This past Sunday AMC aired the final episode of Breaking Bad. I wasn’t expecting to feel this way, but it’s as if a chapter in my life has come to an end.
I first discovered this show on an airplane flying back from Germany (sorry to disappoint you, but it was a business trip connected with my “cover identity”). I never watch TV on flights. Instead I read and occasionally glance at what people around me are watching. So I happened to look up and see — without any audio, of course — an ad for this show on AMC that I’d never heard of (which isn’t unusual, since I watch almost no television at all). The ad was so compelling I picked up the book I was reading and scrawled Breaking Bad in the back of it.
I had missed an entire season, so I got all the discs from Netflix and began watching the show from the beginning. I’ve already written an essay for Counter-Currents about my impressions of Breaking Bad, and I urge you to read it. I wrote that essay a year and a half ago. It was my attempt to express what the series means, and where I thought it was going. I said near the beginning that I was surprised at how many of my friends had never heard of the show. That has since changed dramatically. Now it seems like everybody in all the circles I move in has heard of Breaking Bad – the Manosphere, White Nationalism, Ásatrú, etc. It has truly struck a chord with a lot of decent folk.
Partly, of course, it’s a guy thing. As I said in my 2012 essay, Breaking Bad is really the story of Walter White becoming a man. I drew on Jack Donovan’s ideas in The Way of Men, and argued that while Walt was a good man (caring and responsible husband and father, blah blah blah) he wasn’t that good at being a man. But as the series develops, Walt begins to display all the “amoral” manly virtues Donovan writes about in his book. Walt becomes ruthless, brave, and strong. Most of all, he becomes masterful. By the end of the series he has morphed into a criminal kingpin, the top drug lord in his neck of the woods. (“All hail the king!” trumpeted the ads for Season Five.)
Curiously, it doesn’t seem to matter to any of us that Walt displays all these manly virtues in the cause of crime. And this is, indeed, rather odd. Because if you asked me what I think of meth I would tell you that I think it’s horrible stuff that probably deserves to be illegal, and that it not only attracts the lowest scum on the planet but seems to have the power to turn decent people into scum. (For my views on other drugs: yo, click here). And I would also tell you that I think people who deal in meth should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law.
And yet for five seasons I cheered everything Walt did (well, except for poisoning that cute little beaner). And I wanted him to get away with it. I suppose there are two reasons for this – two things that explain my apparent inconsistency. The first is that I admire those manly virtues. I’d rather see them displayed than not displayed, even if they are displayed for the sake of crime. I admired Walt for finally choosing to take risks in his life. There is something noble about this man simply seizing on something – anything – as a way to be alive. I guess it just doesn’t fundamentally matter to me that that something was cooking crystal meth.
As to the second reason, I stated it in my 2012 essay on the series:
Frankly it’s hard for me to get too exercised over the unlawfulness of Walt’s actions. It’s hard for me to be too disapproving of anything that undermines the stability of modern American society. The men of Walt’s world are killers and kingpins and assassins – but at least they are still men. One of the larger philosophical issues raised by this series – too large for me to explore here – is the tension that sometimes exists between masculinity and law and order; or: between primal masculine virtue and the virtues necessary to sustain civilization.
I would make only one change to the above: there is a particular tension between primal masculine virtue and the virtues necessary to sustain modern civilization. In fact, there’s a downright incompatibility. So for me, this makes things very simple. As a man, I regard those primal masculine virtues as what I must strive to achieve in my own life. For me, they are the good. Without them, I am nothing; I cannot respect myself. And if that striving is thwarted in modern civilization, if life in our world makes it well-nigh impossible to be a man, then modern civilization must be destroyed. You see, I told you it was simple.
Now, the truth is that Walter White knows what Breaking Bad is all about. Never underestimate Walt. He knows that this is about being a man. Yes, yes: he tells us over and over again that he’s doing it all for his family. But he knows that it isn’t true – that, at best, it’s only a partial truth. Early in the first season, Jesse asks Walt why he’s suddenly decided to “break bad.” It’s one of the greatest scenes in the series. Walt simply answers, “I am awake.”
In the final episode, Walt and Skyler meet for the last time. It’s a scene that brought tears to my eyes. Skyler clearly still loves Walt. But when, standing in their kitchen, it seems that Walt is once more going to claim that he did it all “for the family,” Skyler almost loses it. Before she can say anything, Walt interrupts her. “I did it for me,” he says. “I did it because I liked it. I was good at it. I felt alive.” Finally, he admits the truth that we had known all along. (Frankly, the episode could have ended there and I would have been satisfied.)
