Serial Characterization and Inferred Interiority

Curator's Note

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.




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.


Thanks, Jason, for this great post. It got me thinking about the question you posed to us yesterday about how series define "what matters" (serially) to their audiences. I posted an answer of sorts over there that draws a contrast between Walt and Frankenstein's monster in terms of interiority and exteriority as the respective sites of serial accrual. I won't repeat it here, but I think it might also address the question Daniel's asking here (not that I've provided an answer, but perhaps set some parameters for thinking about one). In any case, I agree with the general sentiment being expressed that a simple typological distinction between character types (Walt the series character/Frankenstein the serial figure) will not give us any clear answers, as both the figures and their series are in historical flux, and part of that history is a response to and negotiation with the precedents set by other series and serial forms. So I'm also interested in what you have to say about these finer distinctions that Daniel asks about, and that perhaps also exist between series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men (where I'm thinking of the discussion of the latter's "cartoon aesthetic" as Frank put it, as well as the general lack of depth, and how that might be relevant to the serial functionalities and constructions of the two series' respective characters). Anyway, wonderful post, and lots to think about!

Daniel & Shane,

Thanks for the comments. I think this is a crucial issue to understanding characterization, and one I'll be exploring more in my book: how do series cue us to fill-in a character's interiority, or dissuade us from doing so? For most shows, we can't go too deep inside a character's mind, both because we're not given the resources to make those connections & fill the gaps, and because interiority would highlight the serial inconsistencies that structure most series. I don't think that characters on a show like Two & a Half Men are meant to remember all of their previous exploits, as they certainly rarely learn from their past. Character memory is one of the primary variables that distinguish serial from episodic TV, but viewer memory can run counter to characters (in both directions).

As for Breaking Bad, there are a lot of strategies it uses to encourage us to fill-in the gaps, but one of the biggest is shots & scenes featuring the characters thinking (like this). I haven't watched Weeds in years, but I don't think it gives us those moments very often. Or a show like Dexter fills in those moments with demonstrative voiceover or flashbacks to ensure we get it in less subtle ways.


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?

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!). 



Just a brief footnote on "objects": I wonder if an object like the coffeemaker, an elaborate apparatus to be marveled at, is not a concrete point of convergence where the original sense of the "operational aesthetic" (as Neil Harris uses it to describe PT Barnum's exhibition practices, related to 19th century technology and science exhibitions, as well as the spectacle of the magic show and, as Tom Gunning argues, to early cinema) comes together with your narratively focused usage of the term, Jason, to describe the observation of "narrative special effects." In other words, it seems that the sight of this impressive machine is both impressive in its own right, as something to be looked at and marveled at (how does it work? i.e. a sort of Rube Goldberg aesthetics), and simultaneously as an articulator of serial memory on the narrative level. I find this simultaneity--and particularly the embodiment of both functions or levels in a concrete object--fascinating, and i think this is one of the things that fascinates me most about Breaking Bad in general.

Great points about both objects & mechanics, which I think are crucial to BB. The former is partly due to its meticulous production design, and general small scale of cast & setting, where props serve as vital totems in the character lives, triggering memories for both them & us. When I think of iconic images from the show, they're frequently of objects: the pink bear's eye, the box cutter, the drawn picture of Heisenberg, etc. And arguably this is further enabled by proliferating HD images that allow viewers to actually see such details.

As for the operational aesthetic, BB is obsessed with how things work, ranging from the chemistry at its center, to the specific ways that Walt & Jesse escape their various predictaments. So I think the micro-example of the coffee machine is a good one paralleling the narrative mechanics often at the show's core.

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&regularly 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)?


Definitely the activation of viewer/reader memory can blur the episodic/serial distinction enough that fans can serialize anything themelves! I think the question is not more or less seriality, but rather the possibility of comprehension without knowing what came before. A show like The Wire makes it nearly impossible to have a sense of what's going on if you start mid-season, while Breaking Bad offers a tiny bit of episodic unity for comprehension, while Sopranos gives much more of it. Just like coldness is actually the absence of heat, we can look at seriality as the absence of the awkwardly named stand-alone-ness.

As for the outsourcing of labor, this is definitely on the rise and even acknowledged by some producers. One of my favorite of many David Simon quotes comes from an Emily Nussbaum interview:

“Fuck the exposition… Just be. The exposition can come later.” [Simon] describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google. If you’re curious about the New Orleans Indians, or ‘second-line’ musicians—you can look it up.” The Internet, he suggests, can provide its own creative freedom, releasing writers from having to overexplain, allowing history to light the characters from within. 

Point taken. The interesting question, in any case, is what is done specifically by specific shows & that's why I like your BB reading  & above discussion about objects so much. The David Simon quote about TREME is great (something to wrap our heads around: this from the same man who said he doesn't invite internet feedback for THE WIRE at all because viewers simply don't know what's best for the show). Even in its curious one-way-logic, however, the quote kind of underlines what I was driving at: A show like THE WIRE precludes late entry into its storyworld only if we restrict the boundaries of the series to the narrative text itself, as shown on TV and professionally produced. But what if we see audience activities & feedback-induced formal shifts as an integral part (an almost inevitable part actually, via its seriality) of the narrative work being done? Then it's not difficult at all to come late to the show because all you have to do is some reading on the internet. In fact, perhaps this is what makes such shows possible (financially feasible) at all. By contrast, late entry is actually much more damaging to film comprehension than to series, exactly because series can (and do) continue to narrate even when their professional medium is turned off-- and not just as after-the-fact marketing or criticism, as with cinema and novels. Could it be said they're deploying different actors in pauses and actually their own viewers for the sake of narrative reproduction?      

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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