Ending Bad: On my disappointment with “Felina”

It’s been two weeks since Walter White lay down to die. Since then, his dearly departed have filled the ensuing void with a thousand blogged obituaries. Every culture website worth its clicks has reflected on the passing with breathless adulation, or muttering disappointment. Count me among the muttering.

It must first be conceded that, like every preceding hour of Breaking Bad, “Felina” is gorgeously executed. It offers another fifty-four minutes of the kind of acting and cinematography that, when viewed in the comfort of one’s living room (read: underwear), goes a long way towards justifying industrial capitalism.

While watching the episode, I enjoyed the same narcotic engagement that had me stupefied the past seven Sundays. But then, as the screen faded to black, and Badfinger played us out of Albequerque, an inarticulate unease settled over me. After a good night’s sleep, and a lazy morning’s blog surf, my unease began to speak. Here’s the short version of what’s wrong with Felina:

Walt wins.

Granted, it isn’t the end many would wish for themselves. The man does die, despised by his family, bleeding out on the floor of some neo-Nazis’ meth-lab. Yet against all odds, and the outer bounds of suspended disbelief, Walter White goes out on his own terms.

In “Felina”, Walter secures the financial future of his offspring with a performance of menace and some well-placed laser-pointers. He offers his wife a mea culpa, who then allows him a tearful goodbye with the daughter he kidnapped. While effortlessly evading the attention of the Albuquerque PD, DEA, and FBI, he slips poison into the stevia of a woman who would kill his family, then convinces a wily white supremacist to bring a desperate fugitive onto his uncle’s compound, where, Mr. White affirms his relative moral superiority, in grand American tradition, by laying waste to a bunch of nazis. The partner he turned from burnout to biblical Job, bestows a nod that says “I guess I have to appreciate that you never locked me underground to live a life divided between cooking meth and torture sessions, although, figuratively speaking, you sort of…well whatever, this car is fast!”

Then, with the satisfaction of a long day’s work, our anti-hero nostalgically admires his face reflected back from meth equipment, and lays down, awaiting the police and what dreams may come.

Two desires drove Walt through the show’s five seasons: To provide for his family financially after his death, and to earn respect through performances of power and ruthless virtuosity. From episode one, Walter White is forever reiterating that these are his goals, attesting to the former in word, the latter in deed. “Felina” sees him fulfill his objectives with Heisenbergian gusto.

So then. The bad guy won. Why is this a problem? Wherefore this insistence that Breaking Bad’s universe prove itself moral?

Set against the other elite cable dramas of the past decade, Breaking Bad always struck me as fundamentally, often refreshingly, less “serious” than its peers. By the testimony of its creator, Breaking Bad was conceived as an exercise in genre subversion. The ambition was not to say anything profound about our shared culture or politics, at least not self-consciously, but rather to confront an audience conditioned to characters with stable identities, and transfix them with a protagonist’s moral degeneration.

Conversely, the other “greatest shows in television history” tend to be far more self-conscious and deliberate about what they have to say. David Simon built “The Wire”, (the one true “greatest show in history”), around years of reporting on the drug corners, police stations, and mayoral offices of Baltimore, an experience that furnished him with a thesis about the powerlessness of individuals in the face of amoral, often arbitrary social systems. Mad Men drips with capital T “Themes”, about the tensions between the reigning white patriarchy and newly ascendant out-groups, and the existentially terrifying lesson of advertising: that our desires and identities are but malleable illusions.

The pilot of Breaking Bad head fakes towards a concern with the American healthcare system, but once Walt turns down Gretchen’s offer to pay for his treatment, his true motivations are revealed to be more sinister than desperation, and the show reveals its interest to be more narrowly psychological. By the time Heisenberg is exploding drug dealers with the miracle of science, the show seems to be primarily concerned with good, dark fun.

But then, as the seasons progressed, and the bad did break, Gilligan’s peerless showmanship, his masterful manipulation of the viewer’s desires and expectations, seemed to be serving a higher purpose than entertainment. The show’s intense pleasures became increasingly masochistic. The viewer would be seduced into forgiving Walt his latest trespass, made to identify yet again with his diabolical genius, only to be promptly shamed for doing so.

Perhaps the most memorable iteration of this pattern comes during the cockamamie train heist at the end of “Dead Freight”. In this episode, Walt, Jesse, Mike and Todd conspire to hold up a train at a mythical point in the New Mexico desert, a monitoring black-spot where no alarms can be heard, no cell-phones dialed. While Mike and one of Saul’s hired hands pose as unlucky truckers marooned on the tracks, Jesse and Todd endeavor to siphon pre-cursor from a storage car, replacing the missing methlyamine with water. When a good samaritan arrives in a pick-up and offers to push the broken dump truck off the tracks, Walt orders Jesse not to stop until they collect the thousand gallons they had planned for. Whatever incredulity the more skeptical viewer might have harbored towards the whole nutty scheme is long forgotten, as Jesse just barely beats the clock, escaping notice by lying directly beneath the train’s rushing cars. The team is united in the euphoria of an outrageous gamble rewarded. In the room where I was watching, there was no small amount of fist pumping. And then, before the more exuberant viewers have had a chance to sit back down, a boy on a bicycle appears, and Todd shoots him in the face.

