How late can you be to writing about TV? Breaking Bad ended two months ago, and yet my days still hang sometimes with the sagging, earthen colors of Bryan Cranston’s craggily, bespectacled furrows, the haunting thought that Jesse Pinkman is locked away in a meth dungeon, and Damocles’ Sword swinging over the Southwest. The end of one of TV’s best shows ever predates this blog, but the DVD set’s release occasions this post, as well as this recently-released video of Cranston and Aaron Paul reading the script of the finale, which of course you should only watch if you are, like me, similarly satiated by the completed story, rather than lucky enough to still have that show and its savory final season before you on a platter, fully-cooked.
The last season was worth all the acclaim it got, as was the whole show. Not until season 5 did I watch episodes when they aired. Instead, I mainlined them like a fix for a stint, before the darkness got too dark and invaded my normally sunny life, until I needed to come up for air for a few months. The show had its closeness to home for me from the pilot, the “there but for the grace of God go I.” A teacher, feeling regularly emasculated, like a big old nobody after all the promise and genius that filled him with expectations/delusions otherwise. That feels like me. The bitter rationalizations of the victimized, victimized by the contemptible world, by the rich, by the fates, who senses the moment and seizes the excuse to finally be powerful, autonomous, and right. I get that.
Walter White hates the dirty work, but he’s reveling in the chemistry; he finds the climb to criminal power deeply distasteful, but necessary to protect his family, his name, and his surrogate son Jesse; he dons the dark hat as a disguise, but he’s truly, truly beige and white and maybe, just for kicks, the purest blue. No, by the end, that’s all unmasked. Just about the most poignant moment I’ve seen in a TV show, when he curses out his wife over a tapped phone and says the opposite of everything he means as perhaps his parting words, at least until he can see her again and come clean enough to recognize that he did it all… for himself. The dirty work, the distasteful empire, the dark hat… it was no more or no less Walter than the beige pants and the tighty whiteys and the sanitized chem lab or chemo clinic. We are all shot through with Heisenberg, with the will to power, just as we are all crumbling and tearing apart, like Mr. White. We are all clutching desperately for survival and our families, just as we are all, in fact, filthy to line our pockets with security, ego, vengeance, and wrath. It became my mantra after watching each season, a deep sigh with the words, “I am Walter White.”
What disappointed me about the ending was that there had to be someone much worse for Walt to kill in order for him to find redemption. There had to be irredeemable Nazis and an icy, merciless Lydia. Not that Krazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, or Gus Fringe were great souls, but you could root for Walt to be free rather than rooting for them to meet grisly deaths, and in all cases, the end felt like a twisted necessity, a Ricin-less last resort. In Felina, the fist-pumping moments were for a calculated unsheathing of raw violence, like rooting for Travis Bickle’s trench coat drawer-slide contraption to work and forgetting how morally misaligned it had all become.
And yet, watching that newly released video of Cranston and Paul read the ending, moved to tears, I was moved in turn. Jesse and Walt are these horrible people, but people, whose humanity had been reinforced by each moment that it was being withered away. (The same, it must be said, could have–should have–been done for the Hectors and the Andreas and, heck, even the Gomeys, as it seemed to have been for the Mikes and the Janes and the Hanks). Every degradation flecks off a piece of what is undeniably flesh, hardened or burnt as it may be. The terror behind Jesse’s eyes is not the dissociation that makes Todd a different species from himself, but the even more terrifying recognition that he is just heartlessly angling for what Jesse has already become. My sympathies for Walt and Jesse don’t persist in spite of their failings, but exactly because of them.
I am Walter White. This is not a confession tape. I have not manufactured any illegal substances, under compulsion from my brother in law or otherwise. But I got choked up watching Walt’s end and Jesse’s tortured liberation, not just because it was the end of a great show, but because it was a sweet and terrible relief to not live inside their plausibility structure any longer. I was moved by the end for the same reason I’m so moved watching this video of Paul and Cranston being moved. Because they had inhabited these guys for so many years, and as both have said repeatedly, not in defense of their actions but purely out of the commitment actors must have, they have rooted for them as well. Rooted for them to live and thrive and choose well. No empty absolution of their sins, no denying justice waiting in the wings, but just simply to wish for the quality of mercy on men who have become, five/six seasons of moral water under the bridge, people. Terrible, beautiful people.
I look back at a lot of my own human endeavors with the same ambiguity and finality. As I bookend things, even in celebration, I can’t help but see a soiled mess. Even in victory, shot through with selfishness and greed. And yet, in the end, the notes of grace to unwarranted monsters like us–nothing captures it better to me than Holly White– remind us that even on a road to hell, we are humans, caked in dirt, imago dei.