I hear it all the time working in the TV biz. “What are the stakes?” Every story line, every character has to have “stakes,” and usually the stakes aren’t big enough. You need to go add more stakes.
This is all just a fancy way of saying consequences. If a character does this, what happens? What does it mean if a person does that? How will it play out going forward?
There used to be an unwritten—and then later a really-written in the Hays Code—rule in Hollywood where crime could not pay. A criminal had to get their comeuppance.
Witness the demise of Little Ceasar, or James Cagney’s firey denouement in White Heat. Things changed in the late sixtes and seventies with the rise of the antihero. From the slacker outcasts of Easy Rider to the too beautiful to live gangsters of The Sting or Bonnie and Clyde, the anti-establishment ruled the screen.
And now we have Walter White of Breaking Bad, possibly the ultimate antihero. We have rooted for him, stayed with him as he slid from sympathetic dad/teacher/cancer patient into a crime boss, drug dealer, and killer. The slow blackening of Walter’s soul has been a pleasure to watch, and that’s no small feat.
And yet, we have come to the end. Now what? As we head into the final episodes of the series, there has been much speculation about Walter’s fate. Will he live or die? Should he be allowed to live for the things he’s done?
So far, the ending has been set up with the usual brilliant chess moves by the show's writers. Walt’s cancer is back, so he may not make it to trial for his crimes, as he explained to his brother-in-law, who is trying to bring him to justice. He may run afoul of his former partners, who have a hard time letting an inside man go. He may fall victim to his right hand man, Jesse, who has ten reasons or more to want Walt dead, almost as many reasons as Walt has for wanting Jesse out of the way.
All these scenarios are rooted in stakes. Oh boy, does this show have stakes.
Take your average procedural. Good guys on one side, bad guys on the other. Seldom is there any crossover (Dexter is the only exception that comes to mind, but that’s hardly a procedural of the Law and Order variety I’m speaking of)
Would any show aside from Breaking Bad even consider killing off their main character? Doubtful.
With all the trauma and near-death experience by Castle and his cop partner, Kate Beckett, I’ve never once felt genuine anxiety that they might kill her off, even after a bullet in the chest.
And that’s what makes Breaking Bad’s stakes so much better than everyone else’s. They’re real. These are the consequences of a life of crime.
Walt’s wife, Skyler, is dealing with the consequences of her own complicity in Walter’s life. Jesse is dealing with what he’s done, albeit not as coldly and calmly as Walt is.
I can’t predict how it will end, if Walter will live or die, and I love that. I won’t be surprised with either outcome, though I’d be 51% shocked if he made it out alive. I won’t be that shocked if everyone and everything in his life is burned to the ground.
Breaking Bad has set up an antihero for the ages. One to be studied by all crime writers going forward. He’s been sympathetic, evil, heartbreaking, and ruthless. We don’t know how it will go, but we care. And we can’t look away.
You can get up for a sandwich in the middle of any network cop show and come back ten minutes later and not have missed much of anything. Breaking Bad forces you not to look away.
So as Walter White faces his final showdown, it won’t be with any single person. Not the cops, not his disgruntled ex-partners. His last face-off will be with himself and what he’s done.
Stakes, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking Bad just made it harder for the rest of us to keep pace..
Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two Graves, Split Decision, and A Mouth Full Of Blood, as well as co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, The Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices, and more. His newest novel, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me is available now.
Read all posts by Eric Beetner for Criminal Element.