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Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Breaking Bad

Heads up: I will be giving away spoilers for everything I talk about here.

Until recently, I'd given up on American TV series.

The Sopranos was probably what kicked the whole fashion off: the revelation that a televised serial could be a serious work of art, combining the visual and dramatic resources of film with the length and consequent possibilities for suspense and structure of a novel. Like a great movie, only lots more of it? Everyone was excited.

What this ran into, though, was the problem of financing. To make a movie, you have a budget, and the budget is for a finite product. The movie has to have an ending. To write a novel, you need money to feed the writer but not much else: a three-page scene in which a fire-breathing dragon rampages through London and eats Buckingham Palace costs no more than a three-page scene in which a naked man sits an empty room and eats a Marmite sandwich. Movies are subject to financial pressures, but all the decisions need to be made by the time the film is completed; novels are subject to time pressures but not much else.

Movies and novels end before they're released.

Television series, though, have a specific problem: you can't plan them all at once. You plan them a series at a time, and whether or not there's another series depends on the ratings of the previous. You have to leave enough open for a follow-up and enough closure for a satisfying ending, a horrible set of incompatibles. Worse, you have no budget plan for your narrative capital. You create a story by setting up a certain number of key characters, each of whom has a their own situation and relationships with the other characters, and the drive to see this resolved is what will keep the story going. But if you don't know how long you have to keep the story going, you have a poor set of alternatives.

If you endlessly delay, the story gets dull and repetitive. Consider Barb in Big Love, first wife of the polygamous hero. Barb is established early as a mainstream LDS woman who accepted a second wife more out of fear of abandonment than any polygamous preference, but is unable to renounce the decision now it's done. She's also established also as a woman hungry for more education, achievement and outside engagement than her inturned family will allow. Barb is shown from the very first series to be trying new things - working outside the home, going back to college - only to have some family crisis crop up and force her to abandon her hoped-for self-improvement and return home in Christian resignation. It happens in the first series. Then it happens again, and again, and again; by the final series she simply walks out of a baptism into a more progressive branch of the LDS because she's decided she can't abandon her family for the nth time, and watching it is less like watching high drama than like watching the writers play with a yo-yo. Barb tries to break free then gives up at the last minute so many times that one ends up wanting to shake either her, or the writers, or everybody involved in the entire project. It degrades character complexity into the sexist stereotype that a woman who says she wants independence never really means it.

If you resolve, on the other hand, but keep the character around, that character has outlived their usefulness and becomes a drag on the narrative, an expired presence that makes everything feel tired. Take, for example, Dexter. Our eponymous anti-hero is a man traumatised in childhood, raised by a morally ambiguous father who channelled his violent impulses into a 'code' that allows him to be a successful serial killer who only murders murderers; in his attempts to pass for normal he cultivates a personal life, dating Rita, a woman with two children, and finding himself growing increasingly attached to them and the domestic comfort they represent. The story always had a complicated mixture of elements and worked best as a combination of suspense, drama and farce, but its central question was always, 'Can Dexter ever balance his violent secret life against the his family life?' - and by the end of the fourth series, the question is conclusively answered: no, he can't. Dexter involves himself with another serial killer who finally murders Rita. Question answered, counterbalance gone, story, for all practical purposes, finished. The fifth series manages to be an engaging ride as he involves himself with a woman out for murderous revenge against a gang of rapists, but her storyline resolves (appropriately) with her leaving him once catharsis is achieved, and from there on the show gets sillier and more desperate, the antagonists growing more extreme and implausible and the secondary characters collapsing into either fans or victims of Dexter with no serious storylines of their own. Once the protagonist's question has been answered, the engine's running on empty.

If, however, you write them out or kill them off, you lose their influence on the narrative. Consider Stringer Bell in The Wire, the capitalist drug dealer with Adam Smith on his shelf and murder on his list of executive strategies. Stringer is established early as a man of vision, resolution and blood: his ruthlessness in preserving his own interests, even at the cost of the family ties that motivate his partner Avon Barksdale, eventually alienates the gangsters around him to the point where the audience knows he must fall. A hit is set up, and Stringer dies in a magnificently appropriate scene, calmly assessing his chances once again and, realising there is no escape, getting shot halfway through saying with bitter courage, 'Well, get on with it, motherfu-' The scene recognises his virtues, his will and practicality and nerve, while providing him with the comeuppance that he's been narratively courting for three seasons, and the story really should have ended there - for Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale are the force that propels plot in The Wire. After they're gone, the story degenerates, still turning up some good writing but descending more and more into narrative pot-shots at the critics (the whole fifth season can feel like an expression of resentment for being positively reviewed as 'Dickensian'), and driven by antagonists less complex and less compelling.

