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.