“That is the single worst idea for a television series I’ve ever heard in my life.”
So, according to Vince Gilligan in Alan Sepinwall’s indispensable 21st century book “The Revolution Was Televised,” said SONY TV boss Michael Linton.
But thankfully Linton had studio underlings who disagreed. And that’s why at 9 p.m. today we begin a countdown of the final eight episodes in one of the most honored and respected series in TV history, “Breaking Bad.” (Honor and respect, of course, being two different things. “Honors” being matters of industrial public relations, “respect” being something more private that transcends such grade-grubbing.)
“Arguably the best show on TV,” is what Brett Martin calls “Breaking Bad” in his equally indispensable study of TV’s “Third Golden Age” called “Difficult Men.” But not only that, says Martin: The show was “in many ways the culmination of everything the Third Golden Age had made possible … because its creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan was known as a good man to work for – someone who managed to balance the vision and microscopic control of the most autocratic showrunner with the open and supportive spirit of the most relaxed.”
And eight episodes from this evening on AMC, on Sept. 29, the degeneration of Walter White from high school teacher into an overlord of meth and death will be all over for good.
A week before that on Sept. 22 on Showtime, Sunday night’s other exemplary anti-hero Dexter Morgan is scheduled to leave the airwaves for good when “Dexter,” the serial killer who specializes in serial killers, will meet the fate that his TV writers have engineered for him, whatever it is.
And a week before THAT, on Sept. 17 (a mere month from now), we’ll all know what Dexter Morgan’s actual creator, novelist Jeff Lindsay, has in store for his hero when his novel “Dexter’s Final Cut” comes out. From the sound of Lindsay’s final book title – which eschews Linsday’s usual alliterative game playing – things don’t augur particularly well for Dexter’s continuation on the written page, either.
That, of course, is the major difference between Sunday evening’s beloved experiments in mass culture evil: Dexter Morgan actually began in the mind of a novelist whose Dexter series was a huge success long before Showtime ever decided to put his exploits in murder and blood slide collection into prime time.
“Breaking Bad,” on the other hand, came from the minds of old Hollywood pros and put old Hollywood pros in front of the camera. The pros who created it, in fact, originally treated the idea – a high school teacher turned blue meth chef – as the sort of shuttlecock joke TV writers bat back and forth in a quick lightning round of wisecracking badminton.
As Martin tells the story in “Difficult Men,” Gilligan in 2005 was “on the phone with an old friend and fellow ‘X-Files’ writer Thomas Schnauz. The two were complaining about the state of the movie business and wondering what they might be qualified to do instead.
“ ‘Maybe we can be greeters at Walmart’ Gilligan said.
“ ‘Maybe we can buy an RV and put a meth lab in the back’ said Schnauz.
“As he said that, an image popped into my head of a character doing exactly that: an Everyman character who decides to ‘break bad’ and become a criminal’ Gilligan recalled.”
And that, as the now familiar legend has it, is how, as Gilligan likes to put it, Mr. Chips turned into Scarface. (Meaning, of course, Brian DePalma’s version of “Scarface” starring Al Pacino and his “little friend” and not Howard Hawks’ original version starring Paul Muni.)
In other words, a little jocular telephone badminton between mutually supportive Hollywood professional writers grousing about their lives in the screenwriters’ trade turned into the creation of the show that, as Sepinwall says, gave “the recession the villain it deserves.”
Walter Hartwell White.
What I find fascinating about both Dexter Morgan and Walter White is the ease of speculation about their shows’ demises – in particular how hilariously matter-of-fact it has become for dedicated watchers of both in our era to torch all moralistic notions of causality between crime and punishment and imagine Dexter Morgan and Walter White continuing out into the world after they’ve been, week in week out, responsible for unthinkable evil.
It’s almost as if we think “OK, if we’re going to watch these guys on the tube every Sunday. We jolly well want to see them get away with it.”
TV is the great normative. Our watching it makes it so.
That was the rollicking original subject of “The Sopranos.” Tony wasn’t in the business of “waste management.” He was in the business of whacking guys and ordering them whacked for profit’s sake, if need be.
But it was the show’s genius that he was also the suburban guy next door.
Just like Walter White, a death merchant written by the fellow (Gilligan) who previously wrote the eccentric comedy “Home Fries” and the pyromaniac love story “Wilder Napalm” and who is played by the actor who once played good old Dad in “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Dexter is a blood splatter technician for the Miami Police Department and a good, loving father to his little son Harrison. It was his “code” after all, to stick to killing serial murderers whenever he needed to let his “dark passenger” out into the world and give him room to roam.
When I solicited on Facebook some surmises about their individual ends when the final episodes of each have taken each series into digital perpetuity, “Dexter” watcher Connie Croce-Hill offered this ending: “(Dexter’s sister) Deb is the one who kills Dexter in the end.” Kathleen Bryce Niles suggested a way Dexter could ride off into the sunset: “Dexter has a brain tumor” and upon removal is discovered to be “horrifyingly normal.”
Until Time Warner Cable decided to break bad itself and use “Dexter” in a little Walter White business maneuver of its own against CBS by taking Showtime off the air during “negotiations,” we were on course to see “Dexter’s” progress toward his Sept. 22 rendezvous with destiny. TWC customers, of course, didn’t see last week’s “Dexter” because the cable giant yanked the Showtime network into its “negotiations” with CBS.
But it seems to me in this disappointing final season of “Dexter” the only point of introducing Charlotte Rampling into the proceedings as Dexter’s spiritual “mother” and the actual inventor of his father’s “code” (i.e. only kill the deserving), is to have her be the one who finally does Dexter in. Deb, of course, already tried to kill both herself and Dexter by driving her car into the drink, only at the last second to rescue them both.
As for “Breaking Bad,” the show’s major devotee in my immediate family offers this: “I think ‘Breaking Bad’ should end with Jesse killing Hank just as he’s about to turn Walter in. So Walter “wins,” as does his family, but with the knowledge that his ‘family’ has now been chosen for him by his circumstances.”
No one would appreciate all this evasion of punishment, I think, more than Walter White, aka Heisenberg, named after physicist Werner Heisenberg whose “Uncertainty Principle” tells us “even with perfect instruments and technique, the uncertainty is inherent in the nature of things.”
The very act of observing affects the results.
The very act of our watching “Breaking Bad” and “Dexter” is going to affect how they both end in late September.
I can’t wait to find out what happens to Walter and Dexter.
But even more importantly, I can’t wait to find out how our mates in the audience react.