The need to complete stories to keep the show interesting fights the need to keep stories going to keep the show onscreen. At best, one can have a show that begins and ends well with some variable quality in the middle - Ugly Betty would fall into that category, I'd say, with new characters introduced at intervals to keep things lively and some of them working better than others - but very often a show follows the dispiriting arc: start well, get an audience, get more commissioned, decline a bit, keep audience or even increase it as word about the beginning spreads, get more commissioned, and only get cancelled when you've gotten so bad that everyone just gives up on you. Bill Watterson ended Calvin and Hobbes while it was still popular because he didn't want to 'run the wheels off it', as he so graphically put it, but in a studio system, it's very rare to see that happen.

I was coming to the conclusion that under current studio systems it's impossible to create a TV series with a good overall structure. Then, surprisingly, I got talked into watching Breaking Bad.

For those unfamiliar, the premise is this: Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who missed his chance to co-own a major corporation because he doesn't get along with people all that well, is diagnosed with cancer that will almost certainly kill him and bankrupt his family. Refusing to go gentle into that good night, he seeks out Jesse, a former student of his who 'cooks' methamphetamine, deploys his own considerable talents as a chemist to synthesise an exceptionally pure product, and undertakes the dangerous project of becoming a meth kingpin. Tonally it's somewhere between Dexter and The Wire, with a tendency to veer into dark farce counterbalanced by an angry interest in how culture and politics create criminals and victims. Structurally ... it's halfway through its final season, and somehow it's managed to keep its quality up throughout. It looks set fair to be the best-structured series this current studio system has yet produced.

How do they do it?

The answer, I think, lies in two things: the willingness to focus on a character's psyche as an evolving entity, and more than that, a flexible approach to time.

Walt begins as a mostly sympathetic character. He's short-tempered, yes, and stubborn; he's too proud. He makes the decision to cook a drug that's portrayed as addictive, toxic and anti-social. He refuses the offer of a job with full medical cover from a billionaire former colleague because he doesn't want 'charity' - or rather, to accept anything from a man he regards as unfairly more successful than himself. (The partnership between them, we eventually gather, dissolved before the company struck it rich for personal reasons nobody quite wants to discuss, but Walter's uncompromising attitude seems the likeliest culprit.) He's under pressures everyone can sympathise with; he's trying to live up to a masculine image of wise provider that he's never quite managed before. But as the series progresses, his pride, his inflexibility, his anger and his thoroughness become more and more the attributes of a monster: a man without mercy or judgement, a man who creates conflict through sheer arrogance wherever he goes, wins himself needless enemies and destroys them without ever losing his belief that he's the victim. What we see is not the good man fall through hubris, but the man who has always been bad finally get a large enough stage for his badness; as London Review of Books reviewer James Meek puts it, 'he becomes an exemplar of the Nietzschean superfluous man, who believed himself to be good because his claws were blunt.'

It's the fine interpersonal dynamics of that revelation that drive the story. Situations can change between the characters without ever losing that essential drive. Walt's wife Skyler discovers his secret about halfway through the story, going from his naive supporter to his anxious accomplice to his terrified hostage; in none of these roles is she less of a narrative force because the drama of their relationship has always been created by the conflict between Walt-the-innocent and Walt-the-merciless, and the story simply shifts which of them sees which man, Skyler seeing the innocent suburban dad while Walt is cultivating his criminality until finally, when Skyler can see his genuine wickedness, Walt has become such a hardened criminal that he now sees attempts to protect their children from his folly as signs of him being a wronged innocent father. Walt's brother-in-law Hank is a DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent who begins as a macho swaggerer looking affectionately down on the 'weaker' Walt while Walt fumes at the lack of respect; by the time Walt has become a more powerful man than the increasingly-traumatised Hank - for Walt's schemes create shootout after shootout that batter Hank physically and mentally - Walt is at pains to preserve the image of himself as an ineffectual brainiac that he once resented so bitterly. Self-image, the desire to be seen as other than you are, is what drives the drama, and that's a drive that can express itself through many narrative changes.

