Breaking Down the Alternate Theories About the End of 'Breaking Bad'

If you thought the series finale of Breaking Bad tied the story of Walter White up in a neat little bow, think again. 

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If you thought the series finale of Breaking Bad tied the story of Walter White up in a neat little bow, think again. In the four days since "Felina" aired, some critics and fans have been thinking and rethinking what they say in the episode on the hunt for a more complicated reading. The theories they've come up with are far-fetched, but we've gathered them all. Was it all just a fantasy? A metaphor for Jesus?

The "El Paso" Theory

Fans had been pondering the meaning of the title "Felina" even before it aired, and there are many possible readings, including the fact it is an anagram for "finale." Before the episode aired Andi Teran at Previously.TV connected the episode title to Marty Robbins' song "El Paso" which is about a cowboy's love for a girl named Felina. Teran speculated that "Felina" referred to Marie Schrader who would play a critical role in bringing Walter White down.

That didn't happen, but sure enough, a Marty Robbins tape was in the glove compartment of the car Walt stole in New Hampshire, and the song plays as he drives away. And after the episode, Scott Johnson at offered  a more obvious connection to the story: "The lyrics of 'El Paso' are about a gunfighter who falls in love with a Mexican girl named Felina. Near the end of the song, the gunfighter gets in shootout, where he gets struck in the side by a bullet. At the end of the song, the gunfighter lays dying, while Felina kneels by his side." Walt, in fact, is shot in the side by a bullet, and dies with a meth lab at his side after admitting to Skyler that being a meth cook became his true passion, his love, his "Baby Blue," which is the title of the Badfinger song that plays at the episode's close. But back to "El Paso," this is how its story ends:

Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen,
Though I am weary I can't stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye. 

Is that "one little kiss" perhaps represented in the bloodstain his hand leaves on the equipment? And therefore is the "Felina" the blue meth, or maybe in Ian Rosenwach's words the figure of "Heisenberg"? In his "last thought" on the episode posted Thursday at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz writes, "How fitting, then, that the penultimate shot of 'Felina' is a hilariously, wonderfully sick version of a lover’s embrace. Walt touches his true love for the last time, but rather than gaze into a pair of beautiful eyes, he stares into a cold metal surface, into his own reflection — a reflection that’s monstrously distorted — and then falls out of frame, dead."

When Vince Gilligan went on The Colbert Report appearance, Stephen Colbert brought up the lyrics of "El Paso" and asked if the blue meth is essentially his "Felina," his "girlfriend." Gilligan, pleasing Colbert with a Lord of the Rings reference, said: "I think he's coming back for his Precious and his Precious is the blue meth and the lab, the lab he constructed." Gilligan repeated that reference again in his interview with EW, saying, "He’s patting his Precious, in Lord of the Rings terms. He’s with the thing he seems to love the most in the world, which is his work and his meth lab and he just doesn’t care about being caught because he knows he’s on the way out."

Walt Was Already Dead

This theory, mainly from the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, but also posed by comedian Norm Macdonald, postulates that, as Nussbaum writes, "what we were watching must be a dying fantasy on the part of Walter White, not something that was actually happening—at least not in the 'real world' of the previous seasons." Nussbaum's theory is partly a rationalization for why Nussbaum thinks the finale was so discordant with the later developments in the storyline.

Much of the theory rests on an alternate reading of the episode's first scene of Walt in that snow-covered car. Nussbaum suggests Walt never really started the engine and instead froze to death. One point of evidence for this theory's plausibility, as one person offered in a Twitter conversation with Nussbaum, is that it seems like Walt broke the ignition lock when he was trying to start the car with a screw driver. If so, it might have rendered the key he found in the visor useless. The scene is shot in such darkness that it's hard to tell what exactly happens. We can see him toggling with the car, and something falling off of the steering column.

The next cut is Walt trying and failing to start the car again. When it won't budge, he seems to fall back, perhaps resigned to death. Steam escapes out of his mouth like the life leaving him.

Soon the car is illuminated with a police car's lights and Walt gets very still. He whispers "just get me home" as if in prayer. Macdonald writes, "He never made it out of that car in the snow, surrounded by police. That's where he died, his final prayer unanswered." The keys magically fall into his lap and he somehow is able to easily drive away despite the car being completely snowed in. Matt Yglesias at Slate pointed out that his ability to remove snow with just the windshield wipers seemed too easy when usually ice needs to be scraped off.  There's a deus ex machina quality to that whole incident.

