Perfect Moments: Endings that Should Have Been [part 1]
If you’ve heard the story telling series The Moth on NPR or through their podcast you may have come across the story by Brian Finkelstein called Perfect Moments. In it Finkelstein recounts an incident from his time working at a suicide hotline where he had a breezy and engaging conversation with a caller who seemed to not need the service until she uttered a key phrase after several minutes and her speech started slurring. Finkelstein described this moment as perfect moment not because it was positive, or there was some last minute intervention of fate (spoiler alert: this woman ultimately died of an overdose of pills), but because in that moment everything made sense. All the details of the situation was tidy. A complete clarity occurred.
Life doesn’t line up like that often. In our entertainment this doesn’t occur all that often either, because creative projects are always a lot harder than they appear, or sometimes what makes a piece great is how messy it is. In television this is especially hard for a different reason. These shows are money making ventures. Financial considerations (read: ratings) determine the lifespan of a show far more than the best artistic expression. What most likely comes to mind are all the quality shows that never have the chance to reach their potential due to ending up cancelled before that can occur. It is just as disappointing when a once great show diminishes its greatness by going on too long. Normally this is because the team behind the series uses up the creative capital to perpetuate the story, but if the show is still popular, push it beyond the best by date. If they recognize that it has gone as far as it can go, they may have written themselves into corner and there isn’t a neat way to wind everything down. This can even occur when the larger story arc has been established from the jump. Season 5 of The Wire, and the final season of Mad Men both suffered from this. In both series, all the big notes went to plan and despite still being very good, the story still frayed at the end.
I’m not even talking about that here. Those shows were never completely tidy. Indeed their tension came from the inherent untidiness. There wasn’t going to be a perfect moment, because it was imperfect by design. Instead I want to examine cases where those perfect moments happened, but were wasted because the show runners did not recognize the opportunity, the need, to “kill their darlings” as Allan Ginsburg famously described. The following shows either continue on, or ended on their own terms when the results would have been superior had they been forced to wrap things up earlier than planned.
Where it ends: the silliness of a Rube Goldberg style shoot out on the neo-nazi meth factory after months of impractically silly exile.
Where it should have ended: Hank’s epiphany on the toilet.
Frankly, Breaking Bad always required a significant amount of suspension of disbelief. The central premise of the show is kicked off by a wacky coincidence. Deus ex machina happened on a schedule. And how the people in Walter White’s life could be so obtuse is something I will never be able to fathom. The thing is though, none of this ever mattered. It didn’t need to believable because it felt true. The nuttiness was a big part of the appeal. Two planes colliding over and raining debris Walter Whites house; somehow he set that all in motion? Of course. Severed head tortoise bomb? Sure, why not? Gus Fring temporarily walking away from an explosion with half his skull exposed? Oh, hell yes.
That is until the “second half” of the final season. It stopped feeling true and started to feel like oh-shit-we-have-eight-episodes-left-to-tie-up-all-these-loose-ends.” The sad thing is, these loose ends didn’t need tying up. As a reminder, after all these travails, all his enemies eliminated, the trail going cold for law enforcement, Walt is finally convinced by his wife to walk away because she can’t feasibly launder all the money he has made and has taken to hiding it in a self-storage unit. His relationship with Jesse comes to an uneasy conclusion. This period of his life is closing. We also at this point know that Walt’s cancer has likely returned. He got away, but only to a point.
Think about this for a bit. Hank, who has been oblivious towards his brother in-law's crimes, despite knowing that he is a knowledgeable chemist, and knowing that he has behaved erratically in recent years. That he now would pick up a book of poetry for some bowel movement reading, then piece everything together after reading the note written inside requires one last instance of suspension of disbelief. I mean, he’s been kind of dumb up till now. At this point it appeared that everything wrapped up as neatly as they could be, and that the White family can move forward like nothing ever happened. That Hank now knows is turn enough. It is a seismic emotional impact. In some ways Hank is the stand in for the audience. This show is all about secrets and not truly knowing someone, therefore even though we know that Walter White is Heisenberg, we still feel what Hank feels.
A quick tangent: there are two basic theories of horror story telling.
1) That which is unknown is more terrifying than what is known, because the audience fills in the blanks subconsciously, or
2) Anything that falls into the uncanny valley is the most terrifying. By that I mean it’s not things that we don’t understand, but something we recognize, but not how we normally recognize it.
This moment achieves both of those conditions simultaneously, and nothing that comes after it can possibly live up to it. That uncertain future is the power. Consider if Hank’s dilemma was a real life situation. His career has advanced during Heisenberg’s run, suddenly revealing that his brother in law was his quarry is going to dismantle his career. This is his wife’s family, and he is also about to throw all that asunder, how is his marriage going to survive that? In the wrong half of the season, Walt points out that he’ll probably be dead before he ever gets to trial, and he’s got a point. Is Hank going to act as midwife to all that turmoil for nothing? Does Hank choose not to act? Does he wait for Walt to die, and then act as though he just discovered the evidence to save face, preserve relationships, but still allow the truth to come out? Does he make the same decision to let the chips fall where they may? If he does, would he really do it this way? If he is clever enough to connect the dots on what is actually a pretty weak clue, he is also going to be composed enough to not tip his hand, and will instead methodically build the case. Frankly, those scenarios are all less compelling to watch than they are to consider.
… or we could get the slapdick scenario we were shown. That Walt could still successfully socially engineer the cops in to viewing Skyler as a battered wife rather than a co-conspirator is one convenient turn too many. Real cops wouldn’t be that magnanimous.
So what happened? I think it really is as simple as show runner Vince Gilligan having known all along what he wanted the last scene of the show to be. He wrote the show to meet it, rather than ending on a brilliant accident. Regardless, we were better off not knowing.