It’s only fitting that the last thing Breaking Bad would leave me with is a striking image.
As I’ve written about before, Vince Gilligan’s series about a high-school-teacher-turned-meth-empire-kingpin is a masterclass in visual storytelling, with key information often provided through virtuoso use of editing, composition, and camera movements. So it’s also fitting, then, that one of the fundamental questions baked into the series is in many ways answered visually, as well.
And in case it isn’t stupidly obvious, here’s your spoiler-warning: Tons of details about Breaking Bad‘s ending follow. For the love of God, stop reading if you haven’t seen the entire series.
Still reading? Good – then you’re obviously a huge Breaking Bad fan, and that means you probably also know there’s been a lot of think-pieces about the glut of “anti-hero shows” in the wake of The Sopranos‘s groundbreaking run, and how this series fits into them. But I’ve always thought the key distinction with Breaking Bad is that it’s not about an anti-hero – it is unambiguously about a villain.
There is no underlying decency to Walt that’s struggling to win against the greater forces of the evil deeds he does. Take another look at the title: Breaking Bad. As Gilligan often says, his goal was to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. This is a man who starts as an archetypal pillar of decency – a high school teacher respected by the community, loved by his family and friends – and throws it all away to feed his wounded ego and greed, with barely a hint of remorse. At times throughout the story, if you twisted the “reality” of the series just a little bit more, Walter White could almost be Batman villain.
So the big question of the finale to me was not just whether Walter lives or dies, nor so much whether he can “redeem” himself. He was well beyond any hope for that, at least as far as gaining the forgiveness of everyone he loves. No, I thought the bigger question was whether he would “get away with it,” so to speak – whether the precise nature of his end would be fitting retribution for his mountain of crimes.
Or, to put it in a more philosophical sense, whether the universe of Breaking Bad – and, therefore, the hopes of the show’s creators about the universe we live in – is one in which a certain karmic balance reigns over all. Where, in one way or another, to one degree or another, the inevitable result of the choices we make are that good people get some form of reward and bad people some form of punishment.
And one of the more interesting things about the finale is that the answer to that question is, well, debatable.
Sure, Walt dies, but he does get some badass MacGyver-type-shit revenge on Uncle Jack and the rest of his Neo-Nazi gang first! And not to mention revenge against Lydia (“finally, with that fucking ricin,” says the spirit of Anton Chekov), who he even gets to gloat to over the phone. He also finally figured out a way (at least presumably, if Elliott and Gretchen carry out Walt’s orders) to leave his millions in drug money to his family without them even knowing it. You could make the argument, then, that he ultimately accomplishes everything he set out to do before going down in his own very Walter White-ish form of a blaze of glory. Victory, right?
No. I would argue the opposite – and I would argue the images we’re shown, especially the last two shots of the series, are all the evidence we need.
First, let’s look at how Breaking Bad has used distorted reflections of Walter White at a few key points in the show’s run. One of the most indelible images in the whole series comes at the end of season two’s “4 Days Out,” after Walt has punched a bathroom towel dispenser in a rage:
Could there possibly be a better, more arresting visual metaphor for the corruption of a man’s soul? What we see here is precisely what Walter White is becoming: grotesque, transmogrified, inhuman. The kind of morally vapid creature that could watch a young drug addict choking to death and do nothing to save her simply because it suits his interests.
It’s an image that got a callback right near the start of “Blood Money,” the first episode of the second half of the final season. After returning to his now-disturbingly-ramshackle home to retrieve the hidden ricin, Walter turns to a cracked mirror:
More disfigurement, more evocation of a fractured, broken soul. This is not, to me, the look of a man who’s “won” anything. And the second-to-last shot of Breaking Bad completes this visual theme:
By now, the look of Walter reflected against some meth-cooking equipment is almost spectral – like a wraith, barely maintaining its form, finally dematerializing from this world. If another major theme of Breaking Bad is that Walter himself becomes a cancer inflicted on his entire community, then this shot suggests that cancer finally being eradicated.
Which, at last, brings us to that final, striking image, reproduced for you here in GIF form:
Watching the camera pull away from Walt’s corpse, the impression I immediately got was not in fact of the camera pulling away from Walt, but of Walt descending from us, as if his spirit was spiraling down into the depth of hell. It’s almost like the Yang to the Yin of that great shot of Jesse literally (in the frame, figuratively in the show) rising off his bed after trying heroin for the first time in season two’s “Mandala”:
On going up, one going down. And, if you compare the two GIFs, they just happen to be almost exactly the same length. Coincidence? If it were any other show, I would say yes, but with Breaking Bad I wonder if this wasn’t by design.
To be clear, I don’t mean to imply I believe Walt’s soul literally descended to eternal damnation. Whether hell exists, and whether we have souls, and whether Walt will be spiritually punished in the afterlife for his evil acts seems not to be the point Breaking Bad was ultimately making or was ever much interested in debating. It was interested in this life, right here, right now, and the consequences we consign ourselves and others to by the choices we make. And I think it is pretty clear what moral stance the series’ creators are taking on Walt.
To repeat: this wasn’t an “anti-hero” series. It was a show about a villain.
Did Walt get “revenge” against Uncle Jack? Sure. He managed to rescue Jesse, too (thank goodness!), and at least seemingly ensure that most of the legal heat would end with his death and not land too heavily on his wife, Skylar. Victory in a sense, right?
Well, only if you completely refuse to consider what Walt loses. Which, in the final analysis, is everything– everything. His wife, his children, his surrogate son Jesse (all of whom wished him dead), his brother in law, his reputation as a good man, his ability to have lived a content life without constant fear of murder or capture. His final act on Earth was to die a lonely, pitiful, entirely avoidable death surrounded by carnage in a Neo-Nazi hideout. If this is “victory,” then let me die a loser. Walt’s soul didn’t need to descend to any spiritual idea of hell. He was already in hell for the last two years of his life, right here on Earth, and he put himself there.
“Guess I got what I deserved” is a little on the nose, maybe, but it’s exactly right. And with that lyric, and that final shot, Breaking Bad cemented itself as one of the most fiercely moral cable dramas ever.
And, of course, one of the best.