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Trop Quiz: Breaking Bad

[Spoilers, bitch.]

Still not sure what to make of Breaking Bad’s series finale, “Felina”? Frustrated by the internet’s refusal to decide once and for all whether the episode was perfect or a little too perfect? Cheer up, beautiful people. We’ve got a fresh batch of answers straight from the superlab in this scientifically unsound, shady morality-wise, purely subjective edition of Trop Quiz.

In honor of Hector “Tio” Salamanca: Ding! means yes, Furious silence means no.

1. Was it all too easy for Walt, per Emily Nussbaum’s take on the finale?

A very qualified Ding!

Walt’s plans in the finale went off as hitchlessly as almost all of his over-elaborate, far (like, Alaska-far, yo)-fetched plans over the past five seasons. Consider:

  • Walt’s innate ability to cook the purest meth the DEA’s ever seen
  • The explosive attack on Tuco (aka the birth of Heisenberg), which led not to retribution but a lucrative business deal
  • The comically inept but somehow successful (and again, lucrative) theft of a barrel of methylamine by bumbling, ski-masked Walt and Jesse
  • The improvised phone call that drew Hank away from the RV in Badger’s cousin’s lot (inside: Walt, Jesse, a whole mess of cookware)
  • The “gambling problem” backstory, which Hank, Marie, and Flynn swallowed like an especially tender bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos
  • Huell lifting the ricin cigarette off Jesse without Jesse’s knowledge
  • Walt poisoning Brock (via juicebox, apparently)
  • Walt murdering Gus Fringe via a bell-activated wheelchair bomb
  • Walt and Skyler laundering millions of dollars through a single carwash
  • Walt and Jesse using a super-magnet to erase incriminating DEA evidence
  • Walt et. al. pulling off a train heist
  • Etc.

As Jesse put it in “Rabid Dog”: “Mr. White… is smarter than you, he is luckier than you.” The show in general and Walt’s schemes in particular have always defied belief; Breaking Bad feels more like a Shakespearean Western sci-fi comic book (check this attention to palette) than The Wire. For me it evokes Alan Moore’s quote about life’s myriad genres… minus the romance.

A super-magnet isn’t a realistic choice for evidence disposal any more than a remote-controlled trunk gun is a realistic choice for Nazi disposal. The finale—like the series—was surreal (more on this in Question 5), aesthetically arresting, unbelievable, and unbelievably good. Are we now, at Breaking Bad’s end, going to denounce the very elements we’ve spent the past five years savoring?

(Sigh.) Fine. Let’s pick nits:

1a. How could Walt have made it from New Hampshire to New Mexico in a stolen car without getting caught? If he’s brilliant enough to avoid detection and then detainment for two years, what’s a few more days? At this point Walt doesn’t really resemble whatever version of himself has been plastered all over the news, be it the domed goateed villain or the square science teacher or both. He’s withered, bearded, sporting a new pair of specs. He’s not a physically striking or distinct person (unlike, say, Huell). More importantly (and ultimately, the answer to all these sub-questions): Mr. White is smarter than you, he’s luckier than you.

1b. Why wouldn’t Elliott and Gretchen have an impenetrable security system? Well, Walt did say he couldn’t get his car past the front gate, and Gretchen did punch some codes into an alarm as they entered. But (a) I’m sure they live in an obscenely nice neighborhood that doesn’t exactly arouse fear; and (b) aside from Walt, who prior to his spooky arrival appears long gone (one way or another), they probably don’t have (m)any enemies. (Of course, given recent laser pointery events, a panic room is probably on their wish list.)

1c. How did Walt sneak by the police into Skyler’s apartment? True, the Albuquerque PD is notoriously lackluster, but this is nothing new. Todd & Co. invaded Skyler’s home a few episodes ago, with her police “protection” obliviously glued to the pavement like a fire hydrant. (The backdoor, guys—fucking foolproof.) I wish someone would pay me to sit in a car all day, spitting code into a walkie-talkie, pigging and zoning out, not a caaaare in the world.

1d. Why wouldn’t the Nazis check Walt’s trunk? As far as they know, Walt—a rasping shadow of his former self—is no longer a threat, will be put out of his misery in minutes. They think he wants money, not vengeance; if so, he’s not going to rig a suicide device to the car. Also: Who checks the trunk? Is that a thing? How many times have you shouted at a movie screen, “CHECK THE TRUNK, ASSHOLE!” Probably never. It’s unfair to retroactively pretend checking the trunk is standard practice for onscreen baddies just because it blew up in the Nazis’ faces/brains/hearts.

1e. Why are we even discussing plausibility w/r/t to a show about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a murdering mythical meth kingpin almost overnight? Good question! Moving on.

2. So, Jesse’s going to be okay… Right?

Furious silence.

A THOUSAND TIMES NO. Have we been watching the same show? (See Emily Yoshida’s spot-on take here.) Anyone who thinks Jesse is going to rescue Brock from his foster home and ride off into the Alaskan sunset (how often does the sun set in Alaska? Like twice a year?) to open a father-son carpentry shop needs to put the pipe down, lay off that crystal blue persuasion.

