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‘Breaking Bad’: A clear ending to a mysterious beginning

By Alessandra Stanley
New York Times

(Spoiler alert: This article contains plot twists.)

After so many lugubrious turns, “Breaking Bad” came to an end Sunday on an almost uplifting note.

Walter White died, of course, but first he ran the table of revenge, settling score after score with mathematical precision. He went out with a big finish: His ingeniously rigged machine gun mowed down the entire Aryan Brotherhood gang in a fantastical killing spree that was like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. (As bad guys go, the next best thing to a Nazi is a neo-Nazi.)

It was a fitting ending, and predictable in only some ways. Crime didn’t pay and Walter lost just about everything, including his life. But it was also, by the show’s bleak, almost Calvinist standards, a relatively happy ending.

It wasn’t, as he so often feared, all for nothing – he found a way to get his money to his children. He also saved Jesse, taking a bullet for him by throwing himself on top of the younger man to protect him from the machine gun fire. He even made up with his wife, Skyler.

It was way too late for contrition, but there was a confession and even a kind of deathbed conciliation. Walter for the first time told Skyler the truth about his reason for cooking meth and becoming a drug lord.

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it,” he said. “And I was really, I was alive.”

After so many layers of lies, that blunt admission won him at long last the shadow of a loving smile. And that was almost the same look that Walt exchanged with Jesse as the two parted for good, a glint of recognition and farewell.

Then again, the episode began with Walter alive but already a ghost, walking in and out of secured mansions, public diners and even Skyler’s house undetected, almost as if invisible.

Perhaps the best thing about the finale of “Breaking Bad” is that it actually ended. So many shows, notably “The Sopranos” and “Lost,” have gone dark without anything approaching finality. Here, the writers were so determined to not leave unfinished business that the last episode was called “Felina,” an anagram of finale. And almost every loose end was tied – in some cases, a little too tightly, and in others, not quite as much.

The all-important ricin, like Chekhov’s gun, had to actually be put to use at long last. And it was almost comical that Lydia, so prissy and exacting, was poisoned with a packet of her beloved Stevia sweetener.

In a later scene, the writers underscored the point, showing Lydia in bed, pale and sickly as Walter explains to her over the telephone that he poisoned her drink at the diner. But that was almost overkill: When Lydia tapped the sweetener into her camomile tea, the camera zoomed in on her mug of tea as it clouded up – as ominous as a glass of milk in a Hitchcock movie.

Even the dreamy scene where Jesse, still in shackles in a meth lab, fantasizes that he is in a woodworking shop sanding a beautiful box had a precise antecedent: In an episode when Jesse was in group therapy, he reminisced about the satisfaction he felt in high school of making a perfect box from “Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood.”

When Walt died, it was to the tune of “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, which begins with the words, “Guess I got what I deserve.”

The ending was clear enough; it was the beginning that was left ambiguous.

The finale circled back to Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, Walt’s former partners at Gray Matter. Walt broke into their mansion and cleverly blackmailed the couple into providing his children with the millions he couldn’t give them directly. And it was a delicious scene: When Elliott fearfully brandished a small blade, Walt said gently, “Elliott, if we’re going to go that way, you'll need a bigger knife.”

But the show never spelled out why Walt broke away from Gretchen and Elliott in the first place.

There were hints throughout the series. On several occasions, Walt accused them of cheating him out of his share; that bitterness seemingly helped steer him into his life of crime. But it wasn’t clear that his version was correct – in an episode where they confront each other at a restaurant, Gretchen said Walt left her without any explanation. And the true story never came out.

“Breaking Bad” brilliantly tracked Walt’s transformation from teacher to criminal mastermind. But it’s still a mystery why that talented chemist turned his back on fame and fortune and became a humble high school chemistry teacher.

That is one secret Walter White took to the grave.

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