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Review: “Felina,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 16

September 29th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in review | television

Breaking Bad, Felina

When I reviewed “Blood Money,” I had concerns about pacing, and what felt, at times, like sloppy story-telling. It was an episode designed to get Walt and Hank into that garage, so that we could open there the next week and the fireworks could really go off, but watching it on its own merits, without its promise followed up for another week, it left me cold.

Last week I reviewed “Granite State,” and all of the same things applied there as well. We had to gloss over a lot and stitch together the fractured storylines. We had to move Walt all the way out to New Hampshire…just so it could end with him coming back.

But like “Blood Money,” “Granite State” paid off. It was worth it. Absolutely all of it was worth it.

I don’t care how clumsy the re-introduction of the Grey Matter stuff was last week, because its payoff was one of the most graceful scenes Breaking Bad has ever done…a victorious exercise in gorgeous tension. Gretchen and Elliot joking and reminiscing and flicking on lights while Walt lurks in the shadows, closes the front door behind them, and admires their framed photographs.

You’ll never catch me defending the Charlie Rose stuff, but I’m absolutely thrilled to say that any roughness around the edges was unquestionably worth it if that’s where it led.

“Felina”…well, I’ll just come out and say it. This is easily going to be one of my favorite episodes. Maybe top 5. It’s impossible that it would be lower than top 10. For as much story as it felt like we were left with last week, the fact is there wasn’t that much.

The money. The Nazis. Jesse. Walt’s fate. And, if we have time, a proper farewell to the family. That’s all we really needed. The “largeness” of the story was always one of Breaking Bad‘s quietly brilliant misdirections. At times it felt downright enormous. But step back (or pull back, as we did at the end of this episode) and it’s really just one man.

It’s one man who did a lot of terrible things in service of some very noble ones, and then later some very selfish ones.

But it’s one man. The camera could have kept going. Beyond the meth lab. Up higher. Revealing the Nazi compound. And higher. Revealing the city of Albequerque. And higher, revealing all of New Mexico. The further we go, the smaller it all looks; the smaller it’s all revealed to be. We expected a larger amount of threads to deal with in the finale, but, really, this is just one guy. One unassuming, unhappy chemistry teacher who manages to look to us, for five seasons, like the largest presence on Earth.

But he’s not.

And he never was.

That bleeding body on the ground is Walter White. He was never actually any larger than he was in that final moment.

I loved “Felina.”

I loved, loved, fucking loved “Felina.”

The comedy of Badger and Skinny Pete* posing as snipers with their laser pointers, the phone call from Marie**, the positively heart-breaking final glimpse of his son before he’s gone forever***, the warm flashback of Jesse making the box he talked about a lifetime ago with his therapist.

Oh, and it caps it all off with a scene that ensures I will cry every damn time I hear “Baby Blue” on the radio. Technically, that might qualify as the episode’s biggest surprise.

I genuinely can’t imagine a better conclusion. Walt managed to go out on his own terms, but without it feeling like a cheat. The entire Nazi arc was justified by the moment Walt tackled Jesse to the ground. We got to watch Todd get slowly strangled to death.

I’m having trouble discussing the episode because I keep lapsing into lists of things I loved about it. I think that’s because I’m just in awe of how well it put a bow on the entire series. Going into this I think everybody was steeling themselves against at least some degree of disappointment. After all, you can’t please everyone.

And I don’t know if “Felina” will please everyone.

But it sure pleased the hell out of me.

As much as I wanted Jesse out of that cage last week, this was the way to do it. Walt passing Jesse the gun was the answer. It was the right way to end this. And the fact that it didn’t end this…that Jesse actually did manage to break the cycle of manipulation that he became aware of back in “Confessions”…that was perfect too. Because now, as much as Jesse would have wanted it…it was really for Walt. They both knew that. And Walt admitted it. Jesse is unchained in more ways than one.

