Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Bad Fans, Good Fans, and Some Quick Thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’

with 16 comments

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.

Written by gerrycanavan

September 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm

16 Responses

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  1. It seemed like the finale was a Bad fan-service-y episode where the only bone thrown to the Good Fans was the Skyler scene. But in reality that scene is Walt still lying to and manipulating Skyler, and even forcing her to lie to / manipulate Marie one more time. Each “victory” in the episode is a victory for him. He would’ve done better for the other characters to turn himself in. Even Jesse’s freedom might have been brought about better if the police took the meth compound and Jesse was exonerated (somehow) instead of being (probably) a doomed fugitive, either caught or off to Nebraska with Saul.

    Maybe visions before the episode of an ending where Jesse dies / Todd lives / the Nazis retire from the drug business and become academic administrators, etc., were not as “dark” as an ending where Walt gets to control his own story after all and dies a hero, and is successful even in the minds of a significant portion of the audience. But probably I’m just trying to talk myself into liking an episode I didn’t care for very much.

    Dan Watson (@watsdn)

    September 30, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    • A friend of mine just commented on the version of this post on Facebook, in support of what you’re saying: “Also, the final shot is lifted from Taxi Driver–which itself is a revision of the Searchers. Both films echoed in ending. And certainly Taxi Driver is about a vicious fantasy staged as redemption or heroism.” I like what you say though: maybe the darkest possible version of this story is really the one “where Walt gets to control his own story after all and dies a hero.”

      gerrycanavan

      September 30, 2013 at 12:39 pm

      • All it’s missing is the letter from Jodie Foster’s parents / wild success in The King of Comedy epilogue. But I guess the epilogue is the fan / critical reaction.

        Dan Watson (@watsdn)

        September 30, 2013 at 12:55 pm

      • Not to get into an intentional fallacy spiral, but Gilligan has stated that whilst Walt isn’t a good person “we” identify what him, and so “we” would want him to go out on his own terms. Which I thought was an extraordinary thing to say, and – not having followed the rich vein of authorial commentary on the show before – was quite unprepared for. I really didn’t expect WW to triumph to nearly the extent that he did.

        Giovanni Tiso

        October 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm

  2. Completely agree. I feel like Vince Gilligan blinked at the last minute and didn’t have the courage of his convictions. By tying up all the loose ends and making sure every last bad guy died in the most satisfying way, he undid the dark, sinister moral universe he’d established over these many seasons. Yes Walt dies, but as a redeemed hero on his own terms. Frankly, I expected to feel more depressed last night, but in the Vince Gilligan world, bad things can happen but no one truly gets away with it. If only life were like that.

    Gary Holmes

    September 30, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    • I guess what I’m trying to argue here is that maybe he didn’t blink — or that maybe he did but we can save him from himself. I think when we watch this episode again (which admittedly, not many will) we’ll start to see the cracks in the redemption narrative. (Another one I don’t talk about here: the staging of handing the gun to Jesse and giving him the “choice” to do with it what he wants is deeply complicated by the fact that both he and Jesse know he’s already taken a hit from the massacre, as well as by the returned cancer, as well as by the fact that he knows at this point Jesse is inclined to do precisely the opposite of whatever he thinks Walt wants, as well as by…) Walt here is given the One Last Good Day to set everything right, and indeed everything does go exactly according to plan — but the true content of that “setting everything right” remains very self-directed and self-focused, regardless of the way he spins it as redemption.

      gerrycanavan

      September 30, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    • I kind of have a different take. Maybe Gilligan didn’t blink at the last minute but instead was lying about his convictions all along. What if Gilligan was a bad fan in disguise all along and all the moments throughout the years that us “good fans” loved were just a ruse to keep us hooked in? Maybe it’s when he was actually pandering to us “good fans” that he wasn’t living up to the courage of his convictions. (I hate referring to myself as a “good fan,” seems so self-important and arrogant, but you know what I mean)

      T. AKA Ricky Raw

      September 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      • I’m reluctant to go that far, though, because the bread crumbs are still there for us. I was just talking with someone about the legacy money he seeds for Flynn and Holly via the Schwartzes. On the one hand, this is a “victory” for Walt, as he gets the money to his kids like he wanted. But the final song, “Baby Blue,” suggests that he’s sacrificed his actual baby, Holly, for the blue meth — and the legacy money is actually structured like a termination package, the very termination package from Gray Matter he felt he should have gotten and never did, his bottomless resentment over which was the start of this whole nightmare in the first place…

        gerrycanavan

        September 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

  3. A reply from @justinburnett on Twitter with a line I wish was in the post: “For once it was Walt’s perspective, unvarnished, & it was cathartic. I became a bad fan & didn’t even notice…”

    gerrycanavan

    September 30, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  4. 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.

