“Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” reign as television’s two best antihero dramas.
One famously ended with a cut to black.
The other signed off Sunday in a far more gratifying way with 75 minutes of pure White.
Walter White spent the exquisitely crafted episode tying up loose ends in a way that was fascinating, not formulaic. Equal parts suspenseful and satisfying, “Felina” delivered heart-breaking flashbacks and closure. It brought the series full circle.
Walt, the ineffectual chemistry teacher-turned-Michelin-starred-meth chef, ended up achieving what he set out to do in the pilot. He found a way to provide for his family’s financial future, leaving $9,720,000 for Walt Jr. that will secretly come courtesy of a couple of beautiful Gray Matter benefactors — Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz — who get “to make it right.”
But as “Breaking Bad” showed us over the course of 62 emotional episodes, acquiring that money came at a steep price to Walt, the people around him and complete strangers (let’s not forget Wayfarer flight 515). Walt’s descent into darkness cost him his family — the very people he repeatedly claimed to be doing this for.
“All the things that I did, you need to understand…” Walt says during his final meeting with Skyler.
“If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Skyler responds, channeling the thoughts of millions of viewers perched on the edge of their couches.
Walt cuts her off: “I did it for me,” he says. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was really…I was alive.”
There it was: the ugly truth. For the first time, he owned it. We knew from the start of “Breaking Bad” that Walt was diagnosed with terminal cancer. What we didn’t know — and what was laid out so convincingly over the course of the series — was that his pride was far more metastatic and deadly than a stage IV malignancy.
The past few episodes have been devoted to Walt acknowledging what he’s done. “Felina” was about him finally acknowledging why.
Written and directed by creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan, “Felina” was more about resolution than redemption.
With the clock ticking and a lengthy “to do” list, Walt makes the 30-hour drive from his snowy hell in New Hampshire back home to New Mexico.
When he opens the car’s glove compartment, a Marty Robbins cassette tape falls out. Robbins had a hit in 1959 with the country and western ballad “El Paso,” a song about a cowboy who fell in love with a woman named Felina, the title of the finale. When another man put the moves on Felina, the jealous cowboy shot him dead and fled El Paso for the badlands of New Mexico.
Walt puts the key in the ignition and the song starts playing:
I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing’s worse than this
Pain in my heart.
Like the cowboy, Walt returns to the place he fled. He stops at the Schwartzes’ cosseted confines, where he strong-arms his former friends and business partners into being his bag men. They would bestow the $9,720,000 to Walt Jr. on his 18th birthday or live in fear of the most skilled hitmen west of the Mississippi, a k a Badger and Skinny Pete armed with red laser pointers.
“I don’t exactly know how to feel about all this,” Badger says to Walt after pulling off the ruse.
“The whole thing felt kinda shady, morality wise,” chimed in Skinny Pete, who might as well have been describing the series, a morality play for the 21st century.
Walt has crossed many a moral line during his odyssey, rationalizing and justifying every step along the way. Some viewers have written him off as pure evil. Strident members of Team Walt consider him a badass hero. He’s both, which is what makes the show so compelling — and conflicting from a viewer standpoint.
Largely thanks to Bryan Cranston’s performance, most of us are left with confusing feelings about Walt and what fate he ultimately deserves. In “Felina,” Walt is at his most sympathetic. He realizes how far he’s fallen and that there’s no coming back. He’s smart enough to know salvation and forgiveness aren’t in the cards. That’s not what he’s after, anyway. He just wants to fix what little he can before the lights go out for good.
Walt crashes Lydia and Todd’s Tuesday morning tea party, setting the wheels in motion for a meeting at Uncle Jack’s compound and — in classically crafty “Breaking Bad” fashion — spiking Lydia’s Stevia with the ricin that’s become the poison equivalent of Chekhov’s gun.
Leaving no stone unturned, the finale gives us a glimpse of a mourning Marie. She calls Skyler to warn her that Walt’s been spotted back in town. The camera pulls back and we see that Skyler already knows this; her husband is standing in her kitchen.
Walt gives Skyler the lottery ticket with the GPS coordinates that once held his buried treasure and now holds the bodies of Hank and Gomez. It’s a somber scene laced with just the right amount of tenderness as Skyler lets Walt have one last look at his baby daughter, Holly. One last look is all Walt gets at his son, too.
Emotions reached their highpoint during Walt and Skyler’s “proper goodbye.” The tension peaked not long after with Walt’s last stand at Uncle Jack’s compound, where a remote-controlled M60 lays waste to most of the neo-Nazis.
Jesse, whom Walt gets out of the line of fire, has the pleasure of taking out Todd. In a murder rife with symbolism, Jesse chokes the ever-polite sociopath with the chain on his handcuffs.
A severely wounded Uncle Jack tries to appeal to Walt’s greed, telling him he’ll never know where the rest of the barrels of money are if Walt shoots him. That tactic might have worked at the start of the season. Not anymore. Heisenberg is dead, and Walt’s not that far behind. All Walt wants now is to close down Uncle Jack and Company for good, and he does that with a bullet to Jack’s head.
As it should be, only Walt and Jesse remain standing at the end. Walt wants Jesse to kill him. Jesse refuses.
“Do it yourself,” Jesse says before driving off to freedom. If anyone in this mess were going to make it out alive, it had to be Jesse. The flashback of him woodworking was a painful reminder of how far off course his life has veered.
Now Walt’s alone, wounded. He’s been shot in the side, like the cowboy in “El Paso.”
Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I’m getting weary,
Unable to ride.
He’s bleeding to death. Alone in the lab — with his precious Felina — Walt drops to the floor. The camera shot of him from above is reminiscent of the “Crawl Space” episode, when Walt laughed maniacally after discovering his money was gone. This time, he’s quiet. At his side is a gas mask, similar to the one he wore back in the day, cooking his Heisenberg blue in an RV with Jesse.
In the pilot, Walt tried to shoot himself because he heard sirens and thought the police were coming to get him. In the finale, we hear sirens and watch the police descend on the scene. This time, they really are coming to get him. But Walt’s already dead. He got to go out on his own terms, which is about as happy an ending as Walt could have.
The closing song isn’t “El Paso.” It’s Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” and it’s just as fitting:
Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long, my love
All that time without a word
Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget or I’d regret
The special love I had for you, my baby blue.