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

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.

The Last Laugh…

Breaking Bad Conan O'Brien

Well, “Felina” is just around the corner, and I don’t have much time to write another before that, so if you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a scary looking (but nothing-to-worry-about) link to Conan O’Brien’s Breaking Bad-themed episode. It aired, I believe, this past Monday, and I just got to see it.

He has the entire principal cast on the show, along with Vince Gilligan and Skinny Pete sitting in with the band, and while I don’t think there’s much revealed that obsessive fans won’t already know, seeing the entire cast together with Conan is just delightful.

So much so that you probably wouldn’t regret also watching another hour-long interview filmed a bit earlier…

Anyway it’s a fun watch, and probably worth enjoying now, before “Felina” fucking kills every last one of us.

Review: “Granite State,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 15

Granite State, Breaking Bad

While not officially referred to as one, “Granite State” is the first half of a two-part series finale. It has to be, because as a stand-alone episode it doesn’t really accomplish much.

That’s not to say that nothing happens, but it is to draw the distinction between “movement” and “accomplishment.” “Granite State” consists almost entirely of the former, and that’s okay. It may well mean that the latter comes next week. There sure is a heck of a lot left to resolve, though, and that’s what worries me.

Speaking of movement, I’m already ahead of myself, so I’ll double back a bit.

The reason I say this episode doesn’t work quite as well as a standalone is that we’re in a new place. Or, rather, a hell of a lot of new places. Walt’s new identity, Marie’s life without Hank, Junior’s knowledge of his father’s doings, Skyler’s dealings with the police and the Nazis, Jesse’s slavery…everything’s new. This is certainly the Breaking Bad we’ve been following for five seasons, but it’s also, pretty clearly, a new situation, emblemized not only by the fact that Walt obtained a new identity at the end of “Ozymandias,” but by the fact that Saul is quite literally cycled out of Walter’s life now in favor of a new character in a similar — but not identical — role.

This isn’t Mr. White visiting his lawyer for advice…this is Mr. Lambert being visited by his deleter* for basic sustenance.

It’s a different show. Or I guess I should say a different story. Which makes “Granite State,” for all it does right, feel unflatteringly like “Blood Money” to me. A lot of setup, a lot of maneuvering. Some great moments. Some indelible images. But it exists not for its own sake…it exists for the sake of getting all the pawns into the right place for the start of next week’s episode.

It also doesn’t really help that so much is left unresolved at this point. We have about 45 minutes left of the grand story to tell, but it doesn’t feel like we’re any closer to the end than we were a few weeks back. Hank’s story, of course, is over, so I guess we’re mathematically closer to having the loose ends tied up, but that’s it.

The simple rock-and-a-hard-place situation Skyler suddenly finds herself in could have been good for a season-long arc. Now whatever happens will happen fast, and that’ll be the end of it. Walt Jr. processing his emotions** should structurally come at about this point, but it’s fending for screen time with everything else that’s going on, so you get him called to the principal’s office and that’ll have to do. The break-in at Marie’s house is conveyed by a speeding vehicle and a shot of the destruction. Even Saul’s departure gets one (admittedly great) single scene, and the logistics behind deleting his identity are glossed over simply because we’re almost finished here so, please, everyone, let’s hurry up.***

I want to like “Granite State” a lot more than I do. Maybe it would have done them better to open with Walt a month or so into his exile, because following the process just makes it apparent how many holes there are. Jump ahead in time and we’ll assume things, because we have to. Allow us to watch you at work, though, and we’ll know when there are pieces missing.

This is all — do I really even need to say this? — without having seen “Felina.” I could eat my words, and I look forward to doing so. Maybe viewed through the lens of the final episode, “Granite State” will reveal itself as a work of brilliance. At the very least, I’m sure it’ll work better simply because we’ll have a stronger sense of what the place-setting was in aid of. For now, though? It feels less like Breaking Bad and more like a series of skits about these characters, arranged like an FAQ.

If the Nazis know about the tape in Hank’s house, won’t they go and get it?
Yes. They will go and get it.

Even though Walt tried to distance Skyler from his crimes with last week’s phone call, won’t the police still try to get to him through her?
Yes. The police are trying to get to him through her.

