Breaking Bad Season 3’s Epic Finale

First of all, shout out to the amazing use of that opening preamble section. As the show’s matured, they’ve put those couple minutes before the Opening Titles to amazing use. What’s refreshing about it is that since the show is otherwise so tightly written, each tiny moment builds the story, they have the luxury of using these vignettes for worldbuilding, backstory and character development. That’s why we have these amazing bite-sized treats like the narcocorrido about Walter White, in its entirety, the commercial for Los Pollos Hermanos dissolving to a Picture Picture like montage of meth production and the sad, telling moments of backstory that are inessential but beautiful. Love.

Second of all, I honestly thought this season was going to fall prey to the Amazing Penultimate Episode Disorder I blogged about with Boardwalk Empire earlier. Halfway through the season, we got this incredible war in a parking lot. It results in the loss of two antagonists that they’d been building up as badass since day one and while Walter wasn’t directly involved, it felt like a finale in a lot of ways. Now, at the time it’s clear part of the hugeness of this event is that it’s all orchestrated by Gus, it solidifies him as a tactical genius and as such even more badass and formidable an opponent than the twins, so yes, I see how it’s all an amazing set up. At the same time, about three quarters the way through things start to lose steam. It almost feels like a new season without the twins and with Hank out of commission and Jessie back cooking. It’s disconcerting. Then this conflict with the drug dealers from last season comes up and it feels a little forced — a stroke of randomness, Jessie meeting and getting together with the sister of the child that shot one of his dealers last season, causes him to suddenly want to beef with them. It’s the second absurdly random plot point that sets things in a whole new direction (last season was Walt’s chance meeting with Jane’s dad in a bar the night she died).

You know when else this happened? The Dragon Tattoo series. They had built up some amazing bad guys and then they just killed em off midway through the series and while I still love those books, I think they could’ve gotten a lot more traction if they’d kept some of those vile cats around a little longer.

Anyway, then the penulimate epi rolls around and it’s fucking excellent, full of tension and oh shit oh shit, even with the somewhat outta nowhere conflict and the sense of deja vu as Walt once again steps in a saves Jessie’s aintshit ass. I thought, one more time and that’s gonna become a shtick, yaknow? But there was more to come. Instead of spending the whole finale cleaning up the mess and slow winding down to some faux-ass sense of closure, the last episode just ratchets everything up. From the first tense meet-up to forge a fragile ceasefire in the desert onward, each scene builds on the last to land at the final, disastrous sequence: a perfect set up that demands Jessie step out of his always fucking up, always getting saved shell and make a decision. The problem is, the ‘right’ decision, to save his partner’s life, requires him to take someone else’s in cold blood.

This ending does everything an ending should: the threat is real. When Gus’s hitmen pick up Walt and for the first time we seem really lose his cool, actually beg for his life, it’s both emotionally gripping and the threat is real. Even knowing the show goes on, we really feel like he might get it. The stakes are high. The enemy has been slowly established over the season as the baddest of bad guys, even if he appears mild mannered, we know he’s ruthless and brilliant. The outer conflict intwines flawlessly with the inner ones, both Walt’s descent into full on gangster/tension with being a family man and Jessie’s need to be decisive/not a self absorbed fuckup. So the final final last moment, where we’re wondering in those awful seconds which of the two impossible choices Jessie will land on, is earned. And then it just blacks out, and all the things that may or may not happen next hang in the air around us until we cue up season 4….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boardwalk Empire’s Amazing Penultimate Episode Disorder

***Massive Spoilers throughout***

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Boardwalk Empire wrapped up last week and while it remains one of the best written/acted/produced/directed shows on TV, the finale left much to be desired. One thing that seems to happen with a lot of HBO shows is the phenomenon of having an outstanding second to last episode and then a sputter out finale. True Blood has done this, the Sopranos did it. Game of Thrones is KING of it: Season 1’s second to last episode was the BeNedding. Season 2’s was the Hellfire battle, season 3 was the Red Wedding. WHAT?? And their finales were…uh, some stuff happened.

