Television executives and stars dream of having a series that grows so enormously popular that it becomes a part of the zeitgeist. Such shows don’t come along that often, and when they do, they tend to peak early then slowly become less and less meaningful as creative ideas dwindle. What a rare treat for all of us, then, for ‘Breaking Bad’ to maintain its momentum for five full seasons and to go out on top in a way that deeply satisfies most of its fans. (It’s probably not possible to please everyone.) I’m of the opinion that, while it wasn’t without a couple of minor flaws, Vince Gilligan delivered on his promise of a powerful, satisfying ending.
Picking up where we left off last week, Walt sits inside a snow-covered Volvo in the New Hampshire bar parking lot. Flashing lights from a nearby police car filter through the snow, casting an eerie light as Walt tries to figure out his next move. By a stroke of luck, the keys are above the visor, and Walt takes off to the strains of “El Paso,” the very appropriate Marty Robbins classic playing on the car stereo.
Later, Walt is back in the desert getting close to home. The cash is in the trunk of the Volvo. Walt is on the phone claiming to be a reporter from the New York Times. He’s “arranging an interview” with Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, and he manages to get their address.
Walt lays in wait at the luxurious home of the Schwartzes, who arrive home from an evening of socializing. Gretchen disarms their security system and Walt slips inside unnoticed. She screams when she sees Walt, and a terrified Elliot runs to her side. Walt says that he has a gift for them in his car and that they should all go there together. Jug-eared, slack-jawed Elliot brandishes a tiny paring knife in an impotent defensive gesture, but Walt quickly disavows him of any heroic notions he may have had. The Schwartzes haul in the remaining $10 million of Walt’s cash and pile it on a coffee table. Walt instructs them on what they are to do – he feels that they owe him after screwing him over in past business dealings. He wants them to give the money to his children in the form of a trust when they reach adulthood. He tells them that there is no other way, all things considered, for the money to ever reach them. But if the money comes from high profile wealthy benefactors like the Schwartzes, he figures it won’t raise any red flags. He gestures toward the window and two laser points are focused on Elliot’s and Gretchen’s chests. He tells them he’s spent $200,000 hiring trained hit men, and that if they decide not to follow his instructions to the letter, they will be killed. An uneasy alliance is formed and the three shake hands in agreement.
In the car, we see that the hit men are actually buffoons Badger and Skinny Pete, and that their weapons were simple laser pointers. They confirm to Walt that Heisenberg blue meth is in circulation, and Walt angrily figures that it must be Jesse’s work.
Walt sits in a diner and has shaped the number “52” on his plate using bacon. It’s his birthday. This scene is the same one that began Season 5 as a flash-forward. He’s ready for action. His car is loaded with supplies, including an enormous machine gun and ammunition. He retrieves the vial of ricin from his old home.
Lydia meets Todd at the usual diner, ordering her usual drink of chamomile tea, soy milk and Stevia. Skeevy Todd simpers about how much he likes her shirt, creepily commenting that the color is a “kind of cornflower.” Walt interrupts their meeting, taking them by surprise. He tells them that he’s desperate for money and that he wants to teach Todd a new method of cooking meth without having to rely on a hard-to-find ingredient. Todd is reluctant, but Lydia ostensibly agrees to it. They arrange to have Walt meet him later at the Aryan compound. When Walt leaves, Lydia reveals that she’s not interested in his plan, and it’s clear that she intends for the Aryans to dispose of Walt. She’s unaware that Walt has put the ricin in her Stevia, and she drinks the poison – Walt’s parting gift to her of a slow, horrible death.
Skyler sits alone in her depressing, shabby apartment smoking a cigarette. A frantic Marie calls her to tell her that Walt is back and that he was seen at their old house. Walt is already at Skyler’s and asks her for five minutes when she gets off the phone. She asks him what might happen if the Aryans come after her and the children, but he assures her that they won’t bother her again after tonight. He gives her the Lotto ticket containing the GPS coordinates where they can find the bodies of Hank and Gomez, to be used to negotiate her own freedom. He admits to her that he did everything for himself. “I loved it. I was good at it… I was alive.” Skyler allows him a moment to see baby Holly before he leaves. He then waits from a safe distance to mournfully watch Walt, Jr. get off his school bus and return home.
