The story of a man who is reunited with his trousers

(Contains a minor sartorial spoiler to Breaking Bad)

There is no recording of William Shakespeare sitting in the audience of Hamlet, explaining to a colleague or friend his creative process in the writing of key scenes, and how he settled on the ending.

Well, you see, Geoff, it’s a tragedy, so you know that most of the cast is going to die. But you still have to figure out how. My team and I thought about this one for weeks, but I’m very happy with the solution we came up with, and I hope the fans will be as well.

There is no surviving transcription or podcast of this conversation. On the other hand, we have tens of hours of Vince Gilligan discussing with various people and practically in real time how he and the rest of Breaking Bad’s writing staff conceived of and executed the show’s final series.

I am not ordinarily interested in behind-the-scenes accounts and authorial meta-analyses, and studiously avoid for instance the director’s commentary tracks on DVDs, but lately the convergence of Gilligan’s show-after-the-show – his Talking Bad capsules were broadcast in the breaks of the show that followed each new episode of Breaking Bad on AMC – and of the torrent of viewer commentary and critique on the web became an irresistible spectacle, every bit as absorbing as the show proper.

It was all about how the story would end. David Auerbach recently wrote a fascinating essay on the business of the ending of television dramas, proposing a theoretical distinction between what he dubbed the Expansionary, Steady-State and Big Crunch models of a show’s arc. I say fascinating, but there is much I disagree with, beginning with Auerbach’s equation of artistic integrity with knowing from the start how the story will end – leading to this integrity being almost inevitably sacrificed in a medium such as television, in which authors aren’t the sole arbiters of the length and duration of their works. Instead of lamenting these constraints or maintaining an illusion of total creative control, however, Gilligan made no secret of the writers’ own protracted ignorance of how it would all pan out, implying at various times that it was in fact a creative asset. Clues were scattered. Chekovian guns were placed in full view of the audience. But they were foreshadowing events that had not yet been ordained. Everyone ­– writers and audience ­– was involved in the same guessing game.

And what a game it was. Within 24 hours of broadcast, the discussion at Television Without Pity on the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad, ‘Ozymandias’, had reached 90 000 words, or three standard Master’s thesis-worth. This in but one of dozens if not hundreds of forums dedicated to the show, and not including the separate thread on the site devoted to speculation on where the show might go next. Outside of other recent shows like Lost or the Sopranos, it’s a degree of engagement with the text that has few historical precedents. Wired may have come closest when they compared it to Talmudic scholarship.

With this engagement comes the foregrounding of some distinctly postmodern ideas about the intertwining of the acts of reading and writing. Quite aside from the moments in which the show appears to explicitly address a certain segment of its audience, the so-called Bad Fan (as discussed by Emily Nussbaum – with spoilers up until episode 5-14), or the acknowledgment by Gilligan of individual fan contributions, there are those two parallel discussions I hinted at above: one, by the audience, which anyone could read and contribute to; the other, by the writers, conducted in secret and artfully revealed little by little, along with each new chapter of the story.

In the last of the Breaking Bad Insider podcasts (nothing but spoilers there, obviously), Gilligan specifically cited as a key to the show’s success the willingness of its backers to pay for the writing staff to spend ‘hundreds of hours’ going through every possible iteration of every possible scenario. Like fans with writing privileges. And, like ordinary fans, the writers wanted to honour the show in every possible way. To ‘mine its history’, as Gilligan put it, in order for the ending to be meticulously faithful to the show’s beginnings – just as if it had been pre-ordained all along.

This approach to reading/writing, in which not just the big Chekovian gun – this, in an obscenely literal twist, is revealed at the beginning of series five to be an M60 – but the smallest casual detail has to be made functional to the whole, is uncomfortably close to Foucault’s Pendulum. That is to say, to paranoia. It requires the resolution to offer nothing short of complete closure and for all loose ends to be tied to such an extent that not a single one of the fans will have reason to complain. As if this is what the integrity of a work of art meant: to be impeccable, unassailable, infinitely re-watchable, as the medium – consisting of the convergence of cable television, DVDs, the internet – demands.

