THE BLOG
08/06/2013 02:32 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

In the Writing #2: Why Walter White Is the Most Important Character in the History of Television

A recurring discussion of writing and literary technique in television and film.

With August 11 ever on the horizon, I found myself embroiled in a conversation at a party, among writers, about Breaking Bad. Amid the volley of theories, speculations, and analyses, one friend admitted he couldn't get on board with the fervor. He liked the show well enough, but had frustrations: the plot inconsistencies, the self-indulgence, the cast that's too small for believable twists (Walt couldn't exactly get killed off in season three). And he's right: Breaking Bad is not a perfect show. What makes it stand out as such an era- and medium-defining document, though -- why it will be talked about for decades to come (more, in this reviewer's opinion, than AMC's other heavy hitter) -- is its protagonist's quiet-but-definite transformation from high school chemistry teacher to international meth overlord. Undoubtedly, Breaking Bad has myriad other merits, but its total embrace of the long narrative form facilitates the most fluid shift in character portrayal ever to grace a screen big or small. As much a study in circumstance as he is an examination of human morality, Walter White -- not Tony Soprano, not Don Draper -- is the most important character in the history of television.

TV, often for good reason, has been considered a home for the static. Characters in episodic programming require little more than maintenance, and even serialized shows will default to formula in response to the indefinite nature of existence its industry fosters. Tony Soprano, in fact, is iconic specifically for his psychopathic penchant for stagnation amid the appearance of growth. And Vince Gilligan, along with every other working television artist, owes a great deal to David Chase's adorable Mafioso. Before The Sopranos, nothing on American television had explored man's capacity for greed and self-delusion as effectively as in literature, and the effect on the industry has been paramount; since the show's 1999 premiere, this literary examination of darkness has found its way into nearly every corner of the medium.

In Walter White, though, Vince Gilligan hasn't created a character indebted to the strengths of a different form; he's created a character that could only exist on television. Film has the luxury of brevity; it can package multiple tiers of meaning, symbolism and subtext into its scenes, but this compression necessitates that change be shown in sequences or key steps in a process (hence the durability of the montage). Television has much more time to manage. This space is often filled with intersecting storylines, but Breaking Bad limits its scope to a tight unit of key players. What it risks in repetition it makes up for in character development; witnessing change over time more vividly mimics how it occurs in real life than film's bulky impressionism. Gilligan uses meta-commentary to call attention to this debate of merits, as in the scene below, in which Jesse and his girlfriend Jane discuss an art exhibition they've just left:

Jesse: You know, I don't get it. Why would anyone paint a picture of a door, over and over again, like, dozens of times?
Jane: But it wasn't the same.
Jesse: Yeah, it was.
Jane: It was the same subject, but it was different every time. The light was different, her mood was different. She saw something new every time she painted it.
Jesse: And that's not psycho to you?
Jane: Well, then why should we do anything more than once? Should I just smoke this one cigarette? Maybe we should only have sex once, if it's the same thing.
Jesse: ...No.
Jane: Should we just watch one sunset? Or live just one day? Because it's new every time. Each time is a different experience.
Jesse: Okay, fine. I guess the cow skull pictures were cool, but a door? I will say it again. A door.
Jane: Why not a door? Sometimes you get fixated on something, and you might not even get why. You open yourself up and go with the flow, wherever the universe takes you.
Jesse: Okay, so the universe took her to a door. And she got all obsessed with it, and just had to paint it 20 times until it was perfect.
Jane: No. I wouldn't say that. Nothing's perfect.
Jesse: Yeah? Well, I mean, [looking to her] some things.
Jane: Aww, that was so sweet, I think I threw up in my mouth a little bit.
Jesse: You can't admit, just for once, that I'm right. Come on. That O'Keeffe lady kept trying over and over until that stupid door was perfect.
Jane: No. That door was her home and she loved it. To me, that's about making that feeling last.

