Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Sense of an Ending: Thoughts on Breaking Bad and Dexter

The most shocking moment in Breaking Bad's final episode, "Felina," happens in its teaser.  Having spent months holed up in rural New Hampshire as his body finally succumbs to cancer, fed only by scraps of news about his family's (mostly ill) fortune in the wake of his exposure as the meth manufacturer Heisenberg, Walter White is headed back to Albequerque.  Slipping into an unlocked car, he frantically and ineffectually scrapes at the ignition with a screwdriver.  As the lights of an approaching police car begin to illuminate the car's interior, Walt--sick, tired, and cold--leans back in despair, and then speaks.  "Just get me home," he rasps.  "Just get me home.  I'll do the rest."  With less than an hour left in his show (and only a few days left in his life), Walter White is praying.

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.


Alison said...

I love to read this, but I don't think I agree that Walt is obviously crying out to god, or at least not the moral-regulator god of modern religion. My son thought he was talking simply to the car ('just get me home') and was surprised it was in doubt.

I think we were supposed to imagine he was talking to his evil self, one final time to do all that was ruthlessly required in the old style, before the moral flip-over at the end.

I personally prefer to think he was crying out to an all-embracing universal soul, or fate, which makes no moral judgement at all, which perhaps favours the capable and courageous. I realise this was not the writers' intent, but it suits me to interpret it that way.

Unknown said...

I've thought about this a lot in regards to Mad Men in that I have no idea how that show ends. The "comeuppance" ending is hard for a show to do because in traditional story structure the protagonist character experiences a comeuppance early in the story (Christmas Carol, for example) and then works to redeem themselves and grow good. I think we as an audience still want to see the redemption, even in the anti-hero genre. If the show had ended with Ozymandias, I think we'd be unsatisfied and want to know what happens next.

Walt only ever gets worse. I suppose one day we might see a show where the character bottoms out in season 3 and then works for the next couple of seasons to claim some semblance of redemption, but we're not there yet. When you have these shows where the trajectory is more-bad, more-dark always, I don't know how you can turn that around in an episode or two.

I've been trying to think of a show I've seen recently where I was really satisfied with the ending, and not really coming up with one recently. Granted, tv endings are pretty hard, given the number of series that are able to end on their own terms and without having gone bad (in quality) at some point. With the ending not yet written there are so many places where a story could go (and not just in terms of damnation-redemption) in the next episode. As an audience there's a great thrill in not knowing what happens next to the characters we're compelled by. It wasn't that The Deathly Hallows was bad, but it put a capstone on the story (and like you, most of my problems with it were that she didn't go where I was hoping she'd go) and meant no more Harry books. I still remember what I felt like picking up the 7th book and there, at that moment, being limitless places for the story to go. Ending the series (though this is a book series and not a tv one) means an end of the suspense of not knowing what happens next.

I think you're correct that we don't know what the literary end of an anti-hero tale is, so it's hard to portray that, but I think that there's also some problem in ending serial television as well.

local-max said...

This is a great post, thank you for articulating many of the problems I had with the BB finale, even as I (mostly) enjoyed it, and grew to like it more and more as the time has passed since I saw it Tuesday night. There is a sense in the episode that what Walt is doing is right or justifiable, especially with regards to his offers of "help" to Skyler and his son. And of course, he ends the episode by rescuing Jesse, and who can blame him for that? But to get there, he mows down people, lies, threatens people's lives, you name it. The morality of massacring Uncle Jack and company was especially difficult to deal with. The introduction of Nazis into a story is almost always a way to have them be essentially killable nearly guilt free, but the recognition that Uncle Jack and his friends, no matter how vile, are actually *people* is something the season has mostly avoided. (They come the closest with Todd, who as a result is dispensed with personally by Jesse as revenge over the horrible treatment he suffered at Todd's hands, something that is so understandable in the immediate aftermath of torture that it's only marginally an action we are expected to look at morally at all.)