And Walt’s left alone. His family is gone. His legacy is gone. All around him, just as they always have, machinations set into motion long ago keep turning without him. The empty gun never stops strafing. The massage chair comforts a corpse. It’s easy enough to set things into motion; it’s a much bigger job to stop them.

I didn’t think this episode could redeem Walter in my eyes. And I’m not sure that it did. But it gave me a conclusion that didn’t leave me hating him. And that, without exaggeration, is miraculous.

I guess that’s all I have to say, as “Baby Blue” goes. Walter White spent over a year building up a hell of his own creation, and he didn’t really deserve to escape that. But the others he dragged into that hell certainly did, and he did the best he could do, which was release as many of them as he could. Through death, through freedom, through financial security. He did what he had to do, and it cost him his life.

But whatever was going through his mind in those final seconds, as he caressed the machinery in the meth lab while the police closed in on him, I’m sure it was worth it. Those few, small moments at the very end of his life during which he could reflect on the relative good he managed to do. It’s a far cry from all the chaos and tragedy he caused that he’s had to reflect on since the pilot.

He could have gone out in a blaze of glory, but he chose a path that led to the fatal shot coming without fanfare. No dying breaths, no final monologues, no time for goodbye. He was here, and now he’s not here. He went out in a blaze of self-sacrifice instead, choosing for the first time in what felt like ages not to be selfish.

He doesn’t keep Skyler any longer than he promised. He lets his son pass without knowing he was there. He sets Jesse free, and he understands when Jesse says he won’t kill him.

He’s letting go.

He’s letting himself let go.

And maybe that’s what the whole show was about. Mike alluded to it earlier this season…if Walter had just kept his mouth shut and did as he was told he would have been fine. Instead he had to shake things up. Every time Walter takes command of the situation, he only — ultimately — makes things worse. He had his moments of triumph, and that’s what would give him the confidence to seize control again. But it was always just a larger snowball, a bigger boulder, a scarier figure looming in the shadows. Any triumph was illusory. He was only constructing a more complicated coffin.

In “Felina,” he lets go. And he dies a happier man than he ever could have otherwise. If only he had let go earlier…

Anyway, thank you to everybody out there who stuck around and read these reviews. It’s been a great eight weeks, and I appreciate that you chose to spend them with me. This was a great show, on that we can all agree, and if we disagreed here and there — or everywhere — on the specifics, I’m just glad to know that so many great commenters and readers chose to spend their time reading my drivel, and giving me their much-better-articulated thoughts in response.

And I hope you stick around. Until then…

—–
* I knew some kind of reveal was coming (what with Walter being just a bit too jovial about the whole thing…we’ve seen him when he’s about to take a life, and he’s not nearly that chipper) but I was hoping it would be Kuby and Huell. Not that Badger and Skinny Pete were unwelcome sights…but man I’m going to miss Kuby and Huell.

** Which, by the by, is the right way to dump exposition right into the show without it feeling forced. Of course Marie’s worried. Of course Marie would talk too much. Of course Marie would get just enough wrong in the way of detail that it still works as comedy. This is why the “he just so happens to be sitting here while someone changes the channels” crap last week felt sloppy. The show is better than that, and this is the proof.

*** I’m tearing up just thinking about that. Jesus Christ was this a brilliant, brilliant episode of television.

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10 Responses

  • Jory says:

    I’m still not sure how to process the episode, but I’m sure having read this will help. Thanks for the great reviews. I’ll be around!

  • Halibut says:

    I really, really want to comment on this episode but right now I can’t. There’s just so much to process. I am so incredibly happy (and relieved) with this episode. Great review, Phil. You’ll be hearing from me again once I’m able to collect myself.

  • Jeff says:

    It was some great writing. Last episode ended with us thinking that the last remnants of Walt’s ego had been stirred by the Grey Matter folks on television and that he was determined to go out in a blaze of glory, but it was better than that–he saw in them a way to bequeath some of the fruits of his labor to his family. The final “showdown” between Walt and Jesse was perfect. And finally, Walt came clean about everything–he did what he did because he liked it, with the “for my family” motto being a convenient self-deception.
    .
    I also am amazed by how the show manipulated us from cheering for Walt to despising him back to hoping he can at least achieve his objectives before getting what’s so deservedly coming to him.

