Sunday, September 29, 2013

Breaking Bad ("Felina")

Some disjointed thoughts about the end of Breaking Bad. Spoilers ahoy, fucking duh.

A) Who is Heisenberg?

At the end of "Granite State," the penultimate episode to AMC's Breaking Bad, Walter's former business partners (and one ex-lover) are speaking on Charlie Rose about their disassociation with him. One of them, Gretchen Schwartz, states that "The sweet, gentle man that we once knew is dead. All that's left is this Heisenberg." This triggers something in Walt, sending him back to Albuquerque for one last mission to get his money to his family and to get his revenge.

If you look at any discussion on any Breaking Bad episode after "Crazy Handful Of Nothing," the first episode in which the moniker "Heisenberg" is created, I'm sure you will find somebody talking about how THIS episode is where Walter White became no more, and that all which was left is Heisenberg, that mythological being who kicks ass, takes names, and makes one hell of a product. But the truth of the matter is that there is no Heisenberg and that there never was. Heisenberg has always been nothing but a mask, one that shelters Walter from his own actions. Walt springs into action here not because he realizes that he is only Heisenberg now, but instead because he wants to be known as Walter White. It's what mattered to him since he was forced out of Grey Matter, and it's what matters to him at the end.

Heisenberg is a brand name, nothing but a scrawl put upon meth to sell to addicts who don't know any better. (In "Felina," Skinny Pete and Badger, the Rozencrantz and Guilderstien of the Breaking Bad universe, mention that they didn't even know Walter stopped cooking, and that the blue meth being made by Jesse, Lydia, and Todd was just as good as anything created by Heisenberg.) Walter goes back to Albuquerque to save his own name, and prove himself to be the true king he's always seen himself as.

B) The New Gus Fring

In season four's "Salud," Gus Fring goes down to Mexico to strike a deal with the cartel which took from him his business partner and his dignity years and years ago. But instead of surrendering, as expected, he murders the Don, his underlings, and everybody around him. It's an unexpected moment because Gus has always been so pragmatic beforehand, willing to smoothly and coldly do what would be the least risk and most profit for him. In the end, this one shred of ego on him, fueled by his desire for revenge against the cartel, kills him, as Walter finds a way to exploit this in order to kill him via an old paralyzed man and a bomb-rigged wheelchair.

Walter initially likened himself to Gus, wanting to operate his organization like a business, devoid of the violence and swagger the comes with selling drugs. Of course we soon learned that Walter is very much the opposite of a man like Gus, and instead thrives upon ego and shows of power. So it's interesting how his final act of revenge against Uncle Jack and the Fourth Reich plays out so similarly to Gus', right down to the letter.

Walter never really wanted to be Gus, he just wanted the power that Gus had, the ability to be feared just by uttering his name, the legends that arise around such men. Walter didn't become Gus by killing him, nor did he become Gus when he created his own empire. He became Gus when he forced Gretchen and Eliot to take the money lest they be killed by the hitmen he said that he had outside. He became Gus when he killed Mike for daring to disrespect him. He became Gus when he shot Uncle Jack in the head, not giving a damn as to where his missing money might be. He became Gus when he acted not just for self-preservation, as you can argue all his kills before Mike were, but out of revenge. Gus was never in it for the money, or the power even, but to spite those who wronged him. And Walter, over the course of season 5, learns to finally be like Gus.

C) Hell

In season two, the running mystery introduced via a series of flashbacks involving a half burnt pink teddy bear was the main hook for the show. What was this? What are these bodybags outside the White's house? What has Walter done to cause such destruction? The answer is a bit of a red herring, because it turns out it has nothing to do with drug deals or anything Walter directly does, but is instead an airplane collision caused by the trauma inflicted on one air-traffic controller whose daughter died. Walter didn't kill her, really, but he didn't save her either, a point he makes quite clear to Jesse in "Ozymandias". So all those bodies raining from the sky are still his fault.

This is just one of the many examples of how Walter ruins the lives of anybody he comes in contact with. Walter is not just a cancer patient, he is a cancer onto himself. He takes anything and everything around him and actively destroys it to get himself ahead. This is important to note because it completely changes the intended context of the finale, which I'm already seeing people note as happy because Walter ostensibly "wins".

At the very top of the hour we have Walt getting in that car, looking for the keys, the police right outside, and Walt says "Please, give me this. I'll do the rest." Then the keys drop down and Walt is on his way. So the question becomes: is this Walt absolving his sins by making right (getting his family the money, freeing Jesse, killin' Nazis) or is this Walt making a deal with the devil to get his revenge on those who wronged him?

Is this truly a happy ending for Walt? He gets everything he wants, yes, but at what cost? At the end of the day he leaves everything in his wake in flames. Walt says it himself "I did it all for me. I liked it. I was good at it." And here we are, at the end, and Walt gets everything he wants, with the only casualties being, well, everybody around him. Jesse's free, but Jesse's imprisonment was Walt's fault in the first place. His family gets the money, but it's not like their lives are any less ruined. It's "happy" in the sense that all those mean people are dead and that Walt gets what he wants, but we've also spent 5 plus seasons realizing that what Walt wants isn't necessarily the good choice.

He gets his money to Walt Jr, but makes sure that it's HIS money, none of Gretchen and Elliot's. He even insists that if there are any tax things or whatever it comes out of HIS share. Once again, he does it for him, being able to tell himself as he walks into hell that he "provided" for the son who explicitly tells him he doesn't want anything to do with him, and who is now the lonely kid getting off the bus he sees at the end. He kills Lydia and Todd and Jack, getting revenge on the people who stole his money and his product and his legacy (Badger and Skinny Pete were not even aware he stopped cooking. The meth is still good, even without Walt behind the wheel.) Even his last actions on Earth are him strolling through a meth lab, nostalgically looking at all the instruments he used to destroy everyone associated with him.

Walt is damned as damned can be, but that doesn't mean he ain't going to be smiling all the way down to Satan's throneroom. Walt wins. But does this free his soul or damn him? I guess that's up to audience interpretation, but I'm going with the latter.

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