But in some ways, the way it became easier for me to deal with is the recognition that Walt's aim, after all, *was* selfish. With Flynn and Skyler, it is possible to argue that his actions in the finale are ultimately justified damage control, especially with Skyler (since she is able to take-or-leave the information that he has given her). But I think the episode suggests strongly that Walt did *not* plan his attack on Uncle Jack's lair to rescue Jesse. He went there because he wanted what was his, which the episode suggests is the meth. I want to check this more thoroughly, but I am pretty sure the word "blue" is not said in the entire episode until the song over the end credits -- and it is teased out, e.g. by Todd describing Lydia's shirt as a "cornflower...," Walt interrupting before Todd can get to his word. Walt does care about his family, and when given the opportunity he saves Jesse, but his greatest desire is to recover his own empire and spend his last moments with it. I think he does, however, offer himself up to be killed by Jesse as a kind of penance for the pain he has inflicted on Jesse (itself a weird, selfish kind of penance, of course). But he bought the weapons when he did not know that Jesse was still alive -- and I do think that there is surprise in his voice when Badger & Skinny Pete mention that the product is high quality and that means Jesse must be working for them. That Walt basically arranges mass murder so he can remove his product from other people's hands is an action that is so obviously wrongheaded that I don't think the God POV needs to condemn it outright for us to see that it is wrong; it's just that Walt is now willing, in the process, to help Jesse. I think that he doesn't decide to spare Jesse from his wrath until the last moment, and even that may be in part because he knows Jesse is not going to cook again. The lyrics of "El Paso" cast Felina as a dark, evil woman who bewitched the singer into becoming a murderer, and whom he eventually must recover for himself even if it means dying. I think that the POV that the song creates is similar to the tone of the episode -- it is hard not to instinctively identify with the singer's longing, pain, and feel pleasure at his reunion with his loved one, even though he is a weak-willed fool at best and a monster at worst.


local-max said...

I think maybe what I like most about the finale is that Walt is able to acknowledge, fully, that he is doing what he is doing for himself. He liked cooking meth, he tells Skyler. He owns his actions. And I think it's that which makes the relatively happy ending for Walt possible. He is no longer (as) self-deceived; he is able to recognize that he found something that gave him joy, and in his last moments he gives himself over to that joy completely. I think Walt is still self-deceived about much of what he did -- his leaving the money for his son, as you point out, is a violation of his consent and surely is *not* what his son wants -- but at the episode's end he seems to have come to a place of self-knowledge, and to find joy in doing so. He doesn't "deserve" it, and Walt's only real action to try to "earn" his last moments is to ask Jesse to kill him and then allow himself some peace since Jesse has spared him. But in those very last moments, Walt can no longer do any more damage to anyone; what has been done is done. It's hard to sort out, but it seems right somehow that he can have a moment where he can genuinely, eyes-open, appreciate what he has loved about his own work, even if pursuing it has wrought destruction on everyone.

What's interesting is how much Dexter, in his early seasons, basically has the role of a Star Trek outsider character -- sometimes Spock or Odo glad he's on the outside, sometimes Data or the Doctor looking longingly at what is on the inside -- but basically an observer on the oddities of human nature, sometimes its hypocrisies, sometimes its wonders. Except also he kills people. (In that sense, Brian Moser is basically Lore and that season eight mother figure character who gave Harry the rules -- Vogel, is it? I didn't watch it -- is maybe the Founder Leader.)

Standback said...

Terrific essay, as always.

I always just lay the blame for post-S4 Dexter on head writer Melissa Rosenberg quitting. :P But seriously - consider the season 4 finale as an actual conclusion to the series. Does that perhaps work better, as a tragic conclusion to Dexter's arc - the ultimate both in having his hope for a mentor figure dashed, and destroying the lives he cares about?

Another anti-hero you might consider would be House. I think they actually did a pretty good job bringing that one to something conclusion-ish. They struck a good balance. They managed both "Here, House has found something life-changing and meaningful" in a believable but surprising way, and also "Here's the corner House's behavior has ultimately backed him into," which was inevitable and necessary. Plus they did good by addressing "No, House can't handle what he wants most (a real relationship with Cuddy) however much he tries" in the previous season. I think House always devoted itself to toeing the line between "This guy is awesome" and "This guy is pathetic," and it found a conclusion that did a good job of maximizing and mixing up the both of them.

Unknown said...

