Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry. But you’ll always be the enemy.
— Abe to Peggy (after Peggy accidentally stabs him) Mad Men, The Better Half
Okay, who had Lydia getting the ricin, the Aryan Brotherhood getting the M60 bullets, Todd getting strangled by Jesse, Jesse getting away clean, Walt dropping dead in Uncle Jack’s meth lab, Skyler cutting a deal with the feds with the help of Walt’s voluntarily-donated GPS coordinates, and Flynn getting $9 million of Gretchen-and-Elliot-laundered drug money on his 18th birthday?
You all did.
In Felina, the finale to a series that dropped one shocker after another into the closing minutes of countless episodes, the diabolical twist at the end is that there is no diabolical twist. Not this time. There’s no ambiguous final shot, no jaw-dropping last line; what you see is what you get. And what you get is an answer to the musical question (scored by Marty Robbins, the Marx Brothers, and Badfinger, no less) is: can a bad guy who used to be a good guy redeem himself in the final hours of his life — and should he even care, when he can perform one last big bad deed and go out with a bang?
As it turns out, the answer to both halves of that question is yes — sort of. You might also have guessed correctly that Robbins’ “El Paso” was going to be featured in this episode, since it’s about an outlaw who shot a romantic rival for the hand of a girl named Felina (some sources spell it Feleena), went on the run, came back for Felina because getting away with the shooting would be worthless without her at his side, even knowing that the “mounted cowboys” were going to shoot him on sight. (And “Felina,” of course, is an anagram of “Finale.”) So who, or what, is the “Felina” Walt comes back for? Skyler? Jesse? His money? His pride? No, actually, it seems to be…his kids. For real. Of course he wants to blow away the baddies (Lydia with a contaminated stevia packet, the Aryan Brothers with a contraption Walt builds to make the big-ass gun rotate back and forth). But most of all, he wants to scare Gretchen and Elliott into agreeing to put the bundles of cash Walt drops off to them into an “irrevocable trust” for Junior and pretend it’s from them. (Walt pays Badger and Skinny Pete one fat stack each to pose as $200,000 hit men, using five-dollar laser pointers as decoy weapons; for such scientifically-minded people, the Schwartzes sure are easy to fool.) And he wants to see Flynn coming home from school and to stroke Holly’s sleeping head for what he knows will be the last time because the cowboys are coming. The other stuff he could possibly have gotten someone else to do by proxy, but for this, he really had to be there, no matter the risk.
And to top it all off, he wants their mother to know that he knows how full of shit he is. Walt asks for five minutes of Skyler’s time, and she’s expecting another earful of horse hockey from him about how he did it all for the family, but he shocks her by admitting otherwise. “I did it for me,” he tells her. “I liked it. I was good at it…I was alive.” Then he compounds the shock by handing her the Pick 6 ticket with the GPS coordinates, and tells her to give it to the DEA and tell them that’s where Hank and Steve are buried, and it’s also where the $80 million was buried until Uncle Jack and friends stole it, and that they are the ones who shot Hank and Steve. So now Marie will get a proper burial for her husband, Skyler will get to stay out of prison, and his last words to his wife will become part of the story she passes on to her children about him. Maybe they’ll all hate him anyway, but at least now they’ll hate him for the right reasons instead of the wrong ones.
When I was combing the AMC press site for a photo to use with this post, I was really hoping to find one of Jesse driving away from the Aryan Brothers’ compound a free man at last, cackling madly all the way, because even though Jesse has limited screen time in this episode, it’s about his redemption and release at least as much as it’s about Walt’s. Back in Kafkaesque (309), Jesse told his therapy/recovery group the story of being challenged by a shop teacher to make a gorgeous wooden box with inlays, one he worked for days on getting just right, and then giving the box to his mother as a gift — only to not be able to live with the congratulations his therapist gave him for doing good, and admitting that he didn’t give the box to his mom, he sold it for an ounce of weed. Now we see a dramatization of Jesse’s creation of the wooden box, the joy he got from getting good at something, only to see him jolted back into the present and how being good at something (making blue meth) has now brought him nothing but misery. He’d probably give anything now just to suck at everything. Walt doesn’t go to the compound intending to free Jesse, but to pump Jack Welker and his posse full of lead for stealing his money and “partnering with” Jesse to make blue meth instead of killing Jesse as they had agreed. But when Walt sees that Jesse is not a partner of Jack’s but a prisoner, Walt goes out of his way to save him, tackling him to the ground just as the M60 killing machine in his trunk is about to go off. Jesse’s background and personality couldn’t possibly be less like Walt’s, but they both wound up in this place for the same reason: a longing to create, to make things that people loved, that they couldn’t see any other way to achieve.
