'Breaking Bad': Perfect season ends with a falling sky
The writers of “Breaking Bad” work inside of a room that has no clock, only a dartboard. There are also bulletin boards on two walls that eventually get papered over with index cards. And there is a single window.
This window looks out to the Burbank airport, planes rising up into the sky. . . .
And so we come to the end. Audacious in scope and flawless in execution, Sunday night’s second-season finale was an alarming end to a perfect season. Walter White looked up and saw the sky falling, a piece of it landing right in his pool.
It was a plane crash, two of them colliding in midair, and White had both nothing and everything to do with it.
As soon as I saw it, I was immediately sucked back to last summer, to the “Breaking Bad” set in Albuquerque. There, series creator Vince Gilligan sat down with me in the hollowed-out RV in which White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cook crystal methamphetamine on TV. I asked if he could describe, in broad terms, what the second season might be about.
Gilligan sat there, searching his brain for the right words: “This season is … how do I put this? … this is sort of … for lack of a better way to put it, this season is kind of, sort of about the butterfly effect. Not the Ashton Kutcher movie, but the old philosophy that a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the planet and it sets off a chain of events that leads to something huge on the other. And the decision of cooking crystal meth is going to cause a decision that’s going to lead to something pretty big at the end of the season.”
Pretty big. Pretty big?
This was enormous. Allow us now to review the butterfly effect of two seasons: Walt gets cancer, doesn’t want to leave his family penniless, and so he cooks crystal meth with his former student, Jesse. Walt begins to lie -- to everyone, all the time. The operation grows. People die. More lies. Jesse meets girl, Jane, falls in love. Jesse gets overrun by the stress of making and selling all this meth and by the death of his friend, so he uses meth to escape. Jane, sober for 18 months, backslides and uses with Jesse. Jane introduces Jesse to heroin. Walt makes a giant drug deal -- $1.2 million. Walt doesn’t want to give Jesse his share of the cash until he’s clean again. Jane blackmails Walt into giving Jesse his half, clean or not. Jane’s dad realizes she’s using again, orders her to rehab, he’s picking her up the next day. That night, Walt finds Jesse and Jane in bed, practically comatose. Jane begins vomiting in her sleep. Walt does nothing. She dies. The next day, Jane’s dad finds her dead. Dad’s an air-traffic control worker. After some time, he returns to work, he has to work. While working, he thinks of Jane, says her name, gets flustered, rattles off some wrong instructions, leads two planes into each other’s path. Boom.
The feat of this ending is that it tricked us entirely.
All season, we’d been teased with the image of the teddy bear in the pool, and then by the body bags in Walt’s driveway, lying beside his shattered car. Everything pointed to an explosion. And when Walt fixed the water heater in the basement of his home, viewers peppered blogs with the idea that it would ultimately be the new gas-powered heater at the heart of the big event to come. But no, wait. Others argued it would probably have something to do with the drug cartels touched on earlier in the season. Then Jesse and Jane began to fade into drug-using zombies, and people imagined that they’d be the ones in the bags. Then Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) had their baby girl, and people figured, well, of course, it’ll be the baby girl’s bear that somehow ends up in the pool.
E) None of the above.
We knew Walter would have a hand in whatever we were seeing. We just couldn’t imagine the scope of his reach.
Who could? Well, we return now to Vince Gilligan and his writers. . . .
Recently, after interviewing Gilligan at a burger joint for a future story, we walked along a dull street in Burbank, heading back to his writers’ room. He and his staff were on their second day back from vacation, now hatching story ideas for the third season. But I’d just seen the very end of season two and couldn’t get it out of my mind.
When we stopped at a crosswalk, I said something to this effect: I always thought the answer would be right in front of us. Or behind us. Or to the left, or to the right. But I never would have thought to look up, to find an ending in the sky that was both amazingly complex and ridiculously simple.
If only you’d have seen the delight on his face.
And when we returned to the writers’ room, I noticed the window, those planes. They were just off to Gilligan’s right, soaring into the sky, and I wrote this down in my notebook only for color, to help describe the room in a future story. It wasn’t until a few days later when the light bulb went off.
