We knew Lydia would get the ricin.
Almost every commentator in the blogosphere predicted it. Many of us, like me, who didn’t offer an opinion, knew the truth of it in our bones. Lydia would get the ricin, the Nazis would die in the bloodiest way we could imagine.
Predictable, rote, mechanical. It was a final episode in three acts that seemed more epilogue than dénouement, a logically requisite extrapolation of events to a natural conclusion. If we sought catharsis we received only a sliver of our objective, in Todd’s death by asphyxiation at Jesse’s hands. If we sought retribution for the dozens of lives Heisenberg destroyed we were served up an entire hour that played out according to Walter’s plan. The drama ended on Walter’s terms. It was a below-average final statement from an otherwise superlative series.
I know other commentators are weighing in with similar statements. “‘Ozymandias’ was the true ending,” they’re saying, if not in so many words then they’re screaming it between the lines. “Felina” was a predictable disappointment, but that’s okay, because we have so many great episodes before it.
That’s not what I see in this episode. In fact, what I found was one of the most unpredictable episodes in the series, beginning with Walter’s theft of a car and his unthinkable trip to the Schwartz compound in Santa Fe. If we consider only the mechanics of this final 55 minutes of Breaking Bad we are justified in considering it below average. But Breaking Bad has never been about mechanical superficialities. The ricin and the M60 machine gun were artistic devices whose role was not to eliminate this or that character, but to point to a theme or thesis. If we’re going to appreciate the rich meaning of Breaking Bad, we need to orient our thoughts not toward the mechanics, but toward those themes. Our final objective is not catharsis or a feeling that justice has been served. Rather, our goal is the elucidation of the underlying thesis and its meaning to our own lives. In this respect, “Felina” surprised, caught us off guard, and articulated a full thesis statement that both delights and repulses.
We knew Lydia would get the ricin. Sure. But we didn’t know Walter White. We learned his true nature from a Western love song set in El Paso. Felina was not a woman, not Skyler, Gretchen, or Marie. Felina was a child: the noxious, poisonous blue-colored offspring who was Walter White’s true love. We knew it all along. But “Felina” surprised us nevertheless, showing us just how deep that love ran. The implications are personal and unsettling, constituting a human statement we wish to dismiss but would do well to consider. Breaking Bad is all about Baby Blue.
“Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”
The episode started with a bang. The turn of events was unprecedented and should have alerted us to the strangeness of scenes to follow. We’ve witnessed a character turn his eyes to the heavens to utter a plea only once before in this series. Earlier this season (Episode 5.12) we saw Jesse in Walter’s house, gasoline can in hand, Hank’s Glock 22 pointed at his chest.
“He can’t keep getting away with this!”
Jesse’s plea went unanswered. In fact, Walter did keep getting away with it, despite Hank’s best efforts to stop him. Far from hearing and acting on Jesse’s appeal for karmic justice, the Universe instead gave Jesse to the neo-Nazis, allowed him to suffer unending months of physical and psychological torment and forced him to watch as his closest friend was shot in the back of the head. Hank, the person best equipped to stop Walter from getting away with it, was unceremoniously executed in the desert.
The Universe, we’ve learned over the last five years, has its own timeline, and it’s not much interested in the degree to which a particular player must suffer. That Walter thought the Powers That Be were interested in his welfare or his plans should have irritated us. But the event that occurred next should have horrified us.
Walter sat in a car not his own, his eyes lifted upward in supplication. He brought his hands forward and up, still appealing to powers greater than his. When he flipped the sun visor, his prayer was answered, immediately and directly empowering him with the means to get home.
Why was Walter’s prayer answered so quickly and easily when other prayers have been ignored for years?
Team Walter must have been cheering at this point, and they would continue cheering throughout the episode. All of Walter’s initiatives, no matter how small, were perfectly executed and completed, fulfilling Walter’s mission in every particular.
Team Walter’s victory dance must have put a damper on the small bits of vindication felt by Team Karma. “Okay, he got to leave nine million dollars to his kids. So what? He died in the end.” The words ring hollow because Walter’s victories became the unrelenting tidal wave that brushed aside all opposition and brought closure to every hanging thread in the story.
I have to believe Walter’s unprecedented success in the final episode was the factor that caused so many commentators to find the episode mediocre, in some sense distasteful or not in keeping with the spirit of the series. From a superficial point of view, Walter ‘went out on his own terms’. But the metallic implement in Walter’s outstretched hand is the key to our deeper understanding. That key fell from the sky, created entirely out of the unstoppable will of the Universe.
