The 'Breaking Bad' finale, revisited: Was it all a dream? A nightmare? Or just right?
It's been nearly a week since the "Breaking Bad" series finale aired, and while my opinion hasn't changed much from what I wrote on Sunday night, there are a few odds and ends I wanted to touch on while they're on my mind, coming up just as soon as I suggest you get a bigger knife...
So the thing everyone has been asking me about for the last couple of days is the theory — first presented by Emily Nussbaum in her morning-after analysis, then taken up by both Norm MacDonald and Joyce Carol Oates on their Twitter feeds — that the great bulk of "Felina" is actually Walter White's dying dream as he sits in the car in New Hampshire. In this interpretation, the keys aren't in the visor and Walt never makes it out of the snow, never cons Gretchen and Elliott into laundering his money, never leaves the Denny's waitress a big tip, never gets to stroke Holly's face one last time, never takes out the Nazis and rescues Jesse, never dies surrounded by the symbols of his empire. In this version, events seemed too neat, tidy and good to be true precisely because they weren't true — they were the fantasies of a sick old man who knew he'd never be able to pull them off.
Now, Vince Gilligan has said that "Felina" is not intended as a dream, and there's plenty of in-show evidence, from both prior episodes and this one, that he is correct. "Breaking Bad" didn't do dream sequences (though it did occasionally present drug-induced changes in perspective, like Jesse's first shot of heroin) and it would have been a radical, uncharacteristic break in style to turn the finale into an extended fantasy — especially without some kind of tip-off at the end where we return to Walt in the car in the snow. "Breaking Bad" was many things, but it was not that ambiguous in its storytelling. And beyond that, there were certain details in the "dream" that Walt wasn't privy to during his mountain cabin exile: that Jesse was Todd's slave, or that a preppy Todd (as opposed to Uncle Jack) was the one having the weekly tea meetings with Lydia.
So, no, I don't think this was all in Walt's head. I don't think the text supports that, above and beyond whatever Gilligan says. (Authorial intent, after all, doesn't have to jibe with what the audience takes from a work of art.) And even Nussbaum wasn't really saying that she believed it was a dream — just that it felt like it could have been Walt's fantasy, especially following the nightmarish events of "Ozymandias" and "Granite State."
In my own review of the finale, I said that everything about Walt's revenge tour of Albuquerque played out in too neat and tidy a fashion for what's historically been a very messy show. Walt cons the Schwartzes without a hitch, he gets inside Skyler's apartment without the cops noticing, and he's able to easily get his hands back on the car remote even after the Nazis have confiscated it. While some of Walt's more elaborate plans have worked in the past (notably the death of Gus, but even that was a Plan B after Gus's spidey-sense kept him away from his car in the parking garage), it felt very un-"Breaking Bad"-like for so much to break right for Walt in such short order. So I can understand why others have felt the need to either decide that the finale was a dream, or that it felt like it should have been a dream.
And that gets at a point that I wish I had expanded on more on Sunday night.
I understand Gilligan's desire to do a finale like "Felina." It answered most of the remaining questions we had: Who would live? Who would die? Would Walt ever admit (to himself or anyone else) why he really got into the drug business? Who's the machine gun(*) for? Who will drink something tainted by Chekhov's Ricin? Will Jesse escape, or remain Todd's slave forever? It brought a definitive, memorable end to the story of Walter White, and it even gave him a shot at some minor redemption. He was never going to fix everything he had broken, but he could at least get his kids a lot of money, allow Marie to bury Hank, get Skyler out of her legal troubles, and completely dismantle the production pipeline for the blue meth.
(*) Gilligan has said that he and the other writers had no idea for whom the machine gun was intended when they wrote the flashforward in "Live Free or Die," and that Jack and the Nazis were created in part because they needed a large and disreputable enough enemy to use that gun on. The show's guiding creative philosophy involved the writers painting themselves into corners and finding a way out, so I can't begrudge them for doing it here. But I do wonder what sort of finale Gilligan would have made if he hadn't shown us the M60 in the trunk 15 episodes earlier.
But "Felina" had to follow on three consecutive episodes that were, in order, one of the most intense episodes the show had ever done ("To'hajiilee"), the most emotionally devastating episode the show ever did ("Ozymandias") and an unbelievably dark episode that deconstructed the entire mythology of Heisenberg ("Granite State"). These episodes didn't feel more "real" than "Felina," because this has never been a terribly grounded show — exhibit A involves Danny Trejo's head on top of an exploding freaking tortoise and the Cousins and Mike can provide exhibits B through Q, at least — but they felt like an honest and natural progression of where the story had been heading all along. Those three in a row pushed Walter White and his audience into the abyss, never to escape, and then "Felina" threw him and us a lifeline. It gives Walt back his mojo just long enough to accomplish all these things that seemed impossible as recently as an episode before, and though you can't call his death a happy ending, it's a far more appropriate and dignified one than if he had just slumped over one day in the mountain cabin and laid there until Robert Forster showed up to spirit the barrel away. The Walter White of "Granite State" is a shell of a man who has failed at every single thing he has been trying to do for the last two years of his life, and who has run out of energy and inspiration and ability to properly address his sins; the Walt of "Felina" is suddenly able to fix an awful lot of what's gone wrong, even if certain things (Hank's life, Flynn's love) remain beyond repair.
I can understand Gilligan's impulse for going this way, and I can also understand why so many of you found "Felina" as satisfying as you did. You spend a lot of time writing, or watching, a character, and an emotional bond develops, no matter how horrible he actually is. Despite everything Gilligan had made Walter White do over the years, he still wanted him to at least attempt to redeem himself before the end. Despite how horrified we've all been by various things Walt has said or done, a series that ends with the final shot of "Ozymandias," or with Walt still waiting for the cops at the end of "Granite State" (no Charlie Rose interview in this version) leaves us feeling a whole lot lousier and emptier than getting to see Walt settle all family business before he dies. I get it. As much as I might have liked either of the previous episodes to be the actual finale, I cheered very very loudly when Jesse choked out Todd. Catharsis is a very valuable thing, even if you have issues with how we reached that moment of catharsis.
And I've heard many arguments from many people whose opinions I respect that you have to look at the totality of these final 3 or 4 episodes to consider how "Breaking Bad" ended, rather than just isolating "Felina" from what came before. You can, as I suggested on Sunday, view "Ozymandias" as the actual end of the story, and the next two episodes as an extended epilogue, to judge as part of the main story or not. You can say that Gilligan gave the audience so many different flavors of ending that there's something for each of us to grab onto.
But I think of how emotionally wrecked I was by the three previous episodes (and by certain earlier installments of season 5, like "Fifty-One" or "Buried"). Outside of Walt's visit to Skyler and Holly, the murder of Todd and then Jesse's burst of happiness as he drove away from the Nazi compound, I felt very little emotion of any kind watching "Felina." It played more like a perfect conclusion to the plot of "Breaking Bad" than a perfect conclusion to the experience of "Breaking Bad."
As I said on Sunday, this final season was so incredible that whatever issues I have with "Felina" don't in any way diminish my feelings for the series as a whole. It is, was, and will continue to be one of the greatest dramatic works ever produced for television. But the weeks leading up to the finale played like an incredible, unshakable nightmare, where "Felina" was something some parts of the audience understandably want to view as Walter White's ultimate fantasy.
That's me. How is everybody else feeling about "Felina," nearly a week later? I know most of you were more positive about it than I was at the time; has anyone's opinion moved up or down the more you've thought about it?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org