Monday, September 30, 2013

The End of the Line for Walter White

Of course it’s the end of the line for Walter White because Breaking Bad is over.  So, no, that wasn’t a spoiler.  But, if you don’t want to hear about the finale then STOP READING NOW (though, really, how you won’t find out somehow, somewhere, someday is beyond me).  And I’m assuming some familiarity with the show, so if you’re not interested in this TV show used in a discussion of story arc, probably also stop reading now, though without the capital letters.

I thought this was one of TV’s most satisfying series finales.  It was not as transcendent as the end to Six Feet Under, and it wasn’t as provocative as the end to The Sopranos, and though I guess time will tell, it wasn’t as so-all-wrong-seeming-at-the-time-while-ending-up-so-exactly-right as the end of Seinfeld.  But it was exactly and perfectly satisfying, and I think Vince Gilligan and the writers managed this miraculous feat a few different ways.

First, I do think that being satisfying to their audience was an important goal they had established for themselves. And what a diverse audience to work with, as this show attracted a number of different viewers:  the literary types, the moral justice types, the logical and science geek type, the shoot ‘em up types.  How could one storyline possibly reach all these constituencies? (If you need to know, I’m a literary type!) Early on, Gilligan said that he wasn’t leaving an open-ended ending; as a true writer, he wanted control over the story and its universe.  And once the show started taking off, it seemed to me to be very fan friendly, with contests and a big presence on social media and lots of affable interviews with the actors and Gilligan and a tremendous promotional effort on social media. I know most shows do this nowadays, but that is a change from the environment the shows I previously mentioned operated in.  So, to me, this seemed like a show that knew its fans wanted to emerge feeling that they had traveled a complete journey.

And here, with this ending that wrapped up all loose ends with a logic that any science geek, process-oriented type could admire: the money, the revenge, the freedom delivered with a gun attached to a Radio Shack-like gadget and a remote control one could imagine putting together in the garage following a diagram in Wired magazine (not me, but one).  Moral justice was delivered: while everyone in the show did Very Bad Things (except for Walt Junior), the truly bad were punished, and the less bad were able to be set free in a way that gave us glimmers of hope for the days and years ahead.  I’m not a shoot ‘em up type, but one could hardly expect a bigger, tenser, more nail-biting blood bath of release.  (How’s he going to grab that remote off the pool table!!!!!)

And then the literary types, the ones who definitely admire all the above elements, but who perhaps care primarily about character and story arc and Chekhov’s metaphorical gun over the fireplace.  The ones who write stories and know just how hard it is to get to that perfect ending that is surprising yet inevitable.  What I admired most along these lines is how the elements that were in play early on came back here at the end:  there are many example, but one that was especially notable last night, is Lydia.  Lydia’s incessant fussiness and rigidity which had seemed like an amusing tic became the way that we could believe Walt would know how and where and when to find her and how, precisely, to cause her demise…with her constant request for Stevia and the ricin cigarette that had been set up already (and used) in a previous season and which, cleverly, the writers reminded us about in the beginning of this season with that return trip to the house when Walt snags it from the house, signaling to the audience that “something” will happen to it but leaving us in suspense as to what, exactly, that will be.  (That’s the Alfred Hitchcock theory of suspense executed perfectly, by the way.) 

All along, from the very first episode, Walt has been “doing this for his family,” and so we know that the family and this very basic element of motivation must come back in the end—as it does—and yet there must be a change, and there is:  he IS doing it for his family, as he finally finds the way to get the drug money to his family to get them to accept it…and yet, he finally admits what we’ve seen all along:  he is also doing it for  himself.  “I liked it,” he admits in a final bit of honestly and self-awareness. Obviously, we knew that the big relationship here, between Walt as the father figure and Jesse as the son, had to come into play at the end, and it does…but also as a shift, as Jesse finally does not do what Walt wants him to, and yet as Walt saves Jesse one last time.  There are a dozen examples of things returning full circle, including the biggest:  from the beginning, with the diagnosis of cancer, we were promised that Walt would die, and he does.

But in the end, the very end, we see Walt in the lab: exactly where he started, with his love for chemistry, with the science of it all.  That, too, is why he did what he did: because he was a scientist.  Because he was good at it.  Science is about science, not moral judgments.  That’s an essential part of Walt’s character from the beginning, tucked away, because people don’t normally think of scientists as amoral.  His bloody hand sweeps over the tank, leaving a W, as Steve pointed out:  Remember my name.  And here, we think back to the “Heisenberg” spray-painted on the wall of the abandoned house which we saw at the beginning of this season.  No, no…Walt was Walt all along.

And that’s why this show was so satisfying to me, as a viewer and a literary type, because it wrapped up the questions in a believable-enough, concrete way while offering a certain moral ambiguity and a reminder to all of us: that we are Walter White.  What makes Walt finally leave New Hampshire?  His son hates him, Walt thinks it’s all been for nothing, he’s called the DEA, and then he sees Gretchen telling the TV audience that Walter White, that sweet man, is gone.  That’s the exact moment.  Sure, being reminded of Gray Matter (set up in season one) gives him the idea of how to move the money to his family, but also, this moment reminds him that Walter White, actually, is NOT gone:  this man is not, in the end, ONLY Walter White OR Heisenberg.  He is both, he is Walter White AND Heisenberg.  We are both.  We make the choice.

We cry when he places his hands on Holly’s sleeping head.  We cheer when his clever gun device mows down the Nazis.  All of us have within us that complexity, that yin and yang of good and evil.  We would do it for our family.  And we would like it.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.