Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Bad and the necessity of an unhappy ending

It's a familiar story. An early cut of a film is screeened for a test audience.  The test audience rejects the dark ending of the story, forcing the filmmakers to scramble and reshoot an ending that will leave everyone feeling good.

The problem is that the entire film has been spent building to a specific destination, and a last-minute swerve is often recognizable for exactly what it is - a patch job.  I remember the first time I sat in a movie theater and clearly perceived such meddling.  It was in the somewhat forgettable Mel Gibson thriller Conspiracy Theory.  Gibson plays a paranoid cab driver whose theories about the government seem borderline delusional - until it appears that at least one of his assumed conspiracies actually exists. After a lot of action that, frankly, I barely remember, Gibson's character is shot and then dies in the arms of his love interest, played by Julia Roberts.

In a coda, we see Roberts at Gibson's grave, leaving behind his union pin.  She walks off and the movie seems to be on the verge of ending - except it doesn't end.  We cut to a dark sedan where the federal agents inside are watching Roberts - and Gibson is among them.  He's faked his death and now he's working with the feds to help bring down what's left of the bad guys.

As if that wasn't tacked on enough, we then get another scene where Roberts goes horseback riding and finds something on the horse's reins - the union pin.  So not only is Gibson alive, but he's made sure that Roberts knows - just so the audience can go home satisfied that they'll one day be happily reunited.

If you haven't seen the film, maybe you can't appreciate how bullshit that ending feels - but trust me, you can feel the studio patchwork.  I might not have wanted Gibson's character to die, but allowing him to live completely sold-out the movie's integrity.

And this is hardly the first film to face tinkering after test audiences revolted.  Hell, you can credit a test audience with the entire Rambo franchise, as they rejected the original ending of First Blood, which featured Rambo's death.

Test audiences often have a hard time with downbeat endings. They like to leave the theatre feeling good.  Bad test scores often spook studios, and making an ending less depressing is a fairly favored tactic.  You know all those alternate endings you see featured on DVDs - that's the shit that either didn't work, or didn't make an audience happy after the first attempt.

Which brings me to Breaking Bad (Spoilers for last night's episode follow - read at your own peril.)

If Breaking Bad was a feature film, what we saw last night would be the "too dark" ending that would spur an audience revolt.  Hank, the DEA agent we've all been cheering on as he pursues his meth-dealing brother-in-law Walt, is shot dead after a sting operation that netted Walt and briefly gave him a small taste of victory.  The same shootout with the Aryans also claimed the life of his partner, and the confrontation ends with Walt handing Jesse, his former partner-turned-Judas over to the Aryans, where he is beaten, imprisoned and forced to work for them.

"You can't kill Hank!" This test audience would cry.  "He can't just be shot like a dog! Not when he's so close to finally nailing Walt!"  I imagine they'd also take exception to Jesse's fate, especially Walt taking such glee in revealing he let Jesse's girlfriend die a few seasons back.

We all spent the week needing to see what came next.  We hoped against hope that Hank and his partner weren't doomed.  But the truth is that any reprieve for Hank and Gomez would have felt false.  They were outnumbered and outgunned.  No matter how much we hated to see Hank die, any scenario that would have allowed his survival would have felt like a cop-out - and it would have diminished the series.

There are still two episodes left.  Perhaps they will see Jesse's rescue and Walt being brought to some kind of justice.  But what went down this week will leave permanent scars on these characters.  Walt's family is shattered. Recriminations will be handed down, trusts are broken forever, and his wife and children will likely be stigmatized for life.

This might not be the ending we wanted, but it's the ending the story deserves. And because of that, it was incredibly powerful drama.  The show strode into the darkness with incredible confidence this week.  Some might say that it doesn't take many guts to shock an audience - but to dive in and then deliver some of the most agonizing moments of the series in a way that proves they had to happen? That takes genuine artistry.

Breaking Bad has earned it's dark climax, and I couldn't be more blown away by it.


