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Goodbye, Breaking Bad: The Ballad of Walter White
He sang the body methlectric but it’s all over now, baby blue.
Like Walter White, Breaking Bad went out on its own terms. After a final season that never stopped ratcheting up the tension or raising the stakes, one of the best TV dramas of the last decade said goodbye with a beautiful, bittersweet, and satisfying finale.
Unlike certain other shows (we’re looking at you, Sopranos and Lost) Breaking Bad did not leave its fans with a “Write Your Own Ending” non-ending. Show creator Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed this episode) steered the ship into the harbor without exasperating or insulting fans.
In the show’s final shot, Walt lays dead next to his precious. One of Breaking Bad’s running gags is Walt and Jesse’s continuing search for a permanent place to cook. They began in a battered RV, upgraded to a high-tech underground lab that never belonged to them, and took refuge in a series of tented not-really-termite-ridden homes. Not until the final episode does Walt find his ideal spot. He dies there.
Before Walter White expires, bullets will fly, tears will fall, money will change hands, shackles will be unlocked, and you may never touch a packet of Stevia again. As he draws closer to his own demise, Walt moves through the world like a ghost, at times practically walking through walls. We never see the machinations that allow him to slip into Gretchen and Elliot’s home or evade the surveillance around Skylar. Both scenes pay off with enthralling reveals. (Oh, Marie, put down the phone; you are scolding, self-congratulatory, and oblivious to the end.)
Truer words were never spoken than when Walt admits to Skyler: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.” Skyler, having held her breath the entire season, can finally exhale. Walter can confront the consequences of shedding his milquetoast identity, the one we see in the first season flashback when Hank takes center stage at Walt’s birthday, exhorting him to ride along on a drug bust to get “a little excitement” in his life. It’s that tiny humiliation—along with a million others—that spawns Heisenberg. Once he dons the black hat, it’s as if he has worn it his entire life. In this final season we watch a stripped-down Walt divest himself of the totems of Heisenberg. All uncertainty has left him.
The catalytic reaction in Walt’s personality occurs six episodes into the first season. He walks into Tuco’s lair, faces down the drug lord, and blows up a bag of mercury fulminate disguised as meth. This is when Walter White becomes Heisenberg. At the end of season four, he blows up Gus Fring. In the finale, he kills the Nazis in a remote-control shooting spree that’s equal parts Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, and Inspector Gadget. The explosions have grown more complicated—and controlled.
The machine-gun melee comes after Walt has quietly dispatched Lydia (not the tattooed lady of the Harburg and Arlen song on Todd’s ringtone), devised a way to bequeath money to his son (while leaving Gretchen and Elliot perpetually afraid), said a wordless and heartbreaking goodbye to his daughter, and given his wife a bargaining chip that may keep her out of jail. It is Walt who has masterminded all of this. The only reference to Heisenberg in this episode is the graffiti in the Whites’ ruined home. Like Dumbo with his feather, the magic never resided outside of Walt. Brilliant, ruthless, and ingenious, he has owned up to who he is. Finally, Walt has become as pure as his product.
The episode begins with Walt finding a cassette with Marty Robbins’ “El Paso,” a song about a cowboy who dies reuniting with his true love Felina. (It’s where the finale gets its title. Walt also hums the tune as he assembles the weaponry for his final showdown.) The episode closes with “Baby Blue,” Badfinger’s Big Star-esque 1972 tune about the love that escapes everything but memory. “Guess I got what I deserved,” Pete Ham sings. Between these two wistful elegies is the coda to the revelatory and redemptive ballad of Walter White.
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