At the most basic level, this is shocking because Walt has never been presented as a person who thinks about spiritual matters, much less the existence of god. If anything, we might describe Walt as a hyper-materialist, a person who sees the world purely in terms of the building blocks it offers him in his relentless problem-solving, a Heinleinian Competent Man taken to terrifying extremes. What few moments of spiritual contemplation we've seen him engage in over the course of the show's five seasons have mostly been bound up in something, or someone, concrete--his family, his children, most of all his infant daughter Holly. For Walter White to ask anyone for help is a big deal--almost the only person in the series who has enjoyed that dubious privilege is his assistant Jesse, and Walt only tolerated that necessity because of his feelings of utter superiority and control over Jesse, which he went to murderous extremes to maintain. Appealing to a higher power, even if it's just undirected flailing (which, just to be clear, is most likely what's happening here; when I say that Walt is praying I don't mean that he believes in a higher power), seems so foreign to who Walt is that it drives home just how far he's fallen and how desperate he is.
That's not what I thought about, though, in the moment. When I first watched this scene, what shocked me about it--appalled me, even--was Walt's audacity, not just in praying for help in his quest to cause more violence, pain, and death--he has left his hiding place in order to make one last stab at getting his ill-gotten gains to a family that wants nothing to do with them or him, and to take revenge on the neo-Nazi gang that has taken over his meth business and killed his brother-in-law Hank--but in assuming that he and god are on the same side. "I'll do the rest," Walt says, as if his plan was actually god's plan, and Walt just needs a little help to carry it out.
The thing is, though, Walt is right. Up until this episode, if you were to look for evidence of some sort of providence operating within the Breaking Bad universe, you would have to conclude that it was--quite reasonably and naturally--opposed to Walt's choice to become a meth manufacturer and murderer, and constantly offering him chances to get off the bad path he'd chosen. From the first season episode in which Walt's former friends and business partners Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz offer to pay for his cancer treatments (allegedly the reason he gets into the lucrative meth business) to moments before the opening of "Felina," when Walt's son (who has abandoned, probably forever, his given name of Walter Jr., and now goes by Flynn) angrily rejects his father's latest attempt to justify his crimes by giving drug money to his family, there have been countless signs and signals sent to Walt that what he's doing is wrong, destructive, and ultimately self-defeating. In "Felina," however, the message is reversed. When Walt, after his short prayer, checks under the car's sunguard, he does it gingerly, as if he realizes that what he finds there will be a final statement on whether the universe is on his side. When the keys that are hidden there fall, literally, into his lap, they are shot from above, like a gift from heaven. Whatever their differences in the preceding 61 hours of television, in "Felina," god is on Walter White's side.
It's an impression more than borne out by the rest of the episode, in which Walt's actions seem blessed. Despite being one of the most notorious and wanted men in Albequerque (and despite being spotted on one of his early forays into town) Walt doesn't even come close to the clutches of the police (he evades them even in the episode's closing moments, when he succumbs to a bullet wound before they can arrest him). He flits from one location to another as if by magic, seeing but unseen even when he's in public, as when he watches his son in the street, or confronts his former associates Todd and Lydia in a crowded restaurant (Matt Zoller Seitz has written an excellent post about Walt as a ghost, appearing in rooms--Gretchen and Elliot's house, Skyler's kitchen--as if out of nowhere, but another way of describing it might be divine intervention). And he accomplishes impossible feats--somehow inserting ricin into a sealed packet of sweetener which Lydia empties into her tea, mowing down the neo-Nazi gang with a remote-activated machine gun mounted on a swivel arm that emerges from the trunk of his car. Someone certainly seems to be looking out for Walt when his plan seems on the verge of collapse--the Nazis are going to kill him before he can spring his trap. Suddenly their leader, Todd's uncle Jack, is overcome by outrage at Walt calling him a welcher, and pauses Walt's execution in order to produce Jesse, imprisoned and tortured these last few months as he cooks meth for Jack, in order to prove that he isn't Jack's partner (even in a show that has been rather fond of such characters, Jack's convenient, over the top wickedness is a little hard to take). Jesse's presence also gives Walt one last chance to do something decent, as he knocks his former protegé to the ground before the hail of bullets can get him and shields him with his body (in the process suffering the wound that will kill him shortly after).
