[posted on 25 June - release notes]
Nearly every successful television writer will point to character as the focal point of their creative process and how they measure success—if you can create compelling characters, then engaging scenarios and storylines will likely follow suit. In a statement echoing dozens of similar interviews with showrunners, Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof states, “It’s all about character, character, character…. Everything has to be in service of the people. That is the secret ingredient of the show.” Even as television writers, directors and actors focus much of their energies into creating fully realized characters and designing plots and storyworlds around them, academic analyses of storytelling have focused far less on issues of character than other narrative elements like plot, world-building, and temporality. This oversight is especially true for moving image media like film and television, where character tends to be taken as a self-evident given, wrapped up into conventions of performance and stardom, rather than analyzed as a specific narrative element. This chapter aims to add to this literature by exploring the vital role of character in serialized complex television programming, considering how characters are crafted in context within television production and how viewers engage with these figures.
While there is robust debate among narrative theorists and philosophers about definitions and essences of characters, I am not particularly interested in considering whether a character is “real” (whatever that might mean) or exists solely within textual utterances, in the minds of viewers, or per the intentions of producers. I follow Jens Eder’s provisional definition of characters as “identifiable fictional beings with an inner life that exist as communicatively constructed artifacts”—in other worlds, characters are triggered by the text, but come to life within our consumption of fiction and are best understood as constructs of real people, not simply images and sounds on a screen. I study television characters by looking at textual representations, contextualized within a poetic model emphasizing production and reception practices, specifically considering the rise of antiheroes that have been the focus of many of the most prominent examples of complex television drama.
Character Contexts, Constraints, and Concepts
As discussed throughout this book, we can only understand the poetics of television storytelling within its specific contexts, where industrial norms and viewing practices help shape the creative possibilities available to producers. These contexts clearly differentiate serial television’s characterization from other media, especially compared to the long-form possibilities of literature. One of the crucial constraints on television characters stems from their collaborative origins between the actors who portray them and the writers/producers who devise their actions and dialogue. Performance is always a collaborative creative act, as actors embody the roles sketched out on the page; within television’s writer-driven production model discussed in the Authorship chapter, this collaboration is most typically developed through pre-production work between actors and showrunners. In film production, the director is the chief conduit between a script and an actor, helping to guide a performance and shape it to the contours of the narrative whole, but the rotating array of television directors places that role more in the hands of producers who are typically writers, or in some cases writer/directors as with hybrid showrunners like Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, and Vince Gilligan. In some cases, an actor also serves as a series producer, as with Timothy Olyphant on Justified or Laura Dern on Enlightened, while some actors are directly involved in the writing process, as with Men of a Certain Age’s Ray Romano or 30 Rock’s Tina Fey, both of whom created and ran (alone or in a team) their programs. In all of these instances, actors have varying degrees of creative authority and collaborative ownership of their ongoing characters, marking a difference from both the literary model of single authorship and typical film models of stand-alone character development rather than television’s ongoing serial performances.
This link between character and performer sets major storytelling constraints, especially when extratextual factors emerge, or what the invaluable TV Tropes website calls “Real Life Writes the Plot.” Although actors are typically contracted for long runs to ensure their ongoing availability, sometimes an actor must depart sooner than the writers planned for a character—an actor might die, as with The Sopranos’s Nancy Marchand, or become too ill to perform, as with Spartacus’s Andy Whitfield. In the former case, the series portrayed Marchand’s character Livia Soprano as dying in the third season; in the latter, Whitfield’s lead role was recast with another actor, with no in-story reference to the character’s new appearance. Such recastings of major regular characters are quite rare on prime time dramas, with a few notable instances like Cagney & Lacey in the 1980s or more recently Pretty Little Liars, while they are somewhat more common on sitcoms (like Bewitched and Roseanne) and even more so on daytime soap operas. Since most primetime dramas aim for a degree of naturalism and consistency in representing their storyworlds, recasting a character usually comes across as too artificial, as well as downplaying what the original actor’s performance may have contributed to the character’s identity. Certainly the most innovative and widespread case of recasting is Doctor Who, as William Hartnell, the original actor playing The Doctor, decided to leave the show in 1966; leveraging the program’s sci-fi premise, the writers created an “escape clause” that the character’s body regenerates when facing death, allowing new actors to take over the part, a process that has led to 11 different Doctors as of 2012. This recasting conceit allows the character to both remain a decade-spanning constant and acquire new shadings of each actor’s performance style and reinterpretation, providing a wide range of connections and collective memories to generations of viewers.
Despite some exceptions, recasting tends to come across as too artificial and disruptive to a series, violating viewers’ ongoing commitments to the paired actor/character identity. More often than recasting, producers integrate an actor’s departure or other changes into the storyworld. Most typically, writers must work around actors with scheduling conflicts that limit their availability, creating episodes that omit or restrict a character’s presence, and must similarly shape stories based on actor contracts, as discussed with Veronica Mars in the Beginnings chapter. A similar circumstance is when an actress gets pregnant, as writers either need to integrate the pregnancy into the character’s arc, as with the landmark storyline in I Love Lucy or more recently Jennifer Garner on Alias and Charisma Carpenter on Angel, or attempt to hide the pregnancy through costuming, plotlines involving the actress mostly sitting down, or going on production hiatus, all of which were employed on Parks & Recreation during Amy Poehler’s pregnancy. When an actor decides to leave a program or producers fire an actor due to offscreen issues, the ongoing narrative must be shifted to account for this absence—one of the highest profile recent instances was Charlie Sheen’s highly public departure from Two and a Half Men, prompting the show to have his character get hit by a train and die. The Sheen case highlights that often viewers are well aware of the offscreen issues impacting a story, making real life events function as a paratextual framework for anticipating and interpreting a series, as discussed in the Comprehension chapter.
The second season of Lost provides a good example of many of these issues blurring character arcs and real world events; the season introduced “the tailies,” a new group of characters seated in the airplane’s tail section who survived the crash and landed on a different part of the island. Four of these characters were able to survive long enough to rejoin the main group of survivors, although only Bernard survived past the third season. Both Ana Lucia and Libby were killed by Michael late in the season, a surprising twist that resonated with the extratextual knowledge that both performers, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Watros respectively, had been arrested for drunk driving during production on Hawaii, leading many fans to speculate that their deaths were motivated by offscreen issues. Producers have attested that Ana Lucia was always planned to be a single-season arc, and that they decided to kill Libby to increase the impact of Michael’s murders, not due to any actor behavior. The fourth surviving tailie’s fate was definitely dictated by offscreen issues, as Eko was intended to play a major role in the ongoing story arc for numerous seasons, but actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje disliked living in Hawaii and requested to be written out of the show for personal reasons, resulting in the character’s death at the start of season 3 and major shifts to the ongoing plan. In a different direction, Michael Emerson’s performance in the role of Henry Gale was so compelling that the character’s arc was expanded and later revealed to be an alias for leader of the so-called Others, Ben Linus, a central character who persisted until the end of the show. Finally, the actor who played young Walt, Malcolm David Kelley, had a growth spurt between seasons 1 and 2, making it implausible for him to portray Walt within the show’s compressed story timeframe; the series restricted Walt’s future appearances mostly to scenes in flash forwards or apparitions, which Sawyer sarcastically calls “taller ghost Walt.” In all of these instances, the real-world practicalities and possibilities of actors have direct impacts upon the storytelling that transcend writers’ plans, complicating notions of creative agency and impacting viewer comprehension of ongoing narratives in ways that are unique to serial television.
If the offscreen lives of actors can constrain a series, they can also open up interesting resonances. As explored by many scholars in the subfield of star studies, actors serve as sites of intertextuality, merging viewer memories of previous characters and knowledge about offscreen lives to color our understanding of a role. This intertextual resonance can be heightened through serial narrative, as our engagement with actors stretches out over time and we can witness a star’s persona change within the gaps between episodes. For instance, George Clooney was not well-known when debuting on ER in 1994, but his popularity grew and soon became a major film star, transforming how he was viewed on ER and framing his departure in 1999. Stars also bring resonance from previous roles, as with knowledge of Alan Alda’s iconic role of antiwar doctor Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H as well as Alda’s own well-known left-leaning activism, both of which undercut the conservative politics of his character Republican Arnold Vinick on The West Wing, making him a more palatable figure within the show’s core liberal sensibility. Michael J. Fox’s star persona as a likable leading man in the 1980s and 1990s transformed drastically following the onset of his Parkinson’s disease; in the 2000s, he has appeared in smaller recurring roles on series like Scrubs, Rescue Me, and The Good Wife, playing characters that often challenge his established charm and foreground his disability in ways that clearly cater to audience extratextual knowledge. In all of these instances and many more, viewers approach a character with a wealth of star-connected contexts from both on- and offscreen references that help shape storytelling practices, highlighting the centrality of actors in constituting characters within serial television.
Viewers bring more than star discourses to their assumptions about characters, of course, as many viewers are well-versed in television conventions that guide their narrative expectations. Film scholar Murray Smith identifies recognition as one of the chief components of character engagement, as film viewers need to differentiate between characters and other figures, whether they be inhuman objects or humans who do not rise to the level of character, such as background extras in a group scene. For serial television, recognition also means viewers differentiating roles within a program’s ongoing ensemble, where characters are positioned in fluid but meaningful tiers of primary lead characters, secondary supporting characters, tertiary recurring characters, nonrecurring guest characters, and background extras. These tiers have industrial meanings, as actor contracts, placement in credits, salaries, and long-term availability all impact how a character functions in an ongoing story. Viewers have varying levels of awareness about these factors, but even the most casual viewer presumes that lead characters are more likely to survive and serve as the narrative focus than guests or extras. Narrative surprises can be foiled by credits, as with fan-favorite Buffy character Spike’s addition to the cast of Angel in season 5, a revelation that is not made until the final moments of the first episode, but the actor James Marsters appeared in the opening credits as a member of the ongoing cast. Similarly, Lost episodes frequently saw characters appear in flashbacks or other alternate timelines who had been killed in the main timeline, but viewers paying attention to an episode’s opening credits would know which characters might return from the dead. Producers are aware of this, striving to confound viewers by keeping surprise appearances out of the credits until the end of the episode, but such matters are dictated by legal matters, guild negotiations, and contractual stipulations that typically override the impulse for narrative surprises, providing another example of the industrial context shaping creative decisions.
Such credit spotting might be a fringe phenomenon for diehard fans, but many viewers know basic precepts of serial storytelling that sets expectations for the treatment of characters—most crucially, we all assume that main characters are bound to stay on their programs and highly unlikely to die or depart the story, unless motivated by offscreen factors. This is particularly true of title characters, as we cannot imagine Seinfeld without Jerry or House, M.D. without Dr. House, but the long-established expectations for any series is that the core cast of characters is assumed to be a stable foundation throughout a show’s run, and it is quite exceptional when a character departs unless for their own spinoff. For stories with life-or-death stakes, this knowledge colors our narrative experiences, as we assume a degree of character safety that runs counter to the threats to characters within the storyworld. Dedicated fans are well aware of conventions like “red shirts”—so named for the costumes worn by extras playing crew members on the original Star Trek who were doomed to be the first killed on any mission—that help shape narrative expectations for how a story might progress. To counter such expectations, many complex programs have killed off major characters early in their runs to raise the dramatic stakes, as seen on Angel, 24, The Wire, and Heroes, among many others, although such deaths are almost always of second-tier supporting characters rather than the core heroes who usually remain safe until the show’s final season. One of the challenges of serial television is to create dramatic stakes in the face of viewer knowledge that the fictional jeopardy facing the lead characters is highly unlikely to come to pass, an aspect discussed more in the Comprehension chapter.