The odd thing is that one would expect Skyler to be furious at this admission. She knew the truth too, of course, but to hear it expressed so frankly . . . And yet there is a kind of peace that follows this exchange – in the scene, I mean. Like the calm after a storm. Skyler still loves Walt, and one gets the distinct impression (here and in earlier episodes) that Skyler respects Walt more than she ever did before. She doesn’t approve of what he’s done, but she respects him for doing it – or, perhaps, for the way he did it. She loved the old Walt – the Walt who couldn’t find an academic position, whose friends stole his ideas and got rich off them, who had to work a demeaning part-time job at a carwash, etc. She loved that guy and would have claimed that she respected him. But the reality is that she respects Drug Lord Walt a hell of a lot more.
The hard truth is that men cannot be satisfied – not completely, at least – by being good husbands and fathers. To be satisfied as men they have to struggle – in some way or other – to achieve something or other, and they have to win something or other. (Notice how inclusive I’m being; there are different paths.) I’ll offer a couple of priceless D. H. Lawrence quotes I’ve picked up from Derek Hawthorne: “It is the desire of the human male to build a world: not ‘to build a world for you, dear’; but to build up out of his own self and his own belief and his own effort something wonderful. Not merely something useful. Something wonderful” (Fantasia of the Unconscious, 18). And: “Primarily and supremely man is always the pioneer of life, adventuring onward into the unknown, alone with his own temerarious, dauntless soul. Woman for him exist only in the twilight, by the camp fire, when day has departed. Evening and the night are hers” (Ibid., 109).
Like Fight Club, Breaking Bad is really about the re-constitution of primal, human conflict – and through it primal, human virtue. Both are set in a kind of state of nature – a condition of lawlessness and barbarism, in which all modern masks are stripped away. Words no longer count, only actions. And one can’t “fake” one’s way through things. You either rise to the occasion and show that you are tough enough or daring enough – or you lose. And you lose big, because the stakes are big. It’s not just primal masculine virtue that gets reconstituted here, folks. Because Skyler rises to the occasion too. She stands by her man, as the song says. And exhibits a good deal of toughness as well (like any good Nordic woman). (I am not as big a sexist as the chicks who read me think that I am.)
So, what did I think of the finale of Breaking Bad? When it was over, I felt dissatisfied. But only because the series was over. In terms of the story, I was quite satisfied with how they wrapped it up. In fact, I can’t think of any other way it could have been done. Everything that happened in the finale had the quality of dramatic inevitability. I don’t often call TV writers “brilliant,” but in this case the compliment is deserved.
Walt figures out a brilliant way to get money to his family – and simultaneously stick it to the odious Schwartzes. I didn’t see that one coming. The final scene between Walt and Skyler – discussed earlier – was a knockout. But the scheme Walt hatches to kill Uncle Frank and his gang (a few of whom showed up, I believe, at the recent Stella Natura festival) was a bit contrived. That machinegun attached to the garage door opener thingee worked just a bit too well, and the set up was just a bit too easy for Walt. But satisfying it was, nonetheless. Walt saves Jesse one last time, and Walt gets to kill psycho Todd (who looks like a Mormon missionary). There are few words in the last scene between Walt and Jesse, but one feels the strong bond between them. Words aren’t really that necessary. Oh, and I cackled maniacally over the poisoned Stevia. Almost forgot that one.
In the end, of course, Walt dies, which is what I figured would happen. My prediction in 2012 was that Walt would die of cancer. By the finale it does appear that the cancer is close to killing him. But what actually takes his life is a stray gunshot to the abdomen. We’re left with the suggestion that Walt bleeds to death. I wasn’t happy to see Walt die, of course. But how else could the series have ended? With Walt getting caught and getting his comeuppance? If that had happened, I’m sure somebody would’ve hired the two best hit men west of the Mississippi to kill Vince Gilligan. (I can think of only one ending that would have been worse than this: Walt wakes up in bed next to Skyler and cries “Oh, what a terrible dream!”)
No, I couldn’t have come up with a better ending than what we were offered the other night. But the finale was kind of a blow, actually. Only when I saw the closing credits did it finally hit me: it’s over. For good. And it was then that I realized just how important this series had become to me. They would make a few episodes and I would watch them and rave over them, then go back to my other activities and forget about Breaking Bad for a while. But for the last several years it was always in the background. I would think, “Well, I’ve got new episodes of Breaking Bad to look forward to.” Not anymore. Where will I find another “awakened” primal masculine hero through whom I can vicariously feel alive? Maybe it’s time to get in touch with my inner Walt (or, better yet, my inner Tyler).
Yes, I know that they’re going to do a spinoff series called Better Call Saul. But I don’t like Saul Goodman. He’s good for a few laughs, but unlike Walt there’s nothing admirable about him at all. Who needs a show about that guy? But I’ll probably wind up watching it nonetheless, hoping for something or other.
Adieu, Breaking Bad. I wish I could say auf Wiedersehen.
Oh my . . . Did I forget to say “Spoiler Alert”?