Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Breaking Bad 516: Felina

Full spoilers follow, for those who haven't seen the finale.

I'm going to put this on the table, first and foremost: I was craving an irrational amount of drama and emotion from this finale. As a result, I felt a little meh when I first watched it. After all, it didn't have the dramatic impact that the previous two episodes had, and it was a bow on five seasons tied very neatly (bad guys die, good guys live, everything goes according to Walt's final plans). I felt very much along for the ride through the finale, as I came to it convinced I would love whatever unapologetic events took place, so when everything felt into place so perfectly, alongside some very subdued goodbyes between Walt and Skyler and Walt and Jesse, I was at a loss when faced with the possibility that the ending let me down.

But, in my hyped-up state over the best show on television ending, I'd forgotten one of the more important things about Breaking Bad. Oftentimes, stew tastes better the second day after it's made. Horrible metaphor, but it more or less applies. Breaking Bad is a show that doesn't spoon-feed you. In a world of instant gratification entertainment, it often requires you to think beyond the dialogue on the page and the forty-two-minute viewing window and piece things together by re-watching, analyzing silences and facial expressions, and thinking as much about what's going on off-camera as what's going on in front of it. If you want to get the full impact of its episodes, anyway.

All that said, I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in Felina (as with the previous few episodes, I haven't slept well the night after watching, thus, I have thinking time) and re-watched it, and I quickly saw that the drama and goodbyes and everything I'd wanted had been there all along, just not in the form I was craving emotionally. Which may suggest a tough ending to love. But I don't believe you have to be disappointed in an ending just because it made you uncomfortable. There were parts of Felina that just didn't, and may never, sit right with me, but I know that every time I watch it, I'll love it even more.

Walt's intentions for Gretchen and Elliot arguably serve as the only real twist in the last episode, and the whole scene was brilliant from start to finish. I went into the finale with a feeling Walt was going to kill them with the ricin, but the writers took a direction ten times better - don't kill enemies in powerful positions, use them to your advantage. Every detail was perfect, from the mundane rich-people chatter and the butter knife (seems like a weapon that pilot episode Walter White would use) to Walt's casual, unannounced stroll through their house and Elliot nudging Gretchen to shake Walt's hand. This was the last really tense moment of Breaking Bad, and it didn't disappoint.

I didn't think Walt would see Skyler one last time, simply because I didn't see a plausible way for him to make contact. But evidently, the cops watching her house are pretty bad at their jobs, because not only was Todd able to break into the old house in the previous episode, Walt gets past them in this scene, too (really, she might as well have Badger and Skinny Pete sitting out there guarding her). Their whole conversation, from start to finish, was quietly, un-theatrically emotional, with Walt leaving everything he has left to her, literally emptying his wallet and giving her the only thing inside that'll get her a deal with the prosecutors and aid Marie in her grief.

Maybe it's not much in the grand scheme of things, but it's really all Walt has to give Skyler, at this point. He's hijacked her life, her family, her house, her son's innocence, her children's father, none of which he can get back...all he can give her is something he hadn't given much of in the past two years, the truth. He owes it to her to reveal Hank's burial site, and as much as it may hurt, he owes her the truth about his criminal actions: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really...I was alive." Such a perfect and devastating line, all at once, because even the most anti-Walt viewer can't deny it - he was damn good at running a meth empire. It's just so sad that the empire he chose to build was so destructive and illegal.

Full disclosure here, I kind of lost it when Walt went in to say goodbye to Holly. As unfortunate as it can be for a child to grow up never knowing their parents, it's obviously for the best that she won't have any recollection of the first two years of her life. One can only hope she'll grow up hearing more stories about the man he was before she was born than the man he was after. As for Walt, I felt a bit of sympathy for him here, that he won't get to watch his daughter grow up. His death is his own doing, but if not for the whole meth empire, he still would have died from cancer while she was young, and I can't imagine how much it hurts to know you won't be there, how hard it must be to say a final goodbye to your child.

On the first viewing, I was kind of aghast that Walt and Skyler didn't hug before he left. In fact, I don't know that they touched at all in the whole scene. Their marriage isn't really a marriage anymore, but for some reason, I still expected some affection between two people who had built a lot together (good and bad) and knew they were saying a last goodbye. Or, rather, I expected some sort of physical comfort from Walt as he knowingly leaves his wife to raise their two children on her own. I think what I have to accept (and have, after some thought) is that their love is irredeemable. The last time they saw each other, they got in a knife fight that their son had to break up - there really isn't any coming back from that. I also think that, as much as Skyler may need comforting, Walt doesn't deserve to be the one to provide that to her. He wasn't there for her for two years, and he's certainly lost his right to be there now. And he seems to accept that, which is probably another item on his to-do list.

