Breaking Bad S5E16: Felina

kyra: And there you have it. Felina (obviously an acronym for ‘finale’) didn’t have all the fireworks that some expected, but I think it was a fitting conclusion. There may be complaints that we don’t really know what happens to Skyler, Marie, Flynn, and Jesse, but that’s OK. This was ultimately Walter White’s story. Walt finally admits in a gripping scene with his wife that he didn’t do all this for his family; he did it for himself. It is a self-actualization that took 62 episodes, but he finally realized how selfish he is. Just because he is at peace with this though, doesn’t mean he still didn’t want to go out on his own terms. Like Vince Gilligan himself (and I argued in our recap for Granite State that Walt bears a striking resemblance to him during the end game) Walt needs to tie up all the loose ends before his candle burns out. He knows his son hates him and won’t accept his money, but he forms a workaround through Gretchen and Elliott. He gives Skyler the coordinates to Hank and Gomey’s burial site, which both helps her with the DEA and manages to say ‘I love you’ in a way that’s much better than if the words were spoken. He handles the business side by poisoning Lydia with ricin and killing the Nazis with a machine gun. Then, and only then, does he afford Jesse the opportunity to kill him–something he believes (and surely is true) Jesse has yearned to do for months, but Jesse doesn’t shoot. In a perfect, symbolic act of the release from all his past shackles, he denies Walt the opportunity to control him one last time, and bursts through the locked compound with the gusto of newly found freedom. Then, in both his and the show’s dying moments, Walt walks through Jesse’s meth lab–a cathedral of sorts for the show. He sees the way Jesse has masterfully constructed the lab, and I think his mindset can be interpreted one of two ways, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. On one hand, he is proud. Walt was, after all, a teacher, and Jesse his pupil. He had already heard about the great quality of this current batch of meth (perhaps better than when he himself was cooking), and he is happy to hear just how much his star student learned. On the other hand, by dying in the lab, the police must surely think he was the one continuing to supply the streets with blue meth. He dies getting the credit he ‘deserves’ in the place that brought him the most joy. He wasn’t just good at cooking meth. He was the best. For Walter White, the point of doing something was to be the best, and that’s what he believes he achieved. And in the now immortal words of Badfinger:

Guess I got what I deserve / Kept you waiting there, too long my love / All that time, without a word / Didn’t know you’d think, that I’d forget, or I’d regret / The special love I have for you / My baby blue

Was the ending perfect? No. In particular, what happened to the outrage at the Schwartzes? Walt had called the DEA, and had GIVEN HIMSELF UP, but seeing the Schwartzes on TV was the impetus for him saying ‘fuck this, I’m going back.’ It wasn’t to kill the Nazis, it was to confront Gretchen and Elliott. What happened to the outrage on that 20 hour journey back to Albuquerque? Did he simply rationalize that forcing them to pay his son was a better solution than killing them? Also, Gilligan gives us a red herring during the phone call where he fakes being a NYT reporter. He remarks that there will be ‘quite a story,’ which to me implies some serious shit was gonna go down at the Schwartz household. It never came though. I’ve seen a range of opinions on Twitter, but what I think is that for a show that was so faithful to its characters and never paid much attention to what the fans wanted to happen, Felina seemed to give the people what they wanted. Buckeye, what say you?

Buckeye: Ultimately “Felina” was one of the least shocking episodes in the entire Breaking Bad oeuvre, shocking really only in that the series’ conclusion matched the most popular predictions—machine gun for Todd and crew, ricin for Lydia, Walt facing his mortality—when the series has so surprisingly and so consistently played with our expectations throughout virtually its entire run. This predictability of sorts I view as a strength: Sunday’s finale had no “What the fuck??” moments, no actions by anybody that were out of character (I’ll get to Walt’s turn of Gretchen’s and Elliot’s screws in a second), and felt quite fitting when all was said and done. Perhaps you were disappointed by the lack of surprise, but that the series finished in the way that, in some sense, it should have finished, points to the strength of its writers over the years, having directed the main characters down paths that led them to such a logical terminus (or if Jesse’s, or Skyler’s, or Flynn’s stories really haven’t ending, at least a natural stopping point).

I actually loved Walt’s last moment with the Schwartzes, it seems a little more than you did, kyra. I wrote last week that I was glad that the series had returned to Walt’s lingering resentment of his former lab partners (and whatever else he had going on with Gretchen; like the mysterious pasts and past loves of Gus and Mike, I appreciate that the show lets your imaginations run a little bit in thinking about what led these people together, what split them apart, and what led them to Albuquerque), which I consider the true reason at which Walt broke bad—Walt only acted on his jealousy when handed a convenient excuse (terminal cancer) to act on it. We know that Walt was after the money and after his meth empire for himself and not for his family—and we know that because we know how embarrassed he is to have forfeited a life of riches and of adoration and supplication before the specter of his chemical genius for the paltry income of a high school science teacher. If “Felina” contained Walt’s final efforts to set things right before he left this mortal coil, then he had to remind the Schwartzes of his feelings towards them. Walt can take some comfort in his recruitment the two most fearsome hitmen west of the Mississippi, Badger and Skinny Pete, to scare the bejesus out of Gretchen and Elliot and outsmart them before he died.

