Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Chekhov’s Gun (Updated)

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UPDATE (April 9 2012): It has just been brought my attention that Mad Men will run for seven seasons total, not five as I previously thought. Any predictions made below regarding Mad Men, while certainly still possible, are subject to change. I will revisit them once season 6 ends (assuming the show has not gone down the toilet by that point). Breaking Bad remains firm.

Last year, I discovered two shows that coincidentally were both broadcast on the AMC network: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Both are absolutely amazing, and I would be kicking myself for waiting so long to watch them if I wasn’t so busy enjoying them.

One thing I applaud the writers and producers for is intentionally limiting the series — both will be entering their fifth, and final, season this year; This was a planned demolition, so to speak, and the shows will die in a dignified and respectable manner, unlike some shows that have taken on an almost undead / Frankenstein’s monster type feel. (*coughSimpsonscough*)

One nice thing about a tightly-run series is that it becomes a lot easier to make predictions about the direction the show is going based on character arcs; sort of a derivation of Chekhov’s Gun. My idea is that skilled writers will resolve the characters naturally to let them make their landings, gracefully, in turn.

Bumpy Landings

Shows that run for a long time and then end have this awkward feeling of a bumpy landing for their characters’ denouements; a show that must keep the arcs airborne for so long cannot as easily develop a descent that will appear to be fitting — Chekhov’s gun, in this case, would have been made to appear to be a fixture to give it an air of permanence, before being used as a blunt instrument to kill off a deserving villain or tragic hero.

Mad Men

A recent article I picked up on twitter was titled “Do We Want Don Draper to be Happy?” – the central point of which seems to be waxing poetic about how Mad Men is just Schadenfreude pornography. Says the writer:

“I can’t wait to see what kind of self-loathing trip Don gets stuck on, or to find out when, why, and how his engagement (or marriage) to Megan goes down in flames. Hell, I want him to keep having ambivalent feelings about Betty, even though I wouldn’t really wish her on anybody! … but as a fan of Mad Men, I thrive on Don Draper’s misery.”

Draper does appear to have a chronic case of failing to “get it right”, no matter how much he chases it. His ephemeral happiness seems to waft through a structure built mostly from his stolid resilience to the constant suffering of his gilded cage; he catches glimpses of happiness: his moments with Anna (before she died), his playtime in California (after just getting divorced), the birth of his son (who will grow up not knowing his true father), etc.

However I don’t want to see him to continue to suffer — I want him to finally reach some level of acceptance. Most of the Guns placed in this series’ plots have been fired — his misplaced identity has been outed to most, his affairs finally resulted in divorce, etc. But where is he headed?

His character appears to be on a lemmings’ journey in the footsteps of Roger Sterling — womanizing and excessive drinking & smoking is starting to catch up with him; his mid-life crisis has torn apart his family and he finds solace in the arms of a woman possibly young enough to be his daughter. And yet something is different; he has explored the Bohemian world — a world without material attachment and has, on more than one occasion, discovered brief happiness in those gaps between accomplishments — that Zen-like stillness.

I believe that Don Draper’s destiny as a character is to further explore, and finally accept, the non-materialist reality. I believe that Sterling will continue to be Draper’s foil — marching right off that cliff of era/gender-stereotype; but I think Draper will wake up and tear away, and I think he will find happiness, even if that happiness is found under the wraps of his own mortal coil. The penultimate season, with the anti-tobacco ad being run in the Times, suggests that Draper’s awakening may provide a revoluationary spin and direction for Sterling-Draper-Campbell-Pryce which could ultimately be its salvation, if the other partners are willing to trust him in that venture.

The “death” of Draper seems more likely to be of the transformative, rather than literal, variety — the Draper that we knew in the beginning of the series will be left behind, and he will begin a new life, carried away by ephemeral happiness from his tower built on steel rods of suffering.

Breaking Bad

The Gun on the mantle of this show is, obviously, the fact that he is essentially the somewhat-reluctant Meth Kingpin of the Southwest and his brother-in-law works for the DEA. His cancer is a latent Gun; perhaps locked away in a closet somewhere. His son’s blissful ignorance must end as well.

I think for the series to resolve White’s character, he has to die. Cancer seems the most elegant, although it would be far more ironic to have him die as a result of his underworld life — since he entered that world to try and survive longer (money to pay for treatment), surviving cancer and being killed by that new life would be very poetic.

White’s alarmingly rapid ascent has been matched only by the unfurling of his own arrogance and ego, consuming his own morality in the process. Where can he go from here, really? I suspect that the traumatic experiences he faced in the explosive (heh.) fourth season may scare him straight, and so the fifth season will focus on his struggle to do things the right way — to run his car wash, live modestly off of the little money he has left behind, to try and return to his life as it was in the first season (minus the teaching gig, of course).

But I don’t think it will last — he will want to go legit, and he may even rationally know that it is the best path; but his hungry ego, his intellect, will not be satisfied with mere small-business-ownership. The lack of challenge will push him back towards the underworld, where the power vacuum has been filled by a rat race of would-be gangsters and drug lords; and I think this involvement will result in his brother-in-law accidentally determining that White is Heisenberg; and his son will find out in the ensuing fallout.

The whole series has been set up as a tragedy — White must die, and if the ending is not completely tragic it will be, at best, bittersweet — an accepted apology to Walt Junior before getting shanked in the showers, for example.

One possibility, although this would be really tough to pull off, is that White’s corrupting influence on his family will extend to his son. He has already caused Skyler to break bad, as well — and Walt Jr.’s naive idolatry of his father will implode like a black hole when he discovers the truth — but I don’t think the writers will eradicate the purity of Walt Jr; he will pull through, and help redeem his mother. But Walt Sr. is a goner.

Jesse will, I think, finally actualize. His character arc has taken him through many trials-by-fire that have tempered his resolve, his self-confidence, and his self-image. He has grown much as a character and believe he has the footing to either go straight, leaving the game entirely (juxtaposed by Walt’s eclipse into the dark side), or he will become the next Kingpin. This could really go either way — but I believe Jesse will survive; the entire series has been built around the contrasting developments between Walt and Jesse — Jesse becomes more moral, more composed, more successful, as the series progresses whereas Walt has becoming equally immoral, chaotic and inexplicably failing.

These contrasting paths must be continued and taken to completion — and the end result is, I predict, a successful Jesse (either as a Kingpin or, and I think this could be more likely, as a college student) who finally gains approval from a Walt who finally slips into oblivion; Walt’s own perspective on what he has become finally becoming clear when he sees the heights Jesse has risen to.

Your thoughts? Who gon’ die?