Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Will a spec with similarities to mine hurt my script?"

Rochee asks:

I'm a regular reader of your wonderful blog, and I have a question that is keeping me up late at night. I have developed a pilot for a tv show that I think is pretty awesome, but I just learned that one of the primary relationship dynamics in my teleplay is very similar to a relationship dynamic that is at the center of a feature script that is in development (Father Daughter Time). 

Although my overall concept is very different from Father Daughter Time, my protagonist is also an unemployed recovering alcoholic with a complicated relationship with his ex-wife and his 11-year old daughter. My protagonist is also involved in illegal activities. Every other aspect of my pilot is different, but will these parallels hurt the reception of my pilot?

I doubt it. Frankly, for such a grounded, character-based story, I wouldn't be worried even if there was a passing similarity conceptually.  There have been a lot of scripts, movies and TV shows over the years that have dealt with a recovering alcoholic who has a complicated relationship with his family.  A broad character outline that bears some resemblance to another pre-existing character is hardly cause for concern.

How many lawyers have we seen on TV over the years who are zealous in pursuit of winning cases, even to the point where it leads them to skirt ethical and professional guidelines.  How many young doctors have we seen who get emotionally involved in their cases?  (And how often are these people depicted as brilliant in their professional lives, but struggling to maintain their personal relationships, be they marriages or friendships?)

Honestly, "recovering alcoholic who has complicated relationships with his family" probably describes at least half the alcoholic characters out there. I wouldn't worry about it.  A parallel that broad won't hurt you, especially since FATHER-DAUGHTER TIME hasn't even been produced yet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Webshow: Casting

This week we turn our attention to something that I suspect a lot of writers fail to consider when they start writing: casting.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Reader question: can my idea in an overused genre work?

John asks:

I'm sure you've heard this before, but I think I've come up with a genuinely original take on the Die Hard sub-genre. 

My question is if you'd consider this sub-genre of movie still viable or even attractive in this day and age, or whether they're an inherently dated form. I'm sure you get to read many such scripts and wondered if you had any advice, especially with a female protagonist. 

 If it's good, it's viable.  It's true that it's possible for a particular flavor of sub-genre to wear out its welcome.  But if it's a really good script, it'll sell.  Don't forget that OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN and WHITE HOUSE DOWN both were variations on the Die Hard formula and they sold within weeks of each other.

The female protagonist thing is inevitably going to provoke the question, "Does it have to be a woman? Can it be a man?"  It's ridiculous that that's still a common response in this day and age, especially when Gravity has been flying high at the box office, toplined by a 49 year-old woman.  You'll probably be given some nonsense about how foreign sales will be easier with a male lead, but then remember that at least two companies that we know of are working on some variation of "Female Expendables."

My pet theory is that when executives resort to those easy (and outdated) reasons for passing on a spec, what they're really saying is "I don't like this enough to make it."  They're not passionate about it.  Maybe they see a few elements that could sell tickets, but the script just didn't blow them away.  But they have to say something. They have to give a reason why the script isn't good for them.

I've you've got an idea that truly is that brilliant and writing that just leaps off the page, once you get it into a few people's hands, you'll probably be able to gauge their passion for it.  I'm sure that within the next year, we'll see at least one sale of a script that can be described as "Die Hard in a..."

Monday, October 28, 2013

Jeff Willis's Creative Rights advice for Screenwriters

If you follow me on Twitter, you've probably seen me retweet quite a bit lately from Jeff Willis.  Jeff is an executive currently working at the Weinstein Company in business affairs, but he's also a screenwriter/producer who co-written a feature due to start production next year, as well has having finished two commissioned rewrite assignments.

Jeff has recently begun doing long Twitter lectures of DOs AND DON'Ts.  There's some very useful information there and I hate the thought that the ephemeral nature of Twitter means that it will quickly be difficult to find without doing much legwork.  So I reached out to Jeff and asked if he'd allow me to post his advice to writers about knowing their creative rights.  He was more than willing, so I'm reprinting them here, with the only difference being that I have reformatted them into paragraphs.

Jeff also did a fantastic Q and A over at the The Black Board forums.  It's worth a look.  Follow him on Twitter. You won't want to miss out on other great advice like this.


Writers, are you a member of the WGA? If so, know your creative rights.

