Sunday, September 22, 2013

Breaking Bad, Turn-of-the-century American Literature, and Catharsis

The Scene

A woman stands at the water's edge. She's married with children. At one point, marriage and motherhood provided her with joy. She now has lost whatever passion she had for life. She attempted to find that thrill of life via an affair. It didn't work. Now she doesn't feel anything. She's numb. She attempts to regain some sense of feeling by dipping a toe into the cold water. Nothing. She continues deeper and deeper into the water searching for SOME feeling. Nothing. It's not that she wants to die. She simply wishes to cease living. Eventually she's fully submerged.

Is the woman Skyler White or is it Edna Pontellier?

Edna who?

I am admittedly a Breaking Bad neophyte, but what I love about the show is the wealth of literary sources it draws on. The scene above, from the episode Fifty-One, could just as easily have been from Kate Chopin's The Awakening. From what I can tell, no one has made this connection yet. There are probably several allusions per episode. It's part of what makes the show great. In an age of so much reality television (that isn't really reality) BS, it's nice to watch a show that is intelligent and thought provoking.

Catharsis vs. Kenosis

Vince Gilligan is obviously well versed in the theory of writing. He regularly draws on techniques used from Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare, to postmodern story-telling. Catharsis is central to all of these. A cathartic experience for the audience is similar to fasting or a detox program -- it empties oneself of unneeded accretions of daily life in order to rearrange the things that truly matter. In this sense, it is similar to the concept of repentance (metanoia). We stop, look around, and reassess our priorities. Good TV can help with this.

Kenosis, on the other hand, is an emptying of oneself. While this can make room for other things (such as in the archetypical kenotic experience of Christ emptying himself in order to perform solely the will of the Father), in contemporary culture we empty ourselves and that's the end of it. No refilling. No finding other priorities. No reassessment. There is plenty of programming on television that serves a kenotic function. We "escape" into the world of the Kardashians, emptying our minds while we persist vegetatively in an unreal reality show.

Someone may watch the Karsashians and decide to look more into fashion. Great. That's just what this world needs. Someone watching Breaking Bad may decide to delve more into chemistry (hopefully not with the intent of cooking meth, but rather of understanding the dialog -- the "chirality" and "exothermic" stuff). Or read the wiki on Shakespeare to understand just why so many people compare Walt to Macbeth.

Vince Gilligan is obviously a creative guy. But what he has created in Breaking Bad is also creative. The show is itself a  creator.

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