Dialogue: Mario McKellop on Better Call Saul

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Better Call Saul aired its ten-episode first season this spring. The show, a spinoff from Breaking Bad with Bob Odenkirk in the title role, earned a warm critical reception and was renewed for a second season even before it aired.

Saul‘s first season seemed a great point for discussion. To do it justice, I spoke with TV critic Mario McKellop, who was amazingly generous with his time and thoughts.

What follows is our back-and-forth. And for fair warning, spoilers abound for both the first season and Breaking Bad.

Eric (EM):   At their start, spin-offs have to strike a careful balance. On the one hand, they have to stake out their own identity. Maybe more importantly, they have to show that they’re staking out their own identity. Even before they’re sure what kind of show they are, or want to be, they have to define themselves through some separation from their predecessor.

At the same time, spin-offs have to provide comfort and signal familiarity. They’re asking audiences to place trust in a new premise, and to justify this they have to show that they can deliver again what they used to be selling.

I think Better Call Saul approaches this balance by going for familiar technique and different concerns. The sensibility is the same for the things that most made Breaking Bad feel like Breaking Bad: shifting chronology, the comfort with long scenes and uneven structures, the commitment to treating television compositions like cinema, and treating the smaller scale less like a budget imposition and more like a spur to creativity.

But for all the familiarity in presentation, the interests here seem remarkably different. Nothing about the show feels like it has an organizing “hook” in the way Breaking Bad always did. The plan feels far less determined. And to the extent it’s interested in questions of character, it seems driven far more by the internal than by the external. Jimmy is less a predefined anchor figure and more a point-of-view character, even if we come to know quite a lot about him. What exactly the show is trying to put into view, though, seems far less murky and subtle than Mr. Chips to Scarface.

Did you feel like the first episodes were directing themselves more to new viewers, or to Breaking Bad fans? And do you think it struck a balance in what it was trying to do?

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Mario (MM):   In answer to your first question, I think Better Call Saul is aimed at Breaking Bad fans, and if other people come along for the ride, that’s great. The show’s first episode lays out a foundation for the series in the way most TV pilots do. You get to know Jimmy and the world he inhabits, you’re introduced to his brother Chuck and the presumably series spanning question about whether or not Jimmy can turn over a new leaf. If you’ve never seen a single episode of Breaking Bad, I think you could get through most of the first episode without having to consult Wikipedia.

The thing is, all of that stuff is secondary to the big question the show poses for long-time fans, which is how did Jimmy McGill become Saul Goodman. The sad, conflicted guy we see in Better Call Saul is so different from the boisterous, all-in consigliere we know from Breaking Bad that you just have to keep watching to find out what happened to precipitate such a drastic change. And since we know where the character ends up in, we also have to wonder what happens to the show’s supporting cast, most of whom would be horrified to see the man Jimmy will inevitably become.

Also, if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, would the opening episode’s flash forward make any sense? Would the big reveal at the end of the first episode or the middle of the desert showdown in the second episode have any impact if you weren’t familiar with Tuco? I think the show provides enough context as to not be inscrutable to new viewers, but it works best if you already know the world. The fact that a show called Better Call Saul follows a character named Jimmy suggests that its producers know that the series is playing to a preexisting audience.

I think a lot of the show’s appeal lies with how it fills in the blanks. We know that Mike comes to work for Saul, but we didn’t know how that relationship came to be. We also know that Saul is familiar with Gus, but weren’t didn’t know how he got entangled in New Mexico’s drug trade.

In that way, Better Call Saul operates similarly to the Star Wars prequels in that it fills in details that were only alluded to in the original series, despite being very different in tone. Over time, Saul may define itself outside of Breaking Bad, but as of its first season, it’s a subordinate work. That’s not say that the show is bad. It’s very well-crafted and Bob Odenkirk and the rest of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Better Call Saul is one of the better fill-in-the-blanks properties to come down the pike in a long while.

Do you think the show is overly reliant on Breaking Bad references? And is Jimmy McGill a compelling character right out of the gate, or does it take you some time to warm up to him?

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EM:   So far, I don’t think the show’s relying too much on Breaking Bad references. I’d be worried if the show provided moments that depend for their resonance on call-backs to BB moments or iconography, or if it had turned out to be a season-long exercise in laying Easter Eggs. Your point about the title, though, settles any argument about whether the show is operating, or even trying to operate, like an independent entity. Better Call Saul actually puts an interesting spin on an old convention: most major spin-offs feature the name of the spin-off character. Here it provides the most explicit tie back to the predecessor, and the most coherent organizing principle the show has going for it. It’s a reminder, and a promise, about where this is heading.

Even if BCS isn’t necessarily finding itself obscured in the shadow of Breaking Bad, though, having the older work in mind does have odd effects. So much of how Breaking Bad veterans read the show will be colored by what we know about where Jimmy ends up, and what he gets involved in. Those threads aren’t a direct presence, most of the time. But we know how things tend to go in this shared universe, and you’re right to key in on the embedded promise that most of what we’re seeing here is going to meet a decisive end. The major question I don’t think we can answer yet is whether it’s the same moral universe, as well, and what that will mean for our lead.

At the same time, there’s a lot of freedom here, even with the eventual intersection lying down the road. I always look to opening credits for what they can tell us about the status quo of a series, and BCS gives us a lot in a short time. Though it’s not the complete blank slate of the Lost credits (still the best choice Lindelof and Cuse ever made), it provides no constraint whatsoever on what kind of show this can evolve into, even tonally. (Compare Breaking Bad, which could never get away from chemistry/meth even amid the occasional gesture toward Walter or Jesse calling it quits). All BCS gives us is a sense of place, and a clever disarming of prestige intentions through the total lack of taste. I wouldn’t put it past Gilligan to be threading a narrative through the disconnected images (even if that’d be too much of a repeat of Breaking Bad‘s stuffed animal in the pool). But even if he doesn’t, it’s a chance to establish a certain VHS-decrepit milieu without boxing in the approach they can take.

Especially interesting, too, that our lead isn’t even in the credits. You asked about my impressions of him, and I don’t know how anyone could be rooting against the guy. He’s not a “difficult man” in the recent and famous fashion. To the extent a character like this is going to rub anyone the wrong way it would primarily be through incompetence. Yet the show does a fairly good job of establishing that Jimmy is relatively sharp and relatively adept. Combine that with the ready allegiance to an underdog, and that’s always going to be enough for a rooting interest. He’s not the smartest guy in the room, but he’s also got a backbone, and that’s enough.

Of course, I’d prefer the writers to veer away from him crossing lines of professional ethics and responsibility quite so consistently, which is probably just where I’m coming from. Arguably though there’s more fun to the storytelling when he stays inside the lines. Put another way, I find the frantic letter-writing in the bathroom more interesting than him agreeing to destroy a detective’ notes. But we’ll see where it goes.

The show also deserves real credit for keeping an interest throughout without much recourse either to sex or violence, a contrarian choice for a cable show to make. Our only real romance is a few half-hearted flirtations from Jimmy with Kim. And really the most violent things get is a few broken bones for the skateboard scam artists.

Except, of course, for “Five-O,” our little crime film, which has a real body count. The story felt like it was at the level of sophistication of one of the old Lost flashbacks. It’s well worth it for the incredible concluding monologue from Jonathan Banks. Some critics brought up the legitimate question of whether the episode works at all without trading on what we know about Mike from the old show; and certainly letting one character just talk at length felt all too familiar. For all that this felt like a more morose version of the already grim “Half Measuresspeech, though, the jarringly “parachuted in” aspect were the mortal consequences. I wonder if the writers, by focusing on Mike, fell into old patterns, and didn’t register that shooting people for the first time should really be a bigger deal relative to the tone of the show so far. Though I wonder if Saul‘s ability to keep our interest without lurid detail is in part because it can trade on a real level of off-screen menace the text of the thing hasn’t actually built on its own.