The boy functions as a stand-in for all the invisible victims of our heroes’ grand ambition, those whose lives must be destroyed to facilitate the trade and use of methamphetamine.

In my estimation, Breaking Bad’s most singular achievement is in engineering moments like this, when the viewer is forced to confront how easily she can adopt a blinkered morality, one that defines “the good” as whatever action brings material benefit to those characters she knows, regardless of the costs to characters she doesn’t.

What makes these confrontations so resonant, at least for myself, is the sense that this selective morality is the dominant system of value within our culture. It is the morality offered by the cult of shareholder value, which insists a corporation’s only obligation is to its investors. Because this is a corporate world, and the rest of us just live here, the moral vision of the corporation ripples out into the wider culture. The middle managers of amoral advertising agencies, rapacious megabanks, and weapons manufacturers, learn to evaluate their daily efforts solely by the material gains these bring into the lives of their families, the broader social impacts of such efforts being too abstract and uncomfortable to consider. Breaking Bad follows this moral reasoning to the nightmarish endpoint of a chemistry teacher cooking meth to provide his family a windfall inheritance.

Throughout the series, when confronted by the monstrosity of all he hath wrought, Walter White seeks absolution through the refrain: “All that I’ve done, I did for my family”. Even if the sincerity of this claim weren’t in doubt, the show exposes this defense as entirely inadequate. For one thing, this justification in no way separates Walt from his enemies. Mike Ermentraut is in it for his granddaughter, the ruthless Lydia is a single mom, even Uncle Jack’s band of homicidal skinheads believe in family. Further, the show’s tragic arc, at least up until Felina, suggests that the fanatical prioritization of family above all is toxically self-defeating. In our world, this myopic morality has furnished us a financial crisis, and impending ecological disaster. By the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, it brings Walter White the isolation of a freezing cabin, the death of his brother-in-law, and the contempt of the rest of his impoverished family.

For me then, what made Breaking Bad more than artisanal grade pulp, was the way it managed to punish, not only Walter White’s attractions to power, and to the fig-leaf of a myopic moral code, but also those very same attractions in its audience. At its best, the show undercuts the pleasure of identifying with Heisenberg, by pulling back to reveal the boy on the bike, a gentle Gale Boetticher, or potted lilly of the valley. In such moments, the viewer’s allegiance to the brilliance and dynamism of the show’s most familiar characters is challenged by a higher allegiance, to the essential humanity of all those vulnerable figures on the periphery.

The penultimate “Granite State” functions largely to restore the audience’s rooting interest in Walter by transforming him into just this sort of  figure. The episode is one of the series’ best, its most quietly surprising. For the first time in ages, we’re asked to identify with Walt, not on the basis of his individuating genius, but in recognition of his basic human frailty. We are presented with a dying man, isolated by mistakes and failing health. The millions of dollars that were to justify his crimes, reduced to so much paper, happily traded for a single hour of any human company.

And then Heisenberg returns, and the show’s moral complexity goes into remission.

“Felina” asks little more of its audience than an episode of “24”. Its hero is portrayed as brilliant, brave, and righteously vengeful. When Walt struts into the Schwartes’ palatial home, there’s no question whose side we’re meant to take. The Schwartes are portrayed as insufferable foodie billionaires, Walt as one cool operator. So what if he forces them to live as money launderers, or else in constant fear? Someone has to pay for Flynn’s pancakes.

The problem with “Felina” isn’t so much that it rewards Heisenberg. The problem is that it rewards our identification with him. It rewards our attraction to power, our myopic morality.

In the show’s final minutes, Lydia calls Walt, suffering the flu-like symptoms of ricin poisoning. A sinister close-up of stevia spilling into her tea already confirmed her fate for all but the dimmest of viewers. The call has no impact on what remains of the plot. It exists solely to provide the satisfaction of seeing Lydia receive her death sentence. Her helpless terror is the cherry on a dead nazi sundae, as Walt walks Jesse to his getaway car.

The Breaking Bad I loved would have stayed with Lydia in that moment. It would have followed her down the hall, watching her dumb shock give way to sobs of despair. Treating every fist-pumper in the audience to this woman’s tearful goodbye with her daughter, the one she swears that all of this was for.