TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Felina” (05.16, 2013)

Written by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” “…And the Bag’s in the River,” “Peekaboo,” “ABQ,” No Mas,” “Full Measure,” “Box Cutter,” “Face Off,” “Live Free or Die,” and “Madrigal”)

Directed by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Full Measure,” “End Times,” and “Face Off”)

As I have said, Breaking Bad exists in a moral universe. Its biggest characters, therefore, had obvious fates (even if I questioned one of those for a long time): Walter White had to die, and along the way had to pay for his sins in some way; Jesse Pinkman had to get to escape into some sort of freedom from the hell he had endured as punishment for his sins; Skyler White couldn’t escape scot-free but Flynn had to come out with more than he had. What the show’s finale had to do was reach all of those fates in ways that weren’t overly predictable, and for the most part it did. It was by no means one of the strongest episodes of Breaking Bad–particularly coming so closely after “Ozymandias,” which might well be the finest episode of television in history–but it was a generally fitting conclusion to a series that has often reached predictable conclusions in unpredictable ways.

Alice Cooper has commented over the years that the reason his stage persona dies at the end of every concert is that it is the way in which the audience receives absolution for its enjoyment of his crimes, transgressions, and sins throughout the evening. The audience delights in the man with the strange eye makeup as he desecrates corpses, takes on the persona of a serial killer, and even runs for President. So that they can be forgiven for their delight, Alice dies. In the same way, Heisenberg had to die. The glamorous, sexy sort of criminality in which he so often engaged thrilled the audience with shootouts, explosions, and frantic drives against time, and he had to pay for providing those thrills. But he died two episodes ago, leaving behind Walter White.

Did Walter White have to die? Probably. This version of Walter White finally admitted that his criminal activity made him feel “alive” and that he had done it all for selfish reasons, not to help his family (and admitted it not just to himself but to Skyler in perhaps the most effective scene of this episode). This version of Walter White, while he was broken and dispirited the way the Walter White of the first season was, had embraced the darkness and evil within as a part of himself. He may have been afraid to wear the black hat, but he also no longer needed it. This Walter White was a danger to everyone, but he was also walking into his own death and knew it.

In the end, Walt was able to design and effect a cunning plan that forced Gretchen and Elliott to acknowledge their relationship with him, got nearly $10 million to his son, gave him a chance to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, ensured that his empire would not continue on without him, and let his former loyal partner go. It was smart, efficient, and, ultimately, exactly the kind of selfishness-masquerading-as-righteousness that has always characterized this man.

Did he save Jesse out of some feeling of guilt over all he’s done to the young man during the last two years? No. He saved Jesse because he wanted Jesse to believe that he was sacrificing himself to save Jesse and because he was too selfish and weak to pull the trigger on himself and he believed that he could still force Jesse to do it.

Did he kill Jack, Todd, and their crew because he wanted to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, and protect the world from this evil that he had unleashed? No, he wanted to make sure that his empire remained his, even visiting a lab in which he had never worked and leaving his blood on it with his dying breath, marking it as his even though he had in fact never even seen it before, because Walter White wants everyone to know that it was his and his alone.

Did he leave his money with Gretchen and Elliott for Flynn out of some sense of obligation to his son? No, he wanted to force his rich former partners to admit their connection to him (And to do so in a way that would likely become public and severely cut Gray Matter’s stock prices, considering that they had already been taking actions to distance themselves from him.), and he wanted to ensure that he had not done all of this for nothing. After he pleaded Flynn to take his money so that it was not all for naught last episode, this time he is manipulating his own son into being the outlet for what he has left, emphatically telling Gretchen and Elliott that they cannot even pay any taxes or legal fees related to the trust themselves because it must be only from him.

It was all so fitting, and yet it felt too neat and tidy. Like the conclusion of season four, it felt like an overly quick and clean conclusion to a messy series of events. It felt like tying off the threads that remained instead of a continuation of what had made the show so special. Most people like resolution and like their resolutions to be as full as possible (Just look at the reaction to the final episode of The Sopranos even all these years later.), but I’m often not sure it’s the right course of action, and this episode was a good example of why. Not everything needs to be The Sopranos and leave its ultimate resolution so clearly hanging in the air, and Breaking Bad was always a very closely contained show, but it still felt too pat, too much like running a spell check on a finished document.

Further, for all of the memorable moments this show has given us, there simply wasn’t anything comparable in the finale. Walt’s threat to the Schwartzes and the reveal that the “assassins” were just Skinny Pete and Badger with laser pointers was a great sequence, and his final admission to Skyler was a very good moment, but neither is anywhere near as memorable as much of what came before, and that is a shame.