  1. Re: Jesse and "The Outlaw Josey Wales Ending"

    Here is the reason why I think Walt exposing Jesse and surrendering him to Jack is less evil and petty than it appears.

    Consider what Walt knows leading up to and following this incident, Walt

    1) The Nazis have revealed their intentions about the deal: they are aiming to be the prison gang version of Gus rather than partners.

    2) They can't make even Declan quality product per Lydia.

    3) Due to #2, they need a permanent meth monkey, and likely have their sights set on Walt being that meth monkey with the leverage they have on him short of an alternative.

    4) BEFORE watching Hank and Agent Gomez get shot to death, Jesse was a mess. If he waited for the Nazis to leave and had Jesse go with him into hiding, there is a certain probability he'd be a liability either with the cops, with his pending case, or with the Nazis.

    Elegant solution:

    A) Point Jesse out with the calculated risk that they could immediately shoot him in the head. (If they DO immediately kill him, it at least spares Jesse whatever they'd do him back at the compound AND sells the 'no hard feelings' angle.)

    B) Then, sell that Jesse means nothing to him by confessing to Jane's murder. (If the Nazis think Walt still sees Jesse as family, they'd likely use the threat of torturing him instead of killing him as another bit of leverage to turn Walt, NOT Jesse, into the meth monkey.) That is, do the Lassie thing and convince both the Nazis and Jesse that he no longer cares for Jesse.

    C) Let the Nazis be Nazis, take Jesse, and renege on their deal by not only not killing him but using him to make quality meth.

    D) Use this opening to escape with your family (this obviously goes wrong) and take advantage of time to plot a fool-proof revenge plan AND let the Nazis use Jesse to make back whatever amount of his money they've spent.

    E) Come back with a very big gun, rescue Jesse, and get your $70,000,000 back.

    The only other motivator I see for Walt coming back with the machine gun instead of coasting on the $10-12m the Nazis let him keep is the pitch black one, i.e. he sees a news clip in New Hampshire that the DEA is still finding "Heisenberg Blue" out there, piecing together they kept Jesse instead of killing him, and resolving to kill Jesse AND the Nazis.

    1. Totally disagree. He might later have an attack of conscience and decide to sell Jesse on that scenario, but this ignores the fact that Walt has a moment where all he has to do is let the Aryans walk away with the handshake that their business is concluded.

      Walt makes a choice to remind Jack about their deal. Then he makes a clear choice to "out" Jack's hiding spot. At that point there's no need to go over the top and "sell" that he's betrayed Jesse.

      Had one of Jack's guys found Jesse, then I might buy some mind-games on the part of Walt, but that's not how it goes down. No, at that point Walt has displaced his anger over Hank's death onto Jesse. All of this is Jesse's fault. Everything is ruined because of Jesse.

      Note that it's NOT Walt who stops the execution. Nope, that falls to Todd. And as far as Walt knows, they're going to kill Jesse once they've pumped him for information.

      There's also no way Walt would have dropped that Jane bomb if he wasn't trying to twist the knife. Jesse's still pissed at him for Brock's poisoning. If Walt had any delusions he could win Jesse back, why would he admit to something that would piss Jesse off even more?

      No, at that moment, he's written Jesse off. It's the one way he can avenge Hank.

      I do think you're onto something with him finding out Jesse's alive via the distribution of Heisenberg Blue, though.

    2. While the trajectory of the show and character do suggest they could be going in a direction as dark as the second scenario, the reason I think Walt would go "over the top" in the sell is that is what Walt always does.

      Walt-the-intellectual is a lot like Plato. It's not enough to give the right answer, he has to explain the right answer from every possible angle until that one sentence answer runs for 500+ pages. This tendency to be overly elaborate is also what makes him a hit-and-mass liar. When the elaboration is thought out and "fits," it makes the story more believable. In all other instances, it gives the game away.

      If they are going with something like this not-entirely-bleak ending, I think he goes with the Jane bomb because it's the one thing he knows Jesse won't fuck up by recognizing it as a gambit.

