VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.2

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.2

This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and

He Wanted To

The final episode of Breaking Bad was a tender goodbye. I’ve watched
the entire series with my heart firmly planted in my mouth, but watching the
last moments of Walt’s life, his look of contentment as he sees the gas mask he
used to wear when cooking, that smear of his blood on metal as he finally
collapses to the ground, felt gentle. The great Heisenberg went out with a sigh
of contentment, rather than a roar of pride.

For five seasons critics have debated just what about Breaking Bad
has captured the American zeitgeist. In some ways, the show is surely
emblematic of some pressing cultural concerns—the desperation of the working
class and the changing face of American masculinity, for example. But ultimately,
the heart of Breaking Bad is not a public service announcement about the
dangers of meth, the need for better health care or the importance of family. Breaking
is about existential terror. It’s about the choices we make when
confronted with death and the disintegration of our own very identity. It’s
about the limits of free will and the recognition that we have minimal control
over our own destiny.  And it’s about how we all push for some kind of a
high, even though we know everything we do eventually has an expiration date.

In the end, Walt is a hero and a villain in equal measure. The same Walt who
murders his enemies in cold blood is the one who ties his wedding ring to a
string around his neck when his fingers become too thin to wear it, just as the
same Walt who kidnaps Holly is the one who touches her tenderly in her crib in
a final farewell.

Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Walter
White rewrote his story in order to survive. In the final episode we see Walt
claiming this story, owning his responsibility in the chaotic landscape that
nourished and destroyed him. In the end, Walt’s relationships with the people
who meant the most to him were faded fragments from a time when Walt was living
a different story, a time when he truly believed that he was making moral
choices to protect the family he loved. Nowhere is this clearer than in the
final showdown, where Walt is forced to look at the life to which he condemned
his former friend and partner Jesse. Even after respect and trust are long gone
between Walt and Jesse, there always remains the weight of a sad, long dead

I cried watching that last moment of Walt wandering around what, at this point
in his life, had become his natural habitat—a meth lab littered with bodies and
blood. Walt died very alone, in every sense of the word. His meticulously
planned out last hurrah to set things right was, certainly, a suicide mission.
In the final episode of the series we see Walt, who had always resisted death at
every turn, finally resign himself to it, even though, in true Heisenberg
fashion, he went out in his own terms.

The final episode of Breaking Bad gives the illusion of closure, as
if the entire world will fade away now that Heisenberg and Walter White are one
and gone. In reality, there were things that Walt did that will never be
healed. Walt was proud of letting Jane die and poisoning Brock, both decisions
which he felt were made out of necessity. But this same Walt was terribly
ashamed of his betrayals—leading Hank to his death and losing the love and
trust of his only son. Walt’s confession to Skyler, where he says he did it all
for himself, that he liked it, he was good at it and it made him feel alive,
betrays the weight of his tremendous guilt, but doesn’t necessarily give us the
whole truth to his story. In earlier episodes one can clearly see a man who is
struggling to make moral choices; somewhere along the way his motivations
changed. The difficulty in pinpointing that catalyst is what makes Breaking
great art and it is what makes this touching, quiet finale emotionally

For me, Walt’s guilt tempers those last moments of Breaking Bad,
where we see Heisenberg wandering about the meth lab—his reflection beaming
back at him, all stretched and misshapen. Walt’s tremendous pride in his
creation, his love for his “baby blue” is palpable in that moment, but so is
the image of his bloodied hand, tarnishing a space that requires cleanliness in
order to make a dirty product a signature product: it got close, but was never
100% pure.

To read a wonderful essay by Scott Eric Kaufman about the season finale at, click here:

To watch the entire series on Press Play, go here:

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed three times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate
Book Reviews Editor at
The Nervous Breakdown.

Dave Bunting, Jr. is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn.  He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink,
and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and
real estate.  Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.

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