Speaking the Language of “Felina”
October 30, 2013
By Robert Downs Schultz
By trade I’m a lawyer. I’m in the convincing business, and in large part, my professional success hinges on my ability to make people believe that my line of thinking is sound.
Yet I’ve always balked at applying whatever skills I may have honed as an intellectual combatant to hold sway over another person’s beliefs or perceptions about art. It’s one thing to argue the finer points of cases of res ipsa loquitor, it’s quite another to martial the powers of persuasion to prove that the Mona Lisa is smirking and not hiding a set of bad teeth, that she’s furtive because she’s been secretly shtupping one of Da Vinci’s apprentices standing right over his shoulder.
Our relationship with our art–the art that we need to decipher a world written hieroglyphics, to get a glimpse at who we are and who we’ve been, the art we need to help us peer inside our very own souls–it’s sacred. It doesn’t just feel undignified to attempt to change someone else’s mind about how they interpret or consume or viscerally experience their art, it feels entirely wrong.
I’m about to attempt to dive deep into the final episode of Breaking Bad, 75 minutes of what I consider to be the finest episode of the finest television show to ever grace the medium. My interpretation of Breaking Bad’s final act differs greatly from the accepted understanding of how and when Walter White finally reached his end. Reading this essay might very well feel like having a conversation about the beauty of the Pacific Northwest with someone claiming to have seen Sasquatch wandering the foothills of the Cascades.
I won’t try to convince you that I’m right about the way Breaking Bad ended, but I will defend by interpretation of the ending with evidence that I believe solves the show’s final riddle oh what happened to Walter White (and by extension, Jesse). It’s important to have an understanding of “Felina” that makes sense, but to me, the mind-blowing achievement that is “Felina” works because so nearly accomplishes the impossible: it satiates an audience willing to watch its content closely with the ending it desires. “Felina” achieves perfection something remarkable, it manages to confound and astonish even within the context of a show that never stopped pushing its boundaries. “Felina,” especially when watched in the context of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, and the final two episodes “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” in particular, will forever alter the way we think of the ending in serialized drama.
“Just get me home.” Walt’s frozen white breath barely reaches audibility. The once angry lines that so fiercely betrayed the villainous visage of Heisenberg are long gone. His monochromatic goatee has long-since been overrun with patches of grey, his beard now stretching down his neck and all over his face, obscuring the wasting that has ravaged Walter and left him so much a shell of his former self that his finger can no longer support the weight of a wedding ring. He sits in that Volvo absent of any more ingenious maneuvers, incapable of outrunning what awaits just beyond the security of his car doors.
Then Walt closes his eyes and from behind we see him ever so slightly slouch in his seat.
He’s about to die. He’s about to die very, very soon.
Moments later his eyes will be open again, with that familiar glint, his body pregnant with the verve that once stirred him to act with abandon. The red and blue police lights piercing through the snow will become ever-present, the men closing in will get their man at last. They’ll find Walt (or the great once-Heisenberg to them) dead or dying in that that Volvo, perhaps gut shot, or maybe just simply expired.
“Felina” doubtlessly ends with Walt’s death, but the cops won’t get to him before the synapses in his brain, running haywire as they fire out their final contemplations, afford Walt one more perfectly constructed gambol back through the land of enchantment, where his scores need settling.
One of the stranger critiques of this theory of “Felina” is how ‘un-Breaking Bad’ a dream sequence ending would be when considered in the context of the show’s other 61 episodes. While Vince Gilligan and his cohorts never trafficked in realism, one of the quintessential traits of Breaking Bad was its ability to continually confound and surprise its viewership. No more compelling evidence need be offered than the rollercoaster ride that was Season 5b.