It'll mark me as far too pretentious, but I'm reminded of Shakespeare's Richard III, where we have a similarly anti-heroic protagonist that the audience is invited to cheer along with. For Shakespeare, at least, he's able to bound the character's arc and response from the audience within the five acts he works with, not several seasons of serialized television. Richard's comeuppance at the hands of the bland and forgettable Henry Tudor, though, and Richard's arguable agonizing over his dichotomoy as some version of the historical Richard or some Tudor Myth-inspired melodramatic monster allows Shakespeare to skirt a lot of the same questions through his usual ambiguity and metatheatricality. I think your query--how does or should or can an anti-hero program conclude?--is maybe more of a craft question. What can be said about Walter White as an anti-hero may yield more from what we can say about what people see or wanted in his ending (art as mirror for the spectator rather than the world).

Foxessa said...

"El Paso" was a big hit from back in the day by Marty Robbins. I didn't even see BB since the first season, when I decided this wasn't for me. But there's been a lot of talk about the title, and immediately I thought, "Marty Robbins's El Paso."

Well, I wasn't the only one:

However, the true meaning of the Felina title appears to have been the Marty Robbins’ song El Paso. When Walter White is rummaging through the glove compartment of a stolen car, a Marty Robbins’ cassette tape falls out. When he finds the keys and drives off in the car, the song El Paso starts playing.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
oddengine said...

Great analysis. I would categorize Dexter as an "unlikely hero," never an antihero. But as his humanity grew, the killings became even more morally ambiguous. This was further highlighted by Deborah's response to learning his secret. From there, the series turned into a hot mess.

I like the thoughts of god or fate or whomever was on Walt's side when the keys fell. I loved the finale.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


As I say in the essay, I don't mean to suggest that Walt has a very concrete notion of god when he calls out to someone in the car (I think he does possess that notion - remember "Judeo-Christian morality" as a reason not to kill Krazy 8 in the first season? - but he doesn't tend to apply it to his own life). But I do think that Breaking Bad absolutely does take place in a universe in which god is not only a moral regulator, but an active one. I've limited my discussion to Walt in this essay, but the Todd VanDerWerff piece I link to has some very interesting examples. In particular, I liked his observation that when Hank treats Jesse like a human being whose beating at Hank's hands was unjustified no matter what his crimes, he survives a seemingly inescapable attack. But when he treats Jesse like a pawn whose life is less important that getting Walt, his triumph turns to ashes and he's murdered by Jack.

I think we were supposed to imagine he was talking to his evil self, one final time to do all that was ruthlessly required in the old style, before the moral flip-over at the end.

Some people have suggested that Walt is calling out to Heisenberg in this scene. I'm not crazy about that interpretation - mostly because I find the Walt/Heisenberg split in some reviews a little mechanistic, but also because I'm not sure it makes sense (Heisenberg can't make the keys be under the sunguard, and it's not as if the "rest" that Walt does after he gets to Albequerque isn't rather Heisenberg-ish). There's also this piece, which suggests that Walt is praying not to god but to the devil.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I think we as an audience still want to see the redemption, even in the anti-hero genre

I think there's a difference between redemption (which is, arguably, what "Felina" offers Walt) and change for the better. Ultimately, Walt died the same person he was throughout the series - it's just that in this context he was the best man to actually do some good for the characters we care about, and of course he ends up dead at the end so we can feel positive towards him without worrying that he's going to hurt anyone else. Change is much harder, but a lot of anti-hero shows seem to feel that it's also impossible - The Sopranos, most obviously, but I think Breaking Bad also came down on that side in the end. I'm puzzled by reviewers who quote the pilot's "chemistry is about change" line as reflecting Walt, since while obviously Walt changes in his circumstances and attitudes over the course of the show, I don't think he changes in his essence - he's always been a proud, power-hungry control freak, and simply found different ways to express it (in particular, it seems relevant that before he ended up as a teacher he somehow burned out of two prestigious, lucrative jobs - Gray Matters and the lab he was working at when he and Skyler bought the house).

Which is one of the reasons that I found the ending of Mad Men's most recent season so exciting. The idea that a character like Don Draper can work his way out of bad habits and try to fix some parts of his life is pretty revolutionary in this genre, and I think the reason that Mad Men can get away with suggesting it is that it is less hung up on morality in the good and evil, reward and punishment sense that Breaking Bad goes in for. Don has done terrible things - he abuses his wives, children, and lovers, he's come pretty close to rape and sexual assault on several occasions, he's driven two different men to suicide - but the focus on the show isn't on comeuppance (or if it is, it recognizes that the worst comeuppance for Don is being Don).

