Sunday, November 04, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Empathy Lost and Regained on “Breaking Bad”

Last time, I talked about the need to understand the hero’s goal and primary motivation, early on, even if the hero is withholding other secrets from us.  One reason for this is so that we can empathize with the hero.  We don’t have to sympathize with their actions as long as we empathize with their motivation.  

The TV show “Breaking Bad” however, did something interesting this season.  They tested the audience’s patience by intentionally creating an empathy gap by removing the hero’s primary motivation for several episodes, just so that it would be more powerful when they finally revealed the emotionally-wrenching secondary motivation. 

When the show first began, Walt had a lot of reasons for dealing drugs: he was a low-paid teacher, he had cancer, he couldn’t afford the treatments, and he had no nest-egg to leave behind for his family if it killed him.  More than that, he was emasculated by his wife, his DEA-agent brother-in-law, and even his car-wash boss.

As the show progressed, however, all of these reasons fell away.  He beat cancer; he made millions from dealing and quit both his jobs; after briefly gaining more respect as a result of his new assertiveness, his family found out about the drug dealing and hated him for it, etc. So why did he keep doing it?  Why cook meth for no good reason, especially when he had to become more and more violent to secure his position?  None of the other characters understood it and neither did the audience. 

And yet we kept watching.  This is the exception that proves the rule.  Though everything had stopped making sense, most of the audience stayed on, simply because we trusted the show.  We knew that they would find a way for the character to make sense again.  

Sure enough, just when we thought we would never understand Walt again, they finally hit us with the big secret of the show: Walt’s real motivation for all five seasons, which had been subtly planted a long time ago.  The low-paid job, the cancer, all of it, was just a smokescreen.  His real reason was that, long ago, he got kicked-out of a start-up company that made its other founders into billionaires.  Now it all made sense: what kind of man isn’t content to be a millionaire?  One who feels that he was cheated out of billions, and that the billionaires who did it are still mocking him. 

We were right to trust to show.  They still had an ace card to play, one that could explain the unexplainable.  But they didn’t start with no explanation.  For the first few seasons, we understood Walt’s thought process, though we disagreed with his judgment.  Only once everybody loved the show did they start toying with us, stripping away the surface motivations, leaving us baffled, until they finally hit us with the truth. 


j.s. said...

I'm not sure I agree about this uber motivation being the great empathy-building revelation that you see it as. For a number of reasons: 1) Because, like you say, we're already kind of aware of it, it's been introduced; 2) Walt never really was in it for any single reason and this resentment over his missed opportunity was always a factor, even if we weren't aware of the precise dollar amount; 3) When Walt reveals this "reason" to us and to Jesse it rings hollow both to his former partner and to us; and 4) Shortly thereafter to Walt himself, who sees that giant stack of cash in storage -- more money than he can even count -- along with Skylar's desperation and seems to call b.s. on himself and actually decide to quit... right before the moment when he's finally caught by Hank.

For me this doesn't play as Walt's ultimate "reason" so much as it feels like a retroactive justification for this cycle of crime, violence and power that Walt's become addicted to whether he wants to admit that to himself or not.

The thing about actual human behavior is that often -- sometimes more often than not -- our actions precede our reasons. And that's part of what I love so much about the writing on BREAKING BAD. That it reflects this truth that we don't always know why we're doing something.

j.s. said...

For me, Walt's much closer to telling the whole truth about the darkness that's driving him this season when he tells Jesse that they are both condemned to hell many times over for what they've already done.

Matt Bird said...

That scene definitely hit me harder than it did you. As I talked about here, I'm prone to burn with bitter recriminations about money I feel could have been mine, so Walt's speech powerfully resonated with me, and answered in one fell swoop all my questions about why in the hell Walt was still doing this.

j.s. said...

I hear you. It's not that it's not true on some level and the Walt wasn't feeling it. But for me that scene is more about a performance he's consciously orchestrating for Jesse's benefit. (Walt's become quite the actor this season, faking emotions and gestures in front of Hank and Skyler).

I'm also not sure Vince Gilligan wants/needs us to empathize with Walter anymore. Because Walter's arc now is about what happens to him when he keeps doing the wrong thing in the absence of all good reasons. (Though the fact that Walter seems to choose to quit when that option is no longer available does make him tragic again in the mid-season cliffhanger.) He's still the protagonist but definitely not the hero. He's fully transitioned into anti-hero status, and we're sort of meant to be rooting against him.

Along with the feeling that he's already gone too far, it seems to me that there's another moment earlier on with Skyler that may be more revealing of his actual motives. Why won't he just stop? Walt says something like "Because it's the only thing left that's mine."

Which to me feels more like it's about his identity. Heisenberg is what he's become. To the point where he needs his newfound criminal associates to say it out loud, almost like an affirmation. Like if he stopped he honestly wouldn't know what to do with himself.

j.s. said...

Coming back to this post after the penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD, "Granite State," to admit that you were kind of right. The importance of Walt's feeling of betrayal by his Gray Matter partners as his Ur-motivation for action was cemented last Sunday. Kudos for thinking about these stories at a level that would impress even the showrunners, who admit that they got the idea from their number one fan, Kevin Cordasco, who tragically never lived to see the end of the show:

When Gilligan asked him what he felt was missing during a Breaking Bad podcast, Kevin answered with all honesty. "You know what, I want to know more about Gretchen and Elliott. I want to know more about Walt's backstory with them. I want to know what happened."

Anonymous said...

I think the feeling of power is what really motivated Walt. The victory sex, the primal scream in the car after blowing up Tuco's headquarters, the showdown over the tequilla, the clothing store bully bashing, the "I won!" phone call and many, many more. A man of Walt's intelligence feels he deserves to be on top, but society / fate / cowardice / laziness / complacency all conspired to keep Walt meek until he had nothing to lose. Once he used his full intellectual potential (sadly, but entertainingly, for evil purposes) and felt that rush of power, he was as addicted to it as his meth customers.