Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Is "Breaking Bad" Good?

So I find myself in a debate on a Facebook thread about whether the television series "Breaking Bad" is good. There I am, arguing the point, when I realize that I am trying to have a substantive conversation about something of cultural significant in a forum which, of its very nature, is inimical to the expression of extended thought.

The life expectancy of a Facebook thread is, what? Maybe four hours at the most?

I'm talking to basically one other person, the only one paying attention at that point, with the exception of the host of the thread, and he's only still in the loop because he's the host and he's getting notifications on is iPhone.

A Facebook thread is just one of the things in modern culture that acts to limit our ability to think. And so I find myself trying to defend my very seriousness.

After I realize the error of my ways in trying to make an extended argument in a modern media context that is distinctly unfriendly to extended arguments, I remark that I will write a blog post on my thoughts, at which point my interlocutor, my friend Mike Janocik, says, "Blog away......but I do suggest you lay off the 'narrative structures' narrative [a reference to the argument I had been making]. This is television we are talking about. there is some really good rock and roll music, but to claim it falls short because it is not Miles Davis quintet is to miss the point."

In other words, I was making over-grandiose claims against "Breaking Bad" inappropriate to the nature of what it was (a television show). I would have taken it better had not Janocik just previously made a claim at least as grandiose: "Breaking Bad was about as Catholic a tv series as ever has been."

"I can make sweeping claims in support of my position, but you can't in favor of yours." Is that one of the rules of the game? If so, I simply reject them, and so here we are.

And, by the way, I'm interested in pursuing this discussion because I am in the midst of writing a paper I am presenting later this summer on the issue of heroism and irony in modern narrative, and this gives me one more opportunity for thinking about and discussing the relevant issues.

Anyway, ... So television is less significant in its cultural influence than other media? If that's the case, then my friend Jason Hall wouldn't have bothered to write the original post about how good television is now, citing "Breaking Bad" as an example.

So the question is: Is "Breaking Bad" good? Or, more specifically, is it Catholic (and therefore, ipso facto--in this context of a conversation among fellow Catholics, good)?

In saying that some aesthetic thing is "Catholic," I'm wondering what criteria we should employ. What is it that makes any aesthetic human creation "Catholic"? Would it be that, whatever it is--a book, a movie, a television show--that it articulates principles that the Catholic Church teaches--whether it articulates them in some straightforward manner or in some less direct way? That seems fair. So what principles does "Breaking Bad" articulate that the Catholic Church articulates?

Here's a candidate that Jason Hall, the host of this thread, proposed: "It illustrates the truth that there aren't good people and bad people, but people who make good and evil choices. A good man can become evil by embracing evil choices, out of fear, desire for power, or any number of other temptations."

On the face of it, this seems plausible, since Catholic ethics have traditionally been Aristotelian, which is to say that they center on habit formation: The more good things you do the easier it is to do them, and the more bad things you do the easier it is to do them. So Jason's argument would seem to qualify under the latter aspect of Catholic ethics: that it demonstrates that the more evil you do the easier it is to do more evil.

But I responded as follows: "A show whose structure of itself offers no way to distinguish between good and evil can't "illustrate" any moral truth. It simply doesn't provide the context for it. You may bring to your viewing of the show a moral context, but my point is that the show doesn't provide that context. It's very way of telling the story precludes it."

At this point Mike Janocik re-entered the discussion, all guns blazing, with the following comment: " If you don't think the average viewer can deduce a grave moral evil as Jessie measures his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement, I fear you've spent too much time with Blindside or Fireproof in which otherwise perfectly sane men sit in the back yard with diet cokes and King James Bibles......rather than double coronas and Jim Beam in the rocks. BB was a brilliant moral tale of a good man gone bad through a long, arduous series of rationalizations and a rejection of every day graces."

Of course, I've never seen these movies from which I am supposed to have gained my aesthetic sense from (and, in one case, not even heard of it).

My response is simply that Mike is assuming that the viewer has a moral framework by which he can judge good from bad and that to simply assume, on that basis, that this is in the show itself is begging the question, since my claim is that these kinds of shows do not provide, within themselves, any means by which such moral conclusions are necessitated.