It was, almost literally, manna from heaven.
Walter held the key to our understanding of the final episode, and that understanding is simple yet profound, because if we turn the key in the ignition we can see with new eyes the intended significance of every event that followed. Walter is not the conquering hero. He is not Heisenberg reborn. In fact, he occupies a position new to him. He is not master, but servant. He is a slave to forces greater than his own—forces that determine outcomes of their choosing.
The key to our understanding is this: Walter White became the agent of the Universe.
Gretchen is wearing Walter’s first color: White. Her choice of clothing should seem symbolically paradoxical. But Walter’s fashion statement ought to seem metaphorically out of bounds. And Elliott’s skyler-blue shirt—well, that one’s going to take more than an essay to explain, for blue is at the very heart of Breaking Bad. Blue is the most delicious, tantalizing, and thematically profound color in the Breaking Bad Universe. For that reason, I need to limit the discussion to White and Gray.
In terms of the rubrics of suspenseful storytelling, Walter had to enter the Schwartz house quietly, purposefully, and without apprehension of any kind. This feeds into suspense, for we know Walter could kill Elliott and Gretchen without remorse and without hesitation. He’s been doing it for years, after all. But the symbolic statements in this scene scream louder than even the suspense.
Walter entered the den of those committed to destroying his name. They tried to take away the White name by diluting it into Graymatter Technologies. Walter refused. After all, the pinnacle of his power was achieved when he could force a drug kingpin to utter his name. “Say my name!” he commanded Declan, the most powerful drug distributor in Phoenix. He left Gretchen decades ago, gave her up to Elliott, because he could never surrender the White name.
This meeting of white-clad Gretchen and gray-clad Walter is the supreme irony, rendered astounding and virtually unthinkable by the bizarre turn of events that occurred around a table piled high with nine million dollars of drug money.
Decades ago these three people could not agree on anything. Gretchen held that humans had a soul, Walter just laughed. Gretchen and Elliott wore gray and insisted on Walter’s conformity. Walter refused to give up the white shirt of pride for the gray shirt of collaboration, so he left his girlfriend and sold his share in the company.
When Gretchen and Walter shook hands—at the insistence of gray-clad Walter—the irony carried greater meaning than anything we have so far witnessed in this series. The woman who had insisted on gray all of her life now vested herself in white and agreed to collaboration with a man who had rigorously refused to give up white—and was now dressed entirely in gray.
If you think the implication is that Walter has surrendered, recall please the last seconds of the episode, when Walter touched the stainless steel shell of the reaction vessel as if caressing a child’s face.
Walter was surrendering nothing in this scene. He was calm and collected not only because this served the purposes of suspense-laden storytelling, but because in this scene he was not white-loving Heisenberg but rather gray-loving Universe. He was a dark angel, the agent (slave, servant) of the Universe.
Walter did not surrendered but this was because he was already beaten. We saw his fall from power two episodes ago.
A beaten man does not surrender. A prisoner of war does not say, “Okay, I give up.” That man is already conquered; any expression of will or volition is meaningless. A beaten man can only die or serve other interests. His will—his desires and agenda—is immaterial because it is the Universe that now decides his fate. The Universe’s decision was to use Walter to serve greater interests. Keys rained down from heaven because Walter is no longer master but servant.
We saw the true colors tonight. Walter can no longer wear white or blue or purple. These colors are forbidden because of the deeper meaning they hold. He is left with gray (service to the Universe) or green (unfulfilled desire, sometimes called ‘greed’). Gretchen is allowed to wear white because her deepest self is about service (gray), and she can take pride (wear white clothing) in that truth.
Those lacking intimate familiarity with laboratory research may not understand the comparison of Jesse’s perfect wooden box with his blue methamphetamine. The juxtaposition of a flashback scene in which he worked on the box with the present reality in which he pulled on a dog chain was a visual announcement of his long-held conviction that the epitome of science was found not in formulas and equations, but in symmetry and beauty. “You’re an artist, Mr. White,” was his way of bestowing on Walter the ultimate compliment for his crystal meth prowess.
I have 35 years of experience in chemical process R&D, most of it in the pharmaceutical industry. While I cannot speak with authority on what science or technical research is or is not, I think 35 years have at least earned me the right to articulate an opinion about science that must be considered valid and meaningful, if not necessarily ‘correct’ or ‘essential’.
