"Breaking Bad syndrome" and Game of Thrones


The most recent season of Game of Thrones represented a fulcrum in the show’s trajectory. Season six will be remembered as the transition between the beginning and the end of the overarching story that is The Song of Ice and Fire. In the traditional three-act structure, season six was the end of act two, and season seven will begin act three.

The final act of any narrative work of fiction is traditionally the diciest and most difficult to pull off successfully. A satisfying conclusion requires the conflicts and characters to have been set up perfectly in the preceding acts, and that there be some uncertainty as to how the conflicts will be resolved. If a conclusion is telegraphed, it is unsatisfying because it is too predictable; if it is unexpected, it is unsatisfying because it makes the audience feel as if they’ve been lead down a false path. Pulling off a memorable, satisfying conclusion is one of the most difficult tasks facing writers of narrative fiction, and it’s no surprise that George R.R. Martin would rather abandon his story two books from the ending than he would play out the predictable threads he spent five books laying out. More often than not, it’s a thankless task.

Yet the television show Game of Thrones faces a set of conflicting forces more or less compelling it to drag out its inevitable ending for as long as possible. Game of Thrones has been inflicted with the mixed blessing that is “Breaking Bad syndrome,” which occurs when a show gains popularity near the end of its run. As with Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones has accrued viewers and cultural capital at an increasing rate during its time on the air: the season one high for Game of Thrones was 3.04 millions viewers, while the season six finale garnered nearly 9 million. These are stark figures that mirror Breaking Bad, which peaked at one and a half million viewers in seasons one and two and capped out at an astonishing 10.28 million for its series finale.

Now this may all feel like needless number crunching, but the recent announcement that Game of Thrones seasons will now be truncated should be viewed in the context of Breaking Bad, which was also capped off with two short seasons instead of one normal-length one. This method was pioneered by The Sopranos, which split is final season into two half-seasons that together add up to slightly more episodes than one full one. The strategy here should be obvious, as it has been adopted lately by certain movie franchises as well: double your subscriber attraction and awards potential by cashing in twice on the conclusion of a series that gained popularity slowly but steadily. It’s a cynical move designed to maximize return on investment that pays no heed to the creative side of television production.

Pair this needless expansion in schedule with the bad habits that nearly always infect writers of television shows that are nearing the end of their run and you have a recipe for the most frustrating type of disaster, that which is heralded as a triumph by the general public. Take, for example, The Sopranos, a show that captured, perhaps better than any other, the vicissitudes of the quotidian, and made a compelling case for television as the medium of our time. Behind the flashy criminal aspects of the show’s mafia setting are the daily motions of a group of human beings working their way through late capitalism as best they can, dealing with issues that predate and will continue past the trajectory of the show’s seven seasons. Yet the final season of the show does everything it can to “conclude” as many of these plots as possible, which inevitably takes the form of killing off a shocking number of major characters. And while the final scene features a brilliant bit of staging and editing, it ultimately undermines the show’s thesis about the intersection between the brutal and mundane aspects of human existence by forcing the audience to recognize the end of the story.

Other shows have fallen into this same trap, including The Wire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, most egregiously, Breaking Bad. The writers feel the need to kill off or otherwise conclude every long-standing plot, often before it feels natural to do so. The worst offender by far is Breaking Bad, the final episode of which makes a point to tie up every single loose end in a way that seems pulled from a piece of fan fiction. What these terminal plot lines fail to understand is that narrative, serialized television benefits from its inherent open-endedness. The end of a season of television should be like the end of a calendar year, which is to say, a demarcation of time's passage, not the end of it. While movies and novels tell self-contained stories with set beginnings, middles, and ends, television has the unique capacity to mirror the way we experience our own lives, which is to say, as an unbroken series of related events punctuated by a calendar. Even if a television show ends, the characters should be imagined to continue their lives from that point just the same as they did at the end of every preceding season. Ideally, the end of any one season of a show should be indistinguishable from the end of its final season, because anything less is a betrayal of the spirit of the medium of television.

The tendency, however, is to strive for closure at the expense of verisimilitude. So you get Daniels’ unnaturally truncated reign at the end of The Wire, the series of executions at the end of The Sopranos, the countless deaths that hollow out Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s core cast, and the countless pieces of fan service that concluded Breaking Bad, all of which serve to tie the storylines up in a neat little bow that refutes any further character growth beyond them. Arguably, Six Feet Under has the best ending of any serialized television show, in which it purposefully jumps forward in time to the deaths of each character at natural points. Instead of hurrying the ending, it closed out the main storyline (Nate’s tumor) while leaving the rest of the characters on their own trajectories. While its final minutes in some sense subvert the expectations of the viewer by showing the end of every character’s life, the montage fits so well with the show’s theme of dealing with death that it ends up being incredibly touching and, importantly, doe not feel forced or rushed.

All of which makes me fear greatly for the coming seasons of Game of Thrones. As astute viewers, we can deduce from the end of season six exactly, nearly down to the placement of events in each episode, what is going to happen in the show’s final seasons, which will be stretched out as long as possible for economic reasons. Paradoxically, these final seasons will almost certainly be the most widely-seen and talked about of the show’s entire run, resulting in a classic case of “Breaking Bad syndrome” where the show reaches peak popularity and cultural penetration after it has already passed the point where it was great. In some ways, this arc is unavoidable, as it is the great seasons that tend to attract viewers who catch up on the show between seasons and then begin adding to the viewer numbers after the fact, but this doesn’t make the trend any less disappointing. Regardless, prepare yourselves for an unimaginable amount of Jon Snow memes and Cersei/Danaerys inspired think pieces going forward, even as the show continues to replace its subversive take on fantasy with a series of tensionless computer-generated battles that play out the epic struggle of good against evil with tiresome predictability. Can you really blame Martin for abandoning the story after act two?

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