Breaking Bad as Sittrag

Whatever else it is, tragedy is a dramatic form, a type of drama for the stage or film or TV etc. Certain dramatic works of art are tragedies. Tragedy has been regarded as the pinnacle of dramatic art for about 2,500 years in the western world. It’s typically dated back to the Oresteia by Aeschylus. There has been fascinating conjecture about the origins of Greek tragic drama in, it’s thought, religious ritual.

Tragedy is not philosophy, but the phrase ‘tragic vision’ is associated with the form. Just what that is varies considerably. Tragedy isn’t inevitably as Aristotle says it is in The Poetics, of course. But a or the ‘tragic vision’ has typically been associated with our most profound dramatic art, our most probing drama into, well, the meaning of life.

Tragedy often involves a victory of the spirit in the face of great worldly loss. People endure, in tragedy. Usually they go down. It’s the end for them. A couple of the things long associated with the tragic vision are ‘anagnorisis’ or ‘recognition’. The vanilla meaning is the key moment in the play of insight usually by the protagonist into the situation. Another is ‘catharsis’. It can and has been interpreted to be many things, but it’s usually associated with the purging and purification of pity and terror/fear in the audience, ie, the drama leads them to catharsis, to an appreciation of the tragic vision of the drama or the fate of the hero/heroine. It’s sometimes associated with insight into ‘the human condition’ or something sufficiently vague. I expect that it often evades some formulas while partially satisfying others. Our own experience is often like that whether it’s cathartic or otherwise.

I expect that the writers of Breaking Bad have been more than a little aware of tragedy in the writing. How could they not? It’s basically the faith of most dramatic artists. They believe in people, typically, and they believe in their art and the art of tragedy as the great expression of their faith in the value of life and the capacity of people to, well, be heroic even as they go down. Not necessarily as martyrs but perhaps true to their own priorities and values about what’s important in this life.

In any case, the key insight or recognition in Breaking Bad is when Walt finally admits to himself and Skyler that he did it for himself. It’s a moment of insight into himself and his own life. And his life with Skyler and the family. He is finally revealed to himself and also open to his wife to whom he has been lying since the series began. That seems like a significant victory, in the drama. He can finally admit to her and to himself what he has been hiding all his life.

And the catharsis, well, that’s ongoing, isn’t it. It’s when it all comes together for you, whenever that is.

4 Responses to “Breaking Bad as Sittrag”

  • Not to forget the deep connection between drama and trauma — and the “teatron” as a place for looking/looking — looking into the wound, into the trauma; and listening to the theory of it all. The interplay between the catharsis of the player and the catharsis of the watcher/listener, aye, there’s the rub.

  • I’ve never heard of the “teatron”. Tell me more. Is it from one of your radio works?

    Yes, what/where is the place of listening to the theory of it all in the experience?

    And what’s that about the rub?

  • Typing too fast — the word is theatron, or “looking place”. Related also to theory — in ways much discussed by lit theorists.

    And the rub: well I am always fascinated by the tension and possible (inevitable?) divergence between whatever catharsis may be experienced by actors in performance (it does happen) and the educed catharsis of the watcher/listener. Sometimes the player uncovers one wound, while the audience may uncover a gash elsewhere.

    Possibly irrelevant to a discussion of BB, which I have not seen — but shall dip in to season 1 on your prompting.

  • I didn’t realize the Greek theatre was called a ‘theatron’. Thanks for that.

    Concerning catharsis, I gather it is also discussed sometimes as a process that occurs in the play. Rather than in the players or the audience.

    This last summer, I watched all of The Sopranos. Had only seen a few episodes previously. I watched it cuz I read various people describe it as the best TV series ever. And a fine work it is. But I found Breaking Bad riveting in ways that I didn’t experience with The Sopranos. Although probably Breaking Bad was seriously influenced by The Sopranos: the sense of humour and the dark anti-hero among probly other things.

    TV drama seems to have matured rather fruitfully. It’s said that the smaller audiences of the ‘narrowcast’ have been important to that maturation. TV’s become less a mass medium. Shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are meant for adult audiences. The writers haven’t had to worry about writing for 14 year-olds. It seems that the audience for serious cinematic drama has more or less migrated to television.

    And these two series are as lengthy–perhaps moreso–than many a novel. It used to be that only the novel had the sort of length to carry the sort of psychological depth of portraiture we associate with many 20th century novels. Breaking Bad is 62 episodes long; 62 hours. That’s about how long it takes to read some novels; longer than some.

    And one of the key things about Breaking Bad is that the premise pretty much limits the duration of the series. It isn’t constantly hitting the ‘reset’ button. There’s a strong narrative arc from beginning to end. Like a novel.

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