Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

Breaking Bad. Severe in its exposition of man’s feebleness, blasphemous in its contemplation of ordinariness, and ruthless in its revelation of life’s uncertainty. Vince Gilligan’s epic tale is but one example of a recent TV series that has captivated the attention of the modern masses with relentless, obsessive, borderline-cultish effect. Walter White, the show’s protagonist turned antagonist, exposes the human condition to be something dark and dirty; morally reprehensible in its propensity for vacillation (choose a freaking personality, Walt! Preferably Heisenberg.) But White’s weakness has not held the multitudes at bay, quite the opposite; the plight of this mild-mannered-chemistry-teacher-gone-bad has kept viewers riveted for hours, days, years – time characterised by the temperamental highs and lows of entertainment-induced ecstasy and anticipatory withdrawal. It’s brutal – an awesome kind of brutal.

Other than the obvious relatability factor (we’re all human, breaking our own bad each and every day, right?) and the catharsis of living out our collective alter-ego in a mini-van brewing up crystal meth, kicking butt and making millions, there’s got to be more than just that to fuel the kind of hardcore addiction incited by Gilligan’s brain-baby? Not to discount the essentiality of quality acting, directing, cinematography, music and all that jazz but above all, for a show to be truly formidable, it requires a great script. In this regard TV has changed its approach to the fictional rendering that defines its success.

Series as a genre affords the time to delve deep into personality and motivation. When a show ends, it’s like a friend dying

Many of the best shows on TV today (The Wire, The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy) have adopted ‘novel-style’ scripting as a story format; characters drive the intensity of the show and plot is used to pace episodes but, more importantly, functions as a tool to expand on and develop character. Story arcs are long, and dialogue between characters deeply significant. A further characteristic of this so-called novel-style episode format is that series often have to be reviewed in retrospect. Characters do not flesh out in the space of a single episode; it can take seasons – years of devoted attention. Viewers are required to invest in the long-term. Series as a genre affords the time to delve deep into personality and motivation. And then when a show ends, it’s like a friend dying.

The day that Breaking Bad descended into the abyss of TV dramas past, the ‘five steps’ set in with instantaneous effect: first denial, then, when puffing RVs ceased to lurk around every corner, anger; The Hulk has nothing on the emotional tirade provoked by post-Breaking Bad vulnerability. Bargaining is next and, as it turns out, not even the demons at the crossroad are going to resurrect that which made a smart and timely exit, at which point insatiable tears are quenched by a seriously good sulk as the depression phase takes over.

Finally, acceptance rears its unwelcome but necessary head – usually heralded by the arrival of the blessed box set plus a Walter White action figure complete with a bag of money, blue crystal and an accompanying Jesse Pinkman (ace accomplice-turned-hero) figurine with a tray of toy crystal meth in hand (purchased just before the-best-toy-ever-made was removed from Toys R Us due to some serious and very uneducated petitioning and complaining) to help with the healing. After which the proverbial Breaking Bad fan is pictured… sitting with Walt in one hand, Jesse in the other, wondering whether it’s too soon to delve into the limited edition DVD case, which beckons from prime display position, for a quick binge.

If bingeing is having a negative impact on work, relationships, family, life in general – then cut down

Luckily (or perhaps unluckily?) series fans are never really forced to come to terms with the death of their favourite TV characters because, well, they never die – with the click of a button a technology-induced time warp stunts the mourning process. The question is: is this good for the psyche? Logic suggests that it comes down to that fun-killing pest of a principle, moderation: be moderate, exercise restraint, and avoid extremes or excess. Yawn. On one hand; enjoying stories, bonding with characters and engaging with ideas can be informative as well as purgative, and this is good. But according to the law of common sense: if bingeing is having a negative impact on work, relationships, family, life in general – then cut down. Namesake and inspiration Walt Whitman once wrote:

‘How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.’
(When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer, 1900)

Walter White’s moral decline is not only an illustration of humankind’s corruptive nature, something that in our empathy renders us complicit, it’s a warning against extremism; accountability, responsibility, obligation… all the things that keep society in check, that keep chaos from erupting (in its entirety), are fundamental to the existence and maintenance of a sane world. And that’s story telling at its unequivocal best.


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