So I’m starting to gain an appreciation for why I shouldn’t watch too many “Breaking Bad” episodes in a row. I’ve always been too easily influenced by the characters and stories I watch or read. Any particularly good book that gets me identifying with the character will strongly influence my emotions as I read it. If the character has a high self confidence or is strong willed I’ll find myself enjoying those parts of my personality more and more. If the character is weak or unsure my own doubts will plague me just that much more. If the character I’m identifying with is feeling lost and rejected, I’ll very easily feel the same.
I’ve known this for a lot of my life. I keep meaning to use it to my advantage but it only really works if I’m becoming engaged by the character for the first time. If I’m re-reading a book, or re-watching a movie, the effect is much less pronounced. It becomes much less about identifying with the character and much more about visiting an old friend you’re very familiar with. Re-experiencing a story can still influence my mood, but the influence is fleeting and lacks depth.
So it only really works well with new books, and I’m never guaranteed how well I’ll identify with the characters of a new book until I’ve read it. So I’m aware of the effect, but I can’t predict it.
I’m starting to see a pattern with Breaking Bad, though, and it’s making me cautious. Walter, the main character in Breaking Bad, is brilliant and resourceful. He’s also at the end of his rope, facing cancer and financial ruin he turns to cooking up meth to make money to leave for his family after he’s gone. The lies and deceptions he engages in to make this work without getting caught are diabolical and complex. They twist and weave and keep the viewer on the edge of his or her seat at all times. He dances beautifully and we admire him even as we wince at the choices he makes.
We can identify with him easily. He’s in a job that’s beneath him in which he’s not only underappreciated but often derided or villified. I have to wonder if being a high school teacher isn’t as depressing as being a dentist sometimes. So many of the kids range from just not wanting to be there to becoming outright hostile that I have to wonder how so many people manage it from day to day.
Anyway… Walter… he’s at the end, emotionally. He’s hit the bottom and can’t see anyway up except to make increasingly villainous decisions. The American health system he’s forced to rely on… doesn’t exist. He’s stuck making it on his own and ventures further and further into the shadows to do it. Each step makes him harder, tempers him like iron in a forge, and you cheer along with him as the spineless high school chemistry teacher starts facing down insane drug dealers while outmaneuvering the local and federal police agencies. Every time he faces a wall he bluffs and batters his way through it. Despite the sentence of death, and quite likely because of it, he dares more and more, gaining strength of resolve along the way.
But he also loses, more and more, easily as much as he gains. I’m down to the last few episodes of season two (it’s taken me this long to work through it) and he is becomng increasingly fractured in his personality. The dark is grinding up against the light to the point where good news has him flailing in anger while dangerous threats are exciting him.
And this is the point where identifying with the main character becomes a chore for me. After watching an episode of Breaking Bad I have to restore myself with something much lighter. Big Bang Theory is always good for it, but Eureka is even better. Was. Was better. Eureka is over, and lord I’ll miss it.
The problem with any story, any truly good story, is that it ends. I’ve said it for years, held onto it as a personal phylosophy: All stories have to end or they go nowhere. That’s the simple rule of stories. If we ever become truly immortal we better have mastered space travel as well because no finite little ball of mud will ever hold enough mystery to keep us engaged for eternity.
In television series “going nowhere” gets identified by “jumping the shark”, reaching that point a story where there isn’t any more worth adding but producers still force writers to churn out episodes in vain attempts to rake in the cash.
So, if a story is good, it has to end. Unfortunately, we become attached to some of these stories and having them end can feel a little like losing a whole circle of friends. Eureka was one of the best.
I just finished three episodes of Breaking Bad, watched them back to back this evening. I fell victim to the entertainment version of “hand-to-mouth”. Each episode ends on a question, or a big reveal, or a cliff hanger of some sort. Something to keep you on edge for a week and eager to see the next episode. But if you already have the next episode in hand there’s nothing to make you wait that week and you just fire it up.
If you’re not careful you can wind up watching some shows until four in the morning. Worse, you’ll find yourself debating on whether that two hours of sleep before work will really be worth it or if maybe you should just do a few more episodes and finish off the entire night.
But… breaking bad. Walter. He gets under my skin when I watch him. The actor is brilliant. Too brilliant. I subscribe to his reality wholeheartedly, but his reality isn’t good. It’s too much. Too much trouble, too much bottom, not enough top. His successes just lead to more trouble and even his most ardent supporters end up working against him.
He makes me paranoid. His psyche meshes in seamlessly with my own insecurities and I begin seeing the shadows and dark corners a little more clearly every time an episode ends. He is still the hero, he still strives and succeeds, but as one of the characters mentions even the good news isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s just more tunnel.
I want to be inspired by his stoic strength, his grim determination to succeed, but I end up wallowing in fear and dispair with him as I watch him turn ever more dark and violent to overcome each new hurdle.
I have to watch the show, though. I have to watch it because it is just so damned good. But I have to be careful. Like taking some psychadelic drug I have to be careful to not dose on an episode of Breaking Bad when I’m already down or struggling. It won’t improve my mood. It will just make it worse, possibly even undoing any positive steps I may have already taken that day.
I admire Walter. He’s an everyman caught in a terrible situation and struggling with heroic efforts to overcome, to survive. I admire him, respect him, and possibly even love him a little. I just never, ever want to be him, or anything like him.