The result is that "Felina" feels as if it has been told, if not from Walt's point of view, than from his view of the world. In sharp contrast to "Ozymandias," the episode in which Walt's downfall occurred, "Felina" repeatedly accepts Walt's interpretation of his actions as brave and heroic, not Pyrrhic and self-aggrandizing. Even when the episode hammers the final nail into the coffin of Walt's repeated claims to have gotten into the drug business for the sake of his family, it does so on Walt's terms. "I did it for me," he finally admits to Skyler. "I liked it. I was good at it. And I was... really... I was alive."
There are in the episode faint hints of an alternate perspective on Walt's actions. "The whole thing felt kind of shady, like, morality-wise," Jesse's stoner friend Skinny Pete observes after he and his equally dim-witted friend Badger help Walt fool Gretchen and Elliot into believing that they will be murdered by assassins if they don't launder Walt's money and pass it to Flynn as a supposed act of charity from benevolent former friends of his father (though his qualms are immediately alleviated by Walt's gift of a wad of cash). And in what is perhaps the episode's most subtle note, after five seasons in which the ups and downs and changing configuration of the White family have been reflected in their answering machine message (an antiquated device even in the series's setting of 2008-9, but an incredibly effective one nonetheless), when the episode reintroduces Skyler in her reduced circumstances as the suspected wife of a notorious drug dealer, her answering machine message is the default, mechanical voice the phone came with, indicating that the family hasn't bounced back from the damage Walt caused, and that no amount of money can heal its wounds. But for the most part, "Felina" refuses to acknowledge that there is another way of looking at Walt's actions in it--that tricking Skyler and Flynn into taking money that they have repeatedly, emphatically refused is one last violation from a man who never accepted that they were out of his control, that giving Skyler the location of Hank and Steve Gomez's burial site so she can cut a deal with the DA is forcing her to use her brother-in-law's body as a bargaining chip, that freeing Jesse still leaves him broke, emotionally shattered by months of torture and trauma, and prey to a drug addiction he never had much control over.
It's no wonder, then, that though most reviews have praised "Felina" for the good episode that it undeniably is, many reviewers have also wondered if it isn't too neat. Emily Nussbaum described it as what she'd expect from Walt's dying fantasy. Willa Paskin suggested that the episode represents the victory of team Walt. Even creator Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed the finale) has come out and said that even though Walt dies at the end of the series, it was important to the writers that he do it on his own terms. Perhaps the most succinct and accurate summary of the reservations expressed about "Felina" comes from Linda Holmes, who notes that "a balanced ending would be one that denied [Walt] some measure of control." But by doing something as foreign to his nature as giving up control to a higher power, as he does in the episode teaser, Walt somehow gains total control. Being on god's side means that not only are his plans successful, but that, for the first time in the series's five-season run, he can control their consequences, and even the emotions that people feel because of them.
Of course, when we talk about god in the context of a TV show, what we're really talking about is the writer. The reason that "Felina" feels as if some higher power is guiding and protecting Walt is that, for once, the story he wants to happen to him, and the story the writer wants to tell, are largely the same. This is true of all stories, but the writer's role as god--and the way that "Felina" brings god into a story that previously had no declared space set aside for the concept--feels particularly important when discussing anti-hero shows. In series like Breaking Bad, the writer is expected to do more than just determine the characters' fates; his role is to counteract their depravity by acting as the voice of absolute morality, the arbiter of right and wrong, the dispenser of reward and punishment. It's a role that, in the past, Breaking Bad's writers have embraced with gusto--this is the show, after all, that at the end of its second season literally rained hellfire on Walt's head as punishment for his greed and cruelty. So it is more than a little jarring for it to wag its finger at Walt's transgressions, and then give him exactly what he wants.
