In case you haven't heard, Breaking Bad is ending. But the conversation surrounding how it's ending, and what will happen, and who will do what where and why has just begun. Discussing the mortal coil of a television series—especially the breed of rich, novelistic ones begat by shows like The Sopranos—has become the 21st-century equivalent of a literary parlor game. In the days when broadcast networks ruled the Earth (at least in America), they stopped making new episodes of TV shows for pragmatic reasons, like the core audience drifting away or fewer people tuning in or because, in some rare cases, the success of the show and the growing celebrity of the people involved made it either too expensive or too difficult to continue. Back then, shows, for the most part, just ended. There were finales—and some very memorable ones—but the conventional wisdom when it came to TV was that it was better to stay at the party an hour too long than leave a minute early. The notion that someone would either choose to end a show or premeditate its ending months or years in advance was about as alien as the idea that a company that sent little envelopes filled with DVDs from your "queue" to your house would one day have its own shows and begin to compete for creative talent with the networks and cable channels.
Television, though, has changed. In many ways, it has gotten better, stealing some of the cultural clout and thunder that movies once held, as actors, directors, writers, and producers are lured by the pyscho-sexual promises of time and space to tell more idiosyncratic stories and create deeper, more complex characters. The blight of the networks—fragmenting audiences—has also had the surprisingly pleasant effect of dissuading the makers of TV shows from trying to court great, modernist masses by being all things to all people. There are now niches that have been uncovered and named and numbered, and within these niches, there are audiences, and by finding these audiences, shows are connecting with people who engage with them in a more direct and intense way.
Having a successful show is no easier than it has ever been—because of the sheer volume of channels and programming out there, as well as things such as Netflix and DVR and online viewing, it might be even harder. But if you're lucky enough, as a maker of TV, to have managed to scale the particular mountain of having a hit series, then, another, perhaps more complicated, set of creative problems awaits you. There are suddenly expectations to be addressed and delicate balancing acts to be performed, as the various demands of networks, audiences, actors, crews, and critics—as well as the very real, always-pressing needs to keep viewership up and money flowing—come into play. But even once you've managed to navigate those shark-, piranha-, and unidentified sea-monster-infested waters, and your show begins to approach its natural conclusion—or opportunities for conclusion begin to emerge—there are still other questions to consider. How will your show, as a discrete body of work, be viewed by history? What will its legacy be? Will the creative rope appear taut from beginning to end? Will it hold up under binge viewing?
Another question that surely arises now for a certain species of creator/showrunner is: What must David Chase have been thinking? Chase, of course, created The Sopranos, and to the delightful amazement of some and unabated ire of others, finished its run with a scene that ended with shot of the late James Gandolfini in a diner, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' " blaring on a table-set jukebox, and abruptly, inexplicably, cut mid-scene and mid-song to black. Some people have said that the ending of The Sopranos destroyed the entire series for them—the unbearably heavy star atop a Christmas tree that causes the whole thing to topple over. Others routinely use the ending as an example of—and even justification for—the show's brilliance. But the widespread divisiveness that the final scene inspired points both to the way in which an ending can become the window through which individuals view the run of a series and the high level of investment that people now have in shows like The Sopranos—as well as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Homeland, Dexter, Game of Thrones, True Blood, The Walking Dead, The Killing, House of Cards, and other serial dramas currently in medias res (or about to conclude).
Unlike novelists or filmmakers, people who make television don't have the luxury of knowing how the story ends before it begins—and they often don't even know when they are in the middle of telling it. Ending a series is a fraught endeavor that can be as much about closure as it can be about open-endedness or leaving the door ajar for a reunion or a movie. In the era of binge-viewing, the ending becomes even more important, lest you, as creator/showrunner, are prepared to spend the rest of your life having people rise from their couches on Sunday nights, wall-eyed and wonky, to offer reader-response-like critiques of the series that you spent years slaving over via Twitter (or equivalent): "Just watched ALL of [insert show] this weekend. I can't believe 112 hours for this sh*t!?!"
With the highly anticipated series finale of Breaking Bad set to air later this month, we assembled the show's executive producer, Vince Gilligan, along with Six Feet Under and True Blood creator Alan Ball, and two of the prime movers behind Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, for a little inside TV talk about making television in this goldening age, wrestling with expectations, and the very difficult, quasi-existential task of ending it all.
