The deposed king surveys the ruins of his crumbled empire.
So, the finale of Breaking Bad aired last night, and I'll just get right to my reaction: It was sublime. It was perfect. I loved every moment of it. As to why I loved it so much, I'll get to that, but first: The recap!
We pick up with Walt in his frosty exile in New Hampshire. He has broken into a car, and, as police lights near, he whispers, "Just get me home." The police lights pass, and, in one final bit of the absurd, unaccountable luck that has abetted his monstrosity, he pulls down the visor only to have the keys fall into his lap.
Once he arrives in Albuquerque, on his birthday, Walt stops at a gas station, where, from a payphone, he calls a publicist or manager of some sort for the Schwartzes, his old Grey Matter business partners, and, posing as a New York Times reporter, he gets their new address. He leaves his watch, a gift from Jesse on his last birthday, atop the payphone as he walks away. Time is up.
We know from the opening episode of this season that Walt then traveled to a diner, where he made a 52 out of bacon to celebrate his birthday before buying a machine gun and a used car from a shady character in the restroom. So, when he later shows up at Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz's place, we know he is armed and dangerous. He is terrifying as he casually strolls behind them into their home, gazing at their family photos while he waits for them to notice him.
Elliott points a small kitchen knife at him. "If you're taking that route, you're going to need a bigger knife," Walt tells him. Elliott drops the knife to the floor.
But Walt is not here to harm them. Not physically, anyway. He orders them to help him cart his $9 million into their house, then tells them that they are to use the money to set up a trust for Flynn, to be given to him on his 18th birthday. Gretchen snaps at Walt that if he wants to get his drug money to his family, he can do it his own damn self. But Walt is persuasive: With a wave of his hand through their front window, two pinpoints of red light land on their chests. He tells them that he has hired two hitmen to ensure that they carry out his plan as directed.
It is the perfect, horrible vengeance: Walt has never been able to stop thinking about Elliott and Gretchen's money, and now they will never be able to stop thinking about his.
Once Walt leaves the Schwartzes', we discover that the two concealed snipers were really Badger and Skinny Pete armed with laser pointers. Ha ha! Good one. They have a conversation about the blue meth that leads Walt to realize the Swastika-necks have not kept their promise to kill Jesse. He is more determined than ever to roll into Nazi Camp, guns blazing. Literally.
To orchestrate a way in, Walt ambushes Lydia and Todd at their regular meeting place, which was also Lydia's regular meeting place with Walt. He tells them he's got a whole new way to cook meth sans the difficult to obtain methylamine, and he'll show them for a million bucks. Lydia agrees, then makes sure Todd knows that the real plan is to kill Walt when he shows up that night. She stirs her Stevia into her tea, and we know, we know, that Walt has punctured that packet and filled it with the ricin. RIP Lydia.
Cut to the desert, where Walt is always cooking up something, figuratively or literally, and Walt is building some kind of Rube Goldberg murder machine, happily whistling to himself. As he works, his wedding ring, hanging on a string around his neck, falls out of his shirt, and he briefly touches it before tucking it away once again. My precious.
"Hey, guys? Hello?"
Ha ha just kidding. There's no end to Huell's story. I just imagine him still sitting alone in that room, waiting for someone to come give him the all clear. Ha ha aww. Poor Huell!
And thus ends the levity portion of this recap!
Cut to Marie's kitchen, less purply than usual. Her love is gone. She calls Skylar on the phone. Skylar, at her small apartment, looks drawn and smokes a cigarette, as Marie tells her she's calling a truce to let her know Walt has been seen in town. Skylar thanks her and promises to be careful. She hangs up, and the camera pulls back to reveal that Walt is already standing in her kitchen.
Walt tells Skylar that she and Flynn and Holly will be safe after tonight. He starts to explain himself, telling her why he did everything. She interrupts him, telling him that she doesn't want to hear him say one more fucking time that he did it for the family. Walt, in a brief moment of ostensible decency (I'll come back to that), admits to her that, in fact, he did it for himself. And then, because he is terrible and will always be terrible, he tells her he did it because it made him feel alive.
It wasn't even intended as a "fuck you before I go," because Walt doesn't have that much self-awareness. He actually imagines that telling her, obliquely, that he never felt alive inside the life they built together was some sort of gift.
He gives Skylar the lottery ticket with the GPS coordinates, so that they can find Hank's and Gomez's bodies. Skylar cries and I cry and everyone cries. All that is left of Hank is a crumpled piece of paper, an ancient map to a burial ground compelled by a tyrant.
Walt asks to see Holly before he goes, and, as he stands over her crib, stroking her sleeping noggin, Skylar looks on with a sort of loving nostalgia, and, then, as Walt turns to leave, her head drops. And then he is gone.