A particularly interesting case of the relative safety of lead characters is Game of Thrones, when the character who had seemed to be the main protagonist, Ned Stark as played by Sean Bean, is executed toward the end of the first season. Importantly, the television program is based on a series of novels, with Ned’s shocking death portrayed in the first book published in 1996—by the time the television show aired in 2011, anyone who had read the novels or followed their critical coverage was anticipating Ned’s demise. Nonetheless, there was a good deal of backlash from unaware television fans shocked by Stark’s death, with viewers pledging to boycott the show or cancel HBO, although the high ratings for season 2 suggest that these were mostly idle threats. As eloquently summed up by a fan on EW.com, “Most of you who think this was some sort of brilliant move or something don’t understand the difference between a book audience and a TV audience…. TV audiences need to invest in characters. Most of the other characters I don’t care much about. While the show will probably still appeal to the ‘wow’ crowd, it’s [sic] mass appeal just got beheaded.” This comment highlights the different expectations between novels and television: the former does typically create bonds to characters—and reportedly readers of the novels were similarly outraged when reading about Stark’s death—but there is a longer tradition of novels killing off characters and the books’ multiple focalized structure decentered Ned as the main character. For television, actor-embodiment creates a different type of parasocial bond; when coupled with the medium’s long-established norms and industrial cues like credit orders (Bean was listed first in season one’s opening credits) and actor reputations, viewers seem to expect more safety and long-term commitment to main characters. Thus it is telling that one of the very few examples of a death of a lead character early in a television series was a literary adaptation, and it’s not hard to imagine that the program would have been unlikely to try such a twist without the novel’s established precedent.
Lost plays with many of these conventions of character tiers and fates, initially planning to raise its stakes by ending its two-hour pilot with the death of the heroic lead Jack Shephard; ABC objected, fearing it would quickly alienate its audience. Instead, the show proceeded by surprisingly killing off numerous characters throughout its run, typically second-tier characters like Boone, Shannon, and Ana Lucia, with occasional deaths of more central characters in highly dramatic fashion, as with Charlie’s heroic death at the end of the third season. While Lost did feature a higher risk environment for its characters than most primetime programs, it still kept the core group of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke, and Hurley on the show throughout its entire run. However, Lost played games with the audience and their knowledge of red shirts, often including dialog referring to the arbitrary distinction between the people who were named characters and thus central to actions on the island, and the background extras who rarely did anything but murmur assent or carry out chores at the camp, with such reflexive lines typically spoken by Hurley, the embodiment of the knowing sci-fi and comic book fan. Toward the end of the first season, Dr. Arzt emerged as a new character from the nameless crowd, becoming differentiated by being named, going on a mission with the main characters, and speaking dialog that called attention to his shift from the background—but Arzt’s emergence was a fake-out, as he was dramatically blown-up just as he was becoming a distinct individual in a winking nod to audience expectations. Other background characters were occasionally differentiated from the ensemble in playful ways, such as main characters confusing the names of fellow castaways Scott and Steve, or Neil getting the nickname “Frogurt,” actively marginalizing him even while enabling viewer recognition, before killing him with a flaming arrow to the chest.
No Lost episode plays with character expectations and norms more than “Exposé,” the almost parodic rewriting of island history to include background characters Nikki and Paulo. In the third season, the two figures had been elevated to supporting characters, emerging in dialogue scenes and being given names as the actors were added to the credits, but they served little dramatic function within the ensemble. Lost’s producers claim that they were trying to meet fan questions about the background characters by elevating these two, but quickly realized that they couldn’t fit them into the ensemble seamlessly. Thus “Exposé” proceeded to simultaneously weave them into the core ensemble’s history by including them in flashback scenes to moments in previous episodes, and dramatically kill them off by burying them alive (and bringing back Arzt to highlight their doomed status). The episode is a distilled example of the operational aesthetic, as we engage at the level of storytelling discourse, considering how the revisionist history of island life resembles fan fiction rewriting of canonical events, scribbling in the margins of the established storyworld. For fans who disliked the highly divisive episode, one chief complaint was that the lack of continuity and disruptions of what they felt had already been established—the episode presented new information about already-established events, but did not seem to contribute toward the greater mythology. But for fans willing to play the storytelling game that “Exposé” offers, its ludic pleasures stem from the willful knowledge that the episode is marginal to the point of being almost non-canonical, playfully tweaking some of the fan’s forensic obsessions for continuity and coherence, and shining a light on characters’ functional roles and hierarchies.
Why do television series place such weight in the stability and safety of core characters while relegating others to the ephemeral periphery? At the industrial level, there are incentives to associate a program with a number of actors who can be used to promote the series, serve as its public face, and be contractually committed to appear for years at a fixed salary. Creatively, most programs are defined by their core characters and their web of relationships in a way that replacing them becomes a challenge without losing what drew fans into the show—this is especially true of comedies, where the dynamics of an ensemble are usually what make a given show distinctive, with key character replacements or additions often proving troubling. Serialized dramas might be based on a high concept or complex plot, but the character ensemble at their core is usually what hooks in viewers, as typified by the failure of shows like FlashForward, The Event, or Reunion to create sufficiently compelling characters to ground their enigma-driven storytelling. The large ensembles of daytime soap operas maintain stability through anchor characters who might live their entire lives on decades-spanning dramas, mirroring the timeline of viewers at home, even as other characters in the ensemble might come and go (or be recast). Episodic procedural dramas are the most common type of programming with a rotating cast of characters, as a long-running series like Law & Order or CSI replace characters with some frequency. Such replacements are less disruptive since storylines depend on weekly cases, with a core setting and tone, while each character plays a functionary role in the organization, rather than focusing on drawn out relationships between characters that might be relegated to tertiary plotlines. Even on such procedurals, viewers become attached to particular characters and relationships, leading to some characters remaining for many years, or other iterations of a franchise committed to a stable cast of characters, as with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Television’s character consistency is more than just an industrial convenience, as one of the primary ways that viewers engage with programming is to develop longterm relationships with characters. The term for such engagement dates back to the 1950s and the early era of mass communications research: parasocial relationships. While the notion of parasocial relationships between media consumers and on-air personalities, be they real-life celebrities or fictional characters, has often been pathologized as an unhealthy inability to distinguish between reality and media, it can instead be viewed as an active, participatory facet of media consumption, with fans choosing to engage with a media text and extend its reach into their own lives. We should not presume that caring about characters is a sign of unhealthy boundaries, but rather that it is a key component of the universal practice of storytelling—we temporarily give part of ourselves over to a fiction to produce emotional affect. Murray Smith offers a detailed theory of such engagement with characters, framing it as a clearly demarcated process of imagining oneself in relation to fiction, rather than muddling the boundary between reality and fiction. Smith’s approach to engagement highlights how films cue us to recognize, align with, and forge allegiances with characters, a convincing model that needs to be expanded for the additional dimensions of serial television.
As discussed in the Introduction, serial television is a long-term process, stretching a narrative over time with interceding gaps. A viewer’s character engagement will necessarily extend through these gaps, as dedicated fans will think about and discuss characters, imagine what they might be doing outside the presented episodes, and perhaps even produce their own paratextual extensions for characters like fan fiction or videos. Officially produced paratexts can also fill those gaps, whether they are in-character blogs or diaries as discussed in the Transmedia Storytelling chapter, or commentaries found on podcasts, interviews, or other sources of insider information. Such ongoing parasocial relationships are heightened for television, where the typical domestic consumption literally entails inviting characters into your home, often for regularly scheduled visits over the course of years. Fans will frequently develops sincere emotional attachments to characters, designating particular figures as their “TV Boyfriends/Girlfriends” or cultivating hateful (but often pleasurable) antipathy toward a character. Such investments are much more commonplace than the rare instances where a viewer literally blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, resulting in behaviors like stalking; the norm for most viewers is a playful engagement where the fictional frame is treated “as if” it were real, attaching honest emotions to representations that they know to be fiction.
Viewers can imagine relationships between themselves and fictional characters, but it is more common to become invested in the emotional stakes within the fictional frame itself. The most common type of viewing pleasure fostered by such investments is what is often called “shipping,” a term derived from “relationshipping” fandom that emerged around viewers rooting for or against a romance between Mulder and Scully on The X-Files. In an ongoing series, viewers make intense investments in the romantic entanglements of characters, pulling for particular relationships in forums with other fans, often via “shipping names” combining two characters as discussed for Lost in the Orienting Paratexts chapter. Viewers care about characters beyond romance, often rooting for particular figures to succeed or fail in business, crime, or other professional outcomes, as well as experiencing milestones or shifts in their various relationships with family and friends, as fans invest themselves in specific narrative futures. Viewer investment in characters bleeds outside the storyworld as well into the realm of storytelling mechanics, where fans might hope that minor characters get more screen time, or major ones get less. All of these points of engagement suggest the centrality of the one-way relationship between viewers and characters in the experience of serial consumption.
Often these connections between viewers and characters are termed “identification,” but I agree with Smith that this term is inadequate to convey the complexity of the viewing process; instead, he proposes that engaging characters involves the three practices of recognition (as discussed above), alignment, and allegiance (discussed below). Smith’s notion of alignment helps explain the connections viewers feel with characters, both within the storyworld and parasocially outside of it, as a series manages what we know about and experience with characters. Alignment consists of two key elements: attachment to characters, where we follow the experiences of particular characters, and access to subjective interior states of emotions, thought-processes, and morality. In a long-form serial, attachment is a crucial variable, as our relative connection to individuals can shift from episode to episode, and nearly all serials have a pattern of multiple attachments to an ensemble of characters—the most exclusive attachment on fictional television might be the highly episodic Dragnet, where Joe Friday’s narration mimics the form of the police report, restricting every scene to his presence and personal experience. Individual episodes might similarly restrict attachment to a single character, as with the Veronica Mars pilot discussed in the Beginnings chapter, but such patterns expand over the course of a series for both practical production reasons (as it is too inefficient to require an actor to be present for every scene) and to encourage connections with a wider range of characters. It is more typical that a series functions as a broad ensemble with wide-ranging attachments across scenes and episodes, which often work to create a sense that the serial is aligned more broadly with its setting and scenario more than individual characters. On The Wire, a scene might attach to any one of dozens of characters who have been differentiated and recognized by the narrative—and within its opening credit sequences and season-ending montages, the series attaches to non-differentiated characters who serve in familiar roles, like cop, dealer, and dockworker. This vast breadth of attachment locates Baltimore itself as an immersive locale functioning as the core aligned character, with its various inhabitants providing access to the city’s interior subjectivity, as discussed more in the Evaluation chapter.
Attachment is particularly important for a serial program, as spending time with characters encourages parasocial connections—the more time we spend with particular characters, the more we extend that time through hypothetical and paratextual engagement outside of the moments of watching a program. Attachment strategies can become a crucial site of intrinsic norms that help define the storytelling parameters of a series. Lost offers a key example, with a pattern of having individual episodes centered on a single character, including their flashbacks (in the first three seasons), flash-forwards (season four), time travel experiences (season five), or flash-sideways (season six); fans typically label these episodes as “centric” to a character, as in a “Kate-centric episode.” In such Lost episodes, there are typically scenes where the centric character does not appear, but these nearly always take place in the unmarked on-island narrative “present” (a tricky term for the temporally convoluted program). The effect of such centric episodes is to deepen viewers’ knowledge of particular characters, providing access to their backstories (or futures), and thus providing viewers with a broader range of knowledge than any individual character possesses, delivered through piecemeal episodic accumulation. Some episodes violate these centric norms by attaching to multiple characters, either in a group flashback, as with the season one finale “Exodus,” or by dispensing with the flashback structure altogether, as with “The Other 48 Days” offering a linear account the on-island events for the tail section survivors. In all, Lost’s complex but patterned use of attachment helps deepen our experiences with a range of characters, as well as offering engaging variations on serial storytelling.
Smith suggests that alignment consists of both spending time with attached characters, and accessing the those character’s interior subjective state, but film and television rarely employ the literary conventions of hearing interior character voices or describing a character’s emotional state or thoughts. Instead, moving image media must find ways to convey subjective interior states through the accumulation of exterior markers of what we can see and hear about characters: appearance, actions, dialogue, and other sorts of evidence explicitly presented within the narrative discourse. Viewers necessarily infer and construct interior states of characters, filling in internal thoughts through a process of reconstruction and hypothesizing. Thus in a scene on The Wire, Lt. Daniels glaring at McNulty (a frequent action) is an exterior marker, but we infer that it is a judgmental and infuriated glare, suggesting Daniels’s interior state that we might flesh out as thinking, “I cannot believe he just did that.” There are no adverbs in television’s visual storytelling, so the program cannot simply state that Daniels is glaring judgmentally, but it must cue viewers to infer his interior state. We assemble that inference out of a number of exterior markers, ranging from the subtleties of Lance Reddick’s facial expression and posture that seem to convey tense, suppressed rage, to the dramatic context of whatever disrespectful thing McNulty just did to motivative Daniels’s glare, to our own memories of previous instances where Daniels showed that same expression toward McNulty and other characters. In the moment, we infer his interior state as a hypothesis, which is typically confirmed by subsequent exterior markers, like Daniels tensely barking “McNulty, my office!”, other characters’s awkward reactions to witnessing such anger, or McNulty’s typical defensive reaction: “What the fuck did I do?” We might imagine another scenario where Daniels breaks the tension of his glare with a playful, sarcastic insult, which would convey a different interior state of bemusement or camaraderie toward McNulty, but within the context of Daniels’s larger characterization, such exterior actions and interior states would be wholly out-of-character (whereas they would be in keeping with other police, like Bunk or Kima). Such interplay between explicit exterior markers, inferred interior states, and serialized contexts is part of the autonomic process of viewing that I discuss more in the Comprehension chapter.
