Breaking Bad Gives You an Out, Do You Take It?
Something I enjoy putting in almost all of my fiction writing is an "out." An out is, as one may expect, an opportunity to escape a situation. In The Subliminal Hand, the protagonist, Daniel Jenkins, has an encounter with another character who rather violently implores him to give up his mission. In the following scene, a broken Daniel returns home and has a bath and shave. I leave it up to you to consider what this signifies, but I know what it means to me. Daniel is offered an out, and I believe he is considering it. Nevertheless, midway through his shave, things go awry, and his out becomes trickier. Compared with the drama of the surrounding scenes, this scene seems like an unneeded pause, but, in fact, it's the most critical (and personal) moment in the story: the simple decision Daniel makes in it will govern the rest of his life.
The out is an important mechanic, not just for a character, but the reader (or viewer, et al.), as well. This bathroom scene is also important for you, because you're also being offered a chance to quit. From this point, you can believe two things: that he will quit, or that he will continue. The results of these two things are also up to you. So, if you quit, you can believe that whatever happens next will be great and the bad guys will fail and everyone will be happy. Or not. It's up to you. But, if you choose to continue, then you're putting all of those beliefs and wants in the story's hands, and conceding that whatever happens next, that will be what happens. Those beliefs and those wants will be nothing, and what will happen, will happen.
As Daniel places his life in his choice, you place your enjoyment (or not) or enthrallment (or not) in the story in your choice. Daniel's fate, as far as you are concerned, is tied to the choice you make during the bathroom scene. You will choose whether he succeeds or fails.
Well, all of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I recently watched the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. If you've watched it, too, you may realise why I found immense enjoyment in it. Warning: spoilers forthcoming, but surely you've seen it already? With the fifth season being the last, Vince Gilligan gave the end of the fourth season a conclusion that is, really, as happy as we could have hoped for. Enemies have been vanquished, families are safe, and the loose ends that remain untied at present seem irrelevant. After so long, Walter has achieved that for which he has striven. With his freedom and health, and his family's safety and security, what more remains? It's a perfect ending.
So, what's the problem? Well, it seems the show has shot its wad prematurely. It's a perfect ending, and yet, it's occurring whilst another season remains. What is clear (and I am assuming, because I've yet to see anything beyond the finale for the reasons stated in this article) is that Gilligan is setting you up for the final season, but what I prefer to discuss is the out the show has provided. What more than the characters' safety and security could we want from the end of the show? Presumably, wealth and power, but let's believe that they no longer desire them. What we're left with, then, is a high point from which things can only descend, and instead of leaving us with a cliffhanger, Gilligan has left us with something much more powerful: choice. At the end of this season, we're being given the opportunity to quit, while we can believe that everything will turn out great.
As far as I (the viewer) know, everything is fine. I don't know what happens next, I just know how things are now, and if I quit now, that is how it will remain. Walter's family will be safe and secure, he will no longer have cancer, and he will be free. What more can I want? I can believe that the fifth season will be a high comedy about Walter's high jinks as the owner of a carwash, the most violence he faces being the force of water blowing apart the soap suds atop windshields. I can believe that he will return to cooking (of that kind), but this time learn from his mistakes and get by without a scratch. I can believe that he won't learn from his mistakes, but nevertheless ascend to be the most powerful drug lord in the world, and live to die a quiet, dignified death beside his grandchildren.
Or, I can continue, and live with the knowledge that all that I want for this story will be for naught: it will be in the unreliable hands of Walter White and his family and friends.
Whether they mean it or not, the makers of Breaking Bad have created a dynamic that leaves viewers with a powerful, but likely fruitless, temptation. The opportunity to leave now, while things are as rosy as they've been for years, is perfect. Gilligan has opened the door for his audience, and invited them to leave without repercussions. But he knows us. We're not going to leave. The purpose, then, is simple: by staying, the choice of what happens next is ours. Only doom follows, and by staying to witness it, we have condoned it. However it ends, whatever heartbreak, breathless twist, and infuriating result, we can always come back to this moment and remember that we had a chance to escape it. We had better plans for Walter White and Daniel Jenkins, but our own needs to see it end took priority. However it ends, Season 5 is on us.
Cover image: "Walt & Jesse from Breaking Bad" by Mike Mitchell, https://www.hdwallpapers.net/digital-art/walt-and-jesse-from-breaking-bad-wallpaper-275.htm, CC BY-SA 3.0.