The Finale of Breaking Bad and What Great Does to Our Brains

Purple Flourite Cubes by cobalt123 from FlickrBreaking Bad, possibly the best show I have ever seen aired on television, is coming to a close this Sunday. It has had a five season run in which no episode has felt extraneous, old interesting details have come back around instead of being forgotten about, and it is promising to actually have a true finale instead of petering out.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this happen before.

The Wire, a show I have claimed justifies the invention of television, fizzled in its final season.

The Shield had a fantastic run and finale as well, but there were some flabby seasons in the middle.

And that’s it.

Some arguments can be made for other shows obviously, The Sopranos comes to mind, but overall the number of shows that have been strong throughout their entire run is very low.

I’m always frustrated by that. I hate that so many creators allow their shows to go soft or vapid or end on a complete clusterfuck of a note. I understand that the network a show airs on has a lot of say, and the time constraints that writers have to work under are grueling, but still I feel like I should be able to list…you know…some other shows that have stayed strong for their entire run.

Granted I’m pretty picky, and this is art so it’s all open to interpretation, but with most other television viewers I’ve talked to the list is painfully short.

Yet, as I said, this coming Sunday Breaking Bad will be joining this list…and it is so much fun! The social aspect of it is astounding. On text and on twitter and in bars I can strike up a conversation about this show with anyone.  I was wearing a t-shirt this Saturday with a Breaking Bad reference on it and strangers were coming up to share their thoughts on how the finale might go. I was walking down the sidewalk and a random doorman shouted out, “Hey there, nice shirt, Mister White!”

I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how this sort of thing is dying in the age of Netflix, DVRs, and lightning fast DVD release, and I tend to agree with those arguments.

Compare your average finale and the buzz surrounding it nowadays to what it was like in the past. The finale of M*A*S*H is often cited as one of the pinnacles of television viewing. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that the New York water system experienced painfully high usage whenever a commercial came on because so much of the city was taking bathroom breaks at once. While that may or may not be true it does capture how much of the population was all watching the same thing at once; the M*A*S*H finale garnered 105.97 million viewers in an age when there were 83.3 million households that had televisions.

Those sorts of things don’t happen anymore. The high that M*A*S*H hit was partly because there wasn’t as much competing with it due to far fewer channels, and partly because if you missed that one showing you were kind of screwed. Things didn’t re-air back then and, as best as I can tell, M*A*S*H wasn’t available on VHS until the 90s. There used to be a holiday-like sense to the finale of a popular show that seemed like it would never occur again. I’m as stunned as anyone to see that it is happening now. I don’t know anyone who is planning on watching a later airing of the Breaking Bad finale and I’ve heard of parties being thrown as well as bars holding mass viewings.

I am loving every aspect of it.

There is a sense of closure coming, of saying goodbye to these amazing characters, but there’s also something else that’s harder to pin down. There is something about storytelling that commands our attention; we become still and our eyes grow intense and we forget where we are as we become enveloped in another person’s world. It’s a magical feeling. Normally my brain bounces from what to eat to if I’ve paid my credit card to do I have to do laundry to where is my current book going and on and on and on. But a great show, a great book, a great story can halt all of that if only for a while. It can produce a sense of focus that lets us shed our lives and exist in unfettered place in our minds.

That is what greatness can give us. That is what storytelling does.

Or at least that is what it should be doing.

Too damn often I come out of a movie or watch an episode of something or put down a book, and I just feel sort of “meh” about it. And when I talk it over with someone I mention how parts made no sense or there were plot holes, and all too often the response I get back is, “Well what did you expect?”

This. This is what I expect. Breaking Bad. Solid writing with consistency. This.

When did that become too much to ask?

Satisfy Your Hunger: Zombie Novels 101

Zombies…zombies…zombies…scared yet? Didn’t think so, but then again you obviously haven’t discovered some of the best zombie books to read in our generation.  With Halloween a little over a month away, now is the time to start reading all sorts of spooky and horrifying literature.  Sure, Stephen King novels are always popular in most respects, but there are countless other up-and-coming novelists and writers who offer incredible and gripping storylines.

