Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Laura Fraser
Original Airdate: 2013
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
**Spoiler Warning: This Review Contains Major Spoilers For Season 5 and the Series Finale **
"I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.”- Walter H. White
After an excruciating year-long wait, the second half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad, appropriately titled, "Blood Money," opens unforgettably. The condemned, dilapidated White residence is fenced off and vandalized, its swimming pool now converted into a makeshift teen skate park. Inside, tagged on the wall is a single word: HEISENBERG. But the bearded, disheveled man staring at it isn't Heisenberg. Or Walter White. His name is "Mr. Lambert" and in about six months this is where he'll be, with larger questions still looming about how he'll eventually get there with a trunk full of high powered assault weapons and vengeance on his mind. His former neighbor looks as if she's just seen a ghost. In a way, she has. And he's there to retrieve the ricin.
|A dilapidated White residence in Ep. 5.9 ("Blood Money')|
What creator Vince Gilligan and the incomparable Bryan Cranston have done in managing to have us still root for some form of redemption for the character can, like most things in the series, be traced to that powerful pilot. It's hard not to muster up sympathy for a man who went from being a genius on the verge of becoming a rich and famous Nobel Prize winner to a high school chemistry teacher working at a car wash on weekends to support his special needs son and being henpecked by an overbearing wife. And then the cancer. Who couldn't relate to not reaching their full potential and being unsatisfied with their life? It hits home on the most basic human level. Walt always viewed himself as a victim, not of his own choices, but circumstances he believed were beyond his control. The cancer diagnosis gave him the control and excuse he so desperately craved, even as he spent the next six years (or year and a half in show time) making choices that scene-by-scene, episode-by-episode, pissed away whatever initial sympathy we had for him.
Yet it's hard to shake that image of a defeated Walt collapsing at the car wash. You can either argue he was using his own perceived failure as an excuse to indulge childish alpha-male fantasies or view his evolution from mild-mannered family man to drug kingpin ("Mr. Chips to Scarface" as Gilligan famously refers to it) as some twistedly dark triumph for a man who felt he never knew true success. It's an arc that reflects back at us our worst tendencies and temptations, and no matter how much evil he commits or lies he tells for the sake of "providing" for his family, Gilligan pulls off the ultimate trick in having us still pull for some kind of victory or happy ending for Walt. And it's all because we remember the pilot, and if we can still root for or relate to him just a little bit, what does that say about us?
|Flashing back to Walt and Jesse cooking in the desert|
We all had our predictions for what would go down in the final episodes while also knowing certain things were inevitable. How they would unfold was more of a question mark. Well, it turns out we knew nothing since Gilligan is a master at taking any expectations and adjusting them to fit the story he's trying to tell. Like an experienced chess player, he's always seems about five or six steps ahead, and he makes his first big move surprisingly early. After Hank's discovery on the toilet in the final moment of "Gliding Over All," we were bracing for a cat-and-mouse game between Walt and his DEA agent brother-in-law that would likely see Hank silently gathering evidence until finally confronting him at the series' end. But Gilligan knew the smartest decision for a character to make isn't necessarily the smartest for the series, wisely deciding to immediately throw down the gauntlet. With only eight episodes left, he knew we were on borrowed time, for both the show and its protagonist turned antagonist.
How Hank handles the discovery is almost surreal to watch since it's something fans have been playing out in their minds since the pilot. But it's also a reminder of how much we know about the character. Seeing him completely lose it, unable to think rationally when confronted with the news, is tragic not just because of how brilliant he's been at his job, but also because it makes sense. Hank's a man's man who doesn't know how to hold back and I always thought one of the show's greatest accomplishments was having this criminal mastermind right under Hank's nose the whole time and him never once looking like an idiot for not realizing it. In fact, it's been just the opposite. Both men are so smart, but Walt's always been just a bit smarter and this season reflects that. To a point.
|Hank and Walt face off in Ep. 5.9 ("Blood Money")|
Our wish for Hank to come riding in as the white knight was never meant to be. He's great at his job, but this isn't his job anymore. It's something else much more personal, so he's starts making stupid decisions that put everyone in Walt's crosshairs, including himself. Since Walt's been such a genius at covering his tracks and (not to mention extremely and believably lucky), there's no physical evidence linking him to anything. Hank has no case. And he definitely can't go to his superiors.
