Tuesday, July 18, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 15: Breaking Bad

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show
Part 6: ER
Part 7: Newsradio
Part 8: The X-Files
Part 9: Law & Order
Part 10: Homicide: Life on the Street
Part 11: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Part 12: Gilmore Girls
Part 13: Everwood
Part 14: The Office

Any screenwriter who's written long enough has probably gotten the dreaded note that their characters aren't "likable enough." As with anything, I'll grant there are probably circumstances where such a note is warranted. Often, though, the people giving the note are making a surface-level judgement and can't really back up the claim. Think about it - do audiences REALLY reject unlikable characters?

I offer my first exhibit into evidence: Breaking Bad.

It is indisputably one of the greatest TV shows ever made - and the lead character is a science teacher turned drug-dealer who becomes a meth kingpin, kills multiple people, puts himself and his family in danger again and again, and bypasses MULTIPLE opportunities to walk away. There is quite literally almost NO point in the series where Walter White is anything close to admirable, and definitely not even likable.

He is a horrible, selfish, bitter human being and that's what makes him compelling. Walt, of course, is the hero of his own story. The truly fascinating thing about the show is how it weaves a spell to delude the viewer into empathy for Walt's side rather than for his poor wife and family who are the true innocents being screwed by this.

I was a late-comer to the series. It wasn't until Summer 2013 (during the hiatus just before the final 8 episodes) that I sat down with the intent of catching up on all the episodes. I had a lot of time on my hands, so it took me maybe 12 days to binge the first five seasons. There's so much ground I could cover with regard to the show, but there just isn't time to do so. I'll merely let the speed of my binge speak for how addictive the series is. There were many a nigh when I had intent to go to bed after the episode I was watching, only to have that shows's cliffhanger compel me to stick around for "just one more."

When I started Breaking Bad, I only knew a few spoilers. I was aware that Krysten Ritter died in one season finale, I knew that Giancarlo Esposito had a memorable, violent exit, and that was really it. These were barely spoilers, and in a way, so misleading as to be useless.

Oh, and I knew the "I am the one who knocks" speech from the promos. But again, I was so devoid of context that it didn't undermine anything for me.

Once I caught up with the series, I dove into some of the fandom and that was where I made the fascinating discovery that some people saw Walt as the HERO of the show. I don't mean they understood why he did what he did, they defended him and attacked any character who got in the way of his fun - particularly "that bitch Skyler." This segment of fandom found it absolutely unreasonable that Walt's wife wanted him to abandon his dangerous and illegal activities, and that she often hated him for what he'd done. It was a reaction I found bizarre, and I recall one night getting into a very intense Twitter debate with someone who felt my contention that Walt was the villain of the series was insincere and wrong.

I'm struggling to remember the fight, but I think he was basically arguing that Walt wasn't villainous until very late in the run and that I was being disingenuous (and trying to look impossibly perceptive, the implication was) by finding him repulsive early on. My opponent was CERTAIN that Walt was a good guy who just made some bad choices after being in tough spots. He wouldn't even concede that Walt bore any moral culpability in Jane's death. For me, that scene was effectively the end of the debate that he was a bad person. He's done bad things before that, but that's a clear moral exit ramp. He allows someone to die in a preventable situation where he himself is in no way endangered.

But that wasn't where my "Walt is definitely an asshole" radar first went off. The scene that tipped me off to the fact we're not supposed to empathize with him comes midway through season one, and it's almost a throwaway. A stockbroker steals Walt's parking spot. Casting did their job because the actor screams "Douchebag" on sight, right down to the bluetooth he's yammering away on in his bro-ish tone. Walt later spots him at a gas station, and while the guy with the punchable face is again occupied on his phone, Walt messes with his car and causes it to blow up.

On one hand, "Yeah, fuck that guy!" On the other... isn't this retaliation a WEE bit disproportionate? I feel like this was a very deliberate choice on the part of showrunner Vince Gilligan. It's a moment that we're tempted to cheer, but really is quite horrifying. I call it the "Off-Road Rage" moment. Walt goes to an ugly moment of violence over a minor slight.

