Bad Fans, Good Fans, and Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’
I gave a presentation this weekend at the Reception Studies Society conference on the figure of the “fan-villain”—what Emily Nussbaum in a widely circulated blog post at the New Yorker recently called the Bad Fan. The Bad Fan is that figure whose investment in the text is excessive, or inappropriate, or misplaced, who takes up the text in ways that go beyond or are counter to the idealized “Good Fan” of the author’s intentions, critical consensus, and/or common sense. What I was interested in at the conference were the ways texts and creators seek to talk back to the Bad Fan, most typically by including the Bad Fan within the text either through paraphrase, parody, or (most characteristically, I think) through personification as an actual character within the fictional universe—and further I was interested in this extent to which this talking back is typically quite hostile. But today I’m interested in the other side of that binary.
To back up: Breaking Bad fandom—as is common in the capital-Q Quality TV genre more generally—appears divided between critically sophisticated Good Fans who recognize the show’s nuanced, complicated, and quite emotionally fraught deconstruction of privilege through (again as with most Quality TV shows) its central protagonist, the White Male in Crisis, and the naïve, unsophisticated Bad Fans who take all this in entirely uncritically and who love the show precisely because they think “Walt Is A Badass.” Nussbaum’s recent writings have pointed to the show’s attempts to speak back to the Bad Fan, not simply in Anna Gunn / Skyler White’s recent op-ed in the New York Times decrying the sexism of this portion of the show’s fanbase, and not only through Walt’s bitter and ugly parodying of the #TeamWalt discourse in “Ozymandias,” but through the addition of the creepy sinister character of Todd, who idolizes Walt in a way that seems both increasingly familiar (as the marking of the Bad Fan) and increasingly horrifying.
As may already be evident, I think this imagined division between “Good Fans” and “Bad Fans” is simultaneously useful and potentially deeply misleading, as we can see from Internet insta-reactions to last night’s “FeLiNa,” the final episode of the series. Here we find the Good Fan feeling flattered and pandered to, particularly in the scene in which Walt “confesses” to Skyler that he ultimately become a druglord because he enjoyed it, because it made him feel alive. “Finally,” the Good Fan sighed, “Walt tells Skyler THE TRUTH!” But in fact this scene is almost directly parallel to the phone call scene, in which Walt the consummate schemer deploys partial truths and well-timed emotional outbursts in order to manipulate those around him. This is about controlling his legacy, about telling Skyler (and the Good Fans) a version of what she wants to hear so that she is (and we are) willing to go along with him on his redemption arc.
A point of critical consensus around “FeLiNa” is that it is characterized by a truly remarkable amount of catharsis and narrative closure, dotting every i and crossing every t. But that catharsis, I think, has to come undone the longer we think about the show; what isn’t being talked about much yet is the complexity and the falseness of the redemption narrative, precisely because both the Good Fans and the Bad Fans alike are happy to buy into it all. This cycle of gaslighting apology, followed by grand-gesture redemptive act, followed by an inevitable slide back to form, is part and parcel of how a person like Walter White abuses those around him; the events of “FeLiNa” only seems to offer narrative closure because this time events have conspired to finally kill Walt at the high moment of the abuse-apology cycle. (He knows his cancer is back, and/so he plans to commit suicide-by-Nazi or suicide-by-Jesse at the camp after achieving “redemption.”) In the spirit of Žižek’s reading of the emergency-exit “happy endings” of Titanic and Avatar, we might perversely imagine the version of the end of the series in which this doesn’t hold: Walt’s cancer has never returned, he does not catch a bullet in the massacre, he lives, and is thereby forced to continue to live in the world and take genuine, not fantasy, responsibility for his actions. How long does his turning over a new leaf last, without the miracle of certain death to propel him forward for a mere eighteen hours, give or take?
As Malcolm Harris succinctly put it in response to some of my tweets:
We can see the Heisenberg-Walt at work even in the moment of Skyler scene; “finally, THE TRUTH,” yes, but also a calculated attempt to set the conditions of her last memories of him in terms that are favorable to Walt. “In the end,” she may have thought, and many Internet commentators actually wrote, “the ‘real Walt’ came back.” And again, maybe, partially; but all the same the legacy money won’t go to her, and her life remains utterly destroyed. Meanwhile his final act is an intricate staging of his own death so that he will receive full credit both for killing the white supremacists and for cooking the blue meth, credit even for the “better than ever” batches he didn’t cook—to again set the terms of reality not in fidelity to truth or to what is best for other people but simply in accordance with the way he prefers things, which as always is having it both ways. Walt’s true chemical genius has always been in controlling the reactions of the people around him, in how easily he gets others (and us) to play along. We Good Fans turn out to be just as happy to be lied to, we just want a different sort of lie.