While industrial scientific research is founded on scientific principles and commercial expectations of efficiency, we cannot think of R&D projects as nothing more than a periodic table harnessed to the 80/20 Rule. The successful industrial scientist must be well-versed in technical theory, and she damn sure has to design her work on the basis of corporate time constraints, but above all, she needs to cultivate a certain attitude about her work. That attitude probably finds its most meaningful expression in the language of art. There is an underlying simplicity, harmony, and symmetry to the world. To the extent that such clarity and beauty is reflected in experimental design, the scientist faithfully elucidates the true structure of the universe. Only artists are capable of achieving such vision, especially in the mundane and often confusing and contradictory details of laboratory research.
Walter and Jesse were both self-centered criminals, but they were both artists, too. Walter did not appear in the woodworking flashback, or in the laboratory scene following the close of the daydream. Jesse was the only one present. The invocation of Jesse’s most beloved memory as an artist served several purposes, the most obvious being his sense of helplessness; the only way he could assure Brock’s survival was through faithful delivery of superior baby-blue methamphetamine.
Copyright 2012 Pearson Moore
Created for Breaking Blue
But Walter’s absence from the scenes and the emphasis on Jesse’s interpretation of his laboratory work as art points to a truth that brings greater meaning to his situation. For Jesse the highest expression of science was the creation of a product that was simple and beautiful. Purity had less meaning to him than the fact that high purity meant ‘glass grade’—a high grade recognizable by its existence as perfectly symmetric, beautiful crystals. Walter, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about crystallinity. For Walter it was not beauty but purity that was the driving factor. “Respect the chemistry,” we’ve heard him say nearly a dozen times. Recall that in Walter’s world there was no soul, only chemistry. ‘Respect the chemistry’ meant many things, but we must count among those things Walter’s contention that there was no art, only chemistry.
I don’t know that Vince Gilligan and company were trying to say in this bittersweet sequence that Jesse was more of a scientist than Walter. Certainly there is no question of Jesse’s standing as the more capable artist. The last reported purity of his product was 96 percent. He was approaching Walter’s level of purity not because he understood chemical principles but because he deferred to artistic precepts.
The tragedy of Jesse’s enslavement was magnified by the fact that he was being forced to create and deliver pearls for swine. Art is created through a surrender of that which is most personal. “Do not throw your pearls in front of pigs, or they may trample them and then turn on you and tear you to pieces.” (Mt. 7:6) Jesse’s enslavement was more horrible than any such confinement of Walter would have been.
Walter would never have delivered pearls—the most precious parts of his soul—because he had no concept of soul or art or human worth as something inviolate. Jesse, on the other hand, delivered his very soul to the swine who trampled his art and turned on him and tore him to pieces.
Also contained in the juxtaposition of wooden box and crystalline meth is the idea of illicit drug as symbol of perfection. We’ve heard this connection put into words: The meth is 99.1% pure, it is artwork, it is the best that’s ever been made, and so on. It’s an important theme, and I will return to the idea in future essays.
Walter White may not have been an artist, but when it came to logic-based engineering of gadgets, he could outmacgyver the best of ‘em. Not even James Bond’s Q could hold a candle—or M60 machine gun—to Walter White. But none of it mattered, since Walter’s technical prowess and creativity never worked perfectly—until this episode.
Breaking Bad has taken pains to drive home the message that actions based entirely on scientific principles are inadequate to the successful fielding of real human problems. Even if Walter figured out a way to steal 1000 gallons of methylamine from a train without having to injure or kill anyone, a boy on a motorcycle would show up and foil his perfectly executed plan. Even if he could vanquish the impregnable steel door to a chemical warehouse, creating showers of burning thermite more spectacular than fireworks, DEA agents could laugh at his stupidity in hefting the methylamine barrel rather than rolling it.
We had our first lesson regarding the undisputed primacy of Murphy’s Law in the pilot episode, when Emilio Koyama died after inhaling Walter’s phosphine gas but Krazy 8 suffered only facial and throat burns. “Yeah, but, Pearson, you’re forgetting about ‘Face Off’. Walter engineered a bomb to kill Gustavo Fring and it worked! This disproves your statement that Walter’s contraptions ‘never worked perfectly’. The bomb did work perfectly.” Actually, if you go back to the final scene in Hector Salamanca’s room and listen closely you’ll hear not fewer than 40 dings of Tio Hector’s bell before the bomb finally exploded. Gus was killed not because of Walter’s faulty contraption, but because Hector Salamanca’s hatred of Gus was so great he never stopped trying to make it work. With respect, I stand by my statement.