I’m finding it difficult to explain how I could find this a rather weak episode when it was so fitting and so little of it could have been any different, and yet it was. It wasn’t fun the way the show was in its early days and it wasn’t harrowing the way the show had been in its final run. Instead, like Walter White, it went out with a whimper. And yet, there is really no other way it could have gone.

Notes

  • My former English professor mother has repeatedly claimed that if Walt died in any way it would make him a hero. I argued that he could die a pathetic death and not come out as a hero. Since he was able to get something to Flynn in the end and his final plan went off essentially without a hitch, I’m not sure he didn’t get a heroic gloss. Vince Gilligan has been clear over the years that Walt is a bad guy, not an antihero, but in the end, he put everyone through two years of hell and killed a brother-in-law whom he always resented but left his son with $9.7 million. If you asked him back at the beginning if that would be a good result, I think Walt would say it was. I’m not sure that makes him a hero, but it seems rather a questionable end for the villain of a show that exists in a moral universe.
  • The gun was for the neo-Nazis. The ricin was for Lydia. Once again, the show actually did exactly what we could have guessed from the beginning but took such a circuitous route to get there that it was easy to get it wrong.
  • I don’t see how he could have gotten the ricin into her Stevia, but I don’t think that’s an important detail.
  • Jesse’s ending was as happy as it could be, escaping into the night away from Walt, knowing that he would never see the man who has caused him so much pain again. It had to end there, because Jesse is, in the end, a criminal who has nothing to show for his own crimes; is probably wanted by the DEA, who knows about his connection to Heisenberg; may be a target for the cartel if it ever recovers because of having been there for Gus’s slaughter of Don Eladio and his men; and has seen both of his relationship partners of the last two years end up dead. I doubt he has a happy life, so we had to stop here.
  • Jack’s reaction to Walt’s statement about Jesse made no sense with respect to how the neo-Nazis have acted in the past. They have been exactly the sort of villains who just shoot Walt as soon as he walks in the door, and that’s what was terrifying about them. That was a bad moment for the show, placing plot above character consistency.
  • This was the greatest series in television history and if we call season 5b its own season that well might have been the greatest season in history as well, even if its finale didn’t live up to what came before.
  • If Vince Gilligan plans on continuing in television, he will have impossible expectations for his next series. Good luck to him.
  • Bryan Cranston’s performance throughout this series was absolutely a sight to behold, and I feel like every other dramatic performance in television  is going to pale in comparison for a very, very long time.

4 thoughts on “TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Felina” (05.16, 2013)

  1. Good review, as always.

    Re: the stevia, I think the explanation is that he knew she was going to sit at that table, so he removed all the stevia packets from that table before she got there. Then he put the ricin-laced packet back in, knowing she would have to use that one. It involves a leap of faith, but not an enormous one.

    I agree that it almost felt too tidy. But I’m not sure how else to end it. I think I will look back on this show with Ozymandias being the true final episode, and these last two episodes as almost an epilogue. Had Vince wanted to, I’m sure they could have made Ozymandias be the season finale, and all of season 6 could have been about Walt going to NH and then coming back to exact revenge. And it would have been awesome. But I respect them for not wanting to drag the thing out.

    • I actually feel like either “Ozymandias” or “Granite State” could easily be a finale. Stop “Granite State” before the Charlie Rose segment and it ends with Walt finally broken completely turning himself in. Stop it before he even goes to the bar and Walt is left stranded and alone in New Hampshire in a world that no longer has any use for him.

      And yeah I agree that I’m not sure how else it could end and make sense. I actually have to admit that I really expected the finale to be a bit of a letdown after what had happened before. Further, it’s been true in the past that this show has been at its best before the season finale–“Half Measures” was the best episode of season three while”Full Measure” was only good and “End Times” was one of the strongest of season four while “Face Off” was one of the weakest.

      Was there any Stevia on the table before the tea?

      Incidentally, it’s been great fun having you around for the “Breaking Bad” reviews to chat. Thanks for all of the attention!

