Creation part 3: difficulty impresses

I’ve already written about this subject, but

1) It was over four years ago.


2) It needs another going over in the context of Difficult Men.

Many of the people reading this will by now have seen the final episode of Breaking Bad. For those that didn’t (no spoiler alert) it was a perfect end to an almost-perfect (the ‘fly’ episode was shite) work of filmed fiction: consistent in tone and plot with the preceding 50something hours; surprising yet inevitable; and never putting a foot wrong even though there were 10,000 crappy ways to go and very few astounding ones.

That got me thinking about just how amazing an achievement these series are. We heap endless praise on shorter works, such as Fargo, Goodfellas and even the six hours of The Godfather Parts 1&2 (not Part 3, obv), but for that level of quality to be sustained over two solid days is something I find difficult to comprehend.

In the book there’s a section where the Breaking Bad writers discuss a point of the plot which goes to and fro for a few days until Vince Gilligan reaches a solution he’s happy with. This is the part I really find hard to understand: the removal of possibilities until the one that truly works remains. As a writer I know that’s like the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where there are many cups that could be the Holy Grail, but only one which actually is. Drinking from the wrong ones will kill you; drinking from the right one will make you immortal. And so many times has an otherwise perfect cup-chooser made a clunky decision that ruins everything. If you want an example of that check out season 5 of The Wire: the first episode is awful, but the lack of quality continues with a strange plotline involving McNulty pretending there’s a serial killer on the loose. 50 hours of perfection followed by 10 hours of patchiness. Then look at the follow up series from The Wire writers: Treme and Generation Kill were, by all accounts very good, but they weren’t The Wire.

And Dexter isn’t Deadwood.

And The Shield isn’t The Sopranos.

And Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an abomination.

Good is difficult. Excellent is nearly impossible. 50-60 hours of sustained excellence? I can barely imagine taking on something that hard and having it work out.

That’s why it’s not just the content of these shows that leaves you shaking your head in wonder.

It’s the achievement.