Back in 2009, when I interviewed Middlebury prof Jason Mittell for a Seven Days cover story, I asked him about his favorite new TV shows. Mittell, a professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies, focuses his research on television. (He's taught a whole course on "The Wire.")
Mittell raved about a then-obscure AMC drama called "Breaking Bad," in which a high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston, pictured at right) starts cooking methamphetamine to pay his family's bills after he's diagnosed with cancer. "It’s so intense and focused," Mittell said.
I watched the show. I got addicted. And so, it seems, did a large swath of people around the world who are currently following "Breaking Bad"'s final season (five episodes to go!) with baited breath and more than occasional heart palpitations.
Mittell has been writing season 5 episode reviews for cultural-studies blog Antenna that go up shortly after each Sunday episode airs. Because I can never get enough of discussing "Breaking Bad" (to the annoyance of everyone I know who doesn't watch it), I decided to draw on his expertise and ask him questions about Skyler hate, serialized TV, Walt's karma, the great spoiler debate and anything else I could think of. Warning: intense wonkiness about "BB" and television generally from both of us ahead!
No spoilers for the show's specific plot points follow, but there is discussion of overall character arcs into early season 5, and an oblique reference to something that happens in episode 5.11.
SEVEN DAYS: So, have you been watching this show from its pilot in 2008? If not, what made you start?
JASON MITTELL: Yes, I watched the pilot back in 2008 and enjoyed the show from the start. I wrote after the first season that it was a brilliant lead performance by Bryan Cranston on a good show. I think that the first season really took a while to figure out how to make the most of the talents it had in the cast and writing staff. There was a writer's strike in the middle of season one, cutting short the season, and it actually helped the series quite a bit because they were able to step back and really focus on slowing things down to create a much more gradual shift for Walter White. That shift in pace really pays off in season two.
SD: Every year, "Breaking Bad" seems to have increased its viewership and its media profile, evolving from a fairly obscure cable series to a source of memes (check out this recent mash-up with the Miley Cyrus debacle) and a focus of intense internet attention. Why do you think that is? Who responds to the show, and why?
JM: I think "Breaking Bad" has increased in interest in large part because of the way the show has continued to improve, but also because of the nature of TV viewing today. DVDs, Netflix and downloadable titles really allow people to catch up on highly serialized shows that you have to start at the beginning to really appreciate how the series works. The technology and new distribution systems allow a series to snowball, as one person becomes a fan, and they tell a couple friends who tell a few friends, etc.
This allowed "BB" to build an audience to such a size that certainly AMC and the producers had no expectations of — few other series have seen that type of audience building. The series attracted a small audience at first because it seemed like an acquired taste: very dark and a bit hard to stomach, perhaps. But because the hype has grown, a much broader audience has come to see what the hype is about. It's still not a mass hit, certainly compared to network shows of previous eras, but it's not a little niche show like it once was.
SD: "Breaking Bad" is one of the most serialized series I've ever seen — meaning that a newcomer who turns on the TV and watches a current episode will be lost. Episode 5.11, aired last Sunday, featured a complex callback to events from episodes aired in 2011, with no exposition for forgetful viewers.
By contrast, episodic series, like the "CSI" franchise, make it easy to jump in anywhere. And they still get the highest ratings, correct? Do you think more serialization is the way of the future? Or is "BB" an anomaly?
JM: "Breaking Bad" is a perfect example of a phenomenon I've written quite a bit about called narrative complexity: It's a model of television storytelling that has really emerged in the 2000s, featuring highly serialized, densely packed references to previous episodes, building upon the assumption that a viewer has watched every single episode and remembered details from the whole series. (If people are interested, a draft of my book on the topic, Complex Television, is available online here.)
This form is enabled by a number of factors: First, the technology of DVDs, streaming and downloading allows people to catch up and watch from the beginning of a series in a way that previous eras of syndicated reruns really didn't.
Second, the internet allows for a community of viewers to talk about the show in the gaps between episodes, with the rise of fan wikis, bulletin boards, episodic reviews with comment sections, etc., which really makes watching series in real time a participatory practice. You can see this with earlier shows like "Twin Peaks," "The X-Files," and "Seinfeld," and then with "The Sopranos," "Lost," "Battlestar Galactica," "Arrested Development" and "How I Met Your Mother."
