No, the 'Breaking Bad' Finale Was Not a Dream Sequence

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No, the 'Breaking Bad' Finale Was Not a Dream Sequence

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 9, 2013 | Comments ()


(Enormous spoilers below.)

Something weird happened after Breaking Bad ended. The finale (which I reviewed here) started to garner some interesting reactions that went beyond normal criticism or analysis. Specifically, people started to spitball that maybe the final episode hadn’t actually happened — meaning, that the events we saw did not actually take place in the same narrative world as the rest of the series — and that, instead, most of the show’s final hour was a hallucination in the decaying mind of Walter White, who froze to death in his car before ever leaving New Hampshire. This theory was floated in at least two locations shortly after the episode aired: on The New Yorker’s TV blog, by critic Emily Nussbaum, and on Twitter, by comedian Norm MacDonald. Nussbaum’s contention is that everything that came after the scene of Walter in his car “possessed an eerie, magical feeling,” that things came too easily for Walter in the final episode, and that the episode would’ve made “far more sense” if the whole thing had just been a fever dream. MacDonald said the same things, basically: Walter, “the most wanted man there is,” shouldn’t have been able to do the things he did in the final episode, like quietly sneak into the cafe, elude police long enough to see his wife, and so on. (This despite the presence of narrative beats like Marie’s worried call to Skyler about how many tips the DEA had been getting about Walter’s appearance in Albuquerque, which had stretched them thin, a machination on Walter’s part that let him move through town the way he did.) This is all kind of cute, and even enjoyably creative on a certain level, but it’s also totally wrong.

For starters, Breaking Bad was just not that kind of show. There were plenty of departures from a linear narrative — the second season’s cold opens showing the wreckage of Wayfarer 515, the occasional flashbacks, the music video — but this was still ultimately a show committed to telling a very specific story and doing it in a very precise way. The world of Breaking Bad could be heightened and pulpy and violent, but it was also internally consistent. There were no supernatural elements to explain away motive, no mysterious forces that had a hand in things. Creator Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers and producers were devoted to exploring the fallout of a single question: What happens when a good man decides to become evil? They did this through drama rooted in causality, and they did it with a commitment to craft and consistency that’s fiendishly hard to pull off.

Yet I don’t think that matters for some viewers. I think some people want a grander mystery or conspiracy simply because they’ve trained themselves to expect one. (And the beauty of conspiracy theories is that absence of proof is treated like the presence of proof.) Part of it has to deal with the outsized expectations placed on series finales in previous years, from the sitcom episodes that tried to balance laughter with a poignant summation of everything that had come before, to the dramatic finales that tried to shoot the moon and go out in a blaze of, if not glory, then certainly infamy. Finales that try to blow up the world they spent weeks or years building are eye-catching, but they’re just as likely to be bad, clumsy storytelling. They aren’t trying to satisfy a narrative but to shock the viewers. People are still talking about the ending of St. Elsewhere, which seemed to posit that everything that had happened on the series’ 137 episodes was actually just the intricate daydream of an autistic boy. This is a fantastic ending if you’re looking to startle the viewer, but it’s completely stupid from even a half-assed view of drama. Even looking back on the show close to 25 years later, the cast could only express disdain, confusion, or tight-lipped versions of “no comment” when asked about the twist ending. (My favorite non-dismissal dismissal is probably Mark Harmon’s: “They made a choice, and the choice is interesting.”) According to the cast, the writers weren’t even trying to make a statement, but looking for a way to preclude reunions and spinoffs. That’s not storytelling, that’s salting the earth. But kicker endings like that primed TV audiences for years to expect not just finales, but grand finales, as if the point of the series wasn’t to entertain or tell a story but to set up some incomprehensibly great final installment.

The ebb and flow of the popularity of mystery-reliant shows amplified things. Twin Peaks solved its central mystery after a few episodes but just kept going until it backed itself into a corner and died an unfortunate death. The X-Files ran for nine seasons and got tangled in a number of increasingly convoluted conspiracy stories, ending with a sigh in 2002; in 2004, Lost premiered and started everything back up again. There always seems to be room in pop culture for a TV show that’s not just big but mysterious. Breaking Bad was definitely big, but it was anything but mysterious. To try and graft some kind of otherworldly, rule-bending, wall-breaking finale onto the show doesn’t track with the series Gilligan spent so many years perfecting. It’s a sloppy, selfish move born of a blindered view of TV history, and one that doesn’t have any place in the show’s legacy.

