BAD ENDINGS: FIRST THOUGHTS ON THE FINAL BREAKING BAD by Eric Gould
As AMC's Breaking Bad begins its final stretch next month, one often overlooked aspect of its dazzling run is that it launched, unintentionally, at the start of the Great Recession in 2008. The desperation of Walter White -- a milld-mannered high-school chemistry teacher gone rogue as a meth wholesaler to ensure his family's financial future -- was an easy buy for viewers in a likewise mindset. Even if we didn't identify with Walt's meth-making scheme, spurred on by a terminal cancer diagnosis, we certainly could relate to his panic at the idea of his family unsupported, and his terror of "Where will the money come from?"
As good writers do, series creator Vince Gilligan avoided preaching, and left that subtext for the audience to discover, for the most part. But there it was, underneath everything, in black and Walter-white. Walt (Bryan Cranston), a paycheck-to-paycheck guy, drove around in a well-worn Pontiac Aztec – an obsolete car named after an extinct civilization – and the inference was clear. As the wealthy 1 percent became more remote and financially partitioned from the rest of the country, $45K-a-year guys like Walt, playing by the rules, were on the way out, if they weren't out already.
From the start, it's been an amazing, Shakespearean ride. In our cable-age era of anti-heroes, from Tony Soprano to Don Draper, the one thing to which we're most accustomed is that, no matter how bad the behavior is, by the end of things we at least understand their origins and why they persist. Bad boys need love, too. (As do girls – see Edie Falco's pill-popping hard-ass, Nurse Jackie.)
And most often, we usually end up knowing them so well, caring about them at some level, there is always some good there for us to latch onto. We secret away a small glimmer of hope that maybe things will turn out well after all. That's the delight of being with a character on such an intimate level for years: We see the worst and the best of them, much as we find it in ourselves.
For guys like Tony, though, and now Walt, there's just been too much bad, and a good end, for the writers, is a moral impossibility (even though some would say Tony got a pass.)
There is plenty of foreshadowing to think that the end of Breaking Bad will find Walt meeting his maker. In the finale of Season Four, his under-achieving former student and meth-making protege Jesse (Aaron Paul) turns on him, putting a gun to his forehead. Unable to pull the trigger, Jesse pulls the gun away, but the tip of the barrel leaves a ghost print on Walt's forehead, and we have to wonder if a bullet eventually will return to that spot.
In last summer's half-season finale, "Gliding Over All," Walt returned to the hospital for another cancer screening, checking to see if he was still in remission. The audience did not get the results of that exam. But we did get an eerie down-shot of Walt gliding out of the scanner (upside down, of course, descending), his mouth parted, eyes distant – all-around corpse-looking – as if he was laid out on a mortician's slab (top).
That same episode saw Walt piling up freezer bags full of his 99.6 percent pure "Blue Sky" brand of crystal meth (below). If you reverse the viewpoint of the now standard, but idiosyncratic, brand of the Breaking Bad up-shot under glass, he's bricking himself in, entombing himself, foretelling his own end.
As a producer and show-runner, Gilligan has probably had more coverage than any other since Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone back in 1959. He's been on record many times saying that he believes that actions and choices have consequences. Early on, Walt's crimes – his murders – were at least understandable as situations of self-defense, given the business he was in.
All that changed last summer when he ordered a Godfather-style vendetta of hits on former associates in prison, and then, in a rash moment of anger, killed a fan favorite, the dry-witted, tough-guy Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), after feeling disrespected (and very much like Tony – an egotistical, overly sensitive crime boss looking for any reason to punish.)
With those killings, White fully entered sociopathic territory. And his as-likely violent end seems to be coming, although one wonders if it will be in the anti-climactic style of brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) discovering Walt's criminal identity – from an inscription inside the cover of a book of poems that he finds while reading on the toilet in Walt's house.
It's hard to see a such a benign-style end for him, given Gilligan's shorthand summary for the series as watching Walt turn from "Mr. Chips to Scarface." If the first half of Season Five was Walt's second-to-last stage of nihilism, one can only imagine the depth of brutality coming in the final eight shows. It's probably one-eye-shut territory.
You might recall Season Five starting off last summer with a flash-forward of Walt, hair grown back in and with full beard, on his way to a gun fight with a military assault rifle in the trunk.
With that in mind, it doesn't look too good for him, does it?
Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this summer that he and the Breaking Badwriters played out every possible move for all the characters, and looked at the endings where those would lead. They chose one that was agreed would be the most satisfying for the audience. It's a lot of pressure on writers who have fashioned what, if all ends satisfactorily, is bound to emerge as one the all-time great TV drama series.
In the spirit of handicapping the ending, and (for the fun of it, riht or wrong) going on the record, here are some thoughts, and guesses, regarding the end game of Walter White:
- Walt is executed by the state of New Mexico. In an interview with Dean Norris in 2011, I joked that Walt would beat cancer, but be arrested by Hank and stand trial in Federal court for murders committed during felony drug crimes. Instead of being killed in a shoot-out or dying of natural causes, he would be convicted, and executed by injection. Norris chuckled, and admitted it was a twist, but also remarked that Gilligan had too much respect for the audience to cheat them with an out-of-bounds plot twist at the end of a series that had played it straight down the middle the entire run.
- Skylar kills Walt. There are a few scenarios where Walt's wife, now in mortal fear of him, could be plausible as his murderer. One may be where she becomes so cornered, her children in looming danger because of Walt's enemies, that she, in another Gilligan anti-climax, delivers the final cap in Walt's ear as he unloads the groceries in the kitchen. Jesse, in an alliance of mutual need, helps her dispose of Walt in the manner of his other victims: a hydrofluoric acid bath in a plastic drum.
- Jesse kills Walt. Jesse has killed before, pulling the trigger on Gale Boetticher, and he was there at the cartel meeting when Mike and Gus Fring wasted the entire pool party. It's a better-than-average percentage bet: while Jesse had real love and respect for his former high-school teacher, their relationship has soured. While Walt finally paid Jesse off, he could be as quick to turn on him. And Jesse will discover how Walt has played him and used him these past years. Jesse, backed into a corner, might have no choice, and the series could end with Hank leading Jesse off in handcuffs.
- Hank kills Walt. It's certainly a plausible and satisfying outcome, although it's another low-chance bet. Hank most certainly will suffer the consequences of laying the initial groundwork for Walt to learn and enter the meth business by taking him, against procedure, for a ride-along on a bust in the pilot episode. (Remember when DEA Special Agent Merkert got fired for knowing, but not suspecting and investigating, Gus Fring?)
- Walt dies in prison. In another flash-forward, Six Feet Under-style, Walt, serving a life sentence, is doomed to his worst fear: the scorn of his family. Walt, Jr., his beloved son, in particular, shuns and disowns him. White dies unremarkably, alone in a prison hospital bed. In some ways, it's his worst fate, considering he began his criminal life with the protection of his family his main concern. (Or, with even more karmic irony, he gets a grim payback, prison-style, for the jailhouse murders he ordered....)
It's always fun to try and outguess writers like the Breaking Bad team, who are at the very top of their game. But because of that, we suspect their versions will be a lot better – and a lot more surprising – than ours.
But that won't stop us from trying. And it shouldn't stop you, either...
But that won't stop us from trying. And it shouldn't stop you, either...
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