Such as:

A prodco can’t distribute critiques/synopses of your script to outside companies w/out permission unless they already optioned/bought it. (Except for companies with whom they have a business relationship… first look deal, financing arrangement, etc.) Don’t waive this right lightly, and definitely don’t do it unless you’ve seen and approve of the coverage they’re sending. You have the right to restrict how much a company can shop your material around by providing the prodco with written notice.

It’s a $750 penalty for each party the prodco submits to outside of your written instructions. That said, don’t be a jerk about it. No prodco is going to deal with a writer who wants approval over every submission they make. Find the middle ground. Know that you can prevent them from blanketing the town, but also give them freedom to do their job. And once a prodco options or buys your script, they can send it to whomever they please.

If you option/sell your work, you have the 1st opportunity to rewrite. DO NOT WAIVE THIS RIGHT. A. It’s money. B. Your fringes depend on it. If a prodco wants to replace you, they’re supposed to meet with you first to discuss whether you can find a way to stay on the project. If a prodco changes an element (hires a director, attaches an actor, etc.), they have to give you 1st opportunity to address script notes. In other words, a director can’t come on board the project and hire their own writer to address their notes without first giving you a shot. This right expires three years from the date you turn in your final set of revisions, unless you negotiate for longer/no expiration.

If you’re asked to pitch something, you are allowed to ask the prodco approx. how many other writers are also being asked to pitch on it. Prodcos are supposed to notify you if a writer is hired to rewrite you. Prodcos are also supposed to provide you with a list of previous writers on a project before you start your revisions.

A title page should include ALL writers on a project. Don’t take off the names of previous writers even if you’re starting from scratch. Not all companies abide by all these rules all the time. Some are inadvertent omissions and some are deliberate avoidance of responsibility. And what the guild doesn’t know, it can’t enforce.

That said, choose your battles wisely. Don’t be that inflexible/difficult writer who runs to the guild every time there’s a problem. But don’t let a prodco walk all over you. Know your rights, know what you’re entitled to. Stand firm on things that are important to you. Remember that the threat of guild action can often be more impactful than actually taking guild action.

Everything I’ve posted  is free and  available on the WGA website: 

Don’t be ignorant of your rights. If you’re a WGA writer, the guild has worked hard to negotiate an MBA that gives you certain rights. Know those rights. They give you power and they give you leverage. They keep you from being taken advantage of (more than usual).

Even if your deal is not a guild deal, understand what’s standard. If what you’re getting is not standard, ask why not. Call the WGA w/ any questions. The WGAw Contracts Department phone # is 323-782-4501. If you have questions, ASK THEM. They will help you. You don’t even have to be a member of the guild to ask questions. Anyone can call and ask them any MBA-related questions.

Don’t let ignorance prevent you from getting what’s fair. Don’t just go with the flow. If you’re uncertain about something, GET AN ANSWER. The guild isn't perfect, but it is there to help you. USE IT FOR THE RESOURCE THAT IT IS.

You don't have to be a WGA writer to start thinking about this stuff. Non-guild prodcos are mostly about the money and the fringes. There's no reason non-guild prodcos can't give you some of the basic MBA rights or use the guild MBA as a template for their deal.

Don't be afraid to ask for this stuff. Screenwriters SELL THEIR COPYRIGHT when they sell a script. You need to benefit from the deal somehow Guild, non-guild, professional, aspiring... wherever you are in your career, FIGHT FOR YOUR CREATIVE RIGHTS.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Interview with film and TV writer Jeffrey Lieber - Part 6: The Bitter Questions

Parts 1 and 2 - How did you get an agent? and First sales and going into TV.
Part 3 - The early genesis of Lost
Part 4 - The process of developing a show
Part 5 - Cable TV vs. Network TV

Our week-long interview with Jeff Lieber (Lost, Miami Medical, Tuck Everlasting, Crash and Burn) concludes as Jeff takes his turn in the hot seat with "The Bitter Questions."  Learn what Jeff considers his proudest and his most self-indulgent moments in writing, among others.

