Bryan Cranston gives his take on Breaking Bad’s finale; specifically, Walter White’s decision to leave behind the watch Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) gave him for his 51st birthday. The series’ season 5 premiere, “Live Free or Die,” opens with a flash-forward to Walt alone in a diner on his 52nd birthday. After honoring the tradition of arranging his bacon, he’s given keys to a car that has a machine gun and ammunition in its trunk; alluding to not only the demise of Heisenberg’s empire but the life of Walter White.
In season 5 episode 4, “Fifty-One,” Jesse gifts Walt a Tag Heuer Monaco watch for his 51st birthday. The series finale, “Felina,” sees the former drug kingpin (and wanted man) travel back to Albuquerque after months of hiding out in New Hampshire. He stops at a gas station to fuel up and uses a payphone to pose as a journalist to find the Schwartz family’s new address (one of a handful of stops on his farewell tour). Before leaving, he takes off the aforementioned wristwatch and leaves it atop the payphone. According to Vince Gilligan, the decision to include the watch in this scene adheres to continuity—Walt isn’t wearing it in the premiere’s diner scene (which takes place after the gas station) simply because the writers hadn’t thought of it yet.
During an appearance on the podcast That Scene with Dan Patrick, Cranston brushed off the notion of continuity issues and shared a more symbolic explanation as to why Walt discarded his timepiece. The actor claimed it was specifically written in the script to acknowledge his character not wanting to be apart of that world anymore:
“He’s transitioning. He knew that was the end of his days. He knew he was not going to survive beyond that day, and he was leaving everything behind, and that was a symbol of that…it was leaving the past. Ridding himself of any talisman that put him back to who he was at the beginning of the show or any association with that.”
It’s worth noting that Gilligan has also elaborated on this scene thematically, sharing Cranston’s swan song sentiments. Near the end of his character arc, Walt focuses on (anonymously) setting up his family and tying up loose ends. With his cancer worsening and a planned attack on Jack Welker’s compound, Walt has no intention of living to see a sixth season (or getting caught by the authorities). The time he spends 5 seasons working against and refusing to simply mark, becomes irrelevant—the end has arrived. Leaving the watch behind symbolizes cutting ties with his former partner and the person he was before everything broke bad.
Breaking Bad‘s trajectory feels like a cohesive five-season plan; following its protagonist’s eponymous descent. The fact that its writing staff made things up as they went along is a testament to their brilliance; when they did, it felt like part of the plan. From numerically-shaped bacon on Walt’s birthday to a wristwatch—which isn’t necessarily an integral part of the story but is re-engineered to reflect many of the narrative’s recurring themes. In regards to storytelling, tactful ambiguity transcends easy answers (even when they may be there). Cranston knows that any practical explanation would undercut creativity, escapism, and the fun of it all.