Walt drives to the compound that night. He’s told where to park, but instead parks nearer to the building where he’ll meet with Jack and Todd. After getting frisked, he asks for the return of his keys and wallet, but is told that he’ll get them later. Walt tells Jack that he’s there to talk business, but Jack tells him that he’s not in the market. It quickly becomes clear that the Aryans plan to kill him. Walt accuses Jack of reneging on his promise to kill Jesse and of actually making him their partner. Jack dispatches Todd to bring Jesse to them so that Walt can see for himself what’s become of him. While waiting, Walt manages to palm his keychain from a nearby pool table.
Todd leads Jesse into the room to face Walt. After a moment, Walt lunges at Jesse and takes him to the floor. He then presses the security button on his keychain, which has been rigged to set off the machine gun in the trunk of his car that’s been attached to a rotating mechanism. The gun sprays the building in a massive hail of bullets back and forth repeatedly. Most of the Aryans are killed. Jack is seriously injured, as is Walt. Jesse is unhurt as Walt covered his body with his own after taking him down. Todd managed to survive unharmed as well. Jesse, attacks Todd using the chain around his hands to strangle him, his face turning blue – a cornflower blue, as it were – before his neck snaps with a satisfying pop. Meanwhile, Walt picks up a gun and aims it at Jack’s head. Jack warns him that if he dies, Walt will never see the rest of his money. Without missing a beat, Walt immediately shoots Jack dead.
Jesse has freed himself and comes face-to-face with Walt again. Walt gives the gun to Jesse and says, “Do it.” Jesse tells him that he’ll only do it if Walt tells him he wants this. “I want this.” Jesse sees that Walt is mortally wounded, drops the gun and tells Walt that he’ll have to do it himself. Dead Todd’s phone rings and Walt answers. Lydia asks if it’s done, thinking she’s speaking with Todd. Walt informs her that the Aryans are all dead and that, further, she’s probably feeling sick because she drank ricin-poisoned tea and will soon be dead herself. In their final moment together, Walt and Jesse exchange an intense stare and nod at one another, apparently in a final show of uneasy respect.
Mortally wounded and all alone, a melancholy Walt goes to the meth lab to look it over. As police cars approach, sirens blaring, he falls to the floor staring above.
Fans of ‘Breaking Bad’ have speculated how the show would end for a long, long time. I heard just about every scenario imaginable, or so I thought. Clearly, Jack and the Aryans would meet grisly fates, and in so doing provide visceral satisfaction to just about everyone watching. But Gilligan managed to throw in plenty of surprises, such as the arrangement with the Schwartzes and the revelation that, in the end, Walt didn’t care at all about getting his money back.
I guess I’ll nitpick about a couple of things. It seems terribly convenient that Walt was allowed to park in the one spot where his robo-machine gun would have the best chance of pulling off the bloody massacre. It also seems pretty convenient that the only two Aryans who survived were Jack and Todd – the two whose manual killing at the hands of Walt and Jesse, respectively, would provide the most emotionally satisfying deaths of all. And despite being the most-wanted man in the country and having law enforcement watching out for him everywhere, Walt still managed to sneak into his old home and Skyler’s new apartment. After five seasons of kinks being thrown into the works at every twist and turn, everything just kind of worked out a little too perfectly in the end at Walt’s denouement.
That said, the writers only had about 60 minutes to wrap things up, and the broader story choices drove the narrative to a fairly believable and satisfying climax. Obviously, this story could only end in tragedy. It was nice to have Walt go out as at least a little bit of a hero whose death invoked sadness instead of cheer.
‘Breaking Bad’ will be remembered forever as a television milestone, deservedly so. Maybe the show wasn’t perfect, but it was always intelligent, gripping and challenging. It will be sorely missed.