What did you think of “Five-O,” and do you think the first season has given us a sense of what is characteristic of this show? Did you come away with an episode or scene that most stood out for you? And seriously: how great is Jonathan Banks?

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MM:   Man, I love “Five-O.” I think it’s the best episode of the season that wasn’t written by one of the show’s creators. The Lost comparison you made is dead on. The best parts of that show were the genre-hopping flashbacks. It also reminded me of The X-Files, specifically the episodes of that show that weren’t focused on the alien conspiracy at all and had a very different tone than most other episodes in the season, like “Bad Blood” and “Hungry,” both of which were written by Vince Gilligan.

Though it has the same thematic underpinnings, “Five-O” doesn’t really feel like the rest of the series. For one thing, Jimmy not being the focus of the narrative means that everything’s much quieter. Most episodes of Better Call Saul are filled with verbiage and color, which is fitting as it reflects Jimmy as a character. In “Five-O,” there’s no small talk and it’s lit like a ‘70s film noir, which feels totally appropriate for Mike.

And as you mentioned, the violence in “Five-O” is unlikely anything else in the first season. Jimmy has a real aversion to violence; so it’s a big deal when Tuco brutalizes those skaters, but it’s just another part of life for Mike. I suspect that Jimmy coming to understand the utility of violence will be a big part of his transition into Saul. As we saw play out over six seasons of Breaking Bad, when you step outside the bounds of the law, you invite violence into your life.

Tone and visuals aside, “Five-O” fits right in with BCS thematically. Jimmy spends most of the first season desperately trying to prove he’s not the two-bit hustler he was and will inevitably become again. Mike spends it trying to walk on the straight and narrow, but he can only put off the inevitable for so long. Just as pride won’t let Jimmy play the part of the honest lawyer, Mike’s guilt draws him back into the same world of corruption and violence that got his son killed.

If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, “Five-O” probably doesn’t hit as hard, but it’s a devastating hour of television, even if you’ve never seen any of those characters before because Jonathan Banks is the man. He’s fantastic throughout the episode, but that ending monologue is why people make the argument that TV is better than film right now. It’s not true, but the way Banks’ voice cracks when he says “I broke my boy” will make you believe it anyway. My hope is that as BCS goes on, we get more episodes like ‘Five-O”, beautiful little one-offs that inform character rather than move the plot forward, but are essential to the narrative all then same.

Aside from all of “Five-O,” the scene that really sticks with me in BCS is the end of “Pimento.” The Mike stuff in that episode is too goofy for my taste, but the conversation Jimmy has with Chuck is heartbreaking. I figured that Chuck was behind Saul’s persona non grata status with HHM in “RICO,” but it was devastating to watch that reveal play out. For the first time, I really understood why he felt the need to turn his back on the idea of ever being a good man. I also think it’s Bob Odenkirk’s best moment on the show.

So, what do you think of Jimmy’s relationship to Chuck, and what do you think of Chuck as a character? Is all of his talk about the sacredness of the law real or is it a justification for his egotism?

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EM:   Even before anything Chuck was revealed to have done, I think BCS indicated that what Chuck was saying wasn’t anything the showrunners actually believed. The show didn’t commit the classic Sorkin sin of providing competing arguments their least compelling articulation, but mostly because there isn’t a worldview underlying his words that the writers has any investment in, whether to prove or rebut. Everything he advanced about law in general or his profession in particular was for telling us what he was like rather than signaling what the show cared about.

Nonetheless, what Chuck said and what he believes has a direct relationship to the most sincere statement the first season has to make. Chuck does have a certain integrity, though misplaced. And what’s really moving about that last stretch of “Pimento” and the final act of the season is that his judgment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He takes a dim view toward Jimmy’s character; Jimmy decides he’s right, and proves it. If Chuck had ever believed in Jimmy then he’d have never done the various things that validated his pessimism. It’s difficult to say Chuck is wrong, and you also can’t say what he did was right. That’s a complex and evocative place for the show to end up. And when the show conveying that message is a spin-off premised on the inevitability of a certain chain of events occurring, the self-fulfilling quality has a real resonance.

Even if I didn’t think the character quite worked as an argument, if he was one, I thought what McKean did with Chuck was fantastic, and I think he makes a really interesting foil for Jimmy. On a performer level the showrunners were smart to have found the rare character actor who can go toe-to-toe on intelligence with Odenkirk. But the villainous turn also deserves real credit for being something that the first half of the season really isn’t devoted to setting up. Then it becomes all too clear; though I wasn’t quite on the ball enough to realize it by “RICO,” by mid-“Pimento” the shape of what we were looking at was set. The show held a card, and waited to play it.

Now that they have, there’s no space for “sympathetic Chuck” left in the second season; he’s past our allegiance. In a way it reminds me of Tony’s mother on The Sopranos. Our thematic interlocutor has revealed a master scheme and alienated our lead, but is still left hanging around in the world of the show. It’ll be interesting whether the writers decide to just embrace the villainous turn or try to mitigate it; I do tend to think the first approach would work a lot better. The idea that this guy can serve as a conscience for Jimmy is a non-starter by now.

Attention to master-plotting, though, might not be the best way to take in this series, and your “X-Files” comparison gets better the more I think about it. “Monster of the week” versus “mythology” trade-offs are right at the heart of the twin masters this series is going to have to serve going forward. The only reason I’d question how relevant it is to Saul is not the creators’ intentions but the network’s imperatives. I have no clue whether AMC would ever allow the series enough space and rope for the writers to feel free to do the one-offs with any frequency. If anything they’re going to feel pressure to connect to Breaking Bad more and more, if and when cancellation approaches. In that sense there’s an odd inversion compared to X-Files, where the mythology episodes will feel, to this series, like detours and pauses, while the episodes focusing on what this series has carved out on its own will feel more organic.

“Pimento” is all sorts of interesting for that reason, too. It emerges quite naturally from BCS‘ own storytelling. But it lays the groundwork necessary for the end of the season, “Marco,” to really land. In most senses its conclusion, with Jimmy seeming to reject any redemptive aspect to the first season, felt abrupt. More a moment dictated by the series needing to continue rather than any narrative necessity internal to BCS‘ own storytelling. The effect, however, combined with “Pimento,” is to signal that other people’s expectations can frustrate even the best intentions. And though I don’t want to read the whole first season as a frustrated commentary on the limitations imposed on spin-offs, damn if that’s not an available takeaway for the cynical viewer.

Everything you say (accurately) about the sincere strength of “Five-O,” though, brings to mind what the fuss is about. If this is going to be a delivery mechanism for great scenes and a few standout episodes from a creative team we really love, isn’t Better Call Saul all upside? Is there anything this show could do that could really render it a failure, or worse, seriously hurt its predecessor? Or is this all a bonus round, and should we stay content with whatever wins it can scoop up before time runs out?

MM:   You made excellent points about how the show position’s Chuck’s betrayal and how he articulates his beliefs. Like Walter White’s increasingly unconvincing claims about staying in the drug business for his family, Chuck cut Jimmy’s legs out from under him because he’s ashamed of him and the idea that they might in any way be equals appalls him, not because of some need to protect the law. As opposed to Sorkin, Gilligan and Gould articulate their beliefs through object lessons in what not do. Interestingly, their lessons are often about the importance of honesty and the virtue of putting aside one’s pride to accept help, or put another way, how being a difficult man won’t save you.

As to your questions, I wouldn’t mind if Better Call Saul ends up being all bonus round. I’d love to see more of Mike careful outmaneuvering a range of people who never see him coming and I’d really be interested to see how he came to join Gus Fring’s organization. This isn’t information that would change my feelings about Breaking Bad one way or another, but I feel like there’s a potential in that particular piece of marginalia. I’d also be into watching a season of BCS that went full on Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and showed us what Saul was doing through over the course of Breaking Bad. For the sheer formal challenge of pulling something like that off, if nothing else.