These programs all cater to an audience that is highly engaged and interested in not just watching the show habitually, but reading about and talking about the series in the gaps between episodes. This has created a feedback loop where producers are able to do more complex, more elaborate, more reflexive, more stylized, experimental storytelling, because they know that viewers will have the time to process it through online forums, and have the energy to keep with the show as it goes.
In previous eras of television, the expectation was that viewers dropped in and out of series much more frequently, and thus every episode had to be accessible to a new viewer. That's no longer the case, so producers are responding with series that are designed to watch from start to finish like "Breaking Bad."
It's hard to say whether more shows will follow this path; a lot of programs currently do, but networks are very reluctant to embrace heavily serialized programs because, if the show is not a hit out of the gate, it can be hard to grow an audience. Also, they risk alienating people who won't want to start watching a series that is not getting good ratings out of fear that it will be cancelled, leaving the narrative unresolved.
At the same time, producers and especially cable channels recognize that highly serialized complex television creates a much more actively engaged and participatory viewing base, which is great for product placement, great for selling merchandise, great for generating buzz for a channel (as happened with AMC), and great for being able to sustain itself even if the ratings aren't too high. So I think that we will see the continuation of complex storytelling, but it will never become the dominant form, as most top-rated shows are still more episodic, more procedural, more traditional.
SD: The character of the protagonist's wife, Skyler White (pictured), has been the focus of intense fan controversy. Last week the New York Times even published a defense of Skyler — and "strong" female characters generally — by the actress who plays her. What's your take? Was Anna Gunn right to step in? Is anybody to "blame" for the demonization of Skyler (show writers, fans, society)?
JM: The issue of Skyler fascinates me, and I've written quite a bit about it. I think that Anna Gunn was quite justified, and I was happy to see her New York Times editorial, which I think is unprecedented for an actress to defend a fictional character and to discuss fan reactions in such a high-profile venue.
I've researched the anti-Skyler Facebook groups and comments on fan boards, and the misogyny, hatred and vitriol is disgusting. It gets most disturbing when it crosses over from saying how much they hate Skyler into how they want to do nasty, horrible things to Gunn, and I can only imagine if I were playing a character that inspired such disgusting outbursts that I, too, would want to push back against the reactions.
I've been happy with a lot of the critical discussion around the issue since it was published, and actually beforehand as well. It's important to note that this is not simply about Skyler White, but a broader double standard against female characters who either are the wives of male antiheroes, or female characters in general who are unconventional or not deferring to male figures.
This is a huge issue especially in programs that attract participatory fanbases. It's very disturbing for those of us who think participation and engagement is a good thing, to have much of that engagement be misogynistic and hateful. Of course, virulent Skyler haters are a small subset of the audience, but still a significant enough group that we can't ignore it and pretend they don't matter. The fact that the anti-Skyler fanbase is so vocal and seems to seep into different comment spaces means that it is something that we really need to deal with as critics.
In terms of who to blame for why this is happened, I think that Gunn's analysis is right. For the first few seasons, Skyler's main role was as an obstacle to Walt. I also think that her character was not fully developed for the first two seasons, and because of that, a lot of people latch onto a less sympathetic portrayal from early in the series.
For me, "Breaking Bad" is in large part about the failure of a man to fulfill what he thinks is his patriarchal role to provide for his family and succeed in his profession, and in order to achieve those goals, he sells out everyone in his community, including his family, in a way that is critical of those patriarchal assumptions.
"Breaking Bad" could have made a very conventional hero out of Skyler in the face of Walt's antihero masculine figure, but they chose to make her much more complex and culpable for his crimes — we watch her make choices along the way that were immoral and fail to think about larger consequences.
By showing that she herself is flawed, it provided an opportunity for the people who wanted to hate her to latch onto those flaws, but for viewers like myself, who find her a very interesting, engaging and fleshed-out character, the fact that she wasn't simply the victim or simply the hero waiting in the wings makes her a much more compelling character. But, of course, there are still five episodes left when I'm talking to you, so things can certainly change in that time!
SD: What fate would you personally like to see Walter White meet at the end of the series?
JM: I've thought a lot about what I want to see happen to Walt. I think the show does exhibit a real sense of moral justice and karma: People don't just get away with things, as there are consequences for their actions. It's one of the very few serialized programs in which every action has a reaction, fitting the thematic emphasis on chemistry.
I think that the moral logic of the series dictates that Walt must suffer some serious consequences for his reign of terror. As to what those are, what would be most appropriate, given his personality, is a sentence of shame and anonymity.
