why i write–or what i thought about the breaking bad finale (spoilers inside)
Like most people I know, last night, I found myself parked in front of a television–watching the very last ever episode of Breaking Bad. Cat nearby. Roomie, too. This was event tv. Every Sunday this season has been appointment tv, but especially this finale. Because after that insane episode detailing Hank’s death, all I had was: “WOW.” THIS had to be good. Weeks ago, my roomie and I tried to figure out what would happen in the weeks to come. We are both writers, so we were pretty proud of ourselves as all the amazing possibilities simmered to the surface. I was unabashedly excited. But our version didn’t quite happen.
After the Hank dying episode, everything that followed seemed lackluster. I forgave it because it was Breaking Bad. Okay–fine–this episode was sleepy, but it would get better. It had to. I knew I’d be elated and devastated when it all played out. So, I waited.
I tried really hard to get into the episode, but–like most things–if I’m not into it, I can’t fake it. I found myself playing on my phone. Or with the cat–watching, but more entertained elsewhere.
In the end, I was actually pissed off. That was IT? All those weeks–years–for this?
I was so disappointed.
Surely, my Twitter stream would agree with me. And yet–they didn’t. Most loved it. Thought it was enough. My roomie liked it enough, but didn’t think it was the best ever.
Was I crazy? Why was I so underwhelmed and pissed off?
It took me a while. I’m still struggling to find the words. To pinpoint what it was that bothered me. But I’ll try.
I’ve been writing for a long time. I have always written, really. It started before I could even speak whole sentences. I had a red cowboy hat. I wrote in all the margins. I read like it was my job when I was little. Absolutely anything I could get my hands on. Stories and imagination–words–got me through a really rough childhood. At 10, I discovered poetry. It stuck. I won awards. Every poem contained little pieces of my flesh.
In high school, I expanded to bad short stories. About issues. Things I could crusade against. College? I started writing about the real me…putting whole sentences together where fragments had only been. But I didn’t *really* start writing until I was 26. At least not in any way that mattered.
Two weeks after my Mama died, I found myself in a playwriting class at a school I absolutely hated. I wasn’t expecting much. I could have easily used my Mama’s death as an excuse to get out of it. My life was a mess, and I was falling apart. But I stayed because I knew that I needed writing. And that this class was the only thing that was going to save me. I chose playwriting, to begin with, because it scared the shit out of me–with all its rules and stubborn reliance on character and dialogue. I was terrible at both.
I didn’t believe in myself as a writer. Not then. It was what I did, but I never truly owned it. I felt attacked by criticism. It was not a craft. It was me bleeding.
The professor who taught my playwriting class was young and beautiful and bright. She loved McDonagh, and she made me love him too. She made me love plays. She made me excel at characters and dialogue. She crafted me into the writer I am now.
I chose, that semester, to write a play about my Mama’s life. I wanted to honor her. But it became a play about me. About my life that year. About losing yourself in a cyclone and crawling back to a life you didn’t know or want.
I wrote it in the middle of the night. I stayed awake for hours. And when I was done, I wrote a book. Because I had time, and I was not sleeping. Not even full time work and school with plenty of overtime could put me to bed.
I wrote and wrote and wrote. I didn’t care if it was good. I didn’t care if it was fun or perfect. I took risks. What mattered to me was this: I had to tell stories that mattered. I had to write people who were utterly, painfully human. I had to tell the truth–but–as I wrote, I realized the truth was bigger than my definition of it. And so I wrote as an act of love. I flung myself against the window of faith and let myself fly. And I did things I had no idea existed in me. And I let people read it.
When that class was over, I put it away. And I stopped writing for a while. Except for the blog that also began with her illness. I put every damn thing into it. Usually wailing as I wrote. And that’s how I got better.
I didn’t realize it until last night, but I have very strong views about what writing is supposed to be. About what it does and what it’s for.
Some people write to tell the truth. Some people write to capture moments and to extend their realities. Some people write to entertain. Some people do all of the above.
Me? I don’t write things just to capture them–like some sort of lightning bug stuck in a jar. I write about the things that matter to me. I write about stories that have legs and need to be told. I write about things that make me sob uncontrollably. I write about the things that need to be said. The things so painful, I think I might die before I get it all out.
