On ‘Felina’ And The Tragedy of Jesse Pinkman

Most of what I want to say has been said many more times and far more eloquently, so let’s get that out of the way as painlessly as possible. First off is Matt Zoller Seitz’s interpretation of the last half-season as a reworking of A Christmas Carol with Walter White cast not as Ebeneezer Scrooge but the ghost of Jacob Marley, and it’s pretty damn convincing:

“Felina” is not set at Christmas, but it has a feeling of Dickensian reckoning, with closure galore but minus any real sense of hope. The guns-a-blazin’ finale capped by Jesse strangling Todd, telling Walter to go eff himself in not so many words, and roaring off toward freedom (while cackling like a maniac) lent the whole thing an illusion of cathartic awesomeness: greatest episode ever!

But that’s what it was: an illusion. For all intents and purposes, Walter White died when he said good-bye to Skyler in “Ozymandias” and entered Saul Goodman’s makeshift private version of witness protection. In this episode and last week’s, we were really watching a ghost, at times vengeful and terrifying, but mostly sad and hopeless. A guy who seemed to think he was a decaying but still formidable modern version of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning — a guy who’d figured some things out and was ready to act, dammit, settling old scores, righting old wrongs, and helping his wife and kids buy the largest turkey in the window — but who was ultimately, probably, more like Jacob Marley, materializing in people’s homes to scare the hell out of them by pointing an accusing finger or moaning in misery while clanking his pitiful irons.

“I wear the chain I forged in life!” Marley tells Scrooge. “I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!”

The last two episodes felt like more of a coda than anything (I commented to the friend I watched ‘Ozymandias’ with as its credits rolled that its ending could have ended the entire show with some degree of finality) – not that they weren’t hugely enjoyable and fascinating to watch. They felt very much like a ‘what if?’ story, something set in an alternate world in which Walt’s secret’s out for all the world to see and he finally stops lying to himself and lets his Heisenberg flag fly.

Carrying on that thought leads me to a disquieting notion – the idea that it’s too crazy, too perfect to be real, and everything in the final two episodes is simply a morphine-fuelled dying fantasy as Walter lies in his New Hampshire cabin, rotting away from the inside and righting wrongs in such a perfect manner that he could never quite achieve in reality.

But I don’t really buy that, compelling as it may or may not be, and I doubt Vince Gilligan or any of the Bad team would want us to, mired in the minutiae and tragedies of its characters’ worlds as we have been for the past six years. It would be cruel to pull the rug out from under us at this stage, no?

And yet, maybe giving the fans what they want – questions answered, loose ends tied off (for the most part; I can’t help but feel young Brock is the most coldly disregarded victim of Heisenberg’s folly) – is killing them with kindness?

From TIME:

It’s a Western, though, in which we were following the man, literally, with the black hat. Having seen the trail of suffering Walt has selfishly left behind him, I didn’t necessarily want to see Walt end up triumphant, feeling like a hero. But as I wrote when this final run of episodes began, the definition of a “good” Breaking Bad finale was not whether it punished Walter White. It was whether the series stayed true to his character, to its themes, whether or not it was pleasant to see.

I certainly agree that the series’ end stayed true to its central character and themes, even if I do resent Heisenberg a great deal for getting more or less what he wanted on his own terms at the physical and psychic cost of everyone around him. Hubris was always Walt’s Achilles heel, and he had more than enough to go around.

Everyone talks about ‘Felina’ being a satisfying end to the show, but that’s from the narrow perspective that the story’s just been about Walter this whole time, that his death in the final moments ends his story in the neatest way possible (and, one suspects, exactly how he wanted it to). Sure, he’s the central character, but he’s never been in every scene of an episode, even since Season 1; the supporting cast carry just as much emotional weight, and I would hope that most viewers have more fondness for Skyler and Jesse than the mass-murdering, child-poisoning manipulator that is Heisenberg.

Me, I found it disturbingly unsatisfying, which isn’t the same as saying I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the opposite: if things had turned out perfectly for the remaining players and all conflicts were resolved with logical outcomes I would have been outrageously disappointed. That’s not the promise Breaking Bad made to us, and the knowledge that the wreckage from Walter’s life will be found in the lives of those he knew for years to come is legitimately unsatisfying.

Skyler may have gotten Walter’s one and only confession (“I liked it”), and to that end, some measure of understanding of her late husband’s motivation, but she also has to contend with the crippling guilt of her complicity in his actions and the legacy that she’s now associated with along with Flynn (you think he’ll ever go back to Walter Jr. again?), who, as if that wasn’t enough, also possesses the terrifying genetic burden of his father: will he turn out like Heisenberg too?

There’s that money from Gretchen and Elliot, which, if they can’t get rid of it, might buy them security but not an inch of peace. If there was ever an argument against Walt having ‘won’ in the finale, it’s that he left his family a fortune they have no intention of keeping; it’s a totem, merely a gesture proving that Heisenberg follows through on his promises, even if just to himself.

