Flail Again. Flail Better. Enough.
Last night I dreamt I went to Alberquerque again. In my dream (among other stuff – shit got weird), Walt wasn’t dead at all, but had been faking his death all along! The closing dialogue of the show wasn’t Jesse finally refusing to do what Mr White wanted, but an open-mouthed Albuquerque resident asking Walt if Heisenberg was still with us. He stared straight into the camera, and in an echo of the opening scene of season five standout ‘Say My Name’, said simply “You’re damn right.” Cut to black.
I’m not entirely sure why it was this – rather than the reams of commentary and counter-commentary, and the paranoiac conspiracy fantasies more lurid than those of any bug-eyed tweaker – that drove me to write something about the final episode of a TV show that I love, unreservedly. Out of that love, I didn’t want to wade in when it was still completely fresh in the Internet’s consciousness – I think a lot of what I read in the 48 hours following Badfinger’s closing serenade was too intensely felt to be critically valuable (essentially a bunch of recappers dressing up “I liked it” and “I didn’t like it” in enough parts of speech to meet a word count). I know my feelings have changed little since then: I did feel it was implausible, and possibly overly neat - but those feelings pale in comparison to the longing melancholy I felt and still do feel at the show’s, and Walt’s passing, as though a close friend had gone far abroad (perhaps to Belize) and wouldn’t be back any time soon.
Possibly one reason that when I woke up this morning I knew I had to write was because the dream forced me to acknowledge something that I had been keeping fairly close to my chest for fear of being labelled a Bad Fan – that, despite all of the monstrous things he’d done, and the sense of inevitability curated since the first episode, I was still hoping Walt would get away with it, and live to tell the tale. And in acknowledging that, I found myself pondering why what feels like the whole internet is still debating just what happened in that final hour, and what it says about our attitude to the show, and what it means for us as an audience in a landscape as bereft of Breaking Bad as ‘Ozymandias’ was of a Badger and Skinny Pete pop culture jag.
I don’t think I’ve seen it proposed anywhere (a true rarity) that Breaking Bad is at its core a show about the pathetic, futile flailing of the human organism in the face of death. Death hovers over Walter White from the first episode through to the last, taking a variety of shapes (often introduced early in a new series (cancer itself; Tuco; Gale’s competence meaning Walt’s obsolence; Gus)). Part of what makes the show such exhilarating viewing is that Walt then manages just – just! – to scramble ahead of it long enough to nullify that particular manifestation; part of what makes the show so aesthetically and ergonomically satisfying is that it is often in nullifying death’s power that Walt creates the next empty vessel for it to inhabit. (Sidebar: my favourite example of this is the murdering Gus->destroying the evidence->breaking the picture frame->revealing Madrigal’s complicity->needing to remove the witnesses->hiring the Nazis sequence of events in series five’s first arc – people write about Gilligan’s precise plotting as though it’s something smooth, or cold, or unfeeling; really, when it’s done this well it takes on the terrible momentum of Greek Tragedy: the feeling created is pure dread, and even when we get catharsis it is with the knowledge that the lengths gone to to obtain it will necessitate even worse to come).
Anyway. The show is about dying, and how in our private last moments we will do anything – no matter how morally reprehensible, or desperate, or criminal – to stave it off, even if only for a second. The stay of execution Walt gets in series two, when he learns he is in remission, is one he will renew and defer again and again, through whatever means necessary. I’ve been rewatching the show from the beginning over the last couple of weeks, and recently came to the end of the ‘Crawl Space’-‘End Times’-‘Face Off’ mini-arc that is to my mind the best three-episode run in the show’s (and, quite possibly, television’s) history. I remembered most of it (Walt’s primal scream-shout / barbaric yawp lying in the crawlspace, the moment where his urge to rage against the dying of the light runs most chillingly up against the knowledge of how dark it’s getting, will be something I will remember forever). But what I’d forgotten, in the “All Hail the King” pomp of AMC’s fifth-series press campaign, is just how pathetic Walt is in these scenes. He cries in his tighty whities on his son’s birthday; he impotently trashes equipment and flips off the impassive surveillance cameras in the superlab. And he only just makes it, with one final Hail Mary. Stay of execution deferred again – and who cares how long for? It’s better than being dead right now.
Where does this leave us with ‘Felina’? At first I thought the show had done the sort of thing David Simon (by the way, not exactly the king of sticking landings – see: McNulty’s tooth marks in the corpse of a homeless person) accused Dickens of doing : punking out at the last minute. I thought Vince Gilligan was giving the fans their giant pizza and dipping sticks and letting them eat it, too. Taking everyone as low as we thought things could possibly go (and, in ‘Granite State’, that was plenty low) before bringing it all back with what slim pickings of redemption are possible for a character who has poisoned a child and dissolved another in acid. I’m now less sure. Or rather – I actually think that is what Gilligan thought he was doing (he has made a lot of noises about doing just that, in effect, which actually makes me wish he’d take a leaf from David Chase and one from Roland Barthes and just let viewers enjoy it on their own, non-circumscribed, terms). But I don’t necessarily think that is the reading of the finale that gels most closely with the rest of the show.
In my reading, ‘Felina’ is about acceptance. There’s a wonderful, careworn yet carefree aura around Bryan Cranston in this episode – to a certain extent, he reminded me of one of Shakespeare’s grief-hollowed old men, almost mechanically going about his business not because he particularly wanted to but because he knew it was simply what had to happen. Where the previous hours had been about running away (culminating in Mr Lambert’s new state of residence), here it was all about coming home. People (yours truly included) have chucked Shakespeare and the Greeks at the show just to see what would stick, but what about Beckett? What was a large chunk of ‘Granite State’ but its own tragicomic-absurdist Beckettian single-hander? You have a man, and a barrel, and eleven million dollars in cash that he can’t spend, except on a hand of cards with a near-stranger and on some out of date newspapers. The lines newly etched on Bryan Cranston’s face in ‘Felina’ – and the Zen-like calm with which he methodically plots and executes the mass-shooting of the gang of neo-Nazis – are the results of a new sort of self-knowledge: that there are worse things than death, after all.
There has been some traction given over the last few days to the Nussbaum Theorem, or various sub-theories spinning off from it in ever-increasing entropy. You’ll have heard it, no doubt: the whole episode’s a dream! Walt’s actually asleep in the car in New Hampshire! Wait, Walt died in the car in New Hampshire! No, Walt sold his soul to the Devil in the car in New Hampshire! Aside from their total lack of basis in rational observable fact, these theories do all have one thing in common: they allow us to pretend that the still-warm corpse of a now-deceased show is still vital – as long as it stays alive on social media, it can’t really be done, can it? My advice is this: let it die. Put the debate to rest. Walter Hartwell White is dead; Breaking Bad is dead. Of course you’re sad – we all are. But the time has come to go gentle into the good night. More unsolicited advice: if you really can’t get enough, go back to the beginning. Watch them all again, and again if necessary. Build the show a mausoleum befitting its titanic status, build it in crystal blue of purest hue, and around it engrave the names of episodes that will go down in history as some of the finest in the medium. But let it go, already. By the end, it’s what Walt would have wanted.