Saturday, September 21, 2013

TV Watch: Lessons from "the" phone call on last week's "Breaking Bad"


by Ken

I hadn't planned to write about Breaking Bad again until the whole series was under our collective belts, but in a post prompted by last week's episode The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, "That Mind-Bending Phone Call on Last Night's Breaking Bad," has raised two large issues about the relationship between TV programs and TV audiences which I think deserve to be shared.

[Needless to say, a spoiler alert applies for anyone who hasn't seen last week's episode, "Ozymandias."]

Actually, the issue that interests me more isn't really raised as such in the piece. Emily N kind of takes it for granted. In much of her writing for the magazine she has made it clear that she partakes freely of tweets and social media and online discussion groups, forms of what I would call "communal viewing," which has never much interested me. But with Breaking Bad in particular I've found myself gradually nudged in that direction.

No, I don't see myself suddenly descending into the miasma of Twitterworld. But I've already noted here how much I enjoy AMC's Breaking Bad after-show, Talking Bad, and cited instances of stuff that was observed or explained by host Chris Hardwick or one of the guests.

Of course in the ancient days these were the kinds of things one might have discovered for oneself on repeated viewings -- the kind of texture and nuance that deepened not only one's understanding but one's appreciation of the show. But never mind, we want to know it all now, and if consorting with a commnity of viewers helps that happen, I guess this is a good thing.

And Emily opened up a whole train of thought for me. As the title of the piece (remember, "That Mind-Bending Phone Call on Last Night's Breaking Bad") hinted, the scene she was interested in was th eone with, er, that mind-bending phone call. "[W]hat the scene was doing," Emily writres, "finally struck me as far more layered, and more subversive, than anything I've seen in a late-stage show before."
The scene I refer to was that horrifying phone call, the one that seemed to be directed not merely at Skyler but at any fan who had started a Facebook page called "I Hate Skyler White." We all know this fan: this is the Bad Fan who didn't see it as abusive when Walt lied to Skyler nonstop; or when he sexually assaulted her in the kitchen; or when he overrode her restraining order and forced himself back into her home; or when he turned Walt, Jr., against her. These fans didn't see it as abusive when Skyler had that tragic showdown at the pool, trying and failing to negotiate with Walt to keep their kids safe. They certainly didn't see it as abusive when Walt continued to lie, long after Skyler had finally agreed to become, as they say in the wedding vows, his partner in crime.

But what was truly fascinating about that phone call was that if it was trolling the Bad Fan, it was also trolling me: the sort of feminist-minded sucker who took the speech at face value, for nearly an hour, until I suddenly realized, in a flash of clarity, that it was a fake-out for the police. (Skyler realized long before I did.) Once my analytical skills flared back into being, I was stunned by the moment's effectiveness. I mean, on one level, that speech was just what it looked like: Walt venting every toxic feeling he'd ever had about his wife. On another level, it was the opposite: it was Walt pretending to be an abusive husband, as a gift to Skyler. It was an apology to her, as well as an attempt to get her off the hook legally, to honor Holly saying "Mama." Walt's language was pretty much a PowerPoint presentation of abuser behavior, designed to make Skyler's case in court proceedings. And yet it still had the sting of catharsis, letting Walt say what he felt: that Skyler is a whiner, a nag, a drag, responsible for anything that happened to her. Like the Bad Fans who roam the Internet (and even some Good Fans, who can make a more reasonable case for disliking Skyler), he relishes calling her a bitch.

Now, that's all at the Walt level, inside the story. At the fan-response level, though, the scene also had two sides. There was the part that was directed at the Bad Fan who hates Skyler, and who has written entire posts on Reddit indistinguishable from what Walt said, and who now got his own language shoved back in his face, labelled "abuser-talk." And there was the part that was designed to sucker the Prissy Progressive Fan (me) who was all too eager to see Skyler as a pure victim, not merely of abusive Walt, but also of the Bad Fan. Vince Gilligan, you cunning bastard, I am confused and delighted. In one way, this scene was "Breaking Bad" having it both ways; in another way, it was the best kind of text, evading the simple read, as emotionally labile as I felt an hour after watching it.
Okay, Emily! You know, it never occurred to me that Walt was being anything except sincere throughout that phone call. As Emily points out, he sure seemed to be believing what he was saying, and after all, he was alone, with no need to disguise his intentions from anyone in the room with him.