And if you're curious about how other writers handled the same questions, check out this handy playlist that houses all of those segments.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Interview with film and TV writer Jeffrey Lieber - Part 5: Cable TV vs. Network TV

Parts 1 and 2 - How did you get an agent? and First sales and going into TV.
Part 3 - The early genesis of Lost
Part 4 - The process of developing a show

Our talk with writer Jeff Lieber (Lost, Miami Medical, Tuck Everlasting) continues.  In this segment, Jeff talks the difference between developing a show for network TV vs. cable networks.  He also discuses how he goes about developing a show that draws on real life events and people versus shows with more fantastical elements.

Find Jeff on Twitter at @JeffLieber.

Part 6 - The Bitter Questions 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Interview with film and TV writer Jeffrey Lieber - Part 3: The early genesis of Lost

Parts 1 and 2 - How did you get an agent? and First sales and going into TV.

If you look up Jeff Lieber's credits, it will probably leap out at you that he's credited as a co-creator of Lost.  However, not only did Jeff never write for the series, he never worked with fellow co-creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof. So what was Jeff's role in the genesis of the series?  What did his version of the Lost pilot contain?  Click on the video for the answers.

Find Jeff on Twitter.

Part 4 - The process of developing a show
Part 5 - Cable TV vs. Network TV
Part 6 - The Bitter Questions 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Interview with film and TV writer Jeffrey Lieber - Part 1 & 2: "How did you get an agent?"

This week, it is my honor to be interviewing Jeffrey Lieber, a writer who's been very active in both film and television.  To some of you, his name might be most familiar as a co-creator of Lost.  Others of you might know him as the writer of the film adaptation of Tuck Everlasting.  For many years now, Jeff has been a working TV writer.  In addition to creating Miami Medical, he's also worked on The Whole Truth, Chase, Pan Am and Necessary Roughness.  His latest project is an FX drama called Crash and Burn, which is centered on the lives of stuntmen in the pre-CGI era of filmmaking.

Jeff is also known around the blogsphere for his list of 200 "Showrunner Rules," which are handily archived here thanks to fellow blog warrior Scott Myers of Go Into The Story.

And don't forget to follow Jeff on Twitter.

In our first segment, I dive right in and ask Jeff how he got his first agent.

In our second segment, Jeff discusses his first script sale, his first produced film, and his shift from features into television.

Come back every day this week for the remaining parts of the interview!

Part 3 - The early genesis of Lost 
Part 4 - The process of developing a show
Part 5 - Cable TV vs. Network TV
Part 6 - The Bitter Questions 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

I got quoted in the LA Times article on Damon Lindelof!

Yesterday, Twitter was all aflutter that Lost creator Damon Lindelof abruptly shut down his twitter account.  Over the past several years, Lindelof had been the target of a lot of angry fans who were dissatisfied with the finale of Lost, and to a lesser extent, his work on Prometheus.  Though he often made self-deprecating jokes about letting the fans down, there was always the sense that some of the jabs hurt him.

The incredibly satisfying finale of Breaking Bad opened the floodgates again.  If you followed Damon on Twitter, you saw him retweet dozens of messages he got that night, most of them carrying the sentiment of "See? That's how you end a show!  I'm still mad about Lost three years later!"  Lindelof later wrote about how the Breaking Bad finale helped him reach some semblance of closure with his own feelings about Lost's ending.  You can read that piece here.

(I have no dog in this Lost fight, by the way.  I stopped watching midway through the third season.  From what I've seen of Lindelof, he seems like a pretty likeable dude, so I don't have any beef with him personally either.  I think he takes a lot of undeserved shit, actually.)

So when Lindelof shut down his twitter with the message "After much thought and deliberation, I've decided t-,"I saw an opportunity to have a little fun.  Channeling the tone of Lindelof's haters, I tweeted, "THAT'S how @DamonLindelof ends his run on Twitter? Gotta say, I'm underwhelmed and angry. I bet he didn't have that planned from the start."

And it, um, ended up being quoted in the LA Times.

I hope the ironic tone comes across in print and somewhat divorced from its original context.  It's incredibly cool to be quoted in the paper, but I really hope no one gets the impression that I'm a legit "hater."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Webshow: "Reader question about rewriting screenplay as a pilot"

A reader recently asked me if it was a good idea to rewrite his screenplay as a pilot.  Assuming he did this, he also wanted to know if people in the industry would be interested in reading both versions.  Here is what I had to say:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My review of GRAVITY

I don't know how you begin to write a film like GRAVITY, much less direct it.  Alfonso Cuaron's film is a marvel of directing, visual effects and acting.  I saw it last week in IMAX 3D and it might very well have been the first time that I didn't feel like the victim of some sort of ticket up-selling scheme.  As a rule, I don't enjoy 3D and I rarely feel it adds anything of value to a film.  Too often, 3D releases are post-converted cash-grab, with the extra depth being little more than an afterthought on a film that may not have even been conceived with it in mind.