The other factor is the simple but in this context rather startling decision: time is genuinely a fourth dimension. We can go backwards as well as forwards; we can skip over undefined periods or stay right where we are: there is no formula. Because the story is driven by self-image more than 'this happens then that happens', seasons can end on a thematic rather than a plot climax, freeing the story to go wherever it needs. We begin the second season right where the first one ended, standing in the same junkyard talking to the same people, only now we have to deal with the consequences of what was, at the end of the first series, a murder that merely illustrated the life they'd committed themselves to. Images persist throughout the second season of bodies in Walt's garden, trailing a big change of the kind that generally explodes plots - only to be revealed as bodies fallen from an air collision that Walt indirectly caused, signs not of a change in the plot but of a moral event horizon Walt will pass. Story is sometimes generated by cycling back in time - a vehicle we thought Jesse bought, for instance, it turns out that he stole, with consequences to follow; a kingpin who employs Walt turns out to have a long-running score to settle with the Mexican cartel - cases no so much of extended storytelling as narrative backstitch, making it stronger without making it longer. Rather than moving consistently forward, the story works on make-do-and-mend, patching and doubling with remarkable economy, employing either redoubled narrative or thematic climaxes rather than climactic events, so that the story is deepened rather than extended.

Breaking Bad, in short, manages to do things that allow it to maintain a consistent level of quality even as the tone darkens to disaster. Tensions between characters, an essential component of storytelling, rely on the basic dynamic that people do not see Walt the way he wants to be seen: as what he wants changes according to what he's doing, there's always a path for the tension to follow him. The handling of time is flexible and imaginative, almost modernist in its willingness to abandon regular forward motion and dig ever deeper into the same short stretch.

At this point there's half a season left to go, which should be released a few months from now. There's always the possibility that something will happen to destroy the quality in the last few episodes ... but it really seems likely that they'll pull it off: the last screened episode ended not just on a cliffhanger, but on the final revelation that had to happen, that we couldn't not see without feeling disappointed. There are ways in which Breaking Bad is smaller than The Wire, but in terms of narrative sustainability, of sheer unphased freedom when it comes to handling time and generating plot, it's really something new.

Interesting, no?

I keep hearing good things about Breaking Bad, but I've been reluctant because everything I hear about the actual story screams to me that holy crap is this a Mighty Whitey story: A guy so white that his name literally is "white" enters a minority-dominated industry, where despite the fact that he is in the process of dying of cancer, he is magically much much better at it than anyone has ever been before and is able to succeed and dominate and out-perform folks who have experience and connections.

Is that actually not as big a deal as it sounds on paper?
Some minor Breaking Bad spoilers ahead:

I think that the description of Breaking Bad you give, though not inaccurate, is misleading. It is a very white show -- season 1 especially, though later seasons included more non-white characters (Gus, everyone's favourite), it's a show about one white man. (Skylar is an interesting character, but she's minor in many ways.)

Bear in mind that what Walt is better at is synthesizing meth, which is fair enough: as an excellent chemist who seems to have done much work in biochemical synthesis, he should be better at it than most other small time dealers. He isn't better at the other parts of dealing meth, which is not glossed over -- is, in fact, a major plot point every season.

I understand the objections. I share them, in many ways (there are a number of characters who could have been non-white -- Hank, Jesse, Jesse's friends, Mike). There's an undercurrent of misogyny in a lot of the reactions to Skylar -- I think the show is doing something smart, but a lot of "she's ruining his [and our] fun!" responses suggest that it was either not doing it well, or was too subtle, or something.

Also, he goes into remission fairly early on in the show, so he isn't dying of cancer for most of the time he is out-mething everyone else.

It's possible the show won't work for you anyhow, but I don't think that it is the kind of Mighty Whitey story you describe.
there are a number of characters who could have been non-white -- Hank, Jesse, Jesse's friends, Mike

I think you're underestimating how closely the implications and structures interrelate. None of those characters could be changed racially without changing the show entirely.

Skyler (Walt's wife) and Marie (her sister, Hank's wife) are both married to men of their own race; the fact that they're all white and middle-class creates a specific family dynamic that contributes to Walt's blinkered entitlement.

It's also thematically important for Hank to be white. Partly because Walt begins at least partly driven by wanting to compete with him in a way that's very much driven by seeing Hank as a similar but inferior kind of man - but mostly because Hank and Walt provide different perspectives on white privilege. Walt isn't actively racist but carries certain assumptions of his right to dominate. Hank makes racist jokes at work all the time, including to his Latino partner: the kind of white man who talks more racist than he socialises. Both of them being white allows the show to explore how white male thinking rubs up against reality.

Jesse is specifically written to be a white middle-class kid who's got into meth because he's a waster; if he weren't white and middle-class, it's harder to believe Walt would approach him and demand a partnership in the first place, and it's also harder to believe that Jesse would accept Walt to the extent that he does.

As to Jesse's friends, the meth subculture, it's strongly implied, has its own divisions and segregations, so it's plausible that Jesse's meth-head friends would resemble him. Changing any of that would have been more tokenistic than plausible, especially as they're minor characters.

