Breaking Bad: A Television Odyssey

I’m not what you’d call a big fan of the show. I’ve seen a few episodes and enjoyed them to some extent, the pilot episode especially. I’ve heard a lot about it, of course, and read quite a bit as well. I’ve been interested in the hype and acclaim and how overboard a number of critics and literary types have gone in their praises and interpretations. It’s a Greek tragedy. It’s Aristotelian. It’s full of metaphors about chemistry and catalysts and change and what-not. It’s a journey from good to evil, a personal apocalypse, actions have consequences, and so on. Much of the excitement last week was about the finale and what would happen, and when it did happen, some people were actually surprised, including Heather Havrilesky, the Salon.com TV critic who was among the most-overboard of the reviewers I’ve followed (and I usually like her stuff, I really do). It was as if the show had completely fooled people into not expecting the obvious.

Did the people you hate all get brutally murdered or threatened with murder? check.

Did the people you love all get saved, redeemed and/or given boatloads of money? check

Did the guy who started out dying finally die, but not until he’d confessed his sins? check

The reason I didn’t fall for the show was the same reason I stopped watching most TV drama several years ago – the visciousness and brutality of the violence. At least in this show it wasn’t all sexual violence, but it was as extreme and bloody as any violence on the screen these days, and the reason for that is the same reason as Walter White gave for his actions: we’re good at it, and we like it.

That’s why the arc of the story, to me, is about what happens to a people who watch too much TV. Our culture is like Walter and his chemisty lab. Our shows are like his meth. We know how to do this. We’ve gotten good at it. We make more and more pure stuff, and the contents of this stuff is dark and ugly and seriously bad for you, and also quite addictive. It’s adrenaline and anxiety and tension and release through aggression. If you were to trace the development of television drama over the past sixty years you would see a constant trend of increasing intensity and gore.

Breaking Bad is the story of a generational cultural odyssey, from Father Knows Best to Father Cooks Meth, it’s the story of what happens to a people who watch too much TV.

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