The film stars Sandra Bullock as a first-time astronaut who is one of two survivors of a shuttle mission that fails when debris from a Russian satellite assaults their vessel.  George Clooney stars as the other astronaut, the easygoing old flirt who nonetheless becomes the cool head in a crisis once things go bad.  With communication with the ground knocked out and the shuttle no longer livable, Clooney and Bullock set out for the International Space Station, intent on using the escape pods there to return to the surface.  But there's a ticking clock - in 90 minutes, the ISS will also be pelted by debris.

Thus begins a tale of survival, and even now, after two weekends of release and spoiler warnings, I'm disinclined to discuss too much of the plot.  Suffice to say that one of the great joys of Cuaron screenplay (co-written with his son Jonas) is how the story is always in motion, allowing the script to move from one crisis to the next with shocking speed.  Before the film is over, Bullock's character will have dealt with drifting out of control in space, desperately trying to grab onto a space station, failing escape pods, fire within an oxygen heavy atmosphere and several dangerous spacewalks. There are moments where Bullock's character is barely able to draw breath - a feat likely being duplicated simultaneously by many in the audience. 

And this is where the IMAX 3D truly enhances the story.  It draws us emotionally into the plight that Bullock's character faces.  It's not just about providing stunning visuals and eye candy.  There is actual emotional purpose in the sequences.  We're made to experience what the astronauts do, making this fantastic scenario somehow feel more real and tangible.  It's an assault on all the senses, aided tremendously by Cuaron's use of longer takes.

After I saw Avatar, I remarked that James Cameron did a solid job of using 3D to add depth to the scenes, but that in 10 years, when the mo-cap and 3D technology was commonplace, there'd be little left to make Avatar remarkable.  It has decent performances and a familiar concept all wrapped up in a script that's okay.  There are plenty of little things I liked about the movie, but it's not a film I've been compelled to revisit beyond that first viewing.

Avatar uses its 3D to add some depth to a world that's utterly fantastic, but it's not done in a way that makes me feel for that world.  Brilliant visual effects alone can't make an audience feel.  It's why when I watch Revenge of the Sith, I don't really get emotionally involved in the technically complex space battle that opens the film, but I'm very riveted by the final lightsaber duel between Anakin and Kenobi.  The latter is the emotional payoff for three films - Obi-Wan is confronted with his greatest failure and must avenge his fallen comrades while simultaneously killing the protege he failed to properly mentor.  The former is just a bunch of CGI pixels.  For me, at least, most of Avatar falls into this category.

GRAVITY, however, achieves that emotional connection with its protagonist and proceeds to use that to wallop the audience throughout the rest of the film.

Is GRAVITY in 2D still GRAVITY?  It might be possible to make the case that the answer is "no."  Cuaron is savvy in how the 3D draws our attention.  I read an article last week that confirmed it was no accident that in one scene, a floating Marvin the Martian doll is set forth very close in the audience's field of vision so that they would focus on that first.  This way, when a floating body enters the frame, it blindsides the audience just as it would startle Bullock.  The intent of the 3D is to make viewing the film a completely immersive experience.  On a massive IMAX screen with 3D vision, our perspective is often the same as Bullock's.  

Those who derided the film for its lack of character arcs are looking for the wrong things in this movie.  The focus of this movie is on a survival story in a setting that's about as inhospitable as it gets.  Not every story is going to be 50% character and 50% plot.  Which is not to say that there isn't character work in this film.  Bullock's character definitely has an arc.  True, the nature of the story necessitates that her backstory be revealed in an expository conversation, but I don't find the motivation for that conversation to be unreasonable.

GRAVITY is such a triumph in so many ways that to browbeat it for not having a conventionally-revealed character arc is to sound like a rigid intellectual preaching the "virtues" of a "well-made play."  Avatar's thin characters drag it down because the story itself is so conventional - but especially because it's hard to maintain emotional investment in the film.  When a film truly achieves the kind of emotional investment that GRAVITY demands, it doesn't matter if it misses a few items on the mythical "screenwriting checklist."

