Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed this episode and it was supremely well-made television. But didn’t the plot of Breaking Bad’s finale strike anyone else as a little bit absurd? Watching Walt in his snowbound car I was reminded of the January day a friend and I rather impulsively drove north from Boston to Vermont. We awoke the subsequent morning to find our car covered not just in snow but in ice. Ice that had to be scraped off the windshield to make the car operable. We’d neglected to invest in one of those ice-scraping things that people use for such tasks, and had to repurpose our student IDs instead. It was hard work! And here’s Walt just finding the keys and shaking off the snow with the windshield wipers.
Not that I exactly minded that this was a pretty lucky coincidence. I wasn’t all that bothered by the lack of explanation of how, exactly, he managed to get out of New Hampshire and all the way across the country without being apprehended. Or how he found Badger and Skinny Pete. Or how the Albuquerque Police Department and the D.E.A. and every other law enforcement agency in town could possibly have gotten so “stretched thin” that Walt could just walk right in and out of Skyler’s house.
Then, of course, the entire neo-Nazi gang helpfully arranged itself inside the firing radius of Walt’s giant gun. Hooray!
Not that realism per se has ever been the point of the show. But after the searing "Ozymandias," for Vince Gilligan to end the series on this note put the entire show in a certain context. After the similarly amazing-but-absurd train heist episode I remarked that I liked Breaking Bad the meth procedural better than Breaking Bad the family drama. And the fact is that the show is more fun when you’re rooting for Walt than when you’re watching him suffer. And in the vast majority of the episodes Gilligan manages to cook up antagonists who are decidedly less sympathetic than Walt is. Walt goes out very much the hero.
The conclusion also offers important context for the much-debated phenomenon of Skyler-hatred. It seems to me that it’s not just some fans of the show who hate her: The writers hate her. The narrative arc is structured so that in the end Walt does deliver the goods for his family, and yet Skyler will never know or appreciate that. In fact, Walt’s ability to provide for her and her kids depends on her not recognizing or appreciating what he’s done. For all that Heisenberg’s been driven by rage and egomania, at the end of the day he swallows that pride and helps his family, while Skyler sort of sits there blank-faced and traumatized. This isn’t something male fans are projecting onto the show, it’s there in the text.
More generally, I found something troublingly reactionary about the Walt-on-top conclusion of things. Simmering beneath the surface of Walt’s psyche since the premiere has been a sense of wounded privilege. The educated white male native-born American was upset that the vicissitudes of life forced him into the undignified posture of working for Bogdan-the-Armenian.
Through the duration of the series, Walt not only breaks into the methamphetamine trafficking game but triumphs in it through the rigorous application of intelligence and the bourgeois virtues. Sundry Mexicans and rednecks and uppity ladies are ultimately put in their place as it turns out that father does know best and really is smarter than everyone else. It’s just his burden to bear that his genius will never be fully recognized.
You could imagine things taking a completely different turn in Skyler’s kitchen. Perhaps they argue. Perhaps she points out that Walt has absolutely no way of knowing that all the Nazis will conveniently arrange themselves inside the arc of the gun he has stashed in the back of the car. She argues that if Walt knows the location of the compound and the identity of the gang members, the sensible approach would be to turn himself in to the police and inform on them. Walt—angry and full of pride and rage—insists that he’ll handle things himself, even though his plan isn’t really nearly as clever as he thinks it is. But then he gets pinched walking out her door, because the cops aren’t as dumb as he thinks they are. So in the end he has no choice but to do it her way.
That would have been a much duller ending, but arguably the one Walt truly deserved.
No replacement for displacement,
Related in Slate: Willa Paskin on how the Breaking Bad finale revealed that Vince Gilligan was Team Walt all along.
Emily Bazelon on being totally satisfied with Breaking Bad’s finale.
June Thomas on Breaking Bad’s celebration of virtuosity.