The Breaking Bad finale on Sunday night was a satisfying conclusion to the show, though some critics found it a little too satisfying. In some ways, the last episode departed from the series' well-established moral universe and became more like a Walter White revenge fantasy. Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker writes:
...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.
It's well worth reading Nussbaum's entire post. She does a convincing job of fleshing out how the finale might have been nothing more than a dream in Walter's dying mind. But she doesn't fully commit to the theory. She said that the explanation never really "declared itself." If it wasn't supposed to be real, there wasn't any evidence to let the audience know.
However, there is a hint that the episode could be interpreted as a series of events that Walt is imagining in his final moments. The title of the finale is "Felina." We find out early on that it's a reference to the Marty Robbins 1959 hit El Paso about a cowboy who loves a girl of that name. In the very first scene, a Marty Robbins cassette tape falls out of glove box when Walt is rummaging around the car. After he gets the car started, El Paso begins playing on the stereo. And we later hear him humming the melody while building the trunk-gun.
What's interesting about the choice of this particular song is that its plot could also be interpreted as a dying man's hallucination. The unnamed narrator of El Paso is so in love with a dancer name Feleena* that he kills a man out of jealousy and has to go on the run in "the badlands of New Mexico." He eventually returns to El Paso to see Feleena again, but he's shot down as soon as he rides into town. As he dies, the song's final words are:
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 Feleena, good-bye.
It's not really clear whether this actually happens or if he just imagines it. The lyrics don't tell us whether Felina loved him back. She is a dancer in a bar, after all, and she probably captures the attention of many lonely cowboys. She also might not be crazy about the fact that the narrator shot a fellow customer just for talking to her. So does Feleena actually appear "out of nowhere" to kiss him on the cheek? Or was it just something that he imagined as he lay dying in the dirt?
Similar questions could also he applied to the Breaking Bad finale. Did Walt actually pull off the perfect revenge against his enemies and leave money for his family? Or were we simply seeing the ending Walt wished for himself as he sat in a freezing Volvo, just before succumbing to the disease that has marked him since the pilot?
There's really no way to "prove" that either story suddenly shifts into a hallucination. It's up to you to interpret the more improbable events. It's possible that Feleena really loved the cowboy. It's also possible that Walt, who has never had any plan go perfectly, suddenly transformed into the criminal mastermind that he always imagined himself to be. But I personally think both stories are much more interesting when you think of them as fantasies being told through the narrative as real events.
It should be noted, however, that the authors of these stories did not intend for them to be taken as anything other than literal. Both Vince Gilligan and Marty Robbins have rejected the idea that their works are in any way a dream. In fact, Robbins wrote a sequel to the song El Paso that was called Feleena. The lyrics depict the same events as El Paso, but from Feleena's perspective. They confirm that Feleena really did love the cowboy, and she even mourns his death to the point that she commits Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide in her grief. Meanwhile, Gilligan has made it clear that the episode isn't supposed to be anything more than it seems.
Now, far be it from me to argue that the only correct interpretation of a story is the one that the author intended. There is something about these two narratives that makes them very dream-like. Each protagonist faces circumstances that reflect his passions. The El Paso cowboy kills a man for love and pays the price of death to see her again. Walt dominates the Schwartzes and gets revenge on his remaining enemies. The world bends to dramatize their deepest desires.
I think the reason for that is El Paso and the Breaking Bad finale were both written to be crowd-pleasers. Robbins was at heart a country music entertainer who wanted to write popular love songs. El Paso was his signature number and he played it at every concert. And Gilligan has stated in interviews that he wanted his show's last episode to provide closure to the fans. He had Walt do all the things that had been left undone.
Perhaps this can tell us something about stories designed to give us what we want and play on our most primal desires. The lives of these two characters become what the audience most wants to see. Walt finally becomes an unstoppable genius. Feleena returns the cowboy's love. The stories that are the most satisfying are the ones that most closely resemble the logic of dreams.
*You may notice that the spelling is different. It was changed for the Breaking Bad episode to be an anagram for 'Finale.'