Some programs do allow for greater access to subjectivity, such as the voiceover and fantasy sequences on Scrubs, where we are privy to J.D.’s thoughts, attitudes, and imagination. Although this might seem like full access to J.D.’s interior state, even those manifested moments of interiority contain gaps for us to flesh out through the same processes we follow in less subjective narrative modes as on The Wire. For instance, in the first season episode “My Bad,” J.D. voiceover interrupts a conversation he’s having with Dr. Cox with, “I’ll always remember that moment as the first ‘thank you’ I got from Dr. Cox.” Dr. Cox follows with a sarcastic line, “Well, geez, Agnes, does the field hockey team know that you’re missing?”, to which J.D.’s voiceover responds, “It felt good.” Viewers have to parse out the degree to which J.D.’s desperate need for affirmation ignores Cox’s sarcasm, how much Cox truly is appreciative but cannot express it openly, and how much J.D. himself might be sarcastically mocking Cox. Just because we are inside J.D.’s head with a great degree of subjective access, the process of narrative comprehension always demands viewers to make hypotheses about what a character is thinking and feeling, even when the storytelling seems to explicitly portray a character’s interiority.
Fleshing out a character’s interiority is one of the chief appeals of fiction in a range of media, encompassing a process that Blakey Vermeule argues is crucial to understanding how and why we engage with fictional characters. She suggests that fiction invites us to access to the interior states of characters through a process of mind reading, where we probe the thoughts and emotions of others—while we never can fully know the interiority of another person, whether fictional or real, narratives offer a laboratory for using social cues to posit others’ minds with more access than in reality. Mind reading is especially compelling around a character’s attitudes toward other people, and thus an ongoing serial portraying a community of characters interacting and reacting to one another becomes a particularly fertile ground to explore interiority. Over the course of a serial, the characters whom we are aligned with, connected to, and invested in are typically those we spend the most time attached to and who provide the most interesting interior states, balancing scrutable access with complex dimensionality to engage us as active mind readers, a process I discuss more below with Walter White. As discussed throughout the book, one of the pleasures of watching complex television is engaging with a sense of ludic play and puzzle-solving analysis, and attempting to read the minds of nuanced, multifaceted characters is fertile ground for such playful viewing practices. Through a long-term investment in a series, viewers accrue knowledge and experiences about characters that allow us to posit our own version of their interiority, especially within the gaps between episodes when we are left to think about what we have already seen and consider our own relationship to characters. Our alignment with characters certainly changes throughout the course of a series—but do the characters themselves change?
Serial Characters and the Possibility of Change
Viewers of serial television engage with an ongoing, dynamic system, not a bounded text like most films. We identify characters not just within a fixed ensemble, but also from episode to episode, across gaps of various lengths in both screen time and story time. One commonplace strategy for such recognition is dialogue explicitly mentioning character names, relationships, and identity to help orient the audience—most series state such identifying information about characters far more than we typically do in real life, and programs that eschew such dialogue cues like The Wire are often viewed as confusing and disorienting, requiring guides as discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter. But at a more abstract level, how do we recognize a character who has changed from the first season to the last? Are they the same fictional person, or have they changed at a more intrinsic level?
While it may seem like part of the pleasure of serial narrative is watching characters grow and develop over time, most serial characters are more stable and consistent rather than changeable entities. This is not to suggest that serial characters don’t experience major life events, traumas, conflicts, and other events that have an impact on who they are—surely most serial characters experience an unrealistic number of such occurrences in the high-drama realm of fiction. And as discussed in the Complexity in Context chapter, a core facet of seriality is that narrative events accumulate in characters’ memories and experiences. But even in the face of such life-changing events, television characters are mostly stable figures, accumulating narrative experiences more than changing from them, as Roberta Pearson argues:
Over the course of a long-running series, the routine augmenting of traits and biographies for novelty purposes can lead to highly elaborated characters. But a highly elaborated character is not the same as a well-developed character; just as characters are suited to their particular fictional forms, so must our critical language be. For literary and dramatic critics, development has often meant that the protagonist grows, achieves a higher degree of self-awareness and makes life-transforming decisions. But the repetitive nature of the television series dictates a relative state of stability for its characters, whose failure to perform key narrative functions and to interact with other characters in pre-established fashion could seriously undermine a series’ premise…. In television, it’s more accurate to talk about character accumulation and depth than it is to talk about character development. The long-running American television drama can create highly elaborated characters of greater accumulation and depth than any contemporary medium.
I agree with Pearson’s account of most serial characters, where elaboration substitutes for change, but there are certainly exceptions, where character development and transformation do occur. How might we define stability and change within these terms, especially given that we witness so many narrative events and shifts in relationships over the course of a serialized program?
To grapple with character changes, we need to consider Smith’s third factor of character engagement: allegiance, the moral evaluation of an aligned character where we find ourselves sympathetic to their beliefs and ethics, and thus emotionally invested in their stories. Since interiority is a restricted area of access, we must infer a character’s morality and beliefs based on exterior markers, including their appearance, behaviors, interactions, and how other characters act toward and talk about them. When Pearson connects character development with a “higher degree of self-awareness” and “life-transforming decisions,” she is referring to changes within the interior beliefs and moral values (which prompt shifting actions) that Smith frames as promoting allegiance. Most of such changes in a serial are either temporary, attributed to an external factor that dissipates over the course of an episode or short arc, or only mid-level shifts in behaviors and attitudes, rather than high-level transformations of core morality and ethics that would prompt a change in our allegiances. So when examining stability and change, we need to look for indications of shifting allegiances, as motivated by transformations within both exterior actions and interior thoughts and feelings. But because we can only access interiority through exterior markers, shifts in character allegiance must be manifested externally.
There are many ways to assess changed interiority based on exterior markers—a character’s new appearance might indicate a revised attitude or belief system, as a different haircut or wardrobe might signify a transformation. Dialogue can certainly signal change, either from the character herself— “I’ve changed!”—or what other people say about her—“she’s changed.” Of course dialog, costuming, and appearance all might be indications solely of superficial changes, or character’s attempts to change that viewers are meant to see as ultimately futile. Complex multifaceted characters must have their interior states confirmed by a number of different exterior markers, and typically overt actions speak louder than dialogue to indicate a character’s true subjective state. For instance at the end of Homeland’s first season, CIA Agent Carrie Mathison undergoes a mental breakdown that we have anticipated, given that we learn of her bipolar mental illness in the pilot and see her medication run out midway through the season. In the midst of her breakdown, she asserts that she is fine, but Claire Danes’s manic performance trumps those claims, as we are aligned with her friend Sol in trying to figure out how much she has lost touch with reality. He ultimately finds his answer, and we find ours alongside him, when he discovers a huge wall collage of color-coded papers that she has assembled in a fit of mania—more than any other marker, this artifact of her actions both conveys her unhinged state and reinforces our allegiance with her, since through her madness she discovers a pattern that helps her come closer to the truth about a terrorist conspiracy. Thus while we want to gauge a character’s interiority, we judge characters mostly by what they do, cued by how other character’s regard, interact with, and talk about them; through these actions and reactions, we locate our own allegiances within a set of characters. Our sustained allegiance through her breakdown marks Carrie’s shift as a mid-level behavior change, rather than a high-level moral shift—Carrie is still motivated by noble ethics and consistent beliefs, even if her actions and attitudes differ radically from where she started the season, and we believe the shift to be temporary, anticipating her renewed stability following psychiatric treatment.
Sometimes character changes are not clearly manifested in actions, so one way to measure character change is to ask a hypothetical question: if the “old” character as existed early in the series faced the same scenario faced in a later moment, would their behavior be significantly different than how the “new” character acts? Or we might imagine the reverse scenario: would the later version of the character act differently in an earlier situation, assuming that they did not know the previous outcome but rather were motivated by changed moral beliefs? Although it is clearly an artificial test, as bracketing off a character’s context denies them of the very events that help constitute and shape their identity, it does call attention to the impacts of narrative events on a character’s beliefs, values, and ethics. For instance, in the last seasons of The Sopranos, Tony must decide how to deal with the rumor that his “captain” Vito is gay; his lack of action and indecisive hesitation is contrasted with Phil taking matters into his own hands to brutally murder Vito. Even though we witness years of Tony’s life, including hours of therapy and numerous traumas, I do not believe that the Tony of the first season would act significantly differently toward Vito, suggesting that at his core, he is still the same character, struggling with a small conscience and kernel of humanity at war with his violent rage and the established cultural norms within his immoral profession.
Of course, such thought experiments are inexact measures, and different viewers will come to varying conclusions. But per my earlier delineation of characters as entities that emerge through the communicative act of consuming a media text, it is through such inexact and variable reception processes that viewers create the mental constructs of a character. One of the primary ways we constitute characters as robust beings with vivid interior states is to imagine behaviors outside of the narrative discourse, both by filling in gaps between onscreen moments by imaging what a character might have done, and exploring counterfactual possibilities of “what would they have done if…?” situations. Sometimes such gaps or possibilities are explicitly invited by a text, as when Battlestar Galactica jumped forward a year at the end of the second season, forcing viewers to fill-in the gaps in how characters adjusted to life on New Caprica. Other hypothetical actions are more “what if?” possibilities, frequently involved in shipping fandom, fan-created narrative extensions, or more private ways that people think about their favorite television characters as part of their parasocial engagement. Clearly imagining what a character might do hypothetically is not simply an academic thought experiment, but part of what viewers frequently do in the process of consuming a series.
Imagining what a character might do is a way of trying to access potential changes in a character’s interior state, concerning how they view their world, other characters, and their own behaviors. Not all changes are manifested in actions, hypothetical or otherwise, as one significant way a character might change is through a shifted perspective on themselves and their situation that does not translate into different actions. Carmela Soprano is a good example of a character who makes many attempts to change outwardly, by forging new relationships, seeking a career, changing her appearance or material world, or even leaving her husband, but none of these changes seem to make much of an impact on her core character as she always reverts back to the narrative status quo. Yet Carmela does seem to have learned something about herself and changed her own internal attitudes, gaining some peace and acceptance about the core hypocrisy of her lifestyle and Tony’s profession in the wake of numerous traumas and failed attempts to change. We gauge this shift less from differing actions, but through subtle shifts in Edie Falco’s performance—the way she looks at people and things, how her emotional reactions to Tony’s actions mellow—and contrasts to other characters’ lack of growth and maturation; through these subtleties, we can view her as a shifted character in ways that might not have changed her earlier actions. We also fill in the gaps in these often silent moments of Carmela looking or reacting by filling in her interior state by referencing our own serial memories of the character, constructing an internal monologue that draws connections across the lifespan that we have shared with her, a process discussed more below.
Characters rarely shift this significantly, but our understanding of them often does, a change of a somewhat different narrative order that we might call character elaboration, referring to Pearson’s distinction between elaborated and developed characters. This model of change exploits the serial form to gradually reveal aspects of a character over time so that they feel new to the audience, even if they are consistent and unchanging facets of the character. Lost’s flashback structure harnessed the power of character elaboration, as each episode revealed elements of a character’s backstory that cast their on-island actions in new light, changing our perceptions of them in lieu of more internal character shifts. While most shows are less predicated on such structures, many use intermittent flashbacks or moments of recounting to fill in crucial backstory contexts to elaborate a character, a strategy seen in programs ranging from Mad Men to How I Met Your Mother, Terriers to Justified. Since we measure character change in large part on our own allegiances toward characters, elaborating more about a character’s backstory can make a static figure seem more dynamic, where our own shifting attitudes create the illusion of character change, much like the sun appearing to orbit our seemingly fixed position on Earth.