That's not to admit that the script is weak - because it isn't.  Every aspiring screenwriter could learn from the tight pace, the rising tension and the straightforward way that one crisis begets another.  And within all of that, it still manages a rather decent character arc for Sandra Bullock's character, if one is attentive enough to notice it.

See GRAVITY in theatres, because I can almost guarantee that the film everyone's raving about will not be the same experience you get on blu-ray in the comfort of your own home.  I fear that venture will be akin to watching The Wizard of Oz on an all-black-and-white television.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Tom Hanks is so dependable as an actor that it's easy to take his work for granted.  In his long career, he's built a reputation for himself as the likable everyman who brings humanity and likability to "movie star roles" while still feeling like just a normal guy.  That's not to say he doesn't stretch himself now and then, but there's a marked contrast between Hanks' presence as Mr. Nice Guy and, say, Robert Downey Jr's cocksure swagger or Harrison Ford's aloof indifference.  Hanks is "the movie star next door" and because an audience relates to him, it frees him to be more vulnerable on-screen than many of his cohorts.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS stars Hanks as the eponymous character, who has been given command of an American container ship that gets hijacked off the coast of Africa by Somali pirates.  The first half of the ship sells us on Phillips' professionalism.  An early scene features him fretting over his son's work ethic and we later see him administer a gentle tug of the leash to his crew when he becomes concerned they've taken perhaps too long a coffee break.  With his cool, even dispassionate exterior, it's easy to buy Hanks as someone who rose the ranks to captain.

Even before the pirates enter the scene, Phillips is running drills to keep his crew afoot.  Before long, two skiffs close in on the container ship and though the trailers might lead you to believe the pirate effect a swift takeover, what follows is actually a protracted standoff of sorts as Phillips sends a distress call, quickly snaps his crew into action with counter-measures, orders evasive maneuvers and even manages to scare one of the pirate skiffs into retreat.

Billy Ray's script paints a strong picture of Phillips as the guy you'd want in charge in a crisis.  Though some fear does peak through his collected exterior, he remains in control of his emotions.  The difference between Hanks' Phillips and that of, say, Tom Cruise, is that even as Hanks is using his wits to send secret messages to his crew and is attempting to undermine the pirates, there is a very real sense that he's not in control.

I've seen a lot of movies where the hero is able to manipulate his captors when he's on his home turf and it's easy to fall into that action-movie mode where the cocky here just bats these bad guys around like catnip.  It's easy to turn the lead into Batman at that point, making him too strong a manipulator in the situation.  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS turns the tables by giving Phillips his greatest advantage early in the crisis - and then stripping him of it at the movies mid-point, when he's taken captive by the pirates as they escape in one of the ship's lifeboats.

The second half of the film is where Hanks does some of his best work.  Outnumbered and without any control of the situation, Phillips is just focused on surviving it.  He desperately tries to reason with his captors, convincing them that they're not going to get out of this alive unless they surrender.  He shows kindness to a pirate injured in the raid on the ship.  Though he doesn't start panicking or freaking out, you can feel the flop sweat on Phillips as he ponders the dark fate that awaits him.

Here's what's remarkable about the script and Hanks' performance in general.  Both work together to make us doubt that there will be a happy ending - even though this is based on a true story and we know that Phillips was recovered alive following some exemplary work by the Navy SEALs.  It would be hard to list many action films where the audience truly had reason to doubt the hero's eventual survival - and those movies are fictional!  There's no "real life" outcome that dictates the survival of Jason Bourne or James Bond.

Director Paul Greengrass does his usual spectacular job of bringing a gritty realness to the events.  Not to take away from the incredible achievement that is UNITED 93, but this could be a career best for Greengrass.  It's a story that could probably have been easily Hollywood-ized for a feel-good action film, but Greengrass and Ray know how to give even the minor characters complexity and depth.  The lead pirate, Muse, is a fully-realized character.  Though he does some terrible things, it's hard to think of him as truly evil.  Indeed, he's almost pitiable as we see him make choices that only make the situation worse.  There's never a point where we root for him, and his hell ends up being his own making, but we understand what drove him to this.

