It’s a testament to Breaking Bad‘s endless ability to surprise the audience that they can end on a cliffhanger like last night’s and there’s always a question of whether or not Hank and Gomez will survive. After all, the reasons that they can’t get out of this alive are numerous:
- They’re outnumbered and outgunned.
- They’re cornered.
- The white supremacists have no reason to let them go now. While killing a cop is universally recognized by TV criminals as a step too far, this is one case where the chances of killing them and cutting out without getting caught are really high—even if you believe they called for back-up, since you could kill them and skedaddle before back-up arrives.
- We know, because of the flash forward, that Walt somehow does not go to prison.
One of the central problems in suspenseful storytelling is the protagonist-must-survive problem. If the protagonist dies, the story ends. That’s not an insurmountable obstacle, by any means. There’s the suspense of waiting to see how the protagonist will get out of this sticky situation. You can always kill off people the protagonist loves, though this runs a serious danger of being a sexist cliche. There’s mysteries to be solved or dilemmas that are dangerous but not life-or-death.
That said, the protagonist-must-live problem is no doubt the great white whale for storytellers, particularly of the geeky variety that like to quote-unquote “overthink” these things. While overthinking has a bad reputation, it can also be the basis for creative problem-solving, if used correctly. (Thus the scare quotes.) For instance, if you never considered how the protagonist-must-live structure is, in fact, a limit, you’re never going to start to ponder if there’s a way to get around it—which can, in turn, lead to novel ideas about how to tell a story. The most prominent example, of course is Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire, where the first season/episode (insert unbelievably condescending spoiler alert) dares to kill off the person we thought was the protagonist, and suddenly everything is topsy-turvy. We in the audience are expected to question a lot of assumptions, not the least of which is the casual way we give the authoritative white guy the automatic “protagonist” slot.
Breaking Bad has been toying with another strategy, by making the protagonist and the heroes different people. All this half-season, we’ve been more invested in the traditional story of how Hank and Jesse are going to take out this scary villain, Walter White. We were just reminded last night that not only can they lose this war, but they could be killed and the story would go on without them. But it’s also hard to imagine how the story would go on without them, so here we are, half wondering if we’re going to see the kind of miraculous escape that we expect of protagonists—the kind we’ve seen Walt make a couple of dozen times on Breaking Bad—or if it’s curtains for both of them. By cutting away in the middle of the fight and making the audience say, “WTF”, the show draws attention to the fact that it’s playing with the idea of a protagonist. Yes, Walt survives. But how certain are we that Hank or Jesse “must” to keep the story going?
It could go either way. We’re in new narrative territory now, and I’m excited.
FYI, To’hajiilee is the part of Navajo land that the money appears to be buried in, if I’m not mistaken.
What’s your thoughts?