By Isaac Butler
I am thinking about Walter White’s face. Or rather, I am thinking about his many faces. Bald and unbald. Shorn and mustachioed and goateed. Sketched on paper and staring at the camera. Smiling and crying crocodile tears, or (a few times) crying them sincerely, gasping a little with shock at his own cruelty as Jane chokes to death, ruefully grimacing at the camera as the poisoned plant is revealed next to him.
I am thinking about what makes Walter White’s face different fron Hank Shrader’s face. What makes Walt’s forehead different from Schrader’s brow. Or what makes Walt’s face not Mike’s face. Or what makes Walt different from the bald, moody doubles that have dotted Breaking Bad. And one of these things is of course its expressiveness, its rubberiness, which is party about the character, yes, and partly about Bryan Cranston’s absolute fearlessness when it comes to staginess on screen. But it's also partly about how White became multiple, fractured, chameleon selves, able to dial an emotional response up like Rick Deckard on his mood organ in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
But most of all, I’m thinking of Walter White’s face in the episodes Ozymandias and Felina, and how the final two and a half episodes can be read as a journey between the two, and how the key to my own conflicted feelings about that finale—how can something so expertly crafted and “satisfying” feel so hollow?— might be contained therein.
Final chapters are odd beasts, and they only get odder as the work gets more complex. It’s very difficult to pull off an ending that leaves a work’s complexity intact while still leaving plot sufficiently resolved. On some level, we’ve known this ever since Aeschylus gave The Orestia the world’s first head-scratcher finale. With Breaking Bad, the major, unresolved issue was the character of Walter White. What sort of man was he? And how were we supposed to feel about him? And how did the creators feel about him? And, in this most self-conscious of TV seasons in this most self-conscious of epochs, of what kind of show was he the protagonist?
For many watching Breaking Bad, Walter White was in a morality play, and thus would be sufficiently punished by the time the finale concluded. For an odious group known as Team Walt, Breaking Bad was wish fulfillment, and Walter would in some way be rewarded for his awesomeness.. For another group—one I belonged to—Walter was the anti-hero protagonist of a classical tragedy, and it is to this interpretation of the character that the show overtly head-fakes in the first third of the episode Ozymandias:
There’s Walter’s face as he lies on the ground, defeated. His beloved brother-in-law, his only friend and really, it seems, the only person who truly understood him at the end—for you must truly know someone to fool them—has just died. He is about to lose all of his money and his pride. He has learned that his partner betrayed him more deeply than he ever thought possible. He has been outwitted. He is about to lose everything. And he knows it.
Look at that face. Look at its pain. It’s expressing the sadness of total and complete failure and destruction, a sadness few of us—thank goodness—will ever know. Perhaps that's why it looks so unnatural. Perhaps that is why—and it’s hard to see this because, of course, this is a still image—Cranston's face remains frozen for an offputting amount of screen time. Because the void it stares into is unfathomable.
Or perhaps it is instead a mask.
Walter’s face in this moment perfectly imitates two things. The first is the sad clown that Skylar is wrapping up in the flashback that begins the episode. The second is every drama major’s favorite twelfth birthday gift, the tragedy mask:
Walter White dons the tragedy mask at the exact pivot point of the show's movement from action to denoument. Jesse and Hank have finally beaten and outsmarted Walt. Walt has finally been defeated and exposed. The main arc of the show is done. What remains is an extended epilogue, one that lasts two and a half episodes as Walt clutches a (pyrrhic but still very real) victory from these circumstances.
But it’s also a journey that gets us from the tragedy mask face to a different face, the final one Walt makes as the camera—and, perhaps, what’s left of soul—float towards the heavens:
The show takes us from unfathomable pain to a slight smile of wistfulness—maybe even contentment—in under three hours. Walt hatches a plan to win to the extent that he can. He executes it perfectly and without complication, completely lacking the frenetic, bumbling, ramshackle invention of his previous escapes. And in the process, he comes to something approaching self-knowledge, confessing to Skylar that he really didn’t do it all for the family, he did it all, instead, for himself.