Barkhad Abdi holds his own with Hanks every moment they are on screen together - a feat that's even more remarkable once you realize this is Abdi's first feature film.  Here's where considerable praise has to go to casting director Francine Maisler, who discovered Abdi and the other pirate actors in a casting call that saw over 700 people. You can read more about that in this article.

It is in the film's final fifteen minutes where Hanks does his best work.  Even as the Navy readies an operation to rescue the hostage, Phillips grows more desperate.  Gone is the professional man who did his best to reassure his crew even as they were boarded.  And for Phillips, even once the ordeal ends, it's not as simple as stepping onto a Navy ship, slapping his rescuers on the back and saying, "Well that was a heck of a time, wasn't it?"  Hanks' portrayal of a man in shock, still coming to terms with how lucky he is to be alive, is a vulnerable picture we don't often see in these films.  Even everyman hero John McClane is usually cracking jokes with EMTs by this point in a film.

It's a remarkable piece of filmmaking and absolutely earns its status as one of the year's best pictures.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Future Filmmaker Friday: "The Test" by Ethan Moore and Abe Zverow

About a year ago, I did a spotlight post on a student film "Caution Wet Floor," from the University of Arizona, created for Campus MovieFest. Well, this week, director Ethan Moore was nice enough to send me a link to his follow-up film "The Test," which he wrote and directed with Abe Zverow.

I'll just note that a lot of the humor revolves around self-gratification, so just be mindful of that if you're watching it with people around.

Nice work guys!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Webshow: "Gross-out Gags"

Today's video deals with a trope that can be hilarious when used correctly, but quickly repulses me when done badly.  I speak of gross-out gags involving bodily fluids.

Monday, October 7, 2013

My appearance on Hollywood Bound and Down podcast

I'm the featured guest this week on Joshua Caldwell's podcast Hollywood Bound and Down.  In a chat of about 90 minutes (geez, I'm long-winded), you can find out a great deal about me as Josh and I talk about climbing the ladder in Hollywood, some of my experiences in development, and a lot of talk about the projects I involved myself in in college.

I haven't listened to it yet. (Contrary to what the long interview might lead you to believe, I kinda hate the sound of my own voice in long stretches.)  However, I remember that Josh asked a lot of interesting questions even though I had been concerned he'd hit on the same subjects I see asked about again and again in my inbox.  I hope you guys enjoy it, and if you're curious about the podcast in general, here's a handy introduction below...

Hollywood Bound and Down is a podcast hosted by writer, director, producer and MTV Movie Award winner Joshua Caldwell. Interviewing industry professionals Joshua explores the world of Hollywood for those at the beginning of the careers and discusses how they became successful, broke in, got their start, the art and craft of making films, television, web series and more. His guests to date include actress Missy Peregrym (Rookie Blue), Writer/Director Eric England (Contracted), Writer/Director Julian Higgins (House), actor Manny Montana (Graceland), screenwriter Kyle Ward (Machete Kills) and screenwriter/writer's assistant Adam Gaines (The Bridge).

Josh's twitter: @Joshua_Caldwell.
 HBAD Twitter: @HBAD_Podcast.

Here's the iTunes link: Podcast: 

My episode:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Webshow: "Why I Don't Like Screenwriting Coaches"

Okay gang, as you no doubt have realized by now, there are a lot of services out there that try to separate a struggling screenwriter from their money.  Some, like the Black List, offer reasonable value for their price - or at the very least, have a decent risk/reward ratio.  And I've admitting in the past that there might be some merit to coverage services.

But one service I can't see myself endorsing in any form is the practice of "screenwriting coaches."  There's something really predatory about dubious experts charging naive writers for the privileged of being mentored by them.  Here's some free advice - you don't need them.  Spend your money elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Breaking Bad's finale is about accepting defeat

I didn't write up a Breaking Bad post for Monday because I wanted to give the finale a little time to sink in.  So many web columnists were going to be putting up reviews within minutes of the episode airing that it felt like folly to try to compete with the other immediate reactions, even if it meant delaying my thoughts a day, which is an eternity in the modern blogosphere.  I've read some of those other reviews and there's one observation that I don't believe I've seen yet.

