One week from now, at approximately 10:15 p.m., the internet will explode. That’s because it will be seconds after the credits roll on the final episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and everyone—no matter what the ending—will have something very important to say.
Will Walter White—the high school science teacher turned murderous meth kingpin—receive his moral comeuppance, or will he walk off into the New Mexico sunset? Will his scorned business partner Jesse finally see vengeance, or will he die at the hands of Walt’s new neo-Nazi buddies? Will Walter Jr. enjoy another delicious breakfast at the White household, or will he be doomed to walk the earth, Kwai Chang Caine style, forever searching for a satisfactory pancake? Whatever happens, it won’t make a difference, not really: for the millions watching at home and then immediately commenting online, there will be no entirely satisfactory conclusion.
Who can we blame for such a mess? Well, me, for starters, and the army of television recappers and commentators who make their livelihood dissecting creativity. In this era of highly scrutinized viewing—where every drama sparks a million words online, and at least twice as many GIFs—it’s become impossible for showrunners to stick the landing, to please each and every fan. Not when audiences blog, tweet, Tumbl and screen-capture episodes for posterity, each eager to be the first to slam or praise. And not when critics can expend thousands of words detailing why, exactly, an episode didn’t live up to the massive expectations they set for it, week after week, year after year.
It didn’t use to be this way. Only a decade ago, things were different—not better, necessarily, just different. Sunday nights, for instance, were far less stressful than they are now, for viewer and critic alike. When a TV drama reached its natural end—when all plots and/or contract negotiations had been explored—it received a few highly placed eulogies from the top newspapers and magazines, maybe 800 words a pop, and we all moved on. Sure, some of the more divisive finales—the fantastical St. Elsewhere bait-and-switch, the moral comeuppance of Seinfeld—sparked mild grumbling, but those who were still talking about it a week later were dismissed as water-cooler cranks. What else, everyone wondered, was on next?
Then, Television Without Pity picked up steam in the early aughts, and TV recaps—irresistible mini-essays coated in snark and layered with an oft-profound/disturbing level of attention to detail—became essential post-TV reading, a sort of syllabus for understanding, for truly experiencing, your favourite program. It became socially acceptable to obsess.
Flash forward a few years, and the landscape is now awash with TV recappers, small armies of quick typists and even quicker wits spilling words about what they—and you, yes you!—just experienced not an hour ago. On Sunday nights, after the prestige cable dramas typically air, the web can resemble a spoiler-fuelled traffic jam, with arguments rear-ending each other at a furious clip.
With this rise in quick-to-criticize TV recappers—from the hyper-detailed musings of The AV Club‘s Todd VanDerWerff to the bratty wit of Grantland‘s Andy Greenwald to the wise grandfatherly sage of them all, Alan Sepinwall—comes an inevitable sense of disappointment. The more columns you read (hell, even The New Republic is now in the game) and the more a show is dissected, the easier it is to detect flaws, to find imperfection. To be disappointed.
This isn’t to say such criticism is bad or unwanted—it’s impossible to tally how many excellent points have been made by Sepinwall and his ilk—it’s just hard to deny how the movement has changed the modern television landscape. It’s gotten to the point that no one showrunner could possibly secure each and every columnist’s wholesale seal of approval, to deliver so perfect a product that recappers will just set aside their keyboards after typing, “Yep, perfect. Nothing more to say here.” Everyone wants to be a unique voice, a contrarian.
As Breaking Bad nears its end Sept. 29, let’s all take a moment to think of series mastermind Vince Gilligan. No matter what he chooses to do—no matter which direction he throws Walt—he will never live up to our expectations, and we’ll make our disappointment known right here, online, where it will echo for weeks and years.
It will be the same problem Matthew Weiner faces in 2015, when Mad Men wraps up. Ditto Kurt Sutter for Sons of Anarchy, and Alan Ball for True Blood. Try as they might, their hour-long efforts to entertain will never satisfy, not when there are two dozen perfectly well-reasoned and expertly researched pieces arguing the exact opposite, all posted not 45 minutes after the show ends.
So here’s to you, Walter White. No matter what happens to you next Sunday, we’ll never forget you. Or stop complaining.