The first person I saw make the argument was Emily Nussbaum, and she wasn’t even really making the argument. While explaining her disappointment with the finale of Breaking Bad she briefly pondered whether it would have been more satisfying if Walter White had died in that car in New Hampshire, if everything that came after was a dying dream. That idea began picking up steam online, with many people - including comedian Norm McDonald - really starting to go bat for it. How could Walt have made it unseen from New Hampshire to New Mexico? How could he have snuck into the Gray Matter mansion? How did he get into Skyler’s apartment? Are we supposed to believe that weird Todd would have a Groucho Marx ring tone? How did Walt's final plan work so well that only Jack and Todd were left to be personally offed at the end? It was all too much, they say. It had to have been a dream.
Normally I love when people find weird interpretations or readings in a text. I love when someone argues a socialist reading of The Wizard of Oz or a date rape reading of Wall-E*, but those arguments must be supported by the text. And anyone arguing that the finale of Breaking Bad was a dream is simply ignoring the text of the previous 61 episodes of the series.
The truth they may not want to admit: Breaking Bad always was a pulpy crime show. It was incredibly well made, with spectacular performances and indelible characters and breathless tension, but it was always pulp. From the beginning. This is a show, after all, where Gus Fring walks out of a room after being blown up, half his face missing, and adjusts his tie before falling over dead. This is the show you’ve been watching. It's not a show, like The Sopranos, with deep dream sequences. It's not a show that goes for the surreal. It's a show that tells the story of a mild-mannered teacher turning into an ill-fated drug lord.
The finale fits perfectly into that structure. Walt’s final plan is only slightly more exaggerated than many of his other masterstroke plans in the past. There was a certain tidiness to the ending - yes, the two evil characters we most wanted to see die got to die on their own - but that’s a function of the finale’s dedication to satisfying drama, not a hint of a mind slowly dying. Breaking Bad never wanted to confound your expectations, it only wanted to surpass them. The show was always telling a fairly straight ahead story, not a complicated and ethereal allegorical dance. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the show was always able to pack meaning into the straight-forward nature of its narrative. The pink bear was metaphorical, but only in the context of the narrative itself. And come on, Todd had 'She Blinded Me With Science' as his ringtone for Walt. The guy was more clever than you're giving him credit.
This belief that the ending of Breaking Bad is a dream reminds me of a similar theory that I also dislike, that the ending of Taxi Driver is a death dream. In that theory Travis Bickle dies in the brothel, and everything that comes after - his elevation to hero status and his eventual picking up of Betsy in his cab - is happening in Bickle’s mind as his synapse fire off their final messages. This is actually worse than the Breaking Bad theory because it profoundly misses the entire point of the ending of Taxi Driver, and it fundamentally denies the movie its complete message. Just like the Breaking Bad theory, though, the Taxi Driver theory has zero textual support. Neither the show or the movie offer any cues or signals that what happens is a dream. As a viewer you can’t decide a scene in a movie is a dream simply because you’re not entirely satisfied with it.
Both those theories are linked by a strange, Puritanical streak - the theorists are unhappy with the justice doled out at the end. They want Travis Bickle, a mad man, to pay for his craziness, not be a hero. And they want Walter White, a villain, to never have the satisfaction the finale gives him. Walter White loses, but in the bigger sense he wins - he gets redemptive moments, he is able to get his money to his family, he gets his vengeance and he finally goes out on his own terms, standing in a lab one last time.
Walter White doesn’t die in a frozen car in the wilderness of New Hampshire, he dies on the floor of a meth lab in Albuquerque. You’d have to be dreaming to think otherwise.
* Yes, that was me. I loved when I did that.