endings

Another Look at the Endings of Lost, Breaking Bad, and The Wire

Television_set_from_the_early_1950s

Andrew Findlay

In this so far nameless segment, regular contributor Andrew Findlay takes issue with another person’s opinions. Think of it as a “letter to the editor” except it’s always from the same defiant person and the “editor” in that example writes for the same site. This one has spoilers for The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and a previous post on Reading at Recess about TV.

Extremely popular, long-running television shows struggle with sticking the landing. It is known. It has been known ever since the ending of Lost caused about half of its die-hard fanbase to swear never to watch another episode. It has been known since people internet-complained at the less-than-ideal end to Battlestar Galactica. However, it is strange to pick as the most relevant representatives of this phenomenon two of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time, one of which was showered with accolades for achieving the impossible and having a nearly perfect final episode.

Terrible endings exist and are unfortunate. At the end of Battlestar Galactica, the survivors sent their entire fleet into the sun so they could join/create humanity and live through the Dark Ages alongside them instead of significantly lessening human misery by holding on to their tech, which seemed like a weird choice. The ending of Lost, a show built almost entirely on mystery and suspense, completely dismissed the big final mystery and betrayed a legion of fans that had spent a significant portion of their lives tuning in every week. When you promise answers for years and years, and then the answer is “Oh, just unplug the island, any IT person worth his salt will tell you the usefulness of power cycling,” it creates a vast and deep well of rage. Who created the plug? What is that glowing room? Why are you just giving your viewership more mysteries instead of actually answering anything? When you go from a level of dedication that creates the YouTube video below to undiluted hatred, you have written a terrible ending.

I teared up watching this, remembering how it felt to be a part of the viewership of this show. Not sure if I’ll ever watch an episode again.

The Wire and Breaking Bad ended really well. Season five of The Wire may have been a little weaker compared to the others, but there was no nosedive. The state of affairs at the end of the final episode were either good or emphasized the whole underlying theme of the show: The game is the game, and the game never ends. It is absolutely believable that McNulty’s arrogant ass would get himself killed, but the detective’s wake in the last episode is actually fake, and he is actually escaping from his self-destructive career path. Omar, probably the most universally liked character on the show, is murdered in a convenience store by a little kid. This happens because he is not a civilian – he is a player of the game, and the game never ends, and anything can happen. Almost no one escapes, and if they do, they are lucky.

I don’t have as much an issue with that as with the idea of Breaking Bad’s final episode being a failure. It is almost universally praised as a near-flawless ending. It is almost perfect because Walt gets exactly everything he deserves, but he also gets everything he wants. This paradox exists because Walt, after five seasons of being driven by anger and pride, finally realizes and repents all the mistakes he made. He realizes what he deserves and is only concerned with doing right by those he loves. Who does he love (who is still alive at this point)? Jesse, Skyler, and his son and daughter. What has his arrogance done to them throughout the series? His family has lost everything, been terrorized, and been forced to abandon their home. Jesse has lost the woman he loves, been completely broken psychologically, and been enslaved by an Aryan Brotherhood gang. This is some bad shit that Walt has done. The reason that Walt can get what he deserves and what he wants is that, for the first time, what he wants is not centered around himself. He finally, finally, realizes what he actually needs to do, not for his own ego, but for the people he loves.

This is one of the greatest scenes in television, period.