(Look, when I was younger it took me all of three seasons to realize Dawson Leery was an asshole and on a rewatch I was embarrassed I blew past SO many warning signs so let me have this one, okay?)

"You shouldn't write unlikable characters," my ass. Walter White is proof that people will cheer for them. Walt earns that trust because he's given a sympathetic reason for embarking on a life of crime. He has cancer and he needs money for his treatment and for his family. Meth is the drug of choice in the area, so much so that really stupid people are cashing in, so why can't someone smart like Walt get in on that for the right reasons? Doesn't he deserve that money more than the lowlifes? Walt's not a lowlife, he's a teacher for crying outloud.

That's the first step. The second step is how they trap Walt in a situation where he HAS to sin. Some meth dealers get wind of Walt's new operation and suspect Walt might be a narc. They confront them at gunpoint and Walt kills one of them (with science!) acting in self-defense. The other one, Crazy-8, survives, which makes Walt's dilemma more difficult. He has the dealer at his mercy, which means killing him is more of an "in cold blood" thing rather than a "it's him or me" heat of the moment call. He takes him prisoner, locking him up in his partner Jesse's basement. At one point, Walt makes a list of "Pros & Cons" of killing him. There are many reasons not to - both moral and legal - but they're outweighed by the one item in the other column: "He will kill you and everyone you love."

So Walt kills him. It's a clear murder, but he justifies it to himself just as the audience justifies it for him. After all, what choice did he have? What would you have done? (Of course, he's in that position due to circumstances almost entirely of his own making, but we've already justified that.)

Once you have the audience on board with that, you can start playing the "wish fulfillment" end of things. Walt quickly makes money and a reputation. He - a pathetic science teacher who seems like he never stood up at anyone in his life - now gets to walk into a drug den and act like a bad ass by standing up to the worst in society. Because we've determined Walt's not like all those other "thugs" we get to read it like he's only "playing gangster" and he makes it look fun. Another sneaky subversion is that Walt is frequently shown to be smart and able to work his way out of many difficult spots. It's like watching Batman or Sherlock Holmes out-think his opponents. Walt has to earn every victory and that makes us even more eager to see him win, like watching a heist in Ocean's Eleven.

And Skyler? The woman who just wants her ailing husband to accept money from his wealthy former partners and give up this life of crime? Well she's the wet-blanket bitch who's getting in the way of the party! Sneaky how we got turned against the person who HASN'T murdered anyone, right?

I'm not discounting the role of misogyny in the "I Hate Skyler White" fandom, but I feel I should point out that fandom often revolts against the supporting character whose function is it get in the way of the fun antics that the show's premise promises. A good example: During season one of Alias, fans really hated Bradley Cooper's character Will. He was a friend of Sydney's and a reporter who kept digging into the murder of Sydney's fiance. He also was generally a good guy and likable (I mean, it's Bradley Cooper!) The complication is that since he didn't know Sydney's secret, the more he dug, the more he risked unwittingly exposing her cover and putting her in danger. Though he was a friend, he wasn't an ally and he kept getting in the middle of situations that compromised Sydney. Once the writers figured this out, they developed the storyline in a way that brought Will into the fold and he was suddenly much more acceptable.

All of that is just a very long way around calling out this "unlikable character" terror as the bullshit it is. If you can get your audience to root for a murderer, you can get them to root for anyone. The path to doing it is by appealing to the lizard brain in all of us. Walter White is appealing because he's depicted as an underdog who's sticking it to everyone who the audience would really like to get even with. (There, I also just explained Trump's appeal.) No one will cheer Walt blowing up a soccer mom's minivan, but a financial dude-bro's penis-chariot? Oh yeah, they're in.

People love assholes. Ari Gold's appeal is almost purely in his fearlessness at telling his enemies to fuck off. Dr. Cox on Scrubs is a massive prick, but we usually see that energy directed either at the boss who needs to be taken down a peg or the sorts of fools that we'd all love to cut into, if we were not restrained by societal norms.

There's a lot to take from Breaking Bad, but for me, it will always be a show that proved you can dupe the audience into rooting for the worst of humanity.

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