To be clear, when I talk about "Felina" being too neat and told from Walt's side, I'm doing so as an act of description, not passing judgment. I'm not trying to argue that letting the show end on Walt's terms is a "bad" ending. Rather, I'm trying to work out what we mean when we talk about a "good" ending, particularly when it comes to an anti-hero show like Breaking Bad. I've seen some people who didn't like the finale's pro-Walt slant suggest that the series might have done better to end with the brutal "Ozymandias," and I agree that that could have worked. (To be sure, if your interest going into the finale is in the innocents and semi-innocents who have been hurt by Walt's actions--Skyler, Jesse, Marie, the kids--then "Felina," for all its deliberate ignorance of the complicated situation in which it leaves these characters, is a more satisfying ending than "Ozymandias," which leaves them in dire straits. But it certainly can't be said that getting them to this "happy" ending is the purpose of the later episode; like everything else in it, it is a consequence of "Felina"'s focus on Walt--he wants his family, and eventually also Jesse, to be safe, and therefore they are.) But I'm not sure I see that it would have been a better ending. It would change the show's story, but does it therefore follow that a story about Walt's double life exploding and catching his entire family in the crossfire is better than one about Walt snatching some small measure of victory out of the ashes of that defeat?
Talking about "good" and "bad" endings feels like another way of addressing the whole host of questions raised by the anti-hero show concept, and the way that that conversation often seems to shade into self-justification. If we want a happy ending for Walt, then we're Bad Fans too blinded by his coolness to see the horrible things he's done. But if we want him to get his comeuppance, aren't we being both bloodthirsty and hypocritical? I never watched The Shield, but I remember, when it ended a few years ago, hearing fans praise its ending--in which main character Shane killed his family and then himself rather than go to jail for his crimes, and crooked cop protagonist Vic Mackey lost his family and was consigned to the living hell of a mundane desk job--and feeling just a little bit put off. How do you spend seven seasons following the ups and downs of a character's life, I wondered, and then cheer at their downfall, as if the hope of it was the only reason you'd tuned in? I've gone on here about the role of god in "Felina," and the way that the writers of anti-hero shows stand in for god, because it seems to me that there is, in the conversation about such shows, the expectation that their ending function as a sort of moral setting to rights, with god (or the writer) stepping in to distinguish good from evil and give to each character their just desserts.
It's not a burden that any writer could shoulder comfortably. The Sopranos probably dealt with it best when it simply refused to acknowledge it. Though I am, for the most part, persuaded by the detailed arguments that the sudden cut to black at the series's end represents Tony's death, they seem to me to be missing the point, which is that it's not what happens to Tony that matters, but how it's shown to us (or rather, not shown). We don't get to see Tony's brains splattered over his screaming wife and children, and to rejoice in his comeuppance; neither do we get to see him peacefully finish his dinner and go on to live a long life of violence and dominance marred only by the existential burden of being Tony Soprano. If we've come into the episode looking for some final, authoritative statement about Tony, life, and morality that will somehow make it alright for us to have been watching his story for eight years, the cut to black denies it to us. But of course, having found this perfect ending once, The Sopranos has denied it to all other TV shows (and not just anti-hero stories) for probably decades to come. And anyway, Breaking Bad is not the kind of show that could shoulder this kind of philosophical ending. It's a show with a brilliant story and complex characters, but not much thematic depth, and it ran out of whatever it had to say about the world or its subject matter (mainly, the parallel it drew between the drug trade and legal commerce) some time in its third season. Its ending needed to be story-driven as well, and Gilligan and his writers therefore needed to choose one of two inherently problematic options--victory or comeuppance. (Meanwhile, Mad Men's recent sixth season finale quietly promises to revolutionize the genre by offering its anti-hero a chance to change for the better. It has thus been extraordinarily frustrating to see reactions to "Felina" that refer to it as the capstone on the anti-hero craze, especially since to my mind Mad Men is clearly the better show.)
