One sweltering August night in 2012, while stricken with insomnia, I turned to my Netflix queue, deciding to take my friend’s advice and start AMC’s Breaking Bad, promising myself I’d probably quit for the night about halfway through the pilot. By 7 am, I had burned through all of season one. Never before had I been so ambitious with watching a series from start to finish, but I found myself doing marathon binges, wondering how Walter White would find his way out of one of the worst mid-life dilemmas humanly possible, hunted by a ruthless cartel and with the DEA hot on his tracks. I’m not alone. 2.9 million viewers have followed the show since season four, with Netflix reporting high numbers of marathon watching before the fourth season began. Figuring out why I and so many millions were ensconced in the story led me to a not so unsuspected source – a 2,500 year old literary critic and some old scroll he wrote called Poetics.
The amphitheater was the center of the community in Ancient Athens, where everyone flocked to see tragedies at the end of the day and admission was always affordable. The advent of home theater systems has hardly changed the public’s appetite for these same stories. It’s just given us another place to turn for them, and more time to tell a story. It’s unlikely that movie theaters will die out completely, but television is where the writers have power, the ideal place to work the magic of catharsis as Aristotle described. Television is the way of the future, as Robert McKee says in his Story Seminar. The new challenge is to create a story strong enough to withstand the seasons.
Aristotle studied the tragedy genre as it developed from festival entertainments amidst wine and wild orgies to honor Dionysus, god of wine, music and drunkenness, to what he considered the greatest drama of all time, Oedipus Rex. Being the first to write about these performances at length, he quickly learned what stories audiences appreciated most. (Ancient Greeks weren’t crazy about plot convenience either). Aristotle also knew why multitudes turned out to see them. The tragedy conjures feelings of fear and pity from the crowd, and ideally, purges them from the crowd and society. Today we have as many committees against violence on television as we do breakfast cereals, fearing people will emulate what they see. While Aristotle was aware of the strong emotions these stories provoked, even he knew this just wasn’t the case.
Aristotle defined plot mythos, as the imitation of the action onstage as the audience saw it, and believed in three different elements as making up the plot of tragedy: discovery, reversal of the situation, (which often coincided in the best tragedies), and calamity (Poetics 6). A dying man burdened with paying for cancer treatments and his family’s uncertain future, decides to make crystal meth. Even after he can afford the treatments, he continues to cook, losing the family that he strove to provide for, to the degree that Skylar must protect the family from the man who protects the family. This is discovery and reversal, followed by the anticipation of what calamity might come knocking.
Characters in tragedy, according to Poetics, should be seen as good, at least in their own eyes. True to life and propriety – the station in life of the protagonist must be appropriate to their mannerisms and the overall tone of the story (Poetics 15). Moreover, the nature of the characters must remain consistent. Even characters who are shifty and unclear in their motives, must be presented as such throughout the play.
Walt is generally the character we empathize with most, a hard working and mild-mannered family man. As the series progresses, he quickly becomes less likable, but the change hardly abrupt as his dark side was apparent from the beginning when he blackmails Jesse into helping him cook. While it is still a harrowing revelation, it seems reasonably in his nature to poison a child, if it will convince Jesse to help him eliminate Gus. The revelation does not so much surprise as firmly establish who Walt is: a man who refuses to let anything stand in his way.
Fear and pity are conjured most effectively when the tragic events happen not by surprise, but when they are followed by cause and effect (Poetics 9). Fear and pity must come from the inner structure of the tragedy, rather than by means of spectacle. The story should be so strong that it may be told to a passing stranger and invoke the same emotion. A tragic incident is found in crimes that happen between close friends or family, rather than between two enemies. Here, we have crimes between Walt and his brother-in-law, who exceeded him in all aspects of masculinity when the show began. There’s a lot to be said about the ultimate revelation, the last moments of Season 5a, where Hank learns Heisenberg’s identity, not through an elaborate investigation, but while quietly sitting on the toilet.
The epilogue is still one of life’s great mysteries until the show returns, although from Bryan Cranston’s own words, it is safe to assume that all will not end well. With some spoiler warnings, I’ve come to suspect that Skylar will not survive the series’ conclusion. In the flash forward in “Live Free or Die,” Walt uses her maiden name. With four and a half seasons, Breaking Bad has managed to tell one ever-evolving story. It never became episodic, but rather takes its time to tell the story of how an ordinary man rises to greatness, and the crime of hubris that brings about his destruction, by forces beyond his control.