Ultimately, we know where Jimmy is going, and while the process of how he got from point A to point B is interesting, I think people will start losing interest in the show if it’s just Jimmy feeling ambivalent about his amorality for years on end. For me, Breaking Bad went from engaging to must watch in the early part of the third season, when Walt really decided to go all in. The only thing that would really ruin the show for me is if we start seeing characters from the original show pop up all the time for no particular reason. I kind of feel that way about Tuco in the first season, but I can see how he could be woven into the narrative in a way that makes sense. But if Jimmy bumps into Walt at the car wash, I’ll start losing interest with a quickness.

So, now that we’ve identified one of Better Call Saul’s greatest strengths, let’s talk about weaknesses. I felt that Kim was a pretty underdeveloped character. Obviously, the show is about Jimmy, but almost all of the show’s other regular character had more to do than she did. I really liked the ambiguity of her character in the premiere, but after that she settled into a very underwritten, Skyler White sort of place. I don’t to paint Gilligan as some kind of Pizzolatto type because he wrote Scully very well and he obviously tried to course correct with Skyler near the end of Breaking Bad, but the guy seems to have something of a woman problem. I don’t know if it’s about not wanting to get something wrong or a Sorkin-esque blindness to his own deficiencies, but there’s something’s fundamentally wrong when most of the recurring characters have more of an arc than one of the leads. And though I dug the show’s refusal to do a case of the week procedural thing, I didn’t care for the Kettlemans.

What’s your take on Kim? What didn’t work for you this season? Were there any characters in the show that didn’t work for you, or even whole episodes?

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EM:   I think we line up in our sense of the mischief we’d like to show to get up to, what opportunities it might have; and, more pessimistically, what would move the whole exercise from interesting to embarrassing. Potential like that, I think, is evident in Kim. I’ll say this about her: though she’s underdeveloped, she hasn’t begun with glaring problems the show will have to fix. She’s a reserved character, but not necessarily passive, and she has an independent perspective. I didn’t hear any Skyler alarm bells when she showed up, or as the season progressed.

Which is a good thing with a Breaking Bad offshoot. I agree that Gilligan and his team never had a Pizzolatto problem, but it certainly had a problem in finding ways for its women characters to channel the show’s real strengths. It was more a failure of craft than a situation where I question the underlying attitude, but the failure to bring to bear the same care can become an underlying attitude, and the difference can prove academic in practice. The biggest problem was that Breaking Bad never really had a subtle woman character, and its real successes were those that leaned into broad strokes. Lydia worked great, but she was a concept and a comedic rhythm more often than not. I couldn’t say for sure, but Marie’s great moments were all laughs. And Skyler hardly ever got one, which just laid bare how little the show ever knew what to do with her. With that history in mind, and sharing your dislike for the Kettlemans, Betsy is a disaster. She’s arguably a direct descendant of the more positive traditions of BB women characters, in being an engine for laughs, but she’s still recognizably a self-justifying wife hen-pecking her husband. It’s surprising to me that she got off the page in that form, and this team isn’t at the point where they get the benefit of the doubt.

All this is a way of saying that for Kim to be a character with room to grow sure beats the alternative. More specifically, like a lot of things with BCS, I think my opinion of her so far is going to depend a lot upon the second installment. If they didn’t have time to fill in the blank spaces because they had a lot else they had to do and set up, but it’s around the corner, then that’s fine. If it turns out that they just don’t have an interest in her beyond a plot function and a person for other characters to talk to, that’s a much bigger issue. (And much of this could apply equally to Mike’s daughter-in-law). Beyond her gender, though, Kim’s also an important test case for the show’s ability to fashion a sympathetic character from scratch, rather than trading on our past associations. We’re already giving Jimmy and Mike credit, and BB has a way with villains. Giving us someone new to root for would be the more impressive feat.

If there’s anything that’s a concern, then, it’s that the more minor new faces are showing similar issues: either flawed and familiar or generic and unformed. Jimmy’s Chicago friend, who meets his untimely end as the season wraps up, seemed to exist solely for narrative purposes, and his death didn’t hit me at all. Even if it’s true that all characters exist for narrative purposes, the show didn’t even feel the need to hide the machinery. More than anything else, even big-picture relations to its forebearer, I’d like BCS to have more people show up who feel like they have lives they’re living independent of their intersection with Jimmy. That’s the big challenge for BCS in all its qualities, really. It has to establish that there’s more going on than service to something else.

I can’t think of any episodes that fell flat, though, and if anything the consistency is quite impressive. Let’s cast a wider net on comparisons. Does this show’s first season remind you of any other shows? Is this more Lost or more Parks & Rec—are we in for a refinement and an expansion, or a wholesale shift in approach? And is there anything Saul can tell us about what the landscape is like for television right now? We’re typing this up with the last of the golden age shows, Mad Men, in sight of its series finale, and going out quite like itself. Is BCS tending the flame of the old ways, or representative of something new? Where is it headed, and is it going to have some company along the way?

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MM:   I don’t know if you’ve listened to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast, but it’s useful in understanding certain aspects of the show. For example, Vince Gilligan spoke at length about his infatuation with the Betsy character, and he repeatedly mentions that he wanted to be dominated by her. So, like Sorkin, he clearly has a type and his predilections have blinded him to the fact that his female characters are seriously unwritten. As such, I can’t see Kim coming into her own in really way. She’ll probably end up getting some stuff to do à la Maria’s shoplifting or Skyler’s affair with Ted, but I don’t think she’s ever getting her own “Five-O.” Still, Gilligan isn’t the chief creative force this time around so maybe things will be different.

I totally agree with you about Marco. I appreciated the nuance of Mel Rodriguez’s performance (the way he couldn’t really explain the particulars of his boring day job was well done), but I sort of felt like Marco was analogous to Bai Ling’s character on Lost and the pinkie ring was Jack’s tattoos. I understood from the first episode of BCS that Jimmy had done something so bad that he couldn’t ever go back to his old life in Cicero. That lily didn’t need gilding.

I am inclined to think that Better Call Saul will go the way of Parks & Rec in that it will refine and redefine itself rather than spend the rest of its run trying to recapture the magic of its first season like Lost did. Breaking Bad had a similarly good, but not great first season and only became the version of the show that it’s remembered as in its second season. I expect Saul will expand its world along similar lines and I expect Tuco to become to a galvanizing force in Jimmy’s life as he once was in Walter White’s.

It’s harder to figure out what changes BCS will affect in its second season because the change that BB underwent was one of pacing. A lot of that show’s first season was paced slowly and hesitantly, mirroring Walter’s gradual transformation into Heisenberg. Things picked up speed as he delved into his new life as a criminal because in that line of work, if you don’t move fast and act decisively, you die. Given how Norwegian slow TV Jimmy’s journey was at times, I’m thinking his embrace of his true nature will take a good while longer. That being the case, the show will have to get us reasons to really care about what’s happening with Mike, Chuck and Kim beyond dramatic irony.

While I enjoy BCS A great deal, I do wonder if its success will lead to further spin-offs or revivals of great shows. I look at the return of Twin Peaks with equal amounts of fascination and dread. I thought the fourth season of Arrested Development was great, but I don’t know if that story needed a depressing epilogue. I’d absolutely watch Peggy Olsen, but I also appreciate that her story will end with Mad Men’s finale. Quality TV spin-offs are nothing new and one of America’s finest cultural institutions is a spin-off. But stories have meaning because they end. If Jimmy’s story is to have meaning, it’ll have to move past Walter White. I’m not at all sure that it will because the showrunners don’t seem interested in reach a certain point as opposed to circuitously examining the nature of morality. That’s an interesting and novel idea, but it’s a difficult second album idea, like making a movie about a bunch of sixties garage rock wannabes or a TV show about a surfer who may be the second coming of Christ.

Having worked as a TV recapper for a few years now, I have become disillusioned with the notion of the Golden Age of Television. As great as The SopranosThe WireBreaking Bad and Deadwood and are I don’t that they are good enough to balance out the existence of Toddlers and TiarasThe Bachelor and all of the mediocre crap that isn’t actually offensive, but is produced at such an accelerated rate and in such compromised fashion that any sense of quality control has long since been abandoned to accommodate the relentless demand for new content.