Jesse's confusion regarding the purpose of repetition stands in for the "film-as-superior" argument via concision and lack of wasted space. Jane's explanation that each image offers a new shade of understanding speaks to television's ability to more fully contextualize and humanize its characters, alongside the corresponding risk of imperfection. Personality traits exist on spectrums, and the more we see characters confront dilemmas, even ones similar to those they've confronted in the past, the more sophisticated those spectrums become. Actions carry multiple, often conflicting connotations, generating productive ambiguities amid deepening knowledge, elucidating and complicating established understandings. This, undergirded by the medium's inherent demand for longer plot arcs, chips away at the character-viewer barrier of psychological separation, imbuing in audiences the perception that these are "real" people; people with whom they interact on a daily basis, with whom they can grow to love, fear, and resent.

[SPOILER ALERT]: So, what we're rooting for in Walt when he realizes he must murder Krazy 8 in season one stems from the same place that disgusts us when he later poisons a child to manipulate Jesse. At core, it's the capability to do what one believes must be done. The differing circumstances surrounding the two events not only allow for deeper interpretations of his motivations, fears, and desires, they also present peripheral aspects that may not have a directed function in the immediate moment (the way they might in a film). His choice to poison Brock doesn't fully take us by surprise, for instance, because the evidence was planted throughout preceding seasons in his growing proclivity for violence as a problem solver. By the end of the first half of season five, we grasp all too well how thoroughly Walt can disgust us, but we can never quite let go of the underdog in need of a little recognition. Breaking Bad shows how this dual perception of character from different vantage points, called parallax (discussed in a previous post), occurs organically in television in its ability to subtly amass over time. Unlike Tony Soprano, Walt is disempowered from the onset. Initially, this lack of agency manifests as a devotion to systems of rule, societal expectations, and doing things the "right" way. When he begins to shuck these ethics, we realize (via parallax) that this dedication to order was maybe as much an expression of identity -- indicative of a desire for control in response to said disempowerment -- as it was a facet of ideological construct. The inconsistency he subsequently perceives in himself begets even more grandiose self-delusions: a cycle that repeats itself in ever-increasing spheres of consequence. Each ripple offers a new glimpse at his interiority, orienting us around understanding him as a complex human being rather than a vehicle of artistic expression.

The basic argument of "show don't tell," a popular adage in creative writing courses, is that readers (viewers, in this case) respond more viscerally to narrative moments that don't attempt to explain themselves. We don't want Walt to announce his rage; we want to notice the specific way he clenches his jaw. Film's hyper-selectivity can sometimes feel contrived in this regard; from years of movie-going, we have a subconscious, if not conscious sense of the weight necessary in a given scene and the embedded limitations therein -- only so much can happen in two hours. On the other hand, we'll have spent almost 50 hours with Breaking Bad by its finale, allowing Walt and Co. ample time to gracefully insinuate themselves into our psyches. The lack of prescribed plot movement in the long form also means that, when big moments of change do take place, they stand out as some of the most gripping in the whole series. This is where Bryan Cranston deserves his due, growing mannerisms, tics, and ways of speaking to mirror the alteration Walt undergoes, while still dovetailing with the bumbling, exasperated killjoy of earlier seasons.

Based on the resonance of Tony Soprano, Walter White's impact on future programming is inevitable. In the same way that Macbeth and Michael Corleone revolutionized the respective genres from which they emerged, White has altered the scope of what is possible in dramatic television, and, though he may not be the progenitor of the downfall narrative, he's certainly the most thorough examination to ever exist in visual form. We learn so much about him in the expressive spaces of television -- moments that would be too slight to exist comfortably in film or theatre and too intrinsically visual for literature. By the show's long-awaited finale this September, Walter White will have made the most resounding argument for serial television this side of The Wire, pushing us to experience the weight of human life not in moments of transcendence, but through the nuance of its mucky, undirected motion.

Earlier Installments:
In the Writing #1: Parallax in Arrested Development and Five Other Top TV Shows

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