This finale was about Walter White doing something he'd long been incapable of doing - accepting defeat.  Nothing he does in this last episode would have been possible before he did that.  Everything here comes as a result of him accepting that this is the end.  In virtually every other circumstance where the odds were stacked against him, Walt refused to concede defeat. He stubbornly pursued a solution as if it were a puzzle that he could solve by properly assembling the pieces before him.

And then when he did manage to prevail, it often came at the cost of his amassed fortunes, which in turn led him back into the fray.  He had multiple chances where he could have walked away from this life clean, but it would have meant that he would have at best broken even.  That was a loss he refused to accept, even knowing the costs of the life he was diving back into.  Arrogance played heavily here, no doubt.  He'd outwitted his enemies before, surely he would again.

Until he didn't.  Until he couldn't. His most recent attempt to turn the tide in his favor resulted in a shootout that claimed the life of his brother-in-law and resulted in the loss of about 7/8ths of his fortune.  The fallout from that laid bare all his evil deeds to his family and the authorities and forced him into hiding.  His parting gesture was a phone call to his wife, which on one level was intended to exonerate her, even as it allowed him to vent his resentment of her on another level.

And even then, he refused to accept it was over.  Walt still is trying to plot a reversal even as he's hiding in a basement, preparing to be shipped off to New Hampshire.  No matter how much his world has collapsed around him, he's steadfast that there's some equation that will recover his fortune and redeem him in the eyes of his family.

It's not until Walt finally acknowledges that he can't come out of this ahead, does he become capable of at last ending the apocalypse he began. Way back in the fifth episode of the series, Walt had an opportunity to stop all of this insanity before it started.  His former partners Gretchen and Elliott - now multi-millionaires after the success of a company that Walt helped found (and accepted a low buyout from early on) - offered to pay all his medical bills.  His ego couldn't take being their charity case, being the object of pity to people he believed he should have been equals with.  And he refused.

In the final hour of the series, Walt at last allows himself to ask Gretchen and Elliott for help.  True, this "asking" is largely in the form of threats at the end of what they believe to be gunpoint.  He insists they launder his $9 million in drug money and put it into a trust for his son.  They're rich enough that it won't be questioned, particularly since they've already donated far more than that to drug treatment centers in the area as a sort of penance for Walter White being tied to their company legacy.

Even though he has the upper hand in this conversation, acknowledging he needed Gretchen and Elliott's help is something Walt would not have been capable of before.  And that makes all the difference.

Think back to the moments that led up to Walt formulating the Gretchen-and-Elliott plan.  He had just called his son Flynn, trying to tell him that a package containing $100,000 in drug money was coming to him.  Flynn is in no mood to hear his father's justifications for what he did, even as his father sobs, "It can't all be for nothing."  Flynn vents months of rage on a target that evaded him, saying "Why won't you just die already? Just die!"

That's when Walt realizes there is no victory in this.  He's not getting his family back.  So he calls the DEA and leaves the phone hanging, allowing to them to trace his location.  In what he surely expects are his last few moments of freedom, he sees Gretchen and Elliott on the Charlie Rose Show.  Rose brings up their connection to Walter White, which gives them an opportunity to first minimize his role in their company and address their charitable donations in the name of fighting drug abuse, even as Rose notes that Walt's trademark "blue meth" is still out there.

Walt leaves, and with that being the end of the previous episode, many viewers inferred that he was gunning for Gretchen and Elliot - out for revenge.  But that wasn't the case, and if we all realized Walt had truly given up in those moments before, we would have understood that he finally saw an avenue that long been invisible to him while he was playing to win.

He comes home initially just to tie up those loose ends. Even as he struggles to start a stolen car, he pleads silently, "Just get me home. I'll do the rest."  Sure, once he finishes with Gretchen and Elliott, he ends up deducing that the blue meth means that Jesse is still alive and that Nazi Jack has double-crossed him.

At that point, he plots to take Jack and the others out in a manner that puts him in a fair amount of danger. When he plotted to kill Gus a few seasons ago, his first plan involved triggering a car bomb at a safe distance and his eventual plan relied on getting someone else to deliver the bomb.  When Walt has control of the circumstances, he never places himself at ground zero.

Until now.  Because he's not playing to win. He just wants to end the game.  Only then can his family truly have peace.  Only then can Walt find peace.

Fighting for the win would have brought Walt an eventual death in a lonely cabin.  Accepting he had long since lost at least gave him the chance for catharsis.