Breaking Bad finale review: truth sets a man free. [SPOILERS]

This review is written in some haste. Apologies for choppy writing.

Breaking Bad‘s finale aired last night, and at first, it felt a bit incomplete. There weren’t many surprises. The machine gun really was for Uncle Jack and his Nazi crew. The ricin actually did go into Lydia’s stevia. Walt died shortly after achieving what he needed to do– kill the remaining threats to his family, arrange his money to be given to his family, do his best to keep Skyler out of prosecution, and free Jesse. The finale was extremely tense, but everything went as it was supposed to. It was like the (intensely satisfying, and initially victimless) train heist “Dead Freight”– until Todd fucked it up and brought back the evil. Where was the horrible twist that everyone expected? There wasn’t one.

On reflection, I realized that that was the twist. Walt didn’t exactly “get away” with his crimes– he died alone in a meth lab, and his children will credit his ex-business partner for the benefit he’s conferred upon them. However, it was a happy ending, at least, as happy as it could be, given the horrors of the first 61 episodes. Let’s look at it:

  • Eliot and Gretchen, who (regardless of the still unresolved backstory with Walt) didn’t deserve to die, lived.
  • Walt finds an ingenious way to make sure the money will go to his children, as planned.
  • No one more in Walt’s family died, and threats to them have been neutralized (machine-gunned, ricin-poisoned). Skyler has a good chance of escaping prosecution through cooperation (the coordinates).
  • Walt was able to communicate, convincingly, to his wife that he didn’t kill Hank.
  • Walt died at the height of competence, doing what he loved to do and achieving his goals brilliantly.
  • At least for now, there will be no more blue meth in Albuquerque.
  • Jesse went free.

It was as close to a happy ending as Breaking Bad could have, without losing credibility. (If Walt had lived another five years, or if Jesse and his family had forgiven him, that would break credibility). No more good guys died. That was the twist. The series is still, of course, a tragedy; tragedies can end happily (modulo the means, which are rarely justified by the ends) so long as they are pervaded with suffering.

So why did that happen? Here’s my theory.

Breaking Bad is fundamentally about a man and his lies. We don’t know, for sure, why his scientific career failed. In fact, he worked at Sandia for some time after his exit from Gray Matter, so he almost certainly can’t blame Eliot and Gretchen for his underachievement. Besides, all objective evidence the show gives is that they’re fundamentally good people; Eliot offered Walt a job. My best guess at why Walter failed? Impostor syndrome. To Walter, the excellent career he should have had– even after Gray Matter, he’d have had a lot of options– felt like a lie. Being a weak man when young, he let that sabotage him.

Walter White is not from a wealthy or happy background. His mother is still alive, as hinted early in the series, but he has no contact with his parents and, for a man who claims to be all about family, that’s weird. Are Eliot and Gretchen (who Walter attacked as being a “rich girl” in “Peekaboo”) at fault for Walter’s failure? Of course not. He would have had a million options even after that. Yet out of some cocktail of deep-seated insecurity, latent anger, and contempt for humanity, he threw his promise away in exchange for a thoroughly mediocre life: a wife who never fully respected him, a crappy financial situation, and a suburban lifestyle that bored him.

In Season 1, we’re confronted with the end of his first big lie: that he was happy in the humdrum life for which he’d settled. Cancer wakes him up. He begins down the road to Heisenberg. He swings from lawful-good (lawful neutral?) meekness to chaotic-good badassery, as seen when he destroys an arrogant investment banker’s car, terrorizes his son’s bullies, and nearly kills Tuco with (“this is not meth”) mercury fulminate. That chaotic good character, sadly, cannot live for long in the drug world, which is evil but has its own laws, and therefore pulls a person right toward a lawful-evil attractor over time. He swings toward chaotic evil (deaths of Jane and Gale, poisoning of Brock) and then, when he’s a fully-fledged kingpin, goes back to lawful evil. It’s a continuous C-shaped arc through the law/chaos vs. good/evil space that is imperceptible from episode to episode, but clear when the series is seen in totality.