Despite possessing a rabid-to-the-point-of-fanatical fan-base obsessed with every nuance and Easter Egg thrown their way, we never saw any of it coming. The showdown in the garage with Hank, the faux confessional DVD, Jesse’s catatonic to manic psychic shift, the tableside guac, it left us all with mouths agape every week. So a final episode told from the perspective of a hallucinating, dying Walter White, the bulk of which takes place only within our dying protagonist’s wishful, feverish mind, would be the last thing anyone would expect.
And it’s exactly what happened.
Regardless of the staunch resistance that has been shown to this interpretation of “Felina,” Gilligan offers no shortage of clues that Walter White’s journey indeed ends inside that Volvo. Unpacking everything leading up to that undeniably provident deus ex machina in the form of those car keys from-the-heavens (see sun visor) doesn’t suggest a man primed to go on one last score-settling sprint across the country. Rather, that first scene, especially when considered in conjunction with the desperate final scenes of “Granite State,” shows Walt come full-circle–far more the helpless cancer-stricken chemistry teacher than the death-dealing criminal impresario of blue methamphetamine Heisenberg.
Let’s compile what we know about Walt’s situation. It’s night-time, he’s been on the run from the New Hampshire state police on foot for at least a matter of hours. While the quality of law enforcement in the world of Breaking Bad has always been less than superlative, we know the fuzz are nonetheless very hot on his trail. Judging by the police response of that simple phone call placed in that strange empty bar where the only working TV toggles between Charlie Rose and a certain 1998 NCAA hockey game between Wisconsin and Denver (a game legendary for the improbable comeback achieved by Wisconsin), in the words of Hank, “the cavalry is coming.”
We don’t know where in New Hampshire Walt is, but we know it’s a place remote enough for America’s most famous and wanted fugitive to successfully hide out for a period of months (at least long enough to grow a whole head of hair). At most, where he finds himself at the beginning of “Felina” is only a day’s walk from his secluded cabin hideout, so it’s unlikely that Walt was able to stroll into Nashua or another one of New Hampshire’s bustling metropolises and simply disappear. He’s in the sticks, the local police, and by the end of the day the feds too, are hot on his tail.
For the Walt apologists or those who simply wish to believe the events of “Felina” are something more than a figment of Walt’s spiraling imagination, citing the long odds of success is hardly compelling evidence of impending doom. This is a man who evaded law enforcement for two years, death at the hands of myriad gangsters and psychopaths, and who also somehow managed to perfectly hurl an extra large pizza out of its box and onto his roof on his first try. To many, making the 2,000 plus mile journey out of a totally surrounded New Hampshire town to Albuquerque in the same stolen Volvo is a feat so simple in its complexity that Gilligan need not show us its particularities.
If that’s true however, then why linger so long in the front seat of that car. Gilligan has never wasted a frame of Breaking Bad’s screen time. Indeed, like Walt, Gilligan’s time is running preciously short. Each word, each breath, has to count.
So, by all means, watch those breaths.
As Walt fumbles around, shivering and frantic, he comes across that Marty Robbins cassette of the song “El Paso,” the one about Feleena, the one told from the perspective from an already dead narrator. A curious musical selection.
Walt then finds the screwdriver and tries in vain to jumpstart the car. Those blue and red lights that appeared soon after Walt found refuge in the car return as the utility of the screwdriver shifts from car-starting tool to potential weapon. Those lights that once flickered in the background now engulf his back window. A white light, possibly from that of a flashlight or a spotlight shines inside the car. The cops are so close you can even hear the sound of their radio signals. The law isn’t just happening by. They aren’t idly patrolling a road where Walt has managed to find his ride out of town. There will be no waiting them out.
No, they’re right outside his door.
That’s when Walt, the man of science, the man who has rejected help and salvation at every turn, prays to something to just get him home. For Walt, the end has never been so close. Sure the cancer was always there, but it never presented an imminent threat. And every time Walt had a gun pointed at his head, he always felt more than capable of outsmarting the man with his finger on the trigger.
But not this time.
There’s only one way home and Walt know it. So he closes his eyes.