      Why take these chances with Jesse's life? At this point, even in the "light" scenario, I think Walt is fully embracing Jesse as a means to an end rather than as a person now that he is a "rat." If Jesse dies, he'll be about as broken up about it as Hank would have been a couple episodes back. If it works, it keeps him out of meth slavery and gives him a chance to avoid the worst of all possible fates: making this Year From Hell in his life utterly meaningless.

  2. It's pretty hypocritical of alleged scriptreaders to whine about "studio meddling," when scriptreaders demand that all scripts never deviate from a highly specific (and utterly stupid) list of requirements. If they do? Rejected.

    So now it's a war between happy-ender script-by-numbers readers, and nihilist script-by-numbers readers. 'Whoever wins, we lose.'

    Yes... You *are* the reason Hollywood can't and won't make movies that don't suck.

  3. I assume that film is the only medium where audiences directly and routinely impact artistic decisions, although I believe to some extent they usually have an indirect influence on all creative endeavors.

    A much earlier film that comes to mind is Hitchcock's "Suspicion". If Cary Grant hadn't been in the lead role, perhaps we may have actually seen the dark (and more believable) ending as originally intended.

    1. Excellent example! Come to think of it, I'm a bit surprised no one's ever tried to get a SUSPICION remake off the ground with the original ending.

    2. C'mon Wave,

      TV does this *all* the time. In fact, imho this is one way in which TV *is* superior to film: how it can rapidly respond to audience input and preferences.

      Vince and the other writers @ Breaking Bad have done a *much* better job in this regard, in relation to the following popular characters: Jesse, Saul and Todd, Skinny Pete, Badger & Huell. And also by being economical with unpopular characters such as Hector & Lydia.

      You only need to look at a show like Heroes to see what happens when you do this really badly.

    3. Pliny,

      I underestimated the audience's role in regard to television, and in doing so, I guess my ignorance was showing. When I made my comment, I wasn't sure whether individual episodes already on tape, other than the pilot, were typically re-shot based on viewer response (as opposed to nervous advertisers, real-life tragedies similar to the plot, etc...). I thought more often audiences might dictate future direction and character presence, even in the same season, but not what's already in the can. Thank you!

    4. I don't want my tv show to be created by popular demand, I want them to give me what I hadn't even contemplated.

  4. This won't earn me any brownie points, but I enjoy that ending to Conspiracy Theory. The whole movie was building up (or digging down) to that terrible ending with the death of Jerry. It was refreshing to see Jerry survive, to see him finally get someone to believe him. I don't see it as a patch job (although it may have been.) but it felt like very good writing.

    1. I believe the screenwriting term is Catharsis. That ending provided great Catharsis. Had Jerry died, we'd all have left feeling frustrated and hopeless after watching his story. Humans need a sense of hope, purpose, and destiny to live.

  5. I'm mostly glad that AMC has allowed (for the most part, since I can't tell you what happens behind closed door) Gilligan to tell his story his way.

    Considering that Breaking Bad has followed this path that isn't very usual for television and film and is at the very least a Top 5 Series of All-Time, maybe more studios start letting creators, you know...create.

    Ah, who am I kidding. That won't happen. At least we have this show.

  6. Yeah, but in the context of the Breaking Bad world, where Walter is the protagonist, wasn't Hank an antagonist? So, we're right on schedule for a Hollywood ending, right?

  7. Finally saw the episode, so I can read this article safely.

    There are two movies I know that originally had dark endings. Brilliant endings that were replaced with so-so 'happy' endings.
    One was I Am Legend. The original ending had thematic resonance. The replacement undermined the entire film.
    The other was the Little Shop of Horrors musical movie. The ending they went with after all was said and done was underwhelming at best, all because they got cold feet and wouldn't go with the honest version.

    Maybe that's what it comes down to. Honesty. If a movie is saying something, and contradicts itself at the end without good narrative reason, it becomes almost insulting. A happy ending that should be a dark one isn't really happy. It's cynical and false. Catharsis denied.

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