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A Thought Experiment

On the Demise of Walter White

by RICHARD HARTH

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending.

As Odysseus returns to Ithaca, so Walter White, the high school chemistry prof turned methamphetamine titan, makes his way home to Albuquerque, from his place of snowbound exile.

Like his ancient progenitor, White will soon wreak vengeance on his enemies and salvage an identity eroded through innumerable setbacks and hardships, (though nearly all of these are of his own making).

Such is the rough outline of Felina, the final episode of the madly popular television series, Breaking Bad.

In the end, Walter finds no forgiveness for a misspent life that has devastated everyone he cares for. Nevertheless, he reaches closure on many fronts; sharing bittersweet final minutes with his wife Skylar and daughter Holly (in one of the most touching exchanges in the series), watching his disabled son Walt Jr. hobble away for the last time, and in a final outpouring of violence, decimating an Aryan outlaw gang and liberating Jesse Pinkman—Walt’s understudy, companion, business partner, disillusioned adversary and traumatized victim.

Viewers were rewarded for their fierce loyalty to the show with an ending that seemed to skillfully move the final puzzle pieces into place. Walt even concocts a clever means to see that his fortune posthumously finds its way back to his family.

Felina thus offers a conclusion that brings order and finality, if not redemption, to the chaos of Walter’s world. What’s not to love?

Apparently plenty. Misgivings about the conclusion of the series began to surface online before the final credits had vanished from the screen. While many of the reported 10 million viewers showered Felina with praise, others complained that creator Vince Gilligan’s last episode had an overly contrived quality, largely out of character with the meticulously crafted episodes that had been the program’s hallmark. What went wrong?

Early on, credibility issues begin to plague Felina—a stream of implausibilities that seem to proliferate once Walter leaves his hideaway in New Hampshire to begin his homeward trek, fraying viewers’ suspension of disbelief.

In a carefully argued piece for the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum lays out the case for Felina’s discontents:

I mean, wouldn’t this finale have made far more sense had the episode ended on a shot of Walter White dead, frozen to death, behind the wheel of a car he couldn’t start? Certainly, everything that came after that moment possessed an eerie, magical feeling—from the instant that key fell from the car’s sun visor, inside a car that was snowed in. Walt hit the window, the snow fell off, and we were off to the races. Even within this stylized series, there was a feeling of unreality—and a strikingly different tone from the episode that preceded this one.

In fairness, Gilligan and his writing team faced nearly insurmountable obstacles in getting their weak, disease- ridden, universally recognized anti-hero back from the wilds of New England to the parched Southwest to complete a raft of unfinished business in the space of the program’s final hour. Presumably, the writers believed they had hit on an acceptable trade-off between verisimilitude and resolution, one that neatly tied up the most critical loose ends.

Unfortunately, in failing to investigate every avenue and mine the rich storehouse of available possibilities the show provided, the writers of Breaking Bad may have missed a particularly elegant checkmate, contenting themselves instead with a draw. The skeleton key can be found in the name of Walter’s alter ego, the evil genius of the methamphetamine universe: Heisenberg.

Before returning to this point, what of Nussbaum’s preferred trajectory for Felina, in which a dying Walter White dreams, hallucinates or fantasizes the series conclusion from within the snow-covered vehicle that will entomb him?

In discussing the merits of such a version, comparisons arise with Ambrose Bierce’s short masterpiece of dream logic: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” (though variations on the central idea go back to Calderon’s 1635 play, La vida es sueño, and almost certainly, much further, while continuing to permeate contemporary literature and film).

Bierce’s story offers a particularly enticing analog due to the clarity and strictness with which the passage from comforting dream to devastating reality is navigated. The dream stopwatch activates as the victim Peyton Farquhar falls earthward, a hangman’s noose secured around his neck, and halts with the agonizing final sequence:

..he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence.

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.

Following Nussbaum, one could imagine Walter White’s dream unwrapping in the severely compressed interval between Walt tapping his driver’s side window with the butt of a screwdriver and the sliding of snow from the transparent glass. In such a version, an echo of the screwdriver making contact with the window might trigger a scene shift from Walt’s dying moments on the floor of Jack’s darkened meth lab to the brilliant sheet of snow sliding from the frozen pane, a marvelously poetic conclusion.

The ever-insightful writers of Breaking Bad may have toyed with some form of dying dream for Walter, a dream in which his final ambitions play out before death arrives to erase them. Felina’s often dreamlike atmosphere seems to suggest as much.

