(SPOILERS AHEAD, so “toe the line,” ye Breaking Bad fanatics!)
Season Five, Episode 16: “Felina”
Written and Directed by: Vince Gilligan
They did it.
Despite almost insurmountable odds, Vince Gilligan and his incredible team of writers, directors, editors, and actors managed to craft a final hour (OK, hour-plus) of television that didn’t disrespect the 61 that came before it. Ironically, because the spectacular precedent it established, “Felina” was destined to disappoint. How could it not, given that the entire Internet has spent the past year cooking up theories about the show’s “proper” conclusion?
But instead of focusing on the finite points (We’ll get to that in a minute), let’s look at what “Felina” accomplished on a grand scale. It wrapped up all of its major storylines: Walt finally finds a way to leave his family their millions, bowing out in a blaze of bullets; Jesse gets revenge and escapes toward an uncertain future; Skyler gets some miniscule amount of closure by saying goodbye to Walt (and hearing him confess that the cooking wasn’t for the family after all). Gilligan didn’t take the easy way out with “Felina,” cutting to an ambiguous black. And he didn’t suddenly shift the show’s tone in service of a more typical “happy ending” finale. He stayed true to the series’s bleak central premise, while also finding satisfying beats of well-earned optimism from within that bleakness.
“Felina” needs time to ferment in our brains. In my post-finale depression, I’m unable to process whether this was in face the greatest finale of the modern era. It wasn’t a fireworks-laden spectacle (which some may have craved), and it wasn’t filled (at least entirely) with shocking twists and turns — like many of the series’ defining episodes. But as the desert dusts start to settle, it’s tough to imagine a more satisfying conclusion.
After his Charlie Rose epiphany, Walt’s getting down to business. Coughing and shivering in a stolen car, he’s suddenly surrounded by flashing police lights, as he pleads with fate to “just get (him) home.” When the keys literally fall into his lap from above (hidden in a visor), it seems like destiny isn’t done with him yet. Later, posing as a New York Times reporter, he tracks down the Schwartzes’ new address and flees (but not before leaving his watch — the one given to him as a gift from Jesse — on the pay phone). (Gilligan himself addressed this moment in the Talking Bad episode last night, saying it was both a continuity ploy and a symbolic gesture.)
On the whole, Gilligan largely avoided clever twists in favor of logical maneuvers — but there was one notable “HOLY SHIT” moment early on, when Walt crashes the Schwartzes’ swanky new pad and offers an ultimatum: In a sort-of reverse-laundering gesture, they’ll funnel Walt’s $9.2 million to Walt Jr. through a donation on his 19th birthday; if not, his “hitmen” (Badger and Skinny Pete, proving their dead-aim with laser pointers) will make sure they die a painful and unexpected death.
My favorite moment of the episode was its dreamiest, its most uncharacteristic: In front of an eerie yellow glow, Jesse crafts a beautiful wood box, smiling from behind his handsomely shaved face. It’s a fantasy sequence that serves two purposes: pointing out Jesse’s dormant skill as a craftsman and hinting to a theoretical happy future for this cruelly punished character. But the fantasy fades, leaving Jesse in his meth dungeon, chained up in a disheveled daze.
We next cut back to Walt’s “52” breakfast at Denny’s, then out to the parking lot (with Walt examining his machine gun), then back to the Heisenberg house, where he retrieves the ricin cigarette. Flashing back to a more innocent time (specifically to the pilot episode, talking to Hank about a ride-along), Walt ruminates on his grim future and heads for the door. Knowing that Lydia and Todd meet at 10:00 a.m. every Tuesday, Walt ambushes the duo’s awkward coffee shop rendezvous and offers a plan: He’ll revolutionize their meth-making procedure for a cool million. A skeptical Todd shrugs off the offer, but Lydia feigns interest for the sake of cornering Walt at the Nazi compound, where he’ll be swiftly killed off. (“Jesus, we’d be doing him a favor,” she shrugs.) But Walt, as we know, is no dummy. Lydia may be gearing up the Nazis for a showdown, but Walt is doing the same thing, tinkering out in the desert with his machine gun and a suspicious-looking car remote.
I’m not sure I have a single complaint about “Felina,” but the one scene that struck me as slightly lacking was the phone call between Skyler and Marie (who warns her sister about Walt being back in town). Besides a couple of funny one-liners (“(Carol) said he looked exactly like the unibomber”) and a heartfelt plea for Skyler to be “on the lookout,” there wasn’t much of an emotional pay-off. Maybe that’s the point — this isn’t a show of clear-cut happy endings, after all. But it still seemed like Marie could have been utilized a bit more in the episode. (Maybe subsequent viewings of this scene will reveal more nuance in time.)
On the contrary, the subsequent exchange between Skyler and Walt was totally revelatory. After sneaking in to his wife’s apartment, Walt asks — not demands — for five minutes. “It’s over, and I needed a proper goodbye,” he says, limping in Skyler’s kitchen. He hands over the lotto ticket (with the coordinates for the bodies of Hank and Gomie), which he hopes she can use in exchange for lenience from the police. (“Tell (the DEA) that I wanted bacon and eggs on my birthday,” he says, hinting toward a simpler past so far out of reach.)
