by Charity Erickson
Sunday night was explosive. It was just nuts! Walter White, can you believe it, amiright?
Okaaay, no, I did not actually watch the latest episode of Breaking Bad. The Twitters tell me a line of some sort has been crossed…again. This is the draw of the show—the shocking and strange twists that are the mark of good storytelling—this is also why I stopped watching when I was only a few episodes into the first season. When a main character dissolved a human body in a bathtub, turning both the body and the bathtub into a sloshy, sinewy red soup, a line was crossed. I couldn’t watch any more. I mean, my god—that scene was supposed to be comic relief.
The vast majority of people I have talked to about my Breaking Bad aversion have said I should give it another chance, that if I stick with it I will discover its addictive qualities to be irresistible. And maybe someday I will find myself in a state of mind where I feel I can handle taking the plunge into Walter White’s dark world. But right now, the prospect of getting lost in one more piece of dark media sounds exhausting, overwhelming, and horrifying—and not the fun kind of horror. The panicky, get-me-out-of-here kind, and I really don’t need any more of that.
News and social media spit stories at us all day, speaking the evil of human existence into our coffee breaks and lunch hours in spurts of bloody electronic scrawl. “We shouldn’t look away,” we reason to ourselves; this evil is reality. To shut our eyes to it would be to refuse to see humanity as it is; it would be dishonest, it would be denial, it would be unethical. For, if we refuse to look upon the gross reality of life in this world, how could we effectively address ourselves to its improvement?
So it is a matter of ethics to refuse to look away from that which holds the clearest mirror up to nature; but as we can see in the growing trend of “dark” media production and consumption, it is also a matter of taste. If this year’s Emmy nominations are any indication (with nods to such unsettling series as Netflix’s House of Cards, FX’s American Horror Story: Asylum, and HBO’s Game of Thrones), a sophisticated consumer is one willing to look upon the angst of a complicated hero, or a villain with justifiable motivations, the mess of poverty, the sting of public humiliation, or nauseating episodes of uncanny violence and injury. This is the stuff that makes for “good TV.”
So, on the one hand, I’m embarrassed by my need to look away from “gritty” media like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, and Orange is the New Black. Not only does looking away imply a refusal to acknowledge social, ethical, and existential questions and realities, but it also means I don’t have access to certain cultural conversations. Being conversant in this kind of media is a status marker—not watching hurts my popular culture street cred.
On the other hand, I don’t want to force myself to consume media that makes me crazy—it triggers my anxiety, so I mean that in a literal sense—just so that I might achieve a level of social enlightenment. Watching these kinds of programs can be an exercise in self-flagellation, the “don’t look away” principle feeding into a brooding preoccupation with the evils of this world and the burden of existing within it, only serving to reinforce our view of society as inherently sick and unsafe. Yet this isn’t exactly a “kingdom” mindset, which sees in humanity the potential for renewal and expects to see the love of Christ bring healing and redemption to all situations.
This is not to say that this media trend isn’t valuable; I do believe that in many ways, shows like Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black are bringing darkness into light, exposing the myths our society believes about upward mobility and “the American Dream,” and revealing the dehumanizing effect of violence on the ones who perpetrate it. Most days (except for the days I need to dose up on happy with single-camera friendcore sitcoms) I would still rather spend time with these programs—even if they are almost unwatchably gruesome—than ones that celebrate an unthoughtful or too-easy optimism, and especially more than programs that try to develop moral complexity into an entertainment commodity, producing lame social commentary as in the film Elysium or the droopy existential metaphors of The Walking Dead (which, like many new programs, uses characters’ capacity for violence to create a token element of depth and complexity, but doesn’t have anything actually interesting to say about anything. At all.)
But for now, as much as I love good entertainment, I have to take a step back. It’s for the sake of my soul; not out of some legalistic focus on “edification,” “setting my mind on things above,” or “garbage in, garbage out,” but because self-care is a spiritual discipline, too. For now, I’m going to be patient. For now, I’m going to say, “Maybe someday, Walter White.”
That, and, “NO SPOILERS.”
Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.
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