This growth and shift of character makes the final episode what it is. He is out for money, but only for his family after he is gone. He is out for vengeance, but mostly to rescue Jesse from the position he put him in and to punish them for what they did to Hank. After so much greed and vanity and selfishness, Walt finally realizes what he has done and what he needs to do to make it right, whether he survives or not. Walt, after years of denial and repression and blame-shifting and anger, accepts who he is and what he does, and formulates a plan. This plan is absolutely successful. He finds a way to provide for the family he destroyed by intimidating his old work colleague. He rescues Jesse by single-handedly wiping out a gang. Then, after having actually done right by the people he loves, after five seasons of only paying lip service to that sentiment, he dies. It seems to me he dies from blood loss, as he’s been leaking for quite a while at this point and is leaving blood on everything he touches, but regardless of the cause, the important thing is that he died after achieving all of his goals. Walter White achieving all of his goals and then escaping from justice yet again would be a repugnant ending, but he does not escape justice, and he is not the same Walter White. Sure, he doesn’t get arrested, but he spends most of the second half of season five dealing with the consequences of his actions. The complete ruination of his own life, the life of his family, and the life of someone who is like a son to him, is consequence enough. What the hell are the police going to be able to do that he hasn’t already done to himself? These consequences and the pain of dealing with them set a process, if not of redemption, then at least of remorse and planning. The Walt of the last 20 minutes of the show is not the Walt who is in the “empire-building business,” but a Walt willing to sacrifice himself to do right by everyone else. This profound character transformation makes it possible for us to root for Walt again, and this is the trick that makes the ending of Breaking Bad so appealing. As for Jesse, who is driving away into the night, it doesn’t really matter where he’s going. He is free from the physical enslavement of the Aryan gang and the psychological enslavement of Walt. Wherever he is headed, it cannot possibly be worse than where he was.

This cultural moment has been called, many times, the Golden Age of television. It is an edifice built on the foundations of The Sopranos and The Wire. It is the result of a shift in perception, where television writers are responsible for creating a quality product and not just creating ratings. It consists of many different shows of deep emotional impact, strong plotting, and important thematic development. The result is that we consume our acclaimed television more like we consume our acclaimed novels, voraciously and as important art. The reason people are analyzing TV shows now is not that there is some mystical relationship between TV and novels or that one is replacing the other, but that TV has gotten really, ridiculously good in the past decade, and that humans love spinning commentary on really, ridiculously good things. Sure, there are some grievous missteps here and there, but The Wire and Breaking Bad are not examples of them.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Advertisements

Bad Last Chapters or How Television is the New Terrible Novel

How I Met Your Mother Finale

 Stephanie Feinstein

Note: Serious spoilers for a bunch of shows, notably How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne, The Sopranos, True Detective, and Breaking Bad.

Devoting seven years to something is a serious commitment. To Hollywood, seven years of marriage is the equivalence of 25 years to mere mortals in lesser zip codes. Seven years of a vice may easily be called an addiction; seven years of school sees a full turn of your DNA. Seven years is literally the length of time one needs to become an entirely new person.

Seven years is too long to hold onto the same story, same ending, same turns. Sure, many an MFA could argue to me that grand books arose out of more than seven years of imaginings, rewrites, and edits, but I shall counter argue that those novels surely found new pathways by the end. An author grows and evolves with his or her work, expanding into the sunshine of new thought and wisdom.

I have a dear friend in the heady throes of editing her first novel for publication, and having known her for more than seven years, she has had to rewrite much as her knowledge and self expanded.

Do not dare to tell me that television writers do not suffer so.

How I Met Your Mother ran for nine seasons, I realize, but it was in its second when I began watching and when the show filmed its ending. According to Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com, it was also the ending used in the initial sitcom pitch to CBS. It was always supposed to be Robin.

In Austin Duck’s article concerning the teleology of HIMYM, he asserts that the Robin-not-mother ending completes the circular nature of the show, a common feature of sitcom writing. While I will agree that the show, like many others, is highly dependent on circuitous routes within its plot, as viewer and fan, I disagree with the balance of the ending on several accounts. For a show so devoted to wrapping up loose ends, the final episode created more questions. Examples of the queries I have posed to myself and other fans: Who was 31? Didn’t Ted make Robin get rid of the dogs last time? What killed the mother? How long did that illness last? How often does Aunt Robin come over for dinner? So, is Lily a stay-at-home mom now? Does she still work for the Captain? Does Barney have full custody? Did he marry the mother? But I digress from Robin and Ted.