To believe that Walt somehow makes it out of that Volvo alive is to believe the rest of the events of “Felina” as they were presented, an undertaking that Bad’s creators have masterfully achieved. However, when broken down one at a time, the final “days” of Walter White are comprised of nothing more than the best-case-scenario dying dreams of a man who has had months alone in a cabin to contemplate his failings and what he might do to make them right, if only he had the chance. Once he imagines those keys falling into his lap, regardless of credulity, the finale exclusively breaks good, something that I would contend is even more un-Breaking Bad-like than a fever-dream conclusion to the show. Once those keys fall, those red and blue lights disappear, his grip on those keys and strong and confident, and he’s off.
When Walt places that phone call at the abandoned gas station in Canoncito, New Mexico, quite literally a ghost town, he has cooked up a plan whose precision exceeds even the best of what Mr. White’s imagination has heretofore managed to concoct. Walt’s world, even the one he created as Heisenberg, is limited in its scope. We know the people important to Walt, and by extension the people closely affiliated with Heisenberg, and their numbers are limited. It stands to reason that in the months Walt has been on the lam, law enforcement has cast something of a watchful eye over Walt’s narrow scope of connections, so it’s more than a little convenient that Walt so effortlessly tracks down Gretchen and Elliot, two people who could very generously be viewed as his rivals with ease (especially in consideration of their very public excoriation of their former colleague).
Of course, the jet-setting couple isn’t off in Prague or New York when Walt needs to get to them, they are conveniently returning within that very evening to their new mansion overlooking the Sangre de Christo Mountains. Gaining access to their house is a cinch for Walt who also spots a framed picture of himself with his former colleagues, evidently taken in much happier times. I suppose in the midst of their anti-Walt media blitz that included a $28 million donation to combat meth addiction and an appearance on Charlie Rose, scrubbing Walt’s image from their rather sparsely populated picture shelf of memories was something they just never got around to.
The success of his gambit is two-fold. He gets to finally launder the money intended for Junior and Holly and for good measure throw a mighty good scare into the yuppified ‘beautiful people’ who sewed those early seeds of resentment within Walt. He threatens them with swift and randomly timed deaths at the hands of two of Western America’s best hitmen, a fear that will doubtlessly stay with Gretchen and Elliot long after they’ve successfully done Walt’s bidding. It’s important to remember that for Walt to have any money at all assumes that he was able to double back to the cabin in New Hampshire teeming with law enforcement to scoop up the remaining barrel full of his $9.7 million.
If they only knew that Walt’s professional killers merely comprised two Albuquerque’s biggest losers, Badger (or was it Beaver…Walt never seemed to be able to remember), and Skinny Pete. It’s an unlikely reach in the first place that Walt would have thought to remember a method for tracking down two hangers-on like Badger and Skinny Pete, but to make this plan a success, the two would have had to agree to accompany Heisenberg, a wanted fugitive whom they had many reasons to fear, into the mountains of New Mexico, alone, and without payment, at ;east temporarily. Their present, but fungible grasp of morality of making two middle-aged members of the square community fear that they would be sniped in their own homes, is alleviated by those ‘fat stacks’ Skinny Pete was so fond of in that episode where Jesse spends Walt’s RV money at the strip club.
To Walt, these two, along with the deceased Combo, were always essentially the same person, drug-addled losers who Jesse hung out with. This scene perfectly aligns with this perception. They say essentially the same thing and offer only one piece of useful information, that Jesse is still cooking the blue. To the disbelievers of this theory of Walt’s end, this is evidence that Walt couldn’t have been dreaming, because he only learns of Jesse’s situation from Badger and Skinny Pete.
But he doesn’t.
Indeed, Walter asks where the blue meth is coming from, and Badger and Skinny Pete erroneously tell Walt they fully it was Walt who was back in the saddle, producing the blue. The fact that it is Jesse who is cooking the blue meth is not information that they possess, nor is it information they pass along to Walter. The correct assumption that it must be Jesse who is cooking come from Walt’s deductive reasoning. Nothing else.
