The fifth season of Breaking Bad was all about anti-climax. That sounds bad, since we tend to think of climaxes as the best part of, ahem, several different things, and whatever comes after as an inevitable letdown. But after Season Four — wherein Walt engineered Gus Fring’s demise — the series lost its epic ambitions. Again, that’s not a bad thing. The fifth season demonstrated the impossibility of Walt’s transition back to civilian life. Once he’d gotten blood on his hands, he couldn’t wash it off. The question of how to live with stubbornly dirty hands drove this last season. It was an anti-climax that showed how difficult, complicated, and satisfying anti-climaxes can be. (This season’s climax, of course, was “Ozymandias.”)
“Felina,” written and directed by Vince Gilligan, was the anticlimactic finale to an anticlimactic final season. It was also an extremely fitting one for the series. It showed Walter White, who made a (rather infamous) name for himself by producing the Southwest’s best crank and outsmarted his many, many enemies through his extreme methodicalness, closing up all the loose ends in his life. “Felina” was about Walter settling accounts: with Skyler, his children, Hank and Marie (in a way), Elliot and Gretchen, the Nazis, and, of course, Jesse.
The machine gun he had in his trunk added just enough ambiguous tension throughout the episode to keep it from being a straightforward “Walter White visits his past” storyline. It also allowed to Gilligan showcase the chief strengths of the episode: its micro-detail-oriented plotting (the ricin!), its stomach-churning suspense (Walter framed like Dexter), its winking use of music and surreal, gorgeous visuals.
The first of which situates where we are while explaining why we’re there. It’s a thick layer of snow on a windshield: Walt’s on his tour of New England. But squint and it could be a cloudy sheet of meth — the reason why Walt’s 3000 miles from his family. “Just get me home. I’ll do the rest,” he says to the Volvo he just stole (or a God he’s borrowing).
In between drinks from a gas station hose — presumably he can’t buy a bottle of water from the convenience store, as he might be identified — he finds out where Elliot and Gretchen now live and when they’ll be home. His voice over the telephone has that NPR/serial-killer languidness to it, which makes him perfectly convincing as a NY Times writer and as a psychopath obsessed with revenge. Before leaving the station, he leaves behind the watch Jesse gave him for his 51st birthday, presumably as one more step in shedding his humanity.
Vengeance against the Schwartzes turns out to be one big fake-out, but I didn’t mind — not when the build-up to Walt’s demand that they “donate” his millions to Flynn was so creepy at the time — and is so comical in retrospect. All the hallmarks of cinematic, aestheticized murder were there: the classical music in the background; Walt theatrically closing Elliot and Gretchen’s big black doors shut; his slow, curious, admiring jaunt over to the couple while they jabber on about dinner parties and spa weekends. There were so many serial killer cliches, in fact, that I felt almost conditioned by pop cultural tropes and expectations: I wanted to see them die, for Walt to kill them, to elegantly spatter those minimalist rooms and pale furniture with blood.
Cheer up, beautiful people. Walt just wants them to set up a trust for Flynn, and gets revenge in the process by scaring the shit out of them by hiring the “two best hitmen west of the Mississippi” — Badger and Skinny Pete, armed with some badass laser pointers — if they don’t cooperate. He learns from those two knuckleheads that Jesse is still alive, which adds one more item on Walt’s bucket list.
But first, a visit to Skyler. Driven from her home, she lives with Flynn and Holly in a dark, ramshackle house seemingly constructed out of foam boards. After being warned by her sister Marie that her husband’s back in town, Skyler tells Walt, “You look terrible.” “Yeah, but I feel good,” he jokes dryly. “It’s over, and I needed a proper goodbye,” he continues, reassuring her that Heisenberg’s cohorts won’t be coming after her — not after tonight. He leaves one last gift — the GPS coordinates to Hank and Gomez’s bodies that Skyler can exchange for immunity — and finally confesses that he didn’t ruin his family for their sake. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive,” he says. (Worst. Midlife crisis. Ever.)
Walt closes his eyes, reliving the ecstasy of triumphing over his rivals, then remembers all the harm he’s caused. (In that long blink, Bryan Cranston elegantly recapped the entire show for us.) Before leaving, Walt has one last visit with his daughter Holly. Her innocence belies the contaminated legacy Walt leaves her. Accordingly, Walt can only say goodbye to Flynn through a window, for the boy’s sake.
Finally, death. Walt heads over to Hitler’s Home for Wayward Youth, walking into an obvious trap that Uncle Jack and his crew bluntly set up. Frustratingly — and this is the episode’s one ambiguity, and one I wish we’d gotten a straightforward answer about — it’s not clear whether Walt intends to kill Jesse, too. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but once he sees his former student in full-body shackles — probably a form of body restraint the white-power gang gleaned from their time in prison — he feels compassion. Walt’s accusation to Jack that Jesse is his “partner” sends the gangleader in a tizzy, and the latter says the word “partner” incredulously and sneeringly about a hundred times so the show can remind us of Walt and Jesse’s relationship in the early seasons, as well as the fact that Walt never really thought of Jesse as a full partner, either.
So Walt tackles Jesse to the ground and sets off the motorized gun in his trunk, which successfully massacres all of the Nazis except one. Todd’s strangulation at Jesse’s hands is both sickening (ugh, that neck snap at the end) and triumphant. Walt shoots Jack as he’s begging for his life.
“Kill and be killed” seems to have been Walt’s plan. He offers Jesse the chance to take revenge on him, a sick kind of apology. “Do it. You want this,” Walt says, still not really getting his student after all they’ve been through.
“Say the words. Say you want this,” Jesse replies, daring him and/or questioning whether he wants a mercy killing.
“I want this, Walt confesses, bleeding, looking utterly spent and at peace.
“Then do it yourself,” Jesse says, refusing to get his hands any dirtier or obey one more command.
But Walt has no such hesitance. Or at least, he’s already done it, and can’t help gloating one last time. When Lydia calls Todd to make sure Walt’s been killed, Heisenberg roars back one last time to inform her coolly that he’s poisoned her through her beloved stevia.
Jesse skids out of the Nazis’ headquarters, scars across his face but hysterically happy. He’s free, but his life has been indelibly marred for having known Walter White.
As the police near, Walt dies alone in a meth lab, the setting where he’d reached the most exhilarating, most accomplished heights of his life. Having given his family what he thought they needed — a barrel of money — instead of what they actually needed — a loyal and loving father and husband — he dies satisfied. Guess I got what I deserved, comments the show’s last musical message (courtesy of Bad Finger) as the camera zooms out and fades to black.
It was a methodical end for a methodical man. Like Fring, Walt was always trying to mastermind fate and entropy, but he couldn’t even control himself — not his body, which gave him cancer, nor his ego, which took him over. For awhile, he was able to control the chaos around him through sheer cunning. But chaos always wins.