One great challenge facing moving image media is portraying a character’s interior thoughts and emotions. While literature excels at revealing a character’s inner thoughts, films and television must usually resort to devices like voiceover narration or staging dream sequences that fracture more immersive and naturalistic storytelling styles, or forcing characters to voice their thoughts and feelings through awkwardly revealing dialogue. Yet without resorting to expository dialogue or such awkward techniques, television can take advantage of a core storytelling mode to explore a character’s inner life: seriality.
Through a long-term investment in a series, viewers accrue knowledge and experiences about characters that allows us to provide our own version of their internal monologues, as long as a show’s producers provide time for us to think along with their characters. Take this opening scene from Breaking Bad’s season 4 episode “Open House.” On first look, nothing really happens: Walter White comes to work, drinks coffee, notices the newly-installed surveillance camera, and flips it off, with the only line spoken being a muttered “Son of a…” And yet for serial viewers sharing Walt’s memories from more than 30 previous episodes, we can read Bryan Cranston’s subtle cues and infer the interior drama raging within Walt that contradicts the lack of exterior action:
Walt enters the lab demoralized, evoking his feelings toward his old car wash job and representing the workaday life he tried to escape via the drug game. His one moment of pleasure comes while drinking coffee made in an elaborate contraption, as he fondly remembers its quirky architect, former coworker Gale. His joy turns to grief as he thinks about Gale’s recent death, then guilt when he remembers that he is directly responsible for ordering Gale’s murder. In typical Walt fashion, guilt turns to indignant anger, as he rationalizes his own acts and convinces himself that he is actually the victim of other people’s actions—an anger confirmed and further stoked upon discovering the camera. The scene concludes with Walt channeling his anger and sense of outraged victimization into an impotent attempt to fight back, represented by the obscene yet ineffectual gesture and reminiscent of many other times he raged against people purporting to be his superiors.
While every viewer might construct their own particular account of Walt’s interior emotional state, through the power of serial memory we can overcome television’s limited access to character interiority.
Flatter Serial Characters
Thanks for this highly insightful post, which made me think about the shows in which viewer-inferred character interiority doesn't work as well or perhaps isn't intended to the same degree as it is in Breaking Bad. I'm thinking, for instance, of Jenji Kohan's Weeds, where the characters tend to be somewhat flatter and where the focus seems to be more on bizarre plot twists than on character depth. In the protagonist Nancy Botwin's case, I find that it's her actions that are supposed to challenge our understanding of (and sympathies for) her more than the action-less moments in which we are to supply our own interior monologue for her. But as I recall, those scenes do exist as well, so maybe it's a matter of degree and not of principle. I also wonder how your thoughts apply to long-running sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men, were there's certainly no really deep characterization but where we do accrue a substantial serial memory of the characters. Maybe it's the way the show plays with relatively persistent stereotypes and variations of established patterns and expectations that keeps people tuning in.
Fascinating material, thank you! I watched the clip before I read your post - and, uh, am not familiar with Breaking Bad. While this is an inexcusable deficit, it might not be all bad for our purposes here. There was no serial memory to guide me through the scene. And still I got most of what you were writing about. It might be a banal observation: but didn’t already film noir – besides using voice over and flashbacks – draw heavily on music and soundscapes (and lighting) to create a sense of a character's emotional state? And the music is laid on quite thickly here, isn't it? In contrast, MM uses a very sparse musical score – and it introduces an emotional backstory through the explicit discussion of feelings and deviations from a social code. Then again, the backstory there is a mere conceit, right, Frank?
gale's coffee maker & other things
Great post & discussion so far! I wanted to add one thing about the function of the coffee maker in the clip you chose, and the way that it references Walt's and Gale's backstory: Not only seems it to be central for inferring Walter's thoughts here, but I think that things/objects are repeatedly used in such a way throughout the series. I think in the 4th episode of the first season there's a similar scene: I think Walt and Skyler discuss something at home and the camera briefly frames a small label on visible on Walt Jr.'s bed, which turns out to be the logo of the furniture store where Krazy 8, the meth dealer Walt has killed the episode before, worked when he was younger. There are probably more examples, sometimes barely noticable, other times fairly obvious (like Don Eladio's Gold Chain that Gus gives to Tio Salamanca; or the Lily of the Valley in the season 4 finale); and I think they function as cues for the audience to make the appropriate connections to the backstory. It seems to me that Breaking Bad relies on such moments much more strongly than other recent shows; and without the coffeemaker the scene above probably wouldn't have worked so well (and it's an particularly impressive example, since the coffeemaker was introduced way back in season 3!).
Memory Is Work Too
A general observation first:I think it's no coincidence that all posts so far for this theme week have been concerned in some way with the question of character. I think this attests to the special role&function of this category in popular seriality. Of course, all narratives rely on characterization&character constellation, but there seems to be something specific, something form-defining, in the way series (both episodic&ongoing) are doing this. Jason points to the size of these narratives in this regard: their ability to create narrative memory on a scale much larger than film. A second important feature is that serial forms are told in intervals: there are (often rhythmic) interruptions and pauses that allow other actors than the designated producers to "accrue" narrative knowledge in a more or less formal manner.
Which brings me to my two comments/questions. My cue is Jason's sentence, "viewer memory can run counter to this": (1) Collective
[oups, something went wrong there ... here's the rest of my text again]:
Which brings me to my two comments/questions: My cue is Jason's sentence, "viewer memory can run counter to this": (1) Collective memory-creation while the narrative is still unfolding or temporarily suspended is not only a possibility of popular seriality but one of its distinguishing marks. For me, this complicates the attractively clear-cut distinction in Anglo-American TV studies between series/serial (ongoing/episodic) in fundamental ways, beginning with the strong possibility of viewers (and be they producers acting as viewers/fans of their own products) beginning to read flat figures as deep characters, and this affecting the narrative. (so @Ruth: yes, I do think the backstory in MM is a conceit; but I also think that for the most part it doesn't function as one (as if this was a medial self-critique) but that the series very successfully counts on viewers to let it do its work of ongoing characterization).
(2) Extending these thoughts: I would argue that viewer&fan activities are not so much after-the-fact-appropriations than integral (necessary) parts of serial narration itself. In the large division of labor that is serial narration, viewers&fans perform genuine narrative work (made possible by the distinct temporality&rhythm of serial storytelling). This is such a reliable feature of popular seriality and it has become so pronounced in recent decades that I wonder if series are not now actively®ularly outsourcing large parts of their work of coherence-building, retcon, memory-creation etc. to these unpaid laborers of popular culture.
Well, this moves away from Jason's insightful analysis but I wonder if it can be tied in with it (and what this would mean for the question of serial "agencies" or for a "narratology" of serial forms)?
the wire & late entry
Great post. I remember thinking how much I liked how this was orchestrated while watching the episode. The pleasure of getting cues certainly comes into play.
I was also thinking about The Wire while reading this, specifically Prez who returns to the show as a school teacher seasons after he quit the Police force over an incident with a kid, costing the kid an eye - maybe that kid went to that very school. I actually touched on this in my M.A. thesis, which was about Seriality and The Wire.
As far as i remember The Wire gives no queues about the specifics of Prez' past (other than that he was a cop), so the internal conflicts that make his part as teacher throughout the season ever so interesting are all but lost to people who chose late entry.
It's a fair point that the internet can ease the problems of late entry, but maybe not much more so than "previously on" segments. You can read recaps but the specifics of the mise-en-scene, mood, etc will be lost on you. Unless you also watch key scenes, at which point the question is whether you haven't already immersed so deeply into the narrative that there is little left differentiating you from somebody who actually watched the show.
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