Breaking Bad and Relationships with Fictional Characters

I came to Breaking Bad late. I haven’t watched a TV series in a long time. This is because they are so time consuming and I am a very all-or-nothing person, which means I am either mad about something or just not into it. I have never been able to pursue anything that Is just OK, that I like but don’t love. That seems like a waste of the little time my conscious mind is alive. One of the rules my Dad lives by is ‘everything in moderation’, and he said this to me frequently when I was a child. My response was always, “Moderation in moderation”.

In the years when I was working full time, writing a PhD thesis and raising two young children, I didn’t have time to commit to watching TV in this all-or-nothing way, so I stuck to films, my greater love. But an offhand comment my husband made suggesting that I was becoming “part of the cinema intelligentsia” made me stop and wonder what I was missing out on by not watching TV. So I decided to watch Breaking Bad because I was very taken with the premise. Of course I was consumed by it. Ironically for a TV series about drugs, Breaking Bad is addictive and arguably sparked binge-watching TV culture. I don’t think binge watching is necessarily such a bad thing (obviously it suits my all-or-nothing nature), and the thought of watching it little by little, one episode per week is excruciating.

One of my first thoughts about Breaking Bad was that it brings film standards to TV. The writing, cinematography,  directing and acting make it feel like a very long (and very good) film. I also knew I would be obsessed with it, and that it would provide a lot of food for thought. More of those  thoughts in later posts maybe, but for now I want to focus on relationships with fictional characters. Watching Breaking Bad, I found myself preoccupied with Walter, and to some extent, Jesse, Gus, Hank and Mike. They became real people to me. I felt their pain, I agonised over their dilemmas, I had hopes and fears for them, and I longed to understand them. This prompted me to reflect on the relationships we have with fictional characters.

Storytelling is as old as human nature. Research shows that when we read a book, we become part of its fictional world. The brain creates a continuously updating mental simulation, showing the kind of activity in the visual and motor systems that would be observed if the events in the book were occurring in the ‘real world’. Psychologically, we become the characters that we are reading about. We see things from their perspective, to the extent that we may temporarily change our attitudes and behaviour in line with theirs through experience taking. The same is likely to be true of films and TV. This is a good thing. Escaping to a vivid fictional world can create feelings of belonging, resulting in greater life satisfaction and more positive mood.

Immersion in fictional worlds can also help us to develop empathy and theory of mind as we have to view the world from the perspective of someone else. It may also aid moral development; being faced with the choices and moral dilemmas confronting a fictional character forces us to think about how we would react to them. By moral development, I don’t mean that we necessarily become more moral in the sense of what most people consider to be right and proper, but that we come to develop or maybe learn our own moral framework, and get to better know ourselves. Who could watch Breaking Bad and not consider what they would do faced with Walt’s choices? Our response to these choices tells us a great deal about ourselves.

So far I have focussed on the effects of identifying with a fictional character, viewing the world from their perspective, becoming them. This is what happens when we are reading a book or watching a film or TV series. But what interests me even more than that is when we step out of that fictional world, become ourselves again and reflect on those fictional characters. We think about them as real human beings, and we are absorbed by their behaviour as we might be if they were a friend or a partner. We have a relationship with them. This is because the brain does not fully distinguish between reality and fiction. Although we understand that what we are watching is fictional, as well as these beliefs about reality, we also have aliefs about how things seem, arising from sub-cortical areas of the brain. So we react to fictional characters as if they are real people, despite paradoxically knowing they are fictional.

When anyone becomes preoccupied with a fictional character, some people are eager to criticise, to suggest that because fictional characters are not ‘real’ people, these relationships are somehow inferior and less worthwhile, that we should only be forming relationships with ‘real’ people. I profoundly disagree with this view. It  seems to represent thoughtless, uncritical compliance to the assumption that only ‘real people’ have value to us. I also think that the distinction between ‘real people’ and fictional characters is blurry because fictional characters arise from the minds of ‘real people’ and because art reflects human nature, and tries to make sense of it. The debate around what constitutes real personhood will become blurrier still as AI becomes more advanced, a subject tackled brilliantly in two recent films, Ex Machina and Her.

Ava in Ex Machina

It is the relationships with fictional characters and the feelings we have for them that I find most fascinating. These relationships also tell us so much about ourselves if we take time to think about them. If you watched Breaking Bad, ask yourself what you really felt about Walt, and what you wanted to happen to him. Did you truly think he was a despicable human being and hope that Hank would find out who his ‘Heisenberg’ really was and send him down? Or did part of you like him despite everything he did, and did you will him to build that crystal meth empire and live to tell the tale, just so that you could keep on spending time with him?

There were occasions when I really hated the things Walt did, yet I found myself rooting for him against a conscious belief that I should not. Of course that is one of the goals of the writers, to show us that we can love someone who does some despicable things. That is nothing new; writers of fiction have always shown us how deeply we can love antiheroes, even when we think we shouldn’t.

When did I love him most? When he was Walter White: father, husband teacher? Or when he was Heisenberg: ruthless kingpin, sociopath?

Yes, I loved him when his ego exploded and he insisted, “I am the one who knocks“.

And I loved him when he demanded, “Say my name“, and Declan conceded: “Heisenberg”.

So I have to ask myself: what does this say about me?

I will leave you to reflect on your own relationship with Walter White…

I’m off to finish watching Better Call Saul!

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