Last season, Boardwalk Empire ended with two almost perfect episodes, gathering tension and then releasing in perfectly timed street wars and reunions. I mean…It was a breathless, violent, complex end that tied up just enough loose ends without being tidy or leaving us hanging. This season, the setup was there. Episode 4.11, Havre de Grace, focuses on Chalky’s desperate escape to his old mentor’s country house (the always amazing Louis Gossett Jr.) and the building tension between Nucky and his brother, who’s informing for the FBI. Every scene sizzles with the feeling that someone’s about to get got and with Chalky, you really don’t want it to be him. Dr. Narcisse’s malevolent shadow lurks even he’s not on screen and the closing shootout in front of Oscar’s decrepit old house is expertly filmed. On top of that, you have the gripping climax of Gillian’s betrayal and confession. Really, the show rivals any big screen gangster movie in the past ten, maybe twenty years.

Then comes the finale, much anticipated, and the whole of its action pretty much hinges on this one showdown between Chalky and Dr. N, a moment we’ve literally been waiting for all season. What happens? A missed opportunity, both for Chalky and narratively. The shot aimed for Dr. Narcisse hit the wrong person, chaos erupts, Richard gets hit in the crossfire, walks off to die, Dr. Ngets arrested, Chalky withdraws to Oscar’s country house, essentially becoming his old mentor, Nucky sticks around to pick up the pieces of his broken family now that his brother’s on the run after killing the FBI handler. I mean…it all just sat there. The tension didn’t resolve to much as fizzle out, the status quo remained uneventfully unchallenged and at the end you just feel like, well, that happened. In the words of that famous emo Pisces, I’m just saying you could do better…

 

 

Some Awesome Story Things About Breaking Bad Seasons 1 & 2

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Just finished season 2 of Breaking Bad, #EpicLatePass I know yes, shut up whatever I’m a busy man so there it is. Anyway, I guess everyone already knows it’s amazing and all that but here are some things in the story-craft department that struck me as particularly above and beyond the regular bullshit we’re used to. Mad spoilers ahead, duh.

No Easy Answers:

This comes mainly in the realm of character. Take Ted Beneke, Skyler’s recently-divorced boss/work crush and Don Margolis, Jane’s dad. An average, lazily written show would’ve made Ted a lecherous creep – he’s the protagonist’s love-realm competition so we’re supposed to dislike him. He’d make a pass or be somehow grovely and pathetic, victory would be sweet for how sniveling dude was in comparison to Walt’s awesomeness. Instead, Ted is a decent guy, he’s not over the top, he’s corrupt but struggling with the morality of it (and who is NOT corrupt on this show anyway…)  and Skyler has righteous grief with her lying ass husband. She might even be better off with Ted. Don Margolis appears at first like an overcontrolling dickhole of a dad, through the eyes of his daughter Jane, and we’re all set to see him square off with her and Jessie as they fall in love and get all cutesy. Then Jane relapses and we see Don has been going to NA meetings with her and standing by her, apparently patiently, through her struggle with addiction for ten years. He doesn’t lose his mind and kill Jessie when Jane dies, he just stands there stunned.

Hank is another one. He’d be so easy to write as the idiot cop brother-in-law and in a lot of ways, he is. But he’s also brilliant and it’s clear that he needs to be, because it looks like one day it’s going to come down to him and Walt facing off and Walt is already smart as fuck and learning from each of his mistakes so if things are gonna get real, there better be an evenly matched splay. I’m sure allyall that already know what happens are snickering. Har har.

Colliding Layers of Disaster

It’s never just one thing gong wrong on Breaking Bad, it’s EVERYFUCKINGTHING at once. Not just in the finale, in everyfuckingepisode. The most important drug deal ever is about to happen and if it doesn’t they’re fucked and Skylar’s in labor and already distrustful and Walt doesn’t know where the stash is and Jessie’s all fucked up on heroin and and and…it’s awesome.