I've been trying to think of a show I've seen recently where I was really satisfied with the ending

That's a good question. It definitely feels as if endings have gotten harder to pull off as serialization and complex storytelling have become more common. I think the ending to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, is pretty perfect, but I can't think of another show that has pulled something like that off more recently.


I think the episode suggests strongly that Walt did *not* plan his attack on Uncle Jack's lair to rescue Jesse

Oh, absolutely. Until he sees the interview with Gretchen and Elliot in which the interviewer mentions that blue meth is still being produced he thinks Jesse is dead, and when Badger and Skinny Pete confirm the report he assumes that Jesse and Jack are partners. Even when he mentions Jesse in order to stall for time, it's only as a ploy - he doesn't really care - and it's only once he sees Jesse that he makes the decision to try and spare him.

He is no longer (as) self-deceived; he is able to recognize that he found something that gave him joy, and in his last moments he gives himself over to that joy completely

Yes, that's a good point. On the whole I find the way that Walt accepts his death in the episode a little artificial - as if he knows that he's at the final chapter of his story (granted, he knows that he's dying, but it's still a little unrealistic for him to assume that he's going to a specific death). But the choice to treat the meth lab as his one true love was an interesting one that almost sold the contrivance.

I like the idea of Dexter and Brian as Data and Lore. In its later seasons the show lost the idea of Dexter as an outsider to humanity, and very much to its detriment.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Ending the show after the fourth season's tragic ending might have been interesting, but I don't think it was ever on the cards. It's very clearly an ending created for the shock value (and maybe also to get rid of Rita, a character that the show increasingly didn't know what to do with). If the fifth season had built on the depressing conclusion suggested by that ending - that Dexter can never be fully human and that the people he cares about will suffer if he tries - that might have been interesting, but instead the show shifted to the consolatory model, offering Lumen as a compensation prize, and then moving further and further into that mindest as the series went on.

I agree that House was an anti-hero show that balanced punishing its protagonist with showcasing his awesomeness. It's a bit hard to think about it in the same context as Breaking Bad, though, because the material got pretty tired towards the end, when the show was clearly just plugging on because it had crazy ratings. I liked the ending the writers came up with for House, which was, as you say, a mixture of triumph and loss, but even the episode that delivered that ending was rather poorly written.

Z said...

I feel in general that anti-hero shows call for, and perhaps stimulate, something of an "actuarial" moral sense, where the most important determination about a character is not whether they are good or evil but simply what one can expect them to do next, and what you ought to do about it. Or maybe alternatively a "community of mind" morality, where we recognize that a person is really a pile of disparate drives that only occasionally traffic with each other, and that our job is to corral the troublesome ones and cultivate those of civic use.

It seems to be the only way to get past the psychoanalytic trap of wondering what it *reaaaaally* says about us when we (or the writers) chose heads or tails in a mixed moral outcome cointoss, and just appreciate in a sort of empty-cup fashion the perils and prizes of wandering off the reservation. I'm not trying to espouse a morality-free appraisal of the end, just suggesting (as you seem to be) that expecting the ending of a show in a genre that essentially made constant hay from pointing out the intellectual shortcomings of Manichean thinking in trying to make sense of what people do to drop that ruse of evenhandedness and reveal How It Really Is is a fundamental misunderstanding of what you've been watching.

Arthur said...

When I saw the scene I chuckled to myself a little - I did get the impression that a higher power might help Walt, but let's face it, it's probably a bright red one with horns associated with sulphurous stenches and deep underground saunas rather than any more benign deity.

On reflection, though, I don't think Breaking Bad or Walt are really engaging with the idea of a personal god there so much as it's the universe itself at work. It's a karma thing: over and over again in the series people eventually get what's coming to them, and the criminal life essentially becomes a matter of spinning plates - you can keep them going for a good while and reap the benefits, but sooner or later one of those plates is going to tip and it's going to be an utter disaster.