Cancer strikes again, at Season 5′s midpoint, and kills Walt’s second big lie: Heisenberg. He was happy, he was good at it, but he refused to admit this to himself. He was doing this horrible thing– that he never needed to do, considering Eliot’s job offer given in Season 1– “for his family”.

Throughout Series 5b, Walter White’s lawful evil waned as the cancer weakened him, and as his life fell to ruin despite his best efforts to keep it together. Morally, he settled– into “dead to rights” neutral. Not good, not evil, not lawful, not chaotic. Walter is a bad man– a moral failure, a fundamentally weak person driven into bad choices by his own damaged personality– but not an evil one. Toward the end of 5b, his ability to be truly bad, even, waned. There ceased to be a point in it. At the end, he was a pathetic man who could only buy friendship, at a steep price of $10,000 per hour.

If Walter had become “good”, it would have been a fuck-you of sorts to the numerous victims of real-world methamphetamine. It would have made Walter’s trajectory “OK”. That couldn’t happen. Walter never became good again; one could debate whether he ever was. In that last episode he was, however, honest. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.”

Liberated from his decades of lies– the seemingly good-natured Eliot as the cause of his professional failure, the idea that he was ever happy in his underperforming suburban lifestyle, and the Heisenberg wish-fulfillment– he was able, at least, to summon the highest level of competence. He ended that way not because he was a man without choices, forced to protect his family. He did it for him. Yet everyone who deserved to die did, and not a man (or woman) more. Then the one who knocks, knocked off, pretty much on his own terms.

Had Walter been still mired in his lies, the ending wouldn’t have been nearly as happy. He might have killed Eliot and Gretchen in a vindictive rage, losing any chance of his family’s escape from the misery he created. He might have done his family in out of some hideous “mercy” justification. There are a million ways that, had Walter not broken away from his old self-deceptions, he could have ended things in a much worse way.

Oddly, the lack of a twist ending was the twist. Often, twist endings deal with concealment and artistic “dishonesty” that is rectified at the end. Here, there was no place for that. The lies that are torn apart in a drama’s ending were right in front of us the whole time, and their demolition was exactly what had to happen.

Ambition Against Humanity

One of the more interesting game design challenges is to combine two games. What would a mashup between Chess and Go look like? Or Magic: the Gathering versus Backgammon? How about Arimaa meets Oh Hell? Most of these mashups flat-out wouldn’t work; some might. Here’s my attempt to create one that, I think, would at least be interesting. Perhaps a bit depraved, but so it goes…

Combinatorial game theory gives us a mathematical definition for the sum of two games, but that rarely creates interactions between the two and, anyway, the games I’d want to mash together tend to be more complex (3+ players, hidden information) than typical combinatorial games. So that’s not what I mean to talk about here.

There are two typical techniques for combining two (or more) games. One is to put them in conflict. Each has its own winning (or losing) condition and it’s nearly impossible to perform well in both (see: Attika). This creates a “between-game” game of figuring out which one to play, while defending against other players’ attempts to win either. The other is to make one game support the other, insofar as success in one leads to having more resources in the other, from which the winning and losing conditions derive. I’m going to take the second approach.

What would happen if you combined Ambition (go here if you don’t know what that is) and Cards Against Humanity (go here)?

First of all, a single round of Ambition works with 4 players, but that number seems to be pretty strict. I haven’t been able to come up with a decent variant for a different number. However, a full game of Ambition can be played with 5+, by rotating people in and out of 4-player rounds (“tournament style”). There’s a lot to say about table position and fairness (no player getting two or more rounds in excess of another) and ending conditions that you need to consider if you want to run a serious tournament, and that stuff I won’t get into here, because it’s not relevant to the deliberately unfair mashup game. Chances are, if you’re combining Ambition with Cards Against Humanity, you’re interested more in hilarity than fairness…

So how does this mash-up work?

Players: 5 or more. You could play it with 4, but the strategies aren’t as interesting because no one ends up sitting out of the Ambition round. Since each round of Ambition plays with exactly four, this means that some players will have to sit out of each hand (as with tournament play). However, each player participates in the Cards Against Humanity component, which is used to select players for each round of Ambition.

Equipment: you need a Cards Against Humanity set, the equipment for Ambition (cards and chips/counters), and an additional deck for (silent) ranked voting.

