Sunday, October 06, 2013

Metaphysics and the Breaking Bad Finale

If we spirits have offended, think but this and all is mended
That you have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear

Last weekend was the series finale of Breaking Bad, the critically acclaimed drama about an Albuquerque chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer after being diagnosed with cancer. From what I can gather, most fans were satisfied by the show's resolution. There is a small but growing cadre of viewers, however, who found parts of the episode a bit unrealistic, and have responded by arguing that the ending was in fact all a dream. Here, for example, is Emily Nussbaum:

[H]alfway through, at around the time that Walt was gazing at Walt, Jr., I became fixated on the idea that 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. … 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. 

This isn’t the first time that a show or movie has inspired some creative theorizing. The end of The Sopranos sparked debates over whether Tony Soprano had or had not been killed at the moment after the episode ended. Fans and critics alike engaged in elaborate exegesis over whether Leonardo DeCaprio was awake or dreaming at the end of Inception. And the ending of Lost, well, what can you say.

These sorts of arguments come so naturally to people that it is easy to gloss over a certain strangeness underlying the whole debate. Breaking Bad, after all, is a work of fiction. Walter White does not exist. As such, it’s not entirely clear what it means to say make claims about what happened to him or other fictional characters outside explicit descriptions of what happened on the screen.

This sort of attitude is perhaps best expressed by the late novelist Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame). Responding to a fan question about some detail of Arthur Dent’s life not mentioned in his books, Adams responded:

The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind. There is no such actual, real person as Arthur Dent. He has no existence outside the sequence of words designed to create an idea of this imaginary person in people’s minds. There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter, and pick up his computer, look at it and tell you what model it is, or turn it over and read off its serial number for you. It doesn’t exist.

 On one level, Adams is perfectly correct. Still, there is something unsatisfying about this point of view. It’s not clear that one could enjoy fiction were it to be held consistently. 

                                     You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

An alternate perspective was offered by the philosopher David Lewis in his paper Truth in Fiction. Lewis is best known as an advocate of Modal Realism (the view that every possible world really exists). But while Truth in Fiction utilizes Lewis’ possible world semantics, I don’t think one need to accept Modal Realism in order to accept his basic argument.

According to Lewis: 

A sentence of the form 'In the fiction f, x is non-vacuously true iff, wherever w is one of the collective belief worlds of the community of origin f, then some world where f is told as known fact and f is true differs less from the world w, on balance, than does any world where f is told as known fact and x is not true. It is vacuously true iff there are no possible worlds where f is told as known fact.   
 Okay, so that's a bit of a mouthful, but basically Lewis is saying that the claim "Walter White froze to death at the end of Breaking Bad" is true if a world in which that happened is closer to the actual world than a world in which everything before that point depicted in the show happened and he did not die in that way (the bit about collective beliefs is to deal with a situation where a society might have factually wrong beliefs that are depicted in the story, e.g. the solution to the Sherlock Holmes story "Adventures of the Speckled-Band" is based on an error about snakes, but Lewis doesn't think we should therefore conclude that Holmes got the wrong man).

This, however, poses a bit of a problem. There are, after all, plenty of fictional tales containing elements that are implausible or even impossible in our world. A world in which everything past the first couple of scenes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a dream would be more similar to the actual world than a world in which it all really happened (and this isn’t simply because the viewers of Buffy mistakenly thought that vampires were real). On the other hand, it’s not clear that Lewis is entitled to rule out dream explanations per se. After all, there are works of fiction where large portions of the narrative turn out to be a dream (the ninth season of Dallas perhaps being the most famous example).

So while I don’t find the Breaking Bad dreamers’ arguments terribly plausible, their theories seem to have done something I would have thought even less plausible, namely, refute one of the Twentieth Century’s most capable philosophers.   


  1. Yes it's possible the finale was a dream or Mr. White was frozen dead in the car, but before White got in the care, Jesse had been taken as slave labor by Todd. The viewer saw it but Walt didn't. Then the viewer saw that that Walt heard via Badger and Skinny Pete that the Blue Meth was back on the street. This made him mad b/c he thought Jesse sold out and was working in partnership with the Nazis. So he was going to kill him and the Nazis who stole his money and killed a member of his family, Hank.