Therefore: trousers. To be precise, the pair of trousers that Walter White had lost in the desert in the show’s pilot, and that he walks past again in ‘Ozymandias’, uncannily, almost comically, yet necessarily, given the demand that everything be revealed and neatly tidied up. It’s a bitter, brilliant little cameo, but also the sign of a creative failure: to entertain other possibilities, and looser, more complex, less satisfying endings than the one the audience wrote.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Closed endings versus open endings? The psychology attached to the ending of Breaking Bad as described here reads more like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (which you may be alluding to), and goes way beyond Poe’s “unity of effect” etc, and, as described, is closer to the marketing of products and advertising with its focus groups and two-way mirrors, and closer too to humour (sit-com particularly) with its mania for tying up all loose ends, even inserting impossible spatio-temporal delay gags to be tied up at the end, just for laughs. I’d expect more from a drama such as Breaking Bad though, as you rightly suggest. I saw a Japanese film once (The Battle of Narayama, I think), where elderly people, having served their purpose in life, take themselves or are taken up a mountain and rolled off the top. It may have been that same film which ends with a man, having only the bone of a parent left, flinging the bone off the mountain top, and each time the bone returns to the hand. I can’t recall the name of the figure of speech (some sort of reverse metaphor, I guess), but it’s seen quite often in poetry, particularly in the poetry of Celan, chillingly enough. Pity Breaking Bad didn’t do more of that sort of stuff by way of an open ending, but that’s how committees operate. I may have been laughing in the wrong places, but all up, this post made me laugh, which is always good medicine. Thanks.

  2. Speaking of now useless things being rolled off the top of mountains, one could run a very similar critique to mine but focussing on the consumption side. So, internet forums and the slow reveal of writer forums as both integral and complementary to the act of consuming the show (one could, after all, quite happily just read the recaps – which are oftentimes brilliantly written – and forego watching the episodes altogether). As discussed with @attentive and others on Twitter, there is an aspect here of enlisting of intellectual labourers to contribute to the marketing of the show which is interesting. But the last episode arguably would have freed the writers from selling the show any further, since there wasn’t going to be a show anymore. Isn’t that how The Sopranos ended? But then I suppose it’s not true: there was one last thing left to sell, and it was Season 5b on DVD. An ending capable of pleasing both the Bad and the Good Fans would help with that.

    PS Wish I had been clever enough to be referencing Oliver Sacks there. Let’s agree that I did.

    1. Yep, I considered focusing on the consumption side of the argument, but then it would’ve been Zazie / Zizek in the Metro with Deleuze, Hegel, Lacan, Butler, Klein et al, and the digitised flows of global capitalism: a station too far for this poor lost yuppie soul still reading that fascist Pound on a suburban train line.

  3. Gilligan specifically cited as a key to the show’s success the willingness of its backers to pay for the writing staff to spend ‘hundreds of hours’ going through every possible iteration of every possible scenario. Like fans with writing privileges.

    I haven’t taken in “Talking Bad” (and haven’t, in fact, finished watching the last season of Breaking Bad), but it strikes me that this is a commercially focused importation of the (usually constructed post facto) “concordance” of a detail rich text into its original creation.

    Tolkien referred to the idea of “sub-creation” in which he suggested his own meticulous world-building was an homage to God’s creation. A text that mines itself for detail which it then lovingly reinscribes with great consistency is an homage to its own creation, a text that worships itself.

    It requires the resolution to offer nothing short of complete closure and for all loose ends to be tied to such an extent that not a single one of the fans will have reason to complain.

    The concept of “canon” in fan creation is relevant here. A production that pays detailed attention to its own continuity invites its audience to do likewise. The resolution you refer to is, in a way, illusory because the subcreated “world” of the work is imagined as a lightly sampled continuum into which new content can always be inserted, provided it respects the regime of verisimilitude.

    The respect shown by Breaking Bad and similar works to its own canon reinforces that respect within its critical community, and counts as a significant endorsement of one norm by which fan works and more forensic modes of criticism are evaluated.

    The availability of a predictable means of producing highly valued fan works and criticism results in predictable social benefits from participation in the critical community—which in turn creates an incentive for the unpaid promotion of the commercial product by criticism and fan works, that we were discussing on Twitter.

    As critics, we know we can attract positive attention for ourselves by responding to the work in specific ways: for example, by evaluating its success against a commonly understood set of identity-political axes.

    It makes sense to me that we’ll see more and more shows with these rich internal continuities. Writing is a relatively small part of production costs, and the introduction of these details can be worked on by committee, independent of the broader pulp fiction traits that attract an audience in the first place.

    What we are looking at here is an ongoing for-profit refinement of a method for producing the qualities of fiction (of any sort) that engage obsessive fan behaviour.

    1. Thought of something else—I allude to it above, but there are other ways in which a text can write into itself without disrupting its rough fictional architecture.