    That being said, I have mixed feelings about the episode. I know V. Gilligan & Co. believe they have delivered a tremendous payoff to the loyal fans of the show. And that is true if you consider seeing people you’re rooting for kill those who have wronged them to be a rewarding payoff. I’m sure millions cheered as Jesse strangled Todd. I didn’t. It was gratuitous, and for me seeing the person who had become the heart and soul of the show kill someone out of vengeance was NOT rewarding. Ditto the Nazis. “But Walt had to kill them because they were a threat to his family,” you object. Yes, but Walt didn’t know that when he came down from New Hampshire to mount his offensive… at that point it was only about stolen money. And I don’t know why, but seeing Lydia die from ricin poisoning was for me rather sad, not rewarding. Sure, it’s always the case on this show that everyone dies, but heretofore it’s been to shock you, to dismay you, to blow your mind… not to get you to high-five the person next to you.
    .
    It was a weird experience. And, of course, I want to purchase the whole series so I can watch it again from episode one and fill in the gaps of all the ones I missed along the way.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      The Lydia bit is something I should have mentioned in the review…as I also found that very unsettling. Seeing her like that on the phone, with Walt making a point of saying “I killed you” rather than just letting her pass away unaware…it was rough. But I liked that, because I felt that those dark clouds helped complicate what could otherwise been seen as a “too happy” ending.

      In fact I thought that his poisoning of her was unfair and couldn’t see it as anything more than a dick move resulting in another orphaned child, but then I read somebody elsewhere who mentioned that this was important because he remembers that she originally tried to kill all of Mike’s men after Gus’s fall, just to clear out loose ends. I do think it’s reasonable that Walt would expect her to do the same thing here…had he just killed the Nazis, Lydia would have been just as quick to wipe out any loose ends she knew of…and in this case that’s his family.

      I also agree about the “high five” nature of the deaths here, but, again, I thought it was complicated well. If anything, it makes us complicit in the blood-thirst. For me, at least, that’s the first time that happened. I felt bad for Gale, for Gus, for Mike, for pretty much anyone who’s had their lives taken on this show. But this time I was kind of rooting for it…and I think they wanted that. They wanted that surge of adrenaline…with a little more self-analysis the next day that makes us feel a little bad for it.

      If I have to defend myself at all though, I’d do it by saying that the deaths of Todd and the Nazis — gratuitous or not — made the fictional version of Albuquerque a better, safer place. It was more in line with the death of someone like Tuco…a dangeous, insane, maniacal figure that’s only putting innocents in danger. (Gus, by contrast, never did this knowingly; he operated on his own plane.)

      So while I’ll agree that it may have delighted a bit much in what it was doing, these were still people who would kill an innocent women on her doorstep just to make a point, while he child sleeps somewhere nearby. I’m not one to celebrate murder, but when it’s the murder of those clowns…I can at least come pretty close.

  • Pete says:

    Firstly, these reviews have been excellent, Phil. Well done.

    Secondly, this show has been phenomenal. From start to finish with only a couple of minor mis-steps (I’m still not keen on the plane crash, for example).

    The finale gave me everything I wanted. But conversely, it gave me pretty much everything I expected. There weren’t too many surprises there which I suppose is the one shortcoming of obsessing and discussing a show relentlessly. I think we were all pretty sure that Jesse had to live and kill Todd, as much as Walt had to die. I guess the only thing that put me on slightly unsure footing was the stuff with the Schwarzes and it’s this scene that was the standout for me, just because there was no real indication of how it would play out.

    As with last week though, there was a little lack of clarity on bits and pieces. As Jeff points out, the Nazis weren’t a threat to Walt’s family *as far as Walt knew* and he had no interest in the money. So he was there for revenge for Hank. But then you have Jesse in the equation, who he ordered the Nazis to kill. I think I needed something to explain his changing feelings towards Pinkman.