  2. I know I’m late to the party, but I have just watched Breaking Bad for the first time, and now am trying to fill the colossal hole the show have left behind by browsing the net for anything Breaking Bad. I wanted to comment that I think you are wrong as to why Walt had saved Jesse. I think he went there with the intention of killing him along with Jack’s gang, thinking that he had partnered up with the neo-nazis to save his own life and was cooking to them voluntarily. But after seeing the truth and the state Jesse was in Walt had a change of heart and saved his former partner out of an impulse. And why? Because Walt had always cared about Jesse.
    Midway through the series everyone started talking about how Walt used and manipulated Jesse to get his own ends, and while that is true of course, many a times Walt was looking after Jesse’s interests as well as his own, and on one notable occassion placed Jesse’s interests ahead of his own (I mean when he hit Gus’s dealers. There was absolutely zero gain in that for Walt, in fact the move put him straight to the top of Gus’s kill list, something Walt had to know, since we see his apprehension in the following episode when he first goes to meet Gus and Mike after killing the dealers and hiding Jesse. In that instance, you could even say that Walt had traded his life for Jesse’s, as Gus does order Walt’s murder pretty soon afterward, whereas previously he had no intention of getting rid of him, only of Jesse.)
    Letting Jane die was, in a twisted way, also to Jesse’s benefit and had nothing to do with Walt’s. Sure he hated Jane, but he went back to the house to try and talk some sense into Jesse, not to hurt her or anything. He even leaps up to save her automatically, like any decent person would do, and then we see his eyes shift to Jesse and we can almost tell word for word what he is thinking: If I want to do right by Jesse, I will let her die. Even Jesse admits later on in Fly, that had Jane not have died, chances are the both of them would have, shooting half a million dollar’s worth of H up their veins.
    Other notable instances are the unhesitant way with which Walt linked his life to Jesse’s, telling both Tuco and Gus that if they kill Jesse, they might as well kill him too, because he won’t cook for them. ,,He is my partner. And if he doesn’t go, I don’t go.” Sure you could argue that he was bluffing and had Jesse been actually killed Walt still would have opted to survive, but it was a risky bluff and again to no benefit to Walt.
    On numerous accounts others suggested to him that Jesse’s ought to be killed, sometimes to protect Walt himself or his interests, and he always sharply refused – until the end of Rabid Dog, when he understood that it was now Jesse’s intention to bring him down. Recognizing that he had lost Jesse’s loyalty, and just when he was on the verge of having it all (his family and his money, him safely out of the business), only then does Walt make the unforgivable decision to do dispose of Jesse after all.
    So all that is to say that the show established again and again that Walt genuinely cares for Jesse, cares a lot, actually. Of course that didn’t stop him slowly ruining Jesse’s life and eroding his soul, and when Jesse finally and deservedly betrays him, Walt turns on him with the same viciousness he deals with all his enemies.
    So what happens in the end? A major factor is that the game is over for Walt, and he knows it. He is dying. There is not much anger left in him, only a grim determination to try and set everything right (right means whatever it means in Walt’s mind…). He wants to take Jack and co out mostly as a revenge for Hank, and consequently for him losing everything. I agree that them peddling his product with Lydia is also a factor, he does want his baby blue to die with him. But at the start of Granite State we already see Walt plotting his revenge, unaware that they will start selling the blue meth, so that was not the triggering point. By Felina he also finally reached the point when he no longer cares about the remaining 60-70 million dollars Jack’s crew took. He also had finally admitted to himself that he did most of it for himself, for his own enjoyment. He has a clearer perspective of himself and his actions. And so he sees Jesse, bearing signs of torture, in chains and Walt suddenly finds that there is no anger left in him for his former partner. He is aware of all the monstrosities he had done to Jesse, knows that he was the one who gave him over to Jack’s gang, and I think a tiny part of him must also realize that Jesse had every reason for finally turning against him. Perhaps he thinks that he had payed for his betrayal. And so, on an impulse, he decides that instead of adding Jesse to the body-pile as he had originally planned, he allows him a fresh start. Walt being Walt, I don’t really think he sees that as making amends, doing whatever little he could whatever late, I think it is more of a Jesse doesn’t absolutely need to die kind of realization. He had dragged down Jesse on all sorts of highways to hell, he suddenly doesn’t want to drag him down into death with him as well. Perhaps it makes him feel slightly better do this one final thing for his protege, to allow himself to think that at least he had done right by Jesse at the bitter end.
    Anyway, your argument about being too much of a coward to kill himself and so he wants Jesse to do it definitely seems invalid, as all he had to do was remain standing when the machine gun started firing and that would have taken care of the problem. I think he went to the compound with no intention of leaving it alive, and after saving Jesse and thereby himself from the M60, it seemed like the right, logical, poetic way if he asks or lets Jesse finish the job. He wanted to die and I think he thought if Jesse wanted to use the opportunity to take whatever revenge he could and shoot Walt himself, that would work for Walt perfectly.
    I’m very sorry though about that stray bullet. It is the only point about the ending that felt a little too convenient. Jesse could walk away knowing that Mr White will be dead soon anyway and there was no need for Walt to take matters into his own hands. It would have been interesting to see what happens had Walt got up after the shootout unscathed. Would Jesse have pulled the trigger? To satisfy himself or to put his mentor out of his misery? Or would Walt have used his improved knowledge on firearms and do it right what he had almost done in the very first few minutes of the show?

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