October 7, 2013

What We Learned From The Breaking Bad Finale

The Badfinger is still playing, Jesse is still hollering, and, on the chilly floor of a Nazi meth lab, Walt's body is still warm. Not nearly enough time has passed to revisit Sunday's Breaking Bad finale in full. My thoughts on that remain more or less as they were in the wee hours of Monday morning: A show that prided itself on exacting precision ended with an episode as buffed, polished, and perfect as the inside of that TAG Heuer Walt left atop a gas station pay phone. To some, that was ideal. To others, it was idealized. I have a feeling that the argument — like the one raging in Flynn's head every morning between the fluffy savoriness of eggs and the sweet surrender of pancakes — will never end.

Which immediately sets it apart from Breaking Bad. The show is over. Life — and television — must somehow soldier on. Below are some thoughts on the three pressing issues left in the finale's wake.

1. We're Too Focused on Endings

As I wrote back in August, the entire idea of a TV show resolving itself with anything other than a smile and quick run of the credits is relatively new. Yet you wouldn't know it from glancing at the Internet. The rise in densely plotted, serialized programming, coupled with Twitter, recap culture, and columns like this one have contributed to an overheated fan culture pitched somewhere between an orgy and a tank full of feisty piranhas: Whether a show is loved to death or ripped to pieces, the intensity is about the same, an intensity that only doubles as a show approaches its final episode. Contemporary viewers expect a payoff for all the time invested, all the comment boards trolled. While most showrunners want nothing more than to avoid screwing up a finale, overheated fan bases demand an unholy mash-up of victory lap, raucous Irish wake, and Chris Rock mic drop. Among this crowd, the phrase "stick the landing" has become de rigueur, even though managing a TV series in 2013 is still much more about the crazy balancing act than the final, fateful turn to the judges.

So when you hear a first-year showrunner expound on all the plans he has for an endgame, shed a tear for the fairy that just expired. Second seasons aren't promised, let alone fifth seasons. Outside of network glad-handing and audience reassurance, why would anyone in his right mind worry about handling all those plates when it's more productive and eye-catching to keep tossing them up in the air? TV remains an open-ended medium, even if the best TV shows no longer are. It's still better at asking questions than answering them. This is why Lost so fiercely held on to its secrets — and why no one was particularly satisfied when a show based on mystery was forced by time and expectation to sullenly come clean. We all think we want to know what the Wizard of Oz really looks like until our demands are heard and we discover it's just a smirking James Franco in a stovepipe hat.

The other byproduct of our rabid fandom is an overinvestment in a preferred outcome. (In that we're all a little bit like Walter White in the depths — or was it heights? — of his self-deluding, Heisenbergian mania.) It's possible for fans to maintain their own vision for a show up until the very last moment of a finale, particularly when we become more invested in our own version than in the one on our screens. This occurred en masse during the second season of Homeland, when critics, including yours truly, kicked around any number of bug-eyed conspiracy theories that might add nuance or mystery to a story line that had begun to resemble a paperback romance of the worst order. When the season ended, all our fevered imaginings proved futile: It really was meant to be an overheated love story. We all crashed in a deflated balloon of our own making.

Even so, the way a showrunner chooses to end his or her baby — assuming it's a choice at all — is too often viewed as the last word on a series' artistry and intent. For some, this notion came uncomfortably to the fore this past Sunday night when, after years of unsentimental and mostly unpunished behavior, Walter White was suddenly transformed into an avenging angel of closure. Though his ending was far from happy — alone and gutshot in a Nazi encampment is about as pleasant as it sounds — it was a good deal happier than what many of us had come to expect for such a vicious protagonist. That Walt, after a few months stewing in his own cancer-riddled juices in New Hampshire, was suddenly self-aware enough to cross every item off his bucket list — scaring the Schwartzes, securing millions for Junior, stroking the baby, poisoning Lydia, ventilating the Nazis — without so much as breaking a sweat seemed jarring. The expectation that, after so much bad, we would cheer for everything to break right felt even more so. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, an undisputed leader in the field of alternate reality programming, wrote at length about how the only way the Breaking Bad finale would have worked for her is if it had been revealed to be the impossible dream of a dying man stuck in a stolen car in the depths of a New England winter. The reality of Vince Gilligan's last choices made her — and many of us — question just what it was we had been watching all along.

I'd argue that ultimately this is a very good thing. One of the best parts of television is that it is a proudly imperfect medium. Getting involved with it on any level — as fan, creator, critic, or star — involves giving up a rather sizable amount of control. Writers are forced to compromise at every turn due to the perils of network interference and the perks of collaborative storytelling. Audiences ought to be at least a little bit willing to do the same. Besides, retroactively judging a show based on its finale is like complaining about a trip to Paris because the return flight landed in Newark. Bad endings can infuriate and disappoint, but they can't rewrite history. A detour to a soppy church didn't retcon all the pleasures of Lost out of existence, just as Friday Night Lights's final, perfect spiral didn't erase the bitterness over that strange second season. Better to consider finales on a more forgiving scale: Regardless of plot specifics, did they demonstrate a tone consistent with all that had come before?

