by Mieke Trudeau
“Chemistry is the study of transformation.” Walter White, Breaking Bad
Arguably transformation is exactly what we have been watching for five seasons of the brilliantly written and performed series Breaking Bad. The transformation of protagonist Walter White (unflinchingly portrayed by Bryan Cranston) from beleaguered, mild mannered, cancer stricken chemistry teacher to his alias, Heisenberg, ruthless master criminal and unequaled cooker of his trademark chemically pure blue meth.
The show, created by the meticulous Vince Gilligan came to an explosive and ultimately satisfying end last Sunday with its 62nd and final episode “Felina” (written and directed by Gilligan). Viewership reached an all time series high at 10.3 million, besting all other entertainment programming that night in ratings.
From episode one, Walter seemed to be forced into his transformation due to the tragic circumstances forced upon him: his cancer diagnosis, the loss of his job, his failure to anticipate the future potential of his inventions and the pressure to take care of his family; wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), disabled teenage son Junior (RJ Mitte) and new baby daughter Holly (Moira Bryg MacDonald). As he forcibly teamed up with his former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a lost young man with a connection to the drug world, Walter’s life quickly became one of trying to stay one step ahead of his unmasking and downfall. Would it come at the hand of his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), obsessed with catching the infamous Heisenberg and taking many morally grey shortcuts to accomplish his goal? Would it be through his wife Skyler who was forced to face the truth about her husband and ultimately became complicit in laundering the many millions Walter earned through nefarious means? Would it be caused by the many shady and downright scary criminals Walter associated himself with to accomplish his goals? Or would it be Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s partner in crime, increasingly tortured by his feelings of regret, guilt and betrayal?
Ultimately it was none of them. The final episode found Walter on the run from the law and in hiding in a remote cabin. His cancer returned and his fortune down to its last million, Walter seemed ready to wait out the manhunt. A nasty neo-nazi gang, once hired by Walt to do some of his very dirty work and led by the ruthless Jack (Michael Bowen) and his psychopathic nephew Todd (Jesse Plemons), had murdered Hank and his DEA partner in cold blood, had threatened to harm Skyler and her kids, had stolen Walt’s fortune and was keeping a beaten and tortured Jesse literally chained in the meth lab, forcing him to cook Walt’s blue meth formula.
It was his anger and his ego that brought Walt out of hiding. Being spurned by his son, who only recently had discovered his father’s criminal identity, plus seeing his former business partners, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessica Hecht) diminish his role in their financial success in a television interview, spurred Walt back out in the open and on his final road to revenge and closure. That end was eerily foreshadowed in a lingering shot of the New Hampshire license plate of Walt’s stolen car, it’s motto “Live Free or Die” clearly visible.
We saw Walt leaving a trail of bread crumbs for the police but staying one step ahead. Even as he was wracked with coughing fits that signaled his worsening lung cancer, he carefully staged every step in his plan. In an intensely menacing scene where he forced the wealthy Elliott and Gretchen to ensure his children’s financial future, Walter White reminded us that he indeed was “the one who knocks”, the one to fear. Even when we discovered that his threat was an empty one, consisting of harmless laser lights pointed by Jesse Pinkman’s erstwhile bumbling sidekicks, Badger (Matt L. Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), Walt’s victims and indeed we, never doubted Walt’s ability to follow through.
Skillfully eluding DEA surveillance, he visited Skyler, still under investigation for her involvement and a shame-filled shadow of her former self. He came to say farewell to his family, the one he left behind a long time ago with his lies and secret life. In this beautifully staged scene Walter showed the brilliant and final revelation of the Walter White/Heisenberg transformation. Walter finally confessed that all he had done and become was not for the sake of his family and their financial future, as he so stubbornly had maintained the whole series long. His transformation was not forced upon him by misfortune and circumstance, he had become Heisenberg because he liked it, it made him alive. Heisenberg was not Walter White’s alter ego, he was his true self.
His final act would be one of bloody revenge. Using her stubborn habits against her, he poisoned meth distributor Lydia with ricin (Stevia sales will either go through the roof, or no one will want to use the product again!) and convinced Todd to lead him to the gang’s lair one last time. There he was confronted with a beaten, tortured Jesse, not the willing traitor he had anticipated.
Jesse Pinkman, brilliantly portrayed by Aaron Paul, had had his own journey. Perceived as not too smart, rejected by his parents for being a good-for-nothing drug user and left behind in life, he had found a mentor of sorts in Walter White, a substitute father. Perhaps Walt loved Jesse, the best he knew how, but at every turn, he managed to betray and manipulate Jesse to serve his own needs, often proclaiming that he only had Jesse’s best interest at heart, just like he had his family’s. Many times Jesse had tried to escape his fate, trying to break free to find love and a clean honest life, failing each time due to his inability to say no to drugs and the many manipulations and betrayals by Walter White. As he toiled in the gang’s meth lab, chained and bruised, he dreamed of a beautiful wooden box he once handcrafted long ago for an inspiring wood working high school teacher. Of course, back then, he had traded the box for an ounce of weed.
In the end, as a violent spray of machine gun fire, triggered by Walter from a rig built into his car, took out Jack and Todd’s gang, Walter chose to save Jesse, by diving on top of him and pushing him to the ground, even taking a bullet to the gut in the process. In one of the, arguably, most satisfying scenes of the show, this allowed Jesse to exact revenge on the murderous and heinous Todd, by choking him with the very chains that had enslaved him.
Now all that was left was Walter and Jesse, face to face. As Walter implored Jesse to shoot the gun he had pointed at him, to end it all, Jesse ultimately refused. No longer was he going to do what Walter White, Heisenberg, told him to do. No longer was he going to be manipulated in doing his bidding. He had thrown off his chains and after a final nod of understanding between the two men, Jesse sped off into the night, a last close up showing him crying and screaming with the euphoria of finally being free.
As police sirens could be heard approaching, a bleeding Walter stepped into his beloved meth lab one last time. He gently stroked the shiny equipment showing his smiling reflection before collapsing onto the ground. With “Baby Blue”by Badfinger playing in the background, the final shot panned up to show Walter White aka Heisenberg, sprawled on his back, lifeless, faint smile on his lips, as police rushed in.
Some critics complained that the ending was too perfect, paid too much fan service. In a show that had given us so many authentically shocking moments, people perhaps were expecting less closure, more surprise. I must disagree. I feel that Walter’s story needed an end, a closing of the arc. While at the end of the Sopranos, another story about an anti-hero, I was content to simply have the camera turn off while the universe in which the characters lived went on, unseen by the audience, I felt that the story of Walter White had to be brought to a conclusion. The final loose threads tied up, all characters touched on, no one left unscathed. In a series this well crafted, with this much attention to detail and craftsmanship throughout, I expected no less than 99.1% purity and that is exactly what I got.