‘Breaking Bad’ can’t be art: Thoughts on the first truly naturalist television narrative
A few weeks after the finale of Lost, Chad Post attempted to defend it by claiming that its nonsense was the stuff of art. “What’s interesting,” he argued, “is how these six seasons functioned as … a great work of art [that] leaves things open to interpretation, poses questions that go unanswered, creates patterns that are maybe meaningful.” I’m not interested in discussing the merits of the Lost finale – whether all of the “survivors” Oceanic 815 were dead the entire time or some of them were only dead most of time doesn’t matter, as they’re both the narrative equivalent of convincing a child you’ve stolen its nose: it only works because kid’s not equipped to know it doesn’t.
Defenders of the Lost finale, of course, have no such excuse and are instead forced, like Post, to recapitulate aesthetic theories they half-remember from high school – in this case, the quasi-New Critical theory that elevates the interpreter over the work of art. It’s the critic, after all, not the artist, who benefits from “leav[ing] things open to interpretation.”
The New Critic was an archeologist of ambiguity, teasing from every contradiction he encountered a paean to the antebellum South. They valued ambiguity as an aesthetic virtue because poems and novels that possessed it could be made to be about anything, which freed them to make statements like, when it came to great works of art, “all tend[ed] to support a Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way.” And they did so by being ambiguous, which allowed the New Critics to say, without irony, that great works of art celebrated “the culture of the soil” in the South. This, dear reader, is the brand of literary and aesthetic theory you were likely taught in high school, and by its druthers, Breaking Bad‘s not even a work of art, much less a great one.*
In fact, by this standard, it’s quite possibly the least artful narrative in the history of American television, and because of this, it’s the first show that deserves the label “naturalist.” The naturalist novels of the early 20th Century were tendentious in the most base sense of the word: any tendency that appears in characters’ personality early in a book will, by its end, have metastasized into impulses so vast and deep you wonder why they even tried to repress them.
For example, in the first chapter of McTeague (1899), Frank Norris compares his titular character to a single-minded “draught horse, immensely strong, stupid, docile, obedient,” whose one “dream [was] to have projecting from the corner window [of his “Dental Parlors”] a huge gilded tooth, a molar with enormous prongs, something gorgeous and attractive.”
There’s your premise: McTeague is dumb and stubborn, especially in the service of his vanity. In the next chapter, when he tries to extract a tooth from the mouth of a patient he’s fallen in love with, it’s no surprise that “as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, very pretty [and] absolutely without defense … the animal in [McTeague] stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.”
“No, by God! No, by God!” he shouts, then adds “No, by God! No, by God!” He tries not to sexually assault her, but fails, “kiss[ing] her, grossly, full on the mouth.” Moreover, his failure revealed that “the brute was there [and] from now on he would feel its presence continually; would feel it tugging at its chain, watching its opportunity.” When the woman, named Trina, wakes from the procedure, he proposes to her with the same stupid vehemence with which he tried not to assault her:
“Will you? Will you?” said McTeague. “Say, Miss Trina, will you?”
“What is it? What do you mean?” she cried, confusedly, her words muffled beneath the rubber.
“Will you?” repeated McTeague.
“No, no,” she cried, terrified. Then, as she exclaimed, “Oh, I am sick,” was suddenly taken with a fit of vomiting.
One of the most prominent features of naturalist prose, as you can see, is stupid, ineffective repetition in the face of adversity. McTeague can shout “No, by God!” as many times as he’d like, but he still assaults her, and no matter how many times Trina says “No, no” in response to his “Will you?” the only way this ends well for either of them is if she vomits all over his office. Given such favorable initial conditions, would it surprise you to learn that after she wins the lottery, he beats her to death? Or that the novel ends with him handcuffed to the dead body of his best friend, who he also beat to death, in Death Valley?
Because McTeague is a naturalist novel, it shouldn’t. The key phrase buried in the previous paragraph is “initial conditions,” because when you’re in the presence of a naturalist narrative, they’re all that matter.
By now, I’m sure it’s obvious how this relates to Breaking Bad: in a real sense, the second through fifth seasons mark the inevitable, inexorable consequences of what happens when someone with Walter White’s character flaws is put in the situation he’s put in. Like his forbear McTeague, he’s incapable of developing as a character: he can only more robustly embody the worst aspects of his fully-formed personality.