Is that where the plane idea came from? I sent him an e-mail.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Gilligan replied. “Maybe so. I do see and hear six to ten of them take off every hour, so they’re never far from my consciousness or sub-consciousness.”
Moving forward, all we know now is that anything is possible. Such is the reality when talking about a show that in one season dipped down into the Mexican drug trade, broke ground with a narcocorrido music video and then looked up to the sky for its jaw-dropping finale.
Some more scattered thoughts below.
-- “Breaking Bad” knows how to kill people. What I mean is, the show understands fully the basic rule that on screen, death isn’t that compelling. Rather, it’s what death does to the people surrounding. They are the ones whose stories are continuing, and so it’s far better to leave the camera on the faces of those still breathing. Examples: Remember the look on the kid’s face who killed Combo? Or on Walt’s face when he used the bike lock in the basement, or when he saw Jane dying? On Sunday, this effect cut very deep with the reactions of both Jesse when he woke up, and then later, with Jane’s dad (John de Lancie). First, there was the look on his face as he drove up to his daughter’s apartment, a stretcher being rolled out from an ambulance. Then, there was something terrifying about him not saying anything at all to Jesse. And then finally, was there anything more heartbreaking than watching him go through Jane’s closet, picking out her clothes for the funeral? “No cleavage. Long sleeves,” he said to someone on the phone. “Yeah, it’s nice. It’s nice.”
-- One of the best shots of this series happened in the DEA office, with Hank and his team talking about whether the mysterious “Heisenberg” is still out there somewhere, cooking meth … just as the charity bucket was being passed around, with Walt’s smiling face on top of it. A few scenes later, when Gus showed up as one of the local business owners doing good by helping to put on a fun run to help benefit the DEA, and he donated to the bucket as well, I thought, OK, now these writers are just getting cocky. Well played.
-- Funniest moment: Marie behind the TV camera, reminding Walt to smile as he sat there on his couch, listening to his son talk to the media about how his dad was such a decent guy, how “He just always does the right thing.”
-- Most painful moment: Skyler’s monologue at the end, coupled with Walt touching his baby girl’s hand. “I want you gone. … Because you’re a liar, Walt.” The tirade cut deep, and when she pulled out of the driveway, leaving him, Cranston had yet another golden moment of silence. His eyes told the whole story, suddenly darting every which way. All along he’s done this for his family, and now he has no family. In that moment, he was entirely, utterly lost.
-- Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul both did amazing work this season in support of last year’s Emmy winner, Cranston. In my book, both should be considered heavily for supporting nominations, and cinematographer Michael Slovis also deserves to be singled out. No other show looks quite like this, with the haunting close-ups of a teddy bear interwoven with amazing vistas of the New Mexico desert.
-- At the top of the scene in the air-traffic control room, Jane’s dad, spouting off instructions to his planes, says, “Truth or Consequences” and gives an altitude reading on that plane. I thought this was another big wink from the writers to the audience, before later discovering that this was an actual city in New Mexico and so an air-traffic controller might actually say this. You gotta love symbolism. …
-- Speaking of which, how about that pink sweater Walt’s wearing just after his surgery? All along, we’ve seen him in greens and beiges, colors that represented sickness and also colors that made him blend into the walls. Now, as he’s suddenly battling the cancer, we see him in pink, the man regaining color and life again. … Then came the pink teddy bear from the sky, and an entirely different kind of symbolism: both of them suddenly drowning.
-- Final symbolic note: If I remember correctly, Walt’s methamphetamine was once called “Blue Sky.” His wife’s name is Skyler, but people always shorten it to “Sky.” Then Sky leaves him. And the sky collapses above him.
-- More name games? Sure. I was going back through this season after watching the finale and noticed that the first episode was titled “Seven Thirty-Seven.” Walt made up a goal of raising $737,000 for his family before he died in that episode, figuring that’s what they would need to cover all costs. Looking back on it now, though, the foreshadowing was there, but I never initially saw it. Turns out another blogger -- Alan Sepinwall of the New Jersey Star-Ledger -- also picked up on this after watching the finale, and in a Q&A, Gilligan revealed to him even more: “If you look at the names of all the episodes," Gilligan said, "in particular the episodes that have the strange black and white teaser, they spell out a hidden message.”
That message: Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.
-- Josh Gajewski