Thursday, August 30, 2012

Breaking Bad and the Limits of Story

This summer, I became addicted to Breaking Bad. I didn't see this coming. Up until recently, my impression of the show was entirely negative. I had never watched an episode, but I knew it was about a high school chemistry teacher who gets involved in the meth business. I was disinterested for several reasons. One, because I thought the show was entirely amoral. I don't think all stories need to have unrealistically clear-cut distinctions between good and evil characters, but Breaking Bad seemed, at least from my distant viewpoint, to be a show where the good guys were really the bad guys, and I didn't like that. It seemed an irresponsible glorification of drugs and violence and further evidence of our declining culture. Secondly, I had the vague impression that it was "one of those crime shows" that's less about actual characters and more about the clever things people do to get what they want. I hate shows (and movies) like that. One, because I'm much more interested in human relationships then I am in people doing clever things to acquire wealth, and two, because I can never follow what's going on in those kinds of stories. Lastly, I knew that Breaking Bad was very critically acclaimed and that it had robbed LOST of several emmys in the categories where both of the shows had been nominated. I loved LOST (and still do), so I was always disappointed when Breaking Bad won anything that LOST didn't. I'd hear about Breaking Bad winning an award that I thought LOST deserved and I'd think to myself, "Well, there you go. The subversive show about drug dealing just won over the brilliant, character-driven dramatization of the search for answers to the most profound questions raised by our human experience. Whatever."

But I was wrong. For one, Breaking Bad is not an amoral show. If someone watches Breaking Bad and comes away thinking that getting into the meth business is a good idea, they haven't been paying attention and are probably very dangerous regardless of whether or not they have been watching Breaking Bad. Not only is it not amoral, it is a show that requires a deep sense of morality in order to be fully appreciated. It challenges us to ask questions about what is right and what is wrong, and it demonstrates quite vividly what happens - both externally and internally - when a person consistently chooses to do what he knows is wrong. God isn't talked about very much in Breaking Bad, but He is there. His presence is made manifest in the haunting and occasionally suffocating weight of conscience that bears down upon the protagonists, as well as in the world's seemingly unyielding refusal to just let them "do their business" without conflict or consequence.

Secondly, Breaking Bad may be about crime, but it's not "one of those crime shows." It's about the characters first, clever shenanigans second. And I never have any trouble figuring out what's going on.

As for my LOST loyalty, it remains the show that's affected me most personally and I don't expect Breaking Bad to change that, regardless of how magnificently it concludes. Even so, Breaking Bad is brilliant and well-deserving of all the critical acclaim it receives. I now realize that the separate categories I placed Breaking Bad and LOST in were a false dichotomy.

So, I like Breaking Bad. I like it a lot. Recently, though, Breaking Bad brought a sad reality to my attention, and that is that the power of story is limited. I don't mean that stories are limited in regard to their content, but that stories are limited in regard to their power to affect or persuade their audiences, and this bothers me deeply. Especially in the case of a show like Breaking Bad.

I'll explain. In a recent episode (don't read ahead if you want to avoid spoilers), the show's protagonists put together an elaborate plan to steal "an ocean of methlymene" off a train. Methlymene is an essential ingredient in the meth making process, but it's very expensive and extremely difficult to acquire. If Walt, Jesse, and Mike's plan succeeds, they will never get caught, no violence will be inflicted on anyone, and they'll make an obscene amount of profit. It's brilliant.

In order to have the manpower to pull the plan off, Walt and Jesse enlist the help of a young guy named Todd. Todd seems eager to help and appears happy to be fraternizing with such big shots in the meth business. As they are setting up the heist, Walt and Jesse explain to Todd very clearly that no one else is allowed to know what they are doing. This is just between them.

So the plan is set. All the pieces are in place. And this is what happens:

They pull it off, and without a moment to spare. Despite their ignoble cause, only the most stringent moralist would be able to keep from cracking a smile at Walt, Jesse, and Todd's jubilation. They laugh and yell and high-five each other, amazed at their own success. But their celebration is suddenly broken by the realization that they are not alone. A child on a motorbike is sitting nearby, watching curiously. He waves. The three wave back, and Todd - most likely remembering Walt and Jesse's warning - pulls out his gun and shoots the child in the chest. Jesse screams in protest, but it's too late. The damage is done. The witness is dead. Fade to credits.

Now, if you're anything like me, the ending of this episode is devastating. An innocent child was killed, and why? So an illegal business that causes immeasurable harm can continue making an enormous profit? Pretty much. And the real reason for that is so some self-centered men can continue to assure themselves that they are powerful and important. It's unjustifiable. You should be horrified. You should be disturbed. You should be angry.

But no matter how much the script writers may have intended for the audience to feel this way, they cannot control whether or not the audience actually does. That's the limitation of story. If I had written this episode of Breaking Bad, I would like to think that my audience would react to the child's death with sadness and anger. I would like to think that they would realize that the overarching message of my show is that pride and self-centeredness are horribly destructive forces and that if we do not quench them they can lead us to justify anything. I would like to think that they would think these things, but they might not. They might react like the guy who wrote this on the Breaking Bad Facebook page:
"All you people are such softies. Kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He witnessed a felony. One that if it were revealed to the authorities, would bring all of them down. When it comes down to it, and it's him or you, you better put yourself first. Most of you have never been in such a situation. I found the ending very realistic, and awesome."
When someone argued with him, he responded:
"I praise the creators of the show for making it as realistic as possible. When you are in such a business, sometimes unfortunate things happen so you can see the next sunrise. If anything, I'd have patted Todd on the back, then buried the little guy and kept going. They aren't manufacturing teddy bears here people. One kid killed directly means nothing when you look at the big picture of lives actually effected by the drug. I just assume ignorance and "living under a rock" syndrome for most of you. WAKE UP PEOPLE."
Yikes. Words fail me.

