'I did it for me,’ Walter White finally admits in the closing episode of ‘Breaking Bad.’ ‘I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.’ In ‘Felina,’ the anti-hero did it for himself and he also did it alone on-screen. Yet he had an army of pop-culture accessories, including Groucho Marx, Travis Bickle, Liberty Valance, Tony Montana, John Wayne, Gollum, Badfinger and most of all, Marty Robbins.
The great challenge here for the writers was always going to be how to tie up loose ends scattered from Mexico to Albuquerque to El Paso to Europe to Alaska to New Hampshire. … and maybe whether to bother tying them up at all, “The Sopranos’’ having opened the door to the (highly unsatisfying) cut-to-black ending without answers.
Would Walt’s children be allowed a new life? Would sisters Skyler and Marie – each about to face a life grappling with widowhood – re-bond? Would uppity Elliott and Gretchen get their comeuppance? Would Todd, Lydia and the fellas from Camp Hitler be victims of revenge? Does Jesse Pinkman escape from his subterranean cell? And when he does, will he engage in a bloody confrontation with Walt?
And, of course, will Walter White die, the way a bad guy in an new/old Western must die?
Yes. Yes on all counts – and with winking nods to what I assume to be Vince Gilligan’s icon-buildin', gun-totin’, anarchy-spoutin' media library.
Flynn and Holly will be fine financially (if not emotionally, as their father is destined to be known as a modern-day combination of Pablo Escobar and Jesse James) because Walt gives the $9.7 million he’s salvaged to Elliott and Gretchen. The money will go through them and to Flynn, and the Schwartzes believe that there will forever be assassins tracking them to make sure the plan functions properly. (The “hitmen’’ are actually the clownish Badger and Skinny Pete, so Jesse’s buddies get their on-screen goodbyes, too.)
Skyler is no longer attached to Walt. (I need to check the hallway again; does Walt's colored-chalk portrait still hang alongside hers?) Marie’s DEA husband Hank is dead. The sisters talk on the phone about the imminent danger of Walt’s return to town, Marie trying to protect Skyler. But the camera cleverly hides Walt behind a post in Skyler’s apartment; she knows he’s there, but to the viewer, he’s all but a ghost – just as he was for so long in the Schwartzes’ mansion, there but not there.
Walt’s meeting with Skyler is a chance for him to say goodbye, to stroke the head of baby Holly, and to take the blame while telling the truth about his rise and fall from "henpecked'' to "Heisenberg'':
“I did it for me,’’ Walter White tells his estranged wife, handing her leverage with the cops in the form of the lottery ticket that details where Hank is buried. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.’’
But not for long.
Lydia gets the ricin, which Walt slips into her beloved chamomile tea. (I need a re-watch there, too; did Walt pull off this sleight-of-hand within the eye of the camera?) The polite psychopath Todd gets strangled by the very chains that have restrained the enslaved Jesse (one of the most violently cathartic scenes in TV/film history). Uncle Jack gets one last smoke before Walt offs him in mid-sentence and mid-puff. All the Nazis go down in a rain of machine-gun fire rigged up in the truck of Walt’s car, McGyver-style. (Or is that “Scarface’’ style?)
And then the Two Kings are left standing. Mr. White and Jesse Pinkman. Teacher and pupil. Father figure and lost son. Player and pawn.
“Do it,’’ Walt tells Jesse, sliding a gun across the floor. “You want this.’’
But Jesse is done being manipulated. Besides, he sees that the sweeping M60 has put a bullet into Walt’s side. Walt, his cancer a death sentence, anyway, is mortally wounded.
“Do it yourself,’’ Jesse says triumphantly before climbing into an El Camino and squealing with joy as he speeds off to … well, hopefully, Alaska. But maybe – because he’s a nice loser – he’ll go say hello to Brock or try to adopt him or something.
And then a bleeding-out Walt is left with his test tubes and his gas masks and his stainless-steel meth-making machinery. Before he falls dead, you – and Walt – see his bloody handprint on the tank along with his distorted reflection.
Gilligan is referring to this scene as if it’s “The Lord of the Rings’’ Gollum with his Precious. And that’s just one of the many pop-culture hat-tips, tributes and homages that give “Felina’’ a satisfying depth.
I’ve written before that quiet Walt on a vengeful rampage is straight out of the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western playbook. (There are also “Godfather’’ and “Reservoir Dogs’’ references sprinkled throughout the series, and probably a hundred more that we’ll notice on the seventh, 15th, 200th re-watching.) At least two other classic Westerns are “borrowed from,’’ I think, in “Felina.’’
*Walt’s initial Nazi-related plan includes the murder of Jesse, who he wrongly assumes is cooking meth not as their labor slave but as a “partner.’’ He realizes that the young person he tracks is not “one of them’’ but is instead a victim. That follows the footsteps of 1956’s “The Searchers,’’ an unusually deep John Wayne movie in which The Duke chases down the kidnapped girl (Natalie Wood) with the intent of killing her.
Why? She’s been raised by her captors as a Commache. And Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is a racist.