Round structure: each round begins with a Cards phase, in which everyone plays. To keep anonymity around whose choice is whose, everyone votes silently, and the choices are shown only once all have voted. Instead of voting for one choice, it’s a ranked voting system (each player ranks all submissions) resolved with a Borda count. That is, if there are 7 players, then each 1st-place vote is 6 points, each 2nd-place vote is 5 points, and so on… down to last place, which is 0 points. So if John gets 3 first-place votes, 2 seconds, a fifth, and a last-place, his total score is 3*6 + 2*5 + 2 + 0 = 30 points. These voting points (with one exception, below, should a player get all last place votes) aren’t scored to the game; they’re only used to determine who plays at a round of Ambition.

The top three vote-getters, and the last-place vote-getter, begin a round of Ambition. However, it’s a deliberately unfair round. The first-place vote-getter gets an initial hand of 18 cards; second-place vote-getter gets 16, third-place vote-getter gets 14. Each of those selects a 13-card hand from that pool. The last-place vote getter gets the remaining 4 cards, plus the 9 cards not wanted by the other players. Unlike in the typical game, the 3-card pass at a round’s onset does not occur. Then they play a round of Ambition, according to the normal rules.

Tie-breaking in voting: If there’s a 1st-2nd, 2nd-3rd, or 1st-2nd-3rd tie in vote points, you don’t need to break the tie; just average the initial hand sizes together. For example, in a 1st-2nd tie, you’d have the tied player getting 17 cards each. In a 1st-2nd-3rd tie, they’d each get 16. If there’s a 3rd-4th tie– meaning one player will sit out– then tie-break in favor of the person with more first-place votes (if tied in this, then use second-place votes, and so on). If there’s still a tie after all that, meaning they have the exact same vote distributions, then the player who is farther behind sits in the round. (If they’re tied in even that, then flip a coin.) Ties for last-place are resolved similarly, except in “favor” of the person with the most last-place votes (and so on) and, if that fails to break the tie, then in favor of the player who’s most ahead in the game.

Objective: points and strikes, earned during the rounds of Ambition, accrue from round to round. When a player accumulates four strikes, he loses and is eliminated from the game. Once K players (1 < K < N-3) have been eliminated, the game is over, and the player with the most points (among those without 4 strikes) is the winner of the game.

Note: choice of K, above, depends on what you want from your game; higher K means more players are eliminated on strikes, making avoidance of strikes more important relative to getting points. In tournament-style Ambition, typical K is 0.33-0.5*N, but if you’re looking to have a light flavor and don’t want player elimination, just use K = 1 (i.e. end the tournament as soon as one player’s eliminated).

Exception (Misere): if any player receives only last-place votes from each player in the Cards Against Humanity phase, the round of Ambition is not played, and that player scores 120 points (equivalent to the best possible outcome of an Ambition round). If someone chooses so horribly as to receive across-the-board last-place votes (including from herself) she did something right.

Strategy: note that this mash-up is an unfair Ambition tournament, with the unfairness derived from success in Cards Against Humanity. However, there are a few interesting considerations. Note Ambition’s two-dimensional scoring system. There are points, which are the normal objective; and strikes, which can cause you to lose even if you have the most points. If you have three strikes, you’re much more focused on avoiding strikes than if you have none; in the latter case, the risk of a strike is worth taking if there’s a good chance of getting a lot of points (e.g. a Slam attempt). Where you are in the game determines whether you’re more focused on avoid strikes or on getting points.

In general, in Ambition Against Humanity, you want to do well in the voting phase so you get to play Ambition rounds and score points. However, the third-place prize (getting into the round, but with a relatively mediocre hand) is not always desirable; sure, there are opportunities to score points, but also to strike. Conversely, the last-place (in voting) punishment isn’t always bad; you end up with a crappy hand, but that still gives you an opportunity to score. So you may find yourself trying to avoid a top-three finish in the Cards phase if you’re at two or three strikes; or, if you have relatively few strikes, you might go for full-on awfulness in order to get a last-place finish, just to get yourself into the Ambition round, or to attempt to get the 120-point bonus when a player completely fails in the voting.