When looked at this way, even the most polarizing conclusions start to make more sense. For five seasons, The Wire trained a reportorial eye (and a raised, skeptical eyebrow) on the failings of a modern American city as it swirled around the drain and the tidy conventions of dramatic television storytelling itself. That the show ended with a song and a shrug may have felt underwhelming, but that was sort of the point. Similarly, The Sopranos was always both highly sensitive and strangely defensive about something Nussbaum has called "the Bad Fan," in this case those who watched for the grisly mob whackings, not the psychological gabbagool that came directly before and after. And so David Chase's final cut to black may have been peevish, but it was very much in keeping with his attitude toward the viewers and the medium that had empowered him enough to write his own endgame in the first place. Like Tony, Chase felt himself to be the capo di tutti capi — and so he plunged us into darkness rather than provided the closure so many desired.

So while I continue to have issues with the content and implications of the Breaking Bad finale, I don't fault its construction. Walter White's previous plans may have exploded with collateral damage and unexpected blowback, but Vince Gilligan's plotting always seems to have resolved itself just fine. Breaking Bad was a show that flirted with chaos but thrived on order. Even for a show that defined itself by chemistry, to end untidily would have been a change too far. I may object to the outcome, but I wasn't the one in charge of the experiment.

2. Breaking Bad Habits

Breaking Bad did many things well, but what it did better than any television show before or since was police itself. What I mean is that this was a series that monitored its own content with the exactitude and rigor of Gus Fring scrubbing down a fryolator. Breaking Bad was an obsessive-compulsive's dream, a series that took outrageous delight in assigning meaning and motive to the most minor of actions and micromanaging even the smallest detail. There were no wasted movements. There was no extra fat. Any loose ends were tied off into dazzling, unbreakable knots. The series finale hinged on two characters barely seen since the earliest days, a poison pill hidden in the fifth-season premiere, and a daydream that referenced a minor speech delivered back in Episode 29.

Part of the reason for Breaking Bad's outrageous popularity was this odd, unfamiliar sense of confidence that Gilligan's thoroughness inspired. We may not have known where Walter White was taking us, but we had unshakable confidence that a route was being followed, that a roadmap existed. In reality, this is giving Gilligan and his remarkable staff far too much credit: Outside of some broad story strokes, Breaking Bad ripped everything up and started again each season just like every serialized show. The trick was the way they never let us see them sweat. But as someone who had been burned by showrunner fumbling in the past, I was especially eager to drink this stevia-sweetened Kool-Aid, even though a need to smooth over every splinter resulted in what was, to my mind, an uncomfortably frictionless finale. What concerns me now is the idea that Breaking Bad's immaculate storytelling is somehow repeatable. And, worse, that we might want it to be.

As much as I admire Gilligan's fetish for straight lines, I must also speak up in favor of wobbliness. Just because Breaking Bad was as aerodynamic and precise as a German sports car — maybe the sort of thing Herr Schuler, late of Madrigal Electromotive, might drive on his way to another Franch tasting — doesn't mean there isn't still value in a rickety beater. It may not be the case within the more finite constructions of novels or movies, but the ongoing nature of TV lends itself to a baggier approach to fiction. At times, the medium's best work emerges when writers aren't yoked, like hapless skitchers, to the grinding motor of plot, but rather are allowed to follow the winding road of their own internal logic in hopes of stumbling upon some greater truth. Tastes may vary, of course, but I regularly find the dream logic of Mad Men to be more recognizably "real" than the agonizing accuracy of a Treme, just as I was more deeply affected by the loopy emotional horror of Top of the Lake than I am by the more explicit gore of The Walking Dead. An obsession with connecting all the dots is both wildly difficult — good luck and Godspeed to any lesser writers' room that dares try it — and potentially damaging. It can transform writers into referees and viewers into gamers, and turns an unpredictable act of creativity into just another puzzle to be solved.

Case in point: One of the things that made The Sopranos so great was a decision that drove a minority of its fan base insane. In the third-season episode "Pine Barrens," a run-of-the-mill hit turns into a Beckettian exercise in comedic despair when the intended target, a Russian named Valery, miraculously survives a gunshot and runs off into the woods. He is never seen nor heard from again. This is the very definition of a loose end, but it's also something that elevated an already tremendous series to another level. By not worrying about the details of the act — in David Chase's words, "Who cares about some Russian?" — the show was able to instead focus on all the subtle strangeness left in its wake. In real life, loose ends are the norm, not the exception. An unresolved piece of business isn't something to howl over or tweet about. It's called "Tuesday." This is partly why the interlocking perfection of Breaking Bad was so appealing to audiences. (An alternate title could have been Lawless & Order.) But it's also why we shouldn't expect that kind of unique alchemy from future series. It's the rare show that finds art in science. As fans, we shouldn't spend much time desperately searching for the reverse.

