After spending a week mourning the end of the television series Breaking Bad, it occurs to me that I have trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality. What is it about great television that does this to people? After a few seasons, the characters seem more real than the people in your own life. And a helluva lot more entertaining.
“Baby Blue” a 1971 song by Badfinger, is a love ballad that makes me weepy under normal circumstances. Now it will always be linked to the final scene in Breaking Bad, when meth master Walter White takes his last look at the lab equipment he designed to create his special blue methamphetamine. “Guess I got what I deserved,” the lyrics say, as the camera pans over a dying Walter White, fittingly ending his life in the arms of chemical science, his first and real love. I keep replaying that scene and that song over and over in my mind, the way you keep touching your tongue to a sore tooth.
Most viewers knew where Walt’s hubris was headed several seasons back. By the time the finale wrapped, they were almost blasé. I thought I was, too – I was really prepared for anything to happen – and then they played that damn song. Wahhhhhhh! (A poignant aside is that the Badfinger member who wrote that song, Peter Ham, hung himself a few years after he wrote it.) We watched Walter White go from nerdy science teacher who could barely make a decision, to a drug lord who acted so fast and ruthlessly that it didn’t even look like he had made a decision.
You watch villains become heroes and vice versa, and you discover you love them, or you love to hate them, and their crimes become secondary to their humanity. I worry about the survivors. Several times this week, I kept worrying whether Skylar and Walt Jr. would be okay. I had to remind myself, “Hello! It’s a story!”
I am not alone in this. The end of Breaking Bad left an apocalyptic trail of fan emo-drama in its wake. “Baby Blue” has been downloaded kazillions of times from iTunes this week. Just look at the reviews and comment threads. People are posturing, like, ‘yeah I knew this was gonna happen two seasons back,’ or they’re violently disagreeing and threatening to kill each other with ricin cigarettes. Drama gives us a convenient way to invest our feelings in situations and characters that aren’t really ours, without having to risk the emotional expenditure in real life. My husband threw the only temper tantrum I’ve ever seen him throw, after he thought he messed up the recording of the finale. (Praise be, the recording was intact, and our household was saved.)
One viewer in a commentary thread said she felt like she’d given birth, just emotionally wrecked after viewing the finale. That’s catharsis, the sense viewers get from having their emotions worked over. They watch tragically flawed heroes pursue their ambitions into the ground, sacrificing loved ones in the process – and then they die, and we clap and sob. We experience a vicarious cleansing because we rode the character’s emotional roller coaster for five acts or five seasons.
Last time I felt this way was when another great television series, The Wire, ended. The Wire was filmed in Baltimore, a town I started to love when I lived in Maryland. I returned to Florida a few years before the series started, but somehow the reality of the brief time I spent in Baltimore is completely confused with stuff I saw on The Wire. The actual tame things I did — going to bookstores and concerts and restaurants and bars and the Enoch Pratt Library — had nothing to do with crime drama or drug dealing. Tell that to my mind, though, and I’m not even a crazy old bat on her deathbed yet. Go ahead, ask me for a Baltimore memory: “Well, we were hanging out after the concert, going to Café Hon, and Jimmy McNulty was there, blah blah blah. Oh, and when I got out of my interview at Enoch Pratt, I went to the parking garage and who do you think was there? Stringer Bell!”
Yes, I’ve got a real life, last time I checked. You’d think my real problems this week, a broken hip (my mom-in-law) and an abnormal mammogram (me) would keep me occupied. Breaking Bad and Baby Blue made me cry. Somehow this was way easier than crying about the fear and anxiety in my own life right now. It made me really cognizant of the fine line between what I want to avoid and what I want to feel.
During the final scene between Walter White and his wife, Skylar, he finally admits that he made his meth fortune not for his family’s financial security, as he always claimed, but for himself. “I did it for me. I was good at it. And — it made me feel alive.” That’s why anybody does anything, if they’re lucky enough to find it. For the rest of us, we make do with television until we discover what makes us feel alive.