    I’m kind of thinking that he’s the only one in that shack who he actually wants him to kill him. He wants to boss Jesse around one last time.

    On the flip-side of this ambiguity; Walt finally revealing (to Skyler, to himself, to us) that he had done all this quite simply because he enjoyed doing it.

    Perfect.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Agreed. That Gretchen and Elliot scene was a highlight. Not just of the episode…but of everything.

      Though I do have to say I love the plane crash, and will defend it to the death. “ABQ” is such a fantastic episode, right up to and because of that moment. It’s probably the episode that made Breaking Bad shift out of “realism” entirely for me, but I was okay with that, because it also served as a sort of comprehensive statement on its own personal kind of logic.

      It was also a hell of a way to illustrate the ripple effect of Walt’s actions, and I give it a lot of credit for going that big.

      Plus we had Saul Goodman wearing a manipulative ribbon for the rest of the show’s run. That much cannot be disliked.

      • Justin says:

        If you were of the mind to go back and review old episodes, I would be interested to hear your side of the plane crash because I hated it and the subsequent three or four episodes enough that I stopped watching this show and swore it off for about a year. I think the world of this show and have enjoyed it immensely but I would still say it has a series of six or so consecutive episodes that are just a black, sucking disaster.

  • Justin says:

    Not really much to add… I also loved it, and it paid off what it needed to pay off in ways I didn’t think it was capable of.

    I will miss this show.

  • Jeff says:

    So this afternoon I figured out something the rest of you probably realized instantly: the significance of the title “Felina.”
    .
    Felina is the love object of the narrator from the song “El Paso” by Marty Robbins, featured heavily in this episode. In the song, Marty kills a young cowboy over the love of the beautiful Felina. Immediately ruing the “foul evil” he has done, Marty realizes his only chance is to flee into the Badlands. But his love for the alluring lass with wicked eyes is stronger than his fear, so he returns to see her one more time. He is gunned down for his efforts. Before biting the dust, he gets shot in the side…hmm. The song ends with him dying in Felina’s arms, a fate so lovely it made everything worthwhile.
    .
    Whoever thought of the link between the events of this episode and a classic song from 1959 was a fucking genius. I love shit like that, and that’s why the Breaking Bad writers will always be better than me… excuse me, than I.

  • Maxwell says:

    What a tremendous and beautiful ending to this crazy show. When I watched it live, complete with excessive commercials and chattering throughout, I thought it was pretty great. When I watched in the comfort of my own home with peace and quiet, I thought it was a revelation.

    I understand the criticisms some have (everything was wrapped up too neatly, Walt’s plans have never gone off without a hitch before), but I think most of them hinge on expectation. “Felina” was watched by 10 million people; it was one of the biggest events in the history of television. People were craving a messy, spectacular climax, instead they got a quietly brilliant epilogue.

    I have precisely zero qualms with this; “Ozymandias” was our emotionally devastating climax, and I won’t claim for a second that “Felina” was nearly as powerful. But it didn’t need to be. It just needed to give us a chance to say goodbye to one of the greatest antiheroes/supervillains* in all of television, and it pulled that off note-perfectly.

    Goodbye, Breaking Bad. I’ll miss you like hell, but I’ll be forever grateful. I got much more than I deserved.

    * Despite the general randomness of Jimmy Kimmel’s appearance on the final Talking Bad, I liked his comment that Walt was both Batman and The Joker. That’s something I felt but couldn’t put into words while watching the finale, and Kimmel articulated why Walt is my favorite television character.

    P.S. I would be remiss not to thank you for your wonderful reviews week in and week out; the only thing that could come close to the visceral thrill of watching Breaking Bad was the invigorating stimulation of reading your reviews the next morning over breakfast (I’m too depressed about where Flynn ends up to make a joke). Thanks for all the insights and I look forward to greatness to come from Noiseless Chatter.



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