I’ve been thinking about episodes again, and why the most basic unit of TV storytelling is being undervalued these days.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago, after growing frustrated with too many shows (particularly ones made for streaming services) that had no interest in differentiating one episode from the next, and just offered up 13 amorphous hours of… stuff. But three recent events have put the issue at the front of my mind again.
First, Indiewire, for their weekly TV critics survey, asked a bunch of us to name our favorite concept episode of television ever. We all wound up overthinking it by assuming everyone else was going to pick “Hush” (the silent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), thus ensuring that no one actually picked it, but the choices were all interesting, and spoke to the many wonderful things an episode of TV can do and be when the creative team tries hard enough to do something different from what they normally turn out.
Then over the weekend, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss appeared at South By Southwest, where they looked ahead to the end of the series, and back across an experience that they suggested they didn’t think about as a TV show at all:
And yesterday, one of our writers pointed me to a fan-made attempt to edit all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad down into a feature-length movie. Having just spent a lot of time rewatching and thinking about the series as prep for my upcoming Breaking Bad review collection, I was curious to see what parts of the story were included and what fell away in the attempt to squeeze it all in.
It will, of course, shock you to learn that 62 hours of TV do not seamlessly condense into a little over 2 hours, and that the “movie,” while an admirable effort, doesn’t in any way work as a standalone entity. It has to jump from beat to beat, scene to scene, so quickly just to establish all the relevant plot and character points, that a lot of it would make little sense, narratively or emotionally, without having already seen the series. It leaves a bunch of characters on the sidelines because it has no room for them, which then has a ripple effect down the line: It chops out everything with both Tuco and the Cousins, which in turn means the conclusion to the war with Gus happens off-camera, because it would be gibberish without Tio Hector there, and Hector makes no sense if you haven’t already met the rest of his family.
But more than any single editing decision, the movie approach fails because Breaking Bad wasn’t made as a movie — not even, to paraphrase the GoT guys, a 62-hour movie. Vince Gilligan and company were making a television show, by God, with the understanding of the medium’s many distinct and valuable properties. They told a serialized story that’s powerful precisely because you get to see it all unfold over a long period of time, even as each individual episode is treated as its own entity: To borrow the Friends title approach, it’s “The One Where They Dissolve A Body In Acid,” followed by “The One Where Krazy-8’s Locked In The Basement,” or later “The One Where The RV Breaks Down” or “The One With The Train Heist.” Each episode helps add something to the larger story — and takes advantage of the length of a TV series to focus on what Vince Gilligan talks about as “the in-between moments” that crime movies (this fan-made one included) rarely have room to depict — but there’s a specific structure, conflict, and often theme to each that makes it satisfying whether watched a week apart from the others (as it originally aired) or as part of a binge now. You could watch “4 Days Out” without knowing anything about the series and still be wildly entertained by what happens in that hour.
Which brings us back to the Game of Thrones comment from SXSW. I understand where Benioff and Weiss are coming from. They’re adapting a collection of books that are telling one grand, sweeping story; it’s not a medieval fantasy procedural, you know? And they’re far from the first showrunners to insist that they’re not really making a show at all: David Simon always referred to The Wire as “a novel for television,” actors and producers on multi-camera sitcoms love the phrase “we’re doing a stage play every week,” etc.
But The Wire debuted 15 years ago, and is part of the reason TV creators no longer need to sound apologetic for being creators of TV. Yet that one show has become the TV version of the Velvet Underground: Few watched it, but most of the ones who did went on to create their own TV shows, all of them using the same storytelling model. And unless you’re executing on as high a level as The Wire did, then treating the season — or the series — as the basic storytelling unit, rather than the individual episodes, can be more trouble than it’s worth.
