Let me add to the growing discourse on Breaking Bad after the show’s finale that ended an epic run in what was the greatest single season of television. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix we can now, on demand, view almost the entirety of the Vince Gilligan’s show without commercial interruption and without those pesky seven days between episodes. With the show tied up in a neat little bow, though too neat for some, the work now begins on what did it all mean and more importantly, where does the show stack up.
Please allow me to answer the former first, as I raise my hand slowly and admit that Breaking Bad is the greatest television show of all time. Yes, this means I must apologize to all those who made this claim prior only to hear me spout out something about The Wire. I wish I could call it 1A and 1B but no, the proper rating is Breaking Bad first, The Wire a very respectable second. That out of the way but before we get back to our Cheerios, what does it all mean?
This is an important question because unlike say The Wire, Breaking Bad is not a commentary on urban decay and corruption. Unlike Lost, Breaking Bad is not a fantasy world that is explained away in the last 2 minutes of the show. By the way if you still think Lost is a good show then ignore everything else because you are irrational; because of this life will be easier if you just lock yourself down and live in your own reality. Now that we’ve got those folks out of the room, Lost was a great pilot, even a great first season, then quickly turned into a pile of smoke monster excrement where everyone continues to look for answers in a show that made the St. Elsewhere snow globe finale look plausible. No, there aren’t any answers, just a series of one line fixes and new age religious copouts. Lost is wearing the Emperor’s New Clothes, naked as a jaybird with apologists applauding.
Breaking Bad is a morality play that asks an essential and important question: What motivates us to get up every day? Breaking Bad centers on a man who didn’t want to live the same “Ground Hog Day" existence anymore so he went and changed, diving further and further down a rabbit hole until he was gone and something new was created. The something new wasn’t beautiful or graceful; most days it was bald, coughing, delusional mess with a junkie sidekick. Netflix allows us to go back and watch episode one, season one, otherwise known as “the Pilot” to see Walter White in his natural habitat. Then we can zoom to episode sixteen, season five and see how far we’ve gone and the great revelation that may be the most important line in the series.
“I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.” Walt’s trip down meth lane wasn’t about paying medical bills and providing for his family or even about power and building an empire. Certainly these themes were bi-products, but Walter White wanted to feel alive. In the context of the first episode it’s clear that Walt wanted to get away from lots of things – work, home, family, finances – and take a long strange trip to some form of fulfillment.
I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.
We really only get about 20 minutes of this Walt, aside from a few flashbacks, and it comes mostly in the Pilot. A chemistry teacher who loves the subject matter but hates the job, a part-time car wash employee who, when he isn’t stuck behind a register, is stuck cleaning tires, an impotent man with his wife, a guy tired of waking up every day hoping something will be different but it isn’t. He’s trapped and everyone knows it. Even his loveable, loudmouth brother-in-law knows it and that’s why he invites Walt on a ride along, so he can breath in some life however temporarily. Walt was dying way before the cancer showed up, he was dying by a thousand cuts every day. Cancer was his ticket to do what he always wanted to do: escape.
Walt was dying way before the cancer showed up, he was dying by a thousand cuts every day.
Then we get four plus seasons of mutation, until in the end we see guy who is completely out of control, but still experiencing the rush of feeling alive and who in a wonderfully poignant moment finally confesses to his wife that the façade is lifted: he did it all for himself.
Even when watching it now, and especially in the last eight episodes Gilligan and his team move you to feel emotion, tension, fear, and exuberance scene to scene and throughout the series. From Walt hugging Jessie in the desert to Gotta Call Saul’s interrogation room barbs, to watching a dying man in a foreign land try to come to grips with his life, to a dying man back home watching his daughter sleep knowing that in her life he’ll be an awful footnote, the show provided great moments as we watched Walt’s journey.
In the end his mistress became the blue stuff and his ability to create it. I’d like to think that even as Walt watched his life end, knowing his loved ones wanted no part of him, given the chance, he’d do it all over again, only better. His love of doing something well and feeling alive would overshadow whatever emotional /physical attachment he might have. That’s why Walt’s real antagonist during the show’s run wasn’t Gus, Tucco, Hank, or even the Nazis, what drove Walt was the fear that he’d once again be boxed in, working a 9-5 or dying in a cabin up north, having given up control.
Off the flat screen the line: “I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive” sums up what we as the male of the species are searching for most days. We want to be good at things, to feel needed, to feel free, even important, and we want to feel alive so much so that deep down or maybe not so deep down to achieve it we’ll make entirely selfish choices.
Marty Robbins’ El Paso was a centerpiece of the season finale and once the title of the last episode “Felina” was released to the viewing public the speculation began. Part of the lyrical content was easy to translate: the cowboy riding back to El Paso to save his girl only to be gunned down and die in her arms. Sure sounded like Walt would ride back to save Skylar. Someone would have a bullet waiting for old Walt, whether the DEA or the Nazis got him, he’d crumple into her arms and breath his last. That would’ve been a heck of a neat bow.
Vince Gilligan is a genius. Whether you take the show in its totality or in its individual, minutiae laden parts, Gilligan’s genius is unquestioned. His plan was to end the show on his terms, to be true to Walt’s journey and priorities. Folks who wanted the credits to roll after Walt withered and died in a cabin in New Hampshire missed the point. Walter White had one more chance to feel alive, to literally escape the box, and in the end, though he would save his family, his actions would be as selfishly driven as ever.
Walter wasn’t riding back to die in the arms of Skylar. No, she wasn’t the Mexican maiden that held his heart. Their final scene together told that story clearly. Walt had left her a long time ago in spite of formalities. In the end Gilligan placed Walt in the arms of his true love, the one thing he was good at, the one thing that made him feel alive, and the one thing on earth that was his - the thing he’d wrestled away from the cartels and two-bit dealers, Walt came back to the lab to be with the tools of his trade that made him feel alive.
If that’s what you meant, well played Vince. If not, well played anyway for breaking from cliché, tying up lose ends, staying the hell away from snow globes or purgatory and ending the ride well.