This is why, in naturalist novels and Breaking Bad, repetition is so significant: it’s only when provided with a reminder of where the narrative started that we’re able to recognize how much the central character hasn’t changed. Every time we see another visual echo from episodes past – and in the fifth season, they come fast and frequently – we’re reminded of how committed Walter is to his vision of himself as a heroic figure struggling against a universe determined to wrong him. Consider this shot from “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the third episode of the second season:
Walter is in his hospital bed after the shoot-out with Tuco in the desert, which happened after he had been missing for three days and, of course, which almost got his brother-in-law Hank killed. He’s also claiming that the cancer treatment ate the memory of the walkabout it sent him on. The difference between the man he is – one who’s capable of devising a cover story for his meth-related absence that involves playing cancer for sympathy – and the one he imagines himself to be: the one in the boat, about to leave his family alone, possibly defenseless, while he heroically sets out into the great unknown. The next time he sees that image, he’s in a motel room surrounded by white supremacists planning the coordinated execution of the remainder of Gus’s crew. The director of “Gliding Over All,” Michelle MacLaren, moves our eyes around the scene before settling on a convoluted long shot:
MacLaren is fond of shots in which you’re forced to follow eyelines around the frame in order to make sense of the scene, and like that banquet in the “Second Sons” episode of Game of Thrones, it’s only after you’ve done the work of following everyone’s eyes around the room that you realize that the most important element in the frame isn’t actually in the frame. Once you follow an eyeline to an uninteresting terminus, you move on to the next character, so if you start analyzing the frame from the center and track on action, you’ll move to Kenny stretching and follow his eyes (red) to the floor, then Frankie shuffles in place, so you look at him and follow his eyes (blue) to the table, but since that seems unpromising, Todd catches your attention when he shifts his weight, then you follow his eyes (green) to the bed, which means that McClaren’s direction has compelled you to move your eyes around the screen until you reach the area of the bed at which Todd’s staring, which is puts them right next to Walter, who has remained stock-still throughout. She didn’t need him to move or even speak to draw your attention to Walter, she’s done so by other means. Once she has you where she wants you, she has you follow his eyeline (yellow) to its terminus, which is off-frame.
Following eyelines to their rainbow’s end is a function of film that doesn’t necessarily pique our curiosity, but when we come to the end of our journey around the frame and the most significant character in it is staring at something off it, we desperately want to know what he’s looking at.** McClaren knows that we’ll be less interested in the frame when we find out what he’s staring at, so beginning with that long shot (14:43), she cuts to a medium close-up on Jack (15:06), a close-up on Kenny (15:10), a medium shot on Todd (15:13), an extreme close-up on Jack (15:17) that racks to a medium shot on Frankie (15:20) before reversing to the initial medium on Jack (15:23), then back to the initial medium close-up on Jack (15:24) before jumping to a clean medium on Frankie (15:28), then to a more extreme close-up on Jack taking a drag (15:29), then she moves back to the close-up on Kenny (15:31), then back to Jack (15:35), back to Kenny (15:39), and back to Jack (15:41) until finally returning to Walter (15:50), who is of course still staring at something off-frame. McClaren’s refused to provide us with the information we desire for more than a minute at this point, but it wasn’t a typical minute.
According to the Cinemetics database, the average shot length (ASL) in “Gliding Over All” is 5.8 seconds, but as you can see from above, after that initial 23-second-long shot of Jack, the scene has an ASL of 3.8 seconds.*** Lest you think I’m using the kind of “homer math” that leads sports reporters to write about how their team’s ace has the best in ERA in the league if you throw away the four starts in which he got rocked: I’m sequestering this bit of the scene and treating its ASL in isolation because we watch scenes sequentially and in context.
The shift in the pacing of editing created the impression that something really exciting was happening, but “four guys in a motel room talking about doing something exciting” actually qualifies as exciting; the other alternative is that the shot-frequency accelerated because McClaren was building up to something exciting, like the revelation of what Walter is staring at. The editing could be doubling down on the anticipation created by that intial long shot: as frustrating as it is to watch shot after shot fly by without learning what’s on that wall, the editing’s at least affirming our initial interest in it.
Or was, until she cut to the close-up of Walter staring at the painting (15:50), and because it’s a close-up of someone staring at something off-frame, you assume that the next shot will be an eyeline match, but no, MacLaren cuts back to Jack, who’s explaining to Walter how murdering ten people is “doable,” but murdering them within a two minute time-frame isn’t. In a typical shot/reverse shot situation, especially when it’s in the conversational mode as this one is, you expect the eyelines to meet at corresponding locations in successive frames. If Walter’s head is on the right side of the frame, and it is, you expect Jack to be looking to the left side of the frame in the reverse, and he does:
The sequence is off-putting because Walter’s violating cinematic convention in a way that makes us, as social animals, uncomfortable. On some fundamental level, the refusal to make eye contact is an affront to a person’s humanity, so even though Jack’s a white supremacist with a penchant for ultra-violence, we feel a little sorry for him. He is, after all, being ignored in favor of we-don’t-even-know-yet, but at least it’s something significant. MacLaren wouldn’t have put all this effort into stoking our interest in something of no consequence, but that doesn’t mean we’re thrilled when she cuts out to the initial long shot in which whatever-it-is remains off-frame, or when she cuts to an odd reverse on Walter, who asks “Where do you suppose these come from?”