Is Jesse still in the cage?
Good question. Yes, Jesse is still in the cage.

How is Walt Jr. handling all of this?
Here is a scene to show you how he’s handling all of this.

It just seemed a bit…rigid. And for a storyline that’s so obviously in flux, that’s bizarre and disappointing.

Don’t get me wrong…a lot of what it did worked, but it failed to cohere. Walt’s last ditch effort to rope Saul into his revenge, the snowy isolation of New Hampshire, the conversation with his son, the IV dangling from a deer antler…this is all great stuff. The ingredients are there, and they’re all mixed together, but nobody turned on the stove. And it culminates in what is probably the clumsiest bit of expository desperation Breaking Bad has ever resorted to: The Charlie Rose Show.

I like Charlie Rose. Awesome guy. It’s nice to see him here. And it’s nice to see him interviewing two characters from the early years of the show. I fault none of them…but I do fault the writing, which had Jessica Hecht (last seen in my single favorite episode) discussing the Heisenberg character as though she’s reading from somebody’s half-baked but well-intentioned YouTube comment on a “WALT IS A BADASS!!!!” compilation video.

End in the middle of a shootout, and I’ll trust you to make good on it. End on one character metatextualizing another and I’m not going to be quite as confident. That was sloppy.

I did like a few of the misleads in this episode — from thinking Uncle Jack was angry that Todd never told him about the boy all the way through making it seem like Louis was going to be a character that served an actual purpose — but for all the shuffling and shifting around, I’m left a bit cold.

There are some nice thematic callbacks to the grander scheme of things, reminding us that as detached as “Granite State” feels it’s still part of the same show. Such as Skyler phasing in and out during her discussion with the DEA, and Andrea joining the likes of Hugo, Gale, Gomez, Ted, and Jane’s dad on the list of good people steamrolled by the momentum of Somebody Else’s Evil.

I also liked how Jesse’s escape toyed with us. We’ve seen him gradually become more and more valuable and intelligent as an ally, to the point that he was outthinking both Walt and Mike earlier this season. The magnets…the train robbery…the conviction that Lydia didn’t betray them. Those were all Jesse. He was the cooler, leveler head…and he prevailed.

Granted, it doesn’t take much in the way of intelligence to stack up a bunch of crap and hope it reaches the top, but that’s okay. Because we want to read all of these things together. We want to see Jesse get out of the pit, and we want it to feel earned. We can read these things as foreshadowing so that it does…all we need is for Jesse to make it.

And, for a little while, it seems like he might. But there’s a fence. And he’s dragged right back down.

Which is a bit what it felt like to watch “Granite State.” For a little while, it feels like it just might climb out of the hole it’s dug. But it doesn’t, and we end on an even lower point. It’s up to “Felina” to get us out.

I am confident that it will. Just don’t ask me how, or why it needed a lead-in so uncharacteristically graceless in order to do it.

* Did anyone feel like it was just a bit of a stretch that this happened, by the way? I always got the sense that this character would take your money, furnish you with some new docs, and disavow all knowledge forever. If you fucked up after that, oh well; it’s in his best interest to leave no connections, for just such an occasion. He did make a few comments to the effect that Walt was a special case, but I couldn’t really buy that as an explanation. He’s a special case, yes, but he’s special in the way that you’d want to get him out of your life even more quickly, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be establishing lasting links with the man.

** It sure was nice to see some “forgotten” characters back again though, I have to admit. Carmen, Gretchen and Elliott were welcome faces, even if they were wedged into an already overstuffed episode.

*** Seriously? I know the idea is to show that this deleter guy is Mike-like in his ability to GSD — or get shit done, as they say — but Goodman’s a regional celebrity with a mountain of active clients and active employees on his payroll. Not to mention shifty business associates that relied on him and aren’t going to be happy that he skipped town. And everyone’s somehow supposed to forget about him in a couple of days? Nebraska’s not the moon, and the kinds of people Goodman deals with are the kinds of people who would be perfectly happy to make the trip. These are steps that the show used to relish exploring, but now it feels like we’re just skipping things.

Peaking Good

Breaking Bad graph
Click to make graph bigger. You didn’t need me to tell you that. I told you anyway.

