It’s interesting, when you take a look at movies in a series. One after the other they’re able to match and sometimes surpass the scale of the original. The Lord of the Rings does this perfectly. It starts off rather small. The biggest confrontation they have is with some goblins half way through the film and then the climax is a fight against a group of super orcs (I’m generalizing here). From there the scale grows until the entire world is at stake. If our heroes don’t win and Frodo doesn’t get the ring to Mount Doom, then all is lost.
Movies tend to end there. That’s the grandest scale they’ll ever achieve because the story is almost always over at that point. The same can be said for Harry Potter – Prisoner of Azkaban notwithstanding – by the end, it’s do or die for Harry Potter. Either he wins, or Voldemort wins. Either way the story is coming to an end.
If I were to draw a graph, it would be two axi labeled “scale” and “story progression”. As the story progresses, the scale gets larger and larger. By the time the story has finished, you’ve got the scale as large as it can be in that world. In the cases of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, the entire world is at stake.
Television on the other hand – serialized television that is – attempts to follow this model. The problem is that the show always continues past the point of the largest scale conflict, leaving writers confused on how to top themselves next year so viewers will return. Look at something like Lost. The show’s scale grew so large that eventually we were dealing with different timelines and alternate dimensions. At some point the show was up its own ass trying to top itself.
Further examples are Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead, Supernatural, Person of Interest and many more. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that most popular television shows suffer from this problem. It’s an easy trap to fall into. The larger the conflict, the more danger there is, then the more people will be invested. Unfortunately there’s something I’d refer to as a “bliss point” for scale. It’s the very top of that graph I described above for film.
Take for example, Supernatural. By the time the show had reached its fifth season they were confronting the devil himself. According to the creator of the show at the time, the show’s story was over. It had reached its natural conclusion. Plus, there can’t be anyone out there who is worse than the devil himself right?
Well CW had other plans. The show continues to be immensely popular and has continued for another five seasons after its supposed conclusion. But the scale has been all over the place. The conflicts feel forced and they don’t read the same any longer. The issue? The writers felt they had to match the scale of the devil. But once you’ve fought and beaten the most evil thing in all of creation, can anything really measure up?
The solution? Follow more of a bell curve for scale. The perfect example of this is Breaking Bad. The first season is as small scale as possible. Walt and Jesse deal with a single drug dealer over the course of six episodes. Season by season their empire expands. As that happens, the conflicts that arise are also larger. This continues until the show hits its apex: Gus. The drug kingpin is the largest scale villain the show has the possibility of seeing.
But wait, you say… There was another season of Breaking Bad. What about that one? That’s the trick of the bell curve. You start small, slowly increasing the level of conflict until it hits that “bliss point”. Then, if the story continues, you reel it back in. Bring it close to home and make it small time.
That’s what Breaking Bad did. After Walt finally triumphs over Gus, he, Mike, and Jesse start their own business. The conflict is then internal in the group. They’re all each other’s worst enemies (and their own occasionally). In most cases the antagonist is Jesse. But when we hit the season’s halfway point, the conflict gets even smaller and closer to home: Hank. Hank discovering Walt’s secret is the other end of the bell curve. The conflict and antagonist are practically related to Walt now. No longer are we dealing with drug kingpins and international cartels. It’s simply Walt against his brother in law.
Of course that conflict comes to an end two episodes before the show does. That’s where Jesse comes back into play. The conflict then stems from probably the only person Walt ever really felt a connection with.
So to make a long story short: you start small and slowly increase the scale of the conflict until it hits the zenith. Then slowly bring the scale back down and closer to home. This allows for the stories to become personal and still be interesting even if they don’t mean the end of the world for the main characters.
Many shows don’t follow that sort of storytelling, but it’s one of the reasons I believe Breaking Bad is so successful. Vince Gilligan saw that after Gus there could be no larger conflict for Walt. So he looked inwards for a new antagonist and saw that those closest to Walt would make for a great personal story.
This “theory” if you’ll allow it, is something more shows should attempt to emulate. Bigger and more bombastic isn’t always the answer. Sometimes it’s the more personal narratives that can hold just as much weight in the viewer’s mind.