Jesse, measuring "his neck in a bicycle lock in order to chain his competitor to a post in the basement" may be a grave moral evil to Mike--and to many viewers who, through the residue of Christian ethics that still permeates an increasing secular culture. But the moral judgment that Mike makes and that other viewers may make does not come from the show, but from themselves. But it seems to me that, if the show is really "Catholic," then this moral judgment should come from the show, not have to be provided by the viewer--a viewer who now, here in 2014 has Christian sensibilities because he grew up in a Christian culture, but who may very well not have those sensibility in another twenty or thirty years.

To make the argument Mike makes only demonstrates that the viewer is (wittingly or unwittingly) is Catholic, but it does not follow that the show itself is Catholic.

I maintain that in order to maintain that any story is "Catholic," that the moral judgment must be implicit in the story itself, and that it should not be dependent upon the reader or viewer to provide it outside the context of the story.

Mike criticizes me for the fact that I watched only the first season of the show and not all, what five seasons?Mike argues that this is "like listening to the first few notes of Vivaldi's mandolin concerto, then asking you to discuss the fundamental difference between the first chorus and the rest of the composition." This from the man who had just previously said, "television is a different vehicle altogether than literature." If it's so different from literature, how is it going to be any less dissimilar to something like music, which he just compared it to?

I acknowledge that I cannot judge the whole series, but I think I (and others who may not have seen the whole series) can expect from those who claim that the show is "Catholic" some evidence from the other four seasons some of us may not have seen that the acts of Walter White are in some way judged within the narrative of the show (without having the viewer have to provide a moral context not contained in the show itself).

And simply saying, "You've just got to watch it" isn't an answer.

I teach literature. I can guide a class of Christian students through something like Waiting for Godot or Metamorphosis or The Stranger and we can benefit from the content and structure of the play or novel because we are Christians who have a particular worldview which is so all-encompassing that it makes sense even of those things that are not themselves Christian. But that doesn't mean those things are Christian―or Catholic.

So my question to people like Mike and Jason is this: What makes "Breaking Bad" a Catholic drama? And what makes it an inherently Catholic drama, not just a drama that can be viewed by a Catholic and making sense only because it is a Catholic watching it?

The show's creator Vince Gilligan supposedly wanted to "create a series in which the protagonist became the antagonist." I'm not saying that it is impossible to do this in a Catholic drama, but it seems that anyone maintaining this has the burden of proof.

I have a lot more to say about the whole issue of narrative collapse and how dramas like Breaking Bad are an example of this, but I'll save that for another post.

9 comments:

Cindy Rollins said...

I probably wouldn't be among those arguing that Breaking Bad is 'good' and I am not a Catholic either but I do think you can get as deep a moral discussion of good out of Breaking Bad as you can The Stranger and it will be a lot more fun. Walter White's goodness is as morally relative as his badness but the wages of sin is still death. To Vince Gilligan, perhaps, WW turned bad but we know he always was. I found it interesting that that particular narrative was obvious even though the author didn't intend it to be there.

Singring said...

I have watched all seasons of Breaking Bad and can without hesitation say that it is the best serialized television ever created - by a few country miles.

It is dripping with moral commentary without being blatant about it (but I really don't see how one one call it 'Catholic' any more than one would call a Greek tragedy 'Catholic') and to answer your question (or expectation), Martin:

*SPOILERS*

Walter White is constantly judged within the context of the show.

Especially in seasons 3, 4 and 5 he is morally judged by Jesse in sometimes extreme ways that are, in fact, integral to the plot.

He is morally judged by his wife, he is morally judged by his sister in law and he is severely judged by his son in seasons 3,4,and 5. He is also judged by Hank, who - if we want to be 'Catholic' here - represents the authoritarian moral judge of the show. Jesse judges him based on emotions and is often driven by his own guilt.

Walter Junior (the son), who ultimately judges him in the most damning way, combines both kinds of moral judgement.

Walter White is the tragic antihero undone by a fatal flaw.

The writers make it very clear how they judge his actions by the end of the show.

Whatever your considerations of its 'Catholicism', Martin, I strongly urge you to watch the entire show before you rush to conclusions about it.

It will be remembered as one of the most significant artistic endeavours of the last couple of decades, at the very least.

Martin Cothran said...

Singring,

I think I left the door open to further enlightenment on my part in terms of the quality of the show, which is why I asked questions in the post for which I really did want answers, and I think your comment here is actually the most helpful of any I've gotten so far.

