"Cheer up, beautiful people, this is where you get to make it right," Walter White bitterly says to Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz in the series finale of "Breaking Bad" tonight. The Schwartzes were beautiful people. They were key to the entire genesis of Mr. White, as they were the Life He Could Have Had.
We all have these people in our head -- that silent group that we compare ourselves to -- and for White, the Schwartzes were at a level of success he could never imagine -- until he did. They had the cars, the clothes, they were wealthy icons gracing magazine covers and everything that Walter had given up when he felt betrayed by them early on in his brilliant young career.
And this time, despite his pathological lying, I actually believe Walt.
I found myself rooting for Walt throughout the final episode. I found myself crying as he said a tender fraught goodbye to his wife and child -- and watching silently as another one who had rejected him continued to make him proud.
And when he has invaded the Schwartzes' home, while they are having a conversation about wine pairings and where to summer, there is a noticeable lightness to his step. It is a lightness that attracted me -- like a magnet, bitch -- to the character of Walter White from the getgo. To do as you please, as your heart and your conscience guide you (even if it is the conscience of a narcissistic sociopath), rather than having to abide by the rules that have beleaguered you an entire lifetime, that is more addictive than any drug.
Mr. White is no one's bitch. And he is no one's fool.
Yes, society crowned the Schwartzes the winners and the heroes. But Walt, because pride drove him away because of a lost love with Gretchen, he was at first, his very worst nightmare: a charity case.
Who knows what the truth is behind the falling out between Walt and his now mind-bogglingly successful former partners. If Walt acted anything like he did in the series, then for sure his ego and his pride no doubt warped factors. But all the same, my gut tends to believe Walt's side. That he got the short end of the stick, and rather than beg or plead, he decided to take the one thing he had with that company: his pride and his anger, and nurse that into his new life he had built with his family. Anything rather than feeling as if he was begging for scraps.
I believe one of the reasons that I believe Walt's side is in the unseemly Charlie Rose interview in the penultimate series epsiode where Gretchen and Elliot scoff and laugh at the idea that any of Walter's contributions were actually scientifically significant. Oh no. His contribution really only consisted of helping form the name, they say. And it is this final injustice which twists Walter into trying to scrape together whatever point his entire endeavor ever had to begin with. After being rejected by his son so brutally, he is now perhaps for the first time -- right at that moment when he is seconds away from surrendering -- forced to admit that he was never doing this for his family at all.
He was doing this to force the beautiful people to make it right.
This is a confession -- or a difficult and rare self-aware epiphany -- which he plainly admits to Skyler when he has her alone for a few minutes before taking down the Neo-Nazis in an epic machine-gun-whirligig finale. She can't hear it again. "If I have to hear one more time you did it for family," she almost says, and he interrupts her. "I did it for myself," he admits.
He liked it. He was good at it. He felt alive for the first time.
And as so often happens with the succor of honesty, I found myself more in league with Walter, sympathizing, empathizing, cheering him on, than I had in a long time.
Which is what the finale captured in a way that I haven't felt for his character since he first lashed out in retribution at the bullies in the mall store that were teasing Walt Jr. about his jeans. When that moment first happened in Season One, you could see the transformation of Walter White.
He was a messy ugly person with a son who had a disability and a wife who was not a millionaire genius. He had a tough job with not a lot of rewards. He was textured and complicated and layered and about as far away from a Gray Matter IPO as one could ever imagine.
Using Badger and Skinny Pete to do the marksmanship scare on the Schwartzes was a genius turn on Gilligan's part as well. Here were two perpetual comic relief characters providing the ultimate physical manifestation of the addict's ever-malleable delightfully quirky point of view. They feel kind of ethically funny, man, after doing that scare on the Schwartzes, Badger says. Walt drolly pulls out $200,000 and asks if that makes them feel better. Huh. Funny, it does.
And the beautiful people version of Walt -- in the form of Lydia -- and the bizarro version of Jesse in the form of Todd also rightfully get their mortal comeuppance. Lydia finally gets slipped the ricin that Walt once considered giving her long ago, but now, it seems he is doing it with a point. Don't get me wrong, Walt is still a murderous sociopathic monstrous villain -- but I felt tonight almost the same certain softness and understanding in Skyler's eyes listening to her husband in one of the best moments of the entire episode as the camera panned out to reveal that Walt had been there the entire time Marie was on the phone warning that Walt might get to her.
He is almost the embodiment and the tragedy of pride itself.
I saw him not as a hero or even anti-hero I was rooting for or against, but instead I saw a painstakingly drawn up man. Like so many people we know and love or alternately hate in life, his humanity blew me away in this episode. For the first time in a long time -- although I believe his conscience was also turned when he cried out against Uncle Jack murdering Hank -- his actions had a striking honesty behind them. His admittances were not shrouded in ego, but instead in difficult truths that he finally looked at, perhaps after three long months in the icy snow of New Hampshire. He saw what he hated about the Schwartzes -- their falseness in the light of the injustice he had long nursed as a festering grudge -- or even what he hated about his former self -- his weakness and his failure to live a life without regret before getting his cancer diagnosis.
Tonight, my heart went out to him the way it gravitates to many charistmatic, brilliant, deeply flawed figures who are detestable but yet who are also brave and who despise complacency and weakness. Of course, the flip side of these characteristics can often be devilishly punishing negative attributes: ego, pride, hubris, which Mr. White was deeply afflicted by personally and professionally.
He was a mastermind strategist who let audiences live vicariously through the retribution he sought against what he deemed to be the ugly things of the world -- the yuppie's car he blew up very early on in the series or the cruelty of those jock bullies whose asses he kicked while his son was buying jeans. And he was a tender-hearted father to Holly, Walt Jr. and I would say Jesse as well.
But he was so many things that canceled out any Robinhood-like virtue to these nobler, cooler, kinder acts. Because, of course, he was at heart, or he became at heart, a ruthless cold-blooded killer.
Murderer. Sociopath. Serial killer. Drug kingpin.
But one thing he could never be -- no matter all the money he had in the world -- was one of the beautiful people. He always knew that.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.