(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.