One key to the greatness of the “Breaking Bad” finale was that it was written by Walter White himself. He personally engineered all of its highly satisfying resolutions. Satisfying in the first instance for him but also to us, not least because they were founded on what seemed to be real repentance in his statement to Skyler, and not a moment too soon. So no complaints, please, that the string of thematic wraps ups was “too neat,” since the neatnik is clearly Walt.
In a couple of places, notably the post-finale episode of “Talking Bad,” and in a comment last night to my post to this effect on Facebook by “New York” magazine film critic David Edelstein, it has been pointed out that this string of coups was classic Heisenberg in hinging in part on Walter’s established flair for improvisation.
Vince Gilligan testified during the TB discussion that he had “The Searchers” in mind, specifically Ethan’s decision at the end of his long quest to let Debbie live. Walt fully intends to kill Jesse until he sees the state he’s in and realizes that he has not, after all, been cooking again voluntarily. The expression of joy on Jesse’s face as he drives away from the scene of carnage is the partial victory that definitively answers all accusations that the drift “Breaking Bad” has been in any sense nihilistic.
That a discussion of an American television series should so effortlessly fold in a classic American movie is an indication of how far we have come. The premise of this series of columns, and its title, is that TV in the Third Golden Age (hereafter GA3) has become central to American pop culture the way movies were in the 1960s and ’70s. Back then we talked endlessly about the new Arthur Penn movie, reading its images like so many tea leaves. Now we spend weeks online and twittering in social media, parsing a single episode or even a single speech in a single episode of a widely embraced TV series. (Twitter is the new water cooler.)
Read “The New Yorker’s” Emily Nussbaum on Walt’s phone call to Skyler, with the police listening in, during the watershed episode “Ozymandias.” You could spend a full day tracking down all the online permutations of that discussion.
That episode and that scene had people talking about the show as a whole and its central question: What kind of a guy is Walt ultimately? And what kind of people are we, because it makes a big difference whether we think Walt had retained a shred of human feeling or was totally amoral, and whether or not when we rooted for him somehow to survive we ourselves became “bad.” Honestly profound issues. The point being that it is now work like this, rather than the white elephant CGI films that play in theaters, that furnishes our touchstones and defining metaphors.
And if this really is the ’60s and ’70s, we have to thinking about how it might end.
Almost universally, the GA3 creators quoted in Alan Sepinwall’s crucial “The Revolution Was Televised” suggest that they were only able to create their groundbreaking work because no one thought it would work or was paying close attention. This is more or less the story told about the 1970s movie brats in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: That a window of experimentation opened briefly only because a string of expensive flops in established genres, coupled with the surprising success of “Easy Rider,” convinced the suits that they didn’t know how to reach audiences anymore.
That period ended, the story goes, when “Jaws” and “Star Wars” created formats for new kinds of high-octane blockbusters aimed at a rapidly changing, younger audience. I think we can take it as truth that there are already corporate-minded men and women all over Hollywood working hard trying to figure out how to make GA3 TV without the pesky “difficult men” described by Brett Martin, such aggravating geniuses as David Chase or David Milch.
We may be almost there already. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” began its rise to its current status as the medium’s highest rated dramatic program by jettisoning the “auteur television” concept, ditching its first two argumentative showrunners and becoming steadily less character driven and more action oriented. (Nobody ever went broke overestimating the appetite of the video game generation for images of exploding heads.)
If the GA3 began because the suits didn’t see any obvious way to “monetize” (lovely word) the wacky things the creators were doing, can the end be far behind now that they’ve tasted blood?