By Isaac Butler
Before this post gets down to business, I would just like to register a brief frustration: I had a much longer blog post about this week's Breaking Bad planned for ya'll and then, well, Starlee Kllie went and wrote it. Seriously, it's like she had some kind of brain-ray that took everything I was going to say about the show and turned it into a really great piece for Capital New York. She even registered my feelings about Mike's (mistaken) characterization of Walt's tenure with Fring. Sigh. So read that if you want a detailed conversation about this week's ep. it's really good. There's also this recap from Lindsay Bayerstein which is well done as well. I also ended up having to pay Lindsay a dollar because she won a "Death Pool" as to who would get die first this season.
I want to talk about something else, something that Kline touches on at the beginning of her piece:
It took this long in a season’s worth of his acting reprehensible for her to get there. I imagine it is the same for a lot of people. I’m not even sure I’m there yet, although for reasons that don’t have much to do with the man anymore. It’s the nature of narrative. I want Walt to live, even to win if he must, because I don’t want the story to end.
So the task "Breaking Bad" has set for itself is to straddle this line. It has to keep making Walter worse and worse, until every last one of us wants him dead while continuing to (presumably) keep him alive for another nine episodes in a way that feels solid and true to the plot and not in any way artificial. Because the minute we sense that they’re sparing his life for just the sake of the timeline, this delicate puzzle we’ve been assembling will collapse.
This is true but also work diving into a bit more, because it begs the question, the overriding question of Breaking Bad: What are we supposed to want to have happen?
I'll give you an example from this week's episode. Walt is in Hank's office. He has to remove the two monitoring devices he has planted there: a bug behind a picture frame and some kind of transmitter in his computer. Walt cries Hank out of the room and then goes and gets them. We the viewers feel tense in this moment. We are in suspense. Our heart rates increase, we maybe clench our fists. Later, Hank comes in and hands Walt the coffee. Walt sees the bank surveilance. Walt overhears Hank and Gomez talking. And the tension ratchets up again.
So here, again is my question: Why does it ratchet up? And why were we tense in the first place? We should at this point want Walt to fail. We should want Hank to catch him, we should be, instead of tense, hopeful. But we aren't.
We aren't for two reasons, I think. The first is that what is happening here is a nearly automatic, reflexive response to how suspense narratives work. We have been trained our entire lives as viewers to respond to these moments with tension, and there's a high level of technical engineering that goes into this sequence. The writers, for exmaple, have inserted a "ticking clock"-- Person A must accomplish Task B before Person C returns-- which gives a scene urgency regardless of its content. There's propulsive, percussive music that increases the tension etc. We're simply conditioned to respond to these cues with tension.
The second reason is that we want the show to continue and Walt is the show's protagonist. The show cannot continue for long once Walter is caught or killed. And even though we know there are nine more episodes to go, part of the skill of Breaking Bad is getting us to forget this external reality for just as long as it takes to make us tense.
I do not think, in other words, that we are bad people for being tense here. But part of what's so damn smart about Breaking Bad is that the writers clearly know how easily manipulated audiences are and try to use this in interesting ways. And there's no better example of that the train heist episode, which is like the 99% pure blue crystal distillation of how the show works. We start with a group of people arguing about whether or not to murder an innocent woman. Then we have an awesome-- and completely satisfying-- classic train heighst. Then it's punctuated by a reminder to the audience of what this is all about, causing us to cast our minds backwards and reexamine how satisfying we found the whole heist-trope-thing in the first place.
I remain curious, then, as to why people are upset about Mike dying. Seriously. The same people who on twitter and in blogs are celebrating the show's moral compass and then also in mourning for the cold-bloodiest character on the whole show. The guy has been a criminal and killer for decades. His body count has to be higher than Walt's. In the first episode he was threatening to kill a single mother and then had to be begged to leave the body out for her daughter to find it. Despite all of Mike's protestations to the contrary, the falling out between Walt and Fring is actually (if you rewatch the episodes) largely not Walter's fault, and Mike has, from the get-go, seemingly wanted to kill him.
Again, we're dealing with another narrative function here, that of the "fan favorite character." And I think what Breaking Bad has taught us time and again is that a properly contained, properly constructed, skillfully pulled off narrative can triumph over our own moral sense like a magnet pulling our compass in the wrong direction. And it is in this meta-way, in the way that it self-consciously uses the tools of storytelling to pervert our good sense, that the show is profound. For as anyone who has looked at the interrelationship of art and politics, or propaganda efforts behind totalitarian regimes, or the history of anti-semitism can tell you, a good story can be a very, very dangerous thing indeed.
Breaking Bad is hardly the first television show to enter this territory. Indeed, as we live in the age of the Charming Male Sociopath protagonist, many shows are working this grain. But few of them do it self-consiously the way Breaking Bad does. One of its main predecessors is, of course, The Sopranos. But in the case of The Sopranos, I got the sense over time that the writers, having figured out that it was fairly easy to manipulate people into having sympathy for their sociopathic lead, felt contempt for us for liking the show in the first place and decided to just make it clear that they were better than us over and over again.
The question moving forward is how much deeper into this trench the show can dig. You could still have some (limited) sympathy for Walt in seasons three and four. Sure, he had indirectly caused a plane crash that killed a over a hundred innocent people, but the events at the end of Season Three are caused by his attempts to save Jessie's life and his actions in Four are explicitly undertaken to save him and his family from Gus, who is presented as definitely the worser of two evils. But in this season, the writers have taken away the futzy incompetence that was our last plank of Walt-based sympathy and they've kept driving him further and further towards the darkness. The next nine episodes, then, will be an experiment to see how much sympathy for the devil is in fact required to make the architecture of narrative function properly.