The finale of 's Breaking Bad came too quickly, even though the last leg of the fifth season ran us all through such an emotional wringer that every second felt like an exquisitely cruel eternity. One of the most thrilling rides in television history bowed out in utterly superb fashion last Sunday. In fact, the ending of the show was so perfect that it retroactively provided new context to the sole episode in the show's run that this writer felt was in any way lacking.
I realize that my former lack of affinity for 's episode "Fly" placed me solidly in the minority, but it just struck me as more of an aesthetic experiment than a suitable progression of one of television's most captivating storylines. However, in the wake of the finale, so many of elements of "Fly" serve as a fascinating omens of the final act. That's not to presume that any of these connections were necessarily the intention of Johnson or Gilligan, in fact Gilligan has said in interviews that he and his writers labored until the very end on the ultimate fates of the lead characters, so it's entirely possible the finale had not even been plotted when "Fly" aired. Let's just say that revisiting "Fly" is an entirely new experience once you've seen how Breaking Bad wraps up.
Be forewarned, spoilers to follow. Do not read on if you have not seen the finale.
Lullabies and Funeral Dirges
The episode begins with Skylar singing a lullaby to baby Holly, but there's another, figurative implication for this particular musical prologue. Even in season 3, we are presented with a gentle tune to ultimately lull Heisenberg to his eternal slumber. What's really interesting to compare is the first song of "Fly," a lullaby, and the song the closes out the series: Badfinger's "Baby Blue." If we subscribe to the idea that these two episodes are bookends, or at least that one foretells the other, there is of course the semantic symmetry of "Hush, Little Baby" and "Baby Blue." It could also be argued that this speaks to the cradle-to-the-grave inevitability of life cycles, which is a macrocosm of Walt's inevitable downfall. Finally, in a bizarre twist, but the 7'' vinyl single of "Baby Blue" featured the b-side "Flying." Again this is noted with no presumption that it was Gilligan's/Johnson's intention, but it does add a wonderful new dimension to "Fly."
From the lullaby, we go directly into the opening titles, which are immediately followed by the blinking light from the smoke detector. It's no revelation that death is a recurring theme of "Fly," Walt openly discusses it, but framing the episode in the context of a portent of things to come, one would be hard-pressed to find a more overt representation of a warning than a device literally designed to warn people of life-threatening circumstances. The last shot of the episode is the titular fly within that red smoke detector light. As the fly is a harbinger of death, blending the two images artfully unifies the metaphor.
The placement of the detector, and the camera positioning it necessitates, is the other major parallel between "Fly" and "Felina." The top-down view from the ceiling matches the final shot of the show, as we ascend to the rafters and stare down at a dying Walter White. The shot of the smoke detector also plays into several of the shots from inside the meth lab wherein the fly harasses Walt. Could it be that the final shot of the series draws from " Fly" and reminds us that in fact we, the audience, are the fly on the wall throughout all of Walt's misdeeds?
The Science of Chaos
What makes "Fly" such a strange episode is watching Walter White, the mastermind who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone, come completely unglued over so insignificant an event. Funny enough, during this episode, Walt references watching a show about elephants. Elephants, despite their size, are often wary of even the smallest creatures such as ants and other insects. Here, Walt, the burgeoning drug kingpin, is put off by a tiny little fly. But then, flies are often associated with rot, with decay. To put the finest of points on it, flies are often found buzzing around corpses.
The fly is a nagging reminder that for all his best-laid plans, Walt can't escape the eventuality of his death; not from the cancer, but indeed from his nefarious actions. In "Fly," he refers to the lab as a highly-controlled environment. Walt's initial dalliance into the drug business was not financially motivated, nor could he have immediately comprehended the power he would amass over time. The real reason Walter started cooking meth is because it was an application of chemistry; a science, like any other, founded upon facts and absolutes. Chemistry is something he knew, something he could control. The appearance of the fly in his lab is a reminder that even within his beloved haven of chemistry, and the enterprise in which he has chosen to utilize it, there are things he cannot control. This is the reason he muses about Jane's dad and chaos theory, about how everything is random.
This devotion to science, this desperate clinging to the rigorous constants of his beloved chemistry, is echoed in Walt's final moments on this mortal coil. As the police close in, and the bullet wound drains the last of his life, Walt tenderly caresses the various beakers and industrial vats of Todd's meth lab. This particular lab is not a place he has spent any time previously, but the same reverence for chemistry that had him losing his mind to rid his own laboratory of a single insect in that season 3 episode is now instilling in him, for arguably the first time in the show's run, an overwhelming sense of peace. This is the reason for the smile on his face as he expires.
During "Fly," Walt talks about wanting to achieve "the perfect moment." He talks about it as an unobtainable, almost ethereal set of ideal circumstances. He says, "I've lived too long, you want them to actually miss you." He's talking about redemption, or at least departing this world with everything set straight. He laments that the cancer didn't kill him before his wife found out about his drug business; again that his best-laid plans went awry. I would argue that his "perfect moment" is actually that last shot in the finale. He's given Skylar leverage to avoid further prosecution, he's secured his family's financial future, and he's saved Jesse. His resignation to his fate, the almost euphoric moment in which he takes his last breath, is what allows his perfect moment to also be the perfect ending.
Eerily, the closing moments between Walt and Jesse in the lab in "Fly" foreshadow the events that transpire at the close of "Felina." If we assume that the fly represents death, then it becomes wholly important to note that it is not Walt who ultimately kills it, but instead Jesse. Walt is steadying the ladder atop the shelving units, but by the time Jesse accomplishes his task, Walt, who has been fighting sleep throughout the whole insect incident, slips into a peaceful repose. When all is said and done, and the credits roll on the last episode of Breaking Bad, it is Jesse who has bested death; escaping from Todd's ruthless clan. Walt was once again put into a position where Jesse's life was in his hands, and he makes the decision to save him. Walt then slips into the sweet sleep of death.