False Duality & the Three Endings of ‘Breaking Bad’

For the last several seasons of Breaking Bad we’ve been living with a false duality: is the real Walter White the emasculated genius Walter Hartwell White or the cunning criminal mastermind Heisenberg?

With each successive immoral decision the scales tipped further in Heisenberg’s favor, culminating in the memorable scene of Walter lying on the ground in ‘Crawlspace’, having lost his money, seemingly having lost his mind, and visually framed as if in a coffin. It was presumed to symbolize the final death of Walter White and the permanent ascension of Heisenberg.

As the series finale “Felina” demonstrated, in actuality neither persona was the real Walter White. Both were merely masks: Heisenberg as the confident id who could bend reality to his will and Walter White as the subsumed ego, who swallowed his immense anger and pride in order to survive as an unremarkable family man.

The real Walter White was the same Walter White that we always knew: a toxic blend of genius and hubris, a master liar whose greatest victim was himself.

Walter White’s original sin, the fuel that powered Heisenberg, was the false belief that he was doing it for his family. This is the lie that allowed the Heisenberg persona to commit awful acts while retaining his innate Walter Whiteness. Immoral acts powered by a moral justification.

It was only when Walter White lost his moral justification that he was no longer able to tap into the power and confidence of Heisenberg. The death of Hank in “Ozymandias” crossed his one indelible line, as his actions directly led to the death of family (even if he temporarily blamed Jesse) and the rejection from his son Flynn in “Granite State” robbed him of his motivation.

Another feint: the show was always pitched as the transformation of Mr. Chips into Scarface. But while Walter’s actions changed the person never did. He was always just Walter White.

(Walter) White + black (Hat) = Grey (Matter)

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The biggest surprise in “Felina”, however, wasn’t the reveal of the inner workings of Walter White/Heisenberg. The real shock was the fact that the bad guys won in the end.

Breaking Bad has always been a moral universe – meaning that bad people were punished for their immoral actions. Even people who appeared to be innocent (Hank, Andrea) ended up dying due to their association with the blue meth (both were unwitting financial beneficiaries of the drug empire). This held true for about 60 episodes.

And then Walt and Jesse got away with it.

In reality, Jesse was a drug dealer and a thief. He killed Gale. Yes, he was full of remorse. Yes, he was more lovable than any Ed Hardy-wearing punk should be. But he was still a bad guy, who we cheered as he choked the life out of Todd and made his getaway. Score 1 for the immoral universe.

Walter was the devil. He committed unspeakable acts in service to his pride and ego. In the end he was able to enact revenge upon all of his (past and present) enemies, get the drug money to his family, reconcile with Skyler, say goodbye to his daughter, take the off-brand blue meth off the market, and get his family out of legal jeopardy while giving Marie closure for Hank’s death. Most importantly, he got to die on his own terms, by his own hand, and in the arms of his one true love (the lab), just like the song says. Score 2 for the immoral universe.

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I actually think the series could have ended after any of the last 3 episodes, with each one imparting a different meaning for Walter’s story.

“Felina” was the “redemption” ending, where all the pieces came together as planned and the bad guy gets away with it. In shows where the protagonist is an anti-hero happy endings are usually satisfying, as viewers identify with the anti-hero and want them to win. But what does this ending mean? It appears that the show is saying that Walter succeeds in the end as a reward for his finally being honest about his intentions. That once he embraced reality (instead of trying to define reality) he could go out on his own terms.

“Granite State” was the “purgatory” ending, where the protagonist gets away with the crime, but loses everything they hold dear and is left with nothing but regret and self-reflection. The scene of Walter, powerless, paying the disappearerer $10,000 for a game of cards would have been a perfect return to the powerless, emasculated Walter from the pilot. He started cooking meth when he thought he had nothing to lose only to realize that he had much more than he thought, but he was too bitter and blind to see it.

“Ozymandias” was the “everyone dies” ending, where the protagonist finally meets his match. There would have been some elegance to this ending, where Walter the genius – who bested Gus the meticulous crime lord – is brought down by a gang of sloppy, remorseless Nazis. This would have been the scientific ending – that once you start an experiment you lose control of the reaction.

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So, as it turns out, a show about Mr. Chips turning into Scarface wasn’t really about transformation. And a show about hard science turned out to be about spiritual redemption. Go figure.


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