Skyler is in no mood for bargaining or lies — but so is Walt. “I did it for me,” he says. It’s often said that Walt’s most criminal lies are the ones he tells himself — and it appears he’s through putting on that mask. “I liked it. I was good it. And I was…I was alive.”
And so Walt is human again: He gently strokes Holly’s hair, smiling; he gazes in heartbroken awe at the distant sight of his son. But that humanity — what’s left of it, anyway — is on its last legs. Shuffled off to the Neo-Nazi “clubhouse” (How charming), Walt parks his car and is escorted inside, where he’s mocked and apprehended by his enemies. (“You really shouldn’t have come back, Mr White,” says Todd.) But Walt pleads that Jack is a traitor, breaking off their deal by partnering with his old partner, Jesse. Determined to prove he is no rat-sympathizer, Jack has Jesse brought before them, during which time Walt reaches for his car-remote trigger and lights up the clubhouse in a hail of bullets.
Walt dives on Jesse, shielding him from death (but taking a fatal bullet in the process). Freed from his shackles, Jesse exacts his revenge on Todd by choking the bastard to death, while Walt avenges Hank’s death by shooting a barely-alive Jack in the head, refusing to negotiate with the Nazi’s money talk. (Soon-to-be-iconic TV moment: Jack stopping his execution to puff on a cigarette.)
Ironically, this was the most unpredictable episode of Breaking Bad — in that is was the most logical. Walt told us he wanted to kill the Nazis, but given this show’s tendency to surprise, did we actually expect him to do it? We figured, deep down, that Walt must still care for Jesse, but actually seeing him save his pseudo-son from gunfire was unexpectedly predictable — and hauntingly beautiful. (Another notable prediction many fans got right: Walt poisoning Lydia, swapping out her sweetener for ricin.)
“Do it,” Walt says, sliding a gun over to Jesse’s feet. “You want this.”
But Jesse — finally get a speak a line this season — isn’t letting his former teacher off the hook that easily.
“Do it yourself,” Jesse says, before walking out to his giddy midnight ride to who-knows-where. It’s not as if Walt and Jesse became friends again: Though seeing them hug it out would have been an emotional lightning bolt, it also would have been cheap drama. Gilligan’s form of closure — a subtle, knowing nod between the two — was powerful and redemptive, but never at the expense of the plot.
“I guess I got what I deserved,” goes Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” the song that closes out Breaking Bad for good. It’s only fitting — and morally sound — that Walt truly got the death he deserved.
As police sirens swell in the distance, Walt wanders into the lab, examining the meth equipment with a victorious smile. “Chemistry is the study of change,” Walt once taught his high school class in the pilot episode. Falling to the ground, his eyes gently closing, he seems — at last — at peace with his own chemistry.
Not much else I can say in praise of this incredible series. I know Hidden Track hasn’t always been a go-to source for TV coverage, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these recaps/reviews as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks, everybody! It’s been a great ride.
Oh, and what did you think of “Felina”?
Now for some random thoughts and my favorite moments of the night…
“Hello, Gretchen. Elliot. I really like your new house.” — Walt
“Elliot, if we’re gonna go that way, you’ll need a bigger knife.” — Walt
What do you think was Walt’s original plan at the Nazi compound? Obviously he wanted those guys dead, but was setting Jesse free always a part of that plan? Or did he use Jesse as a pawn in his last-minute panic, knowing Jack’s pride would swell and he could use Jesse as a distraction? (Walt was a mastermind, but I dunno…)
“Felina,” unlike most every episode this season, was told in a more-or-less linear fashion, almost completely through Walt’s point of view. This offered a startling momentum — it truly felt like we were living with Walt during his final hours, instead of observing them from a distance.
“Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.” — Walt
Skyler is soooo skinny — that’s why Anna Gunn was so skinny on the Emmy’s (I’m hoping).
“Christ, that is one fine head of hair. Otherwise, you look like shit.” — Jack
Walt was the alive and awakened Walt until the very end….lying and manipulating, but not a monster. He lived the last two years of his life by a reasoned personal moral code and didn’t break the code even when it failed him.
For example, he was lying to Skyler when he told her he did it because he liked it. He lied and told her what she wanted to hear. It was the greatest gift he could have given her at that time when all else with her was lost. It’s the only thing she would accept from him in the end……the lie that he wasn’t doing what he was doing, and had done, for his family, as failed as that plan was…..a plan that was essentially tantamount to burning the village to the ground to save it.
Also, as he stands atop the smoldering heap of a world he destroyed, he manipulates Jesse one last time by throwing down the gauntlet that is the gun and implores him to go ahead and make his day (Jesse’s). Jesse is Grasshopper and finally sees it and says no, instructing Walt to say it’s what he wants, for Jesse to end him, rather than saying it’s what Jesse wants. Walt concedes, but Jesse sees it’s still a ruse and drops the gun thus extracting himself from Walt’s web. Jesse is metaphorically free of the Master. He has finally learned and snatched that Grasshopper only to find out that when he looks for it in his own hand, it’s not there. There was never a Grasshopper….it was always an illusion.