DAMON LINDELOF: Vince does not experience fear.
VINCE GILLIGAN: I'm already scared.
ALAN BALL: Vince, have you already wrapped the final episode?
GILLIGAN: Oh, yeah. We're done. We finished mixing the final episode about two weeks ago.
CARLTON CUSE: Was it emotional for you?
GILLIGAN: Oh, god, yeah. It's just been a series of emotions, as I'm sure it was for all of you guys. It's weird how with a TV show, you don't have just the one ending—you have the many. You have the last script where you write "The End." You have the last day of production. You have the last day of editing. You have the last day of mixing ...
CUSE: It's just a lot of good-byes. For Damon and I, there were sort of five different iterations of it when we inished Lost. There was finishing the script and finishing the editing, but then also going to do the musical scoring was incredibly emotional, as was locking the final episode, and then having the premiere party, which was the last thing. So we were definitely wrung out emotionally by the time we'd finished all of those events. Did you have that happen with Six Feet Under as well, Alan?
BALL: I did, but with our show, it didn't really happen in the final episode because a major character died three episodes prior to that, so everybody on the show was portraying grief at the same time that we were all grieving this thing coming to an end. People were just crying all over the place. Actually, I wrote the final episode up at my place in Arrowhead, where I'd gone with two of my dogs, and I started crying like a baby as I was writing it. These two dogs were just staring at me like, "What's wrong? Did we do something bad?"
LINDELOF: It must have been amazing for you, though, because by the design of the finale of Six Feet Under, it almost felt like everybody got a curtain call in this very specific way. It's interesting because, a lot of times, you're shooting out of sequence—and for us, the finale was no different, so the last scene of the show was not the last thing that we shot. It felt strange because we'd just blown our emotional wad and yet we then had to sort of travel back in time and do this other scene that comes earlier.
GILLIGAN: We did not shoot the last scene last on Breaking Bad either. But I, too, was crying at the end of writing that last episode ... Writing that last paragraph, typing out the words "The End," I started tearing up.
CUSE: It's pretty profound to do something like a series. It's a real life passage, and it connects with these several hundred people who have lived through it, too. There are sort of two parallel worlds on a series: there's the fictional world that you've created, but then there's also this other world that you've created, which is the world of the several hundred people who work on the show, and you're ending their family life, in a sense, as well by ending the show, so it has this reverberation. There were people who met and got married on Lost and completely upended their lives—people who went to Hawaii and stayed. So the show had a profound influence on the actual lives of not just us who were writing it, but all of these other people who were making the show for six years. It was very emotional to know all of these relationships and the kind of intensity of working together day after day was going to go away.
LINDELOF: Just for the sheer sake of avoiding the obvious sentimentality that I feel even talking about this, when we wrote the words "The End" at the end of Lost, I felt all of the emotions that you guys are describing. The one, though, that I remember feeling the most intensely was relief. I didn't realize how much weight I had been carrying until I put it down.
GILLIGAN: I think I experienced that at the end of the last mix on the final episode of Breaking Bad. My best guess is that I felt it at, like, 12:30 or one o'clock in the morning or whenever we finished up that last mix over at Warner Bros. And then you're leaving—you're driving out of the studio, leaving the lot, trying to find your way through these cavernous canyons between the giant sound stages. Before that night came, I would have these fears. I would think, Gee, if I get hit by a car today, how much of this show will I have been able to shepherd through the end?
LINDELOF: I was always hoping that somebody would run me over multiple times. It would be like The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
CUSE: I think with Lost, we were acutely aware that there was no possible way we were going to make everybody happy, so we decided the only viable solution was to make ourselves happy. It was this mystery show, and doing 121 hours of it required not just one mystery but laying mystery upon mystery. When we got to the end, yes, there were unanswered questions. But we started talking about, "Well, if you try to answer all those questions, then you end up with an ending that's just didactic and unemotional and unengaging." So we basically veered in the other direction and said, "We're going to make an emotional ending, and we're going to resolve these stories the way that we feel they should be resolved, and we'll take the consequences of that because that's the ending we believe in."
