“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The long and level sands stretch far away.”
What is the cost of being human? Do we suffer for any reason or is it random? Should we ultimately pay for our less-than-noble actions in the form of criminal justice or in the form of something else entirely? These were just a few of the questions I was mulling over in my mind following the conclusion of last night’s Breaking Bad series finale, ‘Felina’, which ended the run of one of the greatest shows of the modern television era.
‘Felina’ to me was about as perfect a conclusion as any fan could ask for. It took the story of Walter White to a conclusion that was written in stone. It was an ending that Vince Gilligan knew was just and right, and he made sure to etch into the sands of time with a gentle touch all his own. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of fans agree. Unlike past shows which have ended in great debate and as much criticism as praise, Breaking Bad ended it’s run with wide admiration from those who knew it best. That is not to say however, that every fan was as completely satisfied as I was.
From the few criticisms I’ve seen of ‘Felina’, they have revolved around the notion that Gilligan chose a ‘safe’ ending that ultimately went easy on Walter White. Now although everyone is entitled to their opinion, I feel that Gilligan couldn’t have been harder on Walt. In the few episodes preceding ‘Felina’, Walt was ultimately brought to justice, just in a form we ourselves are not used to seeing. In one of the finest scenes in one of Breaking Bad‘s all-time greatest episodes ‘Ozymandias’, Walter Jr. is finally confronted with the monster his father has become. As his father and mother struggle on the ground over a bloody knife, Jr. learns that the father he once knew and loved is gone. Walter White is no more and Heisenberg is all that remains.
While some cling to the notion that Walt being caught by the police would be the ultimate price to pay, in my eyes that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Walt paid for the ultimate price when he was exposed as Heisenberg to those who loved him most. In ‘Felina’, Walt visits Skyler one last time and in a shock to us all he finally admits what we all already knew, that he sold meth and created his empire for himself and not for his family. This however, isn’t the Walt of all the episodes that preceded the finale; this is a ghost, a shade of who he once was. Walter White is no more and the same goes for Heisenberg, who withered away in the mountains of New Hampshire. Both are dead, and what remains is a shadow of a man who lost everything and everyone around him. What could the police do to him that Walt hadn’t already done to himself? The answer is nothing. There is no greater price to pay than knowing that you destroyed so many people’s lives around you that you destroyed your own in the process. In the end, Walter White was no longer human. He along with Heisenberg were dead long before the final shot of ‘Felina’, and that is the cost of ignoring your own humanity.
This brings us now to Walt’s most faithful dog, Jesse Pinkman. In the end Walt has ultimately lost every ounce of humanity he once had, but Jesse remains as human as ever. As is the case with many television shows centering on two characters who were once friends but now enemies, fans often choose a side to root for. I admittedly was always Team Jesse, not simply because of Aaron Paul’s brilliant portrayal of a troubled young man, but because Jesse is as close as we get to having an audience member on-screen. Most of us couldn’t in a million years dream to be Walter White, a man with the super-power of being a genius chemist with the ability to manipulate all those around him for his own personal gain. Walter White is a larger than life character so far removed from ourselves, and that is precisely what makes him such a compelling character and a joy to watch. Jesse on the other hand, could be any of us.
Jesse is the most intensely human character on the show. He makes mistakes, some of his own doing and some because he is so easily manipulated by others. All of these mistakes however, are ultimately the cause of his humanity. Jesse is able to be manipulated because he cares so deeply for everyone around him. He wants so much to be accepted and to be loved by everyone, and that is a notion that we all can relate to. Now, not all of us do drugs like Jesse and are as self-destructive as he is, but we could all still be him. Jesse wants to believe in Walt, that Walt is there for him without a shadow of a doubt, so much so that he is willing to do anything to appease him. The argument could be made (in fact, I’m making it) that Walt is Jesse’s ultimate drug, as he is ours. We enjoy watching Walt and want to believe that we are on his side because of his exciting larger than life persona. Anytime he does something as this persona, as Heisenberg, that is our fix. We enjoy these moments as they happen but, just like Jesse, we realize later on that he is manipulating us. We overdose and prove that no matter how much we may dream of being this larger than life character, we will always be Jesse.
In my favorite scene of ‘Felina’, Walt and Jesse come face to face one last time. After dispatching Uncle Jack and crew, Walt tosses Jesse a gun and expects him to kill Walt because he ultimately believes that is what he wants to do. But Jesse is human, and he’s done being under the influence. Walt proclaims, “I want this” but Jesse gets the final words of the series. He replies simply, “Then do it yourself.” Jesse then drives off, leaving Walt to whither away and die on his own, overcome with emotion and laughing a maniacal laugh. Jesse is happy because he finally did what he had never done throughout the series; he stood up to Walt, took control of his life, and embraced his humanity.
Jesse gets to ride off into the sunset and in turn, so do we. Vince Gilligan has set us free not only from ourselves, but from Walt. We are the problem dog, but we don’t deserve to ultimately be put down. We have suffered and seen nearly all those we care about die. To live an intensely human life is all the punishment we need. Some of us may not like to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize our flaws, but that is exactly what Jesse does in the end. He knows what he’s done and he now knows the cost of being human. He has achieved self-acceptance, and now it’s up to us to come to terms with our own humanity.
In the end, Breaking Bad will go down as one of the greatest television series in the history of the medium. It’s a show that improved by leaps and bounds throughout the course of its run and never really hit a distinctive rough patch. Quite the opposite of many other shows that go out on a low-note, Breaking Bad went out on a high-note and under the control of the man who brought it to our television screens some five years ago. Vince Gilligan has created a work of art that will no doubt far outlive him. I am eternally grateful not just to Gilligan, but to the entire cast and crew, to AMC for embracing a deeply ambitious television concept, and to my fellow fans who made the ride through the magical land of Albuquerque, New Mexico an extremely fun one. Thanks guys, ‘Felina’ was everything that I could have hoped for. As for us fans, well to paraphrase Badfinger, guess we got what we deserve.