Nevertheless, when push came to shove, Gilligan nixed the dream option, perhaps believing an audience would feel short-changed by a scenario that would leave Jack’s band of sociopaths alive to continue their torment of Jesse; all of Walt’s efforts on behalf of his family, dashed and the fates of Marie, Skylar, Holly and Walt Jr., frustratingly (and ominously) unresolved.

With the dream montage foreclosed, what other option exists for the creators than to allow Walt to follow his preferred course of action in real time, without interruption?

As it happens, there is a third way, a crystalline version of Felina, sadly overlooked.

A Quantum of Solace?

Werner Heisenberg (5 December 1901 – 1 February 1976), was among the chief architects of a radical (and to this day, perplexing) vision of the material world. Joined by a European crème de la crème of intellectual giants including Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger, Louis de Broglie and others, Heisenberg opened investigations into bizarre behavior at the subatomic level.

Their dazzling insights, which became formalized in the new field of quantum mechanics, permanently shattered science’s tidy view of nature, while simultaneously permitting the development of practical devices ranging from precision satellite guidance to electron microscopy, ultra-accurate clocks, and BluRay technology.

Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle dictates that the location of a particle and its momentum cannot be simultaneously known with precision. Uncertainty however, is something of a misnomer when considering the unique peculiarities implied by quantum theory. Here, uncertainty doesn’t arise, as one might suppose, from the imprecision of measurement or the paucity of available information. It is a fundamental aspect of matter, as inextricable from nature as the stripes of a zebra.

Heisenberg’s reality is one where matter is smeared out in a probability distribution or matter wave. Only by observing the  system do we force the condition of matter into a classically definable state, an event known in physics jargon as the collapse of the wave function. At least this is the version of quantum theory laid out by Bohr and others in what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation.

The implications of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle were not lost on his brilliant colleague, the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In his now-famous thought experiment, Schrödinger describes a bizarre reality in which quantum indeterminacy governs not only the fate of subatomic particles, but of all matter, from photons of light to cats to humans like Walter White.

Schrödinger’s cat exists in a kind of dream state, within the closed quantum-mechanical contraption Schrödinger envisioned, not entirely unlike Walter White in his snow-enveloped car. The animal’s condition as living creature or lifeless carcass may only be known upon observation, when her condition must coalesce from its mixed state, yielding the single reality we observe.

The Copenhagen interpretation—Bohr’s reading of the quantum tealeaves—was not the final word, however. In 1956, a young American physicist proposed a new interpretation of quantum behavior, one that sought to purge from the field the whole notion of wave-function collapse.

In Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation, every possible outcome described by quantum theory actually plays out in a multiverse of exclusive realities. When an observation is made, reality branches into parallel universes of perhaps infinitely rich variety. Applied to Schrödinger’s paradox, Everett’s solution maintains that one version of you will observe a living cat while an alternate you will find the cat dead. Both worlds are equally real, yet cannot interact.

As Breaking Bad reaches its final two episodes, Granite State and Felina, the show’s elevated heartbeat slows down. As death approaches, the cardiac muscle prepares for its last, spasmodic pulse. It is at this point that the protagonist’s two sides, ever-present and ever-irreconcilable, could violently fracture, forming distinct physical presences in mutually exclusive corners of reality.

It such a formula, it is Walter White who dies, impotent and alone, in a swirl of fresh snowfall, obsessed with final recollections of family life. It is Heisenberg who perishes of a (self-inflicted) gunshot wound, surrounded by the instruments of his trade, having settled scores in a manner befitting his nature.

Perspicacious viewers were quick to identify Felina as an anagram of finale, as abbreviation for the chemical elements Fe Li Na (blood, meth and tears?) and sly reference to the Marty Robbins song whose lyrics foreshadow the final episode.

Felina, of course, is also the Spanish word for feline. In the quantum realm described in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, one feline reigns supreme, the famous cat proposed by Schrödinger. (Might this very creature have been lurking all along in a mixed state between life and death, within the hand-crafted box Jesse lovingly designed—an object which makes a trancelike reappearance near the close of Felina?)

For viewers left unsatisfied after Breaking Bad’s last episode, there may be consolation. Perhaps another Vince Gilligan exists on a branch of reality from which we are denied access. In this world, he and his skillful team grant Walter White and Heisenberg their independent deaths, providing the most persuasive final chapter to this luminous saga.

Richard Harth writes about science for Arizona State University. He can be reached at: richard.harth@asu.edu