How wonderful is that “these”? We’re finally going to learn what Walter’s been staring at, but even the dialogue is militating against our interest, providing us with the pronoun when all we want to see is the antecedent. MacLaren holds on Walter for one last agonizing beat before finally reversing to this image of the painting (16:09):
This reverse shot seems more conversational than the last – again, in a way that insults Jack’s essential humanity, or whatever passes for it among white supremacists – only now the conversation isn’t between Walter and any of the actual human beings sharing that motel room with him, it’s with himself.****
“I’ve seen this one before,” he informs the very people he just insulted. It’s not that he’s wrong – it is the same painting he saw after he ended up in the hospital, and the timing here is crucial. In “Bit by a Dead Bee,” his outlandish plan had just been successfully completed, so when he looked at the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he sympathetically identified with a man who shared his current plight, who had made a decision and was following through with it for the sake of those he loved. But in “Gliding Over All,” he sees the same painting before one of his outlandish plans has come to fruition, so now when he sympathizes with the husband heroically rowing out to sea, nobly sacrificing himself for the family he’s left behind, he identifies with him because they share a common fate, as both have to decide whether to continue with their foolishness or return to shore.*****
Astute readers may have noticed that I just wrote the same sentence with different words. That’s because I did. The only “development” Walter’s underwent from the first time he saw that painting to now is that he’s more fanatically committed to the image of himself as the hero sacrificing himself for his family. Every sacrifice he makes on his family’s behalf only makes him more of the same same kind of hero he’s always imagined himself to be.
The presence of this painting – as well as the other visual echoes, most obviously Walter’s birthday bacon – reminds us that it’s only been eleven months since the moment he first saw it, in November 2009, to the moment he sees it in “Gliding Over All,” in October 2010. Naturalist novels also focused on the rapidity with which can descend in the absence of a social safety net. McTeague’s life unravels astonishingly quickly once he loses his job: four months later he and Trina are living in squalor; a month after that, she moves into an elementary school; two months later, he murders her; two months after that, he’s chained to the body of a dead man in the middle of Death Valley. Because of the kind of person he is, this is how McTeague’s life had to end. Aaron Paul’s appearance in Saturday Night Live demonstrates just how much Breaking Bad shares this naturalist concern.
I could go on: the short stories and novels of Jack London were about the opportunities to be had in the wilderness, and the dangers associated with them. In his most famous story, “To Build a Fire,” there is a moment in the fourth paragraph when the nameless protagonist could have, and should have, turned back. Once he makes the decision not to, his fate is sealed, it just takes another 40,000 words to reach it. If there’s an art to enjoying a man struggle in vain against his inevitable doom, it’s been lost to us – or had been, until Breaking Bad, which demonstrated that there is an audience for naturalist narratives, bleak and unremitting though they may be. Moreover, the opening scene of the finale, “Felina,” almost seems like a combination of “To Build a Fire” and another famous naturalist story, Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I’m not saying I believe that Walter dreamed he took his revenge in the moments before he froze to death, but it’s not entirely implausible, especially if the series is considered in the light I’ve presented it here. (Norm MacDonald, of all people, has my back on this.)
The question remains, then, whether Breaking Bad qualifies as “art.” Literary naturalism’s reputation has faded since the 1930s because, in part, critics consider it more akin to an experiment than literature. Literature requires its characters to develop, to become “round,” as they used to say — whereas naturalists were like scientists who would rather take a personality type and stick it in fifteen different environments so they could observe its behavior. When you consider the conversations that followed George R.R. Martin’s comment about Walter being a bigger monster than anyone in Game of Thrones, you can see where that temptation comes from, and how powerful it is, three-thousand comments deep in discussions about whether White would’ve been more like Tywin Lanister or Roose Bolton.
So is Breaking Bad art? Of course it is. The absurd amount of detail included above isn’t meant to overwhelm, merely to acknowledge the level of artistry that went into demonstrating that Walter hasn’t grown. I would take it one step further and say that even if you don’t believe naturalist narratives can be considered “art,” Breaking Bad would still be art, because as much as critics focus on the show’s content, what separates it from most television is the manner in which it’s presented. Even if the plot itself were terrible, the manner in which it’s shot would elevate it to the status of art.
*The main reason New Criticism was adopted as a model was that, unlike the modes of historicism that preceded it, it was infinitely scalable. After the GI Bill was passed, even college and university faculty were worried that their students lacked the educational background required to write the kind of research papers they’d previously assigned, but anyone could be a New Critic: all you had to do was look at a poem and point out what didn’t make sense, because that’s what it a work of art. Within half a decade, the bug of student ignorance became a feature.
**If you were paying close attention when the scene opened, you would’ve noticed, since she opens with a medium shot of the painting, then pulling back and sweeping to the right. Like many scenes in Breaking Bad, this one is sequenced backwards, providing us with information before we can understand – or if you’ve seen “Bit by a Dead Bee” recently, remember – the significance of it.
***For the record: 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 3 seconds, 3 seconds, 1 second, 4 seconds, 1 second, 2 seconds, 3 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 4 seconds, 2 seconds, and finally 9 seconds.
****Before you wonder why I’m not just calling that an eyeline match, because it’s also one of those, keep in mind that not only has Walter been staring at it with a faraway look in his eyes for almost two-and-a-half minutes, he now appears to be asking it a question. Also, in a move seemingly designed to frustrate my former students, check out the examples the Yale Film Analysis site chooses for “eyeline match” and “shot/reverse shot.
*****The boat seems closer to shore than ship, after all, which only adds to the nobility of the man rowing it out to sea, because it’d be so much easier to just turn around.