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?
This is a very special week of Breaking Bad events for me. I’m riding on the air of my first viral video, which just so happens to be Breaking Bad-related, and the entire cast is in NYC promoting the upcoming final season of the show. The week’s not even over, but I’m already surprised by how much I’ve been ruminating on the various frustrations of the super-hyped events I’ve attended. I’ve been to two so far, but I’m sure the third and fourth will suffer from similar problems, so I may as well talk about it now.
So let’s talk about it. The first event was at the Museum of the Moving Image on Sunday evening, where Charlie Rose “moderated a discussion” (read: interviewed) the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Charlie Rose. He’s an enthusiastic and curious guy, interested in a wide swath of topics from academia to pop culture.
But he was absolutely the wrong person to be interviewing the Vince Gilligan in front of an overflowing audience of superfans. How do I know we were all superfans? Because we all had to buy our tickets online within the first 10 seconds they went on sale, and anyone who managed to acquire standby tickets waited in line for hours. People were so excited by the prospect of being near Vince Gilligan, that the Museum of the Moving Image sold out tickets for their second theater, which merely presented a livestream of what was going on in the first. And remember, Vince isn’t known as some star actor or even director. First and foremost, he’s a writer.
Charlie Rose is not a superfan. How could he be? He doesn’t have time. Though he professed to love the show, my guess is he’s seen a couple episodes, and has supplemented that by reading press clippings from the various television critics who shower it with praise. But this is the first problem: that disconnect. When he calls himself an “avid fan,” the audience immediately thinks ‘oh great, he’s like me!’ So when he calls the main character “Walter Washington” or asks why Walt didn’t rise to the top of his chosen profession and is stuck teaching at a “community college,” he can’t be surprised to hear audible groans from the audience he’s now alienating.
This is what happens when the audience is filled with people who are more passionate about the guest and their work than the interviewer is. All this on top of no audience Q&A, and cringe-worthy moments like when Charlie merely states “The Boston Bomber was a fan of Breaking Bad”… and then veers the interview in a completely different direction.
Flash forward to the next night, with David Edelstein interviewing Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Vince Gilligan at the jam-packed SoHo Apple Store. Now, Edelstein is a guy who I’m fairly certain has seen the entire series, but he still overestimates his worth as an interviewer. So much so in fact, that he took up more than half of the scheduled audience Q&A portion with his own questions and ruminations. Worse, he seemed to be under the impression he was leading us all down deep, uncharted territory. But what David and Charlie were both blissfully unaware of is that most of the people in their audiences already knew the answer to every question they asked. Any half-hooked Breaking Bad fan has already heard a thousand times the story of why Vince Gilligan championed Bryan Cranston for the role of Walter White, or the story of the networks that rejected Breaking Bad including the-one-with-people-that-said-they’d-love-to-buy-it-but-they’ll-get-fired-if-they-do. We’ve all heard how Vince was grateful for the network notes that Jane shouldn’t be killed by direct action by Walt in Season 2, and the fact that Vince and the writers are happy with the ending to the series.
These are softball questions that allow the guest to basically turn off their brain and recite stories from rote memorization. Would it kill them to ask a question Vince and the others haven’t already answered a thousand times? Vince and the cast are all intelligent people; I’m sure they can handle a few sparks in their brain. For example, here’s some of the questions I’d like to ask Vince that I don’t believe he’s encountered:
Why haven’t we met Walt’s mother? Since family is such a central element to the show, and other anti-heroes (i.e. Don Draper, Tony Soprano, et al) have all been strongly-defined by their maternal relationships, was there a conscious effort to keep his mother from playing a larger element in the series, or was there a time when she was going to be part of the action?
Was there ever any consideration to have a flashback to Walt and Jesse back when Jesse was in Walt’s class? (kind of don’t want to ask this, because I’m really hoping there’s a scene in this final season… just thinking about the contrast between where those two are now and where they must have been then gives me goosebumps).
Are we ever going to learn why Don Eladio was so afraid of killing Gus? Is Walt in any danger of this retaliation?
How does Vince imagine Season 5 would have looked if all 16 episodes had to be written in one season? Would they have hit a lot of the same checkpoints but through different means, or could Walt have gone in a completely different direction? Were there some ‘thinkers’ that the extra time allowed the writers (like the pest-control meth lab setup), that probably wouldn’t have made their way into the show because the writers would have had to be writing too fast? How similar would the ending have been?
In September of last year, before the final season of writing really got underway, Vince stated several times that he and the writers knew what the ending was, but they were open to let a better idea come along. Did a better idea come along? Or rather, how close is the final ending of the show to what they thought it would be at that time?
Yeah. I mean, maybe it’s extreme to expect moderators to keep track of all the questions that have already been answered (though a simple google search before their interview wouldn’t kill them). But I think the real problem is a lot of them are stuck in the mindset of an interviewer before the internet, when it was nearly impossible for the audience as a whole to know a great deal about anything. Back then, if someone gave an interview, maybe it ended up in the newspaper, maybe it ended up on the nightly news, but then it is done. Over. Kaput. No reruns, and no way to search for that interview without the effort of visiting a library or visiting some kind of archive center. Today, it’s all on youtube, wikipedia, reddit, and facebook, and will be forever. And guess what? A lot of fans spend countless hours reading up on these interviews, then taking to forums to debate the meanings behind certain answers. A good example is Vince claiming the end of the series represents a ‘victory for Walt.’ What does that mean? Is he the only one left standing? Does he want to die, and thus when he is killed he’s happy? Was his only goal to be recognized as Heisenberg, and he finally gets the recognition he wished for?