GILLIGAN: I think that for me, as far as audience expectations and how you manage your anxiety, it helps to keep things in perspective. I look at Lost and it was a phenomenon—but it was like a British Open-sized phenomenon. Breaking Bad is more like a putt-putt golf-sized phenomenon.
BALL: Not remotely.
GILLIGAN: Well, listen, I'm proud as hell of the fact we managed to stay on the air for five years with as small of a subset of viewers as we have, but I look to people like you guys and I say to myself, "Now, that is a phenomenon ..." What you've all dealt with is a lot of pressure. I try to sort of trick myself by saying, "Well, you know, not that many people relative to the size of the population of the U.S. are paying that close attention to Breaking Bad." But nonetheless, you have a lot of sleepless nights. I'm sure we all do. Alan, did it feel that way with Six Feet Under?
BALL: Well, we didn't really have that big of an audience either. We certainly didn't have an audience like Lost. But I think by the time we were ending Six Feet Under, I was just tired and I wasn't really paying attention to what people were saying. I didn't think that many people cared because, again, we didn't have that large of an audience during the last couple of seasons. I'd also stopped reading stuff that people wrote about me or about any show that I was working on a long time ago because I just don't have the emotional fortitude to wade through it without it making me crazy. So I really was not that aware of any expectations. That was a choice—and maybe that was a cowardly choice. But it was the choice I made.
GILLIGAN: I don't think that's cowardly—I think that's wise. I stay away from the internet as much as I can. Except for pornography.
LINDELOF: As Carlton knows well, I dip my toe, if not my entire body, into the internet waters way too often for my own good. That said, to go back to the question of expectations, it's interesting because, in hindsight, it almost feels like the final season, if not the final episode, really is just a lens on the feelings of the audience as a whole—it's basically a focal point. It's not like the final season or the final episode is really going to change anyone's mind in terms of how they feel about a show, but there are opportunities at the end of something like that to transcend expectations and make a lot of noise. I mean, I was a couple seasons behind on Six Feet Under and I didn't watch the final two seasons until maybe two or three months after the finale aired, but it felt like everyone that I knew and respected was saying "Oh my god, did you see that last episode of Six Feet Under?" It suddenly created this tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm in me to see it. I also feel like, with everything that I hear about Breaking Bad right now, there's an enormous amount of positivity and faith going into it—all of it well-earned. But I'm also starting to see on AMC just the marketing machine saying, like, "This is all leading to the awesomest ..." There is this feeling that the ending has just got to be extraordinary—that anything less than the perfect dive will not be acceptable—and it's both thrilling to say, "Wow, my show is so good that it's earned that level of expectation," but it's also slightly terrifying to have to be the one on the end of the diving board. Personally speaking, with Lost, it was somewhat of a comfort for us to know that there was already a certain degree of cynicism coming at us in terms of, "Well, there's nothing you can really do in your finale that's going to change my opinion of your show."
had no idea how it would end. I had assumed that Nate would die because that seemed built into the premise. But I didn't really know. —alan ball
GILLIGAN: People were saying that? People love Lost! Or was it that same subset of people on the internet who are antagonistic about everything?
BALL: Yeah, the trolls.
CUSE: You know, I think it's funny because on my Twitter feed, there are people every day who are watching Lost on DVD or Netflix, and there are just so many positive comments about how people love the show and the ending. It has kind of become this thing to rag on it, but honestly, in my heart, I believe that it is really a small subset of people who just make a lot of noise because negativity makes a lot of noise on the internet. A very small group of people sounds big in that context.
LINDELOF: It has felt bigger than a subset to me. It wasn't just trolls who were doing it—it was television critics who I appreciate and admire. There was also George R.R. Martin. When a reporter asked him about the ending of Game of Thrones, which was still three books away at the time, he said, "What if I fuck it up at the end? What if I do a Lost?" He also said he felt like the ending of Lost was like someone leaving a big turd on his doorstep. That was the hurtful part because there is an implication that everyone knows what you mean by "do a Lost," and by his definition, it meant basically taking a shit on the doorstep of the audience, which we'd never do ... I mean, we talked about it. [all laugh] But we never followed through.
GILLIGAN: That's unfortunate. I can't imagine ...
LINDELOF: He loves Breaking Bad, though.