3. Lessons to Be Learned

There are plenty of teachable moments in the story of Breaking Bad, though few of them emerged from Mr. White's classroom. The series was a labor of love by Gilligan, who was inspired to write it after midlife career frustrations had him on the phone with eventual BB staffer Tom Schnauz, idly wondering if meth-making might be more rewarding than getting scripts rejected in Hollywood. It was also a leap of faith by AMC, whose nascent scripted department picked up the series after every other network rejected it outright. When early buzz was weak and ratings even weaker, the channel stuck by its improving show and was rewarded with ratings that, while not great, were steady. The Emmys helped, as did word of mouth. Streaming past seasons on Netflix — the equivalent of dropping buckets of blue outside a tweaker's front door — heped even more. By the time Breaking Bad ended its run this week, the show was a legitimate cultural phenomenon, with ratings to match. Sunday's finale pulled in a staggering 10 million viewers, more than tripling the total of last year's midseason cliffhanger.

So, obviously, there are lessons here: about investing in experience and talent, about how the flip side of taking chances is preaching (and practicing) patience. Unfortunately, I don't expect the industry to learn much from them. TV is richer than ever in terms of content, breadth, and acclaim. But it's also suffering from a worrying disconnect between its swelling budgets and the smallness of the ideas behind them. With the good times here, television executives are desperate to keep them rolling — which, to their minds, seems to mean ignoring the lessons of how we got here in the first place. Where is the network willing to invest in the dynamite spec scripts that will become tomorrow's Mad Men or Breaking Bad? Not AMC. Bolstered by the outsize ratings of The Walking Dead, the channel has offloaded its edgier content to kid sibling Sundance, choosing instead to double down on warmed-over dreck like Low Winter Sun, a show that cherry-picked all of Breaking Bad's flashiest talking points — Amorality! Violence! Baldness! — and ignored all the nuance and quirk that made it unique. With that show sinking like a stone, AMC's strategy seems to have shifted to full-time shucking and jiving, promoting spin-offs (Better Call Saul, a new zombie show hopefully not starring Carl Grimes), and stalling (Mad Men's final season will be split over two years) where it once innovated.

The broadcast grid is awash with preexisting "formats" — the silly, overused word used to describe programs that originated in other countries, like Homeland and The Killing — and prehistoric ideas. FX's The Bridge, one of the most promising new shows of 2013, nearly went off the rails due to its insistence on slavishly importing a silly serial-killer plot from the Scandinavian original. In a recent conversation I had with Elwood Reid, the writer who, along with Meredith Stiehm, adapted the show, he more or less admitted that the borrowed killer story bored him as well, at least in comparison to the characters and atmosphere he and Stiehm had created out of whole cloth in the margins. But adding a dash of boilerplate villainy was itself a necessary evil, at least in terms of getting The Bridge on the air. Reid insists that the notion of launching an original show set on the U.S.-Mexico border without such a familiar hook would have been a "non-starter." This is unsurprising and a great shame. Executives and creatives may think they're giving a new show a leg up by giving audiences what they're presumed to want. But it's more likely to backfire, creating a deficit of both story and viewer trust that can take weeks or even seasons to repair. In 2008, no one knew they wanted a heart-ripping drama about a meth cook. Now the entire country is fiending for another hit.

The one question I've been asked more than any other in the past two weeks is, what should I watch now? And to that I have no answer. Despite my general pessimism, there are plenty of promising shows in production — many are pointing to HBO's upcoming True Detective as a potential savior — and the very best of the recent cable crop, FX's The Americans, returns in January. But none of them are workable substitutes for Breaking Bad's inimitable combination of laughter and dread, visual flash and narrative rigor. And the thing is, that's OK! The very best TV shows are irreplaceable. The focus shouldn't be on finding a new Breaking Bad, it should be on figuring out what comes next.

There's no reason to expect that Vince Gilligan has another masterpiece in him — he might, but let's not get greedy. He's perfectly right to shift into Svengali mode, supporting those who supported him (Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould is shepherding Better Call Saul) and cashing in on old material. Instead of looking to this year's hero for help, Hollywood needs to look ahead. Who are the frustrated Mad Men staffers with Final Draft docs burning a hole in the glove compartments of their Priuses? Where is the network that, needing to make a splash, attempts a Triple Lindy in place of the expected cannonball? The biggest industry takeaway from Breaking Bad shouldn't be a renewed commitment to racy subject matter or a formal reappraisal of the rest of the Malcolm in the Middle cast. It should be the best piece of advice Mike Ehrmantraut ever gave Walter White: When it comes to the survival of your business, there should be no half-measures.

Via Grantland

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