The Only Person In America Who Didn’t Love Breaking Bad’s Finale

“The whole thing felt kinda shady, like morality wise.” ~Skinny Pete

If you haven’t already seen the ending to the hit AMC show, BREAKING BAD, stop reading now. Because I’m about to ruin the ending for you…

So why am I so down on one of my favorite television shows after it went out with what is already widely regarded as a model of how a series should end? Certainly not because of the writing, which was, as always, phenomenal. From the start, Breaking Bad’s supreme artistry overcame viewers’ reluctance to embrace a show about seedy characters engaged in the drug trade. Its mastery of tension, character development, and plot twists transcended expectations about crime shows. It became a Shakespearean tragedy that explored American society, ideals, and public policy. Happily, the show remained true to that exploration to the end.

I just didn’t like the answer that exploration came up with, which was apparently: crime pays.

Walter White begins his journey as a middle-aged high school teacher who is pushed around by life, a little bit henpecked at home, emasculated by his macho brother-in-law, and–as a final kick in the teeth–gets a cancer diagnosis that virtually ensures he will die before ever becoming the huge figure of a man his ego tells him he was born to be. And so he begins his descent into building a drug empire by telling himself that he’s doing it to pay for his drug treatments so that his family doesn’t go bankrupt, and to ensure their future if he’s no longer around.

It was initially difficult for me to watch the series because I didn’t want to watch the glorification of greed, murder, and drug-dealing. But the sensitivity of the writing ultimately convinced me that I wasn’t watching that kind of show. I was convinced that I was actually watching a show that exposed and condemned all those things. I thought I was watching a show about the slow descent of a man who could have been a good guy, who could have reveled in his accomplishments as a family man, and died beloved…but who turned himself into a lonely monster for the sake of his ego. About a man who, when faced with his own mortality, chooses to break bad.

Actually, that was the show I was watching. I just didn’t realize that the monster was going to be rewarded.

To be clear, I loved to hate Walter White. In fact, I doubt there’s a character in any book or movie that I have hated with such a white hot passion. If George R. R. Martin is the master of turning a villain into a lovable protagonist, then Vince Gilligan is the master of turning a lovable protagonist into a villain. I often told people who were put off by the topics in the series that it was anything but a glorification of criminal culture–pointing to the way Jesse evolved into the heart of the show while Walter became more and more irredeemable.

Like Hank and Marie, I believed that Walt had to pay for all the damage that he caused and since ego was the thing that mattered the most to him, that’s what needed to be crushed. I wanted to see him outsmarted, undone by his own vanity, and humiliated. In short, death was too good for Walter. The cancer was going to kill him anyway, and what Walt wanted was to die in a blaze of glory. Which is, in the end, exactly how it happened, and the lack of justice in that depresses me.

Some argue that Walt lost his family and that’s punishment for his wickedness. But that’s not true. Walt gave up the love of his family long before the end as a fair price in exchange for feeling alive. He chose his ego over his family–they weren’t taken away from him. Remember when Gustavo Fring told Walt that real men provide for their families even if they’re hated, even if they “lose” them? Walt took that to heart. He did the emotional math and, because he’s an amoral lowlife, he chose to be Heisenberg. Good thing, too, by his reckoning, because he was clever enough to figure out an ingenious way to get his money to his family. (And his money only–he was sure to make sure Gretchen and Elliott understood–so that he could pass down a legacy. Which, to be clear, is about Walt. Not his son.)

In the finale, Marie comments that Walt isn’t the criminal mastermind that he thinks he is. Then the show goes on to prove, one last time, that Walt actually is a criminal mastermind. In one of the most wonderful moments of the finale Walt finally admits to his devastated wife that he did all this because he liked it and because he was good at it…that’s true. Jesse was absolutely right when he told the cops that Mr. White would never pay for his crimes–because he was smarter than everyone else.

And I hate that Jesse was right.

Not because it isn’t a perfectly acceptable artistic choice. Not because it wasn’t brilliantly done. Not because it won’t satisfy the majority of the show’s fans. But because I’m a writer who pays very close attention to my subtext. I always try to be aware of the message I am sending. I think Vince Gilligan does too, which is why the final villains in the series were Aryans, because, to the writer’s enormous credit, he was smart enough to course-correct for the racist undertones in earlier seasons. Unfortunately, the ending of this show still telegraphs an ending that, in the words of Skinny Pete, is “kinda shady, morality wise.”