During the finale I thought—I honestly and truly thought—that Jesse, when he burst through the Nazis’ gate and cackled like a madman, was going to drive off the nearest cliff. Because after Andrea’s murder in “Granite State,” I figured he had nothing to live for, would off Walt and then himself in the finale. Instead he choked Todd to death (cathartic in the moment, maybe, but it’ll only intensify his PTSD in the long run), defied Walt and peeled out, presumably to the nearest shrink qualified to treat a meth-addicted double-murderer who’s crumpled under the giant Kafkaesque dump the Universe has been taking on him for the past two years. One can only hope Jesse’s been fastidiously wiping his fingerprints off the Nazis’ superlab, and that Uncle Jack destroyed the tape with Jesse’s confessions on it (I could see Psycho T watching it munching popcorn, couldn’t you?); otherwise he’ll be not only a broken man, but a wanted one.

Pray for Jesse, guys.

3. Did Walt “earn” that moment of honesty with Skyler?

Ding!

In his Grantland recap, Andy Greenwald writes that Walt’s “level of self-awareness… struck me as undeserved.” But the events of “Ozymandias” (probably the most upsetting hour of TV I’ve ever seen, and at last check a perfect 10.0 on IMDB), the infinite hours trapped in his frozen-over New Hampshire hell, the futile call/offer to Walt Jr. Flynn, Gretchen’s assertion on Charlie Rose that the Walter White she knew and loved is dead—all this humbles Walt and spurs him to recognize, finally, that he’s been a monster. You can see the realization dawning on his shattered face at the end of “Ozymandias,” when he makes the call to Skyler. The months spent trapped in a cabin, alone but for Mr. Magorium, force Walt to look upon his works and despair (his own and Magorium’s). Flynn’s reaction in “Granite State” vaporizes, once and for all, the notion/delusion that Walt has committed all these atrocities for his family. And Gretchen states outright (on national television, no less) what Walt/Heisenberg has denied for two years: Walter White died with his cancer diagnosis, at which point Heisenberg (he’s “alive”! He’s ALIVE!) took the controls. (Damon Lindelof argues that Walter White was always Heisenberg—he just needed a catalyst to unleash him—an interpretation with which I don’t disagree.) To say that this self-awareness is undeserved—and/or to say that Walt “won” (again, see Question 5)—is to overvalue the not-as-awful-as-we-expected events of the finale at the expense of all the trauma that preceded them.

4. Did Walt get what he deserved?

Furious silence.

Of course not! Walt’s a terrible person; he deserves to rot in that cabin for several lifetimes knowing his family loathes him and a bunch of Nazis with questionable facial hair swiped his precious millions. (Devil’s advocate side-question for Gilligan: Is Walt’s “precious” his baby blue, or the green his baby earned him?) But what Walt deserves (a lengthy prison sentence, in one form or another) wouldn’t make for compelling television and was never in the cards on account of his cancer. More importantly, as Greenwald notes, Gilligan is an aesthete, not a moralist. Breaking Bad isn’t about cosmic comeuppance (see: almost everyone whose life Walt ruined and/or ended); appalling things happen to good people almost every week. If you tuned in for karma, you must have spent the past five seasons not just disappointed but horrified. There has been no justice on Breaking Bad, only consequences. Why would the end be any different?

Okay, I understand why the end would be different. You’ve watched Walt destroy, literally or figuratively, almost everyone he’s come into contact with since his diagnosis, plus hundreds if not thousands of strangers. You want him to get what’s coming to him. That’s a natural moral impulse, and it brings us to our final question.

5. Did Walt win?

Furious silence.

Greenwald writes that Walt “pull[ed] off the happiest of all endings for himself” and that “In the end, he really did win.” But, look at the facts: Walt’s son hates his guts and his daughter will only know him secondhand (through books, articles, TV movies, Flynn’s rants) as an evil criminal. His wife, whose hatred is about 96% pure, is working part-time as a taxi dispatcher, living under the DEA’s thumb. His brother-in-law is dead, and Walt is at least mostly responsible. (Something tells me he no longer blames Jesse.) The bulk of his millions have vanished, and what’s left of them will—best case scenario—be funneled through two people he despises to his son, who will credit them for the loot, not the father he’s disowned. He spent almost a year locked in a cabin, battling cancer, and despite these minor victories at the end, there’s no guarantee Skyler will strike a deal and Flynn will get the nine million. He doesn’t feel redeemed because, finally honest with himself (see Question 3), he knows he’s beyond redemption.

An important question here is how much Walt cares that he ripped his family apart so that he could feel “alive.” Because if you just say, Hey, he did what he set out to do—he left his family a bunch of money and he felt alive for awhile, then Greenwald (and Gilligan) are right and Walt’s won. But by the end, Walt is self-aware enough to know that he wrecked the only thing that mattered in his life, and despite the quasi-peace he’s achieved and the little resolutions and retributions he’s doled out in his last days, Walt knows that “the happiest of all endings” for him was still a pretty miserable one. He might have been tickled or even glad to pass away in a lab, but I bet he’d have rather gone out in his home, with Skyler, Junior, Holly, Hank, and Marie by his side.

Emily Nussbaum writes that the finale feels like “a dying fantasy on the part of Walter White,” and she’s right; “Felina,” like the show as a whole, has a dreamy quality to it, in Walt’s lucky breaks and the eerie atmosphere (heightened, as usual, by some killer camerawork). But I don’t understand why Nussbaum or anyone else now takes issue with this surreality. Breaking Bad has always felt like Walter White’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and no matter how much went right in those final forty-eight hours, that dying smile on Walt’s face isn’t joy; it’s relief.

The nightmare is over.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.