As it happens, I happened to watch that scene again, and sure enough, there's a point in that convesation where Skyler at her end breaks into a tiny smile of sorts. And if you wanted to say that this was her figuring out just what Emily says she figured out: that this is Walt trying to get her off the hook on the (police) record. Son of a gun. I'm still not absolutely sure, and perhaps subsequent events may make this clearer, but for now it sure looks like you called this one, E! Thanks for being there.

Now the other large issue that Emily tackles in this piece comes to the fore in this excerpt: the whole idea of the "bad fan": that there is such a thing, and that show producers are only too aware of it, and have to grapple with it and what if anything to do about it.

So let's go back to the beginning of the piece.
A few weeks ago, during a discussion of "Breaking Bad" on Twitter (my part-time volunteer gig), we all started yakking about the phenomenon of "bad fans." All shows have them. They're the "Sopranos" buffs who wanted a show made up of nothing but whackings (and who posted eagerly about how they fast-forwarded past anything else). They're the "Girls" watchers who were aesthetically outraged by Hannah having sex with Josh(ua). They're the ones who get furious whenever anyone tries to harsh Don Draper's mellow. If you create a TV show, you're probably required to say something in response to these viewers along the lines of, "Well, you know, whatever anyone gets out of the show is fine! It's not my place to say. I'm just glad people are watching."

Luckily, I have not created a show. So I will say it: some fans are watching wrong.

Because TV is, in its way, a live performance that goes on for years, shows tend to absorb the responses of its viewers. There is also a tendency, in late seasons of ambitious shows, for scripts to refract these tensions more explicitly, sometimes in an effective way, sometimes defensively. On "Lost," the characters of Hurley and Arzt, and, later on, Frank and Miles, were clear stand-ins for certain types of "Lost" fans. On "The Sopranos," the parodic horror film "Cleaver" looked a lot like the version of "The Sopranos" that those lousy fast-forwarders wished they were watching. On "Sex and the City," the "face girl" -- the judgmental lady who wouldn't listen to Carrie's side of the story -- resembled, suspiciously, the fan who wouldn't listen to Carrie's side of the story.

In my earlier post about this season's opening episode of "Breaking Bad," I mentioned that Todd looked very much like the prototypical Bad Fan of "Breaking Bad": he arrived late in the story, and he saw Walt purely as a kick-ass genius, worthy of worship (like Jesse, he called him Mr. White). Two episodes later, my hunch was confirmed when Todd excitedly re-told the entire Great Train Robbery desert caper to his Nazi uncle, including every single awesome, suspenseful detail but one: that pesky kid he'd shot. Bad Fan recapping in a nutshell! It was a short scene, but one that underlined what we all knew: if you ignore the dead kids, son, you are watching "Breaking Bad" wrong.

If that earlier episode provided a bit of meta-commentary on the Bad Fan, last night's episode -- a fantastic one, but also, emotionally speaking, very difficult to watch -- included a sequence that, at first sight at least, seemed to take a thick black marker, underline the Bad Fan crisis three times, go over it with a meth-blue highlighter, and then scribble on the side "This!!!" But what the scene was doing finally struck me as far more layered, and more subversive, than anything I've seen in a late-stage show before.
Oh sure, it's occurred to me -- frequently -- that other TV viewers aren't seeing the same thing I'm seeing, accompanied by the suspicion, or even strong conviction, that I'm right and they're wrong. This has, in fact, occurred to me, in consuming most of the arts I regularly consume. It's why I tend not to associate much with, say, other passionate opera fans. My usual feeling is that I don't have much more in common with them than i do with most of the people who are unequivocal about their loathing for opera.

Still, it's never occurred to me to work out a whole Theory of the Bad Fan. And what Emily has to say about it outstrips anything I've thought about this subject of bad fans. She's quite right that it poses a real problem for the people who produce TV shows -- they can hardly afford to be in the business of warding off fans, when their livelihood depends on amassing as many as they can. So I'm intrigued as well by E's suggestions of things that Breaking Bad mastermind and has team have actually incorporated into the show to deal with their bad fans.

I can't resist further sharing Emily's final thought in the post. After noting that "last night's episode was certainly pungent," and describing it as "deftly plotted," and saying that "like so much of this season, it was nearly unbearable to watch, but a pleasure to think about," she concludes:
It's hard to say that I'm looking forward to next week's episode, exactly -- I'm dreading it, if there is some positive, complimentary sense of the word "dread." (They've probably got one in Berlin.) Either way, I'll be watching with my fingers over my eyes. Bad Fans, Good Fans, we are all in this together now, suckers eternally, marching toward the void.
Just two episodes left!

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