Warning! The following contains spoilers, obviously.
One way of charting the beginning of Walter White’s downfall is citing his initial refusal of Elliot’s and Gretchen’s offer to provide the money he needed for cancer treatment. During “Gray Matter,” Walt, clearly irked upon discovering Skyler’s plea for help to his former partners, fumes to his wife, “It was an offer for me to generously accept his charity.” Walt’s staunch refusal to accept a gift is the root of his evil. This is also called the sin of pride. We often say money is the root of all evil, but the reason that money is the root of all kinds of evil is because we use it as a means for pursuing self-sufficiency, the prideful power we crave to our own self-destruction. Walt needs money if he’s going to survive and die on his own terms, and he needs it to be his money.
Walt’s slow decay—his change “from Mr. Chips to Scarface”—has been the slow solidifying of this rejection of charity into a worldview. But that doesn’t quite encompass the issue, because talk of worldview tends to be about a system of ideas by which a person lives. Often excluded from this discussion is the real presence of embodiment and desire. Walter White’s body being torn apart by cancer, coupled with his desire to be in control of his circumstances in response to that bodily disease, undoubtedly affects his thinking over time. The Walter White who does moral calculus (“It’s the right thing to do”) on the toilet while he agonizes over whether or not to take the life of his eventual first victim is not the same Walter White who comparatively shrugs in response to the death of the young boy at the hands of Todd. Walt’s corrupted desire has distorted his thinking and, ironically, limited his perceivable options for what’s necessary.
In other words, Walt’s “view” of the world grows less and less imaginative (less free), and this blurred vision stems, to name one stark example, from his inability to imagine accepting money for treatment from his successful old partners without it being fatal to his pride.
As I’ve noted previously, this is one of the show’s pivotal ironies. Walt is a brilliant criminal. His ability to imagine means of escape and triumph is legendary. It’s what makes most of the narrative action of the show: Walt cooking up concoctions to overcome the consequences of entering the meth world. It’s one of the thrills of watching the show. Early on—particularly the pre-Heisenberg days—the sense in which we were encouraged to “cheer” for Walt is facilitated by the baseline desire to see Walt succeed at executing his plan. Often, these scientifically-devised plans are a means to outwit opponents who we were encouraged to consider more evil, or at least more contemptible, than Walt.
Simultaneously, though, Walt can’t imagine a scenario in which he might “win” by confessing his crimes. He can’t imagine that he might be damaging his family more than protecting it. He can’t imagine that his freedom might be defined by humbling himself rather than basking in the alleged triumph of total self-sufficiency. He can’t imagine that his cancer might not be the very end of him. He can’t imagine that there might be a kind of spiritual cancer worse than the physical disease. He can’t imagine that humility might ultimately be empowering.
Or perhaps, at bottom, he doesn’t want to imagine in these ways. That is, perhaps it’s not so much an inability as it is an unwillingness.
The series’ climax, “Ozymandias,” begins with a flashback emphasizing Walter White’s lies. Framed in this way, one of the series’ greatest episodes is a grenade of this central irony—Walt’s spectacular imaginative failure—finally exploding. Initiated by Hank’s and Jesse’s superior wit, it’s a blast of unavoidable consequences that, in large part, cement through to the final episode. Walt’s lies have often had immediate consequences, but it was in this episode when so many of the consequences were finally exposed. Walt can’t control his situation in the way he wants to without lying to himself and others. An essential lie underlying all of the others is one which Walt keeps repeating to whoever will listen: his behavior is necessary for the sake of his family. But there’s another layer of deceit beneath this lie. Walt lives as if it is essentially human to pursue total self-control and self-sufficiency. He disguises this deceit with concern for his family in a way that’s ultimately like a Pharisee’s self-righteousness.
Walt’s essential deceit is that life is a do-it-yourself project. This deceit is in sharp contrast with the boyhood Catholicism which is said to have shaped Vince Gilligan’s show. The rejection of charity—of love—is for the Christian the rejection of existence, because life itself is a gift. When you base your identity on something other than the grace and love of God as Creator (and redeemer—the giver and restorer of life), then you inhabit a false reality with a false identity. This is another way of describing the effects of idolatry, and for the Christian, human beings fill this space of ultimate devotion and derived significance with any number of things. This construal of love, existence, and identity is how the Christian makes sense of the existential fact of the consequences associated with Walt’s badness.
Furthermore, it’s how Christians make sense of the relationship between lying and intimacy, or, how the former strains the latter; lying puts a distance between one’s self and others—the distance between what’s true and what’s not. This is the distance Walt increasingly creates between himself and his family throughout the series. The culmination of this distance is heartbreakingly materialized in the final episode when Walt must watch from afar as Walter Jr. comes home from school. It might be the most painful moment in the finale.
Moreover, the relationship between lying and identity has to do with self-deceit; in Breaking Bad’s world, this is most adequately expressed via Heisenberg. It’s oversimplified to think that we are all either innocent Walter or beyond-redemption Heisenberg. One implication of the flashback lie framing “Ozymandias” is that Walter was having a Heisenberg moment right then and there, even if he hadn’t given himself over to the lie in such a way that seems so beyond repair.
