Jesse Pinkman built the perfect box. He sawed it off, sanded it down, hammered it together, smoothed it out, and carried it away with all the pride of a first-time father. This is the fantasy-memory he retreated to when reality became too broken for him to face at last – the one time in his life when he felt he accomplished exactly what he set out to do, the one time he made everything fit.
For better or for worse, that box is Breaking Bad.
Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan, "Felina," the show's 62nd and final episode, closed the lid on the story of Walter White and virtually every other character still on the show. How could it not, when Walt's final master plan went off without a hitch? The man and the show both tied off every loose end. Walt figured out a way to get his children their money, while giving Elliott and Gretchen their comeuppance and giving the Feds nothing at all. He got to say goodbye to Skyler and Holly, and get a last longing look at Walt Jr. He gave closure to Marie and to the family of Steve Gomez, not to mention vengeance, if they were after it. He figured out a way to kill Jack's entire gang, using the same scientific/mechanical know-how that helped him pull off all his great capers in the past – the wheelchair bomb, the magnet raid, the great train robbery, the perfect meth recipe itself. He gave Jesse the opportunity to kill Todd and to refuse to kill Walt himself – pretty much Jesse's ideal outcome. He even got to crow to Lydia about having killed her earlier that day by dosing her Stevia with ricin. (Yes, the capsule finally got used; the ricin is not the Russian.) And though his attempted suicide-by-Pinkman plan failed, he never even needed to pull the trigger on himself, since his jerry-rigged machine gun did it for him. He got his blaze of glory, leaving the cops with only a corpse. Walt's dying thought could very well have echoed another guy who went down with a wound in his side and a bloody hand: "It is accomplished."
Which is fine, I guess. Certainly I wasn't un-happy to see any of those things happen, or with the particulars of how they happened. I loved the red-and-blue police lights through the snow-covered windows of Walt's stolen car, a novel and eerie way of portraying a narrow escape from the law. I loved the wide shot of Walt idly strolling through the Schwartzes' house, while Elliott and Gretchen chatted obliviously. I loved the sudden reveal of the "sniper scopes," and the final cameos from Badger and Skinny Pete, able to finance that Star Trek spec script at last. I loved the use of deep focus in the restaurant scene, so that when Walt makes the unexpected switch from listening in on Todd and Lydia's conversation to crashing it, he suddenly looms from the background to the foreground, as invasive in visual terms as he is in actual terms. I loved Anna Gunn's total depletion as Skyler, and Bryan Cranston's combination of Mr. White's weariness and Heisenberg's ruthlessness as this final Heisenwalt hybrid. I loved the business with Walt's keychain on the pool table, and the say-hello-to-my-little-friend spectacle of the machine-gun assault. I loved the final homage to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's final girl as Jesse sped away laughing hysterically. I loved the callback to "Crawl Space" and the hat tip to Taxi Driver in the final overhead shot. I loved how in the end, the cops walk right past Walt in search of other potential targets – he is the danger no longer.
But I can't shake the sense that "Felina" as a finale, and Breaking Bad as a whole, would have been more satisfying if it had been less satisfying. No, I'm not calling for a Sopranos-style cut-to-black stunner, or a Battlestar Galactica-style mystical mystery, or a Lost-style "oh, shit, we forgot that Walt's psychic powers seemed like the whole point of the first two seasons – let's put that kid in the DVD extras, I guess, so we can make room for explaining how we consider ourselves, like, spiritual, but not religious, man, you know what I mean?"
Nor am I calling for the show to suddenly become radically different from the unstoppable and meticulous plot machine Vince Gilligan had always been intent on making it. As a showrunner, Gilligan was never afraid of improvisation – entire characters, from Jesse and Hank to Gus and Mike, grew into leads despite having been created with no intention of doing so whatsoever. Nor did he shy away from mystery (Gus's still-unexplained Chilean background) or poetry (the scorched pink teddy bear that served as a visual representation of the moral causality between Walt's actions and the plane crash that deposited it in his swimming pool) or ambiguity (the truth-comes-out-in-playacting-for-the-Feds tirade Walt went on in his final phone call to Skyler). I'd have taken any one of the above. (No, wondering whether Huell's still sitting in that motel room doesn't count.)
And though the end of Season Four and beginning of Season Five, featuring Gus's execution and the Magneto attack, led us to recall otherwise, most of Walt's plans hit a major snag, to say the very least. From getting interrupted by Emilio and Krazy-8 during his first week on the job through missing his chance to blow up Gus's car at the hospital on to Hank finding Gale's book in the john, Breaking Bad has long been a cautionary tale about the best-laid plans of Walter White. Having his final masterstroke go down perfectly was an uncharacteristically generous gesture on the show's part.
Even Walt's admission of "I did it for me," though it took the "he did everything for the family" arguments of a hundred thousand Team Walt comment-thread trolls out to the front porch and shot them in the back of the head Andrea-style, was, in a sense, a way to let Walt off the hook. He died knowing that what he'd done was wrong, which is basically why he wanted to die in the first place. He taught himself a lesson and left the audience knowing exactly how to feel about it, which made it hard to feel devastated, or disgusted, or delighted, or anything much more powerful than merely satisfied. Walt built a box to die in, climbed in, and pulled the lid shut after himself. It was a beautiful box. I just wish it had remained ever so slightly open.
Last episode: The Abominable Snowman