We want to act as if there’s some other hidden truth out there; we want, like Fox Mulder, to believe. But that impulse can make us miss what’s happening right in front of our eyes. We always want there to be some kind of extra meaning (one writer is even trying to come up with one for Gravity; here’s a spoilery story about it if you feel like pulling your hair out). Maybe it’s because these TV series enter our lives for years and we wind up feeling as if we own them, or at least a part of them. And that’s understandable. But many — most — TV series are not games filled with red herrings and clues. Inventing a theory that happens to fit some of the facts on display doesn’t mean you’ve come up with a new way to read a series or episode; it just means you’re throwing more crap at the wall to see what sticks. Gilligan and co. made a challenging, gripping, often morally fearless show, and it’s a disservice to them to try and rewrite their text instead of receiving and analyzing it. When I see headlines like “Creator Vince Gilligan explains series finale”, I wonder, what is there to explain? There’s plenty to talk about in terms of plotting, execution, and emotion, but to explain? Breaking Bad is worth watching, and worth watching again, but there is no great conspiracy here. There is only a chance to watch a character tear his life apart, and to wonder whether we’d be willing to take the same journey. It’s about the hell of the human condition. Isn’t that mystery enough?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • BeardoGomez

    Also, he made it pretty clear that Walt died at the end of Felina *immediately* after it aired, on Talking Bad.

  • vic

    "There were no supernatural elements to explain away motive, no mysterious forces that had a hand in things."

    I agree completely, but there was one moment in the frozen car that I'm sure had a lot of people jumping to conclusions like the "dream" explanation. It's when Walter says something along the lines of "Please, just let me get to Albuquerque. I'll do the rest." And then he checks the sunshade and out fall the keys to the ignition. That one contrivance was probably the tipping point.

    But really, people. Ockham's razor. Walter White got more than he deserved, but he still got it.

  • googergieger



    Bringing it back.

  • Cappy

    This article is stupid and boring. The writer should not only stop writing about television, he should stop watching television.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Your comment is stupid and infinitely boring. You should stop posting here (although you can certainly keep watching TV if you want).

  • koomo

    The "cancer coma in the Volvo" theory has several flaws, but the alternative is to acknowledge that the finale contained almost as many implausibilities as the rest of the show combined.

    That Jesse, what a cook. Got the purity so high, and did so in a lab exposed to the desert dust and winds. Worth it for the great view of approaching police cars, though.

    Skinny Pete, thank goodness he was listed in the phone book and was exactly the kind of guy who always lives in the same place.

    Gretchen, so thoughtful of her to keep a picture of herself with her ex- in her new home, despite the couple's multimillion dollar donation effort to distance themselves from him. Oh, btw, you might spring for some more security.

    Walter, spending his months in the cabin practicing the art of sweetener packet poisoning. And to pull one over the eyes of an OCD/perfectionist, too! Well done, Walt.

    Walter's power of persuasion, getting those easy-going Nazis to let him park the car exactly as he wanted to, and at just the correct level (assuming one doesn't fantasize himself as a martyr and fall atop Jesus...I mean, Jesse). And then for the entire camp's security to join him in the clubhouse!

    Walter going from barely being able to hold a .38 to making a flawless M60 platform...I guess he had internet access in the cabin after all.

    Walter and Jesse's nemeses as the only survivors of the attack, so that our men could take them out in just the ways an angry man might dream of.

    Jesse as Jesus, Walter as Pilate. Forgot the crown of thorns, Walter!

    Showrunner admitting Twilight Zone as favorite series, hopes BB can be remembered as long. Broke into the business on X-Files. No way would such a person try anything that wasn't straight-forward.

    There are so many more examples.

    Regardless, great episode. Amazing series. I miss the show already.

  • GDI

    Jesse getting such a high purity did bother me. Not in a major way; just a tiny itch that made me think that he was truly the Jesus of meth as the only rational answer.

    Everything else is much more easy to dismiss. The show has been steeped in minor impossibilities and insane coincidences. It's kinda the charm, ya know?

  • BeardoGomez

    Season 3, episode 7 or 8
    "Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine"

    Season 4, Jesse gets sent to Mexico to train Gus's competitors in cooking Heisenberg quality meth. I can't recall exactly but I'm pretty sure they even test his purity in the lab and it's like 94%

    Jesse's been able to cook such high purity for a few seasons now.

  • M

    If the last conversation Walter has with Skylar is a dream sequence then the encounter between Skylar and the White Supremacy Ninjas was also a dream Walter had. Otherwise, how could Walter know?

  • DarthCorleone

    I agree with pretty much everything you said, and think the dream interpretation is not only a little silly but also wrong. However, I do acknowledge the right for these people to read it as a dream if they so desire. For some of them, it's the best or only way they find the finale satisfying, so what's wrong with that? Once the art is out there, it belongs to each of us individually to interpret as we please.

