Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Breaking Bad" - "Felina"

Spoilers for the Breaking Bad series finale after the jump:

The box. That darn box. What a memory Breaking Bad has. We've seen it mine its (often very distant) past for plot points, character motivations, imagery, and theme countless times, each one unexpected yet completely perfect once its purpose is revealed. And so it only feels fitting that a monologue from an episode that aired three years ago would prove so key to the show's final installment. Jesse's story about building boxes in "Kafkaesque" speaks such volumes about who he is: his underlying decency, for sure, but also his desire to achieve something of value, before he became an addict and meth cook. But sadly, his life took a wrong turn somewhere, and led him to Walter White. The results of their partnership? Drugs, death, and destruction, as "Felina" reminds us via a terrifying cut from the serene Jesse building his box to his present-day circumstances, in which he is a prisoner of Jack and Todd: his constructive and beautiful woodworking transformed into cooking batch after batch of blue meth. He's still technically building something, yes, but the drug he's learned to make perfectly is hardly a legacy worth leaving.

He gets that. It took him until "Dead Freight" and "Buyout" to really figure it out, but it's become crystal clear to Jesse Pinkman just how much ruin his career choice has brought upon himself and others. Walter White, on the other hand, doesn't get it. Breaking Bad revolves around a few different main ideas, but Walt's concern with his legacy has always been one of the most consistent. And of the many things this tremendous final episode does well (and there are many, many things), the one that stands out most is just how hollow Walt's final triumph ultimately rings to everyone but him. Take the moment in which he threatens Gretchen and Elliot—in a move I'm pretty sure no one saw coming—into giving his money to his son. If the episode's final Nazis vs. Walt showdown was the one everyone expected (not that it was any less brilliant because of it), this early scene was vintage Breaking Bad unpredictability: a dazzlingly engineered piece of plotting by both Walt and the writers.

But so what? One thing I initially found dissatisfying about this finale—but which I've come to realize is a big part of its genius—is how little resolution it offered for anyone besides Walt. Every scene involving Skyler, Marie, Jesse, and Flynn was incredible and devastating, but at first it didn't seem like quite enough. I wanted a longer scene showing how Marie is coping. I wanted a coda telling us if Jesse got away. As the final scene played, I kept waiting and waiting for it to cut away from Walt and the equipment to provide one final glimpse at the lives Walter White's actions have destroyed. And when it didn't come, I was initially a bit frustrated.

That frustration turned to admiration the second time through, however, when I watched without all those exceedingly choppy commercial breaks and was able to understand exactly what I think Vince Gilligan was going for. He's telling us that there really isn't anything more to say. Another scene or two featuring Marie would have been nice, but her phone call with her sister sums up the consequences of both Walt and Sklyer's actions with shattering clarity. His financial legacy may have been secured through his terrorizing of the Schwartzes, but this—the raw pain in Marie's voice in that phone call with her sister, the forever haunted look on Skyler's face as she grapples with her own role in Hank's death, Jesse's wild driving as he heads towards an unknown future—is his real contribution (not that the latter two are blameless in their fates, of course). "All I have to give you is this", he tells Skyler, handing her the lottery ticket spelling out the location where Hank and Steve are buried. It's a lie in the literal sense, but in every other sense it rings brilliantly, brutally true.

A similar meaning can be read into the finale as a whole. "Felina" does in one sense (as Gilligan had suggested it might) represent a victory for Walter White, or at least as much of one as he could hope for. The final confrontation between him and the neo-Nazis was a reminder of the days when tension on Breaking Bad used to be pleasantly nerve-racking rather than utterly stomach-churning, as we sat on the edge of our seats, wondering if he was going to be able to reach the keys, biting our nails in anticipation rather than dread. (Though dread did enter the equation a bit for me, as I had terrifying visions for a second of Walt dying right then and there, leaving Jack and Todd alive after he had just told Skyler to cut a deal with the prosecutor. One wrong move, and this could easily have gone very badly for everyone involved.) And rigging the machine gun to fire when the trunk was opened belongs on any list of the great Breaking Bad "yeah bitch, science!" moments (though sadly unaccompanied by the Jesse Pinkman exclamation that usually coincides with such an occasion).

We should have expected something like this, and not just because of Vince Gilligan's hints. Breaking Bad is a strongly moral show, but at its heart it's also a twisted vision of American ideals gone horribly awry. That Walter White should die peacefully among the tools of the trade he mastered through intelligence, individual initiative, dedication, and a bit luck (all traits Americans tend to prize) seems appropriate. Here lies a self-made meth cook. The second time through, I almost chuckled at the sheer audacity of it all, as well as the perfection of setting his final moments to Badfinger's "Baby Blue". It's pretty much the ultimate subversion of American exceptionalism.

But then I think about that box Jesse once made, and the notion of not merely building something, but building something that will benefit the world (or even just one person). What has Walter White built? Nothing. He's destroyed everything and everyone around him, and now he's left alone, to die along with the equipment he once used to make his fortune in "baby blue". And he's content, even looking at the equipment with what seems to me like nostalgia. But we know better. This show knows better. We've seen the end results of Walt's creation, and of the "special love" he put into making his product (seriously, that song choice was just perfect), at the expense of everything good in his life. Whatever small things he tried to put right on his final day, that is what he'll be remembered for. And that is "Felina's" ultimate genius: reminding us that killing a bunch of guys worse than he is won't remove the salt from the Earth where Walter White has walked. It may seem (relatively) upbeat on the surface, but make no mistake: this ending was every bit in keeping with the harrowing ordeal of the episodes leading up to it. And bless it for that.

Other Thoughts

- Jesse killing Todd: pretty sure we all saw that one coming, particularly once the gunfire ceased. And yet Breaking Bad excels at knocking the wind out of you even when you know what's coming. Here, it does so by showing us Walt in the background, out of focus, misdirecting us for just a second before Jesse throws himself around Todd with shocking rapidity. Masterful direction by Gilligan.

- My favorite visual moment in the episode, however, has to be the cold open. The car covered in snow, Walt being unable to see anything but the dim flash of police sirens... so, so tense, even though you know he's not going to get caught.

- A final round of applause for this incredible ensemble, please. I don't I have ever seen a better-acted season of television than these last eight episodes. Dean Norris's final moments in the desert, Betsy Brandt confronting Skyler in "Buried", Aaron Paul in "Confessions", Gunn and Cranston in "Ozymandias" (and this finale) . . . these are truly some of the most legendary TV performances of all time.

- Was originally going to do a top 20 episodes countdown after the finale, but I just don't have the time right now. So instead I'll just list my top 12, in chronological order: "4 Days Out", "One Minute", "Fly", "Half Measures", "Salud", "Crawl Space", "Face Off", "Fifty-One", "Gliding Over All", "Buried", "To'hajiilee", and "Ozymandias".

- And while we're at it, let's rank the seasons: 3, 5b, 4, 2, 5a, 1.

- And that's it, I think. Wow, what a show.

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