Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Breaking Bad: "Felina" Review

Breaking Bad
Season 5, Episode 16
First run on September 29, 2013

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” — Hans Gruber, Die Hard

This quote often serves epigraph duty atop reviews of films and television shows because, let’s be honest, a lot of the protagonists we love are extraordinary men (and, for better or worse, they are men) who live for the struggle. They face a problem, set a goal and barrel so furiously towards it that when they reach that peak, they find it constraining, foreign, flavorless. Whatever motives they had at the outset have molded to this new self-centered, usually violent way of life. Donna Bowman of The AV Club cited the quote in her review of last year’s mid-season Breaking Bad finale, “Gliding Over All.” Back then, ages ago, Walter White realized his dreams of power, money and infamy with as smooth and lucrative a meth operation he was ever going to get. Yet he was exhausted with the monotony of his work and the emotional distance between him and every member of his family. A lot has happened since then, but that quote still applies.

It applies to us, more than anyone or anything else. How are you managing? “Felina,” the series clincher, ties up about every loose end and hits all the right notes. It’s about as perfect a finale any of us could hope for — perhaps too perfect. After all that change, all that bloodshed, all those montages and minerals, Vince Gilligan ends it all on a note of startling, almost uplifting finality. I want to give him either a standing ovation or a punch in the face. The latter more as a coping mechanism because, come on, does he expect Homeland to fill the gap he’s left us? But, on point, that last scene is beautiful, albeit hardly surprising. In contrast with his catatonia in “Gliding Over All,” here Walt greets that dingy meth lab — the remnants of his domain, of all that he built — with a smile. A smile, a cue from Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” a slip of a bloody hand, a contented corpse, a crane shot ascending to heaven or else sending that soul to hell and one final cut to black. I watched that last shot with a breathless smile, yet I could not summon the expected tears. I’m not sure if that is the show’s fault or mine, or if that is the even the tone Gilligan was aiming for, or what that tone is. Ending a show built on moral ambiguity is tricky business.

“Guess I got what I deserved. Kept you waiting there too long, my love.” — Badfinger, “Baby Blue”

A stray bullet from his own jury-rigged M60 finishes what cancer started 61 episodes ago, so why does Walt look so happy? Perhaps because he goes out without a shred of bullshit between him and those he loves and those he hates. As for those he hates, he lets Uncle Jack know money has nothing to do with it via a bullet to the head. He boasts to a dying Lydia how easy it was to slip her some ricin, how predictable she is after all her precautions. He kills all the neo-Nazis because they’re scum and the sloppy antitheses to Mike and Gus, criminals he admired and emulated. He lets Jesse strangle the life out of Todd’s already lifeless eyes because Jesse has more than earned it, not to mention the privilege to finish his own. Jesse’s refusal to put Walt down is one of the show’s final, humanistic triumphs, in which the corrupted breaks free from the corrupter to drive, cackling and crying, toward the sunset. Perhaps Jesse will finally find his way to Alaska, or into the apprenticeship of some old bearded woodworker, one equally wise as Walt but nowhere near as toxic.

“Cheer up, beautiful people, this is where you get to make it right.” — Walt to Elliot and Gretchen

Because Breaking Bad made its name as the funniest serious show on TV, “Felina” balances its late-act slaughter with some seriously funny, somewhat horrifying preamble. In a scene none of us saw coming, Walt saunters around the postmodern, largely hollow mansion of Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz like Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot. Gilligan, who penned and directed “Felina,” emphasizes the Schwartz’s empty space and towering doorways against the stooped, narrow hallway of the White house. Walt may come across like a zombie — or, according to Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz, A Christmas Carol-esque ghost — but he’s still as brilliant as ever. He’s got that pissed-off-at-the-world Falling Down vibe about him, which about sums up his feelings for Gretchen and Eliot, yet he knows their dearly valued comfort will ensure that his remaining millions go to Walt Jr. when he comes of age. That “the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi,” Badger and Skinny Pete, are a pair of laser pointers, Badger and Skinny Pete, both perfectly willing to cast aside moral quandaries in favor of stacks of cash, just reaffirms the basic motivations that drive most of the characters in this world.

 “Back in El Paso my life would be worthless. Everything’s gone in life; nothing is left.” — “El Paso” by Marty Robbins

With that: Why, oh why, did Walt return to ABQ in the first place? That fascinating cold open, just of Walt sitting there in a car, deserves a revisit. It opens with a gray, out-of-focus, neutral palette, like this year’s opener “Blood Money,” which opened on the White’s pool-turned-skate-ramp. After some scratching and shedding of snow, this grayness reveals to be a driver’s window, the corner of which frames Walt’s bearded, desiccated face. Gilligan employs a ton of frame-within-a-frames in this episode (in this shot alone, two of them), which could be a subversive hint to stop judging, scrutinizing, entombing Walt — like a work of art — before he has his final say. He nearly freezes to death there in that car, the glare of police lights reflected in his thick-framed glasses (there it is again). But when he finds the keys and gets that car running, we are with him, in a close-medium shot, as he smacks the snow off the window and gets one last show on the road.

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.” — Walt to Skyler

Even with that one frigid, cloistered moment and all that long-overdue revenge, no scene spelled true catharsis like those words. Before Skyler in her cramped flat stands neither Heisenberg nor the Walter White who justified every terrible thing in the name of family. Here is Walt, changed by his actions and, for once, true to them. That does not make him a hero, not after all he’s done — perhaps that’s why the celebratory tone of the final shot confused me, even as it moved me. If anything, that line sequesters Walt into the darkness once and for all. He seems happy there. I’m reasonably happy, too. I’m about as happy as I can be, greeting the finale not as the end of greatness but as yet another completion, now enthroned to history.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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