Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston
Credit: AMC
Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston
Credit: AMC

We are closer to the end of Breaking Bad than we are to the beginning: After a month filled with backstage hand-wringing, in which prognostications for the show’s future regularly shifted from a six-episode final season to a theoretically much longer run on a different network, AMC has officially ordered a 16-episode final season. Showrunner Vince Gilligan was ecstatic to have the knowledge — rare in the TV world — of when, exactly, his show would be concluding, saying that knowing the show’s end-date “Will allow us to properly build our story to a satisfying conclusion.” End dates are a rarity on American television — the most famous example is Lost, which officially announced a May 2010 series finale in May 2007. The announcement of the end of Lost happened in the midst of the show’s post-Hydra creative resurrection, and ever since then, conventional wisdom has stated that setting a finite number of episodes makes a TV show better.

The problem with the End Date Theory is that it isn’t really true. It has the whiff of truth; it seems logical that storytellers should know when their story ends. But that logic assumes that TV show storytelling ought to follow classical rules of narrative, when the entire nature of the medium makes that impossible. Unlike novelists or movie screenwriters or playwrights, TV writers don’t have the benefit of going back to correct old drafts — they can’t change information in the show’s series premiere two years later. Additionally, TV writers have the curious power to witness their work in finished form while they’re still working on it; that’s why most TV shows go through a process of adjustment in their first few seasons, as the writing staff learns what their actors can do and begin to find their show’s specific strike zone.

Most of all, in the modern age, TV writers are more aware than ever about the audience’s reaction to their series… and they’re often very conscious of chasing the audience’s interest. Call it the Nikki & Paulo Effect: When Lost fans rebelled against the miserable duo of new characters, the creators killed them off in a spectacular fashion. (The Nikki & Paulo-centric episode gets a bad rap, but I think it’s an underrated gem.) The key thing to remember here is that TV shows can course-correct. If something’s not working, they can change. If a romance isn’t clicking, then it can end; if a bunch of new characters are boring people, then the show can stage an exciting death orgy and wipe the deck clean. (The best example I can think of is 24‘s third season, which started out as a lame season about druglord brothers and suddenly turned into an awesome season about Jack Bauer fighting his very own Alec Trevelyan.) In a fascinating interview with Alan Sepinwall, the Breaking Bad showrunner noted that the writing process for season 3 was “like improvisational jazz.”

The problem is that, to a certain extent, having an end date ruins the possibility of course correction — and improvisation becomes more and more difficult. It’s true that most creators of serialized television shows have a vague idea of where they want their show to end, but when you’re working towards a vague goal, you can take plenty of exciting jaunts, and change direction if you find a blind alley. If you look closely at long-running serialized shows that went into their final season knowing that they were reaching an end, you find a depressing amount of common problems: Storylines slow to a crawl. The characters seem more like chess pieces being set up for a series finale mastestroke. Characters or plot arcs that would have been jettisoned in earlier seasons become incredibly important, simply because the creators need them to reach their planned ending — call this “The Lapidus Corollary,” named for the character on Lost who hung around for three seasons just because the writers needed an airplane pilot. It was true of Battlestar Galactica, which spent a depressing amount of its final season devoted to Kara Thrace’s search for herself. It was true of The Wire, which spent its last season restating old points about the horribleness of contemporary bureaucracy and dallied on the interminable fake serial killer plot. It was certainly true of Lost, which had a final season that was simultaneously too static (oh god, the Temple) and too frantic (quick, go to Hydra Island! Now come back to the main Island! Now go back to Hydra Island!).

Mind you: All three of those shows are incredible works, representing the pinnacle of the television form, and there are masterful episodes in their final seasons. But that’s what makes me so skeptical about end dates, and about the whole notion of “endings” in regards to TV shows: Even the best, the very best television shows seem to fall victim to narrative paralysis as their absolute climaxes approach.

Sometimes, this has the chilling effect of completely altering a show’s DNA. For much of its running time, the joy of Battlestar Galactica was that it was not a typical sci-fi show about big space battles… and then, somehow, the series finale wound up hinging on a big space battle. Or, to pick an example that is the geographic opposite of Battlestar Galactica: The best thing about Sex and the City was that it had a complicated, endlessly skeptical perspective on romance, but the series finale gave every character their own fairy-tale worthy happy ending. (Todd VanDerWerff of the AV Club noted that the planned conclusion of Deadwood would have featured an elaborate cataclysm seemingly at odds with the show’s subtle themes… which is why, bizarrely, Deadwood might have benefited from not having a final season.)

Breaking Bad is an indisputably great show, and it would be ridiculous to become skeptical about its future just because its brilliant writers now know exactly how much longer they have to trace their characters’ moral decline. But it’s important to remember that only one American TV show has thus far benefited from having a very specific end date in mind going into its final season. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that The Sopranos is the rare show in modern television that openly refused to end with anything like an explosive climax, or a final reckoning, or a closing statement… because it didn’t really end at all. Can Breaking Bad equal The Sopranos‘ accomplishment? We’ll know in 2013.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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