Every six months or so, late at night, inevitably after a few drinks, I rewatch the final two episodes of Breaking Bad. More precisely, I rewatch the final 15 minutes or so of the penultimate episode, and then the entire finale.
This is a weird thing to do for more than one one reason. I have no urge to rewatch the entirety of Breaking Bad. It’s not even my favorite show! Rewatching it wouldn’t be a bad use of my time, but if I’m going to rewatch a show I know well, I’ll go back to, say, Rust Cohle’s psychospheric Louisiana before I go back to Walter White’s sun-cracked Albuquerque.
So why do I keep returning to this show’s ending? After doing another rewatch the other night, I’m going to attempt to answer that question, with a little Theory About Storytelling thrown in.
[Spoilers below, if you’re worried about that in the case of a show that ended nearly a decade ago]
Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode, Granite State, ends with a broken Walter White in a bar in snowbound rural New Hampshire. Having made his escape to a cabin there with the help of a dourly cunning vacuum repair man, Walter spends his days dying of the cancer he’s had throughout the show. In what he believes will be a final gesture of love, Walter has stumbled out of his hideaway and called his estranged son, Flynn, from the bar’s payphone. Flynn rejects his offer of a package of money. After a coughing fit, Walter calls the FBI, gives them his location, and settles in with a whiskey to await the inevitable.
Except then, as the bartender flips channels, Walter sees something that breaks through his morbid anhedonia. His former business partner and his wife—who also happens to be Walter’s ex-girlfriend—are on Charlie Rose’s show. They’re doing a PR circuit to clean up the mess created by their cofounder, who has become the most famous fugitive in America. They throw Walter under the bus, diminishing his early contributions to the company. Watching this fills Walter with so much rage that he flees into the snow and eludes an arriving posse of sheriff’s deputies. Heisenberg rides again.
From there, Walter embarks on a brilliant campaign of both vengeance and closure. I don’t need to describe it too much further, but suffice it to say that Breaking Bad famously has perhaps the most satisfying ending in TV history. Some Nazis get got in an elaborate Rube-Goldbergian fashion, and that’s not even the cleverest part of Walter’s scheme.
A lot of digital ink has already been spilled on Walter White’s fade to blue. Breaking Bad was not the first Prestige TV darling of what used to be called the blogosphere, but it peaked in the early 2010s, the perfect moment for a show to be beloved by the Internet. There was a burgeoning, optimistic, and curious audience for online recaps and in-depth criticism hosted outside of legacy outlets. Yet there was still a feeling of old-fashioned authority to being a TV critic—but also a sense that you were interestingly rogue or alt if you wrote for an upstart site or your own blog. And finally, there weren’t yet approximately twenty trillion perfectly OK shows on two dozen subscription streaming platforms, very few of them in any way distinguishable from the others.
Have I made myself sound enough like someone who turned 23 in 2013, yet?
I could go on and on about why I like the way Breaking Bad reaches its end. But I want to focus here on something handled so beautifully in that last scene of the second-to-last episode: Peripeteia.
The concept of peripeteia, as we now use the term, begins with Aristotle, in his Poetics:
Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional: interest in Tragedy Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes—are parts of the plot.
(Three cheers for that endorsement of plot as such.)
Aristotle spells it out for us: A peripeteia occurs when a dramatic situation is reversed. The good guy becomes the bad guy, the victim becomes the perpetrator, and so on. Walter White, having delivered himself to his Nazi enemies at their clubhouse, on the verge of getting a bullet to the head, unleashes his vengeance.
Peripeteia are the thing we wait for drama, but not with absolute certainty. The story has to get us to ask the question: When and how will the fortunes in this story reverse? That question, if we care about the answer, is the kind of thing that can pull us forward.
I’m probably using the term “peripeteia” a bit imprecisely. Maybe every narrative turn doesn’t constitute a peripeteia. But I do find the concept useful. It explains what’s so satisfying about watching a shattered Walter White revive himself on that barstool, with no medicine other than righteous anger. It explains what’s so satisfying about enduring the suspense of Walt trying to line up the moment to gun down those Nazis, and then making it happen. Whether we knew to do it consciously or not, we were asking about the arrival of the peripeteia.
Although I have to say, you’d think the Nazis would have had a few more questions about the angle at which Walter parked his car.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
It’s somehow darkly funny to read a comic strip from around 30 years ago, set in a leafy suburb that appears to verge on being an exurb, that leans on real estate market jokes. The United States housing market back then would be unrecognizable to us now. Mostly because everything, everywhere was far, far, far cheaper. Although since Calvin is probably from Watterson’s native Ohio, it’s possible he’s near at least a few markets that haven’t gone up much in real terms since then, due to Rust Beltification.
On a similar note, this strip concludes with Hobbes making a joke about earth’s damaged atmosphere, echoed affirmatively by one of the aliens. Hahahahaha very funny! Everyone back then knew that holes in the ozone layer and “global warming” were scary hypotheticals, not to be taken any more seriously than other media-embellished specters. Such as, for instance, the possibility of a global pandemic.
Sorry to be so depressing. Let’s focus on what’s charming here: Calvin appears to start scheming about earth real estate. There’s a version of grownup Calvin that’s a savvy wheeler and dealer, of a rambunctious kind. In my headcanon, he eventually owns his own legal weed dispensary.
Percy Bysshe Shelley would’ve been amused to know his work appeared in Breaking Bad