Over the course of Breaking Bad’s run, Vince Gilligan has spoken many times about inevitability, about how the best storylines, the best plot twists, the best endings are the ones that feel fated. Speaking about the finale just a few days ago he said, “sometimes the best surprise is no surprise.” Before its very first episode had ever aired, Breaking Bad promised to be the transformation of a mild-mannered Mr. Chips into a psychopathic Scarface. In its very first episode, Walter White was given a terminal cancer diagnosis. The inevitable end to Breaking Bad was always Walt’s death. And so in the series finale, Walt died.
But if Walt’s death was inevitable, the way he died was not predictable. I’m not talking about the plot elements. In the last week, Walt saving Jesse, Walt killing the Nazis, Walt going to Gretchen and Eliot, even Walt substituting Lydia’s stevia for ricin were all predicted by the great Internet hive-mind (along with even more theories that proved to be perfectly untrue). I’m talking about the fact that Walt died relatively redeemed. If The Sopranos continually punished its audience for identifying too closely, too sympathetically with Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad in the end protected its audience from the nastier ramifications of this same impulse. For those people who have always thought Walt was not so bad, here was Walt, not being so bad. And for those of us who did find Walt absolutely reprehensible, it was still impossible to watch this episode and feel victorious.
Imagine if Walt had died two episodes ago at the end of the wrenching “Ozymandias.” (When we’ve had a few weeks to percolate on the finale, I think there will be a cohort who thinks that’s exactly what should have happened.) Had he died then he would have passed away a devastated, bested, robbed megalomaniac and his death would have been exactly what he deserved. Hank had just been killed, Walt had given Jesse to the skinheads, stolen Holly, and then called Skyler on the phone and spewed hateful bile at her, a way to exonerate her but also give vent to his deepest feelings. If, after that call, the police had tracked him down, or a bullet had found him, I think I would have felt about his death exactly as I did the Nazis’ tonight: That asshole got what he deserved.
Instead, Gilligan and his writers spent the last two episodes pulling Walt up from “Ozymandias’s” rock bottom. After everything Walt had done, he couldn’t just walk away, but he was permitted to make as much right as possible. He got the money to his family, he gave Marie Hank’s body, he poisoned Lydia, he killed the Skinheads, he freed Jesse, and most of all he demonstrated, for the first time in years, self-knowledge. The moment that it became clear something had really changed in Walt—that if he was still very bad, he was starting to break a little good—was when he admitted to Skyler that everything he did was not for his family. “I did it for me,” he said. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.” Walt, unlike the diehard “Team Walt” apologists, finally copped to his monstrous selfishness. He finally admitted everything he did was not for his family—allowing him to go do this last thing for his family.
And this is where the finale is not quite so satisfying: After everything, after five seasons in which the writers were clocking Walt’s every misdeed, at the very end, they turned out to be Team Walt. Despite everything he did, Walt was rewarded—not with life, too much had gone down for that—but with a death on his own terms. He died having provided for his family, without going to jail or giving up on his legend. (Imagine the news story: “Druglord Heinsenberg found in Neo-Nazi compound: Dozens dead, booby-trapped car found on premises.” Walt would have loved that.)
What I admire about the softening of Walt is that it does not allow us, the audience, to be gleeful and bloodthirsty about his death. It precludes us from being as cavalier about Walt’s life as Walt has been about the lives of so many others. But this was not the writers making a pointed ethical stand against bloodlust: They just made us direct our bloodlust elsewhere. The finale made the real bad guy of Breaking Bad a bunch of neo-Nazis, as if we needed Breaking Bad to tell us Nazis are the worst. Besides his confession to Skyler, the moment when we really know that Walt has changed is when Uncle Jack promises to lead him to his money and Walt shoots him in the face anyway. The man who once told Jesse he was in “the empire business” no longer cares about the cash. Walter White is finally moral enough to murder a skinhead.
In the end, Breaking Bad protected Walt from the worst possible death and us from having to watch it. But as Breaking Bad demonstrated so memorably with Skyler’s remark that “Someone needs to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” sometimes protection is overrated.