Walter White to his long-suffering wife Skyler in their final scene together: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really… I was alive.”
Breaking Bad was an unusually good TV show partly because its creator, Vince Gilligan, never stopped poking fun at contemporary notions of acceptable behavior. For a long while, we could root for Walt the cancer-riddled meth cook because he was trying to make sure his family would be provided for after he died. Then Gilligan revealed a more ruthless and arrogant Walt, until we couldn’t help but wonder how much of his professed commitment to family was to rationalize the pleasure he took in wielding power.
Most viewers “get” that ours is a dog-eat-dog society in which conventional morality is usually an obstacle to success and well-being, and that the people who wield real power in this country are far more beastly than Walt at his worst. (Dick Cheney is Ozymandias, not Walter White.)
But there are still limits to the amount of nasty behavior a TV audience will accept in a protagonist, even if he’s an anti-hero. Walt crossed the line when he let Jesse’s junkie girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit, a sin that indirectly caused many more deaths. He clearly “deserved” to die, but only after some terrible comeuppance.
He suffered many comeuppances in the show’s final season. His “I did it for my family” became an ironic motif, especially to feminist critics who see patriarchy as the root of all evil. He seemed to have reached the limit of his self-awareness.
But Gilligan threw one final curveball in the finale, when Walt fessed up to having taken pleasure in breaking bad. His “I was alive” declaration, reminiscent of some existential hipster dreamed up by Norman Mailer, was also an admission that his quest to do right by his family had corrupted him and done terrible damage to them and others.
Gilligan apparently sensed that fans didn’t want the show to end on a morally simplistic note, so he left us with a Walt whose vengeful final actions were also about trying to undo some of the harm he’d done. He died fully aware of his guilt but more or less at peace with himself, an Everyman, if Everyman could cook perfect blue meth and had the guts to fight back, however recklessly, against those who would expect him or her to die without trying to, yes, provide for his or her family.
Footnote: An old Badfinger hit was used in Walt’s death scene as a lament for killer meth (… the special love I had for you, Baby Blue). Gilligan’s ability to use music in a subversive way is on a par with Quentin Tarrentino’s.