Colliding Layers of Meaning

Which gets to what works overall about the show – it’s not just about a chem teacher turned meth dealer, it’s about surviving cancer. Neither is just a cheap sideplot, each could be the full focus of the show, each gets treated with respect and patience. Most shows it’ll be like A SNARKY ALLIGATOR FARMER oh and he’s also a wall street banker wow! And one or the other will be utter trash, cardboard cut out version of fake ass TV land reality that no one gives a fuck about. 🙂

Cause and Effect But Also, Chaos

There’s an amazing amount of this happened which made this happened which made this happened going on. For ex: homeboy gets shot, so they lose their distributors and Jessie gets high, so they seek dude at the Pollo spot and Jane relapses and gets Jessie on heroin, so they need to make the big deal go down and Jessie’s high, so Walt cuts him out of his money, etc etc all the way through to the plane crash – which to me tipped the boundaries of possibility and relevance some but was still epically built up to. This domino/butterfly effect makes everything so fucking interesting, because nothing happens in a vacuum and each action is buffeted by everything that comes before and after it. This is so much richer than the typical One Off Episode strategy – “this is the episode about time travel! This is the episode about addiction! and so on into oblivion.”

Within all this dominoing though, there’s always chaos hard at work, jacking things up. Obstacles pile on top of each other and when they’re peeled off it’s generally not deus ex machina but some deeply built in mechanism of relief that had been there all along. The old tío in the desert shack that both almost gets them killed by dinalinging that damn bell to alert his sociopath nephew he’s being poisoned AND ALSO saves their asses because he wont’ break the code of silence, even to implicate his sworn enemies. Yes. Saw it coming and didn’t care at all, because it made sense. Built that shit right in. Amen.

Now. Can we have some none drug dealing Mexcian characters or is that too much to ask?

Don’t answer that. And don’t Do Not doooonnntttt post any spoilers from future seasons in the comments sections or I’ll block that ass like Gandalf. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

El Sendero: Next Big Thing Blog

 

So this is a blog thread going around where different writers update on what we’re working on and then pass it along. I was tagged by Kiini Ibura Salaam who got it from Ibi Zoboi, both amazing writers I’m proud to be in a collective with.

What is the working title of your next book?

The Book Of Lost Saints

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My friend Sam The Mad Astrologer and I were taking a walk, I was harrumphing about maybe writing something directly about Cuba instead of just symbolically about it, he said what about ghosts from the Isle of Pines prison? My uncle was a political prisoner there, although this isn’t his story by any means. Something clicked when he said that. I got quiet, went home and started plotting. Growing up hearing stories about the mostly forgotten struggles in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Revolution has left me fascinated by the crossroads of myth, family memories and history. This book sits right in those crossroads, smoking a cigar.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary Fiction
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Gael Garcia Bernal (From Y Tu Mamá También) could be Ramon, the DJ/hospital security guard that ends up traveling to Cuba to find out what happened to his long lost aunt, Marisol.
Marisol could be played by the great singer Chavela Vargas. That fact that she’s dead shouldn’t be a problem, the aunt shows up mainly in spirit form anyway. And yes, as Mexicans they’d have to work to get that Cuban accent right, but if a Spaniard like Javier Bardem can do it in Before Night Falls so can they.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

The spirit of a disappeared Cuban political dissident tries to get her DJ nephew to uncover the truth about what happened to her.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m currently repped by Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’ve been writing for a year and I’m about 2/3 through it. Plan to finish in the next few months and have the second draft done by December.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
There’s a fantastic Spanish book called Soldados de Salamina that plays with a lot of similar ideas about uncovering the troubled history to understand the troubled present. La Sombra del Viento is another Spanish one. Both are about the civil war there. Tananarive Due’s The Good House is a great example of spirituality and family history interconnecting that I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?Besides the stories I grew up on, I’m inspired by the many, many untold stories of the Cuban experience that don’t fit into the simple, one extreme or another equation we generally see presented. We’re so much more complex than just right wing or communist fanatics; this book is about people who believe passionately in freedom but don’t fit into such easy categories.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I crafted the hospital scenes from my experience working as a 911 paramedic these past nine years in NYC. I crafted the club scenes from my experience…going to clubs…these past nine years in NYC. There’s also several Santeros (also crafted from experience), a parallel storyline dealing with the Cuban Revolution, an old corrupt politico and a whoooole bunch of sex (also craft…nevermind).