      Your post is mainly about the recurrence of earlier factoids of plot and setting with an unprecedented level of detail, but works that embed their own critiques seem just as ubiquitous. It may even be the definitive trait of this HBO/AMC method.

      This is the kind of work that adopts a pulpy milieu—motorcycle gang, meth trade, Atlantic City boot-legging, faux-medieval swords and dragons—that provides the potential to attract a broad audience through predictable forms of violent, sexual titillation and exploitation, but then, its rough form determined, rewrites itself to problematise the low conventions on which it relies.

      By including its own critique, such a work successfully preempts and confuses criticism which rightly should still apply, while also suggesting what the parameters of such criticism should be. Are the woman characters “strong” enough? Are the murders accompanied by adequate angst and introspection? Do we see the consequences of the protagonist’s relentless philandering? Are the non-white characters granted sufficient centrality and autonomy by the setup? Etc.

      1. The Nussbaum piece is very good on that (but also very spoilery, if you haven’t got that far. And I suggest you do – my reservations about the ending notwithstanding, the last few episodes of the show are very powerful, and interesting in ways that most critiques, beginning with mine today, don’t quite capture.)

        1. Finished watching it last night, which meant I could read that Nussbaum column.

          (Hadn’t realised that Walt’s phone monologue was arguably for other ears. Fascinating pickup.)

          The idea of an avatar of an imagined Bad Fan being identified and shamed within the show is an interestingly explicit variation of the general method that provokes the fan community.

          One question which comes to mind is: how much of this is deliberate, and how much “emerges” when a plot is scripted by committee for rich dramatic impact?

          1. “(Hadn’t realised that Walt’s phone monologue was arguably for other ears. Fascinating pickup.)”

            That’s one hell of a scene at the end of a truly remarkable episode. Can’t really fault them for letting the pathos go to waste.

            “One question which comes to mind is: how much of this is deliberate, and how much “emerges” when a plot is scripted by committee for rich dramatic impact?”

            It seemed fairly deliberate to me, and I agree with some of the speculation about Todd’s character being the Bad Fan incarnate as well. But it doesn’t have to matter.

    2. “A text that mines itself for detail which it then lovingly reinscribes with great consistency is an homage to its own creation, a text that worships itself.”

      Quoted because I really like it. Subscribe to the whole comment.

      1. Excuse my left fieldness but Aristotle recognised plot structure as only one element in his poetics. This is a concern I have with the narcisism of narrative therapies. Has anyone read Frank Kermode? I haven’t but the final episode of BB sounds like an apocalyptic “tock”. Thanks Giovanni for picking out the Tom quote.

  4. I often read the recaps instead of watching the shows. I prefer the possibilities for what could have happened rather than what usually does.

    This is an intriguing read. Made me think a lot about the marketisation of the form, whether this is way all television will be written now, and how I could watch a show, read all the recaps and reviews, and have this deep reading of a show without ever having had an actual conversation with another human being. (I guess this is a new development?)

    1. Being somewhat obsessed with historical precedents for these things, I’ve been wondering if there might have been forms of correspondence about serialised literature in the 19th century. Or print forums, even. We know there was a public opinion campaign to bring Sherlock Holmes back to life, but I can’t really think of a situation like the one you’re describing.

  5. If I make myself the pall bearer here, I don’t watch nearly as much television as I once did (almost nil actually), so I don’t over-identify with particular shows and think soaps are real life and happenings in the world only exist once they appear on television news etc, which suggests a changing viewing demography. It would appear that audience identification with the ending to Breaking Bad as described is much more aware of constructedness, and so more cynical in a sense, but there is still some sort of collective over-identification going on that’s beyond me. Maybe everyone (Everyman) is an emerging writer in a collective sense? Who knows what’s dying or what’s being reborn?

  6. Breaking Bad has a paltry audience compared to shows of old on regular networks. Hill Street Blues was a ratings disaster and still brought in over ten times the average audience of Breaking Bad, which only managed to reach 10 million in the finale, and typically hovered between 1 and 2 million. So it’s definitely a case of the internet amplifying the phenomenon (and giving it something of a global reach).

    Earlier this year I came across a very interesting article on the business model of cable TV dramas a-la Sopranos, etc., and how it might not last much longer, but I can’t seem to find it right now.

    1. Didn’t know that, and Hill Street Blues was one of the more artful and innovative TV dramas in a production values sense, if I remember correctly, so anti-art is the continuing theme up to and including Breaking Bad in terms of selling audience numbers to advertisers. Who was it who said, ‘If you want to send a message, go online’?

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