What it really comes down to, of course, is the question of how anti-hero shows justify their existence. Why are we watching stories about terrible men doing terrible things? Why are the people lucky enough to be granted a voice and a platform in our super-saturated culture choosing to tell these stories? All too often, it seems to me, we try to justify our fondness for these shows by treating them like moral fables--"I watch Breaking Bad to see Walt get his comeuppance," as if it takes 62 hours of television to make the point that producing and selling addictive poison is bad. Which is not to say that anyone who came to "Felina" expecting the kind of quasi-religious handing down of judgment I've described here is Watching it Wrong (Todd VanDerWerff, for example, makes an argument for a religious reading of Breaking Bad that is much broader than mine). Rather, my point is that I'm not sure that there's a way of watching a show like Breaking Bad right, without falling into either the trap of rooting for Walt, or the one of wishing for his downfall. When it comes to a character who is, ultimately, evil, it may be fun and thought-provoking to watch them in the middle of their story, rooting for them to be smarter and stronger than the other bad guys, cringing at their loss of moral direction. But I'm not sure that either of the endings on tap for such a character--triumph or death--can ever be truly satisfying.
Going from talking about Breaking Bad to talking about late-era Dexter is a bit like contemplating a stirring poem, and then an illiterate scrawl. It's not so much that the latter is bad as that it is incoherent and meaningless. I could go on for hours about Walter White as a character, but I wouldn't even know where to begin talking about what Dexter Morgan has become in the last three, or even four, seasons of the show that bears his name, not even to describe how it's all gone wrong. Even in the midst of its seventh season--the closest the show came to a return to form after losing its way in its second half--Dexter kept changing its mind about who and what its title character was, sometimes from one week to the next, making both the character and the show impossible to get a grip on. Coming closest to managing that task this summer was AV Club reviewer Joshua Alston (whose canny reviews have been the main, if not only, reason to watch the show's eighth and final season), who identified the underlying flaw of later Dexter as an unwillingness to call the title character on his flaws and failings that bordered on hero-worship. As Alston incisively points out in his review of the season's ninth episode:
Dexter's writers go to unbelievable lengths to keep Dexter suspended above everything else because they see him as a superhero, a man who has bravely taken responsibility for vanquishing evil in the world and whose only real flaw is his need for human connection. Essentially, they think of Dexter as a low-tech, plain-clothed version of Christopher Nolan's Batman, charged with a vital duty he's too heroic to abandon, and forced to carry the weight of the chaos it causes around him.Dexter, in other words, has become the sort of show you'd get if Breaking Bad were run by Team Walt. As self-evident as the comparisons to Breaking Bad seemed this year, however, with both shows spending the summer barreling towards their end in such different ways, it's worth remembering that Dexter wasn't always a natural fit in the anti-hero show genre. True, there are some superficial points of similarity--Dexter is a white, middle class man with a harmless exterior and a dangerous hobby, and his girlfriend (later wife) Rita was Skyler White back before anyone felt like coming to Skyler White's defense. But I think that if you'd told the show's creators, back when it premiered in 2006, that one day you'd be able to draw a circle around their show that would also encompass The Sopranos, they would have been very surprised.
The truth is that to begin with, Dexter was not an anti-hero as we've come to define the character type. The crux of shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Shield is watching a human being turn into a monster. In its first four seasons, Dexter was a show about a monster slowly figuring out that it might be possible for him to be human. The fact that people--and not just killers, but innocent people as well--died at his hands or because of him wasn't a reflection on the kind of person was, because he wasn't a person at all. It was merely an expression of his nature. In these seasons, the show very rarely got bogged down in inane questions like "murder--right or wrong?" (and when it did, it was in intriguing ways, such as Dexter's dismay that his supposedly normal friends would consider it a kindness to kill a woman dying of a painful cancer). It took it as a given that what Dexter was doing was, at best, a necessary release valve for his inherently monstrous nature, and focused instead on the question of whether he could ever learn to overcome that nature (and the tragic suggestion that, no matter how much Dexter might desire such a transformation, it might always be beyond him).
