Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"a machine that would go of itself"

image via Grantland

So, mainly to spite Ross Douthat, I watched the finale (“Felina”) of Breaking Bad. It was impressive in every respect.

But of course there’s no way for me, even as someone who knows the plot of the series and how the major themes have developed over time, to understand the episode completely or to get the full effect — because, you know, I haven't actually been watching it. It’s interesting to think about the things that I didn’t know and couldn’t know as I watched. For instance, while I could clearly discern the valedictory character of Walt’s last meeting with Skyler, I was limited in my ability to grasp it by not having a reservoir of memories of how Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn interacted with each other through the whole course of the series. I didn’t have a visual and aural record of body language, gesture, vocal intonation, eye contact, etc. I could cite many more examples.

All this makes me wonder what it might be like to go back and watch the whole series now, knowing the general story arc in advance and the concluding episode in detail. I’m unlikely to do that, but in principle such an experience need not be absolutely inferior to having watched the show all along. Though it would certainly be different.

All that said, I have one major point to make: it’s been interesting to see how the conclusion of the show hasn’t settled any of the long-standing arguments about it. Consider Walt’s intimidating Elliott and Gretchen into giving money to Skyler and Flynn: surely a deed confirming Team Walt in their belief that he’s basically a good guy who deeply loves his family? No, say others: it’s his refusal to accept their refusal of his dirty money, a determination to get his own way, to have his will realized, by hook or by crook and come what may. In this reading it’s not generosity, it’s the triumph of the will. Even his already-much-celebrated confession to Skyler — “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.” — can be read either as a commendable final honesty from Walt or as a canny move on his part: he’s saying what he has to say to get Skyler to do what he wants her to do.

Whether out of good motives or bad or some combination of the two, Walt’s goal is to ensure that certain things happen after he dies — to build a machine that continues to function after its creator is dead. That’s why it seems to me that an important visual motif in “Felina” — one that I haven’t seen noticed by other commentators, though I’m sure some have mentioned it — emerges after the massacre of the Nazis: the massaging recliner continues to massage the dead body of its occupant, and the oscillator that Walt had built to guide the path of the machine gun continues to trace its pre-ordained path long after the gun is empty. (Even if the Nazis had shot Walt, if he had been able before his death to press the trunk-release they would have been killed anyway.) The quiet sounds of those two thoughtless, mindless machines in the aftermath of bloodshed are deeply eerie. That scene alone made me wish I had watched the show all the way through….

But this is what Walt is trying to build: a machine made of manipulation that will run on after his death, getting that dirty money to Skyler and Flynn whether they like it or not.

It’s a machine that works flawlessly — all of Walt’s plans in this episode work flawlessly, even something as wildly implausible as his poisoning of Lydia. Watch that scene again and try to figure out how he does it. I think it’s impossible — sort of like the way he drifts in and out of places that ought to be heavily guarded or closely observed. Implausibilities and impossibilities pile up one on another, to the point that it’s hard for me not to think that the Emily Nussbaum “it’s all a dream” theory — later endorsed by Douthat — makes for a better and more satisfying reading of the show’s conclusion than any other.

It’s nice to dream of machines working flawlessly, carrying out our plans to their envisioned perfection. But machines rarely work flawlessly; they’re like their makers in that respect.


  • I don't think that the implausibilities, strokes of luck, and incredibly chance events support the 'it's all a dream' theory. Such implausibilities have been a constant feature of the show, most notably seen in the plane crash in season 2. Many of the other plans, such as the assassination of Gus Fring had innumerable elements that could have gone wrong. Such details point to the role that a sort of moral fate has to play in Gilligan's universe. When moral fate is pushing in Walt's direction, he is invulnerable.

    I disagree strongly with Nussbaum and Douthat: I don't believe that there is any redemption or vindication intended for Walt, a case that I argue here. Walt accepts and meets his fate on his own terms, tragically unable to sacrifice his pride to the final moment.

  • Alastair, that's an excellent post you wrote. As someone with just a foot in the discussion, and no real authority on which to say anything more detailed, I'll just suggest a couple of possible complications to your view:

    1) Almost all narratives have occasional implausibilities, but this concluding episode is made up of nothing but implausibilities: from the cops inexplicably disappearing, to the dropping down of the keys "from above," to the ease with which Walt gets Elliott and Gretchen's home address, to the ease with which he gets into their gated property, to the flawless performances of Badger and Skinny Pete, to his ability to wander freely in and out of his old house without being seen, to his magical appearance in Skyler's new place and disappearance from it without being seen, to the whole poisoning-Lydia episode in which he is seen but recognized by anyone he doesn't want to recognize him, to the Nazis' allowing him to park where he wants without checking out his car, to the whole convo with the Nazis happening in the one precise place where Walt needs it to happen, to the appearance of Jesse just so Walt can save him, to the survival of Jack so Walt can kill him and Todd so Jesse can kill him — it's all a little much, don't you think? Noticeably, and suspiciously, like a wish-fulfillment dream....

