Breaking Bad is our Greek Tragedy

September 25, 2010

It is natural and inevitable that a contemporary audience deems all those that preceded it to be unsophisticated.

Therefore, I can say with some degree of certainty that future human societies, whatever is left as the ice melts and oceans rise, will look back at our media libraries (and there will be a lot of them) with contempt. Case in point, I recently finished watching Season Three of Breaking Bad. [Fair warning that I am about to discuss incidents that occurred in the final episodes of Breaking Bad: Season Three. Suffice it to say, if you don’t want to know happens, stop reading now.]

A hundred years from now, people of the future will watch the end of Season Three of Breaking Bad on whatever internal visual implant they use to beam videos into their brains, and they will scoff at our sweet tooth for over-the-top melodrama. I can almost hear their groans echoing back through time when Walt’s Minivan of Death zooms in at the last possible second and plows over the two drug dealers, tightening the bond between him and Jesse and setting up a highly dramatic confrontation with Gus. Walt has completed his unlikely transformation from meek chemistry teacher to ruthless drug-dealing avenger.

They will think us childlike in our sensibilities, but what they won’t know about us, and what we don’t know about our antecessors, is we feel that same sense of disbelief – and quash it. It isn’t naiveté that allows us to enjoy these shows. We are simply willing to make certain concessions to reality in order to live in this world, if only for an hour.

I mean, what are the odds an orphan is one day going to return to the city of his birth, murder his father, marry his mother, and reclaim his birthright as king, all without knowing about it? About as good as a broke chemistry teacher with a DEA brother-in-law becoming a drug kingpin and outlasting (by a mix of wits and dumb luck) several Mexican cartels. So yes, future selves, we know how unlikely, even absurd, these events are. And we don’t care.

Why do we do it? Because in the end, we are suckers for tragedy – and I mean tragedy in the classical sense, at least as defined by Karl Jaspers, where tragedy is at the point where awareness of a need exceeds one’s ability to satisfy that need. In short, it is an awareness of our limitations. We don’t have kings any more, at least not those with that far to fall, not like Oedipus or Lear. Instead we have an exceptional scientist with slightly above-average problems (at least initially). His partner is a small-time drug dealer with a sensitive, no-bug-killing core. And Walt and Jesse have fallen so far, they have become irredeemable. Walt knows it – that awareness was what gave him the motivation to leave his family. And Jesse should know it by the start of the next season, if he doesn’t already. It is all great stuff – and an exploration into the tragedy of the human condition.

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