lost

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

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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.

They Made a Video Game Out of The Office: Five Terrible Games Based on TV Shows

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Mike Hannemann

South Park: The Stick of Truth was released recently for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The long-awaited game had finally managed to overcome development hell and several delays. The final product is exactly what you would and wouldn’t expect for a game based on South Park. All the crude elements one associates with the show are there: racist, sexist, fart jokes… all of it. Here’s the part no one really expected: It’s… actually… good. The development team worked closely with the creators of the show and delivered a definitive South Park experience. The writing is genuinely funny and when you play it actually feels like you’re controlling an episode of the show. But you’ll find that on any review site. Instead, let’s consider how unlikely this was.

Video games based on franchises are usually doomed from the start. Occasionally, movies will be spared from this but then something like the Rambo game will come out (in 2014, and if I could type a year in all caps I would to drive the point home) and set the bar back to square one. This has always been the nature of video games and pop culture. Something is introduced, blows up in popularity, and a video game is released to capitalize on that. Hell, South Park did that several times before this entry. It’s easy to make a quick buck because (insert flavor of the week here) can have a quick tie-in. This was especially true of the 1990s. It didn’t take much to make an NES or even an SNES or Sega Genesis game, so we saw hundreds of terrible franchise nonsense. The Super Star Wars games, while remembered fondly by some, barely even followed the plots of the movies. Hell, even commercials were franchised. I wake up with nightmares of playing games based on Domino’s Pizza’s The Noid or Chester Cheetah.

Let’s give the 1990s a pass here. Let’s turn and look at the past 12 years. Next generation consoles. These games cost money to make. Even when creators were involved, they still missed the mark. I submit the following five entries into the catalog of video games based on TV shows that left a sour taste in the mouth of any fan.

5. Lost

The Lost video game was basically just a middle finger to the fanbase. Lost was a show that was built on mysteries, fans were rabid to find clues hidden in each scene that may or may not mean anything. The creators encouraged it, it let to fan mania. Then, during the middle of season four, a game was released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The game had the player assume the role of a new survivor, waking up among the wreckage of Oceanic flight 815. The game took place during the events of the show, taking place on various days during the shows run. Plotted by the creative forces behind the show, the game promised “revelations” on the main plot. Not only was the gameplay terrible, you couldn’t help but feel overwhelmingly this was shoehorned in as a cash grab. If any of this mattered, why did characters on the show never mention it? Fans of the show don’t even talk about it. For a show where fans obsessed over what number was on a calendar in a background shot of a dream, I think that’s the most damning thing I could say.

4. Futurama

This one is hard to talk about. Admittedly, I wanted this game to work. Based on one of the better animated sitcoms, the sci-fi nature of the show lends itself perfectly to a video game. Honestly, the story was pretty great. It was funny, deftly acted by the original voice cast, and made fun of a ton of video game tropes (in-game parody was still uncommon at this point). Hell, the show was canceled that year (2003) and again fans were willing to do anything for more content. Unfortunately, no script would be tight enough to make up for poor gameplay mechanics. Transferring a 2-D cartoon into a 3-D world just doesn’t work. The character models were blocky, the platforming was sub-par, and the camera was essentially non-functional. The Futurama game is something fans admit exist, but would never consider bringing up at a party. You know, all those Futurama parties people go to.

3. 24

In a list of sad examples, this one is particularly tragic. 24 is another show that a video game just makes sense to make. It’s a turn-your-brain-off action show. Basically just take a Modern Warfare game and replace the main character with Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer and there you go. As is the common trend here, the creators and actors were all involved. Released in 2006 and taking place between seasons two and three, this game for the Playstation 2 and Xbox pledged to tell a canonical story explaining the time that took place between the two. For once, this actually MADE SENSE for a game based on a serialized TV show. 24 jumps ahead years at a time between seasons. Logically, something could have happened in that time. The problem isn’t the story. The problem isn’t the acting. Hell, the problem isn’t even the gameplay. The problem is that the game wanders around, not knowing what it wants to be. There are heavy action levels, sniping levels, car-only levels, and puzzle missions. You play as Jack Bauer’s daughter, Kim, in one where you just crawl around in air vents. The game never commits to what kind of game it wants to be, and by making it a “controllable season of the show” it suffers. I remember playing this and thinking it was sad how close to a genuinely good game this was.

2. The Office

Didn’t know there was a game based on the US version of The Office? I apologize for being the one to break the news. Seriously. Next time we see each other, you can punch me in the face, I won’t block. Following the smash success of the early season(s) of The Office, a licensed game was greenlit. It was released only for PC. It was a collection of mini games. Which I guess is the harshest thing I could say about the definition of the word “games.” There was no complexity to it. There was also, coincidentally, no point to it. The saving grace is that it didn’t claim to be anything more than it was. It wasn’t The Office experience. It was a $4.99 mini game pack. I probably shouldn’t complain too much about a game I didn’t actually buy. What needs to be remembered, though, is there is never ever an excuse to release a video game based on a sitcom. Unless it’s a trivia game. And it’s free online. And I guess you’re really, really bored.

1. The Walking Dead: Survival Instincts

I saved the most recent for last because while all of the aforementioned games are insulting in some aspect (even The Office) this one misfired on all cylinders. Think about how hard this is to screw up. The Walking Dead is, and remains, the most popular show on cable television. Ok, it’s also set in the zombie apocalypse which is a video game setting — that is a no-brainer. The more popular characters are back to do voices and provide some background on their past. Makes sense right? The end result of this Xbox 360/Playstation 3 title was a mixed bag of terrible plot points and gameplay mechanics that wouldn’t work with another two years of work. It deliver, though, one true element of The Walking Dead, the show: It left you wondering what more talented people could have done with the property.

(Disclaimer: The Walking Dead is also a game released by Telltale Games that is a huge success, but this is more based on the comic than the show. The game makes no attempt to tie the two together, so I have excluded it.)

So there it is. The worst games based on some of the best shows. These will always be the reasons I worry when I hear about “TV Show! The Game!” being developed, but at least South Park: The Stick of Truth proves the law of averages.

Image source: The Daily Beast