GILLIGAN: Until I take a shit on his doorstep.
BALL: I think we all know what we're doing tonight! [all laugh]
CUSE: Well, I did go up to him at this Time 100 dinner and he kind of backed down when confronted with someone who is a real person. I'm also twice as big as he is, so that was probably also a factor. But Game of Thrones operates on a very different sort of storytelling mechanism ... I mean, when you've done 121 hours, let's see how you feel about ending your show. It's not an easy thing to do. We did the version that we wanted to do, and I hope that people will respect that.
GILLIGAN: I thought it was a beautifully emotional ending.
BALL: Me, too. I really liked it.
GILLIGAN: And I've said this before and I'll keep saying it, because I've done network TV: When you think about what you have to do in network TV versus cable, I always think of that old expression that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did except backwards and in high heels. I mean, to do a show that's as good as Lost or The Good Wife when you have to do twice as many episodes a year ... I remember that network grind of doing 24, 25, 26 episodes a season.
BALL: It's heroic.
GILLIGAN: But I don't think such good work gets done versus what's on cable. I love cable, but not because you can show boobies and say the F-word. I love it because you have more time to think. That's the blessing of it.
CUSE: It's so much better. You don't realize it until you've left that world how many aspects of network television kind of conspire against quality and success. In cable, you do have time to be more thoughtful, and there's this entirely different approach to the storytelling process.
LINDELOF: I'm working in cable with HBO now, and we're just in the pilot phase, but if they pick up the show, then the big debate is whether to do 10 episodes or 13 episodes—both of which are 11 or 12 less than we did on Lost at our high point. It sounds so good—it makes me want to cry. So I do feel, as Vince said, that when you're doing that many episodes, just in terms of the speed at which the conveyor belt is moving and Lucy and Ethel are having to do what they do, it's amazing that everything doesn't result in cataclysm. And this is nothing against my colleagues who are in broadcast TV, but why anybody would want to do that when given the choice ...
CUSE: Another aspect of it is that all of us have been involved in shows that I think are really more stories than franchises, and with that kind of show, you want to know what the end point is. If you do a more traditional cop show or a medical show like Grey's Anatomy, then you can always have new doctors and new patients coming in. But in the case of something like Bates Motel, there's an end to the story. You know that Norman Bates is going to become some version of the guy that we all know from the movie and that his mother is probably not going to have a very good fate. There were always certain kinds of contrivances that were a part of television that the audience accepted—most notably, that you had to have very clean-cut heroes who didn't do bad things. But now, that has gone away. You have an audience that is utterly compelled right now to see what happens to Walter White—not exactly a good guy. And then there was also this idea that television should just be this open-ended experience, which was another contrivance that is going away. As a storyteller, whether you're writing a TV series or a novel or a play, your story has a beginning, middle, and end. The audience deserves the end and they also deserve to know when they're going to get it—and that, for us on Lost, became a huge part of it. As people started getting invested in Lost, there was this palpable fear of that kind of contrivance of television, which is that it's open-ended—like, "How are we going to invest in this thing? It's not going to end well. How much time do we have to put in? Where is it going to go?" But we knew very early on that we really wanted to end the show. Of course, that was a complete anathema to everyone at ABC, because that wasn't how television was done—it was more like the Pony Express, where you ride the horse until it drops dead beneath you. So we really had to threaten to quit and walk away from the show in order to get them to take us seriously and actually engage in negotiation.
