On last seasons

It seems to me that the final seasons of “auteur”-style shows (when they are allowed to reach their originally intended length) are always disappointing, and for structural reasons: the last season is the auteur’s last chance to make sure you get the message. The clearest example is The Wire, I think, where the final season was narratively unsatisfying precisely to the extent that it provided an opportunity for David Simon to drive home his “political ontology” — McNulty’s insane scheme shows the resilience of the system to even the most radical challenges, while the journalistic story highlighted the fact that the very narrative excellence of the series could serve to cover over or miss the structural forces at play. Similarly, one could say that the final season of The Sopranos emphasized the fundamental fragility of Tony and his position, the fact that anything could come “out of the blue” to kill him. Hence the infamous final scene was in a way the only possible ending: to have Tony definitely die would have undermined the point by providing a spurious narrative coherence.

This is perhaps why I’m not enjoying the current season of Breaking Bad very much. The silliness of the schemes (hearkening back to MacGyver or the A-Team in many cases), the hyperbolization of the motif of random chance (the “bad break”) that had always been a hallmark of the show, and — above all — the megalomania of Walt all point toward a clear message: Walt is a desperate man who can do nothing but destroy everything he touches. Presumably his choice to replace Jesse with Todd the child-murderer will only serve to exacerbate this tendency in Walt, once his tenuous moral center is absent.

Certainly Breaking Bad seems to need more clarification than most shows — apparently there are many viewers who still somehow think of Walt as a bad-ass, who think Skylar is a castrating bitch who needs to be put in her place, etc., etc. I find it appalling that anyone could come to that conclusion at this late date, but if there are many fans who are, the correction is obviously necessary. I think that the very fact that this is where the final season’s “message” is operating, however, points to a failing of the show: at least in my view, it takes place too much on the level of the individual and his moral struggle, without enough emphasis on the structure of Walt’s situation. The story is clearly “about” Walt’s moral degradation as a person, and the social factors that go into that are pushed into the background. Early on, one could say that the show is “about” the desperation of a man under neoliberalism (shitty health care, etc.), but in the last analysis all of that is merely the occasion for Walt’s “moral bad luck.” It is somehow only the story of one man in a way that even The Sopranos wasn’t.

Perhaps the final half-season will prove me wrong on this, but it seems to me that the show is a missed opportunity conceptually-speaking — obviously not just “another action show” or “another crime show,” but not quite the pillar of the Golden Age of Television that so many people are willing to declare it.

14 thoughts on “On last seasons

  1. There was a recent article in the New Yorker that likened Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, in that both shows lure the audience in to sympathy with a sociopath and then punish them for that sympathy. There seems to be some point to this gesture in the Sopranos, but in Breaking Bad, it just feels like sadism.

  2. I think making the last season 16 episodes instead of the usual 13, and splitting it in half, was a mistake. There’s too many episodes, too minutes to fill, and since none of the “really bad” narrative developments can happen until the season’s second half, this first half has been a lot of circling the wagons and waiting for whatever horrible thing is sure to mark the mid-season break. This is pretty much exactly what happened in the final season of Battlestar Galactica, though in that case the final season’s poor first half was followed by an atrocious second half that essentially ruined the entire series. Let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen here.

    The whole final season of Breaking Bad should have been 10 episodes or so, produced all at once. It might not have changed the more general critique you’re making, but it might have made less obvious the show’s narrative manipulations.

  3. Taking you up on your invitation to delurk – I’ve wondered for some time now about the relationship of these serial narrative arcs to the system of commerce from which they spring. At their best, these shows demonstrate the rich potentials of “world building” in the most traditional, even Tolkienian sense. There is something just right and good about seeing a world take shape in detail, as it does over the first and often second seasons of these shows. Language, character, and space in these serials take on a proper life of their own, they seem to persist outside our seeing them, extend beyond our fields of vision. But such investment in ontology is only possible through financial risk in this case, a willingness on the part of a company to see what an artist can spin. After such an investment begins to promise not only returns but continued returns, the risk of losing the initial investment outweighs the risk of seeing what else a creator can build. And so these shows have to sustain themselves through following consumerism’s usual rhythms of desire and suspended gratification. They become economically and narratively romantic. So it all makes me wonder – what would it take to create a space for genuine risk, exploration, and even failure in the realm of narrative on television? Seems to me one would either have to skip the world-building part and just start telling stories in a way that risks exclusion – something modern novelists and playwrights can do – or find a way to tie the continued support of a storytelling franchise to a different economic source than that which originates the thing. [For what it’s worth, I actually think the “Homicide” series did a better job at experimenting with story than did the Wire, even though the Wire’s world is fuller. Interesting given that one is network-television, the other cable..]