So much of what he's done has been motivated by pride and spite, trying to show the people who doubted him that he was talented, that he was underappreciated, that he deserved more — and when he couldn't get it as a chemist legally, he chose to do it as an illegal chemist. What gives him pleasure and value is a feeling of worth, the power of being Heisenberg [Walt's drug-world alter ego], of people fearing him, of people respecting him and respecting his chemistry.
So, if all of that could be taken away, I don't think it matters if he lives or dies or if other characters that he loves are sacrificed. So I'm rooting for justice via shame and lack of recognition.
SD: Do you think that will actually happen?
JM: One of "Breaking Bad"'s greatest strengths is its ability to completely confound viewer expectations. Every episode contains at least one thing that I simply could not have imagined would happen, so I assume that anything I'm imagining for the ending ... probably won't happen. But given its track record, how it actually plays out will probably be much better than anything I could've imagined.
SD: Generally speaking, are you pro-spoiler, or spoiler free? How important is it to be in suspense?
JM: As a viewer, I avoid spoilers. As a scholar of television, I believe that people who seek spoilers are not abnormal or breaking the rules, but I think it's a choice on how to watch.
I've actually done some research into communities of spoiler fans around the series "Lost." People who actively try to find out what would happen in future episodes do so because they did not want to be surprised, because they didn't enjoy the waiting for something that they didn't know; they wanted to shift their surprise into anticipation, knowing what was to come and being able to focus on how the story was told and how the producers connected the dots from plot point to plot point. But for me, I want to go on the ride that the writers designed. Then I'll rewatch episodes to focus on how the story was told.
SD: Do you have any practical advice for those having trouble surviving the week between episodes that end with unbearably tense cliffhangers?
JM: For viewers who find the cliffhangers intense and can't bear waiting, one of the things that I do is to read as much as I can about the series. There's no shortage of writing about "Breaking Bad" or interviews, podcasts and fan remixes. [Ed.'s note: Check out the show's awesome Insider Podcast, featuring in-depth discussion with the cast and crew, here or on iTunes.] I find that focusing on other people's reactions to the show, hearing interviews with producers and cast members, gets me thinking about the show in exciting ways, but not necessarily obsessing over what will happen next.
SD: What would you tell somebody who was on the fence about whether to watch the show?
JM: I pitch "Breaking Bad" to many people, many of whom are skeptical, thinking that it's too dark or depressing that someone with cancer was throwing their life away like this. Once most people that I've talked to about the show start watching, they find themselves completely sucked in and compelled.
When I pitch the show to people who haven't seen it, I usually say, "Imagine if the Coen Brothers made a serialized television show," because I think the program has that balance of high-tension action, beautiful visuals and twisted dark comedy that I find quite enjoyable in Coen Brothers films.
SD: From what I've heard anecdotally, I'm guessing a lot of viewers obtain "BB" through illegal channels rather than a cable package, iTunes, etc. This series was shot on 35-mm film — not cheap. Does piracy pose a threat to the adventurous TV we've been seeing in the past decade?
JM: Certainly piracy and other forms of accessing shows without paying for them does undercut the revenues and ability for series to get made. However, there are more avenues than ever for serialized programming to be seen — we now have Netflix, Hulu and Amazon all producing original series, and a lot of independent webseries being made.
I'd also note that "Breaking Bad" is much lower budget than you would think, as they do a great job of putting the money on the screen so it looks as high budget as any program on the air. But there are not that many special effects, there's a fairly small cast, they shoot in a cheaper location and run a well-oiled production machine, all of which allows them to produce a very high-quality, visually spectacular show for much less than a lot of other, less ambitious programs.
SD: What awesome-but-obscure show(s) should we be watching now?
JM: I haven't found another show that I'm as obsessed with as "Breaking Bad," but the new series this year that I recommend the most is an NBC series called "Hannibal" about the Hannibal Lecter serial killer character. It is certainly as dark as one would expect that it would be, but, like "Breaking Bad," it has a dry sense of humor, fantastic acting and a compelling visual style.
It is created and produced by Bryan Fuller, who created one of my favorite series from a few years ago called "Pushing Daisies." I was skeptical, [thinking] that a series about Hannibal Lecter would be kind of stupid and exploitative, but it's surprisingly sophisticated and beautiful. Check out the first season that just completed.