Every so often I’ll log into Google Analytics. There’s nothing for me to do there except laugh at some incoming search terms, say to myself, “I should compile them all into a very funny article!” and then spend hours upon hours not doing that.

But the last time I checked, I saw a pretty big spike in visits. I usually hover around 100 per day. Sometimes more, sometimes certainly less. But it’s a nice number and I’m happy with it.

I saw the spike was almost 500 though, and wasn’t sure what to make of that. I reached out to a friend of mine (who sometimes can be spotted in the comments, like a cybersasquatch) and asked if she could help me figure out what caused the spike. I thought maybe somebody posted a link on Reddit or some such thing, which would account for a whole host of new faces that saw what they came to see and then moved along.

And we never did identify any specific culprit, but as I looked back down the line, I noticed more spikes. Each of them on a Monday, each larger than the one before. And then this past Monday hit, and I checked again, and what do you know: 1,564 visits…and 1,438 on Sunday night. That’s Breaking Bad time.

So…well, I just wanted to say thank you. This is incredible. I would have thought I was doing pretty well to pull 200 hits a day at some point…now I’ve hit about 3,000 in two days. Even though I’m not getting an extraordinary number of comments on the reviews, they’re obviously pulling in visitors…and those that do come in seem to be coming back the next week, along with even more new faces.

This means more than I can say, so thank you. And I do hope you stick around when the show ends, and I find something else to aimlessly rattle on about.

Seriously, this is by far the most attention my blog’s ever gotten, so if anyone out there wants to let me know how you’ve been finding me, I’d appreciate it. I can’t shake the suspicion that some kind soul is funneling folks my way, and if that’s the case I’d like to thank him.

I know it’s not much in the grand scheme of things…but to know that anything I’ve written had a readership that numbers in the thousands? That’s enormously flattering.

So thank you. Again. And feel free to get in touch or leave comments. They tend to be better than anything I said in my reviews anyway.

Your Mid-Week Excuse for a Roundup

Business Secrets of the Pharaohs

So! Did you all know that I like the show Breaking Bad? Well, I like other things too! And I’ve been writing about them.

Not here of course. That would be silly.

So I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of things that I wrote for other sites. Both of which I quite like and I kind of wish they were here instead but OH WELL.

The big one is The Dangerous Allure of Self-Publishing: 5 Real Lessons from a Fictional Character. It’s a piece for the excellent Emily Suess, and though her blog goes through periods of inactivity (I’m absolutely one to judge…) it’s worth bookmarking. She posts some great stuff. Anyway, this is a piece about self-publishing…filtered through the “Business Secrets of the Pharaohs” episode of Peep Show. Why that episode? Because it reminded me so much of my own stupidity in the past with self-publishing that I couldn’t help but write this up.

Seriously. Self-publishing is garbage. Don’t do it. Read the piece. It’s pretty much as honest as I’ve ever been about what a fool I was. It’s not something I like to talk about often, but if it helps anyone understand just what a racket that business is, and consequently avoid the embarrassment that I was unable to, it’s worth it.

The other has actually been up for a while, but I think I forgot to link to it: 5 Classic Children’s Movies That Won’t Drive Parents Crazy. This was written for a blogger who at the time was taking pregnancy leave. I forgot to tell you about it. I think the kid is like 16 now. But this is a fun post about movies and I put jokes in it and you like those so go read it, too.

And as long as I’m posting external links, this arrived in my inbox today. It’s an infographic put together by a storage unit company. Yay?

Well…yeah, yay, because it’s actually pretty cool. Seriously, I wouldn’t have posted it, except it’s an extremely nerdy look at the contents of Walt’s storage locker, with an eye for lapses in continuity and some absolutely pointless consideration of the size of the unit and its location. And I mean that in a good way; this was a fun read. I’d actually like to see the prices of certain pieces of background dressing more often…and though I mean that sincerely I know it’s bound to come off as sarcastic so I’ll just stop.

Anyway! Three things to read. Quiz on Friday. Then Sunday night I’ll review the episode where Badger and Skinny Pete RESCUE JESSE IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE I CANNOT BEAR TO SEE HIM LIKE THAT AGAIN SERIOUSLY GUYS