Breaking Bad Recap: One Hell of a Story

The series finale of Breaking Bad was, in a word, perfect.

I couldn’t be more satisfied – and that is saying something, seeing as my level of fanaticism for this show manifested in much real-world anxiety in the hours leading up to the final episode. In other words, this show matters to me. It carries deep significance. And its end carried the potential for deep disappointment (perhaps even a sad sort of TV disillusionment).

Every since Ozymandias, I, along with many others, have been making predictions for this episode. Those predictions were, to be sure, the product of series-long plot elements and character development, alongside those few futuristic glimpses of bearded Walt given to us throughout season five. But they were also projections of my own hope for the series – perhaps even my theology of the series. I have been working out that theology in these reviews, and have, throughout, been fearful that I may be wrong somehow. Is Walter White damaged beyond repair, beyond redemption? Has his humanity been so overcome by the Lie within him, the deep and hideous flaw, that he is, really, only the devilish Heisenberg and not, at all, the mild mannered and well-intentioned teacher, husband, and father known as Mr. White?

And is he an example of something more than the “original sin” within us all, the shadow self we seek to overcome with good? Is he really an example of a borderline sociopathic core that has only been nurtured by catastrophic choices and events to reveal to the world around him the truth of who he has been for a very long time? And can there be any sympathy for this kind of detached, murderous, merciless devil?

I think that last night’s episode, when taken together with episodes fourteen and fifteen, proves this theological perspective – mostly. It proves Gretchen Schwartz’s perspective – “…whatever he became, the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago, he’s…gone,” – mostly. Yes, Walter White is Heisenberg, and last night he died as Heisenberg. Walter’s own sarcastic comment to Gretchen in the house – “My children are blameless victims of their monstrous father,” – reveals the tragic reality.

Mostly.

But what I did not expect in this final episode was to be hit by feelings that I have been trying to avoid all along. I did not expect to feel, right from the first scene in the snow-encrusted car, a profound desire for Walt – Heisenberg – to succeed in his final mission. Indeed, I did not expect to suddenly feel the assurance that his cause had become just, when he uttered what seemed to be a prayer:

Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still think Walter White was beyond redemption. There is no sense in which his actions last night atoned for his past behavior, or made things “right.” There is, in fact, no sense in which Heisenberg was overcome by the good in Mr. White. And that is precisely the point. Walter’s last act was poetically just, but it was not redemptive. It brought closure, but it did not bring healing. It was, really, the Final Judgment in the great Revelation of Walter White – a judgment as much on Walter himself as on the perpetrators of death and destruction who had gathered around him like so many demons to the devil.

And the power behind this judgment, as is the case with all judgment, was the truth. While Walter had been, up to this point, the very embodiment of his deep Lie, last night saw a man who finally accepted the evil he had become. His time in the cabin, his phone call with Flynn, and his viewing of the Schwarz’s on Charlie Rose, left him bereft of any energy to continue lying to himself or anyone around him. It was over. What seemed so often to be a borderline personality disorder in the character switching between Walt and Heisenberg was revealed to be a big hoax. This is who Walter is. There is no “other” Walter. The Lie gave way to the totality of the darkness.

And when he said his final goodbye to Skyler, it was the darkness coming into the light:

I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was really…I was alive.

His acts, then, of forcing the self-absorbed Gretchen and Elliot to channel the money to Walt Jr., of poisoning the poisonous Lydia, of killing the wicked neo-nazi gang, of protecting and freeing Jesse (and unleashing Jesse’s righteous rage on Todd), of willfully submitting to his own death, were somehow noble in the same biblical sense that God sending a brutal pagan nation to judge an unjust and cruel Israelite nation is noble. Protection and liberation were secured for the innocent victims, and a more humane future was opened. All of it was terrible and nothing was guaranteed – even Jesse’s freedom was only an excruciating shadow of his warm fantasy in the lab – but new possibilities were unleashed, an already-but-not-yet taste of potential hope and peace.

And one thing was utterly finished: the satan was cast down.

At this point, there is only one question I am still asking myself. If, as Mr. White taught his students in the pilot episode, “Chemistry is the study of…transformation,” then could all of this have been avoided? Could the deep Lie that came alive in Walt when he was betrayed by his partners at Grey Matter and embittered by his difficult life thereafter have been quenched by some goodness within him? Was there ever a chance that he would not break bad?

Part of me believes that the deep sociopathic core of Walter White was always bound to manifest. Part of me thinks he could have chosen a more honest, healing path. With God, perhaps we may hope that anything is possible.

And the truth can set you free.

The final scene last night had Walter White dying in the lab. He was, as series creator Vince Gilligan says, “with his Precious.” A slave to himself, slayed by the truth, enjoying the last breath of his thrilling, tragic evil.

And there, unexpectedly, I felt sympathy for the devil.

Transformation, indeed.

That was one hell of a story.

How about you? What were your impressions of the final episode and of season 5 as a whole? Would love to hear your geeky thoughts!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    A great summary, Zach. Unsurprisingly, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of your comments. Breaking Bad has been an incredible journey not only for the brilliance of its writing and acting, its humour, and its drama, but also and above all for its cuttingly real portrayal of human nature at its best and its worst. In truth, I see something of myself in all the characters, including Walt.

    I was very happy with the finale overall – given the level of expectation, I think Gilligan and his team did outstanding job.

    I’m really going to miss Breaking Bad. And I’ve enjoyed sharing your thoughts and chewing the fat with you over the final eight episodes!

  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    Thanks so much for your insights Rob! It’s been a really fun journey, for sure.


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