2017-07-27
AMC Studios

I must preface with the following lest you dismiss my seemingly outlandish thesis. I am not religious. Indeed, I pride myself for being coldly analytical and self-critical, not prone to pareidolia, the seductive tendency of an obsessive mind to read significance into the prosaic. I enjoyed BB, but I am not a cultist who one day will take a pilgrimage to Albuquerque to heave a large pizza like a discus onto someone’s roof. But, like most atheists, I know my Christian mythology, even the non-canonical, pop variety, better than most of the faithful.

I am thus sensitive to its presence especially when it unexpectedly surfaces. Until Felina (the transparent anagram for finale), BB had been devoid of religion, a curiosity because it is set in a city with a large Mexican/Indian population. Having grown up in El Paso’s south side, I know churches in barrios are as common as drugstores in the suburbs, and Albuquerque is El Paso’s identical twin, except with balloons. The only church scene in BB that I recall is the Salamanca cousins joining the tail-end (can’t afford to muss up their Italian silk suits and gargoyle-tipped boots) of a peasant crab-crawl to the temple where they light a candle and pray for Santa Muerte to deliver Heisenberg into their hands. Of course the prayer will never be answered because the BB universe is cold and uncaring and is controlled by a few powerful deities who feud over territory while they “play the long game”. While you and I have only our wits and luck to get us by, Jesse reminds us that Walter owns disproportionate stashes of both. His mad machinations will eventually and abruptly exhaust even his seemingly endless supply, but until that happens, the gods will not intercede if they even exist.

That is, until we get to Felina, BB’s Book of Revelation, the final chapter of a saga that will inflict heavenly revenge upon the world’s evildoers. Like St. John’s dreamscape, we find ourselves immersed in surrealistic and prophetic imagery that portends cosmic upheaval and a rocking spectacle.

There are a couple of important pieces of symbolism in Felina that I can’t tie back to my Jesus theme. Walt’s 52nd birthday and smiling bacon pancakes are examples. Moreover, I can’t claim that the writers consciously set out to echo Christian mythology in Felina, only that they managed do accomplish this conspicuously if somewhat haphazardly.

Walter in the Frozen Garden of Gethsemane

During his last prayer, Jesus first tries to bargain his way out of his predicament, but with the help of an angel, he girds himself for his suicide mission. An angel, in the form of a police cruiser, similarly visits Walter in the opening scene. The windows opaque with frost, perhaps representing clouds, are the barrier to the spirit world. Walter is unable to jumpstart the car (is that stigmata when he stabs himself in palm with the screw driver?). We never see the police car, only its ghostly lights. Walter is a man of science and has never been spiritual before today even when he faced death and inflicted it upon others. But here, desperate to start the car, Walter prays to and bargains with the light: “Just get me home. I will do the rest.” The light recedes. He looks and reaches up to heaven when the car keys drop like manna. His prayer has been answered.

The Transfiguration of Walter

Resurrected Jesus returns as a specter who passes through walls (which makes you wonder why it was even necessary to move that damn boulder from his tomb door). Likewise, Heisenberg is no longer bound by the laws of space and time as he casts off his wristwatch and all of his other worldly attachments and petty conceits. He was always a bungler, a broken and bruised klutz with a brain, but now he calmly and quietly glides through physical barriers like the ghost that he has become. Sporting a beard (like you know who), his first stop is Santa Fe, or Holy Faith, where he will easily penetrate the tastefully fortified compound of Gretchen and Elliott. He disarms and forces them to do his bidding with nothing but a few words and the incapacitating light of retribution that he summons with a wave of his hand. Thereafter, he appears at the Last Supper/nosh with the duplicitous and skittish Lydia “say my full name” Rodarte-Quayle and Todd, her dull and sadistic puppy. Judas-like, they decide to betray Walter. Lydia invokes the Lord’s name directly as she pours the ricin/stevia into her (“take this cup from me”) drink, “Jesus. Did you look at him? You’d be doing him a favor.” The scene switches to Skyler in her kitchen. Marie is warning Skyler over the phone that Walter has returned from the grave. Suddenly and impossibly, Walter is facing her. Walter never possessed Ninja skills, so how, without being detected, did he manage to enter and exit an apartment that was unfamiliar to him and that was surrounded by the police who were waiting for him? If he’s not intangible, how did he accomplish a similar trick when he stepped outside to see Walt, Jr. for the last time?

