On Sunday, August 11, I saw an evening lineup beyond refusing. It was possible to watch the latest episode of “The Newsroom” (HBO), the first episode of the last season of “Breaking Bad” (AMC), and the new “Ray Donovan” (Showtime), all between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Not that life was perfect: my program for the night was going to have to do without “Dexter” and “True Blood,” and the debut of “Low Winter Sun,” about which one hears good things. A couple of friends have been nagging me to get into “The Killing,” and that very Sunday, just arrived from England, I had two episodes waiting on my computer of “Southcliffe,” which some Brits say is better than “The Fall” or “The Hour.” Is anyone in doubt that we live in a glorious age of long-form television—if you’ve got the time? (Here’s another friendly alert: the new season of “Homeland” begins on September 29.) I have a friend who is selling off yards of his books (Asimov through Borges went Saturday) not to raise money but to clear room for the boxed sets of “The Sopranos,” “Treme,” “Big Love,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Wire,” “Rubicon.” He even has a set of “Crime Story” (1986)! (Do you remember Ray Luca?) If only they’d ease up on the new series, my friend could make a start on the old. He may be crazy, not just overloaded but paranoid; still, he has a theory that the ultimate secret to “Homeland” is there to be found in that one and only season of “Rubicon.” Why not? I have dreams of Walter White terrorizing the household from “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Thank heavens I gave up on “Under the Dome” early. When people bump into walls you can’t see, I say enough is enough. Still, we need to notice this golden age while there’s still time. No one said the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1940s was a golden age of film as it happened in Hollywood, just as hardly anyone bothered to consider what those things called motion pictures were doing to us. So here are some thoughts on long-form television and what it is doing to the idea of narrative. My reason for this sort of survey is that “Breaking Bad” is about to stop breaking. So what do we expect of its conclusion?
It's fascinating to wonder whether creators Vince Gilligan with “Breaking Bad,” or David Chase with “The Sopranos,” knew where they were going from the beginning. I daresay some outline was put down on paper to get the green light, an outline that hoped to bring a first season to an exciting conclusion—and to prompt a second season. The business likes to know where it is going. In 1952, the people who made High Noon tightened the screws of suspense and asked us to wonder, “Will the sheriff kill the four bad guys who are coming for him?” The film worked in continuous time, and everyone said it was “nail-biting.” But the 1952 audience knew better. They took it for granted that Gary Cooper was not going to be defeated—that would have been alien to Coop’s ethos, and anti-American (a pressing concern at the time). Virtue triumphed in those days, which, if you thought about it, began to make virtue an increasingly bizarre concept. That’s why the rude removal of Janet Leigh from Psycho after forty minutes or so was such an insurrection.
Before it began, a storyteller might have proposed this about “Breaking Bad”: Walter is a disenchanted schoolteacher in Albuquerque, whose mood becomes a cancer. Driven into a dead end, he decides to break out: he’ll use his knowledge of chemistry to make methamphetamines, and quicker than he ever guessed, he is an underworld kingpin, who calls himself “Heisenberg” in honor of the uncertainty principle. How does it end? Does Walter get elected governor of New Mexico? Doubtful. Does he shack up with Angelina Jolie? He seems uninterested in such things. If you’re a dramatist, a novelist, you feel for an arc. Walter becomes a magical criminal; he’s like a loser who breaks the bank at Las Vegas. He has a moment of demented glory. But then organized crime gathers against him. Walter is afraid, until he remembers the cancer. He grows more outrageous, more wealthy (think of that storage container full of money), and then, as execution looms, illness frees him. He is past murder; he has done it to himself. It could be one perfect season, long-form television like a novel by Mailer or a film by Scorsese.
You have to imagine Vince Gilligan sitting with his fingers crossed: does he go for that big finish at the outset, or wait for renewal and explore all the other plot dreams he has been having? I’m sure that Jason Horwitch (who created “Rubicon”) had files full of futures. You could say the same for David Milch with “Luck.” That was canceled because of reports that horses had been hurt, and so several actors and our investment in them were left up in the air—notably those weird track-rats played by Richard Kind, Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, and Jason Gedrick, as well as Kerry Condon’s jockey.
You win some, you lose some. “Luck” was cut off as they were filming the second season So now we can only dream about Dustin Hoffman and Michael Gambon in a scenery-chewing contest. But some of those actors must have been as pained as David Milch and the ASPCA. If a series gets running, the rewards are enormous. The business used to talk about syndication, the revenue system whereby you can still watch “I Love Lucy” somewhere. But box sets are now just as important. James Gandolfini was for years a working actor, hardly likely to be cast in Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise parts. He was a hood, a heavy, a leering bystander. But by the conclusion of “The Sopranos,” he was probably getting $1 million an episode. Bryan Cranston is a similar case. He is a millionaire from Walter White and Malcolm’s dad, yet he still takes small parts in movies, such as Contagion and Argo.
We may imagine a delicate conversation between Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston (it might have to be written by Aaron Sorkin) in which the creator is expounding on narrative finality, the stamp of drama and moral conclusion while Cranston can’t help but say, another season another remission in the cancer, and he could buy that little island just off the shore from George Clooney’s place in Italy. He doesn’t insist; he’s not as blunt as Walter. But Gilligan isn’t going to be hurt if a series goes on and on.
Many factors weigh on a long-form series that holds its place. Audiences and producers want more of the same, yet they like it different. That can lead to a rising hysteria in character and action. So many series turn crazier as they proceed, even to the point of paranoia and implausibility. If certain actors become audience favorites, does that mean the show rules out the chance that they are killed off? “The Sopranos” faltered when Nancy Marchand died (she had been Tony’s mother), and if “Luck” had lasted, it would be without Dennis Farina now (and he goes back as far as “Crime Story”).
Agile and perverse creators resist these pressures. After a hundred years of screen stories, it is their compulsion to find a twist no one could think of. When it came to the end of “The Sopranos,” David Chase teased every expectation with a quiet, hesitant ending where so many things could be about to happen but nothing did. Some were dissatisfied with that fade-out, but we remember it. So how will Gilligan finish with Walter White? He has said in advance that he thinks the close will be a crowd-pleaser—what else is he going to say when millions of people would prefer it if “Breaking Bad” came back next year? Hasn’t Walter always been a dead man walking, or kicking butt?
Walter’s cancer might be an issue, but it has been something of a Bunbury disease and maybe now he deserves more. There might be a desert confrontation with Hank—or Hank saying, Brother-in-law, you need the DEA, especially if you’re going to get into the Czech market. Skyler, his wife, could reach a new breaking point—but crime series fight shy of having women as deciders. Maybe it’ll end in chemistry? Since we’re in New Mexico, imagine some Los Alamos–like explosion as a factory gasps out its last breath, and the fireball consumes Walter, most of the cast, and that mythic room of money (as well as all the commercial breaks on AMC—never forget that “Breaking Bad” endured those insults to story).
Hasn’t Walter always been a dead man walking, or kicking butt?
Of course, we are couch connoisseurs who sit back while Gilligan and Cranston do the work. But already technology could offer another way out. Suppose as the show ends, you buy it as a sophisticated video game in which you have all the characters and the chance to experiment with every ending you can think of. The human figures are flexible: they will do whatever you ask. You’ll have to provide the dialogue, and you can’t have Sorkin as a script doctor. But why shouldn’t we all have our own “Breaking Bad,” and why shouldn’t Walter meet “Game of Thrones” out in the desert? Better still, do you like the idea of Walter as a guest at “Downton Abbey” giving the Countess of Grantham a stare-down? He could be multitudes.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.