In “Last Forever: How They Conned Us All,” Sepinwall points out that the relationship of Robin and Ted devolves over the nine-season run, turning toxic and incomplete, thus forcing them together at the end leaves the viewer dissatisfied, as we have been told over and over again all the reasons the relationship will not work. I agree, and I use this as my basis for why endings in television are the new terrible novel.

I love terrible novels. Much like Jonathan May loves to hate-watch television, I truly enjoy hate-reading poorly written or executed stories. That may sound harsh, as I have yet to publish anything, much less anything excellent or terrible. But if I can’t be pretentious on a website, then why the hell do I have a degree in literature?

Bad writing can be bad for many reasons: poor editing, bad grammar, sloppy story lines, lost symbolism… the list is really endless. A terrible novel will need more than just bad writing technicalities… it needs to create holes that it cannot fill, force relationships that do not fit, and waste opportunities for symbolism and allusion. HIMYM suffers from a stubbornness to characterization in forcing its ending. The writers cursed themselves from the beginning by deciding exactly how the story would end. A novelist may not be very successful if they begin an epic novel knowing exactly how the story will end, and refusing to ever back down from the singular scenario. Unless one can throw in some seriously killer Edith Wharton twists (Oh, you want to stay Mattie to stay, Ethan? Oh, really? How badly do you want her to stay…?), the completed work will be stilted and forced. If we consider HIMYM as a novel constructed over seven years, the characters have grown in unexpected ways. Lily’s role of mother not only evolves through action, but through reaction, as she steps away from early childhood education into a role of art curator. On screen, the character evolves even further, as Alyson Hannigan has gone through more than one pregnancy in her real life, even when her character was still childless. The written relationship of Robin and Ted blossomed and died over multiple seasons, with varying stages of “this is the last time; I’m really letting go.” In the final season, final episodes, we as viewers witness Ted giving up the role of finder, of hero, of conquering knight. When faced with a vulnerable, scared bride, he is chivalrous, wise, telling her that she is already with the right man. Smiling, Ted explains that he simply must find the right woman for himself, confirming that it is not Robin. For a sitcom, this moment was bittersweet, tainting the usual “happily ever after” endings of today, but I believe that modern audiences want a storyline that can be real. The idea of Ted abandoning the obsessive thought of Robin is comforting to audiences, assuring us that new chances at happiness are possible when we open ourselves to possibility. Ted’s meeting and short relationship with Tracy was sweet, honest, and felt very real. It was also cut awkwardly short to a “And then she got sick, and that was six years ago that we lost her.” “Dad, you should date Aunt Robin!” (Okay, so that is not how the official dialogue went down, but close enough.)

So, the ending of How I Met Your Mother was stilted, forced, and a terrible novel of television. Great until the last chapter, which weirdly dragged, with a cop-out of an ending.

But I’m not done there. How I Met Your Mother is not alone in its novel terribleness. Other terrible novels of television include Roseanne and the “it’s all a damn dream” ending, The Sopranos meets Tristram Shandy‘s inked out page of an ending, and The Wire.

Shut up, all of you. I loved The Wire, and I will argue all damn day that it is far more Shakespearean than Breaking Bad could ever hope to be. Tragic McNulty, the Benvolio-esque Bunk, the shut-the-hell-up-this-is-new-literature showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone (Michael K. Williams and Michael Potts, respectively)… I love that shit. But the final act of that beautiful play fell flat for me, and left a depressingly Irish-whiskey flavored tang in my throat.

And Breaking Bad! I watched the full run up to the final season in a single summer, with the final season happening in real time. And, I found it less than lackluster. Perhaps it was weak characters, perhaps it was a whole handful of misogynistic men and weak women. But most of all, I really despised the ending. Our final scene of Walter, stripped of his glory as he stumbles among his scientific vats, now worth nothing, tapping the dial fronts of the equipment. Then he falls, a blood stain left across the shiny aluminum surface. Blood loss? Chemical Poisoning? The cancer finally doing him in? We have no idea. (Note: There are not words to express how much I wanted a massive meth explosion in those final moments. I am from the South, and everyone knows moonshine stills and meth labs eventually explode). But instead, we get the soft wailing of an inept police department, with Walter already too far gone to atone for his sins. And what the hell with Jesse just driving into the sunset, just in time to star in Need For Speed? Terrible. The novel equivalent of “To Be Continued” with absolutely no plans for a sequel. Do I have greater hopes for Better Call Saul? Not really. Will I watch it? Of course… that’s irrelevant.