I want to return to Jesse, who, perhaps oddly is the character I was thinking about most as I watched “Felina”—I knew that Walt was in town to settle his scores. Much of that has to do with conversations I’ve had with you, kyra, about Jesse’s character and his degree of complicity. A lot of analysis, and I fall into this category (and categorial trap) pretty frequently, paints Jesse as a helpless and humane lost soul trapped under Walt’s spell. I agree with much of that: I do think Jesse is helpless, due to the neglect visited on him when he was a kid by his parents and by his teachers (including Walt), and I do think he has plenty of humanity because he evinces plenty of regret. But not always, and this is something I’ve been thinking about since talking to you—Jesse’s often happy (excited, even) to participate in many of Walt’s capers, even though Jesse is well aware that robbing trains or wiping evidence with a big ass magnet is illegal. It’s really only when something goes wrong that Jesse breaks down. Jesse’s often compared in the dialogue (and in episode titles) to a dog, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how deep that analogy might run: Loyal to a fault only to put his tail between his legs after being admonished or after blind loyalty brings him to a place that he doesn’t like? Sounds a lot like Mr. Pinkman. That image of Jesse ridding himself of his chains was poetic and only furthered that symbolism I think. (Why this episode title was more cat-like than dog-like, I couldn’t fucking tell you. Maybe I’m going overboard here, but I think there’s something to this.) Could you elaborate on your perspective on Jesse’s character or maybe even guess what future is in store for him?

kyra: Before I address Jesse, a couple things to respond to. First, after hearing Vince Gilligan on Stephen Colbert’s last night, it seems the title stems from a Marty Robbins song called ‘El Paso,’ which involves the singer falling in love with a girl named Felina in El Paso and eventually returning to see her again before dying. Pretty apt if you ask me, just substitute blue meth in for Felina.

Next, I want to spend some more time on the Schwartzes, as I think Walt’s supervillain origin story comes from his departure from that partnership. In my eyes, he believes they are living out his life. Walt strolls through their house, admiring the pictures and architecture, and conveys that this was the life he should’ve had, nay, he deserved. He had only days earlier seen them refute the idea that he had any intellectual capital whatsoever to contribute to Grey Matter, and yet his ideal comeuppance for them is they must give his son 9 million dollars? I get that the money represents only money HE has earned, and no charity from the Schwartzes. But let’s be serious. In Season 1 he refuses their money out of pride, and now he’s OK with Flynn thinking this is a gift from the Schwartzes? He manages to get some redemption with Skyler in the scene in her apartment, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t try harder to win his son back. Furthermore, he’s vindictive enough to kill Lydia (who in my eyes didn’t cause him any trouble), but he’s letting the Schwartzes off this easily? And finally as a separate point, they’ve gotta be going straight to the DEA when he leaves right? I’m not so sure Flynn will see any money on his 18th birthday anyway.

As for Jesse, I think we tend to forget just how guilty he is because he actually shows remorse. Like you point out: as late as the methylamine heist, Jesse is not only on board, but is stoked with how the business is going. It’s only after Drew Sharp’s death when he finally decides he’s done, which is simply consistent with his character. As I discussed with you over the weekend, Jesse tends to think with his heart and ignore the idea of any possible complications; very much similar to a dog chasing a frisbee only to jump for it without seeing the brick wall he’s just slammed into. Case and point is his attempted prison break. He tries to flee without any sort of plan despite having the foreboding picture of Brock and Andrea.

Really though, just because Jesse feels bad about what he’s done doesn’t make him any less guilty than Walt. He, too, liked being part of a meth empire. It was cool to have Badger and Skinny Pete as his minions, and to be able to support Andrea and Brock. There were plenty of opportunities along the way for Jesse to quit, turn Walt in, or leave Albuquerque completely. However, while Walt’s hamartia is his pride, Jesse’s is his rashness. Even towards the very end, he could’ve avoided months as a captured slave and Andrea’s death if he had simply left with Robert Forster (the disappearer). But his anger at realizing Walt poisoned Brock clouded the possibility that anything bad might come of revenge. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m happy he survived and I hope he starts a fresh life far away from ABQ after saving Brock from foster care. That being said, let’s not forget that Jesse has done some terrible things over the past two years.

