THE BLOG
10/14/2013 12:19 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Breaking Good: The Final Season of "Breaking Bad" and Walter's White's Struggle for Repentance

If you haven't seen the series Breaking Bad, this post may contain spoilers.

For Jews across the world, September 29 marked the end of the long holiday season. The previous month had been filled with a series of three-day holiday weekends dominated by synagogue, apples in honey, fasting, and shaking willow branches. Traditionally, the overarching message of the Jewish holiday season, however, is one of repentance, as Jews use the dawning of the new year to take stock in the year that has just ended and commit themselves to being better people in the year to come.

The path to forgiveness, one well known to those who spent the last month engrossed in the holiday season, is detailed in "The Laws of Repentance," penned by the 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides. Understanding the limitations of the human condition and that the linear nature of time prohibits the actual undoing of most crimes, Maimonides' formula is one that is primarily a forward-looking one. While reflection is a necessary component, the key is the changing of future behavior.

The two crucial steps Maimonides offers are confession and abandoning one's sins. Only by first acknowledging what one has done wrong, he explains, can one resolve oneself to be a better person going forward. By following Maimonides' prescription, Jews were able to emerge from the season confident that they had made amends for their sins and earned penitence from their family, their community, and their god.

For a certain subset of Jews, the holiday weekends were extended to a fourth day, as each weekend culminated with Sunday night's viewing of the latest episode of the final season of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad, as creator Vince Gilligan has famously noted, is the story of "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface." For five seasons, viewers watched Walter White's slow degeneration from high school teacher and family man into a ruthless drug kingpin. The last season, however, may have been about the reversal of that transformation as Walter attempts to leave the life of crime behind him. In short, it was about his attempt to achieve repentance.

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To really understand Walter White, we have to go back as far as the pilot episode and maybe even a little bit more.

Walt's justification for cooking crystal meth-- that he was dying and needed to leave money for his family -- never passed the smell test for those who gave it much thought. Multitudes of people are diagnosed with terminal illnesses and none of them turn to a life of crime to pay the bills. The notion that there must be something larger at play in Walt's decision-making is expressed by Walt's partner, Jesse, as in the very first episode he utters the line that gives the series its name: "Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what, sixty? He's just gonna break bad?"

Any minimal psychoanalysis of Walter White would discover a bitter man deeply filled with resentment. This is a man who always considered himself the smartest person in the room and who always did everything a person is "supposed" to do to succeed and be happy in life. Instead, he finds himself with a sick child, a wife who seems to have emotionally checked out, and working not one, but two dead-ends jobs. Terminal cancer is just the final straw. It's worth noting the poetic genius of the writers' choice of the illness with which to afflict him. Lung cancer, a disease that exists in our perceptions as one that typically strikes those with some level of complicity, was the perfect coda to a life filled with injustice. Walt likely looked at his cigar-smoking, drinking brother-in-law, Hank, and thought "now there's someone who's supposed to get lung cancer." Walt, on the other hand, lived a clean-cut lifestyle, and lung cancer was just the latest of the cruel twists of irony that the universe had in store for him.

Fast forward a few episodes into Season One and we uncover a little more of what lies beneath the surface of Walt's psyche. We meet Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz, friends and former colleagues of Walt, and co-owners of Gray Matter Technologies. A picture of Walt's past slowly emerges -- a love triangle that ends with Walt on the outside looking in while Gray Matter develops into a billion dollar conglomerate -- and we find ourselves beginning to understand what is driving him.

The episode with the Schwartzes also carries with it what to many viewers is Walt's "original sin" in the series. When the Schwartzes learn of Walt's cancer, they offer to pay for his treatment, thus absolving him of the need to finance his medical bills via the drug trade. But Walt refuses to take their money. Maybe he was just tired of opting for the path he was "supposed" to take, a path that, until now, had gotten him nowhere. But more likely it was that his sense of pride was too strong and he couldn't get past the notion that providing for his family was his job and his alone. He was going to be the one to do it and they were going to know that it was his work. Not Gretchen and Elliot. Never Gretchen and Elliot, those self-righteous do-gooders who purloined him out of millions.

Thus, Walt embarks on the life filled with drug trafficking, lying, train robberies, and murder that thrilled fans for five years.

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Breaking Bad's final season commences with Walter White ostensibly retired from the drug trade that he had spent the previous five seasons embroiled in. After 18 or so months of living with the fear of death or jail and building an empire that nets him close to $80 million, Walter had finally decided to hang up his beakers, satisfied that he was ready to retreat back to a life of normalcy with his wife and kids. His planned retirement, predictably, is short lived as a series of events -- most notably Hank's discovery of his true identity -- spirals his life out of control once again and leads to one tragedy after another.