All this is why Walt's fake confession tape framing and implicating his brother-in-law is so frighteningly believable, representing a new low for the character. Every detail was true, just distorted and twisted to fit Walt's story, which even includes the trail of medical money linking Hank to the crimes. It's also one of the many amazing acting showcases for Cranston, who in the scene must give a performance as a man giving a performance. Until recently, Walt wasn't a very good actor, now he's become so skilled in his manipulation that it's getting tougher to pick the more skilled thespian between he and Cranston.
|Jesse finally snaps in Ep. 5.11 ("Confessions")|
Much like Mike and Hank before him, Jesse's become that needs eliminating and it's impossible to bring that up without discussing the desert scene in Ep. 5.12 ("Rabid Dog") where he simultaneously chews Walt out for his manipulation tactics, before yet again surrendering, breaking down in the arms of the master manipulator himself. What snaps him out of his catatonic state is the season's most controversial reveal, in which Jesse, preparing to disappear from Albuequerque for good, finally puts together that Walt poisoned Brock.
Gilligan respects and trusts the audience enough to just just show it without explaining how. And with that Aaron Paul should win his next Emmy, taking Jesse on an emotional roller coaster from which there's no return until the final credits roll on the series. The look in his eyes says it all, while it also provides the biggest dramatic platform yet for Bob Odenkirk as "criminal" attorney Saul Goodman, who we knew would start playing a larger role once Walt was found out. That even he seems in over his head is a red flag as to how dangerous the situation has become. Everyone's at risk. Anyone can die. Luckily for Saul, he's ranked pretty low on the expectant death list for obvious reasons, while others are hardly as fortunate. Even his bumbling bodyguards, Huell (Lavell Crawford) and Kuby (Bill Burr) get in on action, before things get too heavy even for them.
While the idea of Jesse teaming with Hank has always been an enticing one, it becomes yet another brilliant instance of Gilligan subverting expectations. It's also an example of how poorly Hank has bungled this entire investigation, showing us that he isn't Superman out to save Skyler and Jesse from the evil clutches of Heisenberg, but a flawed, emotionally obsessed Ahab out to capture his Moby Dick. By wasting no time shoving tape recorders in their faces to get confessions, it's no wonder Skyler won't cooperate and Jesse barely does. She's firmly on Walt's side, giving all the Skyler haters even more ammunition. The cancer clock's ticking and she knows if they lose the money, all of this would have been for nothing. She presents a strong case. Certainly stronger than Hank, who doesn't, and never really did, have enough evidence to nail Walt.
|An uncomfortable family dinner in Ep. 5.11 ("Confessions")|
Hank and Skyler don't know Jesse like we do, which is important to remember when Hank wires him up like he's sending a lamb into slaughter and then casually laughs about it. Or when Skyler orders Walt to kill him since he's the last loose end. Poor Jesse. Has anyone on this show suffered a more disproportionate punishment for their sins? What's sadder is the only person aside from Andrea and Brock who cares for Jesse at all is Walt, albeit in his own sick, twisted way. Along with Skyler, he's his blind spot and couldn't in his wildest dreams envision a situation where his former student would rat him out and still thinks he can manipulate him back to his side. He takes as much offense at Saul's suggestion that he send Jesse on a "trip to Belize" as he did when it was brought up as an option for Hank. Even Walt has his limits, until Jesse finally proves to be too much of a wild card to his survival and has to go. But it's amazing how much pushing it took for him to get there.
Walt's delusional belief that he could just walk away from the drug trade with all that cash and no long-term consequences is pure hubris. Pure Walt. He again proves himself unworthy of inheriting Gus' throne by getting into bed with Todd's neo-nazi family, led by the intimidating, uncontrollable Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), who came through for Walt with the 10-man prison hit in "Gliding Over All." While the business (taken over by Declan's crew in the finale) goes on without Heisenberg, it's certainly taken a nosedive in profit and quality that's alarmed high-strung Madrigal executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser). More cunning and ruthless than her nervous nelly demeanor leads on, she thinks she's found the perfect solution with the Nazis and semi-experienced cook, Todd, who briefly trained under "Mr. White". Instead, she found a bunch of psychos who care even less about quality than Declan's crew and a motivated sociopath with a creepy crush. At least the latter she can use to her advantage.
