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Breaking Bad as Literature
It goes without saying that Breaking Bad is hard to watch sometimes: thugs getting dissolved in barrels, good guys getting whacked, kids getting shot, and meth, meth, meth.
So you've got to wonder: why do we like bumming ourselves out so much by watching tragedy? Why does it feel so good to watch Walt break bad?
Sure, it's fun to watch fictional characters do (really shady) stuff that we'd never do in real life, but it's always painful to see the ones we care about get the shaft—narratively speaking. Is it because we just like being temporarily bummed out, the same way we like scaring ourselves at horror movies? Or is it appealing to something deeper and/or darker in us?
Guess what? We're not the first ones to ask these pesky questions. The question of why we like tragedy even has a name: the Paradox of Tragedy.
So now that we know what tragedy is, let's talk about why we like it.
Why do we love tragedy so hard?
It's a philosophical question that heavy-hitters like Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche have all tackled, and as you might guess, they've come up with all kinds of reasons.
But let's start with the philosopher David Hume's essay "Of Tragedy," which lays out a tidy overview of the different theories of tragedy that were floating around in the 18th century, before he takes his own stab at it:
I answer: This extraordinary effect proceeds from that very eloquence, with which the melancholy scene is represented. The genius required to paint objects in a lively manner, the art employed in collecting all the pathetic circumstances, the judgment displayed in disposing them: the exercise, I say, of these noble talents, together with the force of expression, and beauty of oratorial numbers, diffuse the highest satisfaction on the audience, and excite the most delightful movements. By this means, the uneasiness of the melancholy passions is not only overpowered and effaced by something stronger of an opposite kind; but the whole impulse of those passions is converted into pleasure, and swells the delight which the eloquence raises in us.
Things have changed since Hume's day, of course, so here are a few tragedy theories that have survived to the modern day, through the lens of Breaking Bad:
Catharsis. This word gets so overused that you might hear people talking about their "cathartic" yoga sessions. But it's got a specific meaning: catharsis is a release of emotions, usually caused by some intense experience, which ends up purifying or purging you. Aristotle was the first to use it to define tragedy, in his Poetics:
Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.
Minus the language part, that pretty much sums up Breaking Bad. The really key phrase there is "pity and fear," which you feel for pretty much every character on the show, and which is the key to the cathartic experience.
The idea is that by experiencing this catharsis, you get it out of your system. That means it's ultimately good for us, whether or not it feels good in the moment. (Do we feel a little less inclined to peddle meth after seeing all the bad times it puts Walt through? Maybe, maybe not.)
Aristotle wasn't the only one who felt that catharsis could be nice and healthy for us. Sigmund Freud based a lot of his therapeutic practice around triggering catharsis in his patients by having them re-experience repressed traumas, and Franz Kafka once said that a book should be an "ax for the frozen sea within us."
Maybe that's why they named that Season 3 episode "Kafkaesque." Although Breaking Bad is more like an explosive chunk of mercury fulminate than an ax.
Schadenfreude. Yep, another long German word that doesn't have a concise equivalent in English. Schadenfreude describes the feeling of getting a kick out of someone else's pain or misfortune. Like when someone falls flat on their face and you can't help but laugh.
In his essay "Human Nature," the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called Schadenfreude "the worst trait in human nature":
It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice. In general, it may be said of it that it takes the place which pity ought to take—pity which is its opposite, and the true source of all real justice and charity.
Of course, this attitude assumes that the person who's suffering is deserving of pity. Breaking Bad is chock-full of bad guys who we'd love to see get broken—even the minor guys.
Remember that jerk who steals Walt's parking spot in the "Cancer Man" episode? The one whose license plate read "KEN WINS"? When Walt sticks the squeegee on Ken's car battery and makes the whole thing go kablammo, we're at home doing a touchdown dance. And that's schadenfreude: the simple pleasure of seeing baddies getting what's coming to them.
It's funny, though, because we know that Walt is also a bad guy, but we cheer for him anyway whenever he's carries out one of his brilliant schemes. Maybe it's because we pity him for his no-win cancer predicament, or even fear him; or maybe because we sense, on a broader level, that his days are numbered.
Pessimism. In the wacky world of philosophy, "pessimism" has a slightly different meaning than the usual.
It's a belief that people generally assume false, rose-colored things about the world. They believe that a benevolent creator exists, that people are basically good, that things get better, and all that cheery stuff. Pessimists are generally not too stoked about the future; they feel that humans' awareness of their death (like Walt's) makes life feel pointless and absurd, and that no matter how we try to deal with it, things generally just get worse.
So when a philosophical pessimist watches a tragedy like Breaking Bad, they don't necessarily see it as "bad" or "tragic" at all—just the way things are.
The show actually embodies a lot of typical pessimist attitudes: like mocking the idea that technology or wealth make things better, or that lasting happiness is achievable. You can see Walt as a pessimist, too: it's his cancer (and awareness of death) that makes him turn in the first place, and he gives up on the stable family life that was making him miserable. (Though he seems awfully optimistic about his own abilities. Hmmm.)Go to Lesson: Walt's Faults