Last night’s Breaking Bad finale was just as awesome as expected, although it represented a shift for the show that I hope won’t be entirely permanent. Unlike previous moments of high tension in the show (okay, okay, that’s basically every episode, but still…), the focus was entirely on Walt’s business with Gus and Jesse, and Skyler, Walt Jr., and Hank fell way into the background. It was a great episode, moving from Walt’s newly confident adversarial relationship with Gus to his decision to take out poor Gale and then forcing that burden onto Jesse, but it lacked an aspect of Walt’s life that’s provided such high stakes in the past. Now that Skyler knows about Walt’s criminal life, the constant sense that Walt was trying to build a house of cards has faded, and the only thing he has to risk now is his own humanity, which he seems quite comfortable squandering. Watching Gus transform into the merciless drug kingpin we always knew he was made for a great episode, but I hope Breaking Bad won’t lose the balance between Walt’s family and his criminal enterprise in the future. (A future which is now assured a fourth season, by the way!)
There are several great interviews with both Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan that went live after last night’s episode, but what I found most fascinating was this question and answer from Alan Sepinwall’s interview with Vince Gilligan.
…Last season had a very clear plan, and you were laying seeds for the plane crash from the very beginning. So this year, you didn’t have anything like that in your head going into it?
…this season was kind of a different deal in a lot of ways. One sense was, as a reaction to the pre-ordained feeling of season two, we wanted this season to feel as if it was being lived in in the moment for us writers. Therefore, we kind of winged it. We tried to be as true to the characters as we could, we tried to let them tell us where they were headed, and we tried not to oversteer them into scenes we thought would be fun scenes. Rather, we tried to listen to the characters and see what they wanted to do and where they were headed. That’s really the approach we had to season three, and it had its positives and it had its negatives, too for us. It was a different way for doing it. Going forward into season four, if there’s yet a third way of structuring a season, maybe we’ll try to find it just to keep things fresh and interesting.
Gilligan goes even further into this process in the interview, but what it boils down to is an insistence that there was surprisingly little planning ahead of time and that the season came together one episode at a time. I’ll admit right now that this goes contrary to my beliefs about what usually makes good television and why some shows fall flat, but I’m glad to have been proved wrong in this area. After so much anxiety about the ending of Lost, about shows that get cancelled prematurely, about the weight audiences put on series finales, and the pressure to pull together plot strings, my position has been that the best TV shows know ahead of time when they’re going to end, and plan accordingly. For most TV shows, I still think that’s the case, particularly for those shows where plot is as important or more important than character studies. Some degree of planning makes it easier to work around the multiple real-world obstacles that beset television production schedules, but it also means that each episode can be more purpose-driven and less likely to be a misstep in the bigger scope of the season.
Yet clearly, it is possible to put together an amazing season of television with very little advance planning – at least, it is if you’re Vince Gilligan. I think it works because Breaking Bad isn’t set up as a mystery and because its suspense comes as much from the characters as it does from any particular plot line. Mysteries live and die by their plot structures, by the tiny clues and meticulous timelines. This is one reason why a mystery show like Damages has the flashforward narrative structure it does: when you put the end at the beginning, everyone knows where all the pieces need to end up. Maybe tiny details like Walt’s second cell phone or the broken windshield matter just as much on Breaking Bad, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what seals the deal on Skyler’s suspicions as long as something does. Of course, it doesn’t matter in the slightest what kind of show it is if the showrunner isn’t also as brilliant as Gilligan clearly is.
Can’t wait for season four. Up tomorrow, the return of True Blood. Whoo, sexy vampires!