I believe in writing characters I simultaneously loathe and adore. I firmly believe that writing is about transformation. It’s about inspiration and furthering the idea of a reality that we might not understand or believe in–but that we always can aspire to. I believe writing is about change and empowerment. Writing should be a call to action–a challenge to believe in the possibility of everything and nothing all at once. I believe in art, and that’s what art does.
And if you are not doing that, I don’t want to read that story.
If you are not doing that, I might smile politely and admit you have some lovely sentences. But your words won’t matter to me. I won’t hold onto them when my heart has been ripped out of my chest. Those words won’t keep me up at night. That story won’t save my life.
It doesn’t have to.
But, for me, that’s the standard. I’ll admit it–I’m hard to please. So very hard. But I’m harder on my own stories–my own words. And that’s what I need.
Breaking Bad has been one of my favorite shows since the very beginning. I watched it because I loved Bryan Cranston. I wanted to see if this guy could actually pull this off. Because–if he did–he would earn a place in my heart forever. Because–if he could do this–I would know that writing was not a waste of time. All those people (especially me) who told me it didn’t matter would be wrong.
Bryan Cranston pulled it off. I used to stay up all night watching those episodes. I fell in love with every single character. There wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. I watched all these actors transform in front of me. I hated and loved all of them at varying points in time. Breaking Bad reminded me of what it was like to witness magic. That magic existed in risk and vulnerability.
So–yea–high expectations for the finale.
I felt like the acting was pretty perfect, as always. The scene where Walt shares a room with his enemies to their complete ignorance? Completely–exactly–yes. Anna Gunn’s performance? So much yes.
The writing team made choices I wouldn’t have made, and that’s okay. It was well-written for what they were going for.
Was I surprised? Nope. Was I bored, often? Yes.
What did I want to see that I didn’t see?
Characters who were at least consistent with the changes we’d observed in recent weeks while still being true to themselves and transforming in small and/or big ways. Marie’s finale appearance particularly disappointed me. She seemed to have resumed her vacuous life of denial, gossip, and overreaction–instead of the quiet dignity that was so powerful just a few episodes ago. Flynn continued his storyline of the invisible, and yet angry, kid that Walt inexplicably cares about. The way this was handled? There was no closure–just an acceptance of anger and a defeat of what is–but doesn’t have to be. Flynn was a plot device rather than a well-rounded character deserving of a respectful ending. There was such an opportunity here that it really just breaks my heart. The bad guys continued to be bad and fairly stupid. Skyler was sad and angry and controlled–which was a stark contrast to the stabbing Walter Skyler from just a little bit ago. Though her portrayal did feel consistent and also authentic.
And perhaps that’s realistic. Maybe people do revert to learned ways of coping and etc when things are hard. Okay. But they were hard a few weeks ago, too.
For me, this show was really about the relationship between self and family…both blood and adopted. The crux of this ending should have centered around reconciling the two. While Walter does finally acknowledge that his belief that he did it all for himself–not his family as he always said–he never truly owns that to the people he owed something to: his sons. I say sons because Jesse was as much as son–perhaps, more of a son–than Flynn ever could be.
Part of Walt’s closure needed to be tied to his legacy. Death is about that–and this entire show has been about running away from death as well as life. The ending needed to be about accepting it and making it okay. Despite all of this supposedly really being about Walt’s ego, it’s not that simple. It was, of course, partially about his ego. But it was ABSOLUTELY also about his family (Jesse included). And despite popular opinion, that’s an ego-based desire.
Walt is a man who does things. He doesn’t just accept them as set in stone. He’s smart, and he knows it. This is not a man that just accepts his son’s hatred. The show didn’t set him up to be that man either…and yet, there he is–watching passively through a window. His actions with Jesse prove he isn’t that man.
Though he is a villain, he’s still a heroic figure. He is not a completely horrible person, and I think that part of his ego would want Flynn to know that. That part of him would want him to know that his father was going to do what was best for his child. And I think Walter is sensitive enough to know that this anger would ruin that kid’s life. I don’t think any father could die without at least attempting to heal that burn.
