Breaking Bad: A Happy Ending?

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

Each week, TheAtlantic's J.J. Gould, Chris 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.

Of course, Walt only accomplished all of that because he admitted his own monstrousness. The moment he does so is pivotal to both the episode and the entire series. Just when we expect to hear him tell Skyler the same old garbage delusions about family, he surprises her: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really—I was alive." He gets it. Walter White finally reveals himself. He recognizes his own evil.

As Linda Holmes put it a few weeks ago, "What makes Breaking Bad one of the most moral shows in the history of television is that actions have consequences, whether those actions arise from pain or greed or fear or panic. You pay for your actions, not the operation of your heart." The best way to judge Walt's life is not by his intentions, but by his actions. That's why it matters so much to see him confess his egomania to Skyler. His greedy hunger was the secret that corrupted his soul. "Felina" allowed Walt to admit his sins, tidy up the mess he made, and punish the people who wronged him. It gave him a chance to do good —or rather, stop breaking bad—before he died on his own terms. It pushed Walt into noble anti-hero territory, despite six years of evidence that he is a villain.

Maybe you're right, Spencer. Maybe "Felina" is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable about the way it all ends. After all, Jesse escaped, but he will never be saved.

Walt was an irredeemably terrible person, and no matter what he accomplished, the world will remember him as a drug kingpin who died in a shootout. I want to believe he knew that with his dying breath. I want to believe that as he stared at his reflection, he understood that his sins would not be cleansed. That he could never undo the damage he caused. That he did not control his legacy. I want to believe, but I just don't know. All we know is what he did.

No, this wasn't a happy ending. It was a difficult one.

Gould: Happy. I'm inclined to agree with Spencer—albeit assuming something other than the usual sense of the word. Chris, you want to believe Walt died reflecting clearly on the magnitude of his failure as a human being and the death and destruction this failure has brought to so many lives. ("I Want to Believe": It's a good motto for affirming a series created by a former writer and producer for The X-Files.) But I saw none of that.

Walt did confess his selfishness to Skyler: Despite being able to leave millions to his family, he knows he built the Heisenberg empire for himself: "I liked it." I don't know if it's clear to me that this confession is the full recognition of his own evil you interpret it as, Chris, though you may be right. It's certainly not clear to me that Walt regrets anything he's done. He's provided for his family, which, in his pride, he seems to care more about than he cares about what he's done to them along the way. He's humiliated Gretchen and Elliott, who are together a major, if not the main, focus of his anger and resentment. And he's destroyed his enemies—and along with them the capability for anyone to "steal" his work ever again.

So, no, that's not a happy ending in any usual sense. You'd have to be a ruin of a person to for your life to end this way, and for anyone to consider it a happy ending. But Breaking Bad is an unusual story. And its anti-hero protagonist Walter White is just that: a ruin.

I liked this finale, for every reason everyone else who liked it, liked it. So I won't rehearse the reasons. The way I might put it is, there was nothing in this ending I didn't like. What I regret, and have regretted since the credits rolled, is what wasn't there. This was a show about moral death and its consequences, but the final episode pushed that whole guiding theme to the margins in favor of satisfying plotting. This will, I'm suppose, make the show all the more re-watchable for a lot of fans, knowing it will always bring them back to Walt's masterstroke last victory. But the consequences are missing. And consequence is where Breaking Bad found its meaning. As a viewer, I don't feel I need that belabored at this point. So much comes down to what you choose for your final scene, your final shot, your final beat.