Down the Rabbit Hole…
Like a lot of you, I was firmly planted on my couch last week for the Breaking Bad finale. No need to go into superlatives about the show. You either appreciate it or you don’t watch it.
At the series’ conclusion I, also presumably like you, stared at my television screen for a few minutes without speaking. Just soaking things up. The first thing I said to my wife when I snapped-to was “Wow, that was great.” And for the next several days, any time I was asked my opinion on “Felina,” I gave the same canned response: “I thought it was perfect.”
But now I raise an eyebrow high in retrospect, and consider “maybe too perfect…”
Within a short amount of time, rumors and theories started circulating on the web concerning what really happened in that final hour and fifteen minutes. That is, aside from the incessant commercials. The most intriguing of those theories was highlighted in an article on Buzzfeed which meditated on the thought (popularized by none other than renowned social philosopher Norm MacDonald’s Twitter feed) that the entire finale was nothing more than Walter White’s deranged fantasy—a hallucination. The idea was simple. Walter White died right there in the car at the beginning, surrounded by the police, but his brain crafted one last narcissistic fantasy, and that fantasy became our episode.
The delusion allegedly kicked in when the Volvo’s keys auspiciously fell into Walt’s lap. I scoffed at first. Then I thought about it. Then I started pacing my cell. Soon my brain had gone haywire recalling all the little things that seemed “off” about the finale. By the end of the day I had become convinced that the Walter White Dream Theory wasn’t a theory, but a concrete law of nature. Like gravity or Sean Hannity acting like an asshole. While I didn’t concoct the hypothesis, and will probably reiterate points made elsewhere, there are additional supporting details that were either un- or under-addressed.
The genius of Breaking Bad has always been in the show’s minutia. If there’s one thing its writers have proven over 60-plus episodes, it’s that everything is intentional. Every scene serves a purpose, every spoken word a potential clue, with every random image-turned-metaphor being capable of biting the viewer’s ass further down the road.
“Felina”’s opening sequence is the true crux of the fantasy theory. As Walt sits entombed (ahem) in that frozen Volvo, the muffled red and blue flash of police lights tensely grows and then fades. My wife turned to me at that point and said “Yeah, right.” Which was my immediate reaction as well—but neither of us were about to sit and nitpick, being far too intent on finding out just how this was all going to end.
But now in the cooling-down hours, the bumbling police work gnaws at me. The most wanted man in America may have just willingly turned himself in, and the authorities responded appropriately with a half-dozen shotgun-wielding officers bursting into an empty bar in the middle of Podunk. But their golden ticket of a perp wasn’t inside. So what did they do? They just moseyed on back to the station, apparently. That lame effort to snag a high-profile criminal might fly in some shitty CSI rerun, but not in the best-crafted drama of the past decade. Walt’s far-too-easy escape suggests that one of three things about Breaking Bad’s writing team.
1. They were being lazy and uncreative. (they weren’t)
2.They were assuming they had a stupid audience. (they weren’t)
3.They were intentionally setting something up. (ding ding)
The fact that the Po-Po never bothered to perform a cursory search of the fifty-foot radius outside the New Hampshire tavern is baffling. Or that they would have failed to follow what would have been a fresh set of snow prints to the nearest—and likely only—vehicle on premises. It would have been easier for the writers to have simply removed the police presence from the script. Consider it: had they not intended for the scene to play out precisely as it did, all that would have been necessary was for Walt to have never phoned the FBI. He could have still called Flynn without being tracked, still seen the interview on The Charlie Rose Show, still plotted his revenge, and still gone about his trip home without changing any of the show’s ensuing events. But he did pick up the phone and he did get out of what should have been a doomed situation, all without a single whiff of confrontation. It doesn’t add up.
The details of Walt’s entire multi-day journey back to New Mexico are absent from the episode. We see him once at a remote gas station, and then he’s suddenly arrived home. The New York Times’ TV critic noted Walt’s ghostly presence throughout the remainder of the episode, moving from place to place, “almost as if invisible.” Or the way one might in a dream. Think Inception where Leo D. explains to Ellen Page that “you always wind up right in the middle of what’s going on,” and without being able to explain how you arrived. Throughout “Felina,” Walt repeatedly appears in places without explication. He materializes at Gretchen and Eliot’s plush abode without tripping any security triggers on their zillion-dollar residence; then he literally emerges from nowhere at Skyler’s new apartment, then exits the building with officers standing by looking to apprehend any bespectacled meth dealer on sight. All of this as Walt, Albuquerque’s most notorious former resident, allegedly strolls around town for a day or so without being noticed by anyone.
The show truly broke form by tying things up so neatly in the end. Up to that point, Breaking Bad had never been an exercise in justice. If anything the series centered on injustice and the ways in which life can play cruel tricks on the innocent. So “Felina”’s tidy packaging, with Walt ending his life on his own terms, the bad guys getting slaughtered en masse, his family being assured of a comfortable life, and Jesse freed from slavery seem almost too ideal. Like nothing that had ever occurred on the show before. Or rather, something that could have only been imagined as the absolute perfect ending…in the delusional mind of one Walter White, Sr.
There are also the visual clues that reiterate “Felina’s” dream-like traits. Check out the lighting whenever Walt is in a room. He is framed in a bright, angelic whiteness in a number of scenes, including his tear-jerking final moments with little Holly, and his ultimate confrontation with the gang in the clubhouse. It’s hard to not see those visuals as purposeful, feeding into Walt’s own Christ-like sense of importance and self-sacrifice, and his omnipotent delusions of grandeur. “I am the one who knocks,” he’d already informed us. Or, “All Hail the King,” as the final season’s tagline boasted. Jesus' team of lawyers is currently suing AMC for copyright infringement.
The dialogue in “Felina” itself possesses a loopy quality to it, as others have observed, that seems to play to Walt’s ego and the notion of his already-established demise. His cryptic language is ramped up in the episode’s final minutes.
To Skyler: “It’s over. And I needed a proper goodbye.”
Then in reference to his body of work, “I was alive,” he tells her.
In the decisive confrontation with Jesse:
Jesse: “Nothing happens until I hear you say it.”
Walt: “I want this.”
Jesse: “Then do it yourself.”
And he was already, in that messed-up noggin of his.
Finally to Lydia, the last person with whom he speaks: “Yeah, it’s done. He’s gone.…it’s Walt.” As if he were a man speaking in third person while he stares at his own headstone.
And so we all watched this brilliant figure pass (once again surrounded by the police), having perfectly outsmarted everyone and suffering at no hand but his own. Having dealt with none of the constant roadblocks that he’d encountered since his life’s course had first strayed years ago. A beautiful finale for one character in particular, and a final act that left everything poetically resolved.
The great thing about conspiratorial notions like these is that they can’t be proven. The show is, after all, a work of fiction. Which is also why none of us have to feel guilty for experiencing sheer joy as Jesse strangled the hell out of Todd’s stupid neck. But there’s enough wiggle room for both the real or imagined versions of “Felina,” and the episode hums along perfectly regardless of which side you take.
Truth, morality, and now the reality of Breaking Bad have always been subjective in nature. It’s part of the series’ allure. But perhaps Vince Gilligan and Co. pulled one final trick, allowing just enough space for the doubt to creep in, and ensuring a debate which can never be answered with certainty. That’s what keeps us chattering away out in cyberspace or at our water coolers. It’s a small but perplexing twist that could push what was unarguably a great show into the pantheon of those that we consider the very greatest.