That Todd Alquist might be the scariest character on the show is no small feat and a testament to Jesse Plemons' ability to alternate from soft-spoken gentleman to emotionless killing machine at the drop of a hat. And yet his respect for Mr. White and even Jesse is always evident. This is a job to him and he's capable of a level of emotional attachment those two weren't at any point during the series. Who would have thought the actor previously best known for being a part of that silly murder arc Friday Night Lights, would find his true calling playing a sociopathic killer? Or that Todd would be a closet Steve Perry fan? That and Walt Jr. meeting his apparent hero and local celebrity, Saul, deliver the two biggest laughs in a season that for good reason contains very few.
|Walt surrenders in Ep. 5.13 ("To'hajiilee")|
We find out how BrBa would end if it were any other crime show, with Walt surrendering, being read his rights and given maybe the first look of genuine happiness and relief on Jessie's face since the series began. But this isn't just any other show and to answer the question of how much of Walt remains in Heisenberg, it's worth noting that he does everything in his power to save Hank, who in his final moments realizes that even with 80 million dollars, Walt has about as much bargaining power as he does. He also now knows Walt is no criminal mastermind, with his brief stint of controlled competence in the first half of the season giving way to rash, emotional mistakes. The lies keep getting bigger and less believable. A.S.A.C. Schrader was never one to negotiate anything and with that his fate is sealed, he goes out just as he came in. Like a man. It's the only moment of glory for someone whose pride also did him in this season, as evidenced by his decision to stick around and make what ends up being a heartbreaking final phone call to Marie boasting about his accomplishment.
That Hank dying is about the fourth or fifth most noteworthy event in "Ozymandias" should give you an idea with what we're dealing with. Walt's lying well has run dry the twisted reasoning that he's done all this for his family is as twisted as it's ever been. He gives up Jesse to the nazis because, Walt being Walt, is always looking for someone else to blame. So even at this late stage he's still capable of going full Heisenberg, devastating Jesse and us with the confession we've waited years to hear while endlessly speculating how it would come out. We came close to hearing him come clean in "Fly" and now he actually does, albeit under far different circumstances and with far worse motives.
|Hank's final moments in Ep. 5.14 ("Ozymandias")|
If there's yet another moment we've been absolutely dreading, it's Walt Jr. eventually finding out the truth about his father. And when it comes, it's about ten times more devastating than we could have even imagined. You may as well call it "Nightmare on Negra Arroyo Lane," as someone has to "protect this family from the man who protects this family." That someone turns out to be Walt Jr. and it's great to see RJ Mitte given a hugely emotional scene that requires him to do much more than eat and obsess over breakfast. Interestingly enough, Gilligan chooses not to show the scene where he's actually told about his dad just as he chose not to reveal Jesse's confession video in its entirety or show Hank telling Gomie about his Heisenberg revelation. And why should he? We know what Walt did and any further explanation of it would be repetition at a crucial time where every last minute of the series' running time is precious. The pacing is masterful.
|A blood stained Skyler watches Walt flee in Ep. 5.14 ("Ozymandias")|
With a barrel of cash and a couple of suitcases, Walt's off to start a new life in the "Granite State" as "Mr. Lambert," waiting on the side of the road for the ride from Saul's disappearer/vacuum repairman (a perfectly cast Robert Forster, oozing honest professionalism) that Jesse never took. It speaks volumes that Saul isn't far behind, shedding his own flamboyant persona in the wake of the fallout, forced to start a new life of his own. As predicted, the Heisenberg story goes national and Walt's a wanted man, but what's perhaps more surprising is just how much the cancer's progressed. He's reached the end, receiving homemade chemo treatments and waiting to die a slow, painful death hauled up in a cold, isolated hell reminiscent of Jack Torrance's in The Shining. Saul's advice to just turn himself in and the reasoning behind it is the soundest of the season and a healthy reminder that for all his bluster, he's a smart attorney. Walt's
This is rock bottom, his lowest point coming when he has to bribe the disappearer with $10,000 to stay just an hour longer for company. His escape and subsequent phone call to Walt Jr. is the final straw, a desperate attempt to get his family the money, despite the tactic being impossible at this point. When his own son tells him to just die and he collapses in tears at a bar pay phone, we almost feel the impossible. If not necessarily sympathy, at least real empathy, for man swallowed up by his own demons and finally realizing this past year and a half has been a huge mistake. And yet he deserves every bit of this. It's time he could have spent with his family, who are now in a far worse position than they would have been otherwise. That's the real tragedy here.
|Walt contemplates an escape in Ep. 5.15 ("Granite State")|
It's suddenly become easier to envision the scenario that's been hinted at since the flashforward starting the season last year when a bearded, pill popping Mr. Lambert walked into Denny's for a bacon breakfast and to meet Jim Beaver's arms dealer. He's coming back a man with literally nothing to lose. Now we know why. And just when things couldn't possibly get worse for Jesse, they somehow do. In one of the show's cruelest moments, Todd makes him watch as he shoots Andrea (Emily Rios) just to send a message. Because he can.
