Even with two episodes left before it signs off for good and puts high school science teacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White in prison, in the morgue, or on a spaceship (if anyone could make that work, it would be Vince Gilligan), Breaking Bad‘s final run of episodes has been so strong, so tightly plotted, so full of tension and panic, so artful in making inevitable events feel totally surprising, that people are already calling it the best show of all time, with the best ending of all time. As a huge fan of the show, I am feeling confident that, based on the last few episodes, the latter is likely and the former is more than up for discussion.
But it’s easy to forget, now that everyone is on board with this show, how unlikely it seemed to succeed back in 2008, when it premiered. I didn’t start watching it until the chorus of critical valentines reached a fever pitch, between the second and third season. I resisted it at first because it seemed to me that its premise — a law-abiding suburbanite is forced by dire circumstances to get into the drug business in order to provide for the family — had been done before.
Which, of course, it had, three years earlier, on the Showtime series Weeds with Mary-Louise Parker. Weeds wrapped up its eighth and final season last year, and its approach to the same premise that Breaking Bad has ridden to critical glory did not win it nearly the same level of devotion or acclaim — people liked the first season, but the longer it went on less people (and critics) seemed to like it. Suffice to say, its final season was not nearly as celebrated as Breaking Bad‘s has been.
I confess, I am not an expert on Weeds. I watched the first season, caught a random episode here or there over the next few years, and then watched the last season last year. I found it watchable but far from compelling, and was able to pick up enough clues as to what went on in seasons 2-7 to get an idea of what went wrong, just as Breaking Bad was going so very, very right. The first season of Weeds was a pleasant little comedy about recently widowed Nancy Botwin (the very appealing Mary-Louise Parker) and her decision to keep her two sons in the upper-middle class lifestyle to which they are accustomed by becoming a small-time pot dealer.
In the early going, the show spent a lot of time exploring the hypocrisy of our nation’s marijuana laws by gleefully revealing pillars of the community to be big stoners, but it soon ran out of steam on that front and in Nancy’s adventures in the dime-bag business. So Nancy started climbing the ladder of the marijuana business, becoming a grower, and a wholesaler, and starting a bakery to launder her money, getting into turf battles with other dealers, and rising with alarming speed to the top of the food chain. Apart from the fact that Walter White handled turf battles by killing his opponents while Nancy would just fuck them and get them to do what she wanted, the shows were, at least on a big-picture plot level, pretty similar at first. The tones were very different, of course: Weeds was a gentle comedy while Breaking Bad mined laughs out of a corpse disposal gone horribly, gorily wrong (among many other things).
#WalterWhite ‘s big mistake was not being played by Mary-Louise Parker, he could have just fucked everyone and had a kumbayah final season
— Alex Castle (@alexcastle718) September 16, 2013
But when Weeds‘ writers started running out of ideas with the original premise — suburban mom selling pot in her uptight gated community — it fanned out, giving each of its characters their own independent plotlines, some of which connected back to the main plot (Nancy’s) and some of which went nowhere.
And Nancy’s plot, like all the others, got more and more farfetched: she ended up marrying a DEA agent who somehow didn’t know how she made her living, and when he got killed she married the mayor of Tijuana, who also happened to be head of Mexico’s biggest heroin cartel, and had his baby, who she named Stevie Ray. Then her younger son killed somebody with a croquet mallet, so the whole family went on the run, pursued by Stevie Ray’s dad, made short stops in Seattle, Aspen, Dearborn, Manhattan, Denmark, and Connecticut, picking up and discarding supporting characters every step of the way. Nancy got busted and sent to prison, then got out and survived an assassin’s bullet to her head before the series wrapped up with all the Botwins sharing a joint, happy and healthy and prosperous, unmurdered and unincarcerated, sitting cross-legged in a circle singing kumbayah.
I think it’s fair to assume that Breaking Bad will not end that way. But Breaking Bad isn’t the better show because of its darker (much, much darker) overtones (although, come to think of it, Weeds’ body count certainly rivals, if not surpasses, Breaking Bad‘s); it’s because it kept its story small, while Weeds‘ got bigger and bigger and bigger. The genius of this final season of Breaking Bad is that as it heads down the home stretch, there are no loose ends dangling from any of the previous 60 episodes. This show is about one thing, one plot, one man. There are other characters, and they have their own plotlines, but with the exception of the Purple Sister’s kleptomania, I can’t think of any plot that didn’t serve some kind of specific purpose in the main story.
For example: Jesse Pinkman spent an episode in season 2 waiting for some tweakers that owed him money, in their shithole of a house, only to find himself looking after their malnourished, totally neglected 5- or 6-year-old kid. This may have seemed to be a side plot, a narrative culdesac, but it turned out to be crucially important to the larger story: Jesse has a soft spot for kids, which later turns out to drive the final wedge between him and Walt.
Everything that has been set up on this show gets paid off. No detail is forgotten, and this was achieved mostly by simply keeping the show small and obsessively focused on its one and only plotline. Except for one short trip to Mexico, the show never left Albequerque. There are no false pregnancies, or short-lived marriages, or amnesia, or changes of setting on Breaking Bad — it set a relatively simple, small course for itself, stayed doggedly on that course, and is now reaping the rewards of that discipline.
Weeds, on the other hand, took the same premise and ran out of ideas so fast it had to keep resetting itself, changing settings, situations, and supporting characters like a snake sheds its skin. To take only one of many, many examples: In the final season the youngest son — the one with distinctly sociopathic tendencies, who’d been caught touching himself to photos of his mother, who’d murdered someone with a mallet — became a police officer at age 18. In the space of three episodes, he goes from green academy recruit to mustached, leather-jacketed detective. Wha??
Where Breaking Bad treated its main story like the hub of a wheel — with supporting stories and characters like the spokes, keeping the wheel round and rolling — Weeds just made 7 or 8 wheels and let them all spin off in every direction. The fact that Vince Gilligan always knew where his show was headed certainly made it easier to stay on course; by contrast, Weeds was in the traditional mold of a TV show, geared toward staying on the air as long as possible, with no end in sight. The real innovation of Breaking Bad was that it rejected that model, and started out with a clear idea of how it was all going to end (in broad terms, at least).
Hopefully, TV as a whole will learn this lesson and start looking at shows as finite projects with a beginning, middle, and end. British TV already takes this approach and is stronger for it; imagine how much better Lost or Battlestar Galactica could have been if they had known their endings at the outset.
The other lesson from all this is, if you’re a mild-mannered civilian and you want to sell drugs, it’s much, much easier if you look like Mary-Louise Parker and can just fuck everyone who gets in your way.