"The thing is, if you just do stuff, and nothing happens, what's it all mean?"

Monday, September 30, 2013

Deranged Yet Not Demented Denouement: Breaking Bad's Final Shot

Tonally, the ending of Monty Python's Life of Brian really reminds be of the final scene in Breaking Bad...seriously

I don’t know if we’ll remember Walt’s fate with as much resonance as we remember the last shot of Vic Mackey in The Shield, still the gold standard for an antihero's dramatic catharsis. And “Felina” won’t be controversial the way the ambiguous last moments of Tony Soprano were. But Jesse survives. More than that—he’s alive, screaming with shock and joy as he drives away, the kind of alive Walt used to feel when he pulled off a victory. Those other shows didn’t have room for that kind of win, and so the best they could give us was vengeance or our own imagined possibilities. I’ll take the very tiny nods Walt and Jesse share as an erasure of the awful, cold nods with which Walt, months ago, sent Jesse to his fate. It’s too late to ask for anything more.
-Donna Bowman, Review of "Felina," AV Club

People always asked me, did you know how Breaking Bad was going to end from the get-go, and I'd always say 'No, I didn't," and that's the truth. 
But I kind of always did know that Walter White should not survive this series. 
How that was to was gonna come to pass was very much up in the air until we broke this final episode. 
The cancer was not what got Walter White at the end. 
He went out, pretty much on his own terms. 
And he is killed, trying to save Jesse. 
It just feels right to me. 
It feels poetic. 
There's almost a perverse feeling of victory to it, for me
 -Vince Gilligan, "Inside Episode 516,"

First, a spoiler-laden assortment of snippets from previous finales of series in the genre "incredibly-well-respected-dramas-with-anti-heroes-that-ended-with-an-intentional-series-capstone-episodes." I can only speak feigned authority on The Shield and The Wire, since I've religiously watched ever episode. I've watched the first few seasons of The Sopranos, so really I'm just getting spoiled rotten myself, as well.

  • The Shield...
  • The Wire...
  • The Sopranos...
Breaking Bad does something brave and risky, in comparison to these other provides Walter White redemption. Not just redemption, but the final sequence--when taken into relation with the symbolic-order of the series as a whole--pretty much suggests that even Walter White could be forgiven for his sins (his earlier admittance to Skyler in the finale was the most undiluted confession he ever articulated)...or that perhaps the yin-yang struggle of good and evil impulses eventually achieves a glimpse of nirvana. 

The final sequence taps into both Western and Eastern ideas of forgiveness; coding the death of Walter White as a moment that suggests he is moving toward heavenly grace. Gilligan doesn't get too heavy-handed with a specific theological reading; since the scene can also be read as a type of Buddhist moment of profound enlightenment. This final shot of enlightenment doesn't change how twisted Walt had become; but it forgives him in that very moment.

Cynics may see this as contrived, or some implicit affirmation of male escapist fantasies; but I see it as soul-achingly beautiful. Vince Gilligan orchestrated a coda that literally sang to the heavens. Gilligan showed for Walt the kind of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness that Heisenberg completely lacked. However, since Walt was on a perverse Blues-Brothers-esque "mission from God" (as the cold open painted), and in rapid-fire swoops atoned for his sins the best he could (I think Step 5...Badger and Skinny Pete would know), he was granted transcendence and complete inner-peace in his final moments.

The whole episode had a sense of evil eradication, the colors draining completely; as if the karmic balance of the universe was to start again...even-stevens. 