He was good at it, you see. It made him feel alive.
It’s at the moment of confession and self-knowledge that Walt ceases being the protagonist in a tragedy forever and becomes fully the protagonist in a Western—a genre that’s always had a comfort with im- and a- moral protagonists—executing his horrific revenge on those that have wronged him, and saving Jessie as John Wayne saved Natalie Wood in The Searchers. And it may be somewhat because he attains this self-knowledge that he is able to execute this transformation.
Many people—including myself—have long compared Breaking Bad to Macbeth. And it’s easy to see why. Both plays start right at the moment where normality ends for their main characters. Both seem to take place in similar moral universes. Both use our ingrained responses to narrative to get us to follow—if not, exactly, root for—an eventually unsympathetic protagonist. Both are fueled by an ambition that causes significant collateral damage.
But at the very end, the two become very, very different. Macbeth never attains any kind of self-knowledge in the tragedy that bears his name. The knowledge he attains instead is that life has no meaning. He has flailed against the possibility of dying insignificant for the entire play, and he eventually comes to understand that it wasn’t worth it. His wife is dead. It's come to naught. A man who thirty minutes prior lusted for immortality now feels like that life creeps in a petty pace. That it is a tale told by an idiot.
When I was a teenager, Macbeth’s roots in horror and action sustained me. Now that I am over twice as old as I was when I first saw it, now that I fear death, now that I fret over insignificance, I see it as a car with the breaks off, pointed at the wall of the tomorrow speech. I see that the panic of its action is the panic of its protagonist. And that panic says I don’t want to die. Not yet.
But at no point does Macbeth say, “You know what, dear wife? I see now that ambition was really my tragic flaw.” Just as at no point does Oedipus gain an understanding of his flaws—how could he? he does nothing purposefully wrong—and instead gains a different kind of self- and Universe knowledge. No one understands the Gods. But you fuck with them at your own peril.
These are all protagonists in a very particular kind of tragedy. And that particualr kind of tragedy might very well require a certain lack of self. Susan Sontag explores this idea in her essay The Death of Tragedy (which is really a longform book review of Lionel Abel’s Metatheatre, which I have not read). Abel’s central thesis is that we define the term tragedy too broadly. Tragedy to Abel requires a character who lacks self-consciousness. To quote Abel (as quoted by Sontag), “The Western playwright is unable to believe in the reality of a character who is lacking in self-consciousness. Lack of self-conscioussness is as characteristic of Antigone, Oedipus and Orestes as self-consciousness is characteristic of Hamlet.” Sontag goes on to explain in her own words:
Thus it is the metaplay—plots that depict the self-dramatization of conscious characters, a theater whose leading metaphors state that life is a dream and the world a stage—which has occupied the dramatic imagination of the West to the same degree that the Greek dramatic imagination was occupied with tragedy.
In other words, we have been mistaking “metaplays” for tragedies for hundreds of years. Sontag states that since the Greeks, only Macbeth and a handful of Racine’s plays are true tragedies. The rest are too self-conscious. (FWIW, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ALSO a “metaplay.”)
I am not sure I find Abel’s diagnosis convincing—neither, for that matter, is Sontag—but it is interesting to think of tragedies that are self-conscious (and feature self-conscious protagonists) and ones that aren’t. It is interesting to revisit with what relish Hamlet initially greets the idea that he’s finally figured out his purpose in life, and it’s to be a Tragic Hero like the ones he’s read about. Or to look at Romeo, playing one kind of romantic hero with Rosalind before discovering he’s meant to play another kind with Juliet.
