I was inspired to write some thoughts I had on Breaking Bad when I commented on a friend’s post on FB (BTW SPOILERS AHEAD). I realized that I had this blog over here that wasn’t being used and was in need of a jump-start, so I am going to re-post my thoughts here. I am a little rusty with the blogging stuff so I know this is not the most witty or eloquent post I’ve ever written, but I have to re-start somewhere. I promise to try and be more snarky in the future.
In a nutshell, this is going to explain why Breaking Bad is a game-changer and why the finale was the best one I can think of in my own television viewing history. It comes down to the dramatic architecture of the show which is unlike any that has been attempted on television before.
Let’s start with the difference between TV and film. The main difference between the dramatic structural design of tv vs film is that film is about a character coming to self-actualization and tv is about characters avoiding self-actualization.
That is why in film Neo in Matrix and Luke in Star Wars are completely different from the way they are presented at the beginning of the story, you can’t begin another story with these characters the following week and have them make the same journey again. If The Empire Strikes Back were about Luke having to re-learn trusting the Force, we would be like “wha-?” It is also why The Matrix trilogy failed miserably; the Wachowskis were unable to figure out how to move the story of Neo to the next level properly.
In TV though, in order for a show to continue for indefinite multiple seasons (as networks are wont to do in order to maintain the steady consistent revenue of advertisers), the main character has to remain virtually unchanged. Sam on Cheers is pretty much the same guy at the end of the run as the beginning. The reason why people were disappointed with The Sopranos ending is because Tony didn’t come to any kind of self-actualization but rather became resigned with the fact that he is the same guy that we initially met. That is why one of the worst finales in TV history was Seinfeld, because that show was based on four people who would never come to terms with their own nature and the finale only cemented that by locking them into a cage without any sense of self-actualization.
This is not to say that shows aren’t able to create finality and sometimes very satisfyingly (M*A*S*H comes to mind) but for the most part the endings don’t feel as complete and resolved as BrBa because BrBa had the end game in mind from the very beginning i.e. Vince Gilligan was moving Walter White towards the moment of complete self-actualization the entire time.
This is why people on the internet are quoting his line to Skylar “I did it for me.” This is that moment of complete self-actualization. It is the kind of moment like Neo finally seeing the Matrix. Or Luke finally trusting the Force.
And what makes BrBa a game changer is that it is setting a new mold for storytelling on TV – it made it possible to have a long form arc for a character. In the past, the idea was to create never-ending serial loops about characters that basically re-lived the same story/lessons week-to-week, season-to-season. This is why Dexter was mocked in its last season and derided for its finale. I did not keep up with the show but I know that it is the same story as the first season – a serial killer who kills serial killers. And with each subsequent season from reading online reactions, it seemed to have peaked at the Lithgow season and then steadily began to fade like carbon copies of itself as each season went on.
If you came in to BrBa at season two, could you really say it was about a chemistry teacher who turned to making meth to leave his family a nest egg? In season three was it the same story as season two? No, each season, each episode pushed the character closer and closer to that moment of clarity. By the fifth season, the fact that he was a high school chemistry teacher was hardly relevant to the story at all.
This is why TV is the most exciting medium for filmmakers now. We are now in an age where we no longer have to try to cram the emotional weight of a story into a two-hour feature film; because of BrBa, we can now tell epic stories that span years in order to really explore the depths of a character’s psyche and push the limits of an audiences emotional investment.
By the end of BrBa, I think many of the fans weren’t sure how they felt about Walter White and at multiple times throughout the series probably wavered back and forth on their allegiance to him. And regardless of how the audience felt about the choices Walter White made along the way, they were always compelled by the story and the evolution of the character. That doesn’t happen with Sookie Stackhouse where they need to artificially populate her world with more and more magic to distract you from the lack of emotional growth int he character (same thing happened with Buffy and on Heroes).
What BrBa said to the industry is that if you build a proper story, the audience will be there for the entire journey. LOST came close in achieving this but they were caught between the two philosophies of storytelling and ultimately suffered from trying to serve both (which is impossible because the concept of the perpetual looping episodic narrative is antithetical to the self-contained hero’s journey).
I will miss Breaking Bad but I am hopeful that it has created an opportunity for a very new approach to storytelling on TV. And we will be seeing a lot more like it soon.