In her Walt-was-dead theory, Nussbaum points out that it would explain how he was able to evade the national manhunt and visit all the people he needs to (the Schwartzs, Skyler, Flynn, etc.) without being detected. "No one spots Walt when he enters Skyler’s home, either—or when he leaves," she writes. "No one notices when Walt goes to see his son for the last time, even though you’d imagine that area would be flooded with surveillance. Walt is not noticed even when he steps inside a brightly lit, crowded Albuquerque restaurant, where he sits down with Lydia and Todd."  Perhaps the most ghostly moment is when you suddenly realize he's been in the room when Skyler talked on the phone with Marie about how he's back in town.

Nussbaum's theory dovetails nicely with the one offered by Zoller Seitz in his immediate recap that Walt's "Hello, Carol" to his next door neighbor can be read as a reference to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol with Walt as Jacob Marley "materializing in people's homes to scare the hell out of them by pointing an accusing finger or moaning in misery while clanking his pitiful irons."

Of course, if this is all a fantasy of a ghostly Walt, why are there, in the words of Zoller Seitz, "unforeseen twists," like Jesse cooking under the control of the Nazis or how an almost magical weapon wipes out the whole gang? As for Jesse, perhaps Walt's subconscious wants Jesse to be alive and for the chance to save him, after abandoning him so cruelly early in the season. The latter can be explained that if it is his fantasy, he dies at his own hand. He even seems to be unfazed when he notices he is bleeding.

With Walt knowing he's dead, it makes more sense that he kills Uncle Jack before letting him tell him where his money is. He, after all, doesn't need it and can't give it away.

On Twitter Nussbaum also led us to another theory at the Tumblr Jamie Dew Oeuvre, where the Dew argues that Walt's prayer, the fantasy-like quality to the finale, and the fact that Walt travels most places undetected yields the conclusion that he made a deal with the devil.

While no one has asked Gilligan about this theory, yet, in his numerous exit interviews, Gilligan talks about Walt as a living, breathing, and dying person at the end of the series. For instance, in his Breaking Bad insider podcast, he explained how he ditched the idea of Walt going "Rambo" with the machine gun because they "realized how Walt’s cancer would resurface and how sick Walt would be." That is not the way you'd expect Gilligan to discuss a ghost. And when talking with Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, Gilligan says that, yes, Walt did accomplish what he set out to do: get the money to his family.

The Jesus Theory

Meanwhile, at the Free Beacon via Nussbaum, Sonny Bunch argued that Vince Gilligan "trolled" critics who hate Walter White by making him a Jesus figure:

Walter White spent the entirety of that episode sacrificing himself to save the people he loved: his wife, his kids, his surrogate son Jesse. He rid himself of his earthly possessions and made peace with those who had wronged him and those he had wronged (one way or another) so as to prepare himself for the afterlife. His business complete, he was ready to ascend.

The first Christ reference, Bunch argues, is to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains—which means The Blood of Christ Mountains—which Walt notes the Schwartzes can see from their living room. (Soon in that scene, using that same window, Badger and Skinny Pete will pose as laser-scope wielding assasins.). Then Bunch notes where Walt gets his injuries. He is eventually done in by a wound below his ribs, and at one point also injures his hand. (Bunch is thinking of when Walt was building the apparatus that will fire the machine gun, but we saw Walt hurt his hand while he was trying to start the car with a screw driver.) Bunch thinks these wounds resemble the Five Holy Wounds. Finally, in the last shot of the show Walt's arms are outstretched as if in the shape of a cross.

Okay, his arms aren't exactly outstretched, but ultimately the idea is simply that Walt seeks and finds redemption.  Rosenwach also sees holy analogies, like the fact that Walt's prayers are literally answered when the keys to the car fall out of the visor. That said, Rosenwach sees Jesse as Jesus with his woodworking fantasy, a callback to an earlier episode.  "He has suffered immensely.  Except not for the world’s sins, just for Walt’s," Rosenwach writes.

Gilligan may not have been going for a strict Jesus metaphor, but that theme seems to have been on his mind. As he told EW, "So it could be argued that he pays for his sins at the end or it could just as easily be argued that he gets away with it." That's a lot of ambiguity, though, which is maybe where we should close this case.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.