    2) We need to parse the question of whether "there is any redemption or vindication intended for Walt" a little more closely. If we mean by that, as you do, that Walt's decisions are not justified or vindicated by some moral standard that we might apply from outside his ethical cosmos, then you are exactly right. But if we mean that Walt experiences no redemption or vindication — well, obviously he does. His final plan goes off like clockwork, he gets to see all his enemies dead or dying and even gets to taunt Lydia, he gets to feel that he has rescued Jesse and provided for his family. He dies with a smile in his face in his beloved lab. And that's what is making some viewers uncomfortable: that Walt gets to feel both redeemed and vindicated, by ending things "on his own terms," as Vincd Gilligan says.

  • Sorry for the typos there — Blogger won't let me edit.

  • Thanks, Alan. Good questions. Here is a stab at a response.

    1) The implausibilities of the finale that you mention are extremely minor compared to some of those earlier in the show. Here is a list of just a few of the dozens of chance events surrounding the air collision that concludes season 2: 1. Jesse’s receiving his money the morning before he’s due to go into rehab with Jane; 2. Walt’s unwitting chance encounter with Jane’s dad—a complete stranger—in a random bar (in the season 3 episode, ‘Fly’, Walt himself comments on how odd this was, because he never went into bars alone); 3. Walt’s decision, prompted by the conversation with Jane’s dad about family, to return to Jesse’s; 4. The fact Walt decides to go into the house even though he sees that Jesse is asleep in the bed with Jane; 5. The fact he can easily do so without leaving a trace as the door hasn’t been repaired; 6. Walt’s inadvertently causing and later witnessing Jane’s death by turning her onto her back as he tries to shake the drugged Jesse into consciousness; 7. That Jane’s dad is an air traffic controller; 8. His confusion of the name of a plane with the name of his daughter on account of his grief, leading to a mid-air collision; 9. Some of the wreckage falling in Walt’s back garden.

    While this might be pure plot contrivance in the hands of someone else, Gilligan pulls it off because such events are perfectly in keeping with the moral logic of the show’s universe and deeply integrated into the development of the plot and its characters. In ‘Fly’, the drugged Walt reflects on his chance encounter with Jane’s dad, giving us insight into the way that the event has changed his mind:

    Think of the odds. Once I tried to calculate them, but they’re astronomical. I mean, think of the odds of me going in and sitting down that night, in that bar, next to that man… My God, the universe is random, it’s not inevitable, it’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?

    Walt, who started off the show denying the existence of a soul, comes to believe in a moral fate. In ‘Fly’, Walt ponders what would have been the perfect moment to quit cooking meth without facing the consequences of his actions. He suggests that it was that evening, before he went into the bar.

    At the end of ‘Granite State’, for the second time, Walt enters into a bar alone. By now, Walt has come to the conclusion that the universe isn’t just random chance, but that moral reckoning must be made. The ‘prayer’ that he prays in the car at the beginning of the finale is plea bargaining with his imminent fate: if fate will permit him to act as its instrument, he can go out without the sacrifice of his pride. When we consider the power that moral fate has already demonstrated in Breaking Bad’s universe and to Walt himself, I don’t think that it is a stretch to believe that Walt could think it powerful enough to make the most jerry-rigged plan work out perfectly.

    2) Once again, understanding the moral operations of Breaking Bad’s universe is crucial here. In order to go out as he does, Walt has to acknowledge that he is damned. The only line that fate now affords him is the rope with which he must hang himself. He dies in his pride, but he dies the death of the damned, the knowing victim of moral fate. It is a sort of Satanic destiny.

    That in many respects he dies satisfied that he has achieved something great, even if morally reprehensible, needs to be read in terms of the morality of the show’s universe, within which a protagonist’s self-perception is not the final arbiter of his condition. That fate should permit him this final triumph of his vice is not a victory for Walter White but his utter destruction at the hands of his satanic Heisenberg, the loss of the soul that he once denied.

  • Love it. Great response.

  • For what it's worth, I'm very much in agreement with Alastair. I was delighted to stumble upon his post last night because I was beginning to feel alone in thinking the finale was very much a subversive "victory" for Walter. Like the entire series to that point, it was only a victory on *Walt's terms." The very narrative action of the series has been about Walt devising and executing--imagining--these impossible plans. And then the central irony is that he can't imagine something like initially accepting Gretchen and Elliot's charity. No, he *has* to sell meth. To imagine success qua humility is unimaginable (undesirable) for WW. This central irony plays out to the very end. Walt is quite content to lay in his own grave, and go out on his terms. And his final creation for killing Nazis is appropriately what kills him. The very point to be taken away in this last episode is that if any goodness happened, any small redemption for Walter, he didn't do it himself. To "redeem himself"--as some have put it--is, in a manner of speaking, precisely still the problem.

  • Put differently: The extent to which Walt thinks himself successful according to his own terms is a determination built on the delusion of the very premise.

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