Response to the Breaking Bad finale has been interesting in its lack of consensus despite its sense of finality, even among those who thought it hit the mark (which is most reviewers, really). By which I mean, unlike an ambiguous end (Sopranos, or even Lost), there’s not a lot to debate, plotwise.
But particularly telling are those thinkpieces that seem disappointed or betrayed that Walter White “got away with it,” or that he wasn’t sufficiently punished for his many and varied crimes.
That line of thought is, perhaps, slightly reductive. This show doesn’t have the moral of “Crime Does Not Pay,” it never did. Its central conceit is “Actions Have Consequences.” And thinking in moral absolutes doesn’t really deal with all the aspects of the show, including the fact that as much as it’s about moral decay and a slow reveal of one man’s own monstrous nature (and creative color schemes), it was also a crackerjack crime thriller.
That Walt’s return to town, grizzled and hollow, his only companions a pile of money and a gigantic machine gun, his only comfort thoughts of final vengeance, harkens back to the climax of a western is no accident. Breaking Bad only started in something resembling reality, but its heart has always been a pulp thriller, and this final season (both parts) has had westerns on its mind a lot.
So yes, the protagonist does get to go out on his own fatalistic terms, more or less. He takes out his enemies, he leaves provisions for his family, and he even reaches some kind of resolution with his student, tense as it may be (more on that in a moment). When he lies down to die, he does so surrounded by his legacy.
But jesus christ, the cost of that “victory” was so staggeringly huge that it’s hard to see it as a “win” of any kind unless we’re seriously stretching the definition. The man destroyed his own family while claiming to help them. He abused and implicated his wife and cost her her home. His brother-in-law is dead. His son will undoubtedly spend the rest of his life trying to shed the name “Walter White, Jr.” Holly will grow up wondering why they never, ever talk about Dad. Even his own name will be forgotten, replaced by the nightmare alter-ego: Heisenberg. Oh, they got the money? Hooray.
And look at the blast radius, the sheer number of people dead because Walter White couldn’t grasp a basic scientific truth: for every action, a reaction. Things he can’t possibly foresee because he believes he has absolute control. Collateral damage like Mike’s granddaughter and Brock.
There are only two real victories here. The first, Walter’s final admission to Skyler that all of this wasn’t because of family, but his own ego. This long-delayed self-reflection allows Walt to do the one thing that’s been clear to everyone over the years, things they’ve told him to his face: Walter White needs to die.
Though that’s really only the half of it. Walter’s a cancer, and that cancer has spread. So everyone connected: Todd, his uncle and crew, Lydia…all of them have to go too. That final shootout and Lydia’s poisoning are Walter cutting out the poison from his world as decisively as he can.
Which leads us to victory number 2: Jesse Pinkman, a guy who’s suffered immeasurably because of Walt’s insatiable need for power and control. To Walt – at least, until he realizes the bullet in his gut will probably do the job by itself – Jesse is also the only one who can end his reign of destruction. After all, the kid’s earned this last shot, right?
Except once again, Walt doesn’t understand Jesse’s needs. One last time, he mistakes what he’d want – final revenge – for what Jesse wants, and what he finally takes: A life free of Walter White’s influence. He refuses Walt’s final request to shoot him, and gets away like a bat out of hell.
Jesse Pinkman gets away, and to me that seems like a minor miracle.
Maybe the ultimate punishment isn’t enough for Walter. Maybe it isn’t fair that when he lies down to die, he thinks he’s “fixed” things well enough, never grasping the weight of his deeds to the satisfaction of the audience.
The end result is that Walter White can’t hurt anyone else, and Jesse Pinkman is free to find a better life. And no one became a secret lumberjack.
And that’s gonna have to be good enough for everyone.