Friday, October 4, 2013

Unpopular Opinions: Why Walter White's Final, Most Selfish Act Is the Most Fitting End for Breaking Bad

Walter White "wins"

The story of Walter White ends with Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” playing as our protagonist admires the Nazis' meth-cooking facilities, proud of the work of his mind, if not his hands.  But while that was the end of Walter White’s story, it was not the end of Breaking Bad.  That story ends ten minutes after the credits roll as the police pull over a fleeing Jesse Pinkman, find his confession DVD in the Nazis’ media cabinet, discover his role in the death of Gale Boetticher and likely Badger’s and Skinny Pete’s involvement in the drug operation, arrest the lot of them, find out about Walt Jr.’s inheritance, confiscate the $10 million, and completely undo every one of Walter’s final plans. 

Maybe it doesn’t play out exactly like that, but the odds of Jesse making it to Alaska, or even making it out of New Mexico with no contacts, no money, no identification, nothing but a stolen Camaro are extremely low.  And the odds of Gretchen and Elliott not immediately calling the DEA once Walt leaves their house are not much better.  And Walt has to know this.  He has to know how futile his efforts are likely to be and, therefore, even the few seemingly selfless acts in which he engages in the series finale end up being all about him and making his name.

That is Walter White’s lasting legacy.  Not his money.  That’s all gone.  Not his family.  They’re devastated and want nothing to do him.  Not his friends, what few he ever had.  It is, instead, his pride: the one thing Walter White has most valued in the two years of his life depicted in Breaking Bad.  Nothing has been more important to him.  And so, as he sits impotent in the bar, watching Elliott and Gretchen strip the last good thing he has left, he makes the fateful decision to wage one, final all-out war on anybody who has ever damaged his ego. 

For Walter, selling meth was never about his family.  He tells Skyler as much in the finale.  Meth was always his way of exercising his massive ego.  Just recall the beginning of the third season.  Walt is out of the business but is brought back in not by the allure of money, but because Jesse is making his product.  The idea that Jesse, of all people, could make his meth, and make it well enough to sell to Gus, infuriates Walt and drives him back into the game.

That is the Walt we see leaving New Hampshire: A man who has been broken and stripped of everything, including his name and his life’s work.  His mission is not one of redemption, but of restoration.

I can understand the arguments of those who think the finale was “too neat”.  But I think that to say that is to ignore the episodes that came before “Felina”.  This is not Walt’s master plan.  It is not his Plan A, or B, or C.  Plan A was living happily ever after with his family.  Plan B was to go on the run with his family and money.*  Plan C was to go on the run on his own.  The first two plans failed miserably while the third turned out to be the worse than Walt could ever have imagined.  Dying alone, forced to pay a stranger $10,000 for an hour of his company and watching every bit of his legacy torn down even to his name.  Skyler is going by her maiden name (and will likely pass that along to Holly as well) and Walter White, Jr. has ditched his father’s moniker completely. 

* Note: Walt wanting his family with him is not an argument that he was doing this all for them.  Rather, it’s the opposite.  Being the most powerful person in the room isn’t any fun when there’s nobody else there to whom you can demonstrate your power.

At the end of the penultimate episode “Granite State,” Walt literally has nothing left but a barrel of money in a one room cabin.  There is no chance he’ll recover his lost money.  There is no chance he’ll win back his family.  There is no chance that he’ll be thought of as anything but a villain.  And so he decides to win back the one thing he can: his name.

What’s amazing about Walt’s plan is that it’s nearly foolproof.  At this point in the progression of his cancer, his worst case scenario is that he fails and dies.  If Elliott and Gretchen fail to give the money to Flynn, it won’t matter because he will die thinking they did anyway.  If he fails to poison Lydia, it won’t matter because he will die thinking he did anyway.  If he fails to kill the Nazis, it won’t matter because it’s no different than if he had died in that cabin, and he got his victories over everybody else anyway.  Walt’s final plan is almost foolproof not because it can only succeed, but because he won’t live to see it fail.

So when Chekhov’s M60 rises from the trunk and opens fire on the Nazi clubhouse, it’s not the culmination of some master plan.  It’s the inevitable conclusion to the world’s saddest triumph.  In the end, the only victory Walter could get was one that mattered to no one but him.

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