    But then the viewer sees Walt realize Jesse was a prisoner and slave and so he saves him instead. If it were a dream of Walt's it wouldn't provide these other perspectives he wasn't aware of, unless of course it the dream was a different existing reality as one of the quoted philosophers postulate.

    The show's crazy imagination and verve announced it fictionality. Reality is often more boring, although the show was realistic in many ways. The ending was sastifyingly fictional in that Walt was able to tie up loose ends and save Jesse and say goodbye to Skylar etc as if he ran the board in pool, to the extent it was possible. But there was still the pain and suffering and fear he endured during his exciting adventures. His son thinks he killed Hank. Hank died. His wife lost a husband. Skyler is a miserable shell. He knows he hurt all of these people. So his dream didn't fix all of those miseries. But it was strange how he was able to meet with Skyler without the cops catching him.

  2. what Peter said.

    plus, I think there's something to be said about the internal coherence of the series. breaking bad never relied on dreams as the sopranos did. without clear indication on-screen, it is very foreign to the series to think most of an episode is a character's hallucination. on the other hand, time and again we saw Walt saving his and/or Jessie's ass through a convoluted plan. people may not like the finale, but it makes sense in the world the series had shown us (in which Walt is, among other things, a darker, geekier mcgyver).

  3. Anonymous12:06 AM

    I actually don't think Peter's point is an especially good one. Walt knows 1. That blue meth is back on the streets (from the Charlie Rose interview); 2. that Todd can't make blue meth, hence Jack's demand that Walt teach him as the price of killing Jesse; 3. that Jesse can make blue meth, and 4. that he left Jesse with the Nazis. In other words, he knows enough to imagine that final encounter.

    As to internal coherence: that just goes to authorial intent. Clearly, Vince Gilligan didn't intend that the finale be interpreted as a dying dream; it's just that the text will bear that interpretation, and it's a better ending than the one Gilligan intended.

  4. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Ending a long piece of fiction is such a daunting task, much harder when there are many books, episodes and so on.

    To strike the balance between staying true to the earlier books, while giving the readers some satisfaction regarding the fate of their beloved characters (who must be beloved, or the audience wouldn't have stayed for so long) while avoiding trite endings or acts of God -- well, whenever a writer manages it, hurrah to them.

    The Harry Potter books did this very well, as did Sopranos. Interesting that they all dipped into death to accomplish it. "House" did this pretty well too, but mostly by dipping into death, and then kicking the can down the road via two motorcycles. The Aubrey/Maturin seafaring books ended perforce by the death of their author, another acceptable way out.

    And White's fate? Well, as far as I know, his death was scripted from the beginning. A dying dream sequence might have always been on the menu, as it is in real life as some people slip towards death. But to the dying person, this experience isn't perceived as a fantasy but as a transition into another realm of life.

    So, maybe a dream, but still an acceptable conclusion.

  5. Anonymous7:54 PM

    Point of order: there was actually a Buffy episode that strongly suggested the entire series was a dream (or, rather, a psychotic hallucination of some kind).

    Fans basically ignored the episode because the Buffy-was-delusional interpretation was comparatively boring. This contrasts with, say, Sucker Punch, which remained interesting even accepting that 2/3 of it was a character's fantasy. So possibly we need to incorporate the Rule Of Cool into our measures of plausibility...

  6. Your last sentence is not correct, methinks, not correct. Distance in Lewis's system is based on distance to our beliefs about the fictional world, not to our world. You say that, for instance, thinking of a fantasy show as a fantasy is more true in Lewis's system than thinking of it as a depiction of a fantasy world, but this is not true! It is distant from the beliefs of the community about that world depicted and therefore _less_ true in Lewis's system, as it ought be! Lewis's general thinking of how truth in a language works makes truth (look?) too dependent on community agreement too much, but that's a deeper problem ("problem"?).

    Remember, in all of Lewis's systems our world has _no special place_, especially not for truths about the world of Colombo!