I have really conflicted views about Jesse’s storyline. It felt authentic to me, but it was probably one of the most disappointing parts for me. I absolutely adore Jesse. I adored him even in the beginning when he was an unlikeable punk. He’s the only character on the show that I’ve always rooted for. Yet, he is probably the most flawed and human character on the show. Never once did his humanity make him anything except an amazing character. His ending was hard for me to watch. Here’s this defeated human being who has had everything taken from him by somebody. In every turn, Jesse just wants the good life. He just wants what others have. There’s still an innocence to him–and that is why he is so devastated by all of the crap that happens to him. He’s still able to love and fight for things that matter to him. He is the entire moral conscience of this story–as odd as that sounds.
And yet–he kills Todd. This doesn’t really jive with Jesse’s MO. Jesse doesn’t like killing. He has a conscience. Jesse’s MO is to harm himself when things get bad or to just run and escape. Even in the finale, Jesse is able to kill Todd because Walter has rescued him. Jesse remains Walter’s puppet, and any freedom he has was won for him by Walt. Jesse is still that angry, battered kid doing Walt’s dirty work. Yes–Jesse should want Todd dead. Todd was sadistic and horrible. But if that’s the reason he does it? If Jesse is finally standing up against the bullies? If he really wants revenge? He should stand up to Walter, too. He should earn his freedom. He should ruin Walt’s plans. He wouldn’t just let Walt find his peaceful ending, at the hand of a random bullet. That wouldn’t be enough if it was enough to kill Todd. In this way, he’s just the scared kid he was at the beginning. Honestly, if Jesse is so bludgeoned by what’s happened to him that he’s now capable of murdering Todd–losing all that makes him our moral compass–then there is no hope for him. There is no healing here. When he leaves, he isn’t free from Walt or anything else. He’s still a prisoner of his own selfishness–and he will always be someone’s puppet. He’s still reacting, as always. I worry about my Jesse. I worry a lot.
In both cases, I wish Walter’s sons had owned their lives–had said they mattered instead of continuing to allow Walt to be the puppetmaster. I wish Jesse had let Walter have it. Because, honestly, I don’t think Walter was living in any kind of reality in terms of know WHAT he did. I wish Jesse had found his courage, for once, and really–finally–stood up to that guy. But without screaming anger. Then, I wouldn’t worry.
With Flynn, anger is the easy, go-to emotion. With everything he had been through, I would think he would have grown up a bit. And that growing up might still have tinges of rage in it, but it also probably has a good amount of heartache and pride. I wish Flynn had an opportunity to hear Walter’s side–to get the actual truth from him–and then be truly vulnerable with his father. I needed to see that.
Mostly, I wished all the characters had been more vulnerable. I wish the resolution we saw had been harder won. Everything was just too easy–too tied up in a bow. Life is incredibly messy, and this mess was too damn tidy. While a cool gimmick, the machine gun in the trunk and everyone pretty much dying as planned? Easy and boring.
Here is a chemistry teacher. A brilliant mind, and he is so effing uncreative that he has to resort to a stupid gun. And dying on his terms means dying in some shitty lab he never set up from a bullet from that gun? Really? That his partners in redemption are bullshit people who stole his heart and soul? Really?
The biggest sin, though, was that this finale didn’t make me feel anything at all. Until the end, when I realized how disappointed I was. After years of loving this show, I should’ve been completely teary-eyed. I didn’t even blink.
It wasn’t the story I would’ve told. In my ending, Jesse would have died at his own hand when Walt asked him to shoot him. That would have been Jesse’s last stand. Finally taking control back from everyone, knowing that his life would never be just his again. Leaving doesn’t mean he’s free. It just means he’ll be put in jail–left to suffer just like he did with Todd. Would Jesse really choose that? Death would be freedom for Jesse–finally. In my story, Walter would have lived. Walter would have finally understood that he really isn’t as clever as he thinks, and maybe Jesse’s death would have meant something to him–out of everything that didn’t. He would have had to finally live with the idea of living with everything he did.
I would have cared about that story.