Breaking Bad Echoes The Shield
(Spoiler Alert: In this column I discuss the final season of Breaking Bad as well as The Shield.)
The finale of a television show that you love comes with a certain amount of sadness attached to it. You have invested so much of your time and emotional capital into the vehicle. When it’s over it leaves a small hole in the heart. The Sopranos, Friday Night Lights, The Wire, West Wing and Rescue Me – when these shows ended a part of me felt like crying. Lost could have been like that, except for the fact that the show began eroding after its breathtaking first season. Sitcoms like Friends and The Office also left me a little misty-eyed after their curtain calls.
The final season of Breaking Bad was mind-blowing. Watching Walter White’s runaway-train demise was a pleasure. Bryan Cranston may have created the most memorable character in television history. His performance will stand like White’s own story should, as a Greek tragedy told for eons. Can you believe Cranston is the same actor who was once grounding Malcolm? I wouldn’t believe it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes in beautifully vivid pixels.
White’s war with his brother-in-law could not have been a better move for the show to make. White had to go down, it was a nice diversion to make us believe maybe it would be at the hands of the crime-fighting Hank. Dean Norris played Schrader not like a bull in a china shop, but like a bull in a fireworks factory.
Every time we saw Hank Schrader we saw the anger bubbling just below the surface. Hank doesn’t like to lose the bad guy, especially when that bad guy is someone he has shared a bucket of Los Pollos Hermanos with.
Hank’s death wasn’t much of a surprise. In the end, Hank taking down Walt would have been too much of an anti-climactic ending for such a smart show. But the storyline introduced us to a band of neo-Nazi’s that would eventually play the most malevolent antagonists of a show that gave us some of the most memorable malice barons in the history of the small box.
Aaron Paul was steady. He was as reliable as a Rolex. When people remember Breaking Bad they will remember Walter White and Bryan Cranston. But without Jesse, there would be no Walt. Jesse has been our tour guide through hell. He walked with us through the nine circles of purgatory and introduced us to Satan.
It was fitting to watch White sacrifice his life to save Jesse. He couldn’t put back together his family. He couldn’t bring back Hank from the grave. Saving Jesse was the one decent thing he could still do. Walt, in spite of everything, has always been a decent man. A misguided one, yes, but also decent.
Jesse’s final appearance on the show was beautiful. You could see the tear stains. You could smell the blood. You could taste the regret. But there was a smile, and ultimately a terrifyingly hopeful laugh. As Jesse drove away from Walt, he drove towards freedom, a freedom he had searched so long to find.
Jesse has always been a craftsman. He can build. In his dreams he is working with wood. Wood is natural, given from the earth, and in its own way it is heavenly. Jesus was indeed a carpenter.
Meth is chemical. It’s filled with poison, like man. The hope is that Jesse will build, but now it will be something natural, something pure and good – something free of poison. He is our light out of a long, dark and hopeless tunnel. That’s even if Saul eventually gets the spin-off.
I recently watched a young Anna Gunn play a prosecutor on an episode of the long-since passed The Practice. Over time she has gained some weight in on-screen demeanor. You could see her wrestling to hold her family together. Her love for Walt was always bigger than his vices. There were times I think she relished Walt’s deviance. He became a strong, tough, and no-nonsense man, which was a complete switch from the weak and pushover guy she married and I think she found a certain amount of perverse joy in this.
She can’t move past her love for Walt, even in the final episode, “Felina.” Her sister wants to paint Walter as a monster. It’s easy for her. He killed her husband, at least she thinks so. For Gunn’s Skylar, it’s not so simple. She shared a bed with Walt. She made two children with him. Love like that never fades easily. So she sits by the phone and smokes cigarettes. Why is she sitting by the phone? Maybe she is still waiting for a call from the man she loves, even if he’s standing at the other side of the kitchen.
We always watched Walt try and provide for his family. Or did we? Walt leaves her by saying, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it and I was really, I was alive.” If it was a lie or the truth, Skylar will never know, and I suppose neither will we. His odyssey began for his family, but was it always for them, or was it for him as well?