The foolishness of placing one’s faith in science has been a constant refrain through the six seasons of Breaking Bad. It’s not for nothing that whenever Walter came up with a science-based solution to intractable problems, high school dropout Jesse Pinkman would exclaim, “Yeah! Science!”—a proclamation of technical superiority that carried about as much validity as Jesse’s confident assertion that a long-necked glass container was properly called a ‘volumetric beaker’ (Episode 1.05, Jesse showing off his new-found scientific expertise to his friend, Badger).
He at least correctly identified the ‘volumetric’ part of it. That’s just about the dirtiest volumetric flask I’ve ever seen.
The invincibility of science is an attractive idea to grade school children, high school dropouts, and socially inept science nerds like Walter White. To the rest of us, and to Breaking Bad, the assertion of science as the answer to all problems is meant to be a laughable proposition.
After so many failures of Walter’s homemade machines, why did his pop-up auto-fire machine gun work perfectly—the very first time he tried it?
We could pose other questions, all carrying the same value, all requiring the same response: Why is water wet? Why does the sun rise in the east? Why did keys fall from heaven as soon as Walter made his request?
The answer to all four of the above questions is the same: Because the Universe so ordained.
A Critique of Pure Mechanics
That Walter was agent in this episode, not master, should not cause any of us to infer that Vince Gilligan created a mechanistic universe. If he had done so, we might expect that Walter White, with his exemplary understanding of cause and effect, would have been able to rise to any challenge. But just as the logic of Mr. Spock was insufficient to the solution of any problem on Star Trek, Walter’s widgets and wonders were more likely to create problems than solve them.
The Universe of Breaking Bad, as far as I can tell, is not a rigidly pre-determined environment. But there are laws. If you jump up into the air you should expect that gravity will pull you back down to the ground. You’re not going to go floating off into the stratosphere. If you violate the laws of Karma you should expect retribution. You’re not going to ‘keep getting away with it’ as Jesse said.
In Star Trek neither Mr. Spock (pure intellect) nor Dr. McCoy (pure heart) fit perfectly into the galaxy. Only Captain Kirk (pure soul, the complete human being) could take on any challenge and succeed. In the same way, the purely scientific approach of Walter White was doomed to fail in the Breaking Bad Universe. It was only when Walter showed humanity that he could succeed.
The Universe did not ordain that Jesse Pinkman would survive the ‘Say hello to my little friend’ moment inside the Nazi clubhouse. Walter decided that, and the Universe allowed him to do so, because it was the human thing to do.
Copyright 2012 Martin Woutisseth, used with permission
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was…really…I was alive.” Walter showed his true colors throughout the episode, but especially in the heartbreaking meeting with Skyler in the kitchen after Marie’s call. He had the honesty and presence of mind not to apologize or seek forgiveness. He knew he was far beyond redemption.
He came to us as Walter White, wearing only white underwear, denoting undignified pride in himself, and a green shirt, denoting unattained desire or greed. Cancer was the catalyst that activated long-dormant seeds of envy, anger, and pride. The synthesis of crystalline methamphetamine was not something he did ‘for the good of the family’ nearly as much as it was an assertion of self, a proclamation that Walter could ‘do something better than anyone in the world’.
He loved Baby Blue because it obeyed the rules of science. It never complained, talked back, or tried to make Walter less than he was simply out of spite. Baby Blue was the proof of his superior intellect. No one else in Walter White’s world found the dictates of logic and mathematics sufficient to a satisfying life. Only Walter and his one true love, 99.1% pure methamphetamine—the work of his hands, the creation of his mind—found in the cold world of pure logic a place of contentment because it reflected Walter’s greatness.
But his celebration of self meant a devaluation of others, to the point that murder became a useful means of attaining important goals. It was important to instill fear, essential to be able to say, “I’m the one who knocks,” because fear meant respect, and respect meant a proper appreciation of his name and all of the great achievements that name stood for. “Say my name!” was the most important command he ever issued to an underling.