Walt spends the duration of the final eight episodes trying to make a clean break from his crimes of the past. "My right hand to God. I'm just a guy who owns a car wash who's dying of cancer. That's all I am," he insists to Hank. "What's the point of coming after me?" And you get the sense that this is more than just an argument to get Hank off the trail. Walt seems to truly believe that what's done is done and that he can just move forward with his newfound civilian life and pretend that the life of crime is behind him.

Even as late as the third to last episode, in the brilliant and climactic "Ozymandias," Walt fails to realize that his decisions don't occur in a vacuum. After being lured into the desert by Hank and Jesse (now working together), Walt calls for the aid of a group of local neo-Nazis whom he has contracted in the past to murder a group of business associates and who he has now hired to kill Jesse. Only when he realizes that Hank -- a member of his family whose blood he can't allow himself to have on his hands -- has come too, he calls them off. Of course, they come anyway and the meeting in the desert ends with Hank's murder.

But Walt doesn't see himself as to blame. Jesse, after all, is the one who brought Hank out there in the first place. And the Nazis, well, he told them not to come. He is unable to acknowledge that yes, he told them not to come, but that was just a few seconds after he told them to come and gave them the coordinates to Hank's eventual grave. In Walt's mind, the second act undid the first and he can't wrap his mind around the fact that Hank is dead because he essentially instructed a gang of Nazis with machine guns to come kill him. The Walt of "Ozymandias" and the six episodes that precede it is a man who thinks he can just flip a switch and go back to the man he used to be.

You can almost hear a modified version of Jesse's remark from Season One echoing throughout these episodes: ""Some evil drug lord like you, who murders without any thought, who poisons children and bombs a nursing home, who lied to, stole from, and manipulated every person in his life for his own benefit? He's just gonna break good?" Walt learns the hard way that it isn't that simple.

Indeed, the story arc of the final season makes it very tempting to play the "if only" game. If only Hank and Marie had backed off and let sleeping dogs lie. If only Jesse hadn't figured out the truth about Brock. If only Hank hadn't made that ill-fated phone call to Marie. If only one or two minor details would have played out differently, maybe Walt could have gotten the retirement he had imagined. "Ozymandias" operates as an utter rejection of "if only" arguments. Indeed, the entire story of Breaking Bad has been one where every vanquished enemy paves the way for a new foe stronger and more dangerous than the last. If Walt's demise had not come the way we saw it, it would have inevitably happened some other way. (The Nazis with the machine guns or the corporate executive trying to lure him back into the meth game, for example).

Walt's end arrives because of the accumulation of a long series of bad, morally bankrupt decisions that eventually caught up with him, a string of choices that began with his rejection of the Schwartz's money, opting instead to become a drug dealer.

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In the series finale, Walt finally offers the confession viewers had been demanding of him for the entirety of the show's run, namely the acknowledgement that his justification for his his actions -- that he was doing it for his family -- was just that: a justification. In the finale's most emotional scene he admits to his wife, Skyler: "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive."

And Skyler, to her own credit, returns the favor with a first of her own: she forgives him. Although not explicit, there is a clear recognition in the scene that she appreciates his remorse and sees it as sincere. Their last moments together, marked for anger and resentment, are instead filled with warmth and reconciliation.

But it is only after finally making that confession that Walt is able to venture upon his final journey, a journey in which he settles all unfinished business and to the best of his ability abandons his sins and instead makes amends for them. While he is on a path motivated partially by revenge, he is first and foremost a vehicle of justice. Lydia and the Nazis are dead, Jesse is freed, the location of Hank's burial place and the closure that it will bring is made known.

The greatest test of true repentance, Maimonides explains, is what one does when given a second chance: "Who has reached complete repentance? A person who confronts the same situation in which he previously sinned and when he has the potential to commit the sin again, he abstains."

Among Walt's final acts is to ensure that the money he earned in the drug business makes its way to his family, using Gretchen and Elliot as a conduit. Understanding that his family will now likely never know that it was he who provided for them and that they will instead believe that salvation came from the generous Schwartzes, Walt finally swallows the pride. For the first time, he heeds his own rationale and puts his family's needs ahead of his own. By sacrificing his own pride and credit, he, in a way, retroactively makes the justification a fact: he did it for his family. When confronted once again with his original sin, the sin that begat all the others throughout the show's run, this time he makes the right choice.

"Even if he transgressed throughout his entire life and repented on the day of his death and died in repentance, all his sins are forgiven," Maimonides concludes. In Walt's case, repentance literally did come on the day of his death. By confessing his sins and abandoning them from his heart, Walt is permitted to end his story on his own terms, achieve a semblance of a happy ending and die a forgiven man.

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