Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Golden Rule of Storytelling (as exemplified by Breaking Bad)

Here is the only necessary law of successful narrative fiction, the Golden Rule of Storytelling: The only law is the law of unintended consequences. This is how good stories proceed: from the unexpected through the unforeseen to the utterly unpredictable. Good narratives move through a series of major actions and the ramifying unintended consequences of those actions. It's the unexpectedness of the consequences that sustains a reader's interest, keeps readers reading and wondering what the hell will happen next. A story in which actions have only their expected consequences is a dull, unimaginative thing.

I could exemplify this rule with any good narrative from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to Chabon's Wonder Boys, but because I'm of the opinion that the most cogent criticism of contemporary American literary fiction is the inarguable fact that no American novel of the past 13 years has captured the insanity of contemporary life in this country as effectively as two cable series, Breaking Bad and The Wire, I'm going to make my argument with reference to the tale of Walter Hartwell White. The overall five-season arc of Breaking Bad can perhaps best be described as a study in increasingly severe unintended consequences. White's initial decision to cook meth has the almost immediate consequence of forcing him to turn his RV into an improvised mobile gas chamber for the defensive killing of two drug dealers. (This detail from the pilot dovetails perfectly with Walter's final incarnation, five seasons later, as an inadvertent fundraiser for neo-Nazis. His first Nazified killing foreshadows the man he will become.) This act has the unintended consequence of failing to kill Krazy 8, which leads to him being treated like an Abu Ghraib prisoner in Jesse's basement and plotting to kill Walter with a pottery shard. His theft of the shard has the consequence of convincing Walter, who had decided to free Krazy 8, to instead murder him, slowly and brutally. And so the series continues, through unintended consequences large and small, the most apocalyptic of these being the Wayfarer 515 disaster at the end of season two. This was the ultimate unintended consequence of Walter's attempt to rouse Jesse, which accidentally knocked Jane onto her back, a position in which she choked to death, a death which impaired her air traffic controller father (memorably played by John de Lancie, a character actor almost as ubiquitous as Bryan Cranston) and caused the disastrous midair collision that was the Breaking Bad world's September 11. Only in the series' very last episode, dedicated to fan-pleasing and loose-end tying, do the characters' actions have always and only the predictable consequences. This was of course a structural exigency--unintended consequences would have kept in motion a narrative machine the finale was required to shut down--but it produced a final hour that (for me, anyway) swerved away from the unpredictable spirit of the series and left me feeling rather unsatisfied.

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