There are too many series — many of which I’ve liked a lot, in spite of this problem — over those past 15 years that ran out of steam two-thirds of the way through the season (most of the Netflix Marvel shows), or sagged badly in the middle before recovering (most seasons of Boardwalk Empire), or simply weren’t satisfying enough in the end to justify the misshapen center. Whereas many of the very best series of the last few years — Fargo, The Leftovers, BoJack Horseman, and The People v. O.J. Simpson, to name just a few — go out of their way to figure out what sets each episode apart even as they’re telling bigger stories. Imagine a version of BoJack that had no room for “Fish Out of Water,” or a People v. O.J. that couldn’t give us “Marcia Marcia Marcia” because the creative teams were too focused on the big picture for the whole season, and making it feel like a stylistically cohesive whole. With Netflix alone, the respective subject matter makes me far more inclined to enjoy a Jessica Jones or Luke Cage than something like The Crown, yet the latter proved to be the more satisfying experience because it wasn’t just a 13-hour story blob, but constructed each episode along a Royal Crisis of the Week model. Similarly, the flashbacks on Orange is the New Black have started to run out of juice, but they still force that show’s writers to spotlight one or two characters in every episode and find something interesting and complete to say about them over the course of that hour.
When I wrote that earlier defense of the episode piece, I was focusing on the value of largely standalone episodes of serialized shows. For some series — like a Game of Thrones — that’s a practical impossibility. (I wouldn’t object to an entire episode set in Hot Pie’s bakery, but I doubt HBO would ever approve such a thing.) But an episode doesn’t have to be standalone in story to stand alone in form and function. Think about the best GoT episodes — the ones people talk about years later, and will likely talk about long after the series is done — and most of them were ones that deviated from the series’ usual tour guide approach to Westeros: “Now this happens here, now that’s happening over there, let’s go see what those nutty kids in Dorne are up to…” Though that format has produced episodes with great moments, Game of Thrones tends to be at its best when there’s more cohesion and thought to what’s happening in that episode and that episode only, whether it’s one where the entire hour takes place in one setting (“Blackwater”), one where a much bigger-than-usual section of the episode stays in one place (“Hardhome,” “The Winds of Winter”), or one where the stories feel thematically tied together in some way (“The Door”). I often feel like the sheer tonnage of story and characters that Benioff and Weiss have to adapt has been the biggest stumbling block preventing GoT from elevating past a show with great moments into an all-time great series, but it may be just as much about the showrunners viewing the storytelling model the same way George R.R. Martin does, even though they’re writing for a different medium with different demands.
Even if Game of Thrones had been made for a streaming service where fans could watch entire seasons at once — heck, even if they had somehow produced the entire series before releasing any of it — it still wouldn’t be a 73-hour movie. One, because that sounds terrible, and no one but the most obsessed and/or unwell person would watch all 73 hours in one sitting. And two, because it’s still not a movie. Both have moving pictures and sounds, but there are differences between the two, and those differences should be embraced, not ignored or swept under the rug(*).
(*) Sunday was the 15th anniversary of the premiere of The Shield, an all-time great drama that never felt apologetic about being television, and in fact took advantage of things that are often looked on as storytelling detriments of the medium. Not only were there procedural elements to almost every episode, which gave shape and form to all of the serialized material about Vic and the strike team, but creator Shawn Ryan instructed his writers to treat every scene as if it would be the last thing the viewer saw before an act break. This was originally just a way for him to have greater freedom in editing the episodes, but it wound up giving the show a relentless quality that served it well whether watched live on FX with commercial interruptions, or years later on Hulu without them. The moral: embrace the medium however you can and make it work for you. Use every part of the buffalo.
These are the questions any TV storyteller should be asking when they sit down to break an episode: What is this episode about in terms of what happens in the plot? What is this episode about in terms of what it says about the characters and the series’ larger themes? Is there a way to structure this episode so that it feels distinct and memorable? If not, can any parts of the episode be moved or left behind in order to make it better? Even if someone is going to watch six episodes in one sitting, how can I make this one stand out?
Those questions can result in a conceptually daring episode like “Hush” or “Pine Barrens” or “International Assassin.” Or they can just result in an extraordinarily satisfying installment of a uniform serialized narrative, like The Americans‘ “Martial Eagle.” But if asked thoroughly and answered properly, they wind up enhancing both the experience of watching that individual episode, and the season as a whole. “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency” is both a cracking good hour of TV and a crucial building block of Mad Men season three, you know?
Breaking Bad isn’t a movie, and Vince Gilligan would have made very different choices if it had been. Game of Thrones isn’t a movie, and shouldn’t be designed as such.
This is television. And television has episodes. It’s okay to admit that. Your show will be better off in the long run for it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org