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Falling in Love with Morally Ambiguous Television Characters

Breaking Bad's Walter White—TV's most compelling antihero

As a child, I gravitated towards stories featuring relatable characters. My favorite authors wrote about curious children, whimsical adventures, and animals, all things I knew or fantasized about. Teachers encouraged relationships with fictitious characters like one’s self: I’ll never forget the subject of my Wake Forest admissions essay, With which character from literature do you most relate?

Yet somewhere between Matilda and Great Expectations, I unknowingly entered into a different type of relationship—one that hinges on characters and experiences that are different from anything I know. I loved Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky’s novel about a young man’s decision to commit murder and his ensuing moral dilemma, and recently devoured Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a book with no clear protagonists or antagonists.

My film and television tastes changed, too. Quirky comedies like Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm used to reign, but now I’m devoted to morally ambiguous dramas like The Sopranos, The Killing and Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is the Emmy Award-winning series about a man producing crystal meth to avoid leaving his family penniless when he’s confronted with terminal cancer.

While I’m interested in addiction and a sucker for well-written television, I found myself glued to the TV despite routine disappointment in Breaking Bad’s main character. Walt (played by Bryan Cranston) is the show’s protagonist, but he quickly falls from grace. We allow it, because he’s repressed and suffering severe trauma, but it soon becomes clear that he isn’t merely flawed: he’s morally deficient if not bankrupt.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, mastered the bait-and-switch. When pitching the series to networks, he said, “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Morally ambiguous plot lines and characters keep viewers guessing, which is crucial to success. Any published writer will tell you that tension and conflict underlie good drama. But how does a show about an unscrupulous meth manufacturer/murderer enjoy widespread success?

As it turns out, we may not need characters to resonate with us. In fact, many viewers prefer fantasy: entertainment arguably exists to provide escape. When I asked my Facebook network to react to the Breaking Bad phenomenon (loyally following characters you don’t admire), they raised the following theories.

One person explained, “We are repulsed by them, but as long as they are intriguing, we’re willing to watch and learn more. Sometimes the appalling characters are the most compelling.” One mentioned liking the “uncomfortable feeling a character gives you” and another explained, “these characters allow us to fulfill our subconscious desires.”

Although I agree with these explanations, I used to consider them curbed by the following maxims:

1. People need RELATABILITY.

2. People want REDEMPTION.

Although I’m not a sociologist or psychologist, I think I can safely say that most people—let’s call them Average Viewers—need to feel a connection to something before investing in it. Average Viewers also require happy, or at least resolved, endings.

The problem with kindred characters and resolved endings is that they often preclude interesting storytelling. Many storytellers confront this tension by ignoring it. They write stories filled with nuanced characters and plot twists but end them with unsatisfying clichés. I would call this the Lost phenomenon. The creators of Lost promised complexity but weren’t sophisticated enough to answer the questions they’d raised during the course of the series. Instead of allowing viewers explanations they’d been promised, they copped out with an ending that felt like it had been written for a different show. I felt duped, strung along. Limited answers, I felt, would have been better than contrived closure.

The Lost phenomenon runs rampant in modern television. More often than not, shows with potential (Big Love, Damages, Dexter and Six Feet Under, to name a few) begin with a bang. The problem? It’s too deafening for anyone to proceed. What follows is a garbled mess few writers can disentangle. Either that, or they’re lazy: writing the ending the show deserves feels like too much work. Besides, Americans are idiots and won’t know the difference, right? Wrong.

Just as intelligent viewers are drawn to flawed characters (knowing that we're all flawed), they are savvy enough to handle imperfect endings. Some of my favorite films closed without resolution. Lost in Translation comes to mind. The impatient part of me wanted to know what Bob whispered to Charlotte, but the ending was genuine, and that satisfied me.

There’s also something to be said for quitting when you’re ahead, which is why I was happy to learn that Breaking Bad would end after season 5. By establishing upfront that Walt would die from cancer, Gilligan not only raised the stakes on Walt’s life: he simultaneously ensured a timely end to a story that can’t perpetuate at rocket speed.

Here’s to hoping that season five maintains the complexity Gilligan imbued into the first four, because sometimes it’s better to raise questions than answer them.

Millie Kerr is a freelance writer and former attorney. Millie writes about media and current events. 

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