Monthly Archives: September 2013

~ On What Makes Breaking Bad and Other Good Stories Great

imageWhen asked how he pitched Breaking Bad to the networks, Vince Gilligan said that he wanted to take the audience on one man’s journey from “Mr. Chips (a fictional beloved school teacher) to Scarface.”    And it is this idea that makes the show compelling.  It asks the audience a question that we wish there was a clean-cut, straightforward answer to: how does a good person go bad?

Initially, we are given a protagonist (like the fictional Mr. Chips) we can all identify with, Walter White.  A man who, like many of us, desired to do what was “right” his whole life, making a few mistakes here and there, but overall, living honorably.   Unfortunately, in our society, careers centered around self-sacrifice and humility, like being a high school science teacher, are not often rewarded with riches and respect.   Yet, Walt seems content.  He loves his wife and son.  He has another child on the way.  Sure, life hasn’t been without its difficulties and disappointments, but he has what we all desire to have: a happy family and a clear conscience.

And then he learns he has cancer.  And not just any cancer.  Lung cancer.  I’m by no means an oncologist, but it is common knowledge that this kind is one of the deadliest.

It is the injustice of this diagnosis that allows the audience to forgive Walt for resorting to cooking meth to pay for medical bills and to provide his family with some sort of financial security before he dies.  We find it hard to believe, just as Walt does, that this one ethical compromise will lead to moral ruin. And that is Gilligan’s genius: giving us a character that reflects some part of who we are, so much so that we try to make excuses for him in much the same way we often do with our own bad choices, probably telling ourselves the same things Walt told himself to minimize any initial moral misgivings.

This is what makes the show and all good storytelling great, getting the audience to identify with aspects of the characters, and then having those characters do things we would never think we are capable of, both good and bad.  It causes us to ask the question, would I, if put in similar circumstances, do the same thing?

In bad storytelling, the answer is straightforward.  In great storytelling, it’s unclear.

I can still recall one of the first times I experienced this troubling uncertainty while reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in high school. At 15, I had an unshakable faith in my ability to do what was right no matter the circumstances or obstacles.  Yet, reading Wiesel’s story about his experience during the Holocaust, his account of how human beings could devolve into savages when faced with death and deprivation, made me question my own “goodness.”   When confronted with horrors and human cruelty I never had imagined had existed before reading Night, I began to doubt my beliefs about myself.   What if I was dehumanized and hanging onto to life with the frailest of grasps?  Would I be capable of disowning the person I loved most in order to ensure my survival, just as Wiesel did near the end of the book?

Again, in bad storytelling, the answer is simple.  In great storytelling, it’s ambiguous.   Which is why Breaking Bad is such great storytelling.

The phone call during last week’s episode, “Ozymandias”, epitomizes this complexity.  While no one would argue Walt is still the same  “good guy” he was at the start of the series, a fact evident in the vitriolic lashing he gives to Skylar on the phone, his intent in doing so undermines the neat view of him as a “bad guy”.  Even as he is saying horrendous things to his wife, his intentions are good.

And this sliver of goodness connects us back to the original Walter White, the Mr. Chips character who used to be “good like us.”  We may be horrified at Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg, but so would the loving father and high school teacher Walt used to be if he could see the man he would become.  This is why Hank’s simplistic black-and-white view of morality is hard to swallow, why his and Marie’s belief that Walt and Skylar are now strangers is flawed.   Because even though we may no longer wish to empathize with our protagonist, the audience must admit that, like Walt, we have all made moral compromises in our lives.  If we are honest with ourselves, we recognize our capacity for cruelty even though we may not exercise it as Walt does.  And so it becomes harder to distance ourselves from Walt’s ultimately “bad” self.    We have followed him along this journey, going from making excuses for his first steps down this dark path to questioning our complicity when we see where it has led him (and us).

And it is that ambiguous depiction of moral degradation that causes us to ask, not am I like this, but could I be like this?

And the answer, if the story is great, is never simple.

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~ We Are What We Watch

Ask a man if he watches All My Children or General Hospital and he will most likely laugh dismissively.  As if he would waste his time on such meaningless drivel.

Ask a man if he watches The Real Housewives of New Jersey or Atlanta or Miami… and he will probably give you the same reply, perhaps admitting he has seen one of these programs but only at the behest of his significant other.   As if he would watch that mindless garbage if it were up to him.

But if you were to ask a man about whether he spends a large portion of his weekend bingeing on football game after football game after football game, you would very likely get a proud admission of his excessive consumption.

But why?  What about watching grown men wrestle each other to the ground in hopes of getting a ball to a desired end of the field is something to be vaunted rather than whispered?   What does it say about our culture that men who spend countless hours paying homage to the football gods are seen as “normal” and masculine while women who watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Teen Moms are viewed as shallow and celebrity-obsessed?

Yes, feats of strength and skill and determination are inspiring and exciting.  Yes, these programs can unite us in our love of our favorite team or through our hatred of a certain housewife.  However, any woman who has endured hours of the same stories being dissected on ESPN or any man who has witnessed repeated cat fights and betrayals on BRAVO has to admit that, ultimately, there are many worthier programs to watch, television shows that might teach us something new about ourselves or our world, programs that might cause us to question our beliefs or motivate us to do something important with our time here on earth.

Before you get defensive, know that this is not a lecture.  I am no saint.   I have gorged on horrible television that glamorizes bad behavior and talentless so-called celebrities.   And I also enjoy the adrenaline-fueled world of sports, having developed a love for athletic competition as a child.

Yet, when I consider that toddlers view about 24 hours of television each week and that this number tends to increase with age1, it becomes apparent that we ought to take more care in both our own and our children’s viewing choices.   We need to become more mindful of what we consume; we can no longer pretend that there isn’t a correlation between the television we watch and the people we are.   After all, why would a man be embarrassed to admit that he enjoys The Bachelorette if he did not believe that it, in some way, said something about who he is?

Again, I am not trying to criticize fans of reality television or admonish aficionados of football.  I am not claiming that if you never miss an episode of America’s Got Talent, you must be uninformed about what’s going on in the world.  And I am not arguing that all television turns our minds to mush.

What I am saying is that, if you watch certain types of shows exclusively or excessively, then perhaps you share the same qualities as that program.   And so if you don’t want to turn into a superficial gossip or a barbaric meathead, you may want to diversify your viewing menu.   Because, in the end, we all have a limited time on this planet, and if we are not careful, we’ll become more like what we watch rather than who we wish to be.

1 Hinckley, John.  “Americans Spend 34 hours a week watching TV,   according to Nielsen numbers”. NYDailyNews.com. 19 Sept. 2012.