Deciding when to end a book (or a TV show) isn’t easy. As a devoted fan of Breaking Bad, I’ve been really interested in how they planned to shut that series down. That’s the challenge for all of us who tell stories: knowing the right time to end the story, to wrap things up without overdoing it.
It made me think about one of the criticisms of my book, The Beggar’s Opera, which was that it went on long after it needed to. Like the writers of Breaking Bad, I wanted to tie up loose ends. After watching Granite State last night, I can see that there are times when it’s better to leave them alone.
At the end of Ozymandias, Walt was sitting by the side of the road, waiting for the red van to pick up him and up and take him to his new identity. Jesse was enslaved; Hank was dead. The Nazis had Walt’s money. The family was broken, fractured. Whatever happened afterwards would never put things back together.
If the series had ended there, we might never have known what identity Walt assumed, or what happened to Skyler, but it didn’t matter: we knew enough. That episode was action-packed, jaw-dropping: the kind of brilliant television that makes you gasp.
But by not making that one the last instalment in the story, I think the writers have created new loose ends, and now they only have one episode left to wrap things up. I have that sense that it doesn’t matter what they do, the feeling will be one of disappointment.
We knew everything we needed to know at the end of Ozymandias; our imagination could fill in the rest. Ozymandias was the logical end-point to the story: it was a brilliant, intense, emotionally exhausting. Everything since plays as unneeded epilogue.
For example, what was the point of the writers deciding that Walt’s new identity required him to live alone in an isolated cabin and never interact with the people in the nearby town? What is the purpose of having a new name and new papers if you’re never allowed to use them?
Jesse tries to escape and gets caught. What happens next doesn’t really advance the plot. We already knew how ruthless Todd was; another body adds nothing to our sense of horror at his polite psychopathology. Walt, Jr. hates his father and wishes he was dead? We pretty much knew that by the end of Ozymandias, too. Skyler’s in trouble with the DEA and struggling to get by? No surprise there.
There’s not much that I can see revealed in a final episode that’s going to add to what we found out in Ozymandias. It’s going to be a useful lesson for all of us who write to watch this series and see what we think when it’s finally over, as to whether the writers pulled it off or went a step too far.
“It’s going to be apocalyptic,” Anna Gunn told reporters at the Emmies last night. I hope that’s not so. The series deserves better than a final bloodbath. The beauty of Ozymandias was that it told us there are no happy endings in this tragic tale, and that’s really all we needed to know.