Walt knows that Jesse may not be dead. He knows that the Nazis intended to take him hostage and that he never actually saw them kill Jesse. Walt knows the blue meth is on the street. We also know that Walt has assiduously followed local Albuquerque news, but we explicitly know about the presence of blue on the street from that Charlie Rose interview. Badger and Skinny Pete tell Walt nothing. His interaction with them merely provides the channel for the reasoning about Jesse’s likely fate that he has already figured out in his head.
One thing that Walter hasn’t figured out, one thing that he would likely have no access to, is the particular set of awful circumstances which has befallen poor, enslaved Jesse. In a nod to the idyllic dream state that comprises most of “Felina,” Gilligan gives us a glimpse into Jesse’s idea of heaven in the midst of his ongoing personal hell. As a clean-shaven, fulfilled-looking Jesse tends to the completion of a wooden box in a warmly lit carpenter’s studio, Gilligan is about to show us the conclusion to Jesse’s story as well.
As an admitted Tarantino fan (Pinkman and White were homages to the chromatic-themed names of the mobsters in Reservoir Dogs), Gilligan employs a bit of that non-linear storytelling as he briefly jumps out of Walt’s dream and into Jesse’s, right before he quite literally yanks the audience back to reality via that sinister steel chain attached to the ceiling. This is the only moment of “Felina” that takes place out of that Volvo. As Walt fever dreams his ending in his surrounded Volvo, Jesse’s dream only temporarily provides respite from his fate, which has been sealed as a meth-making slave, all-too-close in circumstance and appearance to that of Zed’s gimp in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Throughout much of Season 5b, it was unclear exactly who would provide Walt’s foil. Hank and Marie initially held the mantle, but the fading influence of the Heisenberg persona on Walt made that inter-family rivalry fleeting at best. Walt never meant Hank any harm, even if Hank didn’t exactly share Walt’s familial allegiance. And Jesse never proved himself formidable enough to ever fully capture the breadth of Walt/Heisenberg’s wrath. Jesse was every bit the dog Walt and Saul described him to be. Sure he and Hank managed to play on Walt’s greed to lure him to the To’hajilee, but by that point in the story, Walt was every bit responsible for his capture than any bit of clever gamesmanship employed by Hank’s crew.
Only when the murderous jailhouse Nazis began doing what jailhouse murderous Nazis are wont to do, did Walt finally have a target on which to affix his gaze. It was a first for Walt really. His enemy heretofore had been of the unpersonified variety. Seething resentment was both his fire and his foe, not even Gus Fring or Tuco held sway over Walt’s need to succeed than did his burning desire to be somebody. The one who knocked.
But in his dream, these horrible personality flaws aren’t his enemies, they are his self-realized flaws, the ones that had consumed Walt from the moment he decided life had given him a raw deal and that he would do something about it. So it’s Lydia who gets the ricin treatment in his dream. Her highly routinized method of doing business in that same coffee shop, coupled with Walt’s knowledge of Todd’s position within the hierarchy of the meth distribution game made for another bit of reasonable deduction that fit dually within reality and Walt’s dream state alike.
Still able to slip deftly in and out of public places, Walt managed not only to throw a surprise third-wheel on Todd and Lydia’s bizarre, psychotic brand of puppy-love (at least on Todd’s end) as they sat there, but he had obviously spent enough time in the coffee shop to doctor Lydia’s beloved Stevia before their arrival. Yet another instance of the breaking good that defines “Felina’s” final scenes.
And notwithstanding the specifics of Walt’s seeming invisibility with respect to law enforcement and a public doubtlessly aware of his image, by the time Walt manages to appear like an apparition inside Skylar’s modest, first floor apartment, Breaking Bad has taken us a long way temporally since the last time the Whites shared a room. The usual space between episodes last mere days, hours, sometimes even seconds. Regardless of the time passage, that room Walt and Skylar last shared was their living room at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, the site of that vicious knife fight that ended when a terrified Skylar watch helplessly as Walt kidnapped her baby Holly and drove away. That was the last time Walt and Skylar laid eyes on each other.