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What exactly makes a zombie novel so great? While some literary scholars seem to turn up their noses at the thought of placing stories about zombies on a high level, the reality is that this topic is more popular than ever.  Avid readers of all ages want to hear about the undead rising again; whether it is in book, television series or movie form, we can’t seem to get enough!

It isn’t enough to have just some action scenes, gory violence and frightening details; a well-thought out and captivating zombie book will be unique.  It will have a well-thought out plot line with some additional twists that will leave the reader captivated until the very end of the book.  There are varying degrees of increasing violence and gore that has progressed over the past decades, but one thing will never change: people love captivating storylines.

Even musicians sometimes touch on the topic of zombies, such as the singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens.  With an elaborately named song off his “Chicago” album entitled “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhhh!!”, Stevens has obviously been influenced by the tales of the undead.  If you are looking to either write a riveting zombie book, or are looking for the best zombie books to read, remember the three basics: storyline, plot twists and engaging characters.

Writing Dynamic Characters: Know What They Don’t

Internal Conflict by Simon de Bakker from FlickrWhether you’re writing a great zombie book, an action-packed thriller, or a thoughtful piece of literature, the bulk of your work will be carried along by your characters.

There are dozens of articles all over the internet that discuss how to write strong characters. Many of these articles suggest outlining a character’s personality by getting to know certain qualities they have. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What makes them angry? What will they stand up for?

Things like that.

These are great exercises and can add a lot to your character, but if you push them just one step further things can get much more interesting.

How do you push something like that one step further?

By keeping this in mind: people do not always know themselves.

I’m not even talking in a philosophical sense here, or maybe I am actually, but I’m not going to quote ancient Greeks or Zen Buddhists.

This is, instead, pretty basic psychology. The device used to define what a person knows about themselves even has a fun name. It’s known as a Johari Window (though the drawing on that wiki page is confusing as hell to me).

Basically it breaks down like this, if you ask a group of people for a description of somebody in that group, with that individual also being asked for a description, you will get a fascinating spread of opinions. With the Johari Window it gets more science-y because they have a set list of words and ask everyone to delineate, “Yes this describes the person,” or, “No this does not describe the person.”

In the end there are four possible results for  a word. For example let’s go with the word “Funny.”

  1. The person thinks they are funny. The group thinks the person is funny.Nine Out of Seven by Thomas Lieser from Flickr
  2. The person thinks they are funny. The group does not think the person is funny.
  3. The person does not think they are funny. The group does think they are funny.
  4. The person does not think they are funny. The group does not think they are funny.

This opens up the possibility of a character having a trait that they are unaware of, or believing they have a trait that most people would say they do not. Instead of, “What makes them angry?” You can start to toy around with, “What would other people say makes them angry that they think they’re calm about?”

Let’s use an example and visit with Ranger Ramone again.

Ranger Ramone and his crew rode into the little town. The paint was cracked on most of the buildings and as their space-horses clipped along in the dirty street everything remained quiet.

They approached a large building at the far end of town. The high pitched sound of a piano playing and the low rumble of a crowd could be heard through the windows.

“Must be the saloon,” Ranger Ramone said as they stopped their space-horses out front.

“Ranger Ramone, look!” Miguel said, pointing to a sign posted out front. The sign bore a picture of a space-horse in a circle with a thick red line through it.

“They don’t like space-horse riders in this town,” Miguel said. “We’ll have to stable our horses beyond city limits.”

“I hate horse-racists,” Ranger Ramone said, glaring at the sign.

“That really upsets you,” Miquel said.

“You’re damn right it upsets me!” Ranger Ramone yelled.

That’s…well it’s weird…as things always are with Rarnger Ramone. I have no idea what a space-horse is or why a town would outlaw them. But, hey, it’s a big galaxy.

The point is that we have a situation that is making Ranger Ramone angry. And this anger is obvious.

It is also kind of boring.

Let’s say we switch this up and instead of putting Ranger Ramone’s anger into number 1 above, “The person thinks they are angry. The group thinks the person is angry.” Let’s put it into number 3, “The person does not think they are angry. The group does think they are angry.”

Ranger Ramone and his crew rode into the little town. The paint was cracked on most of the buildings and as their space-horses clipped along in the dirty street everything remained quiet.

