Walt White’s old adversary Mike Ehrmantraut put it best: “You know how they say ‘it’s been a pleasure’? It hasn’t.” After five agonizing seasons, Breaking Bad finally reached Miller Time with last night’s finale caper, using Badfinger’s bleakly romantic “Baby Blue” as a last word, as Walt White tears down the remnants of the drug empire he built with his own bad fingers. “Baby Blue” is a brutally sad love song, sung to a woman who’s already given up and walked away. But it’s the perfect farewell for Walt – a husband who looked inside himself for monsters and had no trouble finding them.
Series finales suck, as a rule. You can’t judge a show by a finale, because TV is not a storytelling medium that favors resolutions. All shows, even the ones that stay great up to the end, hang around a few weeks too long. Seinfeld really ended with “The Maid.” The Sopranos ended the story with Tony yelling “I get it” in the Nevada desert. But neither show could resist milking it with lame finale episodes. That’s how it should be. There’s no TV equivalent to “Her Majesty” or “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” or “Bound 2” or “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into The Black).” TV is fundamentally different from rock & roll this way – it’s better to fade away than to burn out.
Yet Breaking Bad found a way to let Walt White burn out, going out of the crystal blue and into the black. He took on a final science project, inventing the “trunk gunner” and the “Ricin sweetener,” after a season where he didn’t get to do any cooking in the lab. The final 20 minutes were a glorious tribute to shabby Seventies shoot-’em-ups like Charles Bronson’s The Mechanic or Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force. (After his remote-controlled car-blaster wiped out the Nazi gang, I halfway expected Walt to chuckle, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”)
Watching Walt kill Nazis, still the least controversial people on TV to kill, didn’t pack the same emotional force as seeing him take out Gus Fring, or the same no-stop-you-moron tension of seeing him shoot Mike Erhmantraut. Those guys were worthy adversaries. (Oh Mike, how you have been missed.) But the Nazis were just the guys he had to murder because there was nobody else left. So Uncle Jack goes down in the long list of TV villains who stupidly blow their chance to kill the hero because they’re more into “explaining plot details” than actually “killing people.” And poor dumb Todd – what kind of Nazi has a Groucho Marx ringtone? You were never going to make it in the swastika-tattoo scene, Todd.
The emotional payoff came when Walt admitted the truth to Skyler, after years of pretending he did it all for his family: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really. . . I was alive.” Walt’s weakness, from the start, was the high of being competent at something. He was hooked on the work. By the end, he’s mostly given up his most cherished lie, the one about how he did it to protect his wife and son, when we can tell he never loved her. (Or him.) (Or anyone.) (Or anything.)
In his final moments, as “Baby Blue” plays, Walt takes a last look around the meth lab, gazing affectionately at the equipment he used to destroy the lives of everyone around him. He smiles, still priding himself on his latest grandiose plans, even though we know they’re failures – Jesse won’t get far in that car, Skyler won’t get any legal leverage out of knowing where the bodies are buried, his kids won’t get a dime of that drug money. He’s left them holding the bag. As my colleague Sean T. Collins put it brilliantly, “Walt built a box to die in, climbed in, and pulled the lid shut after himself.” Yet he doesn’t care. Wherever he left his lab was his home, and when he died, all he left them was alone.
So if you want to argue the horrifying “Ozymandias” was the true climax to the story, you have a point. But in a way, the whole endgame was already there back when Walt watched Gale’s karaoke video – still the most poignantly dismal moment on this most poignantly dismal of shows. It’s the moment that showed us everything that was coming for Walt. He knew it, too. As depressing karaoke scenes go, it’s up there with the one in the new Thomas Pynchon novel.
Hank thinks it’s hilarious, showing Walt the video of a dead druglord singing “Major Tom (Coming Home),” the Bowie-jacking story of the spaceboy who got too high and couldn’t come back down. But Walt recognizes his own doomed soul in Gale’s eyes, and hears his own destruction in Gale’s voice. (Bowie, like Whitman, is the poet of lost boys and their fear of being found.) Walt sees “Major Tom” is his future. In the song, Major Tom speaks his last words to Earth: “Give my wife my love – and nothing more.” That ends up being Walt’s final kiss-off to Skyler, too.
In a way, everything bleak, devastating and brilliant about Breaking Bad is right there in that karaoke scene – it’s the moment where Walt realizes there is no coming back from the terrible thing he has become. Crystal meth is blue. And there’s nothing he can do.