They shared another conversation, highlighted by that guttural Heisenbergian rant intended to exonerate Skylar of her involvement as Walt’s money launderer, but their last physical interaction was violent and terrifying, leaving Junior, Skylar and Holly alike as permanent victims of his physical domestic rage.
Those few months away must have done wonders to salve the psychic wounds of a knife-fight punctuated by daughter kidnapping, because Skylar not only doesn’t appear completely terrified by Walt’s presence, she feels compelled to hear him out one last time and, because why not, to give him a chance to say a personal goodbye to the daughter with whom he absconded only to later leave in a fire truck.
For those still unconvinced, perhaps the successful hiding-in-plain-sight tales of Whitey Bulger provide some sort of basis for how Walt could have managed to elude capture to this point in the story. The keys from heaven, the proximity of the red and blue police light and sounds from the police walkie-talkies, all may not offer enough hard evidence that Walt really did have his Scarface ending.
For those die-hards no amount of parsing of that final scene will likely do. That the Nazis immediately searched Walt’s person but not his trunk, that they told him where to park only to eschew those instructions when he purposefully disobeyed them for no apparent reason, that the recoil of a machine gun as powerful as an M60 is more than likely potent enough to render Walt’s trunk-o-death gadget useless after the first few rounds, that Jack was so offended at the mere suggestion that he was in league with Jesse Pinkman to the point of needing prove his allegiances to Walt-a man sure shot in the head within the coming minutes-thereby giving him the opening he needed to grasp that red licker of vengeance, that none of these things happened despite reason dictating that any one of them should have, thereby nullifying Walt’s perfect ending, likely means no amount evidence will prove the validity of the Walt-died-in-the-Volvo ending to such die-hards.
The natural reflex when a phenomenon like Breaking Bad comes along, punctuated by an achievement as confounding, perplexing, and to some, as frustrating as “Felina,” is to compare it to works of art that resemble its contemporaries. The final episodes of The Wire, The Sopranos, Lost, and even Seinfeld have been cited by some in an effort to contextualize and, unfortunately also to rank “Felina” among the ‘best series finales.’ Regardless of their final moments, individually, these shows changed the medium of television. They approached serial storytelling as never before; they tantalized audiences with a quality not present elsewhere on the medium.
In every single instance, these shows also ended with finales regarded by a vast majority of critics and fans alike as failures in varying degrees. Breaking Bad’s final chapter has not been immune to such criticism. The culmination has been described as too neat, too uncomplicated. It has been criticized for lionizing Walt, for never meting out the punishment on Walter White that he so richly deserved. Even the ending that I believe befell Walter White, one far different from the one where Walt plays hero as Jesse’s human shield, could be argued as being light on retribution.
What has become so apparent in the wake of these finales is that any ending, regardless of the level of fan service tended to or ignored, can never truly serve to satiate its audience. What we love about these shows is their ability to keep us guessing, to keep us wanting more. The anticipation of what will happen next to characters we have come to know, love, despise and everything in between becomes part of their identities. It’s the only thing that keeps our own predictable lives interesting, the knowledge that despite the hum-drum, despite the everyday 9-5 pace, anything really could happen at any moment. We aren’t disappointed in endings as they happen, we are disappointed that they happen at all.
Why Breaking Bad is different and why it is especially genius in how it went about constructing its ending, is the sheer multitude of endings it offered. There is enough in “Felina” for those odd #TeamWalt enthusiasts to cheer. For those yearning for payback, Walt died, and right up until he suffered his death, he spent months alone in a cabin, suffering from cancer, ponying up $10,000 to a criminal for the privilege of playing poker with him for an hour, hardly an exit replete with dignity or glory. Depending on your interpretation, Jesse was either freed or left continuing to pay for his crimes (including murder and the major contribution to the degradation of the Southwestern United States) in Nazi hell. If indeed you believe Walt was able to take that New Hampshire Volvo back to the cabin where his money sat and deliver it to a frightened Walt-during-the-good-times-memory-savoring Gretchen and Elliot, then you believe Walt found a way to care for his family’s financial needs, free and clear of that money’s associated guilt.