    Substitute “Vince Gilligan” for Walt and I think the paragraph still works. I remember in the first episode of Talking Bad this season Vince Gilligan was talking about how he gets infuriated with the “bad fans” and the “Team Walt” people, as if he didn’t get them. But the way totally pandered to them with all the badass moments last night made me wonder, what if Vince was doing to the good fans was telling them what they want to hear. After last night it became undeniable to me that for all his lofty talk Vince has been actually courting the bad fan all along while using moments to tell the good fan what they needed to hear to stick along for the ride. He might have brilliantly manipulated the good fan in much the way Walt may have manipulated Skyler in that scene.

    I can’t help but now look at all the admonishments by Vince Gilligan of Bad Fans in a different, untrusting light now. I also began to realize last night that the hatred of Skyler isn’t totally a creation of the bad fan. On some level it does feel the writers don’t really like her either, and I began to really feel that last night.

    T. AKA Ricky Raw

    September 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    • I was just talking about this issue with Emily Nussbaum on Twitter (after she’d retweeted the link here). I’ve said before that the defining characteristic of the Quality TV show is its indeterminancy, which is both a deliberate refusal to choose between interpretive strategy *and* a pandering to both styles of reading/watching at once. In the end the show runs aground on the need to choose, which each solves in a different way. DEADWOOD, cleverly, got cancelled; SOPRANOS simply cuts to black rather than decide; MAD MEN seems to be trying to thread the needle with an alcoholism arc that allows both sides to conclude they were “right” about Don. BREAKING BAD’s solution might be the most innovative, which is to give the Good Fan the magic words they need to get them to root for the Bad Fan’s preferred resolution…

      gerrycanavan

      September 30, 2013 at 1:56 pm

  5. I didn’t see any redemption at all. His son will hate him forever. His daughter will never know anything good exited in him at all. Did Skyler really soften that much after his admission? Does he really think Walt Jr. will forgive him one day? My take was that he was almost impatient in that scene, he was beyond manipulating people anymore. His arrogance that he could always make it right, if he just thought about it hard enough, was gone. He had three missions: get money to his son (though he won’t know it came from Walk), try to get Skyler out of trouble (knowing it may bot be enough), and kill the people who wronged him. His life was an F, “moralitywise,” and maybe he got up to a D- in the last episode. But that’s hardly redemption.

    JML

    September 30, 2013 at 5:09 pm

  6. I don’t have a blog or much time tonight, but I didn’t see this series as trying to redeem Walt. I think the point of the ending was to bring us back to the beginning. There Walt says: “Chemistry is, well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.” But change isn’t redemption and it’s pretty clear that what Walt really loves is chemistry. I’d say the video at the start of the Pilot is as duplicitous as anything else we saw him do. He didn’t start cooking because of his love for Skyler. He started cooking because it was chemistry and chemistry is about change.Walt was utterly rootless and wanted change. I don’t think morality has anything to do with the series (though it has a lot to do with our reception of the series). His final need to see the lab and his loving touch of the equipment was what this show was about from the beginning.

    James

    September 30, 2013 at 7:15 pm

  7. That’s so interesting. I can see the Skyler speech ONLY in terms of a self-help, hitting-bottom, finding-clarity mode: this (as all the reviewers who hang their reviews on it keep insisting) is about Walt admitting to himself what he’s done. So my impulse is to take that apart and show that he’s actually learned nothing.

    I like the chemistry reading, but if Walt’s only about the chemistry, why’d he say what he said to Skyler at all? Or bother coming back for that matter?

    gerrycanavan

    September 30, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    • Well, New Hampshire seemed less than friendly to his chemistry–stuck in that cabin with no resources. Also, it’s the Granite State, and granite to me, at any rate, suggests a level of hardness unsuitable to chemistry. Finally, the motto, “Live free or die,” suggests the opposite of the natural reactions of chemicals where they’re constantly “dying” by changing and changing, for Walt, is freedom.

      I could also say, I guess, something about the return of the repressed–Gretchen clearly represents something fundamentally erotic to Walt and for her to provide for his children strikes me as though Skyler was always a displaced erotic figure. His final scene with her could then be read as his way of disclosing that displacement andd repudiating that opening scene in which he claims to have cooked because he loved her.

      I wish I had time to write this out more fully. I’m being awfully allusuve here.

      James

      September 30, 2013 at 8:19 pm

  8. I honestly don’t understand why so many people are so insistent that everybody understand that Walt is a bad guy. That’s pretty clear but that doesn’t mean that Walt cannot do or say ANYTHING that is commendable. I think the beauty of the show is that it never really painted any characters as black and white but gave most of them some nuance.

    Walt can be a totally bad guy who is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people but at the same time never intended for most of those people to die. Yes they died at his hands or by his actions but it’s not like he was a psychopath.

    At the same time, Walt can be that bad guy who did all those bad things but who went through hell and lost everything including his family, money, dignity, etc. etc. and maybe, just maybe he lost a little of his ego. I’m not saying that WW was redeemed in the end but there is nothing that says that after months in that cabin alone, that perhaps WW regained a bit of his humility and perhaps he was trying to set things right in the only way he knew how.


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