How did they do it? For five seasons, Walter White has become an increasingly despicable character, one who thinking members of the audience want to see fail and pay for his crimes. (Bad Fans, per Emily Nussbaum, excepted.) Sure, even the anti-Walt camp got caught up in things like the train heist or the laptop destruction, but more out of a curiosity of how they were going to pull this off, and not so much a desire to see our hero succeed. Was there any moment more satisfying than when Hank slapped the cuffs on Walt? No. So how did they do it? How did they turn Walt into an avenging angel of justice? How did we seamlessly slip into cheering him on as he actually achieved his major goals that he laid out for himself at the beginning of the series?
To be clear, let’s review what Walt wanted. He said he wanted to leave his family well-off, with “well-off” inevitably being defined as the money he left on the table by walking away from Gray Matter. What he actually—or, also, if you prefer—wanted was to die knowing that his life was meaningful. As the series developed, we can add “wants Jesse to fix up and live a better life” to the pile of goals. And while there’s no doubt the price was way, way too high, Walt actually got a lot of what he wanted. If you unpack it, you realize it’s very “deal with the devil” kind of storytelling. You get millions for you kids! And the price is your family falls apart and your brother-in-law is murdered. You get to die knowing your life did have things like “pride in your work” and “people will remember me” as part of it, but you still die alone on the floor of a warehouse. And Jesse….well, he probably will be clean and sober from here on out, but man, the cost is way, way too high to his soul and his body.
But emotionally, there’s no doubt that as the episode went on, how the audience felt about Walter White was that he was the hero of the episode, here to clean up various messes he’s made, even though in the end there was only so much he could do. It is not enough to say, “Well, he was a bad guy taking on other bad guys, and everyone got what they deserved in the end, including Walt.” This was far too emotionally satisfying to be a bad guy vs. bad guy showdown. Walt spent the episode as a good guy. No, it didn’t erase his prior sins and he still had to die alone knowing he was a villain because of what he did. But by the time Walt tackles Jesse and saves his life, we have to believe that the current incarnation of Walt really is a good guy who won’t hesitate to do what’s right in this moment, a man who has set aside his petty, self-righteous score-keeping and realizes that he has ruined all these people’s lives and while he can’t make it right, he can at least try to minimize the damage and keep them out of jail, slavery, or poverty.
Walt isn’t redeemed, but he achieved a sort of Redemption Lite, in other words. And it worked.
Basically, it works because it all goes back to Walt’s original sin, pride. It’s not that Walt suddenly loses his overwhelming sense of pride, but he realizes that pride was his downfall and, for the first time ever, really, he sets it aside. I thought when he saw Gretchen and Elliot of Gray Matter that he was going to hurt them in revenge for his hurt pride. Instead, what he does is he actually accepts that his never going to get real credit for his contributions to the business. Not only that, he lets go of the desire to take credit for setting up his children as wealthy people. Walt’s blathering on and on about his family has always been a cover for his ego; what he really desires is the knowledge that they know that it was him who took care of him. So he lets that go and, because he has stopped demanding credit for his “life’s work” of making millions as a drug dealer—or as a founding partner of Gray Matter—he is finally able to get the money into his children’s hands, something that had always eluded him before.
That’s what was going on with all the Heisenberg stuff. Walt wanted to make a name for himself, but as he learned in this episode, he actually made a name for this fictional entity “Heisenberg”. He realizes when he returns home that everyone thought Walter White was dead, but good ol’ Heisenberg is still around, making the blue meth. (And needless to say, the actual Heisenberg will always be more famous anyway.) Is it a coincidence that Walt chose the name of the man who came up with the uncertainty principle? (Please don’t quibble; that’s clearly the point symbolically here.) Uncertainty has always been at the heart of the question of Heisenberg. Is Heisenberg Walter White? Is it the blue meth itself? Could it also be Jesse Pinkman? Is it just a name that stands for the larger blue meth operation? Can there be a Heisenberg without Heisenberg? The answer is yes to all of the above. What good is having A Name if it’s actually just an empty set? Just as with Gray Matter, Heisenberg needed Walt to get started, but didn’t need Walt to keep going.
Of course, the world of Breaking Bad is morally complex, and Walt’s desire to destroy everything that goes under the name “Heisenberg” was a matter of him taking his fatal flaw—his pride—and using it to actually exact some justice. But he does so finally realizing he’s not going to get credit and that’s okay. Credit is nice, but other things are more important. That’s why, on an emotional and symbolic level, letting Jesse go felt right. The ugly side of Walt would like to kill anyone that is part of the vast web of Heisenberg so that he can be the only Heisenberg standing. But the part of Walt who knows better now lets it go.
All of which is why I found myself actually touched when Walt stands in the meth lab, nostalgically touching the equipment. To be proud of yourself and a job well done is not a sin. Walt’s sin was that it was never enough to want that; he wanted everyone else to glory in how he’s the man, and he wanted that more than anything else. And once he realizes how it all went wrong, it’s way too late. All he has left is a moment of pride that he made this thing, this perfect meth, and it’s a moment drowning in pathos. Not just because it’s too little, too late but because it drives home that all he was doing was putting his formidable talents towards sowing death and destruction. He will never be able to enjoy a moment of pure joy at creativity—like Jesse with his wooden box—because his desire for all the spoils of power and money took that away from him. But he can imagine what it must feel like to be right with the world just for once, right before he keels over and dies.
Well done, Breaking Bad.
The title of the episode, by the way, was a reference to the song “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. I saw someone online prior to the episode mention that the name of the woman in that song is Felina, and right then I knew that was what the title was a reference to. That tickled me, because I was born in El Paso and everyone there knows like all the lyrics to this song. Since I’ve always enjoyed that Breaking Bad takes place in the high desert I grew up in, it was a perfect moment of nostalgia. So, enjoy!
A song about a man who flees El Paso after murdering a man during a spat over Felina’s affections, and then returns to see the woman he murdered for, which leads to his death. Confirming, of course, that Bryan Cranston was right to say Breaking Bad is a western.