The message I heard was this: To all those downtrodden working class white men who feel as if living by society’s rules has somehow given you the shaft, realize that you can die on your own terms. Sure, you might destroy your family, kill a bunch of innocent people along the way, and profoundly contribute to the ills of society–but you will have a whole legion of people rooting for you because you’re actually not the bespectacled nerd in tighty whiteys who got mocked in high school and didn’t get the girl. Go ahead and embrace your rage-fantasies, because you’re actually an under-appreciated genius who can bestow life or death at your whim and go out on your own terms, the king of your own meth-lab castle. You’re the damned hero of the story.

Obviously, Vince Gilligan understands what drew most people to his television show, even as, or perhaps especially as, he publicly despaired that viewers were actually rooting for Walter White no matter how evil he became. While I loved to hate Heisenberg, most of the viewership just loved him. Breaking Bad gave those viewers exactly the vindication they were looking for while, simultaneously, trying to carve out a little redemption for Walter White. In the end, Walt died in the arms of his beloved meth lab. That’s fantastic entertainment, and a beautifully poetic story arc that I can’t argue with as an artist. Unfortunately, it also seems like a glorification of everything the show ought to have been condemning, which I really dislike as a person.

Maybe I’ll feel a little differently after the whole thing sinks in, but right now, I’m bummed! How about you?

Hollywood Depictions of Cleopatra

She is a timeless icon of femininity and feminism. She is the most famous woman in the history of the world–perhaps because she was, and remains, the most powerful woman in the history of the world. No subsequent queen or prime minister or secretary of state has ever had the geographic dominion, relative wealth, and unfettered authority that was enjoyed by Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

Almost everything we know about her has been filtered through the propaganda of her enemies. What remains are the scant facts and what we can deduce from them. She was a woman of extraordinary charm who shared a bed with not one, but two of the most powerful men in the ancient world–Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius. She would become mortal enemies with a third–Octavian, otherwise known as Augustus Caesar–who did more to immortalize her than her lovers.

But she comes down to us through the ages without a face. Her coins–many of which depict her in quite severe and haggish ways–are stylized portraits, meant to impart terror rather than admiration. The few busts that we believe portray the Egyptian queen cannot be verified. There are no extant portraits nor textual descriptions of her. Because of this, artists have a blank canvass upon which they can imagine this cunning political queen in any way they like. That is a siren’s call to Hollywood who has made several attempts at bringing Cleopatra to life.

First, there was the silent film starring Theda Bara which was destroyed because it was too racy!

In 1934, Claudette Colbert starred in a Cecil B. DeMille production about the Queen of the Nile. The production is old-fashioned, in black and white, but the dialog is often fun. This is an Egyptianized version of the queen, which is not necessarily entirely inaccurate, but there is little visual reference to her cultural heritage as a Hellene. I especially like the invention of Herod making trouble between Cleopatra and Antony–which is unlikely to have happened the way it plays out on screen, but hints at the genuine trouble between the two client monarchs! There’s a certain jaded maturity that Claudette Colbert brings to the role, but the entire picture seems too small to incorporate such a big historical figure.

Another version was made with Vivian Leigh, but I’ve yet to see it (shame on me!), so I’ll just skip ahead!
Almost thirty years after the Claudette Colbert version, Hollywood had another go at it, this time creating a budget-busting visual extravaganza that would give the world its most iconic images of Cleopatra in the person of violet-eyed actress, Liz Taylor. The movie is a huge, splashy, melodrama that bankrupted the studio, launched careers and destroyed the marriages of its co-stars because its the film on which Richard Burton and Liz Taylor fell in love. Their sexual chemistry burns up the screen, their personal lives echoing those of the characters they played. One cannot watch without feeling the tiniest bit voyeuristic, and the authenticity of their connection make what might otherwise be a schmaltzy production into something emotionally gripping.

 

This is not to say that the film is all eye-candy and soap-opera. The costuming and set-decor is an interesting mix of Egyptian, Roman and Greek–all of this in keeping with accounts we have of Alexandria where cultural fusion was the norm. Though the film never mentions Cleopatra’s children by Antony–including the heroine of my own debut novel, Cleopatra Selene–it’s fairly historically accurate; viewers will learn from this film as well as be entertained. Not much better can be said for Hollywood than that!