This perspectival illusion of change is not unique to viewers, but even more commonly seen within the relationships between characters themselves, as the most fluid dynamic of television characters is the way they interact with one another, via romances, friendships, alliances, conflicts, and betrayals. As Robert Allen influentially argues, soap operas are predicated on the pleasures of watching the ripple effect of any event within the web of relationships among the characters, observing how intra-character reactions and attitudes shift and resonate within the diegetic community, and thus coloring viewers own perspectives on characters. For prime time serials with far fewer hours of story material, such character webs are usually more compact and less elaborated, but still form a key point of engagement for viewers, helping to create the perception that characters are fluid and dynamic through the shifts in how other characters relate to them. For instance, Lost’s Ben Linus is a highly complex and engaging character, but changes little throughout his run on the series—he is driven by a stable set of motivations for personal survival, paternal protection, and quest for validation, accompanied with a moral flexibility and lack of loyalty to anyone but his daughter. He may not change much, but our attitudes toward him do, as he becomes much more elaborated through revelations about his backstory through flashbacks, as well as the shifting ways that other characters regard and act toward him, moving from fear and hostility to pity and contempt. As with most series, we watch the way that fairly stable characters can interact to form dynamic relationships, with such interactions between characters providing the surrogate dramatic hook for change and development that might be lacking within the interior stability of characters themselves.
Although wholesale shifts in allegiance are rare, there are instances when we do see characters change; to describe such examples, we might use a number of terms interchangeably, such as development, growth, and transformation, but more specific vocabulary can help distinguish between different types of character arcs. One common model of change is character growth, evoking the process of maturation where a character becomes more realized and fleshed out over time. Not surprisingly, such arcs are most common with young characters, where their physical and emotional maturation fulfills a coming-of-age narrative; this framework succeeds particularly well because viewers know from the start that young characters are not fully formed, and we expect the ongoing story to show them transition out of youthful tumult into more stable adulthood. Thus many complex programs focus on young characters at their center, including Buffy, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, and Friday Night Lights; as major players in an ensemble, as on Six Feet Under, Game of Thrones, and Arrested Development; or as secondary characters that serve as a focal point for how they grow in relation to the more static adult world, such as on The Sopranos and Mad Men. Even when a character is not young, an arc can mimic a growth narrative by presenting a major transition that resembles the traumatic development of adolescence, such as Bubbles overcoming drug addition on The Wire, Chuck adjusting to being thrust into a world of espionage, or various figures on Heroes learning to adapt to their new superpowers. In almost all of these series, the characters who follow such growth arcs are contrasted with stable adults whose personalities and actions are much more static, highlighting how character change is far from universal.
Another frequent character arc might be considered character education, where a mature adult learns a key life lesson over the course of a series and ends up a changed person. This type of education is commonly seen in the smaller scale of an individual episode, where many sitcoms and dramas offer self-contained plots showing a character learning something about themselves and promising to change; however, those lessons rarely stick, as the episodic nature of conventional primetime storytelling demands a return to a narrative status quo each week. Lost’s Jack Shephard offers an example of a long-arc character education, spending most of the series struggling with his role as a reluctant leader, his need to fix situations, and his inability to see beyond his own rationality. The series shows his gradual acceptance of irrational phenomena and coming to terms with his lack of control, an arc that enables him to ultimately fulfill his destiny to save the island and his friends. Similarly, The Wire’s Carver starts the series as a mediocre cop who both sells out his boss and takes dangerous risks without thinking, but learns from his mistakes and the mentorship of other police like Daniels and Colvin to become “good po-lice.” Typically such educational arcs are contrasted by other characters who don’t learn those lessons, either because they lack the ability to change (as with Carver’s partner Herc) or because they already knew them (as with Jack’s frequent sparring partner John Locke), highlighting the thematic lessons being learned as well as aligning viewers with the figures that are able to adapt and adjust. Neither Jack nor Carver undergo major moral shifts, as both start as basically good if flawed people who must learn how to move beyond their limits, and thus our allegiance does not waver significantly throughout the series. This type of character education is fairly common in long-form serials, as characters learn to accept their life’s situations, come to terms with things from their pasts, or develop skills and abilities that change how they behave toward others—but in all of these instances, such an arc leaves the character’s core morality and our allegiances unchanged.
A more abrupt form of change might be called character overhaul, where someone undergoes a dramatic sudden shift, often tied to a supernatural or fantastic situation that creates body switches or clones, but the program asks us to retain our serial memories of earlier events and relationships. Such character overhauls can be seen on a range of programs, including Locke on Lost, Francie on Alias, both Starbuck and Sharon on Battlestar Galactica, and Olivia on Fringe. Buffy and Angel employ such character overhauls quite frequently, often just for a single episode where a character is possessed by a demon, switches bodies with someone else, confronts a doppelganger from another dimension, has her memory erased, turned into a puppet, or is otherwise temporarily recharacterized. Some of these shifts are more long-term, tying into larger arcs that make overhauls part of the character’s core identity. Angel is a key example here, as he is defined as a reformed vampire with a soul, but occasionally on both Buffy and Angel, he loses his soul and becomes Angelus, a soulless killing machine. However for both viewers and other characters, the memories of Angel’s soul persist and we imbue Angelus’s actions with a level of moral complexity and sympathy that the demonic vampire himself lacks. A more permanent transformation occurs in Angel’s fifth season, as Fred is permanently transformed into Illyria, an ancient demon who is bewildered by the modern world; we experience this transformed character through the sympathetic perspective of her boyfriend Wesley, who tries to sustain Fred’s memory by helping Illyria learn from her humanity. Along with Wesley, we feel the loss of Fred, and see Illyria inflected by the light of our shared serial memories that she herself doesn’t understand. The fantasy conceits of such series allow extreme examples of character transformation that contrast most characters’ stability, whether it’s a temporary overhaul that returns to normal by the end of an episode or a longer-term shift that highlights what was lost through the disappearance of the character’s original stability.
Overhauls offer opportunities to play with recognition, teasing viewers and other characters about which version of a character is present. Such mistaken identities are often integrated into key plot threads, where a character’s recharacterized version is deceiving other characters within the story, as in the so-called “Fauxlivia” version of Olivia who manipulates her colleagues across dimensions in Fringe. In such plotlines, viewers typically know about the deception, creating suspenseful anticipation of when the truth will come out, as well as layers of dramatic irony where we know the true meanings and repercussions within dialogue. More rare are instances of overhauls where the audience is unaware of the switch, only to learn of it at a later point in the series to create a moment of dramatic surprise—Lost featured a significant instance of this, as the 2007-era on-island scenes with John Locke featured in six episodes toward the end of the fifth season turned out to be a doppelganger manifestation of the unnamed Man in Black in Locke’s form, a transformation only revealed in the season finale. This twist forced viewers to retroactively reinterpret the season’s events (and inspired many to rewatch the episodes within this new context), positing new interior states to explain the same external markers performed by the newly identified character, known by fans as “Flocke” (fake-Locke) or “UnLocke.” Fan-created names like Fauxlivia and Flocke speak to the need to identify and recognize characters within viewer discourses, orienting themselves within complex layers of characterization and multiple identities as discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter, as well as indicating the ludic fun that many fans have in playing such games of comprehension.
This need to recognize an overhauled character is a heightened instance of what viewers of all cumulative narratives must constantly do: locate a character in their experiential arc. Most programs simplify this process by mirroring the chronology of characters and viewers, so at any given time a dedicated sequential viewer will be drawing upon the same set of shared memories and experiences as the characters themselves. Programs with convoluted chronologies complicate this process, as we must locate a character within the serial timeframe and calibrate our knowledge and memories of their experiences, a process that is mirrored within the series of Doctor Who itself. As discussed in the Orienting Paratexts chapter, the romantic arc between the dual time travelers River Song and The Doctor is tremendously twisty in its narrative chronology, with the characters carrying their own embedded orienting journals to sync up their experiences whenever they meet. The two characters take time to recognize each other and figure out who they are this time, as defined by their shared or divergent experiences—and River Song herself expresses the melancholic anticipation that eventually The Doctor will not recognize her at all given their opposing temporal vectors. Of course, many television viewers are time travelers themselves within serial storyworlds, consuming episodes out of order or rewatching selected episodes, requiring a viewer to similarly sync up their memories or consult paratexts to orient themselves as to which version of a character is appearing on screen.
My final category of character change is what we might traditionally think about under such an umbrella: a character transformation of an adult complete with a gradual shift of morality, attitudes, and sense of self that manifests in altered actions and long-term repercussions. Pearson suggests that traditional norms of character change feature such “life-transforming decisions,” a model that seems suited to the more stand-alone narrative forms of film and literature than the ongoing serial model of television, but a few rare examples of television’s character transformations do seem to fit this category. One of the most effective character transformations on serial television is Wesley Wyndam-Pryce from Buffy and Angel, who was introduced in the former’s third season as a comedically pompous, cowardly, and bumbling Watcher ineffectually trying to supervise the title character. The following year, Wesley moved to spinoff Angel and began to transform into a more competent and assured “demon hunter” through his experiences and meaningful relationships with coworkers and friends, eventually rising to a leadership role within the team. Yet when he betrays his friends in a well-intentioned attempt to spare Angel additional torment, he is outcast from the group and becomes involved in a dark and manipulative sexual relationship with the antagonistic Lilah. Wesley eventually returns to Angel’s side, but is clearly a changed man, with a darker and more cynical edge who confronts romantic situations and personal sacrifice quite differently in the program’s final season through his relationship with Fred and trauma of Illyria’s emergence. Although he encounters numerous supernatural phenomena in his journey, his transformation is not an externally-caused overhaul, but a gradual shift—at any point in his multi-season journey, Wesley feels like a robust and fully-realized character in the moment, and it is only through a broader view that we can see his arc as a rare example of serialized character transformation.
By concluding this round-up of different models of character change with transformation, I do not mean to suggest that television’s dominant approach to characterization is flawed by overemphasizing stability or less organic models of change except for a few notable exceptions. The desire for stable characters whose traits and personalities are consistent is major draw for serial storytelling, as we want to feel connected to such characters through parasocial relationships, and might be quite disappointed if they changed in ways that violate their initial connections and appeals—certainly a common complaint among television fans is when a character’s actions seem unmotivated and inconsistent, a critique that speaks to the need for some constancy within characterization. Viewers invest themselves in the shifting web of relationships between fairly stable characters and the varying ways that such characters can play off one another; focusing on character change does not belittle that dominant mode of television storytelling in both episodic and serial forms. However, character transformation remains an exceptional feature for most television, and looking closely at how a series can accomplish such dramatic changes highlights one of the more innovative possibilities of complex television. No series embraces character transformation more fully than Breaking Bad, so to explore its remarkable approach to television characterization, we need to examine an important dramatic staple of many complex series: the antihero.
Lengthy Interactions with Hideous Men: The Serial Poetics of Television Antiheroes
In his collection of short stories Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace creates a resonant implication between the two adjectives in his title—if we’re going to spend time in the company of hideous men, it best be brief. Most television abides by this implication, where distasteful and unpleasant characters are treated briefly, whether with unsympathetic figures on an anthology program like The Twilight Zone, or single-episode distasteful figures emerging in the course of a procedural’s police investigation or medical case. But as I have argued throughout this book, serial television is distinguished by the long timeframes it creates, and thus any interaction with hideous men found in an ongoing series’s regular cast will last quite awhile. One common trait shared by many complex television series is the prominence of unsympathetic, morally questionable, or villainous figures, nearly always male (as discussed more below), at their narrative center, a trend typically identified by the character type of the antihero—a term that may not be applicable per traditional literary definitions, but has become the common cultural moniker for this style of characterization. The rise of television’s antiheroes raises a key question: why would we want to subject ourselves to lengthy interactions with such hideous men?