We are nothing like God, not only are our powers limited, but sometimes we are driven to become the Devil himself.
-Nicholas D. WolfWood, "Hang Fire," Trigun

Breaking Bad Coda

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Maybe I should’ve done something different. 
The thing is, if you just do stuff, and nothing happens, 
what’s it all mean? 
What’s the point? 
Oh, right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance
So I should stop judging, and accept?...So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I’m a great guy? 
It’s all good?
 No matter how many dogs I kill, 
I just what, do an inventory, and accept?
-Jesse, 4x07, "Problem Dog"

What I want, what I need, is a choice.
...Sometimes, I feel like I never actually make any of my own.
Choices, I mean.
My entire life, it just seems I never you know, had a real say about any of it.
Now this last one, cancer all I have left is how I choose to approach this.
...These doctors talking about surviving.
One year, two years, like it's the only thing that matters.
But what good is it, to just survive if I am too sick to work, to enjoy a meal, to make love? For what time I have left, I want to live in my own house.
I want to sleep in my own bed.
I don't wanna choke down 30 or 40 pills every single day, lose my hair, and lie around, too tired to get up and so nauseated that I can't even move my head.
And you cleaning up after me? Me, with some dead man, some artificially alive, just marking time? 
...And that's how you would remember me.
That's the worst part.
So that is my thought process, Skyler.
I'm sorry.
...I choose not to do it. 
-Walt, 1x05, "Gray Matters"

Later on in the episode the above epigraph is from, Walt makes a choice, one that fully cements his fate, and intertwines he and his son/student/friend/enemy/destroyer/savior into a "downward spiral" (planting the seed for one "loopy" deconstruction, get ready to plunge down a rabbit hole...)
Wait, it it just me, or is Jesse's long-forgotten and shot up (by less bullets than Uncle Jack's compound took on, though) CAPNCOOK mobile very similar to the vehicle he used to make his escape at the end of "Felina"?

This song, played after Walt and Jesse witness Tuco brutally beat-to-death one of his cronies (despite how abusive Walt got to his underlings; he never got that physically brutal), at the end of the 1st Season. The answer for Walt...begins immediately to the left.

Here's the sequence that I consider to be the finishing touches to the series; the final moments that encapsulates the narrative/thematic crucible-cruxes of the series (beginning right after his phone conversation with Lydia, and ending at the finishing note of Badfinger's song and Vince Gilligan's executive-producer inter-title credit). Clearly, the whole sequence at the Nazi Compound builds up to this (the sequence-in-large is dissected-via-words in the episode "unravelment").

Gilligan did damn good here; in ways more profound than detractors may give due, while also in ways less overt than supporters cheer for...

I'll start with this provocative primary-tao for the sequence, and work backward in a sloppy proof-path.
  • Despite his narcissism being full-bore (though, it has now transformed into an honest narcissism...100% purity; a type of existential-perfection that was impossible within the samsara of the methamphetamine industry), Walter White's last moments are darkly heroic and other-directed.
Even if he wasn't always conscious of it, Walter White loved Jesse Pinkman in a far more authentic and earnest than any of his other family members; and in some way--even after being completely demolished by the monstrous machinations of Heisenberg--Jesse still cared for and respected Mr. White.
Here are the final shots...

Please Don't Sue: Fair Use, Since I'm Clearly Using this for (Mis)Educational Purposes
  • Walter White is, by fate and paternal instinct, able to achieve what he bemoaned in "Fly"...the perfect moment to die.

"Breaking" down the scene:

  • -
  • The sputtering sounds of the machine guy are heard in the background, my ears at least...sounds often heard in the soundscapes of the BrBa-verse...particularly the click-clacking of the close-up bicycle tire shots during the cold-open of "Mandala" (2x11). 
    • Oddly, the rider of this bike (the killer of Combo, a moment that sent Jesse into a drug "spiral" that contributed to a downward spiral toward grander cataclysm), eventually reverberates into the third season.
  • Continued "cycles" of the series, the 11th episode of Season 3 "Abiquiu", where Jesse finds out who killed Combo, and comes up with a plan (the finale has this intense tracking shot of Jesse walking to the camera, with Dave Porter providing a very distinct atonal score...keep this in mind)...a plan that leads to Walt taking drastic measures (his instinctual protection of Jesse occurs in the 12th episode of the far cry from what he did in 2x12 
    • an episode that opens with an extended flashback, featuring Jane's discussion of Georgia O'Keeffe's repetitive method of approaching a perfect moment (this sort of renewal and rebirth of a single concept reminds me of  phoenix symbolism..."Phoenix" was the episode (that 12th second season one I just referenced) when Jane died, overdosing on a drug she and Jesse relapsed on in a key scene in "Mandala"...episode 11)
      • Andrea, another crucial character that cycles back, is introduced in 3x11
    • ...and also features Gus telling Walt, "Never repeat the same mistake twice"...oh yeah, Gus was first introduced to the series in "Mandala," where he also gave a pithy life lesson, "Never trust a drug addict." For being so good at seeing "things in people," couldn't Gus gander that Walt himself was already addicted to the drug of control?
        • 11 is a palindrome...palindromes are structural and conceptual motifs on the series...I promise things will be revealed in time.
  • Skip season 4 for now. The 11th episode of season 5 is "Confessions"...the episode where Jesse finally figures out that Walt poisoned Brock (the atonal score that has been used in "Abiquiu," and "Half Measures" comes up during his revelation). 
    • Brock was introduced in 3X11
    • Walter White was finally driven the a rock-bottom point of desperation in the 11th episode of the fourth season, "Crawl Space"...a rupture that lead to his decision to utilize the Lily of the Valley.
  • The zoom up tracking shot from literally dead Mr. White resembles the symbolic death scene of Walter White in 4x11 "Crawl Space." One represent the demise of Walter White's decency and transformation into full-bore Heisenberg preservation instinct; the final spoke to a prelapsarian glimpse at a man reclaiming peace of mind and the tattered remnants of his soul.
  • The encroaching Police officers and spiral orientation of the upward tracking motion echoes the long take of the shoot-out aftermath in the climax of Taxi Driver (stay tuned, there's a post in the works comparing Breaking Bad and Taxi Driver, beat-by-twisted-beat).
Believe it or not, near their respective climaxes, Walter White is far more put together and sane than Travis Bickle; both utilize their alienation to be unintentional redeemers in a fallen world

More intriguingly, the final shot of Walter echoes a sequence from far back in the show's chronology....

Hint: Jesse Pinkman is Baby Blue
  • Jesse's heroin-induced ascension wasn't as clearly metaphysical or spiritual as the final track up from Walt (the differences in movement may speak to a body-mind duality difference), but both scenes represent a sense of overwhelming peace and interconnected well-being (heroin...albeit...a false sense of womb-like salvation).
    • The episode in which Jesse first does heroin (this moment, as much as Walt's decision to let Jane asphyxiate, was the main origin point for most of the operatic retribution and deistic-disaster that occurred from the end of the second season on).
      • By the way, this sequence is the centerpiece of..."Mandala."
What does Wikipedia have to say about what a "Mandala" fragmentary terms of Westernized Easternism....

According to art therapist and mental health counselor Susanne F. Fincher, we owe the re-introduction of mandalas into modern Western thought to C. G. Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst. In his pioneering exploration of the unconscious through his own art making, Jung observed the motif of the circle spontaneously appearing. The circle drawings reflected his inner state at that moment. Familiarity with the philosophical writings of India prompted Jung to adopt the word "mandala" to describe these circle drawings he and his patients made. In his autobiography "Memories, Dreams, Reflections," Jung wrote:

"I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing,...which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time....Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is:...the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious." pp 195 - 196.

Jung recognized that the urge to make mandalas emerges during moments of intense personal growth. Their appearance indicates a profound re-balancing process is underway in the psyche. The result of the process is a more complex and better integrated personality. As Jungian analyst Marie Louise von Franz explains:

"The mandala serves a conservative purpose—namely, to restore a previously existing order. But it also serves the creative purpose of giving expression and form to something that does not yet exist, something new and unique….The process is that of the ascending spiral, which grows upward while simultaneously returning again and again to the same point. [26]

Creating mandalas helps stabilize, integrate, and re-order inner life. [27]

According to the psychologist David Fontana, its symbolic nature can help one "to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises."