So what of Walter White? Is he self-conscious? It seems that this is another question the show remained in conflict about until the end. For at times, Walter seemed brilliantly self-conscious. The hat. The speeches. The crocodile tears. Say my name. And at times he seemed almost moronic in his bumbling, in his underestimation of Gus Fring, not to mention his own brother-in-law, not to mention his own wife. In the numerous tells with which he decorated his lies. In the speeches about the second cell phone. Or how often luck bailed him out. Or that he never seemed to understand that ambition and narcissism, and not love, drove him to keep cooking, keep killing, keep amassing more and more and more.
And so it seems this is another kind of conflict about Walter J. White that’s resolved in the finale. He really was the self-conscious protagonist of a meta-drama, a drama so self-conscious that Walt shouted Team Walt’s misogyny at his wife on the phone, a protagonist so self-conscious and so forceful that he could move the show he starred in from one genre to another so he could get what he wanted in the finale. He even manages to subvert its theme song in the bar in New Hampshire, turning it into an overture for a shootout.
This kind of meta-conflict within the show has part of what has made Breaking Bad appeal to so many people, and turned it into appointment television. We were all able to read into it what we wanted to see, to some extent. For a show so reliant on clockwork plotting and with such a well-defined aesthetic, it had a remarkably complex panoply of approaches to its own materials. A consistent interpretation of the show always involved explaining away something about it.
Finales tend to leave no room for explaining away. They put some kind of definitive interpretation on the whole thing. Which is part of why Breaking Bad’s finale felt like a let-down to me, despite how many times I muttered “awesome,” under my breath as it occurred.
But the other reason is it felt like the show ultimately prized “satisfying” me over the actual show that they had built, and that the gestures towards classical tragedy weren’t just head fakes. Gilligan is on record as considering a tragic ending: Walt still alive—for now— with everyone he loves dead. This would've fully moved us into the tragic realm of Macbeth. Part of what fuels Macbeth's hopelessness is that he does not have children, knows that the children of a man he murdered will sit the throne, and that ultimately he will not have built anything that lasts. Walter White, on the other hand, ensures that his family will get some of his money in the first act of the episode, ensuring that, no matter what, he has done what he set out to do in episode one. Once that happens-- once the money, and thus the legacy is secure-- the only was for Breaking Bad to work as a tragedy would be for the family to die.
The writers decided not to do that. Which is, of course, their right. And they executed the direction they decided to go in about as well as could be imagined. But still, it left for me a lingering hollowness, a dissatisfaction built on top of its monstrous entertainment. Gilligan's answers in that Entertainment Weekly interview—all of which seemingly gravitate towards “rewarding” and “satisfying” viewers—point to a finale that was built largely on leaving us feeling like we had watched a really great finale, like the last six years were "worth it," rather than staying true to core ideas of what the show was about on a level of character, or theme, or structure.
Or, perhaps, not. Perhaps entertainment was the core idea of the show. Perhpas this is just entertainment anxiety. Perhaps I-- like many critics-- are uncomfortable with the raw entertainment of Breaking Bad and misread it, rather than seeing it for the exceptionally well made (but not particularly complicated) genre entertainment that it was. And that we should celebrate it for that. In this reading, the ending restores it to its rightful place. Which is to say, on some level it was always not what I wanted it to be. And my-- and many others-- reading was largely projection.
Or, perhaps, in trying to read thematic and tonal coherence into a multi-year serialized project with many different writers, any interperative project is doomed to fail.
There are all possible. To me, however, Breaking Bad remains a show that was many things, and became one thing in its final episode, and that one thing was a lot of fun-- again, the muttered "awesome"s--but not all that it could be.
Which is not to say it’s bad. It is, in fact, a brilliantly devised seventy-five minutes of television. Well acted and well shot, with several indelible moments and images—especially in its first half—that I’m unlikely ever to forget. Tying a bow out of nearly every single loose thread in the show is a remarkable achievement from a plot perspective. Yet in its journey from the mask of tragedy to the nearly post-coital smile Walter flashes at the end, it’s hard for me not to feel that something was lost. That, on some level,Breaking Bad looked at the terror of death and the pain of failure, looked them both in the eye, and blinked.