The key feature of an antihero is a character who is our primary point of ongoing narrative alignment, but whose behavior and beliefs provoke ambiguous, conflicted, or negative moral allegiance. Although often lumped into a singular character type, antiheroes can come in a wide range of variants, from misanthropic and selfish but ultimately noble heroes, such as Mal on Firefly or Tommy on Rescue Me, to arrogantly superior, destructively flawed, but moral figures, such as Gregory House on House, M.D. and The Wire’s Jimmy McNulty, to outright amoral villains as protagonists like Tony Soprano and Dexter Morgan. Some antiheroes stretch a rebellious member of a typically upright organization to its moral limits, as with The Shield’s portrayal of rogue cops turned into corrupt murderers and thieves, while others focus on a community of villains within an unlikely locale, as with Oz’s prison or the Sons of Anarchy bike gang. Complex comedies have also embraced antiheroic protagonists, as with Larry David’s misanthropic self-portrait on Curb Your Enthusiasm or the ensemble of horrible people populating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Television features a longer history of comedies centered on unlikeable protagonists, including Archie Bunker on All in the Family, Seinfeld’s core ensemble, and the main characters on The Larry Sanders Show, with even more prominence on British comedies such as Fawlty Towers, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder, and The Office. In nearly all of these comedic instances, we are positioned as rooting against the unsympathetic heroes, watching them fail for our amusement as well as laughing at their boundary-pushing behavioral extremes, but how do we account for the pleasures of watching a highly unpleasant protagonist at the center of a dramatic narrative that asks us to truly care about his actions and potentially encourages our allegiance?
Antihero narratives regularly invoke relative morality, where an ethically questionable character is juxtaposed with more explicitly villainous and unsympathetic characters to highlight the antihero’s more redeeming qualities. On Mad Men, Don Draper’s misbehavior is often seen as more redeemable and motivated than less sympathetic characters like Pete and Roger; on Dexter, the title character’s murderous ways are always contrasted with another murderer who lacks a code and targets innocents. Although The Wire is not as focused on antiheroes, criminal characters like Stringer Bell, Omar Little, and Bodie Broadus are framed as more multi-faceted and morally complex than unredeemed villainous figures like Marlo Stanfield, The Greek, and Maury Levy. Within The Sopranos, it would be hard to say that Tony’s actions are truly more ethical than those of his mafia associates, but through his therapy sessions and interactions with his family, we come to know the personal history that helped shape his amorality, his moral quandaries, and the anxiety attacks that derive from his internal conflicts. We may not be certain that Tony is a morally superior person than more villainous associates like Richie Aprile and Ralphie Cifaretto, but due to our alignment with Tony, we perceive him as relatively more worthy of our allegiance than these more distanced characters. Even more central characters like Paulie and Christopher are viewed as less noble than Tony, lacking leadership abilities, parental grounding, and an ability to overcome their respective flaws of superstitious paranoia and drug addiction. With Tony Soprano and other leading antiheroes, we feel more connected with characters with relative morality within that program’s ethical universe, even if all of the characters would be reprehensible in real life—in effect, these main characters are celebrated for being less hideous than the alternatives presented in the series.
As suggested by The Sopranos, alignment and elaboration are key components of our allegiance to an antihero—the more we know about a character through revelations of backstory, relationships, and interior thoughts, the more likely we will come to regard them as an ally in our journey through the storyworld. This might be partly akin to a fictionalized Stockholm Syndrome, where time spent with hideous characters engenders our sympathy as we start to see things from their perspective. However, we are not being held captive by serial television, so a series must offer some good reasons why it deserves our attention week after week, and typically compelling characters are an essential element of any program’s appeal. Charisma is a key value for many antiheroes that helps us overlook their hideousness, creating a sense of charm and verve that makes the time spent with them enjoyable, despite their moral shortcomings and unpleasant behaviors. Charisma stems in part from an actor’s performance and physicality, but is also cued by how other characters treat the antiheroes, where onscreen relationships cue viewers on how we should feel toward a character. Thus on The Sopranos, nearly every character respects, loves, desires, or follows Tony—and those who don’t rarely survive long within the series—despite the fact that he consistently treats most people quite poorly, whether they be family members, colleagues, or friends. Likewise, everyone tells Don Draper how good he is at his job, with most of Mad Men’s male characters aspiring to be him and many of the women desiring to be with him. Both James Gandolfini and Jon Hamm are magnetic actors, with the former using his physical bulk to create a sense of menacing but approachable power, while Hamm is commonly regarded as one of the most handsome actors in Hollywood, a physicality that certainly feeds into Draper’s desirability. Additionally, both Tony and Don are positioned as accomplished leaders in their respective careers, leading to material wealth and power that signals desirability and success within much of American culture. Both characters exude charisma that inspires viewers to want to spend time with them, despite their hideousness.
The draw of antiheroes does not simply override such hideousness, but partly stems from the fascination that it prompts —the immoral actions of these characters create their own intrigue for viewers, or what Smith calls “the innate fascination of imagining experiences that we lack the opportunity or courage to experience in reality.” The fictional bubble allows us to witness actions and traumas we are hopefully safe from in real life, and through aligned antiheroes, we are able to read their immoral minds. Vermeule connects such fascination to a concept in cognitive science called “Machiavellian intelligence,” where success in a socially complex environment depends on the ability to understand and manipulate other people, a trait that is well-served by interpersonal mind reading. For Vermeule, much of our engagement with fiction stems from our interest in reading the minds of Machiavellian characters who display social intelligence, cunning, and a keen ability to manipulate others—we learn from their adventures, helping to develop our own social intelligence through the tales of fascinating characters. She posits the core Machiavellian character as a “mastermind” who manipulates others (for good or ill), excels at social problem solving, and is often found in narratives with “high narrative reflexivity” and allusions to games and puzzles, all traits common to complex television. Although most of Vermeule’s examples are not antiheroes, we can see such traits prominently within many complex television series focusing on amoral figures, suggesting that Machiavellian fascination is a key component driving the antiheroic boom.
The lead character on Showtime’s Dexter offers an interesting example whose hideousness as a serial killer may be unmatched in terms of reprehensible actions among television antiheroes, responsible for murdering at least 80 people in the first five seasons. However, Dexter Morgan is clearly framed as a protagonist toward whom we feel sympathy and allegiance, encouraged by a number of characterization strategies. Actor Michael C. Hall brings an intertextual shine to his portrayal, as he was well known as the sympathetic, soft-spoken, and occasionally victimized David Fisher on HBO’s Six Feet Under for the five years immediately before Dexter’s 2006 debut; given their shared styles as dark premium cable dramas with comedic undertones, certainly Hall’s previous role helped make Dexter feel more familiar, charismatic, and accessible to viewers accustomed to watching Hall. Viewers are highly aligned with Dexter, spending most of the narrative attached to him and being granted exclusive access to his interiority via voiceover narration, flashbacks, and subjective visuals. Such access facilitates mind reading as well as granting access to Dexter’s dryly ironic sense of humor, highlighting our shared connection to the character. This attachment allows us to witness actions that no other characters knows about, providing shared secrets and knowledge of Dexter’s personal ethical code to promote allegiance and even positioning viewers as passive witness to, and accomplices in, his vigilantism. The show clearly embraces relative morality, as his victims are almost always more monstrous than Dexter himself, and we repeatedly hear his thoughts about his stepfather’s code of ethics and need to target those who deserve to be brought to justice to protect innocents. We admire his Machiavellian prowess, where his cunning and dedication to rational analysis has allowed him to escape capture and discovery for many years. Thus even though we see Dexter doing unspeakably hideous things, we are steeped in his perspective, his rationales, and his backstory enough to understand and even sympathize with his murderous and deceitful actions.
Dexter’s first season sets important groundwork for the character, establishing clear alignment and allegiance for viewers to build upon for the rest of the series. The first season gradually elaborates the character in tight alignment, as we discover alongside Dexter himself the gruesome childhood trauma that caused his mental illness: when three-years-old, he witnessed his mother’s murder and was locked in a room in a pool of her blood for two days. The harrowing flashbacks to this event, which stand out to me as the most gruesome and troubling images in a series full of them, seem to provide a plausible explanation that the trauma might cause a mental break and turn a boy into a serial killer, creating sympathy for the character’s young victimized incarnation that extends to his older murderous version as trained and guided by his stepfather. This sympathy is highlighted via a contrast to his previously unknown brother Brian, whom Dexter discovers also experienced this matricidal trauma and became a serial killer, but lacks Dexter’s moral code and familial grounding. The series accomplishes what would seem like an impossible task—making a serial killer into a sympathetic hero we want to spend more time with each week—but gets stuck in a narrative bind: because Dexter must continue to kill to fulfill the show’s concept, but cannot deviate from his moral code to sustain viewer sympathy, the character has little room for change and development. Nearly every season portrays Dexter fighting his instincts and working to eliminate his murderous urges, but he must always embrace who he is to exact justice, save his family, or preserve his own life, leading to character stagnation and repetition, and stretching emotional credulity for a show that already lacks realism in much of its storytelling. Typically a show can use the fluid dynamics of relationships to offset static characters, but Dexter’s concept is predicated on his character posing behind a stable facade to all of his long-term friends and family, so they cannot have sincere relationships with him compared with what we know of him as aligned viewers; instead, Dexter’s family situation is the most fluid variable, as he marries, has a child, and then copes with being a single parent, but none of these shifts have much palpable impact on his core characterization. Without a sense that Dexter’s character changes over time, either internally through transformation or development, or cued via the surrogate of externalized relationships, the show’s concept wears thin after numerous seasons.
Dexter’s serialized challenge highlights one of the key issues with antiheroes: what are our expectations for character change? Since antiheroes are predicated on a careful chemistry of allegiance, relative morality, fascination, and charisma, character change can upset that balance, but overt stagnation becomes dull and troubling for the relationships portrayed on the show. Additionally, the narrative scenarios of most antihero dramas seem pointed toward an ultimate reckoning, where characters will have to pay the price for their crimes and immoral behaviors—but without clear character changes or development, coupled with the endless delay of television’s infinite model (which Dexter suffers from at this point in its run), the final destination of an antihero can set-up mixed expectations. In the Endings chapter, I discuss the conclusion of The Sopranos in terms of our need for narrative closure and potential justice for Tony, but we can see similar challenges raised for the arcs of Don Draper and Dexter Morgan, both still running as of this writing. Seinfeld’s ending delivered a reckoning for the lead characters, imprisoned for their insensitivity, but most viewers felt like the punishment didn’t fit the crime, especially in the show’s comedic context. Probably the most celebrated final fate for an antihero is The Shield’s, with Vic Mackey working the system to get himself immunity for his crimes, but gets condemned to a desk job that feels like prison given his action-oriented personality. Antihero conclusions are extraordinarily difficult, as they must provide a motivated end to a complex character arc, payoff serialized arcs that reward viewer dedication, and offer (or actively refuse) a moral position toward the characters’ behaviors. And for many ongoing serials, the anticipated ending looms over a series run, with viewers waiting to judge a character’s arc and morality in lieu of where the story takes him.
As I have argued throughout this book, complex television acknowledges its own role as fiction through reflexive storytelling strategies, even when programs are highly dedicated to realism, as with The Wire. This is an important element for antiheroes, as we remember that their hideous acts are fictional, which Margrethe Bruun Vaage argues is essential to enable allegiance with characters doing horrible actions, with the fictional frame allowing us to suspend moral judgments and rationalize behaviors. However, the serial model of television complicates the solid line between fiction and reality, as the parasocial engagement with television characters allows serialized characters to persist beyond their time on the screen. If you immerse yourself within the fictional lives of Dexter Morgan or Tony Soprano, you are likely to think about their behaviors even while you are not watching television, perhaps positing how they would handle a situation in your own life or imagining what they might be doing in between episodes. While we do maintain a clear sense that these are fictional characters, parasocial engagement allows hideous characters to occupy our thoughts and attention outside the clear frame of televised entertainment, creating uncomfortable blurs where we might find ourselves imagining the actions and thoughts of a psychopath within our daily lives. Although antiheroes do spark a different set of allegiances than typical serialized characters—and I’m loathe to think that there are viewers who imagine Dexter as their “TV Boyfriend”—there is no doubt that watching an ongoing serial tightly focused on an antihero does entail entering into a relationship with the character and allowing him into our daily routines and thoughts, for better or worse. While this doesn’t mean that viewers cannot distinguish between fiction and reality, it does highlight how watching serial television blurs character boundaries and suggests that any notion of a clear fictional frame might be a bit more muddy than we might expect for other more bounded media.