As for where Skyler goes from here, I see her doing alright, provided she gets lots of therapy. She does tend to do drastic things when her life is going off the rails, but she's a strong woman with her priorities in the right order. She's got a good business background, and I can easily see her starting something out of nothing and achieving her own success. As much as she's been victimized, Skyler doesn't often play the victim card, and she's not going to rely on anyone but herself to raise and provide for her family.

A note about Lydia. The ricin was Chekhov's gun, and a predictable outcome was for it to be used on Lydia, so I didn't think that would end up being the case. But, the finale's job wasn't to throw us for a loop at every turn, and this was an instance in which the predictions held up. I'm okay with that, plot-wise; Walt knew Lydia wouldn't be at the Nazi compound for the big shootout, so he had to kill her some other way, and he probably figured it'd be wise to make it untraceable, since she's high profile in the corporate world. The thing I did take issue with was the double-showcase of the poisoning, first with the shot of it going into Lydia's mug and second with the phone conversation between her and Walt at the end. My husband suggested the latter may have been for Jesse's benefit, so he knew she was dead, which I guess could be fair. But other than that reasoning, it was overkill, especially by Breaking Bad standards.

Then we move to Walt's other weapon, the m60. It seems a lot of viewers took issue with the way it was used, calling it out as a deux ex machina. The whole damn show is practically a Greek tragedy, so, ironically, a duex ex machina would fit quite well in its finale. But I didn't see it that way, rather, I thought it was a brilliant way for a man who's no gun expert, but who knows a lot about science and engineering, to accomplish what was definitely not a one-man job. He's Walter White, for crying out loud, he has to use science! I was wracking my brain all season, wondering how on earth he was going to take out an entire Nazi crew by himself, and once again, the writers pulled through with an impressive and visually awesome solution. How crazy but fitting that a machine takes down the bad guys, swiveling like a finger pointing judgement and blame and mechanically, objectively killing everyone who deserved to die, including its builder who was seemingly out of the trajectory. Even if you're ducking out of the way, the duex ex machina spares NO GUILTY PARTIES!

Well, it spared Todd. But for a very delicious reason.

After the first viewing, I was left wanting so much more out of the scenes at the compound. Jesse and Walt have the oddest, most complex relationship out of any other duo on the show, and I was honestly anticipating a more lengthy dialogue between them. However, much like the scene with Walt and Skyler, this scene requires multiple viewings for dodos like me to realize everything they needed to say, give, and do to each other is all there.

In Walt and Jesse's relationship, there have been many things, or at least the potential for many things: father and son, teacher and student, mentor and apprentice, etc. The thing that's hurt so much over the course of five seasons is to see the man in the authority position (Walt) take advantage of a man with a history of drug problems, emotional neglect, and a general lack of stability and direction. It's such a god damn tragedy that Jesse has a lot of love to give, but he can't seem to get it in return from anybody around him, and I periodically wonder about the astounding influence Walt could have had on him, had they not united under these circumstances. Or, maybe that's wishful thinking on my part, maybe "what could have been" really never could have happened between these two. Maybe their chemistry with each other could only be born out of the chemistry they created in the lab.

Regardless, my point is that after two years of mentally imprisoning him, manipulating him, and hurting him, Walt finally stepped up and took on the role of father and teacher to Jesse, first by protecting him, then by dismissing him. A common hyperbole parents will say is, "I would take a bullet for my child." Walt does this literally, not just by shoving Jesse to the ground, out of the way, but by tackling him and staying on top of him until every last bullet is spent. It's so physical, which makes it so satisfying, at least to someone like me who can name several moments throughout the show when I've wanted a hug between them and didn't get it. This wasn't quite the hug that they had when Walt rescued Jesse from the drug house in season two, but it was every bit as fulfilling.

It doesn't matter to me that Walt went into the compound intending to kill Jesse, what matters is that he willingly changed his plan when he saw what the Nazis had done to him. For once, as he did for his family earlier in the episode, Walt decides to do something that serves someone other than himself. As with Skyler, Walt finally acknowledges that Jesse is in this state because of him, and the only thing he has left to give Jesse is to save him and let him go.

Jesse's reaction, naturally, is to point a gun at Walt, and Walt is willing to give him that as well. But for two reasons, Jesse can't do it: murder isn't really his style, and he doesn't for one more second of his life want to do anything Walt tells him to do. The dialogue between them is short, but powerful. Todd's abuse of Jesse is physical, so it's fitting that Jesse seeks a physical revenge against him. Walt's abuse, however, has largely been verbal, so Jesse's verbal retort to him ("Do it yourself") is his final step towards getting his free-thinking mind back. It's what he should have said to Walt in the very first episode, when Walt blackmailed him into cooking meth, but he wasn't strong enough then. Now, he is.