LINDELOF: And this was all happening around the middle of the third season which, if memory serves, was around the same time The Sopranos was ending. But with the exception of maybe Friends and Seinfeld, both of which were enormously popular comedies that went off the air with huge ratings and could have continued, dramas just weren't going off that way. The way that they ended was usually more a by-product of, "Well, your audience is slipping away ..." So when Carlton and I were finally told, "You're going to get to end this thing three years from now," it felt like a huge victory for us. It's funny, too, because we also both thought the ending of The Sopranos was the greatest thing that we'd ever seen. We'd been talking about it all week—we just were completely and totally creatively enlivened by it. Then we went to New York for some conference that the head of ABC marketing made us do. It was a Q&A moderated by Matt Roush, who is TV Guide's leading critic. So we were talking to him about how much we loved The Sopranos finale and he said, "Well, there's a lot of divisiveness about The Sopranos finale. In fact, many of the most diehard fans feel that the finale retroactively ruined the entire series for them." Carlton and I looked at each other and in that moment felt like, "Oh my god, what have we done?"—like, "How can this thing not be empirically realized as brilliant?" Some people apparently felt like the cut to black at the end of The Sopranos was robbing them or cheating them or anything other than what your interpretation of that might be. But anybody who said that a single episode could retroactively ruin the brilliance that had preceded it was just a complete and total moron in my estimation. It also made me realize that we were going to be experiencing the same thing—and lo and behold, we have. Divisiveness really haunted our show from the word "go." It does feel like one of the good things about having a smaller audience in a cable space is that you can just let the show be what it is. It's not like we were writing Lost to pander to the masses, but with the idea of 20 million people watching the show when it first started, there was a sense of, "They're not all going to stick around when we start the time-travel stuff." I'm hard-pressed, though, to think that somebody watched the third season of Six Feet Under or Breaking Bad and didn't stay all the way until the end. So it does feel—at least in the pop-culture bubble—like there's a much higher sense of consensus about the awesomeness of those shows and, like, your endgames, even though the Breaking Bad finale hasn't aired yet. Whereas the consensus opinion—whether it's a small but vocal subset or not—is that the Lost finale was highly divisive.
GILLIGAN: You know, the pitch I always gave to the companies when I started the process of trying to sell Breaking Bad—and it has become a bit of a cliché now—but I would say that I was going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. I abided by that. And I had six excellent writers who signed on for that—and thank goodness, Bryan Cranston, and all the actors who did, too—and we all abided by that throughout the run of the series. We knew that we'd take the good guy and turn him into the bad guy, but you guys have seen it already—anyone who has watched the show has seen Walter White get pretty bad up to this point. But it's got to end. It's finite. Within the mechanism of Breaking Bad, just like within the mechanism of Bates Motel, there is not an end date, but a feeling of finiteness to the universe—which can be a very good thing, although it does go counter to the way that television has historically worked. As Carlton was saying, television has always been designed by its very nature to be open-ended because you just want to milk that cow until it shrivels up and dies. But what we came to was very much an organically derived ending—be it good or bad—and I'm hoping it'll be satisfying to as many people as possible. It's funny, but if the feeling was that Lost had a divisive ending, then I nonetheless wonder if every ending of every TV show in a post-internet world is going to be pronounced as potentially divisive. When M*A*S*H ended back in 1983, there was no internet yet, but I remember digging it—I remember loving the ending. There were probably people, though, who weren't happy with the ending to M*A*S*H, but it was before you could instantly log on to a computer and say, "That sucked!" So I wonder if there is going to be an element of divisiveness to every TV show ending, as it were, going forward.
BALL: Well, it certainly seems to me that there are a lot of people who like to go on the internet and trash everything, which was one of the reasons I stopped reading things. It does seem like the anonymity of it makes a lot of people just really love to go on there and be extremely negative. Which is also great, in a way, because it means that people are that invested—
CUSE: Wait till you see the comments that come out for this article. [all laugh]
GILLIGAN: But it's a double-edged sword, isn't it? I'm not a big internet guy either—not because I'm not interested in what people have to say, but probably because I'm too interested. I'm neurotic enough that if I start reading, it'll be like eating potato chips—I'll never be able to disengage. But on the other hand, god bless the internet because I don't know that our show would have lasted more than a season without it—the internet and on-demand and all these technologies that exist now that have allowed like-minded people to find Breaking Bad and to catch up with it once they found it ... I do have to say, though, one of the great things about the ending of M*A*S*H that I realized in trying to deconstruct it years later as an adult who now does this for a living, is that it wasn't surprising. The ending was built into the very nature and structure of the show from day one. Episode one of M*A*S*H, you meet these people, and all they want to do is go home, so the very last episode is them going home.
LINDELOF: Not Klinger, though. Klinger stays! That's the brilliance.
GILLIGAN: That was brilliant, yes. But I think about Six Feet Under in that sense, too. Implicit in the structure of that show was the idea of the end of a life—which is, in fact, built so beautifully into the final episode. These characters you've been following, and seeing what happens to them and what their final passages are, when it happens, the particulars of it ... There's something to be said, I guess, for the nonsurprise ending, the destined or fated ending that's built into the whole idea of the construct.