In my discussion of antiheroes, it should be clear that crafting characters who effectively balance alignment, allegiance, and stability is quite difficult to pull off successfully throughout a serial, which leads to a key question: why bother? Decades of dramatic television have avoided such antiheroes at their centers, settling for charismatic villains we love to hate to explore darker characters, like Dallas’s J.R., Melrose Place’s Amanda, or numerous figures on every daytime soap opera. Certainly part of antiheroes’ appeal stems from the imitative logic of commercial television—when Sopranos became a surprise hit, it invited the industry to ride on its success by mimicking its focus on a criminal protagonist, a trend that proved lucrative through commercial and critical successes like The Shield and Dexter, but also certainly yielded many failed clones like Kingpin and Brotherhood. This innovation also signaled new possibilities to television’s creators for darker heroes, storylines, and themes, capitalizing on the freer content standards available on cable to tell a broader range of stories than had been permissible in television’s classic network era. Not surprisingly, such dark stories tend to get more critical accolades and awards for their innovative approaches and subject matter, so there are incentives for creators to rise to the challenge of creating compelling antiheroes that encourage viewers to stick around for such lengthy interactions.
As mentioned above, all of these antiheroes are hideous men, with a distinct lack of female characters who invite us in to embrace their troubling morality. Female characters who approach antiheroic attitudes tend to either be sympathetic but prickly, as with Veronica Mars or Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica, or more comedic approaches to morally questionable women, as with Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and Enlightened. The two examples of a full-blown female antihero I can name who might be dramatically equivalent to Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Dexter Morgan, or Vic Mackey both fall short of those programs’ characterization: Patty Hewes on Damages seems similarly ruthless and unsympathetic, but her protagonist function is more doubtful, as she is contrasted with the more noble and sympathetic character of Ellen, making Patty more into a villain we love to hate. Revenge hints that it might transform the main protagonist from a vengeance-seeking hero into a morally questionable antihero, but the show’s first season maintained Emily Thorne’s moral superiority to her victims, backing her off murder and other acts of amorality. Part of why antiheroes seem limited by gender stems from the cultural norms of particular genres, with crime dramas that lend themselves to antiheroes tending toward masculine appeals, as discussed in the Genre chapter. More centrally, there are broader cultural norms at play, where men are more likely to be respected and admired for ruthlessness, self-promotion, and the pursuit of success at any cost, while women are still constructed more as nurturing, selfless, and objects of action rather than empowered agents themselves. This cultural stereotype can yield a backlash against an aggressive, morally questionable female character, who is often viewed as more of an unsympathetic “ball-busting bitch” than the charismatic rogue that typifies most male antiheroes. But clearly there is room within television’s narrative palette to expand the range of female antiheroes that might serve as the focus of serial narratives.
Throughout this discussion of antiheroes and character change, I have avoided one example that might be the most salient and interesting from contemporary television: Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Thus I will conclude this chapter with a detailed look at Walt as a case study of television character analysis, with the clear caveat that it is an exceptional and somewhat atypical example. Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan conceived the series predicated on character change to a degree that he had rarely seen on television, with the title indicating this transformative arc, as “to break bad” is an American Southern idiom for someone who loses their moral compass. Gilligan regularly mentions that the program’s goal was to take Walter White on a journey “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” referring to cinematic character tropes of the model schoolteacher and gangster kingpin respectively, a transformation he elaborates in more depth in comparison with The Sopranos:
Where you meet Tony Soprano, he was a guy born into a world of crime… I like the idea of approaching a crime show from my point-of-view, as someone who would be too afraid to tear the mattress tag off a mattress in case black-ops guys would come rappelling in the back yard. I’m just a big weeny, there’s no way that I’d break the law—not because I’m particularly moral, but because I’d be scared of the consequences. And I like the idea of approaching a bad guy character from a starting point of zero, from never having jaywalked or littered to doing some of the crazy shit Walter White does…. What would I do if I suddenly decided to become a criminal? How would I approach it? The process… was a big part of what appealed to me, delineating the process of transformation, of going from a normal schlub to a bad guy and ultimately to a kingpin.
As Gilligan makes clear, the program starts with Walt as an everyman “schlub,” clearly aligned with the audience and encouraging our allegiance; as of this writing at the end of four seasons, Walt is a monstrous villain, poisoning an innocent child for a risky, selfish scheme and deceitfully manipulating those he claims to love. How did this epic moral transformation work?
To understand Walter White, we must start at Breaking Bad’s pilot—or even earlier, as Breaking Bad’s debut in January 2008 was situated with three key intertexts. As cable channel AMC’s second foray into original dramatic programming, Mad Men loomed large, with the first season having debuted six months before Breaking Bad and establishing AMC as a legitimate venue for ambitious, antiheroic serialized drama, and thus encouraging viewers to take the new show seriously. At the level of plot, Breaking Bad was initially framed as a male version of Weeds, with shared focus on a “respectable” middle-class parent entering into the illegal drug business in a moment of crisis; this comparison helped highlight Breaking Bad’s dramatic darkness and heavy serialization in contrast to the more playful comic tone of Weeds. The third and most important intertext in terms of characterization was Malcolm in the Middle, the landmark single-camera sitcom that pioneered many techniques of complex television in the early-2000s, featuring Bryan Cranston as befuddled manchild father Hal for seven seasons. Certainly Breaking Bad was initially widely known as “that show where Malcolm’s dad gets cancer and becomes a drug dealer,” an important framework for how Walter White was perceived: Cranston’s star persona as an affable comedic actor (on both Malcolm and a recurring role on Seinfeld) rubbed off onto his portrayal of Walt, whose character was vastly different than Hal, but drew upon Cranston’s reservoir of good will and likability. Thus Breaking Bad emerged into a context where viewers were poised to embrace Walt as a sympathetic lead character, fulfilling Gilligan’s conception of an everyday schlub.
Indeed the pilot’s opening moments evoke the Malcolm intertext, as we first see Walt recklessly driving an RV through the desert, wearing nothing but “tighty whitey” underpants and a gas mask—it is not a stretch to imagine Hal in such a manic situation, albeit without the dead body in the back of the van, as Cranston was hailed on Malcolm for his outlandish physicality and no-shame style of physical comedy. The underwear is an unintended intertextual connection that Cranston initially resisted, pushing back against Gilligan’s scripted call for Walt to wear the same style of underwear as Hal. After further consideration, the actor embraced how the wardrobe choice says something different about both characters: for Hal, it indicates his immaturity, as “he always wore them and it never occurred to him to wear anything else,” while Walt wears him as a sign of “stunted growth” and a depressive lack of caring about himself. For viewers who knew Cranston from Malcolm, this opening taps into positive sentiments toward the earlier character and extends them to this still-unknown figure of Walter White. Beyond this shared taste in undergarments, the two characters are both motivated in large part by fear, which Cranston suggests manifests itself differently: an outlandish cartoonish cowardice in Hal, and a closed-down emotional and physical absence for Walt.
We get our first indication that Walt is not Hal when we first see Cranston’s face upon removing the gas mask, as Walt has what the actor calls “an impotent mustache” that Hal never featured. Physical appearance is crucial to character creation, and Cranston, as a producer as well as star (as well as occasional director starting in the second season), had an active hand in creating Walt’s look:
I told Vince, he should be overweight, he should wear glasses, he should have a mustache that makes people go, “Why bother?” His hair should be undefined; he always needs a trim. He doesn’t care. His clothes should blend in with the wall, no color in his skin. As he changes, color palettes will change, his attitude, everything.
These exterior traits clearly reflect on Walt’s internal psyche, and Cranston has made it clear that his physicality is crucial to his performance, both in how Walt feels and how that interiority is conveyed to the audience. As the series progresses, Walt’s changes are externalized through his appearance, as the impotent mustache and undefined haircut shifts to a shaved head with goatee, a look that Cranston calls “badass… the most intimidating look there can be,” that both signals the character’s changing psychology and allows Walt to help rationalize his behavior because he “doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror.” Similarly, Walt adopts a black porkpie hat to wear in his persona of “Heisenberg” within the drug business, an iconic marker that transforms both our perception of the character and his apparent interior sense of self. By the second season, it is hard to imagine a viewer looking at Cranston and thinking about Malcolm’s Hal, but at the start of Walt’s journey that association was crucial to forge allegiance and a positive emotional connection with the character.
Walter White doesn’t start as a villainous antihero, as his initial characterization seems driven less by questionable morality than a desperate situation—he makes a series of bad choices that lead to his eventual moral dissolution, but he starts at place of pathetic pity rather than the charismatic confidence of most other antiheroes. As we learn about his cancer, his unfulfilling career, and his dire financial situation, we are fully attached to the character, sharing knowledge that he keeps secret from other characters, thus increasing our alignment. The first lines of dialogue we hear from Walt are his confessional thoughts, even though the series never uses voiceover narration, as he videotapes a message he presumes to be his dying words to his wife and son. In a now-conventional format discussed in the Introduction and Beginnings chapters with Alias, Revenge, and Veronica Mars, this pilot opens with an in media res scene that invites us to wonder how he came to this desperate moment—on Breaking Bad, this curiosity is cued by Walt telling the videocamera-surrogate for his son, “there are going to be some things that you’re going to learn about me in the coming days.” Importantly, the video message clearly establishes Walt’s character constellation, as he assures his family that all of these mysterious and seemingly suspicious actions were done for them. This opening scene, where Walt is the only character present (aside from an unconscious Jesse), establishes that the series will be a highly-aligned character study, and that it will pivot on the question of how did this man so clearly uncomfortable holding a gun end up in such a dire situation—and given its serial nature, what complications will follow from these events.
As suggested above, the relative morality of characters is important in establishing allegiance, and even though Walt does not begin as a full-fledged antihero, he is still partially redeemed in comparison to others, especially his bombastic blowhard brother-in-law Hank (who is later revealed to be far more conflicted and confident than he seems), his seemingly shallow and materialistic sister-in-law Marie (who we will learn is both a kleptomaniac and more affirming than she lets on), and the brash young drug dealer Jesse who introduces him to his life of crime (whose moral journey will be almost as complex as Walt’s). Compared to these strong personalities, Walt shrinks into the background and seems too inconsequential to be anything but morally sound. His wife Skyler and son Walt Jr. are both more sympathetic, though neither character has the degree of depth and nuance as Walt does, at least for the initial two seasons. Walt garners our sympathies if not our admiration, as he is clearly pitiable in a hopeless situation that begs the question, “what would you do?” While his desperation-driven decision to cook crystal meth to secure a nest egg for his family is not posited as admirable, it is reasonable given the dire circumstances—in fact, “reasonability” is a crucial facet of Walt’s decision-making process, as the series presents Walt as a master rationalizer for his increasingly hideous actions. Throughout the program, we watch Walt convince himself that various immoral decisions are the right thing to do, given a lack of alternatives, leading to a descent into monstrous behavior that is always presented as reasonable within Walt’s own self-justification and immediate context.
By the time Walter White becomes a full-fledged antihero, a hideous man whose actions bring suffering upon his family and colleagues whom he claims to be looking out for, it is clear that he is of a different ilk than other television antiheroes. Unlike Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey, he is not a charismatic leader with loyal followers or devoted family members—the only characters who seem to like or respect him at all are family members who know nothing of his secret criminal life, like Hank and Walter Jr., and thus such feelings do not rub off onto viewers who know the full depths of his moral decline. He lacks “friends” in any conventional sense, with his closest confident being Jesse, who regards him mostly with contempt, working with him only when “Mr. White” (as he calls him) manipulates him into an alliance. His sometimes estranged wife Skyler only accepts him back into a tenuous reconciliation to maximize her own safety, but she has little knowledge of the extent of his crimes. And unlike nearly every other antihero, there are no romantic plotlines that frame Walt as an object of sexual desire—his sex life with Skyler perks up when he discovers his dark side in the first season, but he is otherwise neutered for most of the series, and even attempts a ludicrously inappropriate sexual advance toward his high school supervisor Carmen, resulting in Walt being fired. He creates an artifice of a powerful and respected villain under the Heisenberg moniker and emblematically tied to the black hat, with a feared street reputation and even a narcocorrido ballad celebrating his mythic exploits, but we know that Heisenberg is a shallow put-on rather than an authentically awe-inspiring figure. While other antiheroes gain our allegiance through the attitudes of other characters, Walt might be the least respected or admired ongoing character on the series, despite its clear alignment toward him.