The Simpsons and Twin Peaks are two of the greatest TV shows ever and they once aired at the same time, but no one considers the early ‘90s to be the golden age of anything. I’m hopeful for the future because of things like Broad CityHalt and Catch FireHannibalRick and Morty and The Knick because they’re all amazing in different ways and because they feel like a rejection of some of the things that have preceded them. I need to see more of Better Call Saul before I can say whether it belongs in the past or the future.

The Moment in the Garden

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True Detective, Episodes 1-5

Like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it – Cohle

A flashback structure suggests an endgame taking place after the act of recollection has concluded. If we trust the storyteller, we know the past does not hold all the answers to the questions we care about.

A mystery also promises answers at the end of the road. In this sense, flashbacks and mysteries are complementary, holding out interest in the eventual resolution of a “what” and “why.” Yet if you contain the mystery within a flashback, as True Detective appears to do, there are a few curious effects.

For one, the structure of True Detective promises by the end of its first episode that whatever else is being accomplished, the flashbacks will be providing false answers. Not false information—even if Hart and Cohle lie to their interrogators, there is no suggestion the show has lied to us. But whatever “what” and “why” it supplies, on the killings, will fail to resolve matters.

Further, the flashbacks ensure the effect is not accidental; the show wants you to know this. A chronological narrative could have presented the 2012 investigation as a late-act twist, revealing that the solution reached was at best incomplete. Unfolding the same events in a flashback structure removes the significance of the “what” without resort to deceit. True Detective never provides enough information to make informed guesses about the killers, yet it has reassured the viewer this is not in service of tricking us. There is no anxiety in being kept out of a false loop.

Thus, for all the appeal of True Detective‘s weird details, I suspect its reticence to provide a rich supply of information for viewer inferences is a clue that its mystery isn’t in freeze-frames. We have not, and will not, learn enough in the flashbacks to actually “solve” the killings.

Further, we don’t know anything about the world of the present day, and it would be unsatisfying in the extreme to re-do the murder investigation from scratch. Instead, whatever mystery is of chief interest to the show must be possible to solve with what we know of the characters before its final stretch; and that means that the unanswered questions are about Hart and Cohle, the threads of past and present contained in the two leads. Something about them is different now. True Detective‘s combination of narrative structures makes the most sense for answering a question separate from a killer’s identity: why did the past hold false answers—and what about the characters made them mistaken? 

The cops interviewing Hart and Cohle have put at least one theory in play, and it is credible, considering that by all appearances, the key incongruities are within Cohle. Hart is recognizably the same man. He may have carried along his demons, but if so, he has retained his ability to cover them up and look the part. Cohle, on the other hand, has given up. We spend time with Cohle in 1995 as a warrior-monk, and experience him in the present day as a man burnt-out on whatever faith he once held onto. We learn about characters by seeing what they care about, and Cohle in 2012 seems only to enjoy the performance. He takes his most evident delight in having a reputation.

The show’s facility with making the old Cohle riveting, however, comes paired with a commitment to undercutting his practical appeal. The story isn’t intent on the hero-figure Cohle cuts as an end in itself. After all, it consigns his years as a bereaved undercover addict skirting boundaries and trading bullets with the cartels to a few lines of unstaged dialogue. True Detective places another species of prestige cable drama within the haunted eyes of its lead.

This is fitting for a “post-” series, and its structure only reinforces its agenda. The archetypal hero and his collection of compelling quirks—synesthesia, insomnia, heavy weaponry, a healthy drug tolerance, single-minded obsession—led nowhere. Our Holmes did not actually solve the case. And the story requires that the burnt-out man left occupying his body will be the one who actually will. 

Or the cops may be right, of course; Cohle could simply be lying, covering up a transition from a knowledgeable critic of a terrifying medium to a budding artist. A change in a character that we recognize from what we once knew, however, would still entail a different mystery than one where the answer involves a fixed point in a gradually-filled-in mural.

True Detective wants to reveal answers only possible through the way it has told its story, and “whodunnit?” has far more direct paths. Cohle ends the first episode requesting “the right fucking questions.” When it comes to True Detective, I’m most interested by what mystery it will finally reveal itself to be.

All My Friends Are in This Room

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The West Wing

If you are good to the people around you, and if you and your friends stand by each other, then the world can become a better place.

Many fictions hold this belief. The West Wing argued that it remains true even when the stakes are highest. And for four years, under creator and showrunner Aaron Sorkin, this was the guidance by which all dilemmas eventually resolved. Characters did their jobs at substantial cost to their lives outside the office, but found solace in the people engaged in the same task. And they spoke and acted with an understanding of what it meant to work together. The staff brought a speechwriter into the office because he was an exceptional talent, but accepted him because of the one assessment that mattered: Sam’s message that “he’s one of us,” a member of the family. Speaking privately, where he has no cause to lie, the President invoked the violence directed at his adviser and implored God to explain how he could do this to “my son.” 

The personal lives of the show’s characters also drove its storytelling. The fate and happiness of its central individuals tied into the success of what they were hoping to achieve. And their relationships did not merely arise from their labor, but held instrumental value for governing. The same bonds were recognizable from the best places on television, a favorite bar or an emergency room, a regional branch or a precinct. And again, here, they resonated because of the context in which they occurred. By embedding its personal stories within the political process, The West Wing found a way to depict government that riveted as televised drama and felt more intrinsically interesting than almost any other fictional space one could spend time.

This perspective was not, in any sense, a perfect formula. The show’s article of faith could lead it astray, if not artistically than ethically; the loyalty the characters esteemed and demonstrated, shaded with reverence for power and patriotism, often held the president up as a benevolent king. A limitless appetite for political ideas rarely translated into a fair presentation of political argument, and the rigged nature of how debates played out could suggest the strings of marionettes. It reached too far, too often. That the show could not help itself in doing so was also for the good. “Every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity might well be limitless”; The West Wing was a place where a line like this could exist in sincerity, for better or worse. It was possible, and understandable, to hesitate at the leap this took, but its achievement was how, more often than not, you believed them.

Believed them. Buying into this vision meant investing in a set of people this closely-knit, this complementary in their skills and approaches, this well-suited to help each other in helping their country. Conflicts were, because of this, rarely external. Meaningful challenges came when the characters doubted the central tenet and lost their way, looking for answers outside of themselves or the people around them. Real failures were of will, or of spirit, or of nerve. And all those failures were mended with the love and support and commitment that came from the people beside them.

The credo was not to be tossed aside when challenges rose to their highest points, but to be sought out ever more at precisely those moments. And this is where the idealism of The West Wing actually rested. Level-headed about government and institutions, even pessimistic in the limits of power or the capacity for change, the show reserved its reckless, foolish, unabashed faith for its assessment of people. It is not a fantasy about society and its governance, but an optimism about the potential impact of human relations on a small scale. To reject its assertion is understandable, but what it says is also what we so often hope art, at least, will believe. 

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After Sorkin’s departure, The West Wing loses no enthusiasm for the potential of politics to make the world a better place. It simply rejects the idea that success or failure in this task has anything to do with the relations between the people carrying it out.

This transition registers at first as a series of false notes, a certain warmth no longer infusing the show. Yet because the sets and the faces of the characters remain recognizable, the change seems like a failure of craft, an uncertainty at how to tell new stories in unmastered forms, or the product of flagging energy.

It becomes clear, however, what is happening: the new cold is no accident. It is unmistakably not a lost voice, but a lost belief. The show retreats from Sorkin’s argument, and the mode of storytelling it inspired and fueled, and re-creates itself along new lines.

The West Wing becomes a story not about an office, but about a business. Where the show’s pilot had introduced us to a character with an axe over his head, and spared and forgiven him, resignation letters are now accepted. Firings are routine, and useful. People entertain the pleas of friends and colleagues, and respond to them according to their professional responsibilities. And the importance of what the characters do, and confront, is now in what it will mean for the people outside the places where they sit and stand.

