Posts Tagged ‘breaking bad’
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.
Breaking Bad is a kind of contemporary western. In various ways. Of course there’s the New Mexico landscape. Breaking Bad uses that landscape cinematographically to romance the story. The romance of the western. Great open spaces. Freedom. Lots of heat and danger, risk.
If you’d wondered ‘why all those car ads?’ especially in the finale but also lots of them throughout the series, consider this. Cowboys got their hosses. Cars, in Breaking Bad, do all the work of hosses in westerns. That’s why the car advertisers eat it up. For instance, when Walt’s black Chrysler SRT8 takes a bullet in “Ozymandias”, he doesn’t just lose a car. He’s on the way down after that. That black car symbolized the power of the evil drug kingpin he had become.
But there are other more interesting elements of the western in Breaking Bad. Westerns give their heroes and villains special powers. Sort of like super heroes but not quite. Sort of like the powers of fighters in kung fu movies who fly and so on. But not quite. Western heroes can kill a lot of bad guys in a shootout and/or they have great marksmanship or they are as tough as a grizzly bear or whatever.
Walter White can kill everyone with science, cleverness, and lots of guts. Gus Fring kills all of Don Eladio’s henchmen with a bottle of booze and a lot of guts. Walt blows up Tuco’s lair with fulminated mercury and a lot of guts. These are all improbable events. But the improbability is masked with science, realism, and good storytelling. We *want* Gus to win against overwhelming odds when he kills Don Eladio and all. We suspend our disbelief cuz we want exactly that outcome.
Emily Nussbaum, in the New Yorker, objects to the improbability in the finale (spoiler alert) of Uncle Jack giving a damn that Walt says Jack is partners with Jesse. Very true. It does seem out of character. But we also want him to go get Jesse. Our objection to the improbability and out of characterness of his action is mollified by our desire to get Jesse involved in the finale.
Westerns are rarely strictly realistic. BB also is sort of like a comic book at times.
Like in “Face Off” when Gus gets killed. He walks out of the room that has just exploded like nothing happened, straightens his tie–and then we see half his face has been blown off. He looks like something out of a comic book or a slasher movie, at that point. Then he falls down and dies. The unrealistic nature of it jars a little bit with Breaking Bad’s realism, but our objection is offset by the frisson of the emergence of the death head and devil from the villainous Gus Fring. He is suddenly what he is. He has hidden in plain sight for so long.
Suspension of disbelief is all about suspending our disbelief cuz we want to. Not cuz we’re asked to.