Now, my next television novel that has failed me is really less novel and more first short story in a series. Why are anthologies the new rage? Are we bored with following evolving characters over a span of years, aging and acquiring wisdom with them? Are actors just not willing to commit the time and energy into evolving these characters? I don’t know, but, oh, how I wish I did.

True Detective season one filled a void in my cultural soul that I did not realize was empty. Well, the first seven-and-a-half episodes (There are only eight total.). Being a Southern lady, I devoured the swampy nature, the Louisiana drawls and old-French tones. In college, I randomly attended a lecture series about rural Louisiana Mardi Gras and Easter traditions, strange rituals with masks and pagan origins. I went to find new inspiration for poetry, but the images of those presentations have stuck with me for years. True Detective‘s use of the arcanely ritualistic culture of the backwoods bayou delighted me, and I waited for deep significance of these images to emerge within the show.

Michael Hughes published a great article on io9.com shortly after the first few episodes aired, illuminating a new set of allusions form the writers. In “The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate True Detective, Hughes cites Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a selection of short stories published in the late Victorian era, as being quoted by central characters within the episodes, if not contributing to the larger story. I quickly acquired the text from Gutenberg Press and I devoured the stories, exclaiming every few pages as a new revelation or theory was uncovered to me. (Mask of deception! Women in stone! Repairer of reputations!) I watched the rest of the season waiting for Carcosa to come to light, a Yellow King to be crowned, the wave of insanity to mask us all in truth.

The final episode of True Detective season one was thrilling but flat. A “to be continued” vibe was given, but next season has already been announced to have a new cast, location, and story line. We will no longer be traipsing the back bayous in search of pederasts and twig sculptures. I will not be able to find out: How those scars happened? Who else was involved? How did the old black maid know about Carcosa? Why the spiral? Why did Hart’s daughters have a sexual violence storyline but not? Why did the killer have a British accent for only, like, ¼ of his scenes? Why was his dad tied up? I may never know.

I hope we will never reach a point as society where television sitcoms and dramas replace great literature. In fact, I think the two can greatly benefit from one another. What if we, as intelligent minds of the internet, band together to rewrite television history? FAN FICTION. Granted, fan fiction has been around as long as fans have found disappointment with story lines. But I am calling for a new age of fan-fueled fiction, where the endings are reinvented to be stronger, more beautiful.

You see, my aforementioned novelist friend had a terrible quandary after the How I Met Your Mother finale aired. Her sister, a devoted fan, had missed the initial airing, but my novelist friend was fretting over hoer own disappointment. “I want her to see it, but not the last five minutes,” she lamented. “I want her to turn off the television with five minutes remaining, and then read a chapter I’ve written instead.”

She ultimately did not, letting the writers of the show have their ending.

BUT WHAT IF…

…fan fiction reached a new level. What if those of us with the degrees, sources, and talent band together to override what society has deemed as “appropriate endings?” Because I am dissatisfied with television, even when it leads me on for so very long.

When True Detective fell short of my literary expectations, I sought out fans. Now, I don’t know if I am just unable to locate the hidden fan fiction files of the internet, or if there just isn’t anything out there, but the results were very limited. Yet, the theories presented through the five stories I found were intriguing, provocative, and creative. Still not what I wanted as the ending, but it gave me something.

So, a call to all those who fan fictionalize their television serials, write me new endings! Breaking Bad, The Wire, Roseanne, True Detective, How I Met Your Mother… send it all to me! I will read each personally, and with any luck, the best to my mind will be presented on this site.

You can reach Stephanie Feinstein at stephanie.feinstein@gmail.com.

Image: New York Times