Basically, Hank, Jesse and Jesse's circle all tell us a lot about Walt's whiteness, because their race is part of his comfort zone. He is not a man exposed to many people less privileged than himself, and it shows.

Mike is further outside Walt's circle and comfort zone, but he's counterbalanced by his employer Gus Fring, who is brown-skinned but educated where Mike is white but blue-collar. The two of them form a double mirror to Walt, each of them having something in common with him - race in the case of Mike and class in the case of Gus - and his failure to find genuine common ground with either of them is, once again, an indictment of him. One of them is a racial foil, the other a class foil, and he learns insight from neither.

There's an undercurrent of misogyny in a lot of the reactions to Skylar -- I think the show is doing something smart, but a lot of "she's ruining his [and our] fun!" responses suggest that it was either not doing it well, or was too subtle, or something.

Fan reactions aren't the show, though. There are plenty of dumb people saying dumb things about every show out there.

More generally - analysis is good, but I don't think an inclusivity checklist or spot-the-trope leads to insight. It's a show about a white middle-class man, and in many ways it ends up condemning white middle-class masculinity, either through showing how it oppresses self and others or how it breaks down under the pressures of contemporary society. To do that it sometimes keeps a tight focus on its subject. The race of each character strikes me as very carefully chosen for the light it sheds on its central theme - which is basically, 'This archetype of race, class and gender falls apart, the centre cannot hold.'

I keep hearing good things about Breaking Bad, but I've been reluctant because everything I hear about the actual story screams to me that holy crap is this a Mighty Whitey story:

My experience in studying media output has left me loathe to pass judgement on things I haven't personally seen/heard/read at some length. Else I am reacting not to the thing itself but to the thing's reputation or the way in which it is characterized by some of its fans

In this case, for example, the creators of the show have signaled, by their very choice of name for the main character, that they are consciously aware of the trope you mentioned (the white man who is a better native than any native) and are in some part commenting on that trope in the way in which they deploy it.

despite the fact that he is in the process of dying of cancer, he is magically much much better at it than anyone has ever been before and is able to succeed and dominate and out-perform folks who have experience and connections.

Walt is not 'magically' better at cooking meth that anyone has ever been before--he is a chemist deploying his education and experience to cook product that is better than that cooked by people who learned for the most part by watching other people and who are more or less functioning by rote. And while he does indeed function well as a chemist he needs to make alliances, learn the ropes and have signal failures as he learns the drug market.

The protagonist's home and the way he and his family in fact signal that all the comfortable people sitting in nice middle class homes, in nice middle class suburbs would do well to remember that there are many sleeping monsters in the neighbourhood.

Is that actually not as big a deal as it sounds on paper?

It isn't that it isn't as big a deal as it sounds on paper -- it is that the description you put on the paper is not a reasonably accurate description of the show.
The protagonist's home and the way he and his family in fact signal that all the comfortable people sitting in nice middle class homes, in nice middle class suburbs would do well to remember that there are many sleeping monsters in the neighbourhood.

Including, of course, some of the middle class people themselves, because some of them are actually not at all nice.

You're right that 'White' is a very pointed choice of surname. Walt is a recognisable type: the pressurised middle-class man who finds himself increasingly high and dry as economic prosperity recedes and the rich-poor divide deepens - and who, in this case, reacts anarchistically.

I mentioned Stringer Bell of The Wire; you might say that Walter White is Stringer Bell from the other direction. One is a black, blue-collar man fighting to rise from drug dealer to captain of industry; one is a white, white-collar man who, having missed his chance to become a captain of industry, fights for the next-best option, which is a drug dealer. It's quite a sharp comment on capitalism, because they're really the same man, or the same kind of man; it's just that one was born poor and black and one was born middle-class and white, so they go after their same goal from different starting points.

Which shows up why one should be very careful in assuming that writers could or should change the races of characters as if it doesn't matter. I'd say that as a rule of thumb for naturalistic drama, if you can change the race of a non-minor character, it's a sign of bad writing. Race and culture shape us. If they can be changed, that means the writer hasn't thought about that shaping.
My general rule has been that unless a show has a defined ending point, the studio will push it to keep going until people stop watching it, which usually means about a season or two after it's stopped being worth watching. But I don't know whether that's true of BB.

As for completing stories, shouldn't it work to start up new stories? Ideally before the old ones have finished, so that there's some overlap to tide people over the end. The Wire tried to do this, but for me its late-season villains weren't individuals as much as "the way things are", which can't be beaten up or shot, and the best anyone can hope for is to make a small island of happiness for a while.
have you considered watching TOP OF THE LAKE?? awesome. and so so beautiful in its quiet landscape snapshots. mind boggling, really!
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