Everything inherited must be made to fit within the new paradigm. The show frays personal connections with superseding obligations, and severs them with fistfights, calls to lawyers, and zero-sum political warfare. When not going after every bond it can get it hands on, it re-conceives old characters or relationships in more sinister terms. And if it doesn’t succeed, it gets there on the second attempt. The President sends Leo on his way, and nearly kills him; a campaign loads him with responsibilities, and succeeds in doing so. The writers, handed the loss of a actor, choose to stage his death only hours before his colleagues celebrate with unreserved joy.

The writers do not disguise their loss of faith in Sorkin’s central tenet, but bring it to the fore, refuting it in almost every conceivable permutation. The aim is to demonstrate without any possible misconception its new creed. And to make this case, it has governing and politics continue to proceed, undisturbed, and undaunted by the small cruelties it accumulates. The old answer is no longer here, and if the show cannot quite prove that it never was, it does its best to convince that it was an unnecessary comfort.

The West Wing goes about this careful deconstruction while also remaking its rhythms, audaciously, on the fly, upending the status quo not by some unforeseen event—a slew of dead characters, a nuclear war—but by following the logic of political chronology through to its natural conclusions, and transitioning from a focus on governing to a focus on campaigning. The show becomes a drama about professional politics. Season 3 featured the campaign as an “arc,” but its details were perfunctory; the conflict concerned whether characters would find the will to reassert themselves after understandable self-doubt. Seasons 6 and 7 dive into and root themselves in once-incidental details, moving their stories forward on buses and planes and making their homes in hotels. The show in these years constructs a meticulous political simulation; and if it is no more realistic than its prior incarnation, it clearly hopes its creation will hold the interest of a real election cycle.

It is easy to withhold affection from the replacement engine propelling a familiar vehicle. It is more difficult to ignore its achievement. Heresy requires commitment, and the one thing The West Wing never lacked, at any point, was giving its all. The show rejects what Sorkin’s show thought about the world while freeing itself from the mode of storytelling this belief inspired, and with an effort too well-directed to be thought of as missing the point, or otherwise failing in what it had set out to achieve. Television criticism of our current moment values both focus of theme and an audacity to push forward, and the final three seasons have both in abundance. If showrunners like David Chase or Matthew Weiner deserve any credit for undermining or hollowing out the working premises that had brought viewers along, then the The West Wing in its later seasons deserves far more, for it executes a peerlessly ruthless transition. It believes something entirely different, and remakes itself so that it is right again.

Sorkin’s West Wing told its stories with the first set of characters I ever became really attached to, and its lessons felt applicable to a world I was slowly trying to understand. I remember what The West Wing meant to me once. It was natural to expect, in returning to the show’s early years, that I would wince at its optimism. I assumed what was important about it, or what had felt important about it, might have faded with the novelty of encountering its ideas and politics.

Yet the show in its early years only ever needed to convince you of one argument, and if it did, it was enough, and remains enough, to animate everything else taking place. Its stories valued people, and found them valuable in their own right. And if their stories resonated all the more powerfully because of where they were and what it meant for what they could achieve, their circumstances were not the real basis of our interest.

It matters what art has to say about people, and how it says it. The later West Wing wants us to know that people matter most of all because of where they get to be. And at the place it arrives, after all its hard work, there could be no better proof of its own judgment.

There is no one left to care about.

The Dinner Table

Friends with Kids (2012)

We’d put an awful lot of money into the season opener. So I was asked to write a show with no locations, no guest cast, no new sets and minimal extras. So I wrote a play.

– Aaron Sorkin on “17 People

Party hosts know well how adding more people to the mix can breed complications. Fiction works no differently, and Orson Scott Card explains in his introduction to Speaker for the Dead how two characters have one relationship between them, three characters have three, four have six, five have ten, et cetera. Keeping this straight beyond a certain point takes a steady focus.

The number of characters involved will have a necessary relation to how a creator structures a story. It’s easy to notice this in how we refer to filmed entertainment with a small set of characters as more “theatrical,” or in the association of genre fantasy and science fiction with a wider cast. World-building as an end in itself involves introducing more information, often in the form of more people. Fiction which puts a premium on level of detail can achieve this scale by bringing long lists of characters along for the ride.

The timeframe for a story also has a clear impact upon the structure of a story. The first tier of American epics—films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Raging Bull—have no stronger unifying thread then the wideness of their gaze. Years and decades pass by within two, maybe three hours, making for a decisively different tenor than a more compact dramatic scope.

The limits on the length of a film constrain the medium’s ability to stage the passage of time, and this has an inevitable effect upon the way in which these stories feel. Unlike a novel, a comic strip, or even a miniseries, there’s no way to fill in the sweep of a wide expanse of time with anything approaching thorough detail. So in precisely the opposite way from a one-day film, where the mundane, through its accumulation, becomes profound, nearly everything we see in these films feels significanta milestone along an important path.

These two axes—the number of characters, and the temporal scope of the story—so deeply fix the contours of a story as to be almost inseparable from the story a work chooses to tell. No matter the process and the sequence in which the creative hands fix these elements, they set down the shape of what the viewer will experience. You may be able to know more about a film in advance from knowing the number of major characters and the length of its story than from where it takes place and what it will be about.

I’m not familiar enough with romantic comedies as a genre to know whether Friends with Kids makes a decisive break from its governing conceptions. People who know better seem to say no. I can’t help but suspect, however, that its eight major characters and its six-year timeframe aren’t the normal approach. Few romantic comedies seem willing to push forward on both fronts. The all-hands-on-deck entries tend to organize themselves around a specific time of the year or event, as in Valentine’s Day or Love Actually. The stories of love over a lifetime narrow the cast lists appropriately. And the run-of-the-mill romantic comedy typically has a contained cast and a few months of events. Thus, even if Friends with Kids is simply expanding the scope and scale of the same old undertaking, it’s a modification with a significant impact upon the experience of the film, and a fascinating demonstration of what axes of time and breadth mean for a narrative.

There’s an energetic air to this film which is difficult to find these days, and the spring in the step has everything to do with its ambitions and with the ways in chooses to address them. The time-scale, the number of characters and the level of attention the film wants to provide to what’s happening on a macro level necessitate something very basic: short scenes. There’s simply no way to travel through an eight-character film and a complicated romantic arc within two hours without industrious efficiency, and the film takes every effort to elide details it deems unimportant and to exit scenes early on a punchline. Scenes are there for illustrative detail with an eye toward narrative economy.

The film makes the most of what it’s doing, too, and it’s compelling to take in the fortunes of the character’s lives. The changes within the group as people fall apart and grow close together feels remarkably true to the real-life experience of how sets of friends and partners interact over time. And even if its actual narrative makes no moves outside of what’s expected for the genre company it keeps, these moves feel far different when taking place amid a wider and more filled-in backdrop.

Whether or not its depiction of real adult relationships feels true to life, which will affect whether you can take from the film anything of significance beyond the novelty of its storytelling form, the film also features one terrific scene. The eight characters are together in a room only once, for a dinner at a cabin retreat. The meal feels like a riff on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” with alcohol gradually turning ruminative monologues into directed assaults. There’s a playful deployment of as many interactive pairs as possible among the damn near thirty relationships around the table, and Chris O’Dowd, Adam Scott, and Jon Hamm get a chance to run wild with Jennifer Westfeltdt’s script. It all coheres into an arresting, riveting scene, one simply not possible without the accrued character history and expanded cast afforded by the film’s approach.

The film can only bring about this scene because of the expanse of the story it tells, and that’s meaningful. Friends with Kids may be no greater in the scale of its ambitions than its cohorts in the modern romantic comedy, but its scale is ambitious, and to tell its story well is no small achievement.