He is completely transformed after his long exile to the Granite State, the equivalent of Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. Walter returns beatified, an exalted being with heightened and noble sensibilities. Although it barely registers a pulse on Rotten Tomatoes, Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium apparently has the same transformative effects as Ayahuasca. Except for the final spurt to force Uncle Jack to present Jesse, an impromptu writ of habeas corpus that he uses to bate the prideful lead nazi, Walter is done with lying. His ability to improvise whoppers at a drop of a fedora has always been an indelible character trait. Jesse once pleaded “Can you just stop working me for, like, ten seconds straight?” Sklyer was always the primary victim of Walter’s byzantine fibs. But now the lies are all gone. He confesses to Skyler that he was never trying to do good for his family, but to break bad for himself, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really - I was alive.” Like Jesus, not only does he save the living, but Walter also raises the dead. He gives his wife the GPS coordinates to To’hajiilee where the bodies of Steve and Hank are interred (or where Jesus is buried), a red, desert landscape that recalls the hills around Jerusalem.

Breaking Bad vs. Breaking of the Bread

The former we know it as the show’s title. The latter is a phrase that the apostles used after dining with a resurrected Jesus (see Luke 24:35). Is the matching alliteration and nearly identical wording merely coincidental? Before you answer, consider the titles of a few of the final episodes: “Blood Money” (like what Judas was paid), “Buried” (self-explanatory) and “Confessions” (a favorite Christian ritual with cleansing benefits). Then think back to all the seemingly innocuous and inconsequential events that the BB writers peppered throughout all five seasons, and how eventually and happily you were surprised when the show tied it all together.

Jessie Strokes His Passion

Jesus and Jessie were both carpenters. In the Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus was transported out his of misery to his married life as a carpenter only to be violently pulled back to continue enduring his torture on the cross. Jessie in his dream sequence builds a box, “It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebra wood. It was fitted with pegs, no screws. I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put nose in it and breathed in, it was... it was perfect.” Sadly, perfection proves to be elusive as he is wrenched back into his pit to continue cooking.

Holy Handles

One of BB’s most unsung attributes is its diversity. Tuco Salamanca and Gus Fring rock but they would not be tolerated in most other TV shows or movies. They look and sound too alien for the average viewer’s taste. Even their names are alien. The names of other BB principals are more familiar to the common ear, but the keep a new Testament bent. Jesse in Spanish is short for Jesus. Marie is Mary in French. We have mother and child, but where is the dad? While not exactly fatherly, Old Joe or Joseph, the junkyard owner and Bill of Rights expert fills the bill. And there is more. Holly is not only Christmasy but it (sometimes) means holy. Paul is just as important as the Big J in Christology as Paul was Saul pre-epiphany. “Goodman” was added as irony we can assume. Rounding out the celestial host is Mike, i.e., Michael the archangel. Jane is the feminine form of John, an apostle. Skinny Pete is Peter, the original Rock. Badger’s real name is Brandon Mayhew and Mayhew is Gift of God in French.

It’s a bumpy transition from religion to ethnicity, but it is a necessary one if we wish to examine the German last names that predominate.