Instead of relationships cuing our allegiance or numerous flashbacks to his originating backstory, we instead have our own memories of who Walt used to be, as long-term viewers can recall him as decent and moral, if boring and depressed. Our serial memories help sustain lingering allegiance, despite his irredeemable acts along the way. Such memories help us understand the characters in micro-moments as well, given that Breaking Bad features many scenes with minimal dialogue that invite us to think along with the characters. Through a long-term investment in a series, viewers accrue knowledge and experiences about characters that allows us to mind read our own version of their internal monologues. For instance, in the opening two-minute scene from the fourth season episode “Open House,” nothing really happens: Walter White comes to work in the meth lab, drinks coffee, notices the newly-installed surveillance camera, and flips it off, with the only line spoken being a muttered “Son of a…” And yet for serial viewers sharing Walt’s memories from more than 30 previous episodes, we can read Cranston’s subtle cues and infer the interior drama raging within Walt that contradicts the lack of exterior action—we infer his contempt toward the workaday life he tried to escape via the drug game, evoking feelings toward his old car wash job from the pilot. His one moment of pleasure comes while drinking coffee made in an elaborate contraption, as he fondly remembers its quirky architect, former coworker Gale. This joy turns to grief as he thinks about Gale’s recent death, then guilt when he remembers that he is directly responsible for ordering Gale’s murder. In typical Walt fashion, guilt turns to indignant anger, as he rationalizes his own acts and convinces himself that he is actually the victim of other people’s actions—an anger confirmed and further stoked upon discovering the camera. The scene concludes with Walt channeling his anger and sense of outraged victimization into an impotent attempt to fight back, represented by the obscene yet ineffectual gesture and reminiscent of many other times he raged against people purporting to be his superiors. While every viewer might construct their own particular account of his interior emotional state, through the power of serial memory we can overcome television’s limited access to character interiority and provide a subjective account of tightly aligned characters.
As Walt shifts from his pitiable but sympathetic initial status through his journey breaking bad, we are gradually confronted with increasingly escalating actions that challenge our character allegiance, a process that can be benchmarked by those who die or are injured at his hands. In the pilot, he is forced to create a gas explosion in the RV to escape a direct threat, killing Emilio and incapacitating Krazy-8, an action of unthinking self-defense that seems completely justified in the moment. Walt and Jesse take Krazy-8 hostage and rationalize that they must murder him to protect themselves from his vengeance or being caught, but Walt is unable to commit murder until Krazy-8 poses an immediate physical threat, again making it a justifiable act of self-defense. Later in the first season, Walt shaves his head and adopts the pseudonym Heisenberg to take on a more intimidating facade of a drug criminal, confronting kingpin Tuco and his henchman by triggering a seemingly non-fatal explosion in his office—this is Walt’s first act of planned violent aggression, but as it is aimed at characters who are clearly more dangerous and immoral than him, we are still clearly allied with Walt. Indeed, the Heisenberg persona and visual style is clearly framed as an enjoyable “badass” facet of Walt’s character, inviting us to enjoy his violent acts against more hideous criminals in a fashion common to other crime series like The Shield and Justified. Although some of Walt’s actions are violent and his contributions to the drug epidemic are a negative social force, for the most part Breaking Bad’s first two seasons situate us on Walt’s side against less moral characters.
The end of the second season takes a major step toward Walt’s broader moral dissolution. Walt is investing more of his emotions and energies into his secret drug career and personal relationship with his protege Jesse than his own family, including missing his daughter’s birth to make a drug delivery, but reached a point of conflict with Jesse, who sunk deeper into his drug habit along with his girlfriend Jane. When finding Jane choking on her own vomit in a heroin-induced stupor, Walt chooses to let her suffocate in order to get her out of Jesse’s life and avoid her blackmail—we watch him wordlessly rationalize this passive act of murder. As discussed more in the Evaluation chapter, this moment plunges us into Walt’s interiority by triggering serialized memory: we reconstruct Walt’s interior thought processes via our shared experiences of his life that we have witnessed over the previous two seasons. We know his talent for rationalization and need to prioritize his own well-being over others, as well as his paternal connection to Jesse, and thus can imagine his internal monologue as he stops himself from saving Jane’s life and watches her die to protect himself and his surrogate son. Although at this moment it is unlikely that most viewers feel that Jane deserves to die the same way that they probably did toward Krazy-8, Walt’s rationalization makes sense as an act of passive cruelty toward a character we have less allegiance toward and as an attempt to rescue Jesse, who we have become more allied with as the series has gone on. However, this moment surely passes the hypothetical action test for character change, as the Walt whom we met in the show’s pilot certainly would have saved Jane had he found himself in the same situation.
Walt and Jesse’s relationship is crucial to Breaking Bad’s shift in character morality. Throughout the first season, Walt is clearly more admirable, driven to crime out of desperation and a sense of familial obligation, and displaying an impressive mastery of chemistry that allows him to thrive in this new criminal world, while Jesse is an avid if not addicted drug user, bright but uneducated, and seemingly only motivated out of selfishness and greed. We are more aligned and allied with Walt, although learning more about Jesse’s family background and undernourished artistic talent makes him more sympathetic and understandable in his actions. Season two’s “Peekaboo” is a key episode for increasing our connection to Jesse, as we follow him into a dangerous situation where he both acts to save a young boy and refuses to murder the boy’s junky parents, revealing a moral center that grows to become more valid and admirable than Walt’s. The end of season two troubles our allegiances, with Jesse being less aligned but more admirable despite his addiction, while in contrast Walt’s selfishness and deceit becomes less justifiable.
By season three, the duo shifts roles in terms of allegiances, with most viewers, armed with the secret of Jane’s preventable death, rooting for Jesse’s eventual salvation and hoping that he can escape from Walt’s dark influence. Jesse comes away from Jane’s death blaming himself and, as he says in the episode “No Mas,” accepting who he is as “the bad guy,” an identity that viewers regard as undeserved and avoidable. Meanwhile, Walt runs from his own moral culpability, as he renounces his criminal career to salvage his crumbled marriage and restore his normal life. But Breaking Bad puts viewers in an uncomfortable situation—the moral version of Walter White is an unpleasant, boring, and pitiable character whom we would feel little desire to spend time with over the course of a series, while the amoral “bad” version is much more vibrant, Machiavellian, and engaging as an antihero. Yet the show pushes Walt further and further across the moral line, making us root for him to do hideous things for our entertainment, while calling attention to the hideousness in a way that does not glorify violence or celebrate depravity. The series poses and reasserts the question of how far is too far for this man, and given his actions, what price should be paid and how should we regard him. Thus we root for him to get back to cooking meth, even though we know there will be unforgivable consequences from that decision and have to reconcile our own culpability in watching his moral decline. At the end of the third season, he is even deeper in the drug game, easily killing two henchmen who threaten Jesse and plotting to kill Gale to protect himself—his most brutal act is enlisting Jesse to shoot Gale, as discussed more in the Authorship chapter, corrupting Jesse further by pushing him into being a murderer and thus generating more viewer antipathy. Walt’s turn toward the monstrous reaches far beyond the point of no return by the end of season four, when he send his innocent neighbor into his house to root out an ambush from murderous thugs, and poisons a child to manipulate Jesse back to his side, not to mention directly causing the deaths of five drug criminals.
The complexity of Walter White’s characterization stems in large part from the disjunctions between how we see his actions and how he sees himself. The points where those two perspectives merge is in the episodes whose plots follow a pattern of “trap and escape”—Walt and Jesse find themselves in a seemingly inescapable situation, and we watch how they manage to wriggle free in slow-burning detail. As Vermeule suggests, “Machiavellian narratives drop their characters into the middle of the march and watch them try to wriggle out.” From the beginning of the series, Walt’s genius is decidedly not in the realm of the social, as his scientific knowledge allows him to wriggle free from traps often set by his inability to play the human side of the drug game, but his Machiavellian intelligence gradually grows as he becomes more immersed in criminality. Thus in season two’s “Four Days Out,” Walt wriggles out of being trapped in the desert using his scientific expertise to create a battery, but by season three’s “Sunset,” he uses his social intelligence to escape the RV by ruthlessly deceiving Hank that Marie has been in a car accident. In these moments where Walt asserts his abilities, we enjoy marveling at his antiheroic exploits, even when it means morally questionable behavior like cruelly manipulating Hank that also results in a devastating assault on Jesse.
More often, Breaking Bad presents a gap between how Walt sees himself and how we regard him and his actions, as the character is a master rationalizer for his decisions, able to convince himself that his immoral choices are either for the greater good of his family or not decisions at all given the circumstances. Even though he frequently attempts to withdraw from the drug world, he is repeatedly pulled back in because of the thrill and ego boost that it provides—between his increased sex drive in the first season to moments where he confronts other drug manufacturers with competitive vigor, it is clear that Walt’s criminal acts awakened a vibrancy within him that contrasts with our initial image of him with his impotent mustache and drive him more than his rationalized justifications. Walt’s vigor and antiheroic sense of self is tied to his professional achievements, as his initial depression and passivity stems from his neutered career as a chemist despite his talents, while his renewed vigor stems from becoming known as the region’s preeminent meth manufacturer, a professional accomplishment that he painfully must keep hidden from his loved ones and former colleagues.
However, Walt also sees himself as more of an aggressive leader than he really is, as typified by his conversation with Skyler in season four’s “Cornered.” When Skyler expresses concern for his safety after hearing about Gale’s murder, saying “You are not some hardened criminal, Walt, you are in over your head,” Walt responds with prideful indignation that shows her Heisenberg for the first time: “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger! A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” While there’s little doubt that Walt wants to believe in his own power, his assertions are contradicted by our serial memories of Walt being previously thwarted in his repeated attempts to kill Gus and manipulate Mike and Jesse, while he felt the need to sow doubts in Hank’s mind to avoid Gale getting credit for Walt’s meth-making prowess. Additionally, he was not the “one who knocked” on Gale’s door, but rather he forced Jesse to do it on his behalf. Walt’s assertions of Machiavellian prowess are often hollow attempts to puff himself up rather than insights into his own antiheroic capabilities, but these contradictions create layers of interpretive engagement for viewers to exert our own social intelligence, rooting out dimensions of deception and self-revelation as we construct these complex characters through our narrative engagements.
After his defiant proclamation to Skyler, Walt walks away with his lips moving as if he has more to say, but turns into the bathroom, a strikingly ambiguous moment. The richness of Cranston’s performance opens up a wide range of different thoughts that we imagine he might be suppressing: he might want to apologize to Skyler for berating her, or boast more of the dangerous havoc he has caused but restrains himself to protect her, or he might be trying to convince himself that he is indeed the one who knocks, not the victim of his adversaries’ danger. All of these are potential interpretations into reading Walt’s mind, but the program never tells us precisely what he is thinking, making the ludic hypothesizing engaging across serialized gaps in the narrative. Such interplay between tight alignment and limited interior access into a highly layered and self-deluded character is one of the key pleasures of Walt as a transforming antihero, with his fascinating psychology keeping us attuned and interested in him, even as he grows more hideous.
The power of Breaking Bad’s antiheroic characterization is that it is predicated on charting changes, rather than inviting us to wonder what makes an already hideous man like Tony Soprano tick. By the end of the fourth season, we have witnessed a remarkable transition from everyman schlub to amoral criminal kingpin, a gradual enough shift that we have still maintained a degree of allegiance to him, in part because we have invested so much time in following his exploits, an instance of “sunken costs” of attention and engagement. The series was premised on Walt’s need to break the law to provide for his family, but as it progressed his deeper goals have been revealed: to be seen, known, and appreciated for his talent, unwilling to accept outside help or accept the monetary spoils of crime without the recognition of his chemical mastery. The character is liberated as he grows less fearful and timid, willing to stand up for himself in moments of danger, and then creating moments of danger to assert his own power and importance. The series makes this transformation work through its gradual progression, as each step along the way feels organic and consistent to the character, our accrued experiences with him, and our inferred interiority mapped onto the characters. Walter White’s characterization presents a critical vision of ineffectual masculinity striving to find redemption in a changing world, yet choosing the path that leads to dismantle the very things he claims to be trying to protect: his family and sense of self. Breaking Bad is a highly moral tale, where actions have consequences, and thus it’s unlikely that Walt emerges from this story as a victorious hero—even though he proclaims “I won” when he finally kills Gus, we recognize that the cost of that victory was another part of his dwindling morality. As of this writing, there is another season left to go, with undoubtedly more lines to be crossed and moral debts to be paid.