Marie’s widowed, and the closure of the location of Hank’s body will be cold comfort; Saul Goodman off in Nebraska managing a donut shop for all we know; Mike’s granddaughter will never be able to reconcile her memories of her sweet old grandfather with the murdered killer found by that river; Brock’s without a family, possibly destined to go into foster care and fall into the drug abuse culture in Albuquerque that Heisenberg helped perpetuate and thrive; and bizarrely, as if to counter this imbalance in social immorality, Lydia is killed so that – what? Crystal meth will cease being sold in Eastern Europe? It seems like an insincere gesture truly motivated by spite, and one that leaves her daughter without a mother, as morally corrupt as she might have been.

Those are all stories that are still being told, and that’s why I’m unsatisfied. But it’s a good thing, at least in terms of the most important story Gilligan & co. were telling, and that’s the story of Walter White’s relationship and power. Simply put: even in death, Walt still managed to have that much of an impact when for so much of his life he had a footprint no bigger than a housefly. He proved his power and intellect to such an extent that no-one would ever doubt it again.

But we’re leaving out someone important, aren’t we? Someone I was much more invested in than Walter at the end who was given a disappointing farewell.

From a Rolling Stone piece:

That extremely cathartic moment when Jesse Pinkman speeds through the gates, alive, and begins his primal scream that’s a mixture of happiness, sadness, frustration, relief and elation is so incredibly telling of the character’s newfound freedom.

Yep. Jesse Pinkman.

The above quote is a profound misreading of Jesse’s final moments on the show. Now, I agree with the descriptors “sadness” and “frustration”, despite them being woeful understatements, but happiness and elation don’t even come into it.

Sure, he’s laughing as he speeds through the desert after crashing through the gates of his prison, but it’s the laughter of the insane and of the damned. The look on his eyes as he screams – not a “primal” scream, but one of intense, profound pain – tells us all we need to know, that the light is gone from his eyes, the fire in the heart of his world extinguished. The only thing he had left to live for in this world was killing Todd, and now that’s done, Jesse Pinkman is someone broken beyond all repair, pushed beyond his breaking point by a string of dead lovers, abandoned parental figures, actual honest-to-God slavery and, most of all, by Walter White.

He sees the poison in front of him and knows he can’t be around it for a second longer, even when Walt wants Jesse to kill him. But he knows better. He’s tried to convince others that Walter White is the Devil, and you never do what the Devil tells you to.

So he speeds away as fast as he can, but to what? The Rolling Stone article accurately points out, he’s got nothing left. He might be able to start a new life with Brock, they posit, but such an idea would require Jesse to believe that anything he touch can ever be good again, or that he could ever look Brock in the eye without feeling like he’s the reason Andrea died. If I’m Jesse Pinkman, I’m thinking that I’m too broken a thing to be a part of this world and it might well be better off without me.

That look in his eyes says that he might never take his foot off the accelerator, and it’s made all the more potent by dream of carpentry at the beginning of the episode. Jesse’s a simple being at heart, and (for me) the most poignantly tragic character in all of Breaking Bad: all he wanted was to do something that he was good at and live for that. That’s all. But the world wouldn’t let him, and it told him he had to be someone else and do other things that chipped away at his soul.

This Vulture piece goes into the dream sequence a bit more, and is worth a read.

When I started writing this post I thought I wasn’t happy with how Jesse’s story ended. Well, I was never going to be happy, because tragedies rarely let that happen, but you know what I mean. Now I’m thinking that’s how it was always supposed to be. It’s unfair that he got no real closure. It’s unfair he got barely any lines. It’s unfair that things didn’t come up roses for him. But life’s unfair for everybody, and Jesse in particular, so why shouldn’t the final episode treat him that way?

In a sense, ‘Felina’ may be about letting go, as much for Walter White as of Walter White. He lets himself go, content (or not) in what he’s accomplished, and we let him go, whether we worshipped him as a no-fucks-giving antihero or a sad, dying liar who got off too lucky, Maybe what that final shot, pulling away from Walt toward the ceiling (“How small he seems,” writes Zoller Seitz), means is that he wasn’t so big that he’s the only piece of this puzzle. Perhaps by focusing so keenly on him in this farewell episode we’re meant to realise that Walter White doesn’t exist in a vacuum, he never did, that all that space could be populated by all the folks who’ve come and gone over the years and acknowledge that we’re all a part of someone else’s story.

Or it could be that in that shot Walter is Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan’s just telling us that his little TV show isn’t that important.

In a vast number of ways I was sad during that final shot. Maybe I was thinking of how unjust his self-inflicted death was. Maybe I was imagining the rest of the cast lying next to him and thinking about how Walt affected their lives. Maybe I was just sad to see one of my favourite shows end.

But maybe, just maybe, I was going to miss Walter White. Whatever that means.

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