First, a little back-story.
As you’ll see by looking at my Theatre Scores, I’ve actually already seen No Man’s Land. It was London in 2008, and is 1 of only 3 productions I’ve ever given an A+ to. Why? It made me feel things I’ve never felt before, most notably among them: menace levied by dark humor. The wind and release of tension was so masterful that by the end of the show I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh about the whole thing or curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep.
The imposing stature and unpredictable nature of Michael Gambon’s Hirst paired with the no-nonsense-fuck-you-ery of David Walliams and Nick Dunning’s performances set against the uncomfortable and squirming nature of David Bradley as Spooner put me in a thoroughly nauseated state– the best kind of nauseated state.
During the show I was convinced that at any moment someone was about to die (oh that menace!); I hung on every word said by every character, convinced it could be the last word they ever said before either killing someone, or being killed themselves. The sense of displacement, of failure, of hopelessness was all so very tangible. So very real. I’ve thought about that production often in the five years since– a true reminder of the power of theater, done right.
So as you can imagine, I was thrilled to see that the show was being done again in NYC, this time with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, my very favoritest old people best friends. Always aware that I am currently young and not-yet encumbered by countless children, I decided to organize a posse and make a go at rush tickets. Based on my Death of a Salesman experience, I knew this would require waking up at an ungodly hour on a day I’d usually be catching up on sleep, but to get $200 tickets for $30 kind of makes it all worth it– plus this time I’d have friends! And– once I actually saw the rush policy, it seemed too good to be true: No Man’s Land was being performed in repertory with Waiting for Godot (same cast), and if we got rush tickets on a day when one show was the matinee and other was the evening show, we could buy 1 rush ticket to each show! And if that wasn’t excellent enough, I then also learned that the entire front row of the theater was being reserved for rush ticket holders. WHAT?!
Saturday November 16th, we ventured to the Cort theater at about 6:30 AM to find one person already in line, a young aspiring actor named Ned who at 1 AM had driven all the way from Ithaca, so joyoused by the notion of seeing this. We made him feel good about his timing since he had only arrived 20 minutes before us, and we felt good about our timing, since by 7 AM a large group arrived behind us. From there on the line just kept swelling. We had a jolly morning telling stories of the type you only tell when you’re mentally exhausted, watching a live taping of the real Fox and Friends, not-being-bombarded-by-street-construction (Death of a Salesman experience) and and by the time the box office opened at 10 AM the line was insanely long. At 9:50 AM, a young man and woman arrived in a private car, presumably thinking that 10 minutes was enough leeway to guarantee them rush tickets, then quickly made a spectacle out of their clear hatred for the situation (and by extension, each other), eventually storming off in opposite directions.
So we got our tickets and it worked out great– front row center to both shows. However, we realized all too late that our new friend Ned actually only bought 1 ticket when he could have bought 2 (he needed to drive back to Ithaca after the matinee show). Dammit! We could have asked him to buy his second ticket on our behalf so we could get another friend into a show. Oh well– we told ourselves that hopefully the final person who gets a ticket thanks to our non-greediness will be enormously thrilled by their good fortune (I imagined a Tiny Tim-esque boychild leaping in glee while supporting himself on his tiny wooden crutch). The reality turned out to be almost that good– our friend Alex Graham arrived at 8:15 AM, uncertain if he would be able to get a ticket since the line was already pretty long at that point. We told him to stick around– he might get lucky. You’re probably ahead of me at this point but you’re right– he got the last ticket. Oh happy day! His seat was up in one of the $220 premium boxes, and he was grinning ear to ear through the entire performance of Waiting for Godot.
With our tickets in hand, we had to find a way to pass the time until the first performance at 2 PM (No Man’s Land) so we went up to Dan’s and worked on board game stuff while Liz slept. Grabbed a wonderful bite at a diner, then ventured into the first show praying that we wouldn’t fall asleep. Goodness gracious, our seats were pressed up right against the front of the stage! How cool.
After the first show, we visited the Nintendo Store at Rockefeller Plaza, then found an empty cafeteria place that had horrible food but space and quiet to play Yomi and Rivals for Catan until the 8 PM show started. And yeah! That was… well, you’ll see in my mini-review.
So just kidding, that was a lot of backstory.
Last note before my show-thoughts. I considered reviewing these two productions separately, but by seeing them both in one day, one after the other, they’re inextricably linked in my mind. The shows also had so much in common, from the fallacy of memory, to the nature of reality, to the absurd nature of several of the characters, that is just seems natural to discuss the two in tandem.
Here we go.