With the ending looming, it raises the question of what we want from such a story: what are our expectations for the end of the series? There are certainly contradictory goals, as the series invites us to expect a moral reckoning for Walt, with buried secrets revealed, like his role in Jane’s death and Brock’s poisoning, and the anticipated face-off once D.E.A. agent Hank learns of Heisenberg’s true identity—but we also want to be surprised by how such moments payoff after years of anticipation. The balance with other characters also weighs on our anticipated conclusion, as I am more invested in Jesse finding some peace and freedom than Walt paying for his sins. For antiheroes and their associates, serial endings are particularly important, as the ramifications of their behaviors have been deferred for so long that we invest much into seeing how they resolve, as discussed more in the Endings chapter. But even though we anticipate an ending to reconcile ourselves to the program’s morality, we also don’t want to lose connection with these people whom we’ve come to enjoy spending time with over the years, even if they have transformed into hideous men like Walter White. Even though we may not want such narrative experiences to be over, we need conclusions to cauterize the serial bleed of antiheroes, and in the case of Walter White, we need to experience the limits of change and transformation to help restore those boundaries between serial iteration and the everyday installments of real life, putting hideous men back in their fictional place.
Breaking Bad’s character transformations invite a “what if?” experiment for viewers as well: would you start watching a new show focused on Walter White as the character stands at the end of the fourth season? Personally, I doubt I would get invested in the story of a pathetic and uncharismatic man who poisons a child to manipulate other criminals without any other clear protagonists with whom to align myself. Yet having watched from the beginning, I find myself connected to Walt to the point of using the iconic Heisenberg line-drawing as my Twitter avatar, an emblem of self-identification as a fan of this transformed monster. The pleasures of Breaking Bad are in the character’s journey, where we find ourselves uncomfortably in a situation we’d rather not be in, aligned to an immoral criminal whom we remember as having once been decent and sympathetic. And thus I find myself loving Walter White, not as a person (even though I do personify him and grant him a more robust interiority than nearly any other fictional character I can think of) but as a character—I am endlessly fascinated by his behavior, his arc, and his enactment by Cranston and the program’s production team. Just as complex television plots encourage the operational aesthetic in observing the storytelling machinery in action, Walt’s complex characterization invites me to examine what makes him tick, how he is put together, and where he might be going, while at the same time emotionally sweeping me up into his life and string of questionable decisions. We might think of this engagement as operational allegiance—as viewers, we are engaged with the character’s construction, attuned to how the performance is presented, fascinated by reading the mind of the inferred author, and rooting for Walt’s triumph in storytelling, if not his actual triumph within the story. Although his moral transformation is unique within serial television, understanding the unusual case of Walter White helps explain the contradictory appeal of serial antiheroes and our willingness to spend lengthy times with such hideous men.
 Quoted in Lorne Manly, “The Laws of the Jungle,” The New York Times, September 18, 2005.
 For the limited scholarship on film and television characters, see Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995); Michael Z. Newman, “Characterization as Social Cognition in Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Film Studies: An International Review 8 (Summer 2006): 53–67; Murray Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances,” in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 217–238; Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Roberta Pearson, “Anatomising Gilbert Grisson: The Structure and Function of the Televisual Character,” in Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope, ed. Michael Allen (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 39–56; Roberta Pearson, “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–158; Jens Eder, “Understanding Characters,” Projections 4, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 16–40; Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Rolf Schneider, eds., Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, Film, and Other Media (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010); Murray Smith, “Just What Is It That Makes Tony Soprano Such an Appealing, Attractive Murderer?,” in Ethics at the Cinema, ed. Ward E. Jones and Samantha Vice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 66–90.
 Eder, “Understanding Characters,” 18.
 Smith, Engaging Characters, 110-18.
 Quoted in James Hibberd, “HBO Defends Game of Thrones Shocker,” EW.com, June 13, 2011.
 While other programs like The Wire and Deadwood did kill main characters in a first season, these were not figures who might be viewed as central protagonists as with Ned Stark.
 For more on lifelong soap opera characters, see Abigail De Kosnik, “One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling,” in How to Watch TV, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
 See Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, “Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance,” Psychiatry 19 (1956): 215–229. For a more recent discussion, see David C. Giles, “Parasocial Relationships,” in Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, Film, and Other Media, ed. Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Rolf Schneider (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 442–456; Robert Blanchet and Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Don, Peggy, and Other Fictional Friends? Engaging With Characters in Television Series,” Projections (Forthcoming).
 Smith, Engaging Characters.
 Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); see also Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006).
 Roberta Pearson, “Anatomising Gilbert Grisson: The Structure and Function of the Televisual Character,” in Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope, ed. Michael Allen (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 39–56, p. 55-56.
 See Scott Meslow, “As TV Evolves, a Glaring Problem: Characters Who Don’t Change,” The Atlantic, February 22, 2012, for a brief journalistic discussion of character changes.
 One could look for instances of parallel actions, portraying the same character behaving differently over time. But in such instances, it is hard to isolate whether the character has changed at their core, their contexts have changed to dictate different behaviors, or they simply learned a lesson at a surface level that is not more broadly indicative of deeper change.
 For more on Lost’s character elaboration, see Roberta Pearson, “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–158.
 Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
 For more on such recharacterizations in these works, see Gaby Allrath, “Life in Doppelgangland: Innovative Character Conception and Alternate Worlds in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel,” in Narrative Strategies in Television Series, ed. Gaby Allrath and Marion Gymnich (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 132–150.
 See Smith, “Gangsters” for more on this strategy in film.
 Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Blinded by Familiarilty” (unpublished manuscript) makes the compelling argument that tight alignment can “blind us with familiarity” by making us feel a kinship with Tony despite our moral disgust, even in cases where the character’s actions are relatively immoral.
 See Smith, “Tony Soprano,” for a detailed discussion of the show’s antiheroic sympathies.
 Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals,” 236.
 Vermeule, “Why Do We Care,” 86.
 For more on the show, see Douglas Howard, Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
 Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Fictional Reliefs and Reality Checks,” Screen (forthcoming).
 For more on television’s gender norms concerning antiheroes, see Amanda Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming).
 Vince Gilligan, from Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, recorded January 20, 2012.
 Quoted in Melissa Locker, “Bryan Cranston Talks Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad and the Meaning of Underwear,” IFC.com, October 28, 2011.
 Jeremy Egner, “On Character: Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad,” New York Times ArtsBeat, March 19, 2010.
 Quoted in Matthew Belloni, “Why the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle Knows So Much About Meth,” Esquire, March 4, 2009.
 Daniel Fienberg, “HitFix Interview: Bryan Cranston Discusses the Breaking Bad Season,” HitFix, June 13, 2010.
 For more on Breaking Bad’s slow-burn narrative style, see Anthony N. Smith, “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series,” Television & New Media (October 20, 2011).
 Vermeule, “Why Do We Care,” 93.
 See Lotz, Cable Guys, for a compelling discussion of Walter in the context of contemporary masculinity within television drama.
- Quoted in Lorne Manly, “The Laws of the Jungle,” The New York Times, September 18, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/arts/television/18manl.html.
- For the limited scholarship on film and television characters, see Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995); Michael Z. Newman, “Characterization as Social Cognition in Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Film Studies: An International Review 8 (Summer 2006): 53–67; Murray Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances,” in Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion, ed. Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 217–238; Greg M. Smith, Beautiful TV: The Art and Argument of Ally McBeal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007); Roberta Pearson, “Anatomising Gilbert Grisson: The Structure and Function of the Televisual Character,” in Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope, ed. Michael Allen (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 39–56; Roberta Pearson, “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–158; Jens Eder, “Understanding Characters,” Projections 4, no. 1 (Summer 2010): 16–40; Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Rolf Schneider, eds., Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, Film, and Other Media (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010); Murray Smith, “Just What Is It That Makes Tony Soprano Such an Appealing, Attractive Murderer?,” in Ethics at the Cinema, ed. Ward E. Jones and Samantha Vice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 66–90.
- Eder, “Understanding Characters,” 18.
- Smith, Engaging Characters, 110-18.
- Quoted in James Hibberd, “HBO Defends Game of Thrones Shocker,” EW.com, June 13, 2011, http://insidetv.ew.com/2011/06/13/game-of-thrones-reaction/.
- While other programs like The Wire and Deadwood did kill main characters in a first season, these were not figures who might be viewed as central protagonists as with Ned Stark.
- For more on lifelong soap opera characters, see Abigail De Kosnik, “One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling,” in How to Watch TV, ed. Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (New York: New York University Press, 2013).
- See Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, “Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance,” Psychiatry 19 (1956): 215–229. For a more recent discussion, see David C. Giles, “Parasocial Relationships,” in Characters in Fictional Worlds: Understanding Imaginary Beings in Literature, Film, and Other Media, ed. Jens Eder, Fotis Jannidis, and Rolf Schneider (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 442–456; Robert Blanchet and Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Don, Peggy, and Other Fictional Friends? Engaging With Characters in Television Series,” Projections (Forthcoming).
- Smith, Engaging Characters.
- Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); see also Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006).
- Roberta Pearson, “Anatomising Gilbert Grisson: The Structure and Function of the Televisual Character,” in Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope, ed. Michael Allen (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 39–56, p. 55-56.
- See Scott Meslow, “As TV Evolves, a Glaring Problem: Characters Who Don’t Change,” The Atlantic, February 22, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/02/as-tv-evolves-a-glaring-problem-characters-who-dont-change/253454/ for a brief journalistic discussion of character changes.
- One could look for instances of parallel actions, portraying the same character behaving differently over time. But in such instances, it is hard to isolate whether the character has changed at their core, their contexts have changed to dictate different behaviors, or they simply learned a lesson at a surface level that is not more broadly indicative of deeper change.
- For more on Lost’s character elaboration, see Roberta Pearson, “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–158.
- Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
- For more on such recharacterizations in these works, see Gaby Allrath, “Life in Doppelgangland: Innovative Character Conception and Alternate Worlds in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel,” in Narrative Strategies in Television Series, ed. Gaby Allrath and Marion Gymnich (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 132–150.
- See Smith, “Gangsters” for more on this strategy in film.
- Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Blinded by Familiarilty” (unpublished manuscript) makes the compelling argument that tight alignment can “blind us with familiarity” by making us feel a kinship with Tony despite our moral disgust, even in cases where the character’s actions are relatively immoral.
- See Smith, “Tony Soprano,” for a detailed discussion of the show’s antiheroic sympathies.
- Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals,” 236.
- Vermeule, “Why Do We Care,” 86.
- For more on the show, see Douglas Howard, Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010).
- Margrethe Bruun Vaage, “Fictional Reliefs and Reality Checks,” Screen (forthcoming).
- For more on television’s gender norms concerning antiheroes, see Amanda Lotz, Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (New York: NYU Press, forthcoming).
- Vince Gilligan, from Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, recorded January 20, 2012, http://www.nerdist.com/2012/03/nerdist-writers-panel-28-vince-gilligan-julie-plec-josh-friedman-jeff-greenstein/.
- Quoted in Melissa Locker, “Bryan Cranston Talks Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad and the Meaning of Underwear,” IFC.com, October 28, 2011, http://www.ifc.com/fix/2011/10/bryan-cranston-talks-malcolm-in-the-middle-breaking-bad-underwear.
- Jeremy Egner, “On Character: Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad,” New York Times ArtsBeat, March 19, 2010, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/19/on-character-bryan-cranston-in-breaking-bad/.
- Quoted in Matthew Belloni, “Why the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle Knows So Much About Meth,” Esquire, March 4, 2009, http://www.esquire.com/features/television/breaking-bad-0409.
- Daniel Fienberg, “HitFix Interview: Bryan Cranston Discusses the Breaking Bad Season,” HitFix, June 13, 2010, http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/the-fien-print/posts/hitfix-interview-bryan-cranston-discusses-the-breaking-bad-season.
- For more on Breaking Bad’s slow-burn narrative style, see Anthony N. Smith, “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series,” Television & New Media (October 20, 2011).
- Vermeule, “Why Do We Care,” 93.
- See Lotz, Cable Guys, for a compelling discussion of Walter in the context of contemporary masculinity within television drama.