While I'm getting into the zone of being recklessly close to blowing my own mind, why not just randomly toss this out there...
Embrace the random...and it will all make sense

So, let's say I want to make this claim:
  • Breaking Bad, as a series of episodes (i.e. epistemological-odes) seems structured like a sort of high-concept spiral...hence all the motifs of mirrors and shadows and repeated images/framing composition/leit-motifs within the score/themes/...reverberations in a zany intertext echo-chamber/hall-of-mirrors. 
    • Hence the fifth seasons focus on an overwhelming sense of "eternal return" and "infernal regress"
      • Parallelisms abound, and the finale provides a paradoxical resolution...full-circle closure that draws attention to the drastic changes from 1x01 to 5x16.
If such a theory is to be taken serious, the episode(s) that occur in the direct middle should be pivotal...grand symbolic moments in which the intertwined destinies of Walt and Jesse come to a head...where they get closest to achieving a relationship built on complete trust and honesty...before it recedes into a downward spiral of increasingly intense manipulation, betrayal, and confrontation...

I wonder what the middle episodes are (I'm being a rhetorical asshole, right now)? They'd need to also have a lot of symmetry, and contain symbols and images that had and will reverberate through the shows interwoven stylistic and narrative threads.

I stink at math....wait a sec...62 episodes...damn, even split...let's just select the middle three (an unholy trinity...enough separate coordinates to form the foundation of a Fibonacci-esque sequenced spiral...). 

Here are clips and quotes from each of the three core epistemological-odes (i.e. episode)...

 I told him that I had a daughter and he told me he had one, too. And he said, "Never give up on family." And I didn't. I took his advice. My God, the universe is random, it's not inevitable, it's simple chaos. It's subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That's what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man's daughter dies, it's me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?
  • and
Yes, I already used this...I'm "doing things more than once"
You are a wealthy man now. And one must learn to be rich. To be poor, anyone can manage.

What advice do you have for me?

Never make the same mistake twice.

Hmph. Of course. Just trying to do the right thing. But two weeks later he killed her. Of course. Caved her head in with the base of Waring blender. We got there and there was so much blood you can taste the metal. The moral of the story is I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I'll never make that mistake again. No more half measures, Walter.

Since "Fly" was like a cross-breed between Beckett and Shakespeare, lets drop some preexisting knowledge...

There's also this song that mentions "living is a dream"...

Hmmm, "deja vu...huh"

Appendix (...Madeline!)

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

All the days became so long
Did you really think, I'd do you wrong?
Dixie, when I let you go
Thought you'd realize that I would know
I would show the special love I have for you, my baby blue

What can I do, what can I say
Except I want you by my side
How can I show you, show me the way
Don't you know the times I've tried?

Guess that's all I have to say
Except the feeling just grows stronger every day
Just one thing before I go
Take good care, baby, let me know, let it grow
The special love you have for me, my Dixie, dear.
     -Badfinger, "Baby Blue"

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense
Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets
This sky, too, is folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home
All your reindeer armies, are all going home
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor
The carpet, too, is moving under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
-Bob Dylan, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue"

Hold up, check out the above Dylan Lyrics for a second...

"Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun"

"The vagabond who's rapping at your door..."

"Is standing in the clothes that you once wore..."


  1. When Walt goes to look at his wound, we see the lining of his jacket is blue. It leaves us with three colors so obvious it's kind of funny, and a message as well. Walter's bleeding and his colors are finally running. In the end, for Walt, the American dream only came in eternal sleep.

    1. Amazing blog, but I think that goes without saying, sir.

  2. Fascinating interpretation.....and I love the inclusion of the great Dylan song into the Baby Blue theme.