He hangs around for a bit outside, waiting to see Flynn come home from school. He doesn't even try to talk to him. He watches from a distance, as Flynn walks into the front door of the small apartment and closes the door.
Later that night, Walt arrives at Nazi Camp, where he's taken inside to meet with Uncle Jack and launches into the pretense for his visit, only to be interrupted by Uncle Jack telling Kenny to shoot Walt. Walt yells that Uncle Jack owes him Jesse Pinkman and calls him a liar. Because Uncle Jack is a drug-dealing white supremacist garbage nightmare, he's deeply offended by having his integrity impugned, so he instructs Todd to retrieve Jesse from his hell-dungeon.
Todd gets Jesse, who heartbreakingly shuffles across the pavement in his shackles. When he sees Walt, he can't even bear to meet his gaze. His face is scarred; he is hunched over; he's broken. Walt lunges at Jesse, knocking him to the ground and lying on top of him, then punches his keyfob, activating the murder machine in his trunk. The machine gun fires round after round, taking out the Swastika-necks. When it's over, everyone is dead except for Uncle Jack, Todd, Walt, and Jesse.
Uncle Jack has been shot. Walt points a handgun at him. Uncle Jack tells Walt if he kills him, he'll never know where his money is hidden. Walt kills him. He knows there's no way to get that money to his children, and he has no use for it. In the end, it will go the government, if it's ever found.
Jesse, meanwhile, wraps the chain between his handcuffs around Todd's throat and strangles him to his death. He grabs the keys and frees himself of his bonds, then stands face to face with Walt. Walt puts the handgun on the floor and slides it over to Jesse. Jesse picks up the gun and points it at Walt. "You want this," Walt tells him.
Jesse looks at him with all the seething contempt that I feel. "Say you want this," Jesse replies. "Nothing happens until I hear you say it."
It is then we see that Walt has been shot in the side during the gunfight. A victim of the ricochet from his own murderous vengeance. "I want this," he tells Jesse.
"Then do it yourself," says Jesse. He drops the gun and walks out the door, and I cheer and cry. He won't do the bidding of Walter White any longer.
Todd's phone rings: The ring tone is, of course, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." Lydia, oh, Lydia. Have you met Lydia? Walt answers the call, and tells Lydia what he's done to her. Of course he does. Because he needs the credit. He needs her to know that he did this to her. He is the one who knocks. His is the name that has to be said, his deeds those that have to be known.
Jesse gets into a car and tears the fuck out of Nazi Camp, crashing directly through the gate. He screams joyfully as tears stream down his face. He is free. But Jesse never thinks of the future. His celebration is cut off abruptly, and we know, we have known for some time, that there are no real happy endings for Jesse Pinkman. If he even manages to elude capture by authorities, what will he become? How will he make a living? How will he live with himself? Walt "saved" Jesse only after making him a man capable of murdering his captor, "saved" him to send him into a wrecked life. Good luck, Jesse Pinkman. Good luck.
Back at Nazi Camp, Walt strolls into the meth lab and admires the equipment. He taps a gauge, picks up a gas mask. He is happy here, among the machines that built his empire. He rests his hand on a cook vat, for a moment. And then he slips to the floor, leaving a bloody handprint on its cool, reflective surface. Police rush in, but Walt is gone. The camera pulls away, and we see him lying on the floor of the lab. The king is dead.
* * *
So, there has been a lot of discussion on the internetz about how Walt redeemed himself in this episode, or how the episode turned him into a hero, or how it was too tidy an ending.
And here's my feeling about that: If the only character about whom you cared was Walter White, then, yeah, maybe the finale reads that way. But if you actually cared about all the people in the show—Skylar and Flynn and Holly and Jesse and Hank and Marie and Gomey and everyone else—then it's evident that Walt is no hero; there has been no redemption; there is no tidy ending, no balance, for any of them.
For me, the finale was exactly what it should have been, the only thing it could be.
The real story of Breaking Bad has always been told in the subtleties. When Walt finally admits to Skylar he did it for himself, it can only be seen as a gift when sundered from its context of also dealing one last devastating blow of demeaning their family life. He didn't do it for his family—because his family never meant enough to him in the first place. He robbed Skylar of the opportunity to tell herself the comforting lie that her life is in ruin because he loved her so much. No, it was because he didn't love her enough. When Walt "saves" Jesse, he does it only to oblige Jesse to kill him, because Walt imagines that's some kind of fucking twisted justice; it is Jesse who saves himself, when he instead walks away.
Walt is dead. He has destroyed his family, and many other people along the way. To admit at long last he did it all for himself is not redemption, and it is not heroic. It is his final bid to claim his grotesque legacy, to own his terrible empire. Say my name. Walter White.