  • vic

    Well, quite right, they have the freedom to do so. Voltaire, fight to the death for your opinion, etc. But we too have the freedom to complain about how silly it is.

  • dr_zayaz

    I agree with this and Warren Elliis' hypothesis that Walt was "dead" in the last episode but Heisenberg was very much alive. All Walt's bumbling and lies were gone and Heisenberg's plan went off without a hitch.

  • brite

    Thank you...that was an excellent piece about an excellent series that needed no mysterious gimmicky ending for it to be completely satisfying.

  • JJ

    When have these grand conspiracies ever borne fruit? Like asserting that Megan Draper has been dead, or that Neo was actually a machine the whole time?

    Dammit, if I keep digging, I'm bound to find hidden meaning gold/oil/sewage line eventually!

  • foolsage

    Fans thought Decker was a replicant, which was later confirmed by the director, as well as being confirmed in early drafts of the screenplay.

  • Guest

    I agree with all of this, but I have to add that the smoothness of the finale lends itself to these misguided interpretations. I loved the finale, but I did think it moved too quickly from Walt trying to force his will on the world to him admitting that he had done everything for himself. I wanted there to be more of a slow awareness rather than the abrupt confession to Skylar. It's really interesting to me how and when Walt was able to admit to himself that it was never about his family, it was about his ego, his legacy, his selfishness, and his wanting to feel alive. Did he know it all along and just pretend to everyone else, or was he able to fool himself into believing his own BS. It was probably a little of both.

    All that to say, I can see where some people might not be able to wrap their heads around it all, and having been trained for some great twist, leap on the most plausible one for explanation. I don't agree with them, but I can understand.

  • leuce7

    It seemed very quick to the viewer, but we're supposed to assume Walt spent a few months mostly alone in New Hampshire, with nothing to do but think and wait for his fast-approaching mortality. I can buy that with that much time to think, away from the pressures of his family, money laundering, comparing himself to the success of others, etc., his rationalizations would eventually break down; Walter's own logical mind is strong, second only to his ego, and if he's alone, how long is he really going to go on stoking his ego? Especially when he has to think about why he's all alone out there in the woods.

    That said, it was a very neatly wrapped up ending, despite what may or may not have happened after Walt's final mission, and I for one am very thankful for it. Realistic or not, I hate not getting that feeling of closure at the end of something.

  • Guest

    I thought about the long, lonely months in the cabin, too, and was able to let go of any nitpicking issues I had with his honesty because of it. I am really glad for the closure as well. I actually loved the final episode. It brought back an almost playfulness that is part of why the show is beloved.

    My point here was that I can sort of understand the need for something else, something more. It's annoying because of precisely how well Gilligan and co. ended the series, but I get it.

  • Gonzalo Jimenez

    Oliver Stone critizes Breaking Bad finale:

  • GDI

    Stone is one to criticize. Savages was a god damn travesty; the violence did not serve a narrative purpose, the story was just nonsense (yes, marijuana trafficking requires lots and lots of guns), and the acting was crap.

  • mzbitca

    What I find interesting about people's reactions to finale is that they assume that everything worked out just the way Walt wanted to. That Flynn got the money, that Sklar was able to avoid prison, that Jesse somehow isn't an incredibly damaged person. It's like just because Gilligan didn't show those machinations falling apart we have to assume they didn't. I think it's perfectly in keeping in Walt's character: Overall, Walt was intelligent and lucky, but he was not a master planner and most of his success revolved around his ability to manipulate. By the end of the season there was noone left to manipulate. Maybe Gretchen and Elliott but although the lazer pointer thing was clever I doubt it keeps them in check for long, and just because he gave Skylar the ticket doesn't mean it's going to work to absolve her of guilt in the DEA's eyes. I feel like that's been a criticism of realism but I just think it's where he stopped telling the story because the story was from Walt's perspective and now Walt's dead.

  • emmalita

    This. There's no resolution for anybody but the people who are dead. Even if Skyler is off the legal hook, she's so damaged. Jesse isn't off the hook legally either, in additions to being damaged. Even if Flynn gets the money and the DEA doesn't take it, the White family troubles aren't over. Walt scorched the earth and salted it.

  • Fredo

    This reminds me of the big hullabaloo that followed the initial Cloverfield teaser. People rushing through websites, uncovering all sorts of weird games and pages that they said were attached to it, all of it unscripted and unintended.

    People see what they want to see.

  • Not all opinions are created equal. It's biggest problem with the internet age and one that's getting worse, not better. Glad someone is willing to put his or her foot down.

  • Helo

    That's the double edged sword of the internet and mass communication. Everyone's got an opinion and the right to share it, but too many people equate having that right with CREDIBILITY.

  • Janey

    Thank you.

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