By allowing Walter to retain shards of his humanity, as flawed and beyond redemption as he was, the writers held Walter as an example and a warning. All of us carry inside ourselves dormant seeds of greed, hatred, and pride. When a difficult set of circumstances coalesces in our lives we have the choice to act selfishly or selflessly. Any one of us can become Walter White.
The Death of Walter Shephard
During the final fight of the series he sacrificed himself, sustaining a lethal wound to the lower right abdomen. The wound bled so much it soaked both his shirt and his slacks. The only real friend he had left him. His mission completed, he returned to the place where it all began. As he made his way down a narrow passageway, he seemed to be retracing steps he had walked earlier, pausing every now and then in nostalgic wonder to examine things that had been important many seasons earlier. No longer able to support himself, he fell to the ground. But as he looked up he realized he was not alone. The one who had loved him all along was at his side. As the camera pulled away we saw him looking upward, happy even in death, surrounded by the place he had known so well.
We could certainly apply this description to the scene of Walter’s death. Walter sacrificed himself for Jesse, who left him to die alone, the lethal abdominal wound bleeding over shirt and slacks. He walked through the forest of laboratory apparatus and equipment, fell to the ground, and died with Baby Blue—his blue meth—the one who always loved him—right at his side.
In fact, though, the death scene was written not for Walter White, but for Jack Shephard of Lost (2004-2010, ABC Television). He suffered a lethal wound in exactly the same part of the abdomen as Walter. Just like Walter, he died in a place of his choosing, a place where he found comfort.
From the moment Walter entered the laboratory the visual parallels to the death of Jack Shephard occurred one after another in rapid succession. I don’t imagine we will have to wait too long for the first Youtube side-by-side comparison of Walter’s final walk through the laboratory and Jack’s final walk through the jungle back to his place in the bamboo.
I have read two commentaries that compared Walter’s death to the final scene of carnage in the 1976 classic “Taxi Driver.” I watched the film again today. I made valiant efforts to see the parallel. Other than some technical similarities (overhead camera, subdued lighting, choreographed approach of police officers), the scenes shared practically nothing in common. Besides his desire to kill for no apparent reason, Travis Bickle had no mission. He was wounded in the neck and in the arm, not in the lower right abdomen. He didn’t die. There are many other reasons to dismiss the strange, half-baked comparisons of Breaking Bad with the ambiguous, postmodernist mess that is “Taxi Driver.”
I found Breaking Bad’s homage to Lost touching and entirely appropriate. I know I am not alone in considering the two series the best programs ever created for television. They’re very different stories, told in distinct ways. While Breaking Bad is told in a conventional manner, it delivers bold, difficult statements about human nature. Lost, on the other hand, unfolds in possibly the most complicated visual and narrative style ever applied to a television series, but it delivers conventional, palatable statements about humanity.
But the two series share much, especially in terms of the depth of artistic detail and symbolism attached to names, characters, colors, scenery, and events. Breaking Bad’s meager 30-year backstory cannot compete with Lost’s intricate 2000-year history, but Lost’s handful of symbolically significant colors cannot be compared to Breaking Bad’s grand obsession with color symbolism. There are at least four distinct shades of orange in Breaking Bad, each of them bearing enormous symbolic meaning. The same can be said of blue, yellow, red, white, and the other major hues. Lost has Dharma blue, Island yellow, and Dogen green and that’s about it. Regardless of the story, though, the symbols carry immense thematic value and lift these two cinematic creations far above anything else written for television.
Journey to an Antique Land
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…
We know the forces that caused the fall of Ozymandias. Mr. Chips became Scarface. The seeds of the grotesque transformation lay dormant, buried deep inside, until circumstance allowed dark seeds to grow. Even this we knew, though, for none of the showrunners hesitated to explain the thesis of the show, even before the pilot aired.
The result was not and could not have been surprising or unanticipated. It’s not the thesis, or the result, or the ending that gives the show value. It’s the journey itself that brings life and depth and meaning to the core themes and extrapolations from the thesis. I’m beginning my fifth rewatch of Lost. At the same time, I’m completing my second rewatch of Breaking Bad. In these journeys to antique lands I continue to find fresh ideas, startling connections, and bold assertions about the human condition. The journeys never grow old. If you wish to come with me, be sure to pack a warm jacket and plenty of tea. It’s cold and dry in the desert after dark, especially when Jessie destroys the generator. But, ah…don’t wear a blue jacket, and definitely never, ever put Stevia in your tea.