Clearly, this poster did not feel horror or anger or sadness when the child was shot. He simply thought, "Well, they had to do it. If they didn't, they might have gone to jail." He watched the child get shot and his blood was stirred not with moral indignation or heartbreak, but with praise for the writer's realism. He and I have watched the same story, but it is not eliciting the same response. I know we live in a postmodern society, but I'm going to say this anyway: He is not responding the right way.
Jesse has the right idea here

It is entirely possible to read a book, watch a movie, or sit through a play and completely miss the point. I don't write stories for a living, but I know how frustrating it can be when my words don't have the intended effect - especially when I am trying to communicate something that is deeply meaningful to me. I can't imagine how annoying it would be to go through the trouble of writing a brilliant story and then for the the audience not to be shocked when they're supposed to be shocked, not to cry when they're supposed to cry, and not to laugh when they're supposed to laugh. Personally, I don't think I could take it.

I think anger/sadness/horror are all correct responses to the end of this episode, and I maintain that regardless of what the writers actually intended. I say this because I believe in the existence of objective moral facts. However, I do think the writers intend for us to have the "correct" response. If you are at all in doubt, consider this quote from an interview with the show's creator, Vince Gilligan:
"If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that's become my philosophy as well: 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.'"
Those are not the words of a man who wants you to see an innocent kid get shot and react with cool approval.

When Jesus told his parables, often they did not elicit the "correct" response, and often their true meaning remained unknown to the hearers. I've noticed that this fact did seem to frustrate him a bit ("Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?" Mark 4:13). When I read something like that FB post, I find myself appreciating Jesus' frustration. Even he experienced the limitations of story. I guess it's a risk that comes with the territory.


  1. Wow! I like this a lot. It's very well thought out and explained. Can you help me write something like this about The Big Bang Theory?

  2. {spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the show)

    Oooh, Breaking Bad. We love this show too. And it *is* interesting to watch from a Christian perspective. I completely agree with you that the show does not glorify drug-making or dealing in any way. As a Christian I find that it is an incredibly accurate and vivid description of sin and how it ravages our lives. A former pastor used to say that "sin will take you further than you wanted to go and keep you longer than you wanted to stay". We think we have control over the choices we make, but when sin is involved, it winds up controlling us. Walt thought that he was just going to make a couple of batches of meth to earn some money for his family after he passed, and then suddenly gets mixed up with those 2 guys, kills one of them, and then suddenly is much deeper in than he ever dreamed he would be.

    As for Walt being a bad guy portrayed as a good guy... I understand what you mean but disagree a bit. I read a quote from Vince Gilligan saying that his purpose in the show was to create a good guy who turns into a bad guy (heavily paraphrased of course). The compelling question then becomes: when do you stop rooting for Walt? In the beginning I felt for him, I mean, he was a guy who was told that he was going to die within a year and he was making meth to earn some money to take care of his family. All the moral questions became so interesting to think about!
    As for the storyline with the child, I can't believe the comments that you referenced. How disturbing. It almsot seems to imply that *he's* been in some kind of similar situation and has "superior" understanding to us minions who haven't. I guess you can tell a story in a certain light but not force people to feel a certain way. How ironic that Jesse is the low man on the totem pole in this operation and yet was the only one to really grasp the heinousness of the situation.

    On a related note, I'm not sure I understand why Walt poisoned Brock. Thoughts?

    1. @Anonymous - Thanks for your thoughts. Your former pastor's saying definitely describes what Breaking Bad dramatizes.

      I think I may have been misunderstood - when I said that "Breaking Bad seemed like a show where the good guys were really the bad guys" I was speaking about the impression I had before I actually watched the show. After watching it, I agree with you that my impression was not entirely accurate. The show doesn't present Walt as a "good guy." He just is what he is.

      I've read that quote from Vince Gilligan as well. Personally, I don't think I've ever "rooted" for Walt. I've empathized with him, but from the start part of me has always wanted to shake him and tell him to stop making such terrible choices. In more recent episodes, though, I've stopped empathizing with him entirely and really dislike him. At this point I really want to see him go down in flames - to be honest. I'm hopeful that Jesse will experience some kind of redemption, though. While Walt seems to be losing his humanity entirely, Jesse seems to be rebelling against that "hardening of the heart" that Walt has embraced.

      I think Walt poisoned Brock because he knew that Jesse cared very much about him, and therefore it would provide a means of manipulating him to help him take down Gus.

  3. My wife and I tend to pick a series and watch it from beginning to end as we haven't had a TV since 1993. I was looking at Breaking Bad but got sidetracked by...Lost - that's right neither of us had ever seen a single episode! We got season one and are hooked - just got delivery of the whole thing today. We daren't tell anyone 'cos of the danger of spoilers.

    Found your blog via trying to get a review of my EP on Christian Manifesto. Don't think you write for them anymore but would you like a free copy anyway? We seem to be on similar wavelengths...

    tweet me ('realmattblick') if you do

    1. Hey Matt - thanks for the comment. Glad you and your wife are enjoying LOST. It was definitely a special show. I look forward to re-watching the series one of these days.

      I'd like to start writing for The Christian Manifesto again but I haven't had time. Maybe during the summer. I'd be interested in hearing your stuff. I couldn't find you on twitter, though...?