BALL: I have to admit, when I was younger, I watched situation comedies more than I watched dramas, so I remember the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I really loved, and this was even a little later, but the ending of the second [Bob] Newhart show, where it was all a dream and he wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette ... I thought that was pretty great.
GILLIGAN: That was great.
CUSE: In a very surreal echo of that, we were invited to go on Jimmy Kimmel and be in a skit with Bob Newhart, who was in bed with Evangeline Lilly, and then they cut to Damon and I in bed. That was the most surreal experience that surrounded us, where we wound up reenacting the Newhart ending.
GILLIGAN: What was Bob Newhart like? Was he cool?
LINDELOF: He was exactly the Bob Newhart you want him to be.
BALL: Right before Six Feet Under, I'd created a sitcom for ABC that was pretty much universally loathed and reviled. It got canceled after the first 13 episodes. I was so depressed. Carolyn Strauss of HBO had already pitched me the idea of doing a show at a family-run funeral home, and I just did not want to go back into the sitcom world, so I wrote Six Feet Under on spec. I didn't develop it with HBO or anything—I just wrote it over Christmas vacation and I came back and called them and said, "You know that show you pitched? I wrote it." Thankfully, they liked it, but I have to admit, I had no idea how it would end. I had assumed that Nate would die because that seemed built into the premise. But I didn't really know. I just tried to open as many doors as I could. I had an idea of what David's story was for the first season, but I had only done sitcoms up to that point, so I'd never really created a dramatic show. Luckily, I worked with some really fantastic writers. I was also interested in how much of the show became about art and wanting to be an artist. That certainly wasn't something that I'd planned.
GILLIGAN: I feel like so many of the things that I have wound up loving from this experience on Breaking Bad are things that I didn't come up with. The collaborative nature of TV is such that if you're lucky enough to surround yourself with really good people in front of and behind the lens, then the character that you've conceived of in a sense stops being yours—and that's not a bad thing. It can actually be a very good thing and a very liberating thing. I bear responsibility for Walter White, but not complete ownership of or responsibility for him. Bryan Cranston has a big share in him, too, and my other writers have a big share in him. Then odd coincidences and circumstances and things with actor availability and locations and all these weird vagaries of production life also all add up to what the show becomes. There's something wonderful about that. It's like that old expression: "Men plan and god laughs." You sort of see that in the television world, where you have an idea where things are heading and you have a plan and sort of start off in that general direction, but you wind up taking all these side paths and whatnot—if you're lucky. I feel like we've all been very lucky.
LINDELOF: In addition to the collaborative nature of the writing process and how the actors and the directors interpret things, the studio and the network may also be subtly creatively guiding the show themselves—or by their own laissez-faire attitude, letting it blossom and grow. But the thing that is almost impossible to explain to someone who hasn't done this is that the show itself begins to form its own identity and to do things that surprise you as if it has its own consciousness. With Lost, the show itself would reject ideas that we were trying to force into it almost in the way that a body rejects an organ that is of a different blood type. I mean, it would be great to portray ourselves as these visionaries, where Lost would not have survived without us and that we guided it entirely. But the deeper into it we got, the more it actually felt like the show was talking to us and we were trying to interpret what it was saying. Lost was such a mysterious show that it became beholden to a certain level of scrutiny in terms of how all of these mysteries are going to be resolved. Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad—these shows have existential and thematic characteristics to them that are almost impossible to quantify, but it's why they garner so much attention. I think to just say that Breaking Bad is about a chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth because he believes that he has a short period of time to live and he wants to provide for his family is the worst possible log line ever to describe the show that I've been watching for the past five or six years. To say that Six Feet Under is about a family that owns a funeral parlor is so reductive. The Wire is not a television show about cops trying to take down drug dealers. That's the format of that show, but that's not what it's about. These shows are so rich that you can come at them from 50 different angles and that's why they persevere. I think the idea that television has evolved to this place of real thematic richness and the fact that you no longer have to get 10 million people to watch your show in order to propagate its survival are the best things that have ever happened to storytelling in this medium.