Okay, so a little more Breaking Bad blogging. Spoilers ahead.
Over at the Atlantic, Chris Heller writes that Ozymandias was the fitting conclusion for Breaking Bad because:
Nobody is saved and everybody suffers. That’s the ending Breaking Bad needed. Bleak, merciless, and tragic.
I think Heller is right about Ozymandias, but for the wrong reasons. I think people focus too much on their need to see suffering in order for the show to have an appropriate conclusion. The show had plenty of suffering. I think what is so unsatisfying about the conclusion and so perfect about Ozymandias is how the show critiqued the idea of the power fantasy.
Walt’s thwarted desire to control prevents him from enjoying his life prior to his cancer diagnosis and his attempts to exercise power (whether through money, words, or science) poisons the lives of everyone around him afterwards. And his power fantasies aren’t just destructive. They are also futile. People talk about Walt’s famous “I am the one who knocks” speech, but they don’t talk enough about the scene that follows. Walt is in his lawyer’s office whining about how Gus Fring is going to have him killed. That is one of the consistent themes of the show. Walt’s megalomania is a lie he tells himself. His alleged power has left him more vulnerable than ever. About the only time a Walt power rant isn’t immediately followed by some humiliation is in his even more famous “Say my name” speech. Even Mike recognizes Walt’s accomplishment. It seems like Walt really did become Heisenberg. But Ozymandias is the delayed comeuppance to Say My Name. Both take place in the desert. In the first, Walt makes a deal for huge money and gains control of a drug operation. In the second, Walt loses everything. Instead of verbally savoring a triumph, he lays screaming and crying on the ground. And the first is what led to the second.
I don’t think Breaking Bad needed unremitting bleakness (though that would have worked too.) It just didn’t need for Walt’s final moments to take the form of another power fantasy (mowing down the Nazis with his tricked out machine gun). Redemption can take other forms even - especially - on Breaking Bad. We know this because Breaking Bad showed them to us. There was a kind of redemption that lay in the direction of humility and truth. The best moments after those horrible events in the desert involve Walt giving up power. Walt gives up his daughter. He tells his wife the truth about himself.