lydia (Laura Fraser) gets an unpleasant surprise in her Tuesday morning tea, cutting off the distribution of Heisenberg’s blue crystal from the rest of the world.
In what may be the most uplifting moment of the entire series, Jesse bolts from his place of captivity, finally free from both the Nazis and Heisenberg.
Walt accomplishes what he set out to do in the pilot episode: provide for his family. While the horrific destruction he caused along the way was certainly not part of his original plan, the monster that let Jane (Krysten Ritter) die, poisoned Brock (Ian Posada) and killed Mike (Jonathan Banks) redeems himself considerably in the series finale.
What initially appears to be an attack on Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley) turns out to be a desperate and totally harmless effort (see: Badger and Skinny Pete—Matt Jones and Charles Baker, respectively—as “hired hit men”) to ensure his family’s financial stability. He looms in the corner of Skyler’s new home, having easily broken in, so that he may say goodbye to his family, whom he clearly, genuinely still loves. He avenges the tragic death of Hank (Dean Norris) and saves Jesse’s life, knocking him to the ground and shielding him from the shower of bullets that kills the Nazis, save for Jack, who, as Hank’s killer, receives a shot to the face from Walt himself.
Walt even gives Jesse the chance to punish him for all the wrong he has done to him, an opportunity the emotionally damaged Jesse chooses not to take, noticing that Walt is already bleeding to death. Walt does just that shortly after Jesse speeds away, lying in the Nazis’ meth lab while the police swarm around him.
This is not to say that Walt is completely absolved of all blame—Jesse’s characterization of Mr. White as “the devil” earlier this season is more than valid. He tore apart his own family. He gave Jesse no choice but to join forces with him before systematically destroying his life. He let his greed and need to feel alive consume him. Ultimately, the show could not have ended with Walt alive and free. Heisenberg needed to be punished.
The always-committed cast members deliver especially impressive performances in their final hours on screen. Gunn lives up to her Emmy in her last scene, perfectly conveying Skyler’s mixture of sadness at the loss of the life she once shared with Walt and her persisting love for her husband, despite the toll his actions have taken on their family.
Paul, as always, makes me empathize with Jesse over any other character, believably anguished in the penultimate episode as he watches Todd execute his beloved Andrea (Emily Rios) in cold blood and relieved beyond compare as he finally drives away from his captors. Paul has smoothly guided Jesse over the past five years from comic relief (Gatorade me, bitch!) to moral center of the show.
Cranston’s expertly nuanced portrayal of Walt had me fluctuating between wanting Walt to die and wanting him to get away with his crimes in nearly every episode. It is easy to see how Walt could so effortlessly manipulate his family, cohorts and enemies; I fell for his lies time and time again, too. Cranston guides Walt through his final hour with much aplomb, beautifully conveying Walt’s desperation, remorse and, finally, sense of peace with himself as he slowly dies.
Obviously, the Academy meant to call Cranston and Paul instead of Jeff Daniels and Bobby Cannavale in their respective categories at the Emmy awards last week. Just as Walt and Jesse produce the best product the Southwest and Czech Republic have ever seen, the performances given by their real-life counterparts simply cannot be topped.
Breaking Bad may actually be a perfect series. I am admittedly still high on the excitement of the finale, but, frankly, nothing else compares to its sharp, cohesive storytelling and masterful character development. It is the model against which all future televised dramas will be compared, and it will be sorely missed by its legions of fans.
Have an A-1 day.