Breaking Bad: Some Very Confident, Totally Sensible Finale Predictions
Our roundtable speculates on—and speculates on speculating on—"Felina."
Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber have discussed the latest happenings on AMC's show. Now, they speculate on what will happen on Sunday's series finale.
Heller: I do not really know what will happen on Breaking Bad this Sunday. Neither do you. That's actually why we make predictions. We do it to create the illusion of agency over a story we don't control. We do it for bragging rights. But mostly, we do it to have fun. That's why it's no surprise to see the Internet is filthy with prophecies about Walter White this week: "cockamamie" ones and crowd-sourced ones and upvoted ones alike.
I wish I had a prediction to pass along, too. Whenever I try to imagine what will happen in "Felina"—a wicked title that's not just an anagram for “finale” but also a reference to the three pivotal elements of the show: blood (iron), meth (lithium), and tears (sodium)—I can't reconcile my desire to see tidy justice with the difficult morality of Breaking Bad. What sort of ending could be "just," anyway? If Walt kills Uncle Jack's crew, finally punishing those who erased his true legacy, he will still be doomed. Nothing will change. If Walt dies—either by the cancer that surrounds him or by the cancer growing inside him—the wreckage of his life will remain. Jesse will still be an irrevocably broken man. Skyler will still face a long prison sentence. Flynn won't forget how his family betrayed him. Marie won't stop mourning hers. Countless other families lost loved ones, too, and we can only presume thousands more destroyed their lives with poison, 99 percent pure.
I do not want to see Walt triumph, but I can imagine how he might not lose. I want to see someone—anyone, except Todd, Lydia, and the neo-Nazis—escape from Walt's rampage with something that begins to approach a "good" ending, but I can't help myself from wondering if everyone is doomed to suffer. Breaking Bad is a moral investigation of one man's descent into evil, but it's also a story about the chaos he created.
I'm not even sure I want to see the moments I've spent weeks hoping to see. Ask yourself: Do you really want to see Jesse kill Todd? Would it even be cathartic to watch at this point? If there's a definite moral tenet of Breaking Bad, it's that sin begets sin. The Breaking Bad of "Felina" is a different show that the Breaking Bad of "Face Off" or "Half Measures." It doesn't feel good to root against the bad guys anymore. We now know what happens to the people who kill bad guys. If Jesse kills Todd, it'll mark the dénouement to his own wretched tragedy.
So, no. I don't have a prediction. I know what I don't want to see, but I can't decide if there's a right way to end the story, either. Instead, I'll remind you to remember what Jesse told us weeks ago: "Whatever you think is supposed to happen, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen."
Kornhaber: I agree that predicting is generally a silly activity. I don’t feel the need to excuse our very-human desire to do so, though. You’re right, Chris, it’s fun. And though you sound pretty worried about the potential grim happenings in store, I’m fairly hopeful that even if unsavory things happen, Breaking Bad will remain Breaking Bad till the end—which is to say a very entertaining, at-times gonzo mix of expected and shocking.
In the past week, I've spent an embarrassing amount of time rewatching the clip from the end of "Granite State." That's partly for the pump-up effect wrought by the pure cinema of those shots of the cops closing in intermixed with swelling violins and the slide-guitar groans we've come to know so well. But it's also partly to figure something out. Who is the man who leaves that bar?
In our roundtable following the penultimate episode, we asked whether Heisenberg or Walter were alive. Spiritually, is this character the same one we've always known, or has he transformed into some final, new identity? Since Sunday, the show's team has given the answer: Both episode director Peter Gould and Breaking Bad musical director Dave Porter have said that the theme-song invocation was meant to signal that a psycho-chemical reaction has taken place and we're now on Walter White version… four? five?
So the suspense heading into the finale comes, in part, from a mystery about character development. What does Walter White want at this point? It’s a testament to the show’s quality and depth that this is the question; that we’re not merely feeling compelled to puzzle out how the big gun and poison factor in, but rather to try and piece together what, exactly, is going on inside the protagonist’s mind.
Certain outcomes Walt once desired now seem impossible. Hank’s death means Walt's family can never be whole again. It’s hard to see him regaining his loved ones’ respect after his son told him to die. The failed box-of-money bid felt like a final sign that his current fortunes will never go to his kids’ college funds.
But the fact that he was set off by Gretchen and Elliott’s interview means something. On national TV, they indicated both that his above-board legacy (Gray Matter) and his underworld legacy (blue meth) were no longer his. So I think Walter wants to build something new. He left that bar because he wants his life to amount to something other than destruction, death, and notoriety.
One something might be the disabling of the mass meth industry. Killing the Nazis out of revenge/self-preservation/self-aggrandizement would, as you hinted Chris, be the old Breaking Bad outcome. It would be Heisenbergian. But Heisenberg’s gone. This new Walter White might well try to murder Todd and his gang with the M60, but more significantly, he might drop the ricin into the methylamine to spoil it forever, to ward off large-scale crystal cooking by whomever the Nazis’ natural successor might be.
