Making the case against binge watching through the lens of AMC's Breaking Bad.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
I’m not a Luddite but I am weak. When faced with a cliffhanger TV episode ending I’ll likely push the button to watch the next one rather than wait and ruminate. That’s been the case during most of my time with meth cooks Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and the rest of the Breaking Bad gang, as all the episodes are available to stream on Netflix. They are the strong, and I am the weak. But I’m trying real hard to do things differently, to be a different kind of TV viewer. I’m trying to slow down and stop binge watching. Because Breaking Bad made me see that there’s something to be gained from pumping the brakes.
All I’m arguing for is respect for the form. It’s like respecting the ocean because you know it can drown you. You should know what you’re going up against. In my engagement with Breaking Bad, I failed to do this.
This is a complicated time to love TV, and for one reason. The medium is splintering. On the one hand, the networks and the cable and premium TV providers still air series in a staggered fashion. You have to wait a week for the next new episode, the next new chapter of the story. Netflix, on the other hand, makes its series available in full from the jump. Here are all 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black—have fun. They’re also providing you with old shows in their entirety. You can watch all at once as if it were a movie, a David Lean epic cubed.
This is not how the medium has worked traditionally; it is not the form that this content has typically been made to fit. When you write for, say, Mad Men, you know that the episodes will air in a staggered fashion, that audiences will have downtime between episodes, that they will initially be consumed in single-serving encounters. I don’t write for TV, but I’ve been writing in some way or another since I was small and know enough when I say that form dictates content, or at the very least affects it. It’s a fact that TV has for most of its existence been conceived of as an episodic format. Form affecting content works beyond the relationship between the creator and the creation, too. It informs the relationship between creation and consumer. For decades, it has been the case that viewers have expected to get one new episode of a show once a week during a given season of that show. This creates a fixed timeline, and, for a long time, everyone existed on the same timeline. If you wanted to talk about Twin Peaks with your coworkers and friends, you watched it when it aired. You couldn’t miss it. It existed as an event, and then it was gone. Either you made your appointment with Twin Peaks and watched, or you missed out on this collective experience.
That’s not quite the arrangement now, and I won’t waste your time arguing against the current shape of things. I’ve watched more TV via DVD and legal and illegal streams as an adult (which is to say, as a critical viewer) than I’ve watched live. I’ll leave my argument for a collective experience of TV and movies for some other time. I say that’s not quite the arrangement now because we have more options, not that any of the old options have been eradicated. You don’t have to watch anything live if you aren’t interested in participating in the event. If you don’t want to enjoy the chatter of Twitter during or right after. If you don’t want to talk with friends either in person or otherwise after the credits roll for the first time. If you don’t want to read the recaps the next morning. If you don’t want to complain about spoilers. Etc.
But I’m not going to argue for the superiority of the event, either. All I’m arguing for is respect for the form. It’s like respecting the ocean because you know it can drown you. You should know what you’re going up against. In my engagement with Breaking Bad, I failed to do this.
“Crawl Space,” that’s the episode that made me aware. If you’ve seen the show, I don’t need to say anything more than those two words—you know what I’m talking about. The eleventh episode of Breaking Bad’s fourth season ends on the most arresting shot I’ve ever seen on TV. Thinking himself utterly fucked, Walter White lets out a scream (it’s a cultural reality that a grown man screaming out of desperation rather than imminent danger is more blood-chilling) before busting into peals of laughter. Skyler’s reaction is a reflection of the viewer’s, terror in the face of the incomprehensible. She calms herself long enough to answer the ringing telephone. Walt doesn’t. The camera shoots him from above. It looks down through the hole in his family’s home to the crawl space below where there isn’t enough money to save them, where there are only cobwebs and empty clothes in vacuum-sealed bags, signs of deadness and dead things. The camera tracks up and up as he settles down. His laughter stops. The score is swirling noise. The pulse of bass dies. The frame rattles as if in an earthquake. Why hasn’t the camera hit the ceiling? How can it continue rising? As the scene becomes unbearable, the episode ends. Cut to black, cut to silence. That’s all, folks.
If you were watching this live, you had no choice but to sit with the moment. You could change the channel if you wanted to, but you wouldn’t have been able to find resolution to this particular tension until next week’s episode aired. You were stuck with the bad feeling, and with the greatness of this moment as the ending to a particular episode.
Breaking Bad is a show about bad feelings (and family, of course). It’s a triumph because, over many hours, it forces you to watch a recognizable figure, the gutless middle-aged suburban male, become a monster. Like most great art, it’s an exercise in empathy. You feel complicated things in situations where you wouldn’t think those feelings possible. For instance, in season two's "Phoenix," Jane is sputtering on her own vomit. She’s dying and Walt can help. He only needs to touch her in order to roll her over so that she won’t choke and die. But he doesn’t. Is there still empathy in you for him?
This kind of empathy is dependent on duration. You feel for Walter and Jesse, even when they do terrible things, the worst things, because you have been riding alongside them for so long. You know that they’ve lost everything by degrees. They aren’t a story on the nightly news that compels you to grimace and SMDH about the sorry state of the world. The long stories told by TV are best suited for substantial but incremental transformations like the ones Breaking Bad excels at.
The show is written as a TV series, by men and women who know how the episodes will be consumed. One per week initially. The week in between makes you sit in the show’s filth. Resolution is days away. You want to know what could possibly come after “Crawl Space,” and you probably want to get there fast because you’ve been asked to linger in a shitty situation. The shittiest, really. It’s the cold sweat and panic of people who think they’re going to die. Innocent people, in the case of Marie and Walter Jr. But moving fast is is moving in opposition to the show’s format, which relies on a long journey to the moments that test your capacity for empathy.
This can’t be like math. I can’t say that, quantitatively speaking, you will have a better experience watching Breaking Bad or any other TV show if you let the episodes stand alone as episodes for a period of time. By letting them breathe. All I know is that after “Crawl Space” ended I went right into the next episode and that very special bubble the show had trapped me in popped. I popped it immediately, and I regret that. By pressing play on the next episode, resolution was coming. The story was moving forward again, and at a breakneck pace. It wasn’t the experience the writers of the show most likely had in mind when the episode was written. It wasn’t an experience possible when the show first aired. I chose to speed up a process that isn’t initially designed to be speedy. I didn’t respect the form. I was watching to be fed more information about the plot rather than live in the emotions the show creates, but isn't the living the entire point? That’s where the show's greatness is derived from.
After the fourth season, I began watching the episodes one at a time, giving them 24 hours or so to bounce around in my brain before moving on. I sat in the mess. During the seventh episode of the fifth season, it felt like Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, and his team were talking to me. Mike, the fixer, sat gut-shot and dying by a river. The water caught the setting sun in the right ways. I knew Mike wouldn’t make it, and I was already thinking about the next episode, how I could just press play on the next episode. But I’d lose this beautiful moment. Mike, always the voice of reason, said to Walter—said to me—“Shut the fuck up and let me die in peace.” So I did.
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)