They approached a large building at the far end of town. The the high pitched sound of a piano playing and the low rumble of a crowd could be heard through the windows.

“Must be the saloon,” Ranger Ramone said as they stopped their space-horses out front.

“Ranger Ramone, look!” Miguel said, pointing to a sign posted out front. The sign bore a picture of a space horse in a circle with a thick red line through it.

“They don’t like space-horse riders in this town,” Miguel said. “We’ll have to stable our horses beyond city limits.”

Ranger Ramone didn’t move. He sat in his saddle perfectly still, unresponding, just glaring at the sign with its angry red slash through the space-horse.

“You alright?” Miquel asked.

“I’m fine,” Ranger Ramone said, still staring down the sign. Occasionally his narrowed eyes darted over to the windows of the saloon.

“Well, we should see about putting the space-horses up. There’s sure to be a place outside of town.”

“Easy as that, huh?” Ranger Ramone asked, spitting the words at Miquel with disgust.

Miquel was startled and unsure how to respond. “I…yes, Ranger Ramone. Isn’t that how it normally works?”

“Normally,” Ranger Ramone said under his breath with disdain.

“Are you okay, sir?” Miquel asked.

“I’m fine,” Ranger Ramone barked, swinging his space-horse around wildly, her hooves pawing at the air dangerously close to some of the members of their group.

This is ever so much more fun. It breeds conflict all over the place, it adds a sense of mystery, and we have the chance to let characters show their personalities in how they respond to misplaced anger and an unsettled boss.

Now I’m not saying that every feeling your characters have should be unknown to them (though that would be a wild ride). Plenty of our emotions are known to us as well as to others.

But there is more to a character than what makes them laugh. Things can run deeper than that and the people around them can interpret their actions in a number of ways.

And adding those layers can take a flat scene and really make it pop.

Bedbugs and Broomsticks

Drowsing by Katie Laird from FlickrI’ve been out of touch for the past few weeks. I mentioned last month that I had slipped a disc in my neck. I was making some progress with that by doing at home exercises but eventually I had to give in and sign up for physical therapy. Then I found out that I had bed bugs.

Which has been a complete shit show.

I can’t even begin to explain the ridiculousness that comes along with being told you have bed bugs. I’m not sure I’ve ever come across something that causes such over-sized reactions in people. And there’s decent reason for some of this, but the general mythos surrounding these things is idiotic.

The exterminator came, told me I had bed bugs, and told me to contact their office for guidelines. The office sent me a list of things I had to do, most of which involved getting things clean. Clean the floors, vacuum the mattress, vacuum the couch. Plus any clothes in the area have to be laundered or dry cleaned, and if they’re laundered they have to be dried for at least an hour in high heat. Any clutter in the area, shoes and picture frames and books and stuff, needed to be vacuumed (vacuuming shoes is odd) and cleaned and books needed to be flipped through. Once something is declared free of bugs it goes into a sealed bag. The idea is to clean up the place so the exterminator can spray efficiently, but not let any bugs slip through hidden in a shoe or something.

The list of crap to do is so long that the exterminator won’t make an appointment for spraying until you’re about three-quarters of the way through, because a lot of people sign up for the first appointment available and then, when they start cleaning, realize that they won’t be ready in time.

But you know what they say, if you’re going to have to haul all your stuff around and move your furniture in order to vacuum, it’s best to do so while you have a slipped disc.

That’s probably not what people say.

Ugh.

My August hit some sort of symbolic low-point when I, a couple of nights after starting the bed bug process, just wanted to have a few glasses of wine and fall asleep…except my hand was so weak from my slipped disc that I didn’t have the strength to use a corkscrew.

But that was then and this is now and progress has been made. My neck is much better and my apartment is on the verge of being declared clean.

The woman who answers the phone at the exterminator’s office was amazing throughout this process. She’s also the only person I was able to talk to about bed bugs.

When I first got the news I assumed I had committed some sort of cardinal sin to bring the wrath of bed bugs upon me. Most friends reacted by telling me that my building must be dirty or looked at me like I had been rolling around in dumpsters.

I asked this woman what I had done wrong to get these cursed bugs.