Buckeye: I can’t say I’m really surprised that Walt didn’t make more of an effort to have one last tearful hug with his son. Sure, it guts Walt that his son called him a murderer in their last conversation, but after hearing that, there’s really no going back to the way things were, and the most considerate thing Walt could have done for Flynn was spare him another conversation like that one over the phone. I agree that it’s unlikely Flynn sees the millions that Walt left on the coffee table; up until his successful massacre of Todd and Lydia, the success rate of Walt’s recent schemes—especially those that involved transmitting his earnings to his family or keeping the police off their backs—remained stuck at zero. It would be nice if Flynn could see that money somehow, but there are many things that could easily prevent that or cloud that: a DEA seizure, a refusal by the Schwartzes, or, even if Flynn does receive it, potential naiveté on his part in believing that the money actually came from Gretchen and Elliot. (Flynn’s view of his father is jaded to say the least, but it’s not like he’s suddenly wise to everything that’s going on.)

I think Walt’s pretty cognizant of all this, that his time of reveling in success, money, and his family’s affection is over. He had a lot of time to himself up in New Hampshire to mull all this over*, and the Walt that heads back to New Mexico is both humbled and resigned—he knows he’s not going to win his son back, which is why he and Flynn (rightly, in my view) didn’t share a scene together.

*kyra interjection: sorry I just had to butt-in here because what you say reminds me of what we discussed last week. Because the series had to jump so much time last episode, it’s hard to both remember and appreciate just how long Walt was alone in the Granite State before making his long trip home. As a result, I’m not sure if I fully comprehended everything going through his head. This is something obviously we blame AMC for, as they’re the ones who didn’t order full seasons of BB 5 and 6. Gilligan did the best he could, but sometimes you need the literal amount of time over weeks while watching to appreciate the actual passage of time on the show.

The one person for whom Walt still does hold out hope of a reconciliation is Skyler; after all, Walt still wears his wedding ring (only now around his neck rather than his gaunt finger. Still, when Walt emerges in her apartment, it’s pretty clear that, whatever feelings still exist between the two (and I believe some are still present, including on Skyler’s end), no reconciliation will be taking place, perfectly encapsulated by the shot of the support beam keeping them separate. If anything, I took the scene as another example (a final example) of Walt taking Skyler for granted—if only she knew how lucky she was that Walt has her winning ticket (literally, her winning ticket—or so he thinks) in his hands. Yet again, Skyler is left to play the person (victim, perhaps) that Walt leaves in the firing line. In terms of the Breaking Bad universe, this parting between Walt and Skyler made sense to me, albeit somewhat unsettling. What was your take on this scene?

kyra: I thought first of all this was beautifully shot by Gilligan. Walt’s capability of being hidden by that well-placed beam served as a reminder of his atrophying body. Skyler even remarks how horrible he looks. Then there is Skyler herself, sitting at a table chain-smoking her life away. The pervasive billowing smoke has not done her face any favors either, and the pose reminds me of a classic western trope (and we know Gilligan loves his westerns, which pop up constantly in imagery throughout this final season). Namely, I think of a poor young lady sitting in a dimly-lit bar, the smoke shines through the overhead lights as she waits for a gunslinger-for-hire to help her carry out her revenge.

The conversation is brief, but it’s all we needed. A final admission that he did it all for himself. A final gesture to help protect her from his crimes. I fully agree that part of Skyler remains loyal to Walt (one wonders if the seed was re-planted with his phone call at the end of Ozymandias), but I’m not sure I follow that he takes her for granted here. I think he recognizes how much he has taken her for granted in the past, and how much he has missed out on because he cooked meth. In the flashback that opens Ozymandias, which I believe will go down as this show’s finest hour, we learn that Walt was out on his first cook when Skyler thought of the name Holly. This seems about right. Walt was basically out doing something meth-related during her entire existence. That’s why he goes to see her one last time. For Walt, it is closure to say goodbye to the daughter he took for granted.

Buckeye: Time for me to say goodbye to the best show on TV. Luckily we will spare you some of the inane discussion that you can find on the Grantland Channel about whether Aaron Paul will be thought of as “Aaron Paul” or “Jesse” going forward. Is Aaron Paul a MOVIE STAR? I dunno. But thank you, Breaking Bad.

kyra: While I might quibble with you on who currently wears the ‘best on TV’ crown (Mad Men would like a word), the fact remains this show was fantastic start to finish. It contained some of the most incredible guest performances I’ve ever seen (Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus; Jonathan Banks’ Mike; and Mark Margolis’ Tio!), and feels so tidily wrapped up. I wish everyone from the show nothing but #continuedsuccess. Thank you, Breaking Bad.

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