Still, in the age of the superfan, I think a good interview is more than just asking questions that haven’t already been answered. After all, you also don’t want the interviewee sitting there the whole time going ‘Gee, that’s a great question, but I’ve never thought about it so I’ve got nothing to say.’ Probably the most interesting question David asked was about where Jesse’s head is at at the beginning of this coming season. Questions about what a character is thinking/feeling can be insightful with a good actor, and can help us get inside a character to help us speculate where they’re going. And I’d much rather hear Aaron Paul talk about that then tell us for the fiftieth time that Jesse was originally supposed to be killed off in the first season and aren’t-we-all-glad-he-wasn’t??
The most interesting moment of the Charlie Rose interview came from a complete faux paux: Charlie asking, “why did you choose to include me in the second to last episode of the series?” And frankly, there’s a part of me that’s upset by this slip, because despite Charlie laughing it off with “my check’s still in the mail, right?”, it was a spoiler. Because now we know things go national. We know there’s going to be a very special episode of Charlie Rose talking about Heisenberg’s meth empire, probably speaking to Skyler about being married to this guy, or maybe even Hank about what it was like having him Walt under his nose all these years. So boo, Charlie. If you were a genuine fan of the show, you’d never have made that mistake.
I’ve never been to Comic-Con, but I’ve read the blogs of some who have, so I know I’m not alone. In the age of superfans, where people wait for hours to breathe the same air as cultural icons, moderators need to be more than someone whose seen a couple episodes. They either need to be just as much a superfan as the audience and keep up with them, or back down, let the audience Q&A take over, and limit their role to serving as a pure electrical conductor between the auidence brains and the brain of the guest.
Every time someone gets to share a room with their idol, for some people it will be the best moment of their lives. Is it too much to ask that they at least get to learn something new?
Wow. Just got back from my final two panels, and it’s good to know I wasn’t crazy. There is such a thing as a good moderator, even in today’s world. Emily Nussbaum, the TV critic for the New Yorker, is perfect. She absolutely embodied everything above that I said I wanted to see, and more.
First off, I got to see her talk to Dean Norris (Hank) and Betsy Brandt (Marie). Five minutes in I was already far more engaged than with the other interviews, and I realized why: she was letting them talk. Her questions were carefully considered, to the point, and helped draw some fantastic stories/food for thought out of these actors. Nothing about her stage presence felt like she was celebrating herself (very much a problem with Charlie and David)– she positioned herself as subservient to the guests, clearly knew a ton about the show, and made a genuine effort to get these two talking about things they haven’t talked about before. Betsy Brandy was crying through most of it! Emily asked questions about their final day at work, developing their relationship together, how they built their backstory, and even piggy-backed off questions they’ve been asked before (the whole ‘purple’ thing had some new shades added).
Even better, she moved on to the audience quickly. I also appreciate that she took responsibility for calling on us (David just said ‘Oh… I don’t know.’), and I was fortunate to be picked. There were some more serious questions I wanted to ask, but after Emily keeping everything so profound and deep, I decided to lighten things up a little by asking: “will we see the return of Hank’s rock collection?” setting Dean Norris up for a perfect “dammit, they’re MINERALS!” though unfortunately no answer on whether or not the collection would return… so I’m going to assume no.
Next panel up, Vince, I was still a little worried about question-ask-again-itis, but I needn’t have been. This one was even better. Even Vince noticed, many times commenting “wow, what a great question. No one’s ever asked me that before,” then several times launching into some delightful, never-before-heard story. Only a couple times did this run afoul, but I don’t fault Emily at all. One of my favorite questions she asked expounded upon how many an interviewer have commented on how Walt seems similar in many ways to Vince. Emily is the first interviewer to take that observation further, commenting how it’s clear that fame and fortune have changed Walt a great deal over the course of the show, so how have fame and fortune changed Vince? Unfortunately, it seemed to be a little too inward-looking a question, so Vince didn’t have a great answer, but still… what a great question.
She also made the most of her short time with him. At one point, she asked if the writers have ever had a huge debate about driving the story in any particular direction, and Vince immediately started to tell the Jane story, again. Thank God Emily had the gall to interrupt him and say “thank you, but a lot of us are familiar with that, and I’d like to hear something new.” Of course I heard a few grumblings in the audience like ‘what’s the story?’ to which I simply wanted to shout ‘Google it!’
Soon it was to the audience for some more great Q&A. A sad end to the story: I was the person Emily called on to ask the last question, but someone else took the mic mistakenly thinking she called on them. Oh well, at least his question was similar to one of mine up above: he asked about all the threads the show seems to carry, and if we would ever learn more about Gus Fring’s past in Chile. Vince tried to be coy and leave some hope, but basically made it clear that we’re past that point in the story and anything the audience could speculate about Gus is now more interesting than any story they could go back and tell. Ah well, at least that’s one less thing to focus on as we approach these final 8 episodes.
‘Whhaaaaa…? But that’s not a theatre performance!’ I hear you grumble. But here’s my definition of theatre: a live experience involving suspension of disbelief. Here’s my definition of good theatre: theatre that moves me. This was good theatre. That being said, because it does not define itself as theatre, I will choose to forgo my usual ‘Hoo-ra’/'Blech…’ format of bullet-point review. Instead, think of this more as a recap. A thorough-recap. My goal here is for you to understand–to empathize with–how wonderful this experience was. Here we go.
Tales from the Stagedoor…