A year from now when I think about the movie, what I’m most likely to remember is that scene. Works great and minor compress themselves into easier reference points. There’s something curious about this, and the way that scenes introduce themselves to first-time audiences, relative to the way they live on in the memories of fans. There’s almost no way to know heading into a unit of fictional storytelling that what you’re about to encounter is or is not “iconic,” is or is not a setpiece, is or is not a part of the story worth talking about after. It’s antithetical to art (though unavoidable) to decide that such-and-such scene is the work, midway through, but it’s an almost-inevitable shorthand.

There’s an aspect to this which doesn’t do violence to a work, though, for scenes in films bear the unmistakable mark of their surroundings. They carry with them a great deal of embedded information. In films, with their limited run times, long scenes must justify their existence. Film’s intrinsic compression makes the obligations of a scene to the wider aims of the story of paramount importance. And their nature, the significance we take from them, bears the indelible shape of the narrative structure. The constraints or the freedom of the scale and scope are there for all to see.

Films, unlike less constrained mediums, have only so much time to achieve what they’ve set out to do. It’s no accident that the cabin dinner in Friends with Kids is the longest scene in a film marked mostly by short episodes, as depicting the level of detail the film wishes to go into about the characters’ lives would not be possible if every scene were five minutes long.

One consequence of the sweep of the American epics I mentioned earlier, or any work with aspirations toward playing a broader canvass, is the inevitable need to achieve something different with each scene. The demands of providing information and exposition are greater, and a scene can’t simply tell a pleasing short story. What the viewer sees must not only have an immediate narrative stakes, it must also evoke and suggest a larger transition. It must stand for what’s occurring outside the frame, or at least catch you up on what else has occurred. Each unit of the drama must focus on illustration, sometimes to the detriment of immediate emotional impact. While this may not be the case for a pivotal or climactic event, where the import is up close and evident, key transitions by their nature are rarer by their nature than the events that clear the way for them.

The greater the temporal scope, the greater the tendency toward the inclusion of more scenes in the same amount of running time, and the same appears to be true for characters. Where there are more people in the mix, there is more of a need to stage their individual stories. The average scene length for a sequel will go down as the need to balance familiar faces with new introductions takes hold, and keeping tabs on an entire house party will need more nimble steps than staging a dinner between friends.

These proportional relationships are at work in television, as well, though more often due to financial constraints. The smallest ensemble and most focused vision on television, Breaking Bad, has a marked tendency toward lengthy, prolonged scenes. And perhaps the most thoroughly built-up and filled in world, on The Wire, made for a series where anything past two minutes counted as noteworthy.

There are, of course, ways to counter these inclinations, which don’t have the status of iron laws. A work could make its longer scenes always include more characters, and accomplish the work of bringing forward many individual stories in one go. Editing can allow for cross-cutting between one long scene and smaller illustrative episodes in a way that preserves the ability to tell a short story with some heft yet keeps the narrative moving. Yet where both aspects are in place, many characters and a longer view, the force pushing toward a greater number of scenes is strong, and the length of any given scene will trend downward.

The scale and scope of a work has a relation to its narrative, then, not only in the larger sense of story structure but in setting a baseline rhythm. The tenor and the default purpose of a scene changes, what a scene has room to do and what it must achieve in that time.

The idea of constraints on the basic unit of a work of storytelling is not unique to film, and in many ways it’s far less circumscribed in its possibilities than other mediums. No method of storytelling has a more exact restriction on its basic tempo than the comic strip, for instance—a certain width, a certain height, forever and for always, with no one strip failing to land a punchline. It’s no accident that Calvin & Hobbes trades have a tangible exuberance on the Sunday pages, the one time in the week where Bill Watterson could trade off the restrictive tempo of the six-weekly one-and-done. Television, too, as rich and varied as its forms have become, remains dependent on creating episodes with their own smaller stories and subdivisions for commercial breaks, HBO aside.

Film is free from the medium-dictated necessity of doing things in a certain way, and short of franchise-starters they’re not in the service of long-term narrative obligations. They can slide into a separate register of scene length far more readily, and more unexpectedly, even if the structure will limit how often it can let loose.

As a consequence, you don’t quite know heading into a given situation whether something will last for a short time or a long time, and an hour or so of a film isn’t often enough to establish any kind of rigorous rule to how the work will choose to depict events. We can encounter something truly unexpected. If poetry remains film’s closest kin, then cinema nonetheless speaks unconstrained by meter.

The potential for an air of unpredictability, however, depends in part on what kind of story a film is telling. The way extended scenes feel in a story of heightened temporal scope and with more lives depicted, as in the epics above, is noticeably different. Their function intertwines more tightly with the needs of the wider of the wider narrative. They must exist as illustrations, photographs of a longer life, something meant to evoke an inflection point and give the sense of a wider transition.

That these scenes serve a more explicitly narrative-driven purpose, rather than the possibility for something genuinely tangential or revelatory, often contributes to the ability to recognize certain scenes, before they fully come to fruition, as something demanding the utmost attention. We can sense, often because we are more or less told, that something important is upon us. Boogie Nights makes for a magnificent example, unsurprisingly given P.T. Anderson’s clear understanding of the tradition of the American epic and the film’s unabashed aspirations to become their peer. Prefacing a scene with a “Long Way Down (One Last Thing)” title card—an uncannily appealing phrase which works well in the strangest places—the drug deal cues you into its status as something to watch even before Alfred Molina appears in all his scenery-chewing glory.

That’s not to sell the scene short as a standalone narrative in its own right, a short story with razor-edge tension and a magnificent use of music. It’s no small feat to make some idiots sitting on a couch watching a lunatic expound on pop music carry such visceral intensity. If only by explicitly making clear that the scene is an inflection point, the expositional and illustrative purpose of the scene within a longer epic is out of the way, and PTA is free to let loose with a compressed mini-narrative. We know this is an ending, imbued with significance, and he pitches the storytelling to the meet the import of the moment.

The chops of a filmmaker like PTA, however, can distract from how his scene-by-scene talents acquire a radically different feeling depending on the context of the narrative; and his mature work bears out the importance of the two basic axes of scope and scale with surprising clarity. It also helps to make sense of how out-of-nowhere There Will Be Blood appeared when it first came on the scene, for from the right perspective it’s simply a novel assortment of constituent arrangements PTA had already mastered. Combine the uncomfortable character focus of Punch-Drunk Love and the temporal sweep of Boogie Nights, and you’re got a head-start on the skewed weirdness of Daniel Plainview’s life on the screen. Maybe the most unrecognized stylistic difference between Boogie NIghts and Magnolia, two ensemble films often treated as a pair, emerges from the latter’s lack of temporal diffusion.

PTA’s four major films neatly represent the four available configurations of few/many characters and short/long timeframe, in the order of many/long, many/short, few/short, and few/long, a lockstep progression between fundamental narrative confines. Simply focusing on these two axes provides as much a guide to the differing feels of the various films as their differences in style, subject and presentation. And it clues the viewer in to how the feel of the scenes changes along the way, how the hand of a master can bring to bear the same capacities to any given staging and yet use the overall context to create differences.

The scope of the characters under examination and the scale of the time depicted appear to be deep in the bones of narratives, perhaps the defining way to sort between them. How the film is set up can affect how we take even a straightforward scene, shorn of the immediate visceral and sensory impact of something from a younger director. Eyes Wide Shut, has precisely one scene where there’s a direct confrontation between the malevolent forces behind the drama and the perpetually baffled protagonist. With the typical Kubrick flattening, it plays out in a subdued key. Yet because of the compression of its narrative, the conversation between Bill and Ziegler has a far more bracing and fear-inducing force than if it were embedded within a wider scope, or if there were far more characters whom we knew. Among a small cast, Ziegler’s knowledge becomes a near-mathematical certainty, and what he will reveal to Bill is a foregone conclusion. Yet knowing something will happen, and knowing, almost from the outset, that it must happen, only heightens the fascination with the manner in which it unfolds. Where we know in Boogie Nights what would happen on the level of narrative structure, we know in Eyes Wide Shut what plot detail is on its way; and knowing one but not the other is more than enough to keep our interest. What form our interest will take depends on factors beyond what actually unfolds in the scene.