For the entire final episode Walt gives himself up to be an agent of karma one last time, which I guess is why his plan works, but karma seems to demand bloody violence, pain and suffering. Look at what happened to Hank and Gomez: as representatives of legitimate authority they tried to bring Walt before a measured, ordered sort of justice administered by courts, and it didn't work. More or less the only justice that seems to have some sort of "blessing" or sanction in Breaking Bad is outlaw justice - Gus taking down the cartel, Hector and Walt taking down Gus, Walt putting the fear on Gretchen and Elliot (which, yes, was mostly about him getting money to the family, but was also a final "fuck you" for trying to erase the contribution of the Walter White who hadn't broken bad), Walt taking down the Nazis. Walt probably wasn't planning to get shot by his own trap, but that's a sort of justice too. He wasn't planning on freeing Jesse either - remember, he didn't know Jesse was a meth slave until he saw it with his own eyes and I suspect he was intending to kill Jesse if it turned out he'd joined the Nazis - but rather than causing a complication which threw his plan out of whack Jesse being there gave Walt the perfect excuse to dive to the floor and cause a ruckus which brought most of the Nazis into the firing arc as they clustered around the fight.

In other words, if there is a higher power at work in Felina, it's not a higher power we should want anything to do with. It's not a god of genuine justice or peace or goodwill to fellow human beings; it's a god of bloody, vicious feuding and unending chains of vengeance. When you break bad and go outlaw and step out of the power of society and human justice, you're stepping into an arena ruled by karma-as-vengeance, which I guess was the thing Walt didn't realise when he decided to take this path: being a master criminal isn't about avoiding all consequences, it's about the consequences becoming radically nastier than anything that would have happened to you in your cosy civilian life.

bats-eye said...

"Walt only ever gets worse. I suppose one day we might see a show where the character bottoms out in season 3 and then works for the next couple of seasons to claim some semblance of redemption, but we're not there yet."

As a main character, possibly. I can think of several supporting characters to have precisely that arc. Londo Mollari and Gaius Balter come to mind.

I'm incresingly convinced that that's the role where the anti hero belongs.

Jack Rodgers said...

I agree with just about everything in your piece about the difficulty of bringing an antihero drama to a satisfactory close, although I’d argue that Breaking Bad had two odd quirks that further complicated things:

1. The show was almost entirely about Walt

No serialized drama of the post-Sopranos “golden age” has been as singularly focused on its main character as Breaking Bad was on Walter White. Virtually every major story development was a direct result of Walt’s actions, and almost every plot thread was connected to his initial decision to “break bad” following his cancer diagnosis (rare exceptions: Skyler cooking the books at Ted’s firm, Gus’ war with the Mexican cartel). This was, of course, by design: I’ve always thought that if you could look at the actual narrative structure of Breaking Bad, it would resemble a chemical reaction caused when a single destabilizing element is added to a mixture (note: my knowledge of science and chemistry is not great. Hopefully that metaphor makes sense). In the early going, the destabilizing element was cancer and the mixture was Walt himself: The show was examining how a death sentence gradually changed the worldview and ethics of one man. Over time, Walt and his criminal career became the destabilizing element, and the mixture was the community of people around him. Everyone he interacted with, whether his family or his criminal associates, whether they knew about his double life or not, found themselves dealing with new pressures and moral dilemmas.

On some level, the supporting characters existed to serve as foils to Walt, to show how he had corroded their lives and forced them to do unthinkable things. That proved slightly disappointing for me in the end, as the show wasn’t very interested in exploring who they had become; only with Skyler and possibly Flynn do I feel like I have some idea of what their lives will be like after the credits roll. How exactly Marie has adjusted to widowhood is left unseen (it’s implied that she and Skyler have reconciled, but that feels unlikely given her belief that Skyler’s knowledge of Walt’s crimes made her complicit in Hank’s season 3 shooting), and Jesse’s happy ending at escaping the neo-Nazi compound completely ignores the empty shell of a life he’s rushing back to. It would have been nice to have more time with these people, but tellingly, the last two episodes spent the bulk of their time probing Walt’s mental state through his interactions with characters we’ve never met before (Ed the extractor in Granite State) or have made few appearances (Elliot and Gretchen in Felina).

Jack Rodgers said...

