Breaking Bad: A Happy Ending?

Our roundtable discusses "Felina," the AMC show's series finale. 

Each week, TheAtlantic's J.J. GouldChris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss the latest happenings on Breaking Bad.

Kornhaber: The big twist of the night: Breaking Bad has a happy ending.

Of course, “happy ending” here means that our protagonist is dead on the floor of a neo-Nazi meth lab. But I’m genuinely surprised that Vince Gilligan & co. allowed Walter to conceive and then perfectly execute a plan for the best outcome he could, by this point, have hoped for. Money to his family. His brother-in-law’s death avenged. Blue meth off the market. Jesse doing ok. And Walter meeting his demise entirely on his own terms—not claimed by cancer, not rotting in a jail cell, not exiled with two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

The journey he took to arrive at that outcome was pretty nifty, right? For the finale, Breaking Bad let viewers feast on a particular ingredient show’s appeal: Seeing one frail man subvert expectations and get out of impossible situations through cunning and know-how. It was a parade of “Yeah, science!” moments, though that science was sometimes a mere understanding of human nature—a la the Gretchen/Elliott hitman bluff. (And sometimes an inexplicable, spy-level talent for infiltrating spaces being watched by the police, as with the appearance in Skyler’s kitchen.) The machine-gun contraption was cool. The ricin-into-the-stevia thing was cool. The use of the lottery ticket as leverage for Skyler was cool.

Cool—or cold? Breaking Bad has proven itself to be a tremendously affecting show, but “Felina” sought to stir curiously few emotions. Jesse cracking up as he sped away was somewhat cathartic. Walt holding Holly imparted some sense of loss. There were some nice, classically Bad moments of humor; thank goodness the show gave us one last dose of Skinny Pete and Badger’s deep thinking. But overall, the episode’s style was clinical, as clinical as Walt seemed carrying out his ingenious scheme.

Perhaps that was the right way to go. “Ozymandias” and “Granite State,” after all, offered plenty-moving portraits of just how much Walter’s misdeeds have spiritually devastated himself and everyone around him. That final sequence in last week’s episode captured the old Walt/Heisenberg identity being consumed in a hot flash of rage. The resulting persona was hardened, calm, calculating, acting out of a new clarity about who he is—someone who’s caused great suffering in the name of selfishness, not family—and what he must do: fix things, to whatever extent he can.

But the fact that the show let him fix everything he could possibly fix is interesting. Marie says on the phone to Skyler that Walt fancies himself some criminal mastermind but that he’s wrong; turns out, it’s the grieving widow afforded one brief scene who’s wrong. With each ruse that went exactly according to specification, the show offered one more justification for Walt’s hubris. I’m not sure I feel great about that.

Then again, maybe that’s all the more reason for the episode’s chilliness. The moments of relative triumph—Walt touching the meth-lab equipment, Jesse strangling Todd—flashed by briefly. Reminders abounded of how the world’s a worse place because of Walter’s actions, the glimpses of Jesse’s perfect woodshop box being the most powerful one to me. We’re left feeling uneasy and hollow in the face of Walter getting what he wanted, and that’s probably how it should be. 

Heller: Walter White didn't redeem himself, or indulge his ego, or get revenge for revenge's sake. Instead, he dismantled his legacy—his real, terrible legacy—ensuring that the consequences of his sins wouldn't spread after his death. Is that a happy ending? I don't think so. "Felina," in effect, defined Breaking Bad as a just story of crime and punishment—but with enough moral wiggle room to allow Walt a more dignified end than I think he deserved.

I enjoyed "Felina" and I'm glad Vince Gilligan found a practical way to end Breaking Bad, but I think he did so by jeopardizing the morality of his own story. (Preach, Skinny Pete: "The whole thing felt kinda shady, like, morality-wise.") I didn't want to root for Walt. I didn't want to see him outsmart the police, or reconcile with Skyler, or kill Uncle Jack in the most Heisenbergian of ways. I didn't want to see him win. Yet, he found a way to give his drug money to his children, he found a way to murder the people who stole his business, and he found a way to free Jesse. He got everything he wanted. He even got me to root for him.

You're always going to root for the guy who's fighting the Nazis, I guess.

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