As I said, the lack of dialogue between the two bothered me, at first, but I've made my peace with it. Perhaps to serve my own emotions, I wanted Walt to tend to Jesse more. I'd never expect as much as a hug, but a pat on the shoulder, make sure he's uninjured, help him unlock the cuffs, maybe even help him kill Todd. An apology, for crying out loud. Something. But, as with Walt's lack of affection for Skyler in their scene, I've come to recognize that he doesn't deserve to be there for Jesse anymore. He gave up his right to be any comfort to Jesse, and the appropriate moment for that is long gone. Walt gave Jesse exactly what he needed (saved him and let him go) and nothing more. We've watched five seasons of Walt manipulating and hurting him with words, so the lack of dialogue was appropriate, just a nod that said, "You're free to go."

What happens to Jesse from here is probably a bigger mystery than it is for Skyler and Marie. People seem to be hopeful that he'll be some ambiguous definition of "okay," and I want more than anything else a decent outcome for him. We've seen him not do well with trauma in the past, but during his captivity, he was sober and adapted, endured. He's so much stronger now than he was, and you're proud of him for surviving, killing Todd, and not killing Walt. But the more I think about it, he could quickly lapse into his old ways. With no money, he won't get the help he likely needs, won't have anywhere to live, won't even be able to buy drugs...kind of a desperate situation. I can fully imagine a scene after the one where he drives away laughing, where he pulls over and just dissolves into sobs because what kind of life can you build with no money? Not a promising one. For my own sanity, I have to push this scenario out of my head, in favor of a happier outcome.

Overall, one of the best TV finales, ever, despite some of the issues I had with it. I was wrong to go into it expecting the intensity and action of 'Ozymandias' and 'Granite State', because that simply wasn't its purpose. Breaking Bad has spent five seasons wowing us with explosions, Pontiac Aztec bowling, so-heavy-it's-hard-to-watch drama, plot twists, and tighty-whities, therefore, the last episode didn't need all that. It needed simplicity and closure, and it achieved that. It needed to kill its anti-hero, but not before he freed those close to him from the prisons his actions put them in. They are all destroyed by the end, maybe irreparably. But they're alive and they'll never cross paths with Walter White again, and that's as unapologetic an ending as the rest of the series has been.

Other notable mentions:

- I'm not sure how I feel about Walt praying when he's sitting in the stolen car, but the lines, "Just get me home, I'll do the rest," were so god damn beautiful.

- SO, so happy we got to see Badger and Skinny Pete in the finale. I had a hunch Walt would enlist their help with some part of his to-do list, I just didn't know how (because, you know, they're not the brightest crayons in the box).

- Poor Marie. Mainly because she lost Hank, of course, but also because of how naive she still is at the end of it all. Another sad note is how much less purple there seems to be in her house. The kitchen counters used to have purple appliances everywhere, and they're mostly gone now.

- Very awesome reveal of Walt in Skyler's house. The whole scene was shot very artistically, because of the column placement in the kitchen, and I appreciate the show not skimping on that stuff just because they had a lot of story to wrap up.

- The reflection of Skyler's face on the toaster was so creepy! Very prominent, to the point where it felt like there were two Skylers watching Walt. And I love that it was done unintentionally. So much attention is paid to the details on this show, that I find it rather amusing when something like that happens accidentally.

- The most telling detail of where Skyler is, mentally, at the end of the show (and perhaps the long road to recovery she's heading towards) is her automated voicemail message. Throughout the series, we've regularly heard the personalized (and, in my opinion, highly annoying) White residence voicemail, and you can tell it's a small point of pride for Skyler, the stay-at-home mom who's always run the house like a well-oiled machine (someone correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't she even change the message to omit Walt during the period he doesn't live there?). Skyler's always been all about the details, whether it's voicemail messages or a fake gambling story about her husband, and it's heartbreaking to see that, for whatever reason, this new shell of who she was hasn't personalized the message in her new home.

- Jesse as Todd's "pet" kind of breaks my soul. His visual transformation is startling enough, but then to see him trotting obediently after Todd when Jack summons him and learning that he's left to cook unsupervised...he's literally being treated like a dog, trained well enough that you don't have to crate it when you're not home. Trained so well that even when he's free, he walks awkwardly to the getaway car like his legs are still shackled. Ugh.

- I could be wrong about this, but I think Jesse is wearing what looks like Todd's shirt (from 'Ozymandias', when he first brings Jesse to the meth lab...I poked around online and some suggest Todd wore it in 'Dead Freight'), which, if true, is yet another detail that speaks to the sociopath that is Todd ("Yeah, me and Jesse, we're BFFs, we share clothes!"). It's probably a matter of practicality more than anything else, and I'm sure Jesse's just grateful to have clean clothes, period, but I can't imagine it feels too great to share clothes with the guy who's been torturing you for several months. And, oddly enough, Todd is wearing a yellow hoodie, similar to what Jesse wore in the first season.

- Speaking of clothes, HOLY CRAP, Uncle Jack wearing purple! Team Marie, all the way!

Poem in Really System

Really System is a kick-ass journal that published me a while back, and I'm happy to be in their most recent issue again with a new poe...