Coming up: posts from three super amazing writers- my sister Malka Older, my mentee Sorahya Moore and my friend S. Nicole Brown…

 

El Sendero: Saying No To Your Characters

Soooo while writing today I did something totally against my nature as a writer: I went back and edited a scene I’d written the day before. IN FACT I literally just blogged about how I don’t do that. What I do is steam power through first drafts, chop chop chop and mark down any changes I know will have to be made in a separate document. Because to me first drafts are all about momentum, write with your whole body yes? Yes.

BUT.

Several things: I was feeling a little stuck on some minor but aching plot points. And I have this one character – he’s not the most emotive dude in the playground. Which could be okay, growth and arc and whatnot yeah, but he’s the protagonist AND his life is narrated by a very very emotive spirit AND he’s always meeting interesting people that know how to deal with their emotions aaaaaand I’m like what? 2/3 in. So yeah, the dude has to start dealing with his shit.  And in this scene i wrote he’s really just going through the motions.

AND

I’m reading Robert McKee’s STORY, which is actually about screenplay writing but is a must read for any writer, i totally recommend it x 1 million and in it, he drops this interesting little dewdrop of story theory:

“True action is physical, vocal or mental movement that opens gaps in expectation and create significant change. Mere activity is behavior in which what is expected happens, generating either no change or trivial change.”

I had to read the whole section like 8 times to make sense of it, but in short, what was happening in my scene was mere activity. It was pretty, the words were nice and there were things happening that mattered but also not really. Not in the sense of TRUE ACTION (sounds like a bad Arnold movie). McKee is saying the source of tension that pushes fiction forward is in the difference between what characters think will happen and what really happens. This is puts fire under our people, ignites the many little movements that amount to a true arc.

I used to do comedy improv in college and one of the rules you use in improv is The No No Rule. It means no matter what the other person in your scene says, you can’t say no to it, because if you do the scene crumbles and there’s no trust developed between the actors. “And now I will fly us to the moon! Away we go!”

“No you won’t.”

“Oh.”

*Scene shatters into a billion little pieces*

Right. In fiction though, i think it’s the opposite. As the writer you have to be constantly saying no to your characters. Oh you thought this was gonna be easy? No. You thought she would love you back just like that? Nah. You thought if you finally expressed your emotions everything would go your way? Nein. And the stakes keep climbing, the gap between what’s expected and what happens widens and the action propels us forward. Yes.

So I went back, opened up a bunch of return keys in the scene and got deep in Ramon’s troubled head. And what happened? The story swerved off in awhole other direction. One that I wasn’t at all prepared for…in fact, I didn’t expect it (realizing this AS i type…) and so something great happened: True Action, both in the piece and my own writer brain, and my story opened up wide.

This ever happened to you? What unexpected gifts has leaving your comfort zone brought to your storytelling?

 

 

Endings 6: Something Has Changed

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

6. Something has changed

This element is a reinforcement of the general rule that no story should be just a day in the life. Specifically as it relates to ending though: The word climax really means a turning point. Something has changed inalterably during the course of the action. That’s why it’s point A to point B, not to point A. It may be a change in consciousness or societal norms. But it’s something, and it matters. Otherwise, it’s all ho-hum and the feeling will likely be wondering what the point of all that was.

 

 

Endings 4 & 5: Suspense And Inevitability

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here. Epic massive #SpoilerAlert: The whole last paragraph (but only the last paragraph) basically tells the whole ending of The Hunger Games (Just book 1). You been warned.

 

 

4. It Really Might Not Work Out

The sense of risk must be palpable. This is distinct from predictability. The general presumption of the reader is that yes, things will all work out all for the best, mostly because it usually does. So the challenge for the author becomes disabusing the reader of that assumption. This starts from the very beginning of the book but ratchets up more and more as the story plays out. Put another way, the hero must surmount seemingly insurmountable odds. Here’s where the whole writers must be sadists towards our main characters piece comes in. Or as they say, write yourself into a corner. Whatever it may be, without some sense that something nearly impossible needs to be accomplished, none of the other shit really matters.