It’s an open question which of these configurations most closely conforms to our lived experiences. The formative moments of people’s real lives can have different shapes. An unexpected death or an endlessly planned wedding are both a part of life, no more or less true than the other. We can’t know what’s in store for us some of the time, while other times we know all too well; we can anticipate turns in the road but not the view beyond the bend.

The only constant is that something will happen, and then something else will happen, and perhaps this gives us a need for this variety of arrangements. We can recognize the weight of anticipation and the weightlessness of excitement in our own lives, at different moments. And for this reason, whether we take in the story of a few people or many, depicting a day or a lifetime, there will be no mistaking the signature of what occurs.

Onwards and Upwards

This is a real photograph

Real photograph from the Apollo 17 mission (Click to Enlarge)

From the Earth to the Moon (1998)

Breaking Bad (2011) (Spoilers)

But really, to me, it’s about the visual. I guess I’ve always been more visually oriented. And to me, movies and television are the same thing, with the only difference being in the actual mode of transmission. But even all those definitions are currently in a state of flux, and to me, what it really comes down to is your story. Does your story last for two hours or does it last for a hundred hours?

That’s the ultimate contrast between a movie and a television show, because they all use the exact same equipment. We use the same lights, we use the same cameras to do our show that would be used on a feature, and the same technology, the same crew people. And so to me the question becomes, what then is truly the difference between the two?

Historically in television it was much more dialogue-based, which is a wonderful thing. I love a show that’s not about the visual. ‘All in the Family’—I could watch that for hours on end and that’s pretty much a filmed stage play in half-hour increments, and that’s a wonderful thing. But historically, I think television has been more dialogue-oriented, more about the word and less about the image, probably fundamentally for financial reasons. Back in the day, it was harder on a television production schedule to go out and attain the visual, and that’s actually one way in which television has really evolved and changed over the years in a good way.

Cameras got smaller and financial models changed to the point that many TV shows, not just ‘Breaking Bad,’ can go out into the real world and shoot, for instance, six days out of eight, out on location versus on a sound stage. Not just ‘Breaking Bad’ but most TV shows have the opportunity to be more visual. And we take that opportunity and run with it.Vince Gilligan

Tom Hanks shepherded From the Earth to the Moon and Band of Brothers to the small screen in 1998 and 2001, three years, respectively, after their film predecessors, 1995’s Apollo 13 and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. Both prestige projects received great acclaim, and while neither overshadowed the films that came before them they marked important steps in HBO’s rise as a cultural powerhouse.

The two miniseries bookended the broadcast of the first three seasons of The Sopranos, and while those seasons and the latter war miniseries have more than held up, thirteen years later From the Earth to the Moon feels quite hollow. Today it seems a world away in heft, polish and storytelling even from Band of Brothers, which would air only three years later.

There are a few stories that work well on their own, but the entire enterprise, for all its visual sheen and historical gravity, fails to achieve any cumulative impact. In its rush to chronicle and relate its subject matter, the show aggressively breaks itself down into short segments, as if the creators felt the need to dramatize the process of checking items off a list. In some episodes title cards pop up every five or ten minutes, and other episodes saddle their narratives with wooden and time-wasting framing devices. The shifts in chronology, character focus and tone from episode to episode make the series feel disconnected from itself, and few anchor characters feel developed enough to help navigate through its shifts. These misfires make for an inefficient use of the miniseries’ twelve-hour running time.

From the Earth to the Moon has a much better grasp of its visual obligations than its responsibilities on the story front. The grammar of its space flight sequences is crisp and conveys the necessary impact. After all, no matter how simple the underlying Newtonian physics of rocketry might be, that human beings traveled to the moon and back is quite incredible. Appropriately, the space flight and moon sequences have a real enthusiasm and energy to them that’s foreign to the rest of the material.

The miniseries has another virtue unique to a non-fiction subject in how it invites and encourages you to look back into history, to learn about the amazing story that the miniseries sketches. And this is a positive of the show that’s in keeping with its defining flaws. The series is an extended bonus feature for a superior experience—the real events—and in a way its content is even less important than its simple existence as a reminder of the reality and complexity of the American space program.

Watching From the Earth to the Moon today feels like a return to something much simpler and far less satisfying, even as the miniseries at the time was viewed as a landmark achievement. The creative team behind the miniseries failed to understand the strengths and possibilities of its actual medium, and the project has a latent insecurity about being television. The miniseries’ reverence for chronicling history prevents it from appreciating the needs and the merits of the medium it’s actually operating within.

Television has come a long way in the short time since the miniseries first aired, and the medium was lucky enough to break into more confident strides. Many of the observations about the special achievements of various shows relate directly to their mastery of some canonical aspect of television as a medium: The Sopranos‘ use of television’s innate status quo bias as a moral statement, The Wire‘s perfection of the idea of a television novel, or the endpoint Mad Men has reached for post-Sopranos dramatic leads.

In light of this forward motion and artistic legitimacy, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.” has proved a less and less compelling slogan over the years. Yet there’s a reason it was an effective declaration of intentions. In 1998 From the Earth to the Moon could happily content itself with the belief that to look professional and to demonstrate the best of intentions constitutes a step above the rest of the small screen. Today, shows own their identities and have moved past their insecurity.

The strength on display in the best of them has been a willingness to be a little less reverent, for the best shows have understood a fundamental truth: any exercise in reproduction has to contend with comparison to the real thing. Freed from that anxiety about competing directly with the compressed power of film, secure in their identity and their medium, they have pushed to the edge of what’s possible in long-form television narrative.

As television has raised itself in stature and confidence, no show has held its head higher than Breaking Bad. Amid its many assertive and ambitious peers, however, Breaking Bad has stood alone in maintaining an uneasy relationship with its existence as a television show. Where the aforementioned masterworks and many of the best shows of the present day have harnessed the inherent strengths of television and its expansive possibilities for both breadth and depth, and often exploited features of television for thematic effect, Breaking Bad is mostly unconcerned with delving into its medium. While it has one of the most “high concept” premises in recent memory, the show from its start has steadfastly avoided establishing a status quo. This is a surprisingly brave choice, as episodic revisitation of a familiar set of affairs is much of what makes television television, yet Breaking Bad has done so nonetheless, contenting itself with “Walter White remains alive” as its constant while the statuses, allegiances, and agendas of the characters have shifted countless times.

Beyond this discarding of the way television normally functions, Breaking Bad has also rejected the available templates for how to construct top-shelf television entertainment. It hasn’t attempted a unified, coherent structure to its events—stretching a three or a five-act structure over the course of a season, for instance. It has nothing resembling a typical episodic formula or structure. Instead arcs arise and collapse in the most unpredictable fashion, and events don’t so much culminate as cascade. It’s not structure-less, but its structures bear very little relationship to the established paths painstakingly laid down in the decade before its premiere.

Curiously, however, Breaking Bad does not feel like is a show where anything can happen. The likely outcomes and the constraints on choices are always in the foreground. As a result Breaking Bad has earned its reputation for phenomenal unpredictability less in the what than in the when, especially its unfailing ability to push forward the timetable, combine foreseeable events in unexpected pairings, or otherwise push things to the brink more quickly than the characters (or viewers) thought possible.

This has proven to be an invaluable asset for Breaking Bad in building tension, that clear sense of the few, terrible directions in which events can go and the certainty that things won’t play out in the rhythm you’d expect. That tension through the narrowing of options is also complemented by the show’s resource limitations. The small budget afforded to the creators by AMC is perhaps at the root of the show’s absolute obsession with the notion of limitations, and with that in mind it’s telling that one of the few television standbys that Breaking Bad hasn’t tossed aside is the bottle episode. The show returns as often as it can to the confrontation of wills and intentions between two characters, paring down the expression of its ever-frenzied events into the almost-abstracted dramatic interaction often associated with theater. Breaking Bad is never stronger than in this confined, unbearable focusing of intensity into a simplified form.