Me? I’ve found my ending to Breaking Bad, and weeks later I’m still thinking about it. It’s what great art demands of us. It’s why I feel privileged to have been invited along for the ride. Just don’t expect a Felina like that ever again.
A little bit of an Epilogue–
In the weeks since my dissection of the real nature of Walter White’s final inner-cranial fugue, svengali Vince Gilligan felt compelled enough to address the hypothesis of the true nature of “Felina” similar to the one described above. Norm MacDonald and Emily Nussbaum touched on a theory similar to mine (even though Norm since backed away) and the result was a gathering storm of momentum around the plausibility of such an ending. Rather than address any particular aspect of the dream theory, Gilligan claimed in blanket-fashion that Walter couldn’t have been dreaming those perfect final Feilna moments because if it were a dream, the accuracy of the details he imagined couldn’t have been known by Walter, thereby supposedly totally nullifying it as a possible outcome.
A true artist is loathe to explain the meaning of her work, so it comes as something of a shock that Gilligan even chose to address the matter in the first place. That his answer attempts to thoroughly slam the door shut on any conclusion existing in the orbit of “Walt imagined those perfect final scenes” strikes me as wholly suspicious in and of itself (to say nothing of the fact that the very crux of his supposition-that Walter White couldn’t have dreamed such an accurate dream (even assuming that his dream is actually accurate)-is false).
What we know of Walt’s final days in that cabin is that he spent his time thinking incessantly about his family (or at least what was left of it) and what had become of the myth of Heisenberg. Whether his dream is accurate about the particulars of the mansion that Grey Matter built is known to the viewer every bit as much as it is known to the freezing, snowbound Walter White–which is to say not at all. Sure Gretchen and Elliot lived in that incredible post-modern expanse while Skylar chain-smoked in that sad one room be-pillared apartment; and why wouldn’t Todd meet Lydia where Walter always had. Walt’s guess is as good as ours, and in “Felina,” Walt’s guessing is all there is. Keep in mind, that this guessing originates from a brilliant mind simultaneously combining extensive personal experience of the people and places relevant to Walt’s story with a highly-attuned ability to deductively reason a plausible outcome desirable to his dying brain, even as it fires off its last bursts of coherence.
It has also been said that Jesse’s fantasy interlude in that idyllic carpenter’s studio in the sky is not something Walt could have ever known about since Jesse shared that ultra-personal nugget at a 12-step meeting and not to Walt personally (as if such a confession would be implausible considering the length at which those two conversed and the propensity for Lord Pinkman to, shall we say, ramble during their marathon cooks). However, my contention all along has been that Jesse’s dream and that subsequent snatch back to reality were both entirely real within the context of where they took place in the story. We didn’t see Jesse’s dream within Walt’s dream. Rather the momentary shot of Jesse’s dream really takes place in that dungeon in New Mexico, interrupted by the stark reality of the ongoing horror of Jesse’s situation.
That brief moment in Jesse’s imagination is not Walt’s dream, it is Jesse’s, as is the reality that he isn’t getting out of that warerhouse– and fittingly, in a way neither is Walt. We never see it, but it’s hard to imagine a fate for Jesse that stretches beyond the confines of that Nazi compound. As for Walt, his mind chooses to let his conscious thought end in the same place, next to the machines and chemicals that he thought would bring him salvation.
Remember, Vince Gilligan told you that it wasn’t a dream, that these things happened in the story. Accept that spoonfeeding at your own peril.
“Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” –D.H. Lawrence.