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Breaking Bad: FeLiNa, and the end

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The end of Breaking Bad and the withdrawal that follows.

1. The name gave away a lot. "FeLiNa" got picked apart by Breaking Bad Kremlinologists before it ever aired, and with good reason, i.e. the same reason you're reading this: that it is a show that happily piled on enough symbols, metaphors, red herrings, actual herrings, blind alleys, and extended chemical metaphor to make your high school English teacher proud that you even tried to parse a bit of it out. Your high school English teacher is not proud of you, by the way. She doesn't even remember you and is hopefully getting drunk at two in the afternoon with her friends and forgetting there was ever a time in her life she made anyone read Edith Wharton. (Walter White's not the only one who has committed atrocities.)

2. What the name didn't give away was that like "El Paso" by Marty Robbins, this was not going to be the cathartic, floaty, emotional finale. This would be a cowboy story, and in the end that cowboy would not make it out of the story alive. Mercifully, after "Ozymandias" and the collapse of the Walter White empire, this was a well-orchestrated trap snapping shut on most of the limbs you wanted it to catch on the way: Todd, Lydia, Todd (he's worth mentioning twice), Uncle Jack, and the rest of the High Desert Cretins Society and ultimately the protagonist.

3. Did we mention Todd? Todd could have died three times, and that would have been fine. A spinoff of Saul would be nice, but a spinoff of nothing but Todd being killed in different ways would be delightful. The Paul Reiser Show made it to the air. Surely we can get three episodes of Todd Being Hit By Various Vehicles Traveling at High Speed on I-25, television barons. We guarantee it would do better in the ratings.

4. Vince Gilligan finally told you he loved you by: making sure Todd's neck made the correct, satisfying noise of a neck snapping, a neat percussive sound not unlike that perfect "click" an Apple product's buttons make. Steve Jobs probably snapped employees' necks just to show his employees precisely what he wanted, and that's why he was a visionary. We mean this literally. Perhaps while fanboys applauded his commitment to innovation and sacrificing for the process.

5. It was neat, perhaps too neat for some, and just fine by others too in thrall to the show's terror-spasms to care about niggling over that. Let's just come right out and say that: at this point, in episode 62, I'm not about haggling over the details and decidedly not about worrying about whether this was too neat. There's a lot to suggest that nothing about this ending was neat or tidy at all. Huell's still in that hotel suite, dammit. There's still millions of cash in barrels somewhere in the desert (or in Grand Cayman, or somewhere), Madrigal is gonna need a new dealer, everything has been ruined forever for a slew of characters, and Brock is orphaned and floating somewhere in either in the child welfare system of the state of New Mexico, or with a family member. It's neat, but there are irregular seams all over this suit.

6. One thing on poor Brock: he's a mirror of the kid in "Peekaboo" from season two, the meth orphan left on the steps of a house for the state. I'd like to think Jesse was going to get Brock and that kid and Lydia's and the dog that runs across the road at the end of "Ozymandias," and I dunno, Tuco's cat that hasn't been fed in months and that I just made up, and just go to some quiet place like Boise and take care of things. Maybe to Nebraska, to demand Saul find them work, a house, and a nice school to go to, bitch. Marshmallow sandwiches and proper tv watching for everyone.


8. It was fun, though, to watch Walt pull off one last endgame, the endgame of all endgames, and to balance the show's final equation. My favorite thing about Breaking Bad has been the tone and the consistency of that tone -- a brutally dry, clinical, and yet humane attitude towards everyone involved. You empathized with a drug dealer with a bike lock around his neck, waiting quietly to kill the show's protagonist with a shard of a dinner plate in his hand. They made you like characters like Tuco, or at least make you look forward to the times when he would snort meth off a survival knife, then stomp around his office like, well, like Tuco. (Love you, you stompy little maniac.)

9. The price for that likability, or at least that sympathy, was the viewer watching all of them get what they deserved. I've always thought that was fair, excusing the occasional massive plane crash, random killing, and pretty much anything Todd did in the show. And since Walter White effectively died at the end of "Ozymandias," we were spared the unfair reheating of already spent emotional energies in "FeLiNa" and granted what the show needed: that brutal end to a brutal equation, at least a moment of peace before the cops rolled in and started counting the bodies. That callback to a buried, maniacal Walt in "Crawlspace" at the end was brilliant: in "FeLiNa" the show brought Walt above ground for his death and left him where he was happiest.

10. The choice of "Baby Blue" for the final is the kind of cheeky darkness the show did better than any other. Badfinger did make some of the most cheerful pop songs of their era; they also had not one, but two band members hang themselves.

11. Where Walt was happiest, of course, was in being a horrible, murderous, amoral meth baron. Walt finally admitted what we knew all along: that he liked it, was good at it, and enjoyed the hell out of it. There is a lot to like about that scene in Skyler's kitchen: that Walt is now a small enough figure to be obscured by a simple support beam, that Walt's last will and testament are written on the saddest of longshot bets, the lottery ticket, and that The One Who Knocks does not knock once in this episode. When Gretchen sees him in the house, she screams like she's seen a ghost mostly because she has: Walter White floats in and out of rooms here, unannounced and telling nothing but the truth. (Matt Zoller Seitz has his own Christmas Carol theory on Walt's ghostliness, which is interesting as hell.)

