In what may be the first recorded (and distinctly over-tweeted) perfect finale in television history, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” came to a close Sunday night.
Not only did Vince Gilligan’s five-season, hyper-violent prose poem to midlife male frustration tie up virtually every loose end in sight, it contained the Holy Grail of all storytelling: an Actual Moment of Truth. And not just this particular story’s truth, but one that extended to the beloved and bloated genre Gilligan both elevated and mocked.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really ... I was alive.”
Riddled by cancer and corruption, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White has abandoned the safety of his icy mountain retreat and returned to the relentless meth-blue skies of Albuquerque. He’s here, in fine mobster tradition, to settle all family business and makes his way to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), for “a proper goodbye.” He hands her the lottery ticket once meant to lead her to his buried fortune, now the grave of Hank (Dean Norris) and his fellow Drug Enforcement Administration agent, tells her to use it to make a deal with the DEA and begins what seems like a final attempt at justification.
“If I have to hear one more time that you did all this for the family,” she says, awash in angry tears.
“I did it for me,” he says with simple finality, speaking for every mobster, criminal, dictator and king, real and imagined, who has ever used love of family or God or country as an excuse for power-mad murder and ruthless destruction. It is a truth we all know, no matter the man, no matter the crime, but a truth we rarely hear. And it sets this series free.
Everything that happened before and after that was just routine cleanup. Splendidly accomplished to a rattling good soundtrack with lovely grace notes throughout, but nothing like that moment of true confession.
The narrative was brought full circle, and the financial issues neatly (if a bit unbelievably) solved when Walter paid a little visit to his former business partners, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley). Silently following them into their mansion on the mesa while they gabbed in High Yuppie, Walter saw the life he might have had, the life he once wished he had, back at the beginning of the series when he was bitter about having missed the big payday of the company he helped found. With the threat of execution, he persuades them to take his money and give it to his children.
“Cheer up, beautiful people,” he says. “This is where you get to make it all right.”
Badger, Skinny Pete and Walter’s old friend, the red laser pointer, all made appearances.
Then he moved through the list of Them That Done Him Wrong, pausing only occasionally to cough, Camille-like, into his shaking hands, while reminding everyone that he’s still the smartest guy in the room, and that if a packet of Stevia makes an appearance in Act 1, it’s bound to go off by Act 3. (RIP, Lydia.)
Going into the finale, all eyes were on Jesse (Aaron Paul), the tweaker student Walter exploited and empowered, abused and adored. Made a meth slave by Todd (Jesse Plemons), Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his gang of white supremacists, Jesse seemed Walt’s only true path to redemption, and Walt did not disappoint. Science may be the study of transformation, but in this case, a working knowledge of robotics didn’t hurt, and this time Butch and Sundance got to reverse the flight of bullets.
In the end, “Breaking Bad” was a bit of a cheat. The strongest moments of the final season came as Walt realized that great truism so often underscored in stories like his: Once you introduce evil into your life, you cannot control it. In the end, though, Walter White was triumphant. His money would go to his children, his enemies were dead, his foster son freed.
But the only things he was allowed to touch in farewell were his infant daughter and the equipment in his lab. And as he finally surrendered to his choices and himself, it was easy to tell which he loved more.
And that he died knowing it.