Merkert (Hank’s boss), Schuler (head of Madrigal’s fast food division in Germany), Boetticher, Schrader, Schwartz (German and Jewish), White, Ehrmantraut, Beneke, Welker (Uncle Jack), and Heisenberg are all German. While a welcome departure from the Anglophile standards on TV, I doubt they that they accurately reflect Albuquerque’s ethnic demographic. The Teutonic surnames can’t be a coincidence, just like it’s no coincidence that Walter picked Heisenberg as his nom de guerre. Werner Heisenberg was not a chemist, but a theoretical physicist in Nazi Germany who, through his Uncertainty Principle, pioneered quantum mechanics and who headed Hitler’s bungled effort to create an atomic bomb. This is not BB’s only connection to the Third Reich. Los Pollos Hermanos's corporate lineage is traced back to Hannover, one of the many cities that saw its own share of Nazi predations against Jews during WW2. We thus find ourselves firmly on racist ground, that is, on the ground of racists. White and Pinkman mean lacking melanin. Factor in Huell’s undeserved fate, Hank’s incessant and unapologetic anti-Mexican bigotry, and the murderous (are there any other kind?) cackle of skinheads who are not interested in investing a sliver of their fortune on an interior decorator, and suddenly we are riding a wave of white pride (maybe even catching a glimpse of the fabled “white genocide”) to make Breitbart salivate. I trust that the writers weren’t furthering a racist agenda, but instead making fun of anyone who pictures Jesus as Caucasian and presumes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that breaking bad is reserved for brown people.

Like a Meth Head Out of Hell

In the Harrowing of Hell, the mythical window of time between his death and resurrection, Jesus visits the underworld and frees the damned (not sure why he doesn’t do more of that, it being such a nice gesture and all). Jessie certainly finds himself in one of hell’s pits (probably standard in white supremacist compounds and GOP retreats) while being tormented by demons. Devils in the BB cosmos don’t sport horns but shaved/bald heads, don’t you know (Walter, Jesse, Hank, Gus, Mike, the cousins, Hector, Victor, Tuco, and even Huell). Walter heroically delivers Jessie from hell by spilling his own blood and sacrificing his own life. Salvation is gained through the “Sangre de Cristo.”

Walt, the Final Judge

Jesus was a prophet who foretold his own death. Walter predicts his own death, albeit with more flair (he had better writers). “Whatever happens to me tomorrow, they’ll still be out there keeping tabs…a kind of countdown will begin.” To Skyler: “They’re not coming back, not after tonight.” He fulfills the prophecy when he rains downs down heavenly machine gun fire on the den of thieves. Walter did not come to bring peace, but a sword in the form of an M60. We have been trained to revel at the death of nazis, and one death in particular satisfies our blood lust, that of the “dead-eyed Opie peace of shit Todd.” Satan in the New Testament temps Jesus with earthly riches. Uncle Jack tempts Walter, “You want your money, right? You wanna know where it is? You pull that trigger, you’ll never…” Walt rejects the proposition and spatters his no onto the camera lens.

Mr. White on the Cross

Walter dies on the cross in the final seconds. Slowing zooming out, we see Walter bleeding from a self-inflicted wound to his side (a Roman soldier’s spear in Jesus’s case). He is sprawled on the floor (hanging from the sky from our vantage) like a wilted Jesus on a superimposed cross in the form of ceiling crossbeams. It’s the prototypical Renaissance painting of the crucifixion. Jesus died for your/our sins. Never quite as selfless and with the Roman guard gathering at his feet, Walter dies for his own sins (cue Badfinger’s “I guess I got what I deserved”). Saving Jesse helps restore, but just by the tiniest bit, the karmic balance that he tilted so much in favor of darkness. There will always be death, destruction, and regrets trailing behind anyone who has been breaking bad for a while. Whether redemption and enlightenment are also present or even possible depends on one’s willingness to set upon a different path. Walter’s parting shot captures it all, “Cheer up, beautiful people, this is where you get to make it right.”

TV audiences become spoiled from the consistent excellence of their favorite TV shows. Fans prefer a show’s finale to be just as good (and pray that it be better) than the series. The finales of most prestige TV shows have disappointed, but not Breaking Bad. Felina is a tour de force befitting Breaking Bad’s five-year run. But few noticed the obvious Christ symbolism in Felina that is a stark departure from what came before. See if you agree.