Warning: the following post contains spoilers from the series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad. The show ended last fall, but I never know how long to keep posting disclaimers.
Last September, when AMC aired the final epic episode of Breaking Bad, I wanted to write about it, but I struggled to write something that hadn’t already been written by Andy Greenwald and every other writer on the Internet. It was the perfect ending to an excellent series, and I was at a loss as to what to say beyond that.
The fascinating thing about Breaking Bad is the transformation over five season of a Ned Flandersian high school chemistry teacher into Scarface. We see his rise from bumbling wannabe criminal to the most powerful crystal meth kingpin in the southwest, and see him lose all compassion and everything he ever cared about in the name of money and power. But then in the finale, we saw flashed of the old Walt, the good Walt, that we started rooting for in the pilot episode.
The thing that I keep thinking about, months after the finale aired, is how much preparation did Walt put into his final act? How much of it was improvised? I mean, he was about to turn himself in at the end of the penultimate episode, after getting hung up on by his son, only to see his former business partners being interviewed by Charlie Rose. Then he steals a car from the bar parking lot and begins the long drive from New Hampshire back to New Mexico. That’s a long drive. I’m sure he had plenty of time to think about he next moved over the next many hours, only stopping for gas. There’s plenty of time to make the necessary phone calls to Badger and Skinny P, and to acquire the proper equipment. There’s plenty of time to think of what to say to Elliot and Gretchen, and plenty of time to think of what to say to Skyler, if he hadn’t already spent the past six months preparing for that conversation.
When Walt talks to Skyler, we see the old Walt again. After all that, he still genuinely cared about her. He acknowledged that he was selfish in his pursuits in the drug world, and that it made him feel alive. The thrill of cooking meth and creating a second business empire after Gray Matter was addicting to Walt as the blue crystal was to his customers. He helped her out that day, too. Giving her the location where Hank and Steve were buried, in an attempt to keep her out of prison.
After Walt got his revenge against the Nazis, we see Walt not just humanized, but also as the thing he was at the beginning of the series: a great teacher. Mortally wounded, having freed Jesse, he sees the perfect batch that Jesse had made. The student became a greater cook than the master. Walter White, the overqualified high school chemistry teacher who co-founded a multi-billion dollar chemical company and a meth business that could be listed on the NASDAQ, taught Jesse Pinkman, the artistically gifted high school dropout junkie whose girlfriends keep dying at the hands of his shady business partners, to make very complicated chemistry (I’m assuming, but I’m no chemist) into a magnificent work of art. More than anything, Walter White was a great teacher, and his rise and fall was the education of Jesse Pinkman.
Maybe that really is what Vince Gilligan was going for. The commentary about the War on Drugs, or affordable healthcare, or anything like that was secondary to Walt’s ability to teach the most reluctant of pupils. The Wire was more about social issues than Breaking Bad ever was, but the pupil/teacher dynamic goes well with the rise and fall of the Classical Greek storytelling tradition. I highly doubt this is the last time I’ll ever write about Breaking Bad, but it’s about time I put something on here about that incredible finale.