 

5. But When It Does It Feels Inevitable

This can seem to be in conflict with #4 and I think here’s where the real challenge and opportunity for amazingness come to play with endings. Between these two seemingly at-odds elements, that success doesn’t seem possible at all but then once it happens, it’s the most natural thing in the world, lies the tension that propels the last section of a book into a momentous finale. This tension and its resolution can create a sense of finality and satisfaction that makes you close the book on the last page and just sit there smiling.

In the final moments of the Hunger Games, you’re exhausted from so much narrative climaxing, but not in a bad way. The danger has been coming relentlessly for chapter after chapter and its breathless and brilliant. Then, just when you think it’s all over, the worst possible scenario has been averted and the bad guy dispatched messily with a hint of discomfort appropriate to the humanity of the characters, the government makes a final, ghastly decree that will ruin all that hard work getting to this point. And you’re infuriated. But it makes sense, it’s totally within the scope of manipulation and power plays the government’s been doing all this time. You don’t know how they’re possibly going to avoid total tragedy now and you don’t have time to sit there thinking about a solution because it all happens so fast, you still haven’t caught your breath from Whastiname getting slowly chewed to death beneath the cornucopia. Then Katniss uses the poison berries, which she’d helpfully gathered earlier, but more than that she uses the government’s own sense of theater and fear of martyrdom against them. She outmaneuvers them at their own game. And of course she does: She’s been watching, skeptically, learning, all this time. She understands the theater of tragedy and triumph that the Ones have been playing, so her final, daring move is not only brilliant but has precedence to the earlier story. It all makes sense! But it seemed so impossible! Success.

Endings 3: Promise Fulfilled

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

3. The Ending Is A Fulfillment of the Promise Made at the Beginning

 

In Beginnings, Middles And Endings, Nancy Kress describes the beginning as a promise. Implicit within the prose, the way we’re introduced to characters, the flow and sense of danger – built into all that is a certain sense of how this story will play out, what kind of hard truth or humor we’ll meet along the way. The best endings, more than being surprising or explosive, need to be an answer to that question posed at the beginning. They fit within the pattern established on page one, even if they’re shocking, it’s within a certain realm of shocking. The same key, to use a musical analogy.

Endings 2: A Gathering Of Forces

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here.

2. A Gathering Of Forces

An ending is a culmination. At its most ethereal, this could mean the various emotional motifs through the book gather to explode and reveal some revelation. Generally though, it’s the literal accumulation of different physical forces involved in the story. The clearest example is the final showdowns in the Lord Of The Rings books, particularly The Hobbit and The Return Of The King, both of which end with epic battles that feature wave after wave of guest appearances by creature armies from throughout the story.

Imbedded in this gathering is the rising tension. Something important and out of the ordinary is happening, just by virtue of everyone finally being in the same room after being dispersed more evenly earlier on. The weight of importance is built in.

Endings 1: The Stakes

This is part one of an ongoing series of posts on elements that make endings work. The intro is here. Today’s #SpoilerAlert is for The English Patient. Enjoy!
  1. Stakes Are High

The corollary to this is We Care About The Charactersbecause without that, the stakes will never truly feel high, even if the world is about to end (see: Armageddon). We don’t have to like them, they can be evil even, but we have to care; in some way, their fate has to matter.

Ok, we care about the characters. Now for the ending to really have that kick that speaks volumes and creates eddy after eddy of thought and resonance, the characters’ tragedies and triumphs can connect, whether figuratively or literally, to the outside world. A social resonance. It can come out of nowhere and still harken back to a gradual gathering throughout the text. Or it can be interlaced blatantly throughout. The English Patient is a historical novel but the majority of it revolves around the inner lives and romances of various characters and their overlapping trajectories. The war is experienced textually on a very human, day-to-day level, not for its wider political significance. Then just as the bomb diffuser is about to spend the rest of his life with a white lady he doesn’t really love, the US bombs Nagasaki and his entire conception of the Western World shatters. In the final couple of pages a single gut decision based on the madness of history leaves a devastating sense of truth in its wake.