By the time Uncle Jack is taking his last breaths, Walt doesn’t care any more about getting his money back; when Jack taunts him that if Walt finishes him off, he’ll never know where the money is, Walt doesn’t hesitate to administer the last dose of ammo. And of course, Jesse has to be the one to knock off Todd, quite possibly the most pathetic mercenary one will ever see. Todd hesitates when Jack demands that he bring Jesse out to prove to Walt that Jesse is in shackles, and he’s right to; he knows that once he takes Jesse off the dog leash, he’s toast. After Jesse strangles Todd with his handcuff chain, he and Walt are the only ones left standing, and Jesse sees that Walt has been hit by one of his own bullets and probably won’t last much longer. A lesser show might have ended it right there, with Jesse thanking Walt for saving his life and the two of them exchanging platitudes about the meaning of life and death.
But of course, that’s not this show, and for Walt to redeem himself, he must give Jesse, the man he has put through a million hells, the opportunity to administer the final bullet. However, Jesse refuses to pull the trigger unless Walt tells him he wants it, and when Walt affirms that he does, Jesse still can’t bring himself to do it. “Then do it yourself,” he says, and we don’t know if Jesse’s refusal is born of being burnt out on gun violence or a desire to prolong Walt’s suffering, but he does get to overhear Walt informing Lydia (who has called Todd’s cell phone, to the tune of Groucho singing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”!) that that’s not the flu she’s suffering from. Which means that now Jesse knows he’s a free man, and even if the life he gets to go back to doesn’t figure to be anything to write home about, almost anything would be better than what he’s had to experience over the last few months. When Jesse’s about to leave in a getaway El Camino that probably belongs to one of the Aryan Brothers, the two men exchange knowing glances and nothing else. They both understand they’d have been far better off if they’d never met, and Jesse even more so than Walt; no need to say anything more.
“Guess I got what I deserved” is the opening line to Felina‘s closing song, Badfinger’s 1971 power-pop classic “Baby Blue,” which plays as Walt slides to the floor bleeding out. (Too bad, now they don’t get to use that as the ending song for Mad Men. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll think of something.) In the end, Breaking Bad is a show about people getting what they deserve, albeit with quite a bit of collateral damage along the way. In other words, bad guys die, but so do others who just happen to be in the way. Marie, Skyler, Flynn, Holly, and Jesse live, but suffer incalculable losses that may or may not make the remainder of their lives, to their own minds, worth living. But at least they get a chance to find out, which Walt doesn’t.
I’m going to guess that if any BB fans have a complaint about this final chapter, it’s that it’s too morally upright, too neat, that Walt should have gotten away with it. But how could he have? He was already marked for death in the pilot by his own body; it was just a question of how and when he would die, not whether he would. “It’s easy money until we catch you,” we hear Hank say, in a flashback to the pilot, and Walt expected from the beginning that he would die before he was caught; he didn’t even want treatment for the cancer until his family put the full-court press on him. How fitting, then, that Walt would pass away to the strains of a song written and sung by Pete Ham, a man who got the very opposite of what he deserved in life; he hanged himself three years after this song fell off the charts, three days shy of age 28, spurred at least in part by exploitative business managers and agents making millions off his work while leaving him and his family penniless. Unlike Ham, whose suicide note identified his manager as “a soulless bastard, I will take him with me,” Walter White did, at least, get to leave a nest egg behind and take the baddest of the bad guys with him. Maybe it’s not as good as someone at his deathbed having a “special love” for him, but he was no one’s victim but his own.