With all of this in mind, the implications of Gilligan’s final episode may come into clearer view. “Felina” has been cause for quite a bit of discussion, disagreement, and controversy. Frankly, it’s understandable. Part of the reason Breaking Bad is great is because it asks us to invest so much. Unlike most shows on television, we have a palpable sense that there are stakes involved—stakes that might have bearing upon our daily lives. Namely: is there a cosmic sense of justice to the universe, and if not, what’s our motivation for living justly? Put a couple of other ways: are there consequences for badness? If a person dies with an undiscovered, appalling evil committed, does that person escape the consequences? Within the purview of this show, we feel the burden of these questions of morality and badness and justice tied up in the fate of Walter White.
Put this way, Nussbaum has a point. In the sense that her argument has to do with the structure of the episode, I agree to an extent that it’s a bit tidy. Walt’s mostly successful plans have always been messy and beholden to change. Yet, I also want to suggest that what happens in the second half of the finale is, for the most part, the show playing out its central irony to its conclusion. For me, the sense in which the finale was “satisfying”—the sense, too, in which Walt “succeeded”—is true to most of the show’s narrative arc to this point. It involves Walt executing a plan on his own terms, a plan that is successful within the limitations he’s given himself. But the plan is ultimately his undoing, too. In other words, it’s appropriate that the device Walt built for killing the Nazis is what killed him. The sense in which the episode unfolds as Walt would dream it is precisely why the show has been both thrilling and morally insightful. The finale may not be as messy as the show to that point, but it’s not dissimilar from the show’s central conceit.
In what may be the final episode’s most memorable scene, Walt finally tells Skyler that he didn’t do all of this for the family, but for himself because he felt so “alive.” I’m reminded of Walt and Skyler having sex in the Aztek after a school meeting in one of the early seasons. “Why does it feel so good?” Skyler asks in the afterglow. “Because it’s illegal,” Walt says knowingly. Walt’s sense of self-sufficiency—his sense that freedom and aliveness are qualified by the absence of restraint or boundary—is one of humanity’s greatest lies.
Walt’s final act, though we might say it has hints or fragments of redemption, is still Walt executing his plan—still searching for that feeling of being alive. He will go out on his terms; that fact doesn’t change. It’s another pivotal moment, then, when Walt wants Jesse to kill him. Jesse’s response is perfect, though: “do it yourself.” Walt doesn’t take that option, but it’s because he’s already done so in a way. In the moments leading to his death, Walt staggers around the Nazis’ meth cooking equipment with what seems like a sense of peace. Think about the scenario: Walt is estranged from his family, his daughter will never know him or only know him as a drug dealing murderer, he’s responsible for the deaths of so many including family, his son has wished him dead and never wants to see him again, and yet Walt has this sense of contentment in the extremely limited success of going to his death on his terms.
It’s no accident that the second to last shot is of Walt’s bloodied, distorted self-image in the reflection of the meth equipment.
It’s been said quite a bit since the end of the finale that Walt’s most redemptive moment is his coming to “self-awareness” of his selfishness. Indeed, self-awareness can be a good thing, particularly when we’ve given ourselves over to ignorance to the point that we are truly deceived. However, one thing you never heard Walt say during the finale was I’m sorry. To apologize would be to depend on the forgiveness (the gift of restoration) of another person. It may be that Walt becomes too Heisenberg to take that essential step of confession, and that mere acknowledgement is a minor redemption all its own, but minor it is, nonetheless. In other words, it’s a moment of truth-telling that in a web of lies understandably feels redemptive. However, acknowledging the truth isn’t the same thing as then living in accordance with that truth. Walt seemed pretty satisfied to lay in the grave that he’d dug for himself.
Walt’s spectacular imagining—his do-it-yourself brilliance—remains his deluded sense of vitality until the ironic, lethal end. We like do-it-yourself projects, and there are good reasons for this—certainly, there is a sense in which self-sufficiency has its proper place. But pride tends to give an allure to that which is self-absorption masquerading as something virtuous. Walt felt alive when he was building something for himself, born out of narcissistic desire.
Therefore, it’s quite an astonishing moment (here’s what looks the most to me like redemption) when we’re invited to one of Jesse’s dreams: the building of a piece of woodwork which recalls a scene earlier in the series. Jesse’s sins are great, too, but throughout the show’s run he’s shown that he wants desperately to be involved with—to love and be loved by—others. He doesn’t grow ruthless as the show grows uglier and people’s lives are irrevocably damaged; instead, his guilt increases and he searches desperately for a way to alleviate the consequences. These are hints, I think, at why the end of the show is marked by freedom for Jesse and death for Walt.
I’ll leave it to my fellow viewers to decide the extent to which Walt was redeemed or damned and how they should or shouldn’t feel about his end. I will simply say that the extent to which Walt thinks himself successful according to his own terms is a determination built on the delusion of the very premise. It would be a mistake to assume that any good that comes from the final episode is predicated on Walt’s goodness, as if undeserved instances of goodness didn’t happen in spite of ourselves all of the time. To think otherwise would be to preclude the presence of grace, charity, and forgiveness. The absolute worst doesn’t have to happen in order for the show to end truthfully. At least not if you believe something like grace is a reality.
If Walt is redeemed in any final sense (and I think we’re led to believe he isn’t), then there’s one thing certain: he didn’t do it himself.