Now on the issue of whether the show judges the character, you cite examples of other characters who judge Walter White. Now one character judging another is not necessarily a universal judgment of the narrative (which can be but isn't necessarily one the author is making against the character), but could be.

I would be interested in knowing why you think the judgment of the other characters is a judgment of the story itself.

Lee said...

Miles Davis is to music what itching powder is to powder.

sejhome said...

Martin,

With all due respect, I sense a bit of slight of hand here. I weighed in on Jason's original post that Breaking Bad was very good television. Incidentally, I said it's "about as Catholic" a television show as has ever aired. I am not prepared, nor would I care to, actually argue rigorously that Breaking Bad is a Catholic allegory.

What I will argue, and have, is that Breaking Bad is an extraordinary television series precisely because of its very serious and truthful treatment of moral choices and sin, putting aside its outstanding production quality.

That, in and of itself, qualifies BB as "about as Catholic" a television show that has ever aired. As you will recall, Chesterton points out that the only fact of Christianity is sin. With the exception of recycling plastic bottles and soft drinks, our entire age has dedicated itself to denying human sin. BB turns that fallacy on its head in VERY effective ways and will have more people thinking about sin, and therefore, please, God, than most any other "entertainment" on television.

You argued that it lacked the narrative structures necessary, by itself, to convey a desirous moral message. I simply disagree with your contention because I've watched the series and while I certainly bring my personal moral capital to the viewing, I also am capable of discerning an objective moral message in BB, which is, on the whole, "sin is real, and it is death."

My point, which I agree was poorly made, that television is not literature was not an attempt to lower our standards for TV, but to understand that television is an entirely different medium than a novel and while I'm certainly no expert on literary structures, I do understand that watching/listening to television affords the consumer other sensory inputs that as effectively carry a message and therefore might make up for a lack of narrative structure (music, for example). At this point, I'm not ready, yet, to concede that BB lacks a morally coherent narrative structure, because I think over the arc of the 5 seasons, it certainly does.

It seems to me your original objection that BB, by its structure, is objectively morally ambiguous is on the run and you've instead, turned this into a debate on how "Catholic" BB is. That wasn't my point - it was an incidental comment following Jason's link.

I do find it breathtaking that you continue to wax eloquently on a television series you've not watched.

Watch it.....I betcha a box of Vegas Five golds you'll come to appreciate it as most serious Christians and Catholics have - a serious, artistic, portrayal of a good man gone bad and how and why - Breaking Bad. Best television, by far, ever. It's the Michael Jordan of television.

sejhome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sejhome said...

Martin, Singring is spot on. . . I would only ad that in addition to the internal judgment from the series' other characters, including the moral authority figure, Hank, who, in one scene, demonstrates his allegiance to truth with great personal and professional sacrifice, and the young innocent Walter Junior, who suffers cerebral palsy(innocence and vulnerability), that the audio and visual cues from the thematic production quality also judge Walts behavior to remove all moral ambiguity. One of many examples is a riveting scene in which Walter stands over Jessie's girlfriend as she rolls over and proceeds to vomit and choke to death on her own vomit, and he does nothing but watch. The lighting, sound, expressions, etc. make it painfully clear, here, that Walter is breaking bad. One can be isolated from the farthest reaches of Christian ethics and discern grave, moral sin in a man who stands and watches a young woman choke to death on her own vomit. Singring is not overstating the case that BB is the most significant artistic endeavors in 2 decades. MJ

Anonymous said...

Situational ethics....a great plot source for a long time, far longer than television or movies, actually.

sejhome said...

Two last points . . . Jason is perfectly capable of defending his own remarks, but he most certainly did not say how great television was. Rather, in a tongue-in-cheek FB post, he was trying to share a couple of good TV shows. I think Jason, you, and I would agree that most all of television programming is a vast wasteland. I would probably differ with you in that I think Duck Dynasty would fall under the umbrella of "waste land." So deprived is Christian representation in the popular culture, I think too many of us are willing to accord greatness to any manifest expression of Christianity in popular culture. (Christian Rock music is an easy example). Rednecks with beards in the woods who pray before dinner might be another example.

Finally, you and I both work for organizations striving to require abortion providers share ultrasound images with prospective abortive patients because we recognize the old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words." Breaking Bad provided countless "pictures" of sin and corruption in a way that narrative structures, at least on TV, simply can't. Nuff said. I look forward to you taking a weekend and watching the whole thing.