If for some strange reason you don’t want to hear anything more about the finale of “Breaking Bad,” then you should quietly turn away and get on with your life. Because we’re going down the rabbit hole.
As I wrote Monday morning, the ending of “Breaking Bad” had a certain “comic book” quality, replete with an almost magical, remote-control machine gun that pops up from Walter White’s trunk and takes out the meth-lab-running Nazis. I had my fun observing that Walt had become nothing less than a superhero. But what I did not do is take that observation the final step, which would be to declare that the whole thing was a dream.
The best explication of the Just A Dream scenario comes from The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum. Nussbaum doesn’t actually say she thinks it was a dream. This was “a cinematic fantasy that never declared itself, except in my own tiny head.” But others, such as comedian Norm MacDonald via Twitter, have been more definitely declaring that Walt, in fact, died in New Hampshire in the cold, and thus the entirety of that final episode, with all its neatly tied loose ends, was merely his dying fantasy.
It’s an appealing thought. Was not Walt remarkably ghost-like in that episode, able to elude capture despite being a wanted man, repeatedly appearing in public where surely there would have been a stake-out, and at one point walking silently in a rich couple’s mansion as if he could walk through walls? Did he not seemingly materialize out of thin air before his wife in their final encounter? Wasn’t it all just too perfect, too much of what Walt would have wanted in his final delusional moments on Earth?
This is a case, I’m sorry to say, of overthinking.
First, as a writer at HuffPo points out, the fantasy scenario is undermined by scenes in the finale that Walt could not have imagined, because they involved things not known to him.
At the risk of heresy, let me suggest that “Breaking Bad” is just a TV show. Most likely, creator Vince Gilligan wanted his TV show to end the way TV shows usually do, with something broadly satisfying, even if critics like Nussbaum found it way too “closure-happy.” (A writer for Grantland puts it this way: “It squared each circle. It righted all the wrongs. Everything that had been done was undone. The pieces fit together. The keys were in the car. The car was in the compound. The gun was in the trunk. The cat was in the bag. And the bag’s in the river.)
The fact that the last episode is comic-bookish, and unrealistic, and seemingly designed to please as many people as possible, would only be evidence of a shadow narrative (Walt is really dead) if we were to accept the notion that television can’t be a comic-bookish, unrealistic mass medium.
Moreover, Gilligan in his post-finale comments during the “Talking Bad” segment, did not suggest that there was any secret narrative in the mix. He basically said, I didn’t want ambiguity. I didn’t want a cliffhanger like the one David Chase chose at the end of “The Sopranos.” (He referred to Walt caressing his shiny meth-lab boiler the way Gollum caresses his “Precious,” the ring, in “The Lord of the Rings.”)
Can the “true” meaning of a final episode be something inferred by Sherlockian fans but never directly and overtly acknowledged by the show’s creator, nor, more importantly, revealed explicitly in the show itself? Can there be a secret meaning if the show comes to a close and the secret still hasn’t been divulged?
If, in fact, Gilligan conceived of the finale as a dream-sequence, the fact remains that he didn’t pull the trigger. We never see, at the end, any suggestion that it all ended in the frozen north. As Nussbaum said, the fantasy never declared itself.
In high-low poker, you typically end with a bet-declare-bet protocol. The cards are all on the table, and you place a bet, and then you have to declare which way you’re going – high or low. But there’s another wrinkle: In a 7-card game, you can go both high and low, potentially (among your 7 cards, you might have both the highest 5-card hand the and lowest 5-card hand).
It is remotely conceivable that Gilligan, in devising this final episode, had the notion of going both low and high, playing both the low hand (pleasing everyone) and the high hand (a more subtle narrative to intrigue the brainy obsessoids). That’s just not what happened, though. The way it looks to me, when it came time to declare, Gilligan went low.