Last night's episode of Breaking Bad has been all over social media. People have called it "devastating" or have said they still haven't recovered today. I'm guilty of that. Don't worry, I won't be putting any spoilers in here. I want you to have the satisfaction of seeing it firsthand.
I only mention it because of something that's been on my mind lately since reading an article about the people behind the film version of Tracy Lett's August: Osage County talking about changing the ending after a test audience. Bitter Script Reader on Twitter (follow him, seriously) had a great blog post analyzing the trajectory of Breaking Bad in regards to "the necessity of an unhappy ending." [PLEASE DON'T READ THE BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT CAUGHT UP ON BREAKING BAD!!] I will quote a bit of it for those who are still Netflixing (a real word, I swear) their ways through it.
It's a familiar story. An early cut of a film is screeened for a test audience. The test audience rejects the dark ending of the story, forcing the filmmakers to scramble and reshoot an ending that will leave everyone feeling good.
This was definitely the case for one of my favorite films: Little Shop of Horrors. For those who don't know, it's a musical about a nerdy guy who ends up getting duped by a blood-eating plant from outer space. It started off on Broadway and had a beautiful, dark ending, which I didn't know about until I bought the script to the play. Here's the reaction from high school me:
"WHAT THE F--!! That's awesome!!" Suffice it to say, the film does not share the same dark ending. People hated it and wanted happy. And that's what they got. The dark ending is now available on the Blu-Ray of Little Shop. I haven't seen the movie version of the ending all the way through yet. I wanted to wait until it was fully restored to get the full effect.
Here's what has been repeated by Frank Oz in various interviews and in the director's commentary of the DVD:
“David Geffen said it right off, you can’t kill your lead characters in a movie,” said Oz. “When you’re in a theater, it’s always a wide shot, no matter where you are. Even when you’re in front, it’s still a wide shot. In a movie, I tell you where to look, and that’s a close up sometimes. A close up registers emotion much, much more. You get sucked in by the characters more. Even though it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and a slight distance...you’re sucked in by that tight shot.”
Is this true? Is it harder to do an unhappy ending in film/TV than in the theatre because of the psychological realization that "those characters are really dead?" Or do you feel more for characters in film than in their theatre counterparts? Did you weep harder in the film or theatre version of Les Mis? Does the fact that the actors come out for a curtain call help a theatre audience adjust to the fact that there's an unhappy ending?
I think that's crap.
Back to the Bitter Script Reader:
Test audiences often have a hard time with downbeat endings. They like to leave the theatre feeling good. Bad test scores often spook studios, and making an ending less depressing is a fairly favored tactic. You know all those alternate endings you see featured on DVDs - that's the shit that either didn't work, or didn't make an audience happy after the first attempt.
We as artists have to know how we want to affect an audience. We have to know exactly how we want them to feel at the end. We make that decision. Are they sad because a character that they love dies? Good, we meant to do that. Are they upset that a villain got away and the good guy lost? Perfect, that's how we wanted you to feel. We have to work with our guts when we manipulate the guts of our audiences. You see, I didn't get that in my early days as a playwright. I didn't quite get it until my final year at my MFA. I remember my play Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw coming up for the workshop. This was the play that i felt the most confident about. Ever. And I knew the ending was right. I knew it. And most of my fellow playwrights hated it. They thought it was a horrible ending. They were so incensed about the decisions of the characters. You know what? That's what I wanted them to feel! Success! When the play had a reading in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre, Artistic Director Susan V. Booth came up to me and said, "I love that ending."
Here's what I think needs to happen. We need to stop worrying about happy vs. unhappy endings and come to the realization that we want satisfying endings. What does that mean? It means we know where we're taking the audience from the beginning and we deliver them there at the end. Does that mean we can't offer surprises? No. Surprise them! Last night's Breaking Bad was surprising and a half. Surprise, shock, delight, upset, frustrate, it doesn't matter. Make it count. Make it make sense in the world you've created. It's harder with a TV series because you've created such a massive world for so long. (Can you imagine a satisfying Doctor Who series finale?!) Based on everything that's happened so far in the show, the ending to last night's episode was shocking, surprising, disturbing, but, in the end, inevitable. Make your endings inevitable. Necessary. I think that's what it boils down to. Inevitable.
For kicks, I'm doing something I didn't think I'd do: I'm posting the full script of Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw on my site, so that you can see if the ending is satisfying. Inevitable.
What are the most satisfying endings you've experienced? TV, Film, or Theatre?