How does the John Ford film end? Ethan Edwards surprises even himself by embracing the girl and carrying her in his arms to safety.
*John Wayne, along with Jimmy Stewart, also stars in 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’’ It’s Wayne who kills the bad guy but Stewart who accidentally gets the credit and becomes wealthy, famous and powerful for it.
“This is the West, sir,’’ a journalist says to Stewart’s character, who feels guilty for going along with the convenient story. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’’
This concept is echoed by Walt throughout “Felina.’’ For his family to get the dough, he needs the Schwartzes to believe he’s a madman. For Skyler to get her freedom, he needs the cops to think he worked alone. For the Nazis to allow him into their camp, he needs them to believe he’s impotent.
And maybe, because this entire dastardly endeavor made him feel “alive,’’ he wants “Say My Name’’ to resonate forever.
So Walter White encourages the world he’s leaving behind to print the legend.
*Travis Bickle, of course, is Robert DeNiro’s anti-hero in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.’’ “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,’’ Bickle says to himself, before deciding to handle the “washing’’ personally. Bickle takes down the scum in an evil brothel. Walt takes down the scum in an evil compound.
And the memorable overhead shots from Scorsese’s film classic and Gilligan’s TV classic are eerily similar.
*Bows to Tony Montana were part of Gilligan’s intent from the start of “Breaking Bad’’ five years ago, when he stated a desire to tell a story of a man who turns from “Mr. Chips’’ to “Scarface.’’ A memorable climax in 1983’s “Scarface’’ has Al Pacino wielding an M-16A1 machine gun – “Say hello to my little friend!’’ -- and sweeping it horizontally, in rhythm, back and forth and back and forth again … the motion mimicked by the automated M60 in Walt’s trunk.
*And the music on Gilligan’s playlist?
Badfinger plays while Walt caresses the steel drum with the same tenderness he’d earlier shown with his sleeping infant.
“Guess I got what I deserved … The special love I have for you, my Baby Blue.’’
That’s from 1971 “Baby Blue,’’ an easy link to the “blue sky’’ meth that is Walt’s cooking trademark. Earlier in the series, Gilligan used 1969’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion,’’ so the man clearly KLUV’s his oldies.
*Want music more obscure? Try Groucho Marx’ trademark song from 1939, “Lydia The Tattooed Lady.’’ I don’t think there’s deep meaning in the lyrics (certainly not for Groucho and probably not for Gilligan); but the nutty love song is Todd’s ringtone for drug-boss Lydia. He’s crushing on her, there might be only one “Lydia’’ song in the entire world, so Todd chooses it. Simply Todd.
*And then there is Marty Robbins’ 1959 country-and-western ballad “El Paso.’’ … and a chance to explain why I’ve done these last few reviews the way I’ve done them.
“Watching TV with Fisher would be a drain,’’ writes a commenter on one of my recent columns. “It is mindless escapism, bro, not your grad school dissertation.’’
Mindlessness can be fun, brah. But it’s not a the best tool to bring to a front-row showing of “Breaking Bad,’’ where part of the satisfaction is recognizing the puzzle pieces as they come together. Studying the Duality of Walt, as I do here, or deciphering how the wardrobe colors send messages, as I write about here, is a source of enjoyment for me, and maybe for you.
By the way: In that same “True Colors’’ review, written in mid-September, I mentioned the finale’s name “Felina’’ and noted: “Marcia and I spent way too much time the other night dissecting the old Marty Robbins song “El Paso’’ because the “wicked woman’’ in that New Mexico tale is named “Feleena.’’
And in this final episode, dear commenting bro, Vince Gilligan is insisting you mount a horse, sing along and play along with those of us who guess and guess right. And he insists upon it three times.
1 - The episode opens with Walt stealing a Volvo in dark, snowy New Hampshire. The music in the car as he begins the long ride back to “the badlands of New Mexico’’ for a next-day showdown? A cassette of “El Paso.’’
I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing's worse than this
Pain in my heart.
2 – Later, Walt is in the desert, rigging up that remote-control M16. You drive from New Hampshire to New Mexico, maybe the radio doesn’t always work. So you’ve got your one cassette in your car and your one song in your head.
Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.
And Walt sings the next stanza to himself …
Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride.
3 – Walt, facing a death sentence, has so little time left that he removes his watch and leaves it at a filling station. He needs those moments not for redemption but for vengeance against those who are at least as “foul evil’’ as he is. And he needs those moments to say goodbye to who (or what) he loves most.
Everything's gone in life; nothing is left.
It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.
And then Walt drops to the floor of the lab, his side bleeding …
Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I'm getting weary,
Unable to ride.
And he is alone, except for his beloved machinery in the shiny meth lab.
From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.
We are allowed to analyze this show as we wish (or not analyze it at all, and I bet if you’re a teenager who just thinks it’s one, long, cool, bloody cartoon, it probably works on that level).
You did “Breaking Bad’’ for you. I did “Breaking Bad’’ for me.
And the tie-breaking vote?
“I did it for me,’’ Walter White himself said.