  4. In defence of BSG, complete and absolute fault for the relative crappiness of S04 (which I haven’t even re-watched! The shrink wrap has been on the DVDs since I bought them, likely the week they were released!) lays squarely and directly on Obama and his false ideology of hope.

    Do “final seasons with the original show runner” count in this general disappointment of ostensible narrative closure? The present season of “True Blood” was, by the far, the strongest since S03, when Russell was first introduced. Fantastic finale this weekend, although at this point they should drop the dramatic “politics of food” angle and go full-on NBC style dramedy centred on Eric’s little family.

    “Dexter” is potentially going to throw a wedge in the fetishism of the final season with a planned two season long ending.

  5. I don’t know how much weight to put on this theory, since it just popped into my mind, but couldn’t you maybe argue that what Breaking Bad is “about” — that the structure Walt is embedded in — is toxic masculinity?

    His embitterment over his failed business career stems from, (and his response to his illnessis shaped by), a long-ago romantic rejection that left him with a thwarted sense of entitlement. His marriage has long been corroded by his feelings of emasculation. He lost his old job, and his last connection to normal life, because of a preposterous, ugly pass at his female boss. His relationship with every peer and superior in the drug business is marked by aggressive macho posturing. He can’t relate on a human, compassionate basis with either his real or his stand-in son.

    Just a thought.

  6. That is definitely a great way of characterizing Walt’s trajectory, but I’m not sure if it counts as a “structure” — or at least, you’d have to do some work to show that Walt is an exaggerated version of a basic structure of masculinity shared by all the other male characters in the show. That may be true, but it’s not crystalizing for me immediately.

  7. But Walt’s “toxic masculinity” isn’t so much a social force as a personal character flaw, as far as I can tell. You could just as easily call it “pride” — again, unless it’s part of a broader pattern in the show’s portrayal of masculinity, which is a possibility I’m certainly open to.

  8. I think you’re right that the show is, in the end, about Walt the individual and the way in which his “pride” will destroy everything he loves. I’ve been reading the show as a kind of riff on classical tragedy in that sense. It’s Athenian tragedy by way of King Lear, and I really think that the “All Hail the King” marketing this season had a lot to do with positioning it within that genre. Maybe riff is the wrong word; I think that the show is almost slavishly faithful to a certain kind of distillation of tragic motifs, and this is why it can’t go where you seem to want it too.

  9. Sean,

    Interestingly David Simon seems to have his own take on Shakespeare/Greek-inflected television series:

    “Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearean as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood—two shows that I do admire—offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of the central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen). Much of our modern theater seems rooted in the Shakespearean discovery of the modern mind. We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.”

  10. That is interesting. I think that sounds about right for what they were doing on The Wire, and I think that represents an arguably more faithful (or at least more interesting) take on what classical tragedy is all about. In part, that’s why I would qualify what Vince Gilligan is doing in terms of a “certain kind of distillation” of those motifs, especially as read *through* Shakespeare. Maybe even as both of those are read *through* a high school english class. That sounds overly harsh, and I really do like the show, but I think the show isn’t following from Greek tragedy broadly, but in a very specific way, and I when I think of the specific read of tragedy the show represents, it’s that kind of account that rings in my head.

  11. At first blush I don’t see the structural attention to toxic masculinity, but let’s see: The show’s three main male characters each have their weaknesses expressed through masculine self-definition in some way–besides Walt, there’s Jesse with his search for a father-figure and an image of what adulthood will mean, and there’s Hank with his caveman chauvinism and casual misogyny (which becomes most poisonous when he’s at his weakest).

    Mike seems like the counter-image to all that–he’s someone who knows who he is, and he is the character who, in contrast to Walt, really is doing everything he does for the sake of his family. It’s also telling that he’s the guy who says, “That’s what I get for being sexist.” Fun as he is to watch, Mike is also maybe the least interesting of those four as a character, because he’s so steady.

    But I think insofar as the show has movement in this direction, it doesn’t follow through. Hank’s wife-hatred (and self-hatred after he’s forced to see himself as a coward, following the head-turtle incident) doesn’t have any consequences; he just bounces back. Mike’s death felt very tacked on to me–thematically unmotivated, and it’s hard for me to imagine a plot sequence necessitating it, since he was leaving anyway (though obviously we’ll see). It felt like the show was just brutely following its “The Sopranos but louder” model, so that everyone has to be punished just according to the rules of the genre.

  12. I’m with Ethan here. Mike’s death seemed pretty heavy handed. Like, “So you don’t hate Walt yet? How about now?”

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