Perhaps with an eye to how difficult it would be to top the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor version, Cleopatra has appeared primarily on the small screen ever since. The 1999 Television Mini-Series starring Billy Zane, Timothy Dalton and Leonor Varela was based on Margaret George’s excellent novel, Memoirs of Cleopatra. Unfortunately, the series bears little resemblance to the book. In this version, Cleopatra is a foot-stomping, whining, little brat who never brings any gravitas to the screen. Alexandria is rendered similarly unimpressive. While Varela’s looks may be more in line with the historical Cleopatra–her profile looks like the coins–her acting is fairly atrocious. It’s actually Billy Zane’s boyish rendition of Marcus Antonius that is the most convincing.

Which brings us to the latest incarnation of Cleopatra, Lyndsey Marshal’s version on HBO’s Rome. While I can find nothing bad to say about the series as a whole, which was masterfully written, funny, absorbing and dramatic–our Egyptian queen got the short end of the stick. Here she’s portrayed as a drug-addled slut who deceives Caesar about the parentage of her son. There’s nothing in the historical record to suggest this, other than Augustus’ accusations against her, but not every portrayal can resuscitate the queen’s image. Marshal brings a little bit of cunning to the role and never lets us forget that Cleopatra is without moral scruple–in that, she may be the closest portrayal to the historical woman.

It’s impossible to tire of Cleopatra and Hollywood seems poised to make another attempt. Given the run-away success of Stacy Schiff’s recent biography, a new movie is being planned starring Angelina Jolie. Reportedly, this film will focus more on Cleopatra as a mother and strategist. It remains to be seen what sort of images will leave their mark in popular culture this time!

Elizabeth Taylor Will Live Forever

I first came to admire Elizabeth Taylor for her definitive portrayal of Cleopatra in the 1963 production. She never won an award for it–those accolades would come from other movies–and Elizabeth Taylor’s antics, on and off the set, bankrupted a studio, earning the film a reputation as a gorgeous over-the-top disaster.

None of that mattered, of course, because everything about the movie was a metaphor for Liz Taylor’s life.

Like the historical Cleopatra who rose to queenship before the age of twenty, Elizabeth Taylor was a child star. Like the queen she portrayed, she collected expensive jewels, demanded gifts as her due, and was used to having things her own way. Also, like the queen she portrayed, all the wealth and indulgence never stopped her from doing great things, from championing important causes, and from loving passionately.

It was on the set of Cleopatra that she met and fell in love with Richard Burton. It’s often said that Taylor chose movie roles that would mirror her own life and this was certainly the case here. Like Antony, Richard Burton was married. He had loyalties elsewhere. For that matter, Liz Taylor wasn’t free to love him. That didn’t stop either of them. They engaged in the most scandalous extramarital affair of their day, and though they would divorce and remarry and divorce, their love would survive even Richard Burton’s death.

Taylor remained convinced that she and Burton would have remarried, and remarked that though she’d been married to other men, every man she’d been involved since Richard Burton was simply a way to pass the time. That’s the love of legends. It’s the kind of thing that made Cleopatra an unforgettable ancient queen, and it’s the kind of thing that will allow Liz Taylor a share of immortality, too.

Certainly, she was a fine actress with many memorable roles and we would all do ourselves a favor to watch a few of her films in the next few weeks. She’s stunning in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and riveting in Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? In addition to her splashy blockbusters, she tackled difficult movies, artsy movies, serious scripts way ahead of their time. A natural beauty, she had a talent for stillness, a talent of drawing the camera to her. A unique way of mixing class with crass. She may not have been the Queen of the Nile, but she was the Queen of Hollywood and she never let anyone forget it.

Given her love of everything huge and over-the-top, it would be easy to dismiss her as a simple starlet. But Taylor’s brave advocacy for gays and HIV patients in a time when it wasn’t remotely politically correct to do so showed that her flamboyance was a part of her royal mission to live large, love intensely, and right big wrongs.

I can’t help but think the historical Cleopatra would have found in Elizabeth Taylor a kindred spirit, and though I’m saddened by her death, I believe both of them will live forever.