Red Red Wine by Josh Kenzer from Flickr

She laughed and told me that they’re all over the place. She deals with bed bugs all the time. She gets calls from all sorts of places, rich and poor, uptown and downtown, crowded and empty. I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong, I might have bumped up against someone at Penn Station for all I knew.

Now, granted, this is something I need to believe at this point. I am one of the unclean and it’s pretty soothing to be told that I don’t have to register for a lower caste or something, that I’m just another victim of a large scale problem. And so I believe her…though if one of my friends had gotten them I’d totally be making fun of his shit.

Anyway, there’s an aura surrounding these things that has given them supernatural powers in many minds. People have come to believe that bed bugs are capable of slipping through solid matter and permeating through the air. I have friends that I’ve only told via text who have become convinced that they now have bed bugs.

I was on this level to begin with, worried that they were hiding inside of my light bulbs and such, but eventually I reached a Zen state about them. They are small and they can hide in cracks and nooks and wrinkles. So clothes and books? Yeah. Those get tossed or inspected or laundered. But they aren’t inside of sealed jars or hiding in my shampoo.

I haven’t even seen a bug yet. I had only woken up with some bites when I decided to call in an expert. It was the exterminator who spotted the signs of bed bugs.

Before I called the exterminator, though? I turned to the internet. And that was wrong. The amount of information flying around is astounding, and mostly inaccurate. And I think that is why people freak out so much. It’s why I was freaked out. And then as these insects cause more panic, more people run searches on them, and then more people provide wrong information, and so on and so on. The internet told me that they were microscopic. They are not. There’s the notion that you can “handle” the problem on your own. There are stories of people getting bitten and then washing their sheets and being fine. There are online “experts” who identify basically everything as a bed bug bite. There are sites with just horrible information.

And it is this insanity surrounding them makes them so terrifying. They become some nebulous problem that can never be dealt with and supposedly credible stories pile up in your mind that convince you how screwed you are if you get bed bugs.

The process is a pain but the stigma surrounding bed bugs, that they are IMPOSSIBLE to get rid of, that they are always lurking no matter what you do, makes it worse. This had me panicked as well. And the lady at the exterminator’s office? She picked up on that. I think I sounded a bit worked up the first five or six times I called her to ask if I was doing enough, or if something was clean enough. Her answer was usually “Yes.” Eventually she told me I sounded a little stressed out and I told her that I was, in fact, stressed out because I knew how hard bed bugs were to get rid of.

She chuckled again.

Her chuckle has been very soothing to me. She told me that as long as I followed the steps, the bugs would be gone. She said that I had caught it early and called them quickly. She told me that the people who get into real trouble are the ones who wait until they can’t stand it anymore before calling an exterminator.

There are times to tinker by yourself, and there are times to shut up and bring in an expert.

I would say that bed bugs is a time for experts. And deciding to shut myself up and listen to the woman who had actually been in contact with tons of eradicated cases of bed bugs was the most calming thing I’ve maybe ever done in my life.

Which brings me to the other piece of information I was told when I was freaking out on the phone. I was constantly worried if I was doing enough. “Was I doing everything on the list the way it was laid out?” she asked. Well yes. I was. “Okay,” I was told. “Then you should be fine. Our success rate is very high.” And then this bombshell was dropped. “The people who need us to come back,” she said. “The one’s who never get rid of them and get sprayed over and over again? They are the people who shrug off what we tell them to do and decide for themselves what matters and what doesn’t.”

I’ve gotten so much advice on how to “handle” this problem. And I always respond with what I’m doing, which is the detailed list given to me by the exterminator. And people always tell me I’m nuts and then tell me what they would do. All sorts of things that aren’t on the list. And then they say how they don’t see what some things on the list would accomplish, so they wouldn’t bother with them.

People lose their minds over these things and consider them to be a plague-level problem that never goes away because people don’t follow instructions to deal with the problem because they are so worried about the problem which makes the problem not go away.

The reactions have honestly been quite interesting from my point of view. It would make a great sociological study. How problems are compounded because they are believed to be more problematical than they are.

And in the end?

In the end it has boiled down to two things: shutting up and following instructions.

Good thing those are two tasks that humans excel at.