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.