Breaking Toward the End

10Aug13

I’m sure most readers of this blog know full well that Breaking Bad returns for its final run of episodes this Sunday. My excitement and anticipation for the new season can hardly be contained – although technically the final eight episodes are the continuation of the fifth season (for contractual/economic reasons), given that it’s been almost a full year since the last new episode aired, this definitely feels like & is being hyped as the final season. One benefit of this short final set of episodes is that the finale feels closer on the horizon, not drawn out over many months as is typical for highly hyped final seasons, meaning that the advance excitement generated for the new episodes can hopefully sustain over the next eight weeks, even if it does mean that it will be over sooner.

I don’t have that much to say about the coming season beyond some other excellent preview posts I’ve read, from critics Donna Bowman, Zach Handlen, Andy Greenwald, and Todd VanDerWerff. I will be writing weekly breakdowns for Antenna, much like I did for the final season of Lost, so check in on Mondays for the next eight weeks. This preview post offers some predictions and anticipations for what is to come, although I’m happy to be taken for whatever ride the series offers, as narrative surprise is one of Breaking Bad‘s most powerful weapons.

Having just rewatched seasons 4 and 5a, I’m struck by how steady Walt’s arc toward kingpin status has been, slowly building up power, allies (and disposing of potential enemies), and most of all, hubris. In the last episode, “Gliding Over All,” Walt finally secured his hold on his empire – and the series fast-forwarded through his reign at the top over the course of a single, glorious montage sequence. The final act of the episode showed Walt walking away, growing tired of the crown and deciding that the giant stack of money was enough. (Although we have no proof that his line to Skyler, “I’m out,” was the truth, it felt like it was motivated by his own exhaustion and lack of enjoyment of being the king.) And I think this decision to retire might be Walt’s final, and most fatal, act of hubris yet.

As Walt repeatedly told Skyler, walking away was never an option, as too much money was at stake, the demand for Heisenberg Blue too great, for him just to be allowed to leave the game. When he was working for Gus, this was a direct threat, as his boss would likely kill him (or his family) if he didn’t cook compliantly. But now that Walt’s the boss, he feels like he controls his own fate – which, given the moral logic of Breaking Bad, is never possible. Walt’s fate was sealed back in the pilot when he started down this path, and every choice he made drove him deeper into the drug world. He is too bound by his previous actions to just walk away.

The obvious connection binding him to Heisenberg is Hank’s revelation at the end of the last episode, but I expect that numerous other ties to the drug game will come back to haunt him as well. He’s making so much money for Lydia that she and her Madrigal allies are unlikely to let the supply just dry up. His deal to provide product for the Phoenix dealers is presumably still in place, so they have reason to push him back to the lab. Todd may be a loyal assistant, but his uncle’s crew seems like they would be willing to use their muscle to keep the money flowing. In this most dangerous form of capitalism, high demand trumps a temperamental supplier, so Walt’s decision is due for some market corrections.

During my rewatch, I thought of one more loose end that has never been tied up. The Mexican cartel would not kill Gus because of important connections in his Chilean past. Breaking Bad‘s storytelling logic never leaves threads dangling like this, so I’m expecting that delayed Chilean retribution might be coming across the border toward the man who did finally kill the chicken man—which could also facilitate a great curtain call for Giancarlo Esposito to return in a flashback. All of these loose ends coming back to tie Walt’s hands and potentially cause his downfall fits with a key theme of the show: you are never able to escape your actions and their consequences. Just like Stringer Bell failed to put his violent past behind him on The Wire, Walt’s belief that you can rise high enough in the game to be able to escape it will be his downfall—or like the parable he told Jesse, if you fly too close to the sun, you’re going to get burned.

So that’s my big expectation for the final episodes: that Walt will be brought down less by Hank (although that chase will be fun to watch), and more by the lingering consequences of his evil actions, perhaps via a coalition of Mexican, Chilean, German & Southwestern criminals who exiled him to New Hampshire and inspired him to defend his turf with Chekhov’s machine gun. But what do I really want from the conclusion?

I go back and forth about whether I want Walt to die, or to be forced to live with the moral reckoning of the pain he’s caused his family and community. My investments are less in what happens to Walt, and more focused on those whom he victimized and compromised, especially Jesse, Skyler and Hank. I yearn for an episode that functions as a de facto sequel of “The Fly,” where Walt is trapped in a room with those three, forced to own up to his actions—after feeble attempts to rationalize it all away—while Jesse, Skyler and Hank all work through his sins enough to let go of their anger and just regard him with shameful pity. They all deserve more than resorting to violence, and the greatest punishment Walt could receive is the disdain and disgust of those whose opinions matters most to him, and to have his legacy be one of shame and dishonor. Of course, such an episode might not be as dramatically compelling as I imagine it, but Walt deserves to be confronted in a forum where his lies and rationalizations have lost their potency.

I agree with arguments made by the critics I link to above, that Breaking Bad‘s ending feels both more predestined and less essential than other contemporary series, as the gears of moral judgment have been grinding away for years. But more so, I have unyielding faith in Vince Gilligan and his team to pull it off—as I discuss in my chapter of Complex TV on Authorship, we regard the creators of favorite fictional universes as deities that inspire reverence, faith, and occasionally renunciation. Breaking Bad is not a religious series, but it is one possessed of a deeply moral order and sense that it is being controlled by knowing, powerful forces willing to crash two planes together to judge a man in a rain of holy fire. So while I care deeply what happens in the next eight episodes, I am not obsessed with a series of unanswered questions as with Lost, or yearning to check-in with departed characters as with The Wire. Instead, I am fully content in letting Gilligan et. al. deliver what they will, passing dramatic judgment on Walt, his colleagues, and their storyworld, and providing the ending that both the characters and their fans have earned. Bring it on.

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One Response to “Breaking Toward the End”

  1. I don’t think Walt will necessarily be brought down, but I do think he’ll lose everything — family, money, friends — via Hank’s investigations and/or the kinds of cartel actions you’re imagining. I picture him at the end of the series in a showdown with Hank, where Hank gives him some opportunity to retain ties to family and the life he knows, and Walt walks away into the distance, alone, daring Hank to shoot him and doffing the Heisenberg hat as the series fades out. At the end we see him alone, with the Heisenberg identity the only thing he has remaining to him, leaving everything else, including his destroyed family, behind.

    Looking forward to the close of the series and to your blog posts!


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