Which brings me to the most shortchanged character in Breaking Bad’s heavy focus on Walt: Lydia. While I can’t deny that Lydia was fairly one-dimensional and irritating (did she really have to say most of her lines in the same breathless, stop-start rhythm?), I found the concept of her character fascinating and thought she would have benefited greatly from more screen time. In fact, it’s worth pointing out just how little screen time she had: she was made a series regular for the final half season, but only appeared in six scenes in eight episodes. There’s a part of me that wonders if she was kept around just so the writers had someone for Walt to give the ricin to.

So what made Lydia so interesting (to me, at least)? She was the only person on Breaking Bad besides Walt and Jesse who started off as a reasonably normal person and ended up falling into moral depravity. The other people Walt encountered were either family members who were corrupted by his influence but didn’t go over to the dark side completely (save perhaps Skyler advocating Jesse’s murder) or hardened criminals who had already inured themselves to acts of violence. Lydia’s panic during the first episode she appeared in, when she asked Mike to assassinate Fring’s former associates who had been compromised, was intriguing because you got the sense that Lydia had never done anything remotely like this before. Since she had been involved in a criminal enterprise in a very abstract way, just moving things from one place to another, I believe she never even imagined she’d have to consider the possibility of being caught. Just like Walt first pictured himself cooking batches of meth and selling it to someone else to distribute, never getting involved in the seamier side of the business.

Instead of charting Lydia’s descent – and the possibility that she was acting not out of greed but terrifying pressure from her Czech drug connection to keep the money rolling in, something implied in the half-season premiere and never followed up on – Breaking Bad turned her into another villain for Walt to take down. I guess we’re supposed to see her death by poisoning in the finale as a moral good, but how much worse of a person was she really than Walt? Why was she beyond redemption and he wasn’t? Not to mention the fact that Lydia’s daughter will be orphaned and will likely be the one who discovers her corpse – making hers yet another life that Walt has ruined.

Jack Rodgers said...

2. Walt’s cancer diagnosis eliminated a lot of possible choices for the ending

In an interview with the Academy of Television, Matt Weiner basically summed up the three possibilities that Sopranos fans thought that that show’s ending could deliver: “Tony goes to jail, Tony dies, Tony gets off.” In other words, two endings in which Tony is punished and the universe (or David Chase) renders a moral judgment against him, and one ending in which he survives intact and receives a positive verdict. When it comes to so many antiheroes, those do seem to be the only choices available.

But when Walt revealed in the half-season premiere that his cancer was back, Breaking Bad essentially took two of those options off the table. Walt was going to die no matter what, so his death couldn’t be symbolic as punishment for his sins. Likewise, he would never have lived long enough for the law to convict him, much less serve any time in prison; Hank’s pursuit of him was always more about a personal vendetta than any belief that justice was going to be served.

So what did that leave Vince Gilligan and company as a means to render a moral judgment on Walt? Really only his family, the one thing he cared about that would continue on after his death. Happiest ending: they get all $80 million of his drug money. Happy ending: they get a significant portion of his drug money. Neutral ending: they receive nothing, but are still alive by the end. Unhappy ending: Skyler, Flynn and/or Holly are killed as a result of Walt’s actions.

This is why, I suspect, the question of whether Skyler and Flynn wanted to accept the drug money was glossed over in the finale: The show needed to use the status of his fortune to define whether Walt came to a happy or tragic ending, and having the family reject it would felt out of place on a show that depicted its supporting characters as reacting to Walt rather than as agents in their own right. His only real sacrifice, then, lies in his decision about how to get them to take that money – accepting that his children will think of him as a loathsome human being while holding Elliot and Gretchen in high esteem for their charity.

And I think that’s why the ending feels somewhat unsatisfying. Without being able to kill or imprison Walt as punishment, the show is just left with exploring the status of his relationships with the other characters – but for the run of the show, those relationships were mostly one-sided.

P.S. You’re one of several people I’ve read online who thought Jack’s obsession with proving that Jesse was his slave and not his partner was hard to believe. I actually bought this, since it fits into a larger pattern on Breaking Bad in which the kingpins are defeated by their own hubris as much as their opponents’ cunning: Gus is killed because of his obsession with destroying the cartel and the Salamanca family; Walt loses everything because he wants to be both criminal mastermind and family man, refusing to kill those close to him; and Jack’s pride is wounded by the accusation that he would associate with a rat – the scum of the earth to a hardened criminal.

(Man….. this is way longer than I originally thought it would be. Hope this was coherent and/or insightful.)

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