Some Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Finale: The Downsides of Binge Watching

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

After years of not exactly ignoring the hype surrounding Breaking Bad but not feeling compelled to act on it either, my partner and I decided we wanted to be in on the conversation and set out to watch all five seasons before last night’s series finale. We made pretty impressive time, five whole seasons (16 episodes per season) in about two weeks (when he and I do things, we Do Things), and ended up streaming the finale about an hour after it aired on the west coast.

This morning there has been lots of chatter about how this episode was the Best Finale of the Best Show Ever. While I certainly wouldn’t try to deny or argue against this conclusion (there’s often no accounting for people’s object choices, media or otherwise; people like particular cultural artifacts as much for the artifacts themselves as they do for their own idiosyncratic personal connections to a particular story, actor or even location, making it unfair and downright inaccurate to say a person is WRONG for feeling a certain way about a particular text), neither of us could get with that program. We never managed to fully connect with the story or any of the characters (except for Saul Goodman, he made me laugh), so all this fawning seemed…I don’t know, not unwarranted –again I don’t want to seem dismissive, people like what they like, plus Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris in particular were extremely good– but was maybe a bit inexplicable.

We were both somewhat surprised by that –were we missing something? was there something wrong with us? I’ve rarely met a TV show I didn’t like, particularly one as dark as this– but then this morning during our walk (morning constitutionals are one of the great advantages of living alongside acres of protected marshland) we stumbled upon a possible explanation. We binge watched the entire series, one episode after the next (although we did have to take a Sister Wives breather every few episodes, at least at first — not only was it funnier to imagine that Sister Wives and Breaking Bad were in fact the same show, we needed a reprieve from all that methery), and because of that didn’t have enough time to project our own emotions and experiences onto the narrative. Had we been watching the series from its premiere in 2008, I suspect that last night would have been very different, possibly even devastating, like having your best friend move out of state –yes you can still email (read: watch reruns), but it’ll never be the SAME. But we hadn’t, and so it wasn’t.

This disconnect was particularly apparent in our reaction to Walt and Jesse, whose relationship was one of the main emotional pillars of the show — here was this man and his sometimes bumbling, often brooding surrogate son. The two might not have been related by blood, but they LOVED each other (at least to the extent that Walt is capable of love) and/so spent the bulk of the series vacillating between fierce loyalty and even fiercer vexation, with a few tit-for-tat murder attempts thrown in for good measure (relationships! they can be complicated).

At least, that was the emotional dynamic the series creators were going for. But my partner and I often found ourselves saying things like “wait, WHY are they still working together?” and “why would [either Walt or Jesse] take that sort of risk for [either Walt or Jesse] when they hardly even know each other?” –Because for us, the two only had two weeks’ worth of history. The relationship may have existed on the screen, but it didn’t exist in our hearts, to use a sappy turn of phrase, because we weren’t able to fill in the blanks of their relationship with our own experiences. Which, again, isn’t to say that other people’s reactions to the show and to the Walt/Jesse relationship are WRONG, but rather to acknowledge that binge watching often has the unintended side effect of leaving the viewer cold, because they’re not as able, or as compelled, to insert themselves into the narrative. And that’s where television is at its most interesting and most significant — when it’s as much about the person watching as it is about the show itself.

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