Complementing that fascination with compression into intensity is Breaking Bad‘s total lack of shyness in reaching for iconic moments and images. Not content with television as television, the show has always wanted a way out, more audacious than it has any right to be, and this ambition has thankfully been coupled with an uncanny facility in finding and deploying those moments. The show can do this without any apparent effort, simply on the strength of the creator’s tastes and the performances of its cast—conjuring menace or unfathomable disintegration at a moment’s notice, or setting new benchmarks for holy shit moments that lesser shows could never even aspire toward depicting.

As often as its iconic moments wind up closing off an episode, Gilligan’s understanding of what is now possible for the visual vocabulary of television presentation has become a working ethos for the show, evident in the stylistic touches and striking cinematography that have marked the series throughout its run. And that focus on the vivid depiction of individual moments, and a dizzying faith that for the most part the grander structure will work itself out, has only grown alongside the gradual shift in the storytelling of the show. Where in its early going Breaking Bad played much like Pulp Fiction in its basic rhythms, relying on an unerring, scene-by-scene wittiness to evoke a structural coherence, as the show has progressed there’s been a yearning desire to achieve a grander architecture without reproducing the structural templates of some of its peer series.

Much of that has been accomplished through the very kind of “tags” and closures that often provide striking ends to episodes, where a single, powerful moment imparts or makes evident the animating design of a season. Where the second season foreshadowed and at its close brought forth a spectacular cataclysm, bringing something out of nowhere that made clear the full import of what we’d seen so far, the third season kept pushing and pushing the outer limit of where it would go, culminating in the shooting that provided the most fitting capstone for a season whose fundamental principle was that everything would take place at the moments when characters were written into impossible corners.

The just-concluded fourth season has seen a middle ground between those two courses for realizing structure indirectly. And its most memorable moment provided a realization in both senses of the word—a fulfillment and a revelation. The blood-curdling ending scene of “Crawl Space” arrives, like everything on Breaking Bad, predetermined yet wholly unexpected. Yet nothing could quite ready a viewer for seeing Walt’s plans and composure implode in so devastating a fashion. That scene is borderline unbearable, and on first viewing reached a level of tension that’s probably never been seen before on television.

And I think Breaking Bad became something new in that moment. The season had doggedly worked through the experience of a man entirely trapped by his circumstances, as impotent and imprisoned as he had been at the start of the series. The show that can’t stand a status quo had finally settled into one, and it pushed against that deadening imprisonment as unceasingly as its lead. In the show’s trademark fashion, events came to a head in a flurry of activity, as Walt finally took the measures he had to in order to break free. And yet the show revealed that there was no way out, that the careful, often meandering steps it had taken throughout the season had drawn a noose around Walter so tight he couldn’t break out of it.

For all its power as a character moment, for the sheer dread inherent in the episode’s close, the great import of that moment may be the marker it set down for the show. The restrictions of television as a medium were made to convey the emotional impact of film, avoiding confinement to the possibilities of its medium without trying to be quite like cinema, either. The show has finally perfected the union it has long sought between its dramatic intensity and its aspirations toward the iconic. From here on out, we’re in uncharted territory; and in the final two episodes, Breaking Bad thankfully continued to operate with gleeful abandon in the space it has carved out so wholly for itself.

It’s been welcome indeed that television has grown beyond the baby steps on display in something like HBO’s early forays. The great television series of recent years have achieved the very pinnacle of what’s possible within their medium. And while it’s tempting to believe that Breaking Bad has fulfilled the full promise of a medium that has traveled so far in the past thirteen years, I suspect we don’t quite have a word for what the show has become. Free from the shadow of film, unconstrained by the limits of television, Breaking Bad has traveled somewhere one could never have expected it to go. Let’s hope it can make it back safe.

On “Breaking Bad” as a Conservative Show

Alyssa Rosenberg has a great post up arguing that Breaking Bad might well be a conservative show. E.D. Kain speculates that this relates to something fundamental about crime dramas buying into the status quo.

The key reference point, which Alyssa brings up, is The Wire: a show with a very clear focus on sociology that embodied the worldview of a pair of policy liberals opposed to the war on drugs, David Simon and Ed Burns. The Wire‘s thematic consistency made its politics quite clear, even as the show didn’t shy away from acknowledging the complexities of its stance.

The wide view and HBO funding of The Wire, however, made for a show that operated on a far different scale than Breaking Bad. Given its small cast and intense focus, what Breaking Bad has to say about broader drug policy is perhaps more limited. Looking too deeply at the implications of its DEA characters and the dramas it chooses and chooses not to depict may provide a reading of the show that isn’t there. But granting that we shouldn’t assume Breaking Bad is simply falling down on the job, and that its fewer specific details may still merit careful attention, I think there’s another significant aspect that shouldn’t go missing: Breaking Bad takes place in New Mexico, not Baltimore.

Even someone entirely opposed to the War on Drugs has to acknowledge that in the short-term issues of enforcement, police power, and the drug trade are very different when in close proximity to a burgeoning, violent conflict like Mexico’s current drug insurgency. The “war on drugs” in Baltimore really does look like an obscene framing of institutionalized social injustice, but it’s a fair and legitimate description of the situation in many of Mexico’s northern provinces.

Another key difference is that Baltimore drug gangs on The Wire aren’t making any attempt to establish total dominion over their territory, nor are they seeking to seriously change the established order. (First season spoilers ahead.) The drug dealers and the lesser soldiers are acutely aware of the police being a force to be accommodated rather than something to challenge. After all, when Kima takes some shots in the line of duty in Season 1, Avon and Stringer move immediately to eliminate the shooter and then send his accomplice into hiding. They don’t decapitate people to send a message that they can act with impunity to the law, and the fifth season doesn’t see the Baltimore Sun besieged and its reporters killed. All of the drug gang violence intended to send a message is directed to others “in the game,” most prominently the display of Brandon’s corpse to warn off Omar.

In Breaking Bad, the cartels are openly targeting law enforcement. That should and does change what the audience must factor in to its evaluation of the characters. There’s every reason to believe that the basic critiques of the war on drugs and the way it causes systemic, violence has as much responsibility for violence in northern Mexico and the American border as it does in the streets of Baltimore. But in the short term, the DEA not only represents the blunt hammer of police power but is also part of a group of actors trying to maintain basic state sovereignty over a long stretch of territory. That may be a case that Breaking Bad needs to articulate more carefully, but it’s (I believe) an admirable goal, and in the context the DEA characters are likely to come off sympathetically.

For all that, I think Alyssa is right that Breaking Bad has some very conservative elements, and it’s a richer show as a result. But it’s important to remember that the show’s creators may not be blind to the implications of their chosen setting, any more than Burns and Simon were of theirs.

The Established Man

Mad Men

Don Draper is a distinctive fellow, equal parts competent and confident. Middle-aged, successful in his career, his beautiful family living in a beautiful home, he has secured what society wants of him and has made his place in the world. From the start, the audience knows that he is a person worthy of some respect.

While his life undergoes real changes in the four seasons after the viewer first encounters him, that sense of Don as an established man never goes away. And while he does a great number of bad things and a small number of truly awful things, the force and magnetism of his initial portrayal allows for an empathy for the character that often forgives those actions.

While that sense of allegiance may not withstand the burden of many seasons and too many misdeeds, shows with this kind of character at the center have set their anchor, and the audience’s investment of sympathy and respect in them can last a very long time. And there are quite a few shows that have this kind of figure: from Draper to Tony Soprano to to Jed Bartlett to Jack Bauer to Gregory House to Vic Mackey to Eric Taylor to Nucky Thompson, the established man may be the great recurring figure in television drama over the past decade. It’s also no accident that these variations comprise a majority of the enduring male television performances since 1999: with the right marriage of actor and character, the charisma and sure-footedness of this template makes for beautiful material to play.

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