12. Walt leaves his watch behind at the gas station in Canoncito. We're literally off the clock at that point.

13. I'd argue that Walt didn't have to kill Gretchen and Eliot because they are already dead, or at least stuck in some kind of wealthy person hell where you talk about the varying spiciness of organic peppers for the rest of your lives in houses with lots of highly vulnerable glass paneling. (The rich never think about snipers.) Ooh! Eliot! A rare Peruvian Black Pearl de Orestes Demi-habanero! Eliot! Alert Slate dot com!  They must be told about this, and so many more things they will decide are in fact overrated and worthy of mild, dispassionate disdain!

14. Nice framing of Walt in the flames of the fireplace in the Gretchen and Eliot scene, too. And get a real knife, Eliot, you ineffectual dumbass. It's like you and Walt didn't even go to the same underworld dominance PhD program.

15. Vince Gilligan loves you and finally told you by: having Walt bring along the ebullient and indestructible methboys Skinny Pete and Badger to be deadly imaginary snipers with nothing but laser pointers as weaponry. Why yes, even at this late stage in the game, cash does make everyone feel better about things.

16. I'm a slave to any Marty Robbins reference, but "El Paso" went so far down the line as to actually give Walter White the fatal wound in his side, just like the rider in the song. As for the name: Walt was in love with "FeLiNa", the formula of iron (bullets), lithium (crucial ingredient in meth production), and the salt of tears, something the internet figured out weeks ago. But another Marty Robbins song is relevant here: "Big Iron," a cautionary tale about messing around with someone with a very large gun.

17. Vince Gilligan told you he loved you by Jack demanding a moment, with blood spurting from his chest, to put the cigarette in his mouth, and then leaving his deep misunderstanding of Walt's motives all over the camera in one of the goriest shots of the series.

18. Walt's watched someone choke to death before without doing anything before: Jane.

19. 'Sup, Holly. It's not going to be an easy life. But you're alive, and that's way better for us emotionally since we, the audience, didn't really know whether you were going to make it or whether Vince Gilligan was going to kill a baby in service of fiction.

20. This is the point where you usually start stacking up all of this into a summation, a grand verdict on whether this, the ending, cashed in every dollar of interest wagered on digesting the work of art. Was this better than the ending of [SHOW X]? Did this accomplish the goal of satisfying what I wanted out of this all along and leave me feeling as if accounts had been settled accordingly? Did I not outright hate it, as most people hate most endings of anything? The short answer is yes, it did what it was supposed to do and did it in an entertaining fashion. (See: "Todd being strangled for 60 minutes without commercials.")

Jack got a bit of the Talking Villain cliché going, sure, and the end was pure Commando, but for a show that has already relied on so many insane but somehow plausible occurrences (massive plane crash, Walt somehow putting a juice box loaded with ricin Lily of the Valley in Brock's hands, and a Pontiac Aztek not shattering to a thousand pieces when it hits something as large as a person), I'm okay with that. It is way too late to start begging over the details of what Walt can and can't orchestrate, even if the first thing I'd do if I were a murderous Aryan Nation asshole is check the trunk for surprise passengers with guns.

It ended as it started: with a largely indifferent God (with a wicked sense of humor) surveying the wreckage of a dying man's life in the desert. I'll take a little symmetry in my endings when I can get it, especially since it harmonizes nicely with the rest of Breaking Bad's mostly improbable season finishes.

21. The long answer is that any ending is fraught with the understanding of something being definitively over, and I hated "FeLiNa" for being that: the ending, and the thing that takes me utterly out of the show's cycle of addiction.

I started watching Orange Is The New Black recently. It is fantastic. I can appreciate it slowly, and watch an episode when I have time. It's part of some new maturity, or maybe a side effect of the show being about in prison, something that is supposed to move slowly and deliberately. I've done this with most shows consumed by DVR or Netflix, and savored them rather than binge-eating the whole batch at once.

That's not what you do with Breaking Bad. Once I started it, I could not stop, devouring the whole series until I caught up and had to suffer live with the rest of the world through tiny doses administered weekly. I'm not the only one: most people I know devoured the series whole in long, sleep-killing binges. If you saw it on Netflix, the "next episode starts in" countdown was a formality: you were going to hit that pipe, even if it meant losing precious rest to watch a man's throat slit on your television at 3:30 in the morning.

That's how I watched "Box Cutter," bleary and totally defenseless, dry-heaving at the worst fictional event I have ever seen on television. And yet I watched two more episodes after that, because ... because I had to, and because the show had the same gift for the viewer that the meth business had for Walt and that meth has itself for its users: a sustained, merciless rush.

Breaking Bad's most sinister trick was to turn you, the viewer, into the addict. And if I have one complaint with the show, it's that addictions have to end. It was nice to get one more hit, but no one gets addicted to anything to get to the ending. They get addicted to a sensation, and never want it to end, which it inevitably does. It's cruel, but it's fair, and that's all you can ask of a show about that cycle. The rest isn't wondering where this stands against other things, because if you've loved cocaine, or sex, or booze, or gambling, or anything you couldn't quit, you know comparisons are useless. The end isn't wondering whether this is better than the finale to The Shield or The Wire.

The end to all addictions is the same: withdrawal, and the futile search for a substitute.