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Breaking Bad as Literature
This here's a course for those of you who've watched, loved, and probably rewatched (and rewatched again?) all the episodes of Breaking Bad.
We can't teach you Heisenberg's cook, but we can teach you a whole lot about Breaking Bad.(Source)
Also known as the cool kids.
First, we're going to study the show as a classical tragedy, like the kind you'd see from the ancient Greeks or Shakespeare. We'll think about why we enjoy bleak and violent tragedies like Breaking Bad, see how Walter White stacks up as a tragic antihero, and compare the use of costumes to the masks of Greek tragedy.
Then we're going to step into the haz-mat suits of the five main characters—Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Hank, and Mike—and see where, how, and why they each broke bad. But don't worry, we'll also give much love to Saul, Gale, Gus Fring, Marie, and good ol' Skinny Pete and Badger. (And maybe we'll figure out why so many of the guys are bald—you put something in the water down there, Walt?)
Last but not least, we'll put this course to bed by talking about all the deep, amazing stuff you might have missed on your first few viewings: the camera tricks, daddy complexes, literary references, and existentialist philosophy that Vince Gilligan and his crew stashed away more carefully than a ricin cigarette in a power outlet.
That's right, by the end of this course, you'll finally know what existentialist actually means.
You don't need to have every episode committed to memory to follow this course, but we're assuming you've seen the whole thing already, so be warned: these lessons are packed with 99.1% chemically pure spoilers from start to finish.
P.S. To make the most of it, you should have some kind of on-demand, fast-forward-capable access to all episodes of the show, whether through Netflix, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, or a creepy VHS bootleg. Whatever floats your boat.
And if you need a quick refresher on what happens in which episode, we highly encourage you to check out AMC's official Breaking Bad website, where they do pretty thorough recaps of each episode and the series as a whole.
- Breaking Bad fits the bill of classical tragedy in a bunch of ways: it's got human suffering up to here, the use of many art forms, a five-act structure, revenge, violence, the downfall of a hero, and…okay, we'll stop here.
- The most tragic bummer aspects of Breaking Bad—catharsis, schadenfreude, philosophical pessimism—are a big part of what make it so deep and rewarding.
- Walter White is a classic tragic hero with a hamartia, a fatal flaw or error. But what is that flaw? Is it his arrogance, his ambition, his self-delusion, or even just his cancer?
- A lot like the masks of ancient Greek theater, Walt's various outfits are symbolic manifestations of his inner state: the Heisenberg hat, the hazmat suit, his hair, and even his pants.
- Walt is arguably an anti-hero—a protagonist that lacks the good qualities of a hero, such as noble heritage, bravery, a journey, and the values of his culture—but you could also say that he's a hero that turns into a villain. Hmmm.
- Walt has several tipping points on his path to breaking bad and going full Heisenberg, and most of them involve violence or death.
- Jesse has a hard time saying no because he's in need of guidance and security, and he's also got trouble controlling his impulses—a bad combo, if you ask us.
- Is Skyler really as unlikeable as people seem to think she is? She's just a mother who's desperate to keep her family together, and in a lot of ways, she's the same as Walt.
- Hank is a lot like Walt in certain ways; even though he's supposed to be on the lawful side of things, he does what he does for distinctly Heisenberg-y reasons: power, pride, and the abandonment of responsibility.
- Mike's a pretty decent guy for a cold-blooded killer. He always keeps his word, he's loyal, he's trustworthy, and he's the only one who doesn't act out of fear, ambition, or revenge.
- If it's one thing that connects the characters in Breaking Bad, it's the fact that they're all liars: either they lie to themselves about the consequences of their actions, or they lie to others in order to get their way.
- The cinematography and editing of Breaking Bad is so important that the camera is practically a character, and by using perspective, foreshadowing, and editing, it makes connections that are more omniscient than any other character in the series. It also creates visual metaphors for the main themes of the series: concealment, lying, and discovery.
- A macho show like Breaking Bad is full of daddy issues: Walt and Walt Jr., Walt and his spiritual son Jesse, Jane's father Donald, Jesse's absentee parents, the patriarch Tio, and even the childless Hank all bring their baggage to the series.
- In some ways, Walt is a Nietzschean Übermensch—a guy who sets aside conventional values to pursue power and truth.
By the end of this course, you should be able to
- understand Breaking Bad and Walter White through the classical tradition of tragedy.
- fully chart out Walt's transformation "from Mr. Chips to Scarface."
- discuss how all the characters' motivations and circumstances interact to create one big methy mess of a tragedy.
- analyze the many visual metaphors and how they evolve as the series goes on.
- dig up dozens of examples of the themes of concealment, discovery, and lying.
- figure out how the male characters are driven by their relationships to masculinity.
- see how the series is influenced by Whitman, Kafka, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and other dead guys.