Tales from After the Show…
Random Fun Fact:
Jeff Golblum plays a guy who can’t stand to be monogamous with his wife, and keeps going after younger people. In real life, Jeff Goldblum was married and divorced twice, then has dated on and off with numerous people for the past 23 years. His current girlfriend is half his age.
Laurie Metcalf plays Jeff Goldblum’s wife and the mother of their two children. She is sickened by her husband’s actions and can’t stand the sight of him anymore. In real life, she recently filed for divorce after a nearly 20 year marriage, also with two children.
This show has meant a lot to me since I started watching in June of 2010. I was in a terribly-depressing, sweat-shop-like job working for a starchitect, and Breaking Bad carried me through that experience. Like Jesse imagining himself in a woodshop, this was the mental escape that kept me sane. I will always be grateful for that. Sometime in the future, probably after going back and rewatching the series in it’s entirety, I will likely write a full retrospective. But for now, since a few days have passed, I feel comfortable giving my ruminations on the end of my favorite show:
I think the true genius of the conclusion of Breaking Bad is that we weren’t given just one ending– we were given three. And not in a Lord of the Rings, too-many-endings kinda way, but in a ‘thematic variations’ kinda way, conveniently tied to each of the last 3 episodes.
1) Ozymandias. The episode Vince Gilligan said was the best Breaking Bad episode they ever made, brings the karmic force of Walter White’s misdeeds full circle. Hank dies, Walt sends Jesse to his death, Walt Jr. and Skyler see him as a monster, call the cops on him, and force him to change his identity and leave town. It’s emotionally exhausting, full of twists and turns, wholly dark, and forces the kind of mad-improvisation out of Walt we’ve come to expect from Breaking Bad. It’s full of callbacks to the pilot. It’s where the glorious, all-powerful Heisenberg truly dies, and Walt can no longer pretend that those close to him are better off thanks to his influence. Now, can you imagine if the final shot of the entire series was him driving off in that red van? It would have been powerful, harrowing, divisive, and debated for ages. It gave us what I’m calling the ‘emotional’ ending to the show; where things became irrevocably awful and at long last, Walt didn’t have the lying power to convince himself otherwise.
2) Granite State. Here’s where we see the ending that so many people felt Walt deserved: a kind of purgatory or prison, stuck living without any power (literal and figurative), knowing no one loves him, slowly dying and left with nothing but the weight of the enormity of his sins. It was slow, quiet, depressing, contemplative. To end the series after the Charlie Rose talk, whiskey glass half-empty (or half-full?), can you imagine? As the Breaking Bad theme swells for the first time ever during the show proper, we would have been left to put the pieces together ourselves for what Walt does with the machine gun and and ricin, though as became evident later, many of us were spot on. Without the spoon-feeding that came in the next episode, this was the ‘intellectual’ ending to the show.
3) Felina. Personally, I’m glad we were given this ending, as despite the checkbox quality to it all and the nice little bows that were put on everything, it was sweet, and it was satisfying. Surprises were few and far between, but like eating chocolate cake from a bakery you’ve heard nothing but good things about, sometimes it’s okay to have your expectations met. Ozymandias and Granite State were entrees– this was dessert. This was for people who didn’t have the stomach for the open-endedness of the show concluding on either of the other two episodes. For the first time ever, almost nothing went wrong for Walt– no being abducted on his way to assassinate Gale, no Spidey-sense Gus avoiding his car in the parking garage. Walt got what he wanted, and was able to gesture toward the idea of being a good person before dying with contentment on his face. Jesse was ‘freed’ and all the people we hated died. This was the ‘Hollywood’ ending.
Within those parameters, there’s still a lot of room for theories and speculation. For example, I like the interpretation proposed by Emily Nussbaum, that Felina is just the fantasy of a powerless, dying man stuck in New Hampshire– that the moment those keys fell out of the visor and the snow fell away with a Fonzy-bop, we were living inside Walt’s head, where everything goes just the way he wants with little-to-no hitches. Cool, I say. By questioning the ‘realism’ of any of the final episodes, you are given the tools to shape the ending as you wish. I don’t think that’s ever happened with a season finale before.
I love the fact that these final episodes allow you, the viewer, to read whatever you want into them. So I choose to read that I wasn’t just given the ending I wanted, I was given three of them.
What do you think? Which of the three episodes did you enjoy the most?
One of the ways I measure the merit of a play is by how much discussion it generates afterward; my gut reaction after the show ended was B-, but because of how much mileage my wife and I got out of talking about it, I’ve bumped it up!