Walter enjoyed being the man in the black hat. It was a role he relished for a while. And yet he fully recognizes the excruciating pain he caused his family. It’s a duality of his life he will live with in either heaven or hell.
How about Jesse Plemons’ turn as the boy scout meth cook (do they have a merit badge for that)? He was more than eager to please everyone, that when he’s not mowing down women and children.
Plemons played a guitar-toting field goal kicker on Friday Night Lights. His character was, on the surface, not much different on Breaking Bad, he was just surrounded by more nefarious people. That’s the beauty of Plemons’ acting. Whether in a Texas high school or a New Mexico meth lab, Plemons can blend in and give you a small, squinty-eyed smile. I don’t think you could imagine pure evil coming out of Plemons, and yet it did.
Is it appropriate that the Devil has bright red hair, a toothy grin and kindly helps navigate a stiletto-heeled drug queen through the carnage following a bloody shootout? Maybe it is, maybe because the Devil is the person we least expect. Hank learned this. Jesse did as well, and ultimately Walt did when he stared into a bathroom mirror at Denny’s.
It was Plemons’ Todd who asked, “No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?” Maybe that line sums up the entire series. It was never enough, not for Walt, not for Jesse and not for an Opie-like neo-Nazi.
When Jesse killed Todd, he wasn’t just killing an incredibly sadistic man. He was killing Walt, or everything Walt had become. And after the smoke had settled, like any great gangster film, Walter was left lying dead in a pool of his own miscalculations.
It was interesting that Walter delivered his final opus through greed. He understood, because he was ultimately defined by it, that it was the easiest way to deliver the pill of death. For the men and women he surrounded himself with, Walter recognized greed is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Walter recognized, as he touched his hand to a gas mask for the final time and left a bloody handprint on a meth cooking stove, it wasn’t about greed and it wasn’t about revenge. It was ultimately about redemption.
The final season of Breaking Bad reminded me of Vic Mackey’s fall in The Shield, and that is not just because of cameras panning over characters staring at ungodly amounts of money.
White ought to send Mackey flowers or an M60 machine gun as a thank you. The Shield laid the foundation for Breaking Bad.
In the pilot of The Shield we watched Michael Chiklis’ Mackey murder a member of his own Strike Team for trying to stab him in the back. We then followed Mackey as he walked the tight-rope between justice and hubris. We cheered when Mackey stuck it just a little harder to a pedophile. We laughed as he teased Dutch like a high school bully giving a geek a wedgy. We felt his anger at his Strike Team’s poor professional and life decisions. We rooted for Mackey, even as we cursed our local police officer for giving us a speeding ticket. Mackey had two autistic children for Pete’s sake.
In the end we watched Mackey end up in his own personal hell, alone and stuck behind a desk. White’s fate was of course much worse, but both men lost everything they had each worked so hard to build.
It was Mackey who said, in Tapa Boca, “We’re a family. We are surviving this together or we’re going down together.” Those words could have come from the mouth of White.
Mackey and White are incredibly similar. They are both family men who set out to provide more comfortable lives for their loved ones. They both found success in that aim, whether it was cooking blue crystal or hijacking an Armenian money train.
Were they not at one time both modern day Robin Hood’s, each taking money from opulent, low-life thugs to give to his struggling and upstanding family? Each began to believe in his own invincibility, and to each arrogance eventually caught up to him. Mackey and White are not men to respect. Yet, we hope for them. We know their fates will be horrific, but we still find ourselves hoping they will not succumb to the gaffes of their pasts.
It wasn’t cancer that took Walter White. But it was cancer that opened a beautifully ornate pathway to self-destruction. It wasn’t malignance that ended Walter’s life, it was bullet shells. We watched the fall, knowing it had to come. Even if Walter White deserved what he got, it was still safe to shed some tears. Was that for White, or for me? Because it meant not just the end of Walt’s life, but the end of a show that I love.