SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE FINAL SEASON OF BREAKING BAD, so if you haven’t watched yet, please do not continue reading.
Two weeks have passed as of this writing since Felina, the final episode of Breaking Bad, aired. I considered many different approaches to my thoughts on the final (half) season of this great show, but finally settled on what writers can learn from it. Starting with:
1. Even when you please the vast majority of readers/your audience, some people are still going to be unhappy. It’s an important lesson. The reaction to the finale, and the final eight episodes, was overwhelmingly positive, but there was a lot of negative reaction, too. I’ve seen complaints as diverse as the show tied everything up too neatly, it didn’t tie up enough threads, it was too dark, it was too light, Walt should have lived and got away, Walt should have lived and been arrested, Jesse should have died, Jesse should have killed Walt, everyone should have killed Skyler etc., etc., etc. This wasn’t just from average viewers—some highly respected critics complained, too.
You’ll never please everyone, even when most believe you hit it out of the park. Accept that.
2. People crave a cathartic ending. I think this is where some other, less beloved endings—of books and movies, as well as TV shows—fall flat. While on the one hand I sort of liked the ending of The Sopranos, I think what irked most people was the lack of a catharsis. So much so there are many who are absolutely convinced that after the “black-out” moment Tony was assassinated. The catharsis was missing, so people filled in the blank.
Don’t make people fill in the blank, they’ll feel cheated.
3. Don’t forget to tie up major thematic threads as well as major plot threads. I’ll be honest: my one slight complaint about the finale was the scene where Walt confronts Elliot and Gretchen, his erstwhile partners who bought him out and went on to become billionaires. It was a bit too similar to the ending of a typical John Grisham novel (hero gets hands on some dirty money and creates an elaborate scheme to keep it without fear of the authorities finding out).
Even if it was a little clumsy, it served an important purpose: it tied up one of the main running themes of the story. Walt’s original motivation seemed to be solely that he was trying to make enough money so his illness wouldn’t leave his family broke. But as the series progressed, we became privy to the history of how Walt missed out on building an empire, so he tried to build one by selling meth instead.
Without a final confrontation with the two people who drove much of Walt’s actions throughout the story—even though they rarely appeared—the ending would have felt incomplete.
4. Don’t sweat it if you can’t tie up everything. We will forever wonder if Huell ever left the safe house after Hank and Gomez were killed. We will never know if Saul was a success managing a Cinnabon in Nebraska. We will never know where Jesse went and how his post-Walter life turned out. It would have destroyed the narrative drive if the writers had chosen to tell the audience these things. If it’s not a critical plot or thematic point, it’s O.K. to leave it dangling.
5. A little humor goes a long way. After that intense scene with Elliot and Gretchen, with people wondering if Walt was going to murder them, it was funny and even delightful to realize that Jesse’s two friends, Badger and Skinny Pete, were just helping Walt put one over on them.
When a lot of serious, bad stuff is happening, it’s not a bad idea to find a way to lighten things up, if for only a moment or two.
6. Find a way for the protagonist to vanquish their antagonist(s) in a way very specific to their character. Walt may have evolved into a bad-ass, but ultimately, he was a nerd at heart. And that’s how he got Uncle Jack and Lydia: he out-nerded them, using his scientific knowledge to bring them down. In fact, this is how he brought down nearly every antagonist in his way throughout the series, including Gus Fring.
7. Steal from—I mean, be inspired by—the best. Writer/creator Vince Gilligan admits the scene where Walt embraces Jesse rather than kills him is lifted right out of the classic Western movie The Searchers. The final scene where Walt takes down Uncle Jack and his gang could have been taken right out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. The scene of Walt rolling his barrel of money through the desert in the episode Ozymandias immediately put me in mind of Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent movie, Greed.
References to other works and making them unique to yours can add even more layers to your story. Plus, it just plain ups the cool factor.
Any other thought of what writers can take away from the final season of Breaking Bad? Let us know in the comments section!
- ‘Breaking Bad’: Vince Gilligan Shares 5 Alternate Endings (thewrap.com)
- ‘Breaking Bad’ finale: How it ended (popwatch.ew.com)
- Maureen Ryan: ‘Breaking Bad’ Goes Out With A Bang – And A Whimper (huffingtonpost.com)
- Saying Goodbye to Breaking Bad (heardanoise.wordpress.com)
5 thoughts on “7 Things Writers Can Learn From the Final Season of Breaking Bad”
The writers were really smart about wrapping up a number of important threads. I’m glad we got that final scene with Jesse and Walt. And how sweet was the ricin in Lydia’s tea? #2 on your list … Jesse driving off, breaking through the gates, doesn’t get much cathartic than that. 😉
Agree on all counts–especially the final images of Jesse! It gave the audience something to cheer, other than the deaths of the bad people.
I appreciate this post so much – the advice for writers, the Breaking Bad, and the style of writing.
Number 1 never fails to be true.
And Number 4, I completely forgot about Huell, haha! But as far as Jesse, didn’t he go on to a life of woodworking? In a previous episode he had mentioned woodworking as an example of what he’d do instead of cooking. That golden-lit moment of box-making in “Felina” was a glimpse into his future, no? Prior to “Felina,” interviewers asked Vince Gilligan for clues, and he said, one word: woodwork.
I think you may be on to something with Jesse and the woodworking! I like to think that Jesse moved on and was living a good and productive life.
Thanks so much for your comment!