Could Vince Gilligan stick the landing? Fair or not, a landmark series is often retroactively judged by the worth of its final episode and sometimes even its final moment. With BrBa, where a single, finite story is being told with a clear beginning, middle and end, judging the merits of the final episode within the context of the entire series becomes a little trickier. But if there's one thing "Felina" makes perfectly clear, it's that Gilligan's always been a master at tight, economical storytelling that leaves little room for loose ends. This wouldn't be one of those polarizing finales everyone argues about. The screen won't fade to back. It doesn't take place inside a snow globe. Gilligan knows HIS show, executing its end game just as he did everything else. With logic. True to form, everything is tidily wrapped up with few questions left unanswered and a conclusive finish that isn't open for interpretation. It's clean, crisp and efficient. In wasting no time getting Walt to Albuerquerque, he dispenses with information we've already gotten, sometimes condensing hours into minutes to clue us in.
|Walt gives Elliot and Gretchen a scare in the series finale ("Felina")|
Walt's plan to take out Jack's gang sees him underestimated in a way he hasn't been since he tangled with Gus and had to use his resourcefulness as a weapon. Spending most of the episode looking like a homeless ghost roaming his old stomping grounds, it turned out that no one underestimated as much as Lydia, who got a ricin cocktail for her troubles. His final scenes with Skyler that pack the biggest emotional punch and delivered the admission we've waited six years to hear. By finally admitting he did this all for himself rather than his family, Walt finally drops the lies and takes the ownership for the lives he's ruined. It's ironic that in this moment, he comes off as the most likable and human we've seen him since the pilot. At least by this series' standards.
Walt's first and foremost a man of science, and this episode sees a return to that in a clever way as his master plan is carried with all the accuracy of one of his chemistry experiments. He uses predictable factors to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Elliot and Gretchen's social and financial status. Lydia's obsession with routine. Jack's pride. And for once everything goes off without a hitch. That his car trunk Nazi killing machine feels like something Season 1 Walt would have imagined up is only fitting. His final act of self-sacrifice is taking a bullet for Jesse, even if it's a stretch to call what happens between them a reconciliation. It's more of a hostile, begrudging acceptance that they're finally squared away. Their nod at the end was a nice touch. Jesse was never going kill Walt. He's through doing what "Mr. White" says. The cathartic release when he strangles Todd and makes his escape works because the writers worked six years and dragged him through hell so he could get there. How many other shows would have the patience to wait? Where an undeniably scarred Jesse can go from here is anyone's guess, and there's sure to be plenty of guesses. But for once, we do get the feeling he's free and at least has a shot at some kind of normal life.
|Walt, alone with his "Baby Blue" in the series finale ("Felina")|
Yes, the ending was tied neatly in a bow with hardly a minute to spare. It was safely effective, while still not entirely predictable. But here's the thing. We're not used to finales doing that. We're not used to shows building up enough goodwill over the course of its run to earn the right not to show off in the finale. Confident enough to not do anything shocking or crazy. To just simply close its story as it should be closed. There are no more episodes or more obstacles or complications for Walt to face. Much of that was done before, as the seeds were already long sown for Gilligan to just quietly pull the trigger in the last episode. "Felina" stands as the end result of him knowing exactly when to step on the gas and put on the brakes throughout the series, giving himself enough slack in the story so it would peak at exactly the right time.
Any worries this finale would either break or make the show's reputation were completely unfounded, as it exists simply as it should: As the last chapter. And, in a way, that's such a relief. Did things work out too perfectly for Walt? Not when you consider hardly anything went right for him up until that point. More specifically in these final eight, and even more specifically in the penultimate and bravely depressing "Granite State." An argument can be made that the true finale was the pulse-pounding "Ozymandias," with the final two episodes serving as an essential, but no less compelling post-script. And it's hard to call what Walt experiences in his last hours "redemption" or a "happy ending," at least in any conventional sense. His family is irrecovably broken. His brother-in-law is dead. Countless other lives have been lost or destroyed. His son, no matter how much money he comes into, will always hate him. To say his initial plan hardly worked out as envisioned would be a massive understatement. What he gets instead is a dignity afforded to very few on the show: Dying on his own terms. It's such a fine line Gilligan walks in giving Walt the ending he deserves while still not morally letting him off the hook for any of his actions. And he gets it just right
|Walter White dies in the final shot of Breaking Bad|