Some TV shows choose to end their runs ambiguously, with viewers left to wonder what truly happened to the characters after the screen goes black (see: The Sopranos). Other shows get creative, perhaps alluding that the entire thing was nothing but a dream (Newhart). Then there’s Breaking Bad’s finale, “Felina”. It’s hard to remember another closing act that ties up every loose string more carefully than Vince Gilligan’s AMC series.
After taking out Jack and the neo-Nazis and saving Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) one final time, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) dies in the place that made him feel alive: the meth lab. Despite wacko fan theories about Heisenberg’s possible survival, it was the show’s intent to make perfectly clear that the anti-hero we all loved, and hated, for five years was no more.
And for most normal folk, that would be the end of thinking about Walt, at least until a rewatch of the legendary series, or until Better Call Saul was launched in 2015. The spinoff has been an intensive look into the surrounding universe of the original show done with an astounding attention to detail. Still, there is no Walter White in Jimmy McGill’s early story so fans of the original show may have felt they lost a real member of their inner circle when the final overhead shot of him cut to credits.
In October 2013, less than a month after the last episode aired, at least 200 Breaking Bad fanatics gathered in an Albuquerque cemetary to lay the world’s most famous fake drug lord to rest. And this wasn’t just a half-hearted affair. The “funeral” featured a procession with a hearse and a replica of the RV that Walt and Jesse cooked in for the first half of the series. Michael Flowers, the show’s set director, even graced the fandom at the memorial and gave a eulogy. For those interested, you can watch the tribute on YouTube below.
This funeral followed an obituary that was put out in the local papers after the on-screen death. The nerdiness wasn’t all for show though. The mourners were charged a fee to attend and the proceeds ended up being donated to Albuquerque’s Healthcare for the Homeless; around $17,000 was raised to help those in need.
Despite the positives of the event, the problems with the spectacle arguably outweighed them. Many of the family members and friends of real people were offended and hurt that a piece of fiction would be celebrated in the same resting area as those who lived real lives. When a headstone was created for the character and placed at Sunset Memorial Park, a petition was created to remove the grave site for Mr. White.
This statement was taken from the petition: “Adding a physical grave site will encourage tourists to visit a sacred burial site of hundreds and hundreds of loved ones. Cemetery officials say if crowds start gathering at the grave site of Walter White, they’ll consider getting rid of his headstone. But the ‘officials’ should not put the family members through such disrespect during the process of them deciding if too many people are visiting the makeshift grave.”
Local resident Manuel Arellano told station KOAT this at the time: “It’s going to be difficult to look up and see something going on over there that really shouldn’t. This is too much. I bring my family here to visit their grandpa and my wife to visit her dad … What’s going to happen come Christmas, come Thanksgiving on those hard days for me and my family? It’s hard to come when we miss my father-in-law so much. It’s going to be hard to see people over there decorating something for somebody that wasn’t real.”
There is an interesting irony in that last line. The people who attended this funeral for Walt, apparently felt such a connection to him that his death warranted acknowledgement. It is both a reflection of the excessive hero-worshipping that fans engage in with the media they consume, and the power of strongly-written characters to feel dangerously tangible to the audience. If Breaking Bad’s ending created a hole in the lives of the diehards of the legendary series, they obviously have every right to find a way to cope with it. But it can be unhealthy to treat fantasy as a reality.
Cemetery officials agreed and took the headstone down from the grave site. It has been kept outside Vernon’s Steakhouse in Albuquerque in the eight years since the removal. The epitaph has a picture of Bryan Cranston in character from early in the series with an inscriptor calling Walter a beloved husband, teacher, entrepreneur, and father (which he failed miserably at as the show progressed). The description is reminiscent of what Walter Jr. said about his father when he created a fundraiser for his cancer treatments in season 2 of the show.
The amount of detail and ensuing controversy that the ordeal created is a prime example of the power this show had in the early 2010’s, the final anti-hero saga of the Golden Age of Television manifesting into oddly passionate behavior in those it resonated with. If there is a lesson to be learned from this, it would be that a better way to show that you love Walter White would be to continue watching his downfall on Netflix, rather than equating his defeat to an actual tragedy. If Heisenberg was a real person, we would be satisfied, not upset. TV really does have the power to create unreal cognitive dissonance between our morals and our dream lives.