I imagine, though, the Nazis won’t go so easily—and, per last week’s episode, Lydia will sway Todd or perhaps Uncle Jack to try and off Skyler. It’s possible they may even succeed, or almost succeed, maybe killing Walter Jr. when he tries to intervene. But here’s one path to imagine. Walt stops/kills the Nazis. He corners Lydia, who now has no muscle to use against him. He blackmails her—threatens to leak her name to the police—into providing some source of long-term funds for his remaining family members, getting her to sign… something… that secures them a legal infusion of cash. Then he poisons her stevia. Or he reveals the methylamine is poisoned. Or something. OK, head starting to hurt…
Jesse? I vote he lives, gets away, and takes Brock, somehow. Or maybe he blows up the Nazis' meth lab, sacrificing himself and saving the kid. Either way, Ross Douthat may be right that Pinkman gets fan goodwill more from emotional attachment than from moral correctness, but I don’t think Vince Gilligan & co. are cruel enough to bring him any lower than he was brought last week.
I also think Alan Sepinwall got at the most-obvious and most-obviously righteous ending: “The ricin is for Walt. He takes care of business with the Nazis, consumes the ricin, then turns himself into the authorities, cutting a deal that will keep Skyler out of prison. Once the deal is completed, he dies in jail a few days later, with everyone assuming it was the cancer that got him.” The only reason I’m not cosigning entirely is because, as you/Jesse said, Chris, the show likes to not do the obvious thing. Then again, an ending like that would be satisfying—and the show does like to satisfy.
OK, now we’re getting to true fan-fiction territory. John, bring us back to reality—or, even better, take us farther away.
Gould: It's interesting. There are so many different ways to be invested in serial dramas. The psychology of predicting their outcomes can be complex. It may be driven by a desire for agency where the viewer has none; it may be a matter of intellectual pride; or it may just be fun. Here's perhaps a variation on the second and third that has special application this week: Right now, after "Granite State" has aired but before "Felina," we have as much information about the ending of Breaking Bad—a masterpiece of television—as we're ever going to have without actually knowing it. This isn't simply an occasion for fan fiction; you can do that anytime. This is your big chance, fellow fan, to process everything the for-real writers have really written and to see if you've been able to spot the narrative clues and put together what they might mean. It's not just fun; it's one-week-only fun with a small and closing window of opportunity.
So: Wow, gosh, I don't know! Let's go by character—or group of characters …
Walt's Family: Skyler, Walt Jr./Flynn, Holly will live. It's hard to see them benefiting from any of Walt's meth money, and it's hard not to see them suffering indefinitely for what he's done—and the anti-provision it will presumably leave them with—but I don't see the show's writers killing Skyler and the kids. It's not that it wouldn't be true to the story if they were to die; it's just that I reckon their death is beyond the limit of what the writers, who have been willing to decree many cruel deaths, are ultimately prepared to do. Still, Skyler is in trouble. Marie's story essentially ended when she learned of Hank's death.
The Nazis: Dead.
Lydia: Dead—or somehow unmasked by Walt and possibly framed to take a partial fall for his own crimes, limiting his family's implication. Breaking Bad is about the consequences of moral iniquity. How better could the show give Walt the "win" Vince Gilligan intimated he would have than to transfer some of the cosmic punishment for his crimes onto someone even worse than he is?
Jesse: Wrecked. But he lives. And, yes, he kills Todd. And in doing so he delivers a "bitch!" on par with the classic, "Yeah, bitch! Magnets!" Jesse is almost certainly taken into police custody, but it's possible either that Walt finds a way of manipulating evidence to shift culpability away from him or that Jesse's cooperation with ASAC Schrader will help him avoid the full legal brunt of his crimes.
Walt: Everything here depends on what the Charlie Rose interview with Gretchen and Elliott that Walt saw on TV in that New Hampshire bar has sparked in him, and what exactly he's planning to do with the M60 and the ricin. I wonder if Breaking Bad will surprise us with a final turn against Gretchen and Elliott, exposing them as having truly wronged Walt in the past—they just lied about him egregiously on national television, after all—and having the monster they had a hand in creating bring vengeance back to them now. (How much vengeance? Per my speculation about Walt's family, it may be very deliberate on the writers' part that Gretchen and Elliott don't have children.) It may, meanwhile, be true that "whatever you think is supposed to happen, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen." But for some aspects of the plot yet to unfold, that may be a Vizzinian mind trick as much as anything. You think Walt's going to use the M60 on the Nazis, so he's really going to do something else. Aha! Fooled you. He's totally using the M60 on the Nazis (as Jesse's totally killing Todd). But The Princess Bride may provide a surer-still clue about the ricin: I can imagine the reason Walt goes back to his house to get it is that he's going to pull a modified "Man in Black": Walt plans simultaneously to poison himself and one or more of his foes, so they don't see it coming. He hasn't of course developed a Man in Black tolerance to the toxin ahead of time. But he doesn't need to. He's dead already.