If you had to pick a single reason for why Dexter became such an incoherent, morally muddled show, you might do worse than to point an accusing finger at Breaking Bad. Perhaps not literally, but there is an undeniable shift towards an anti-hero show mentality in Dexter's back half. Where before the show focused on what Dexter was--an uncontrollable killer only barely held in check by a "code"--in its later seasons the focus shifted to what he did--his various murders and the people who died because of him--and how these acts could be justified or swept under the rug. It's as though the show's writers, who had previously assumed that the only way to have an unrepentant killer as your protagonist was to make him less than human, looked around and, seeing so many other fully human characters getting away with depravity that Dexter never even dreamed of, got jealous and decided to do the same. And then promptly forgot about the moral condemnation that goes hand-in-hand--however hypocritically, on occasion--with this kind of character. Dexter, after all, is the hero of his story, not someone the audience should be rooting against.
One odd consequence of this is that in its final season Dexter ends up highlighting, far more clearly than other, better shows, the inherent problem of trying to find a satisfying ending to an anti-hero story. Should the show end with Dexter exposed, or dead, or in any way punished? We've spent four seasons being told that Dexter is a good guy, someone who is performing a necessary public service, whom the audience should be rooting for. It would be the height of hypocrisy to turn around at the final episode at claim that he deserves punishment. Should Dexter reform, completing his transformation into a real boy? For four seasons the show has depicted Dexter as a thoroughly normal human being who just happens to occasionally kidnap people, strip them naked, tie them to a table, and stab them to death. There's no humanity left for him to grow into. Should Dexter, then, get away with everything, live happily ever after as Miami's resident serial killer? But then what about all the hurt he's caused to innocent people, including his family, in the best tradition of anti-heroes?
By the time it came to write its end, Dexter had no way of escaping the obvious questions that any choice of ending would raise, and its writers therefore chose to gesture at every one of them and settle on none. Dexter realizes that he doesn't need to kill anymore, and kills the season's hiss-worthy villain, and is repeatedly told by his friends and family (including people, like his sister Deb, whose lives he has repeatedly trashed) that he deserves to be happy, and discovers his humanity through murder when he disconnects a brain-dead Deb from life-support, and tries to commit suicide so that his monstrousness won't destroy his son's life, and survives that attempt but leaves his life behind to become a lumberjack (possibly a serial killing lumberjack). The show's final image, in which Dexter stares blankly at the camera, feels like a perfect encapsulation of the writers' total inability to find some final statement about their show and character. It's a failure that absolutely should be laid at the feet of the show and its writers, but I wonder if the root of their failure wasn't in writing badly, but in choosing the wrong genre for their story.
There's no conclusion that I'm building up to with this essay, no satisfying answer. Merely the question: is the anti-hero story inherently unfinishable unless, like The Sopranos, you choose not to finish it? I'm tempted to say something like: the problem is in the whole notion of a satisfying ending, where "satisfying" means satisfying some moral code of reward and punishment. What we should be looking at when we evaluate an ending isn't the genre of a show, or even our own embarrassment at rooting for its character, but the story. Does the ending stay true to it, and the characters, and the world they move in? But this feels glib, and more than a little like letting the creators of anti-hero shows--and their audience--off the hook. It's impossible to divorce this genre from its moral component, from the thrill of watching someone do evil and not knowing whether you want them to be punished or get away with it. It's that frisson--"I'm bad, I root for Walt!" "No, I'm good, I want Walt to be punished!"--that is at the heart of these shows. And it's by dismantling it, and committing to one of those endings, that these shows, excellent though they sometimes are, become inherently unsatisfying.