“Breaking Bad” and Measuring Exploitation in a Story

November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m about halfway through Breaking Bad on Netflix and it took me that long to notice to myself, “You know, there are not many people dying on this show.”

I wanted cold hard facts, so I went to the record of truth for such matters, the internet. The Breaking Bad wiki has a list of deaths on the show. And sure enough, only 2 people die in the first season, only 10 in the second season (outside of a plane crash), and “only” 27 in the third season.

(For comparison, deaths on 24 measure in the hundreds and thousands per season.)

My “research” led me back to a thought I often have when I’m watching something with thrills and spills — violence, romance, drama, whatever. The thought is: how much does this story make use of its deaths?

I think, maybe counterintuitively, that the more a story wrings from each death, the better it’s doing. Titanic, for example, uses the ship’s sinking to highlight a love story between just 2 crazy kids. The math is: hundreds of deaths for one couple’s story. That’s a very bad ratio. It indicates sentimentality.

On the other hand, Nabokov in Lolita makes hay from one character’s death — Lolita’s mother, Charlotte — by spinning off the rest of the story from her death. (With Charlotte dead, Humbert and Lolita are free to road trip across the country together.) So one death unlocks the entire story. And that death is itself carefully arranged as a culmination of crucial pieces of the story. One death to one entire story is a sensible ratio.

Breaking Bad, though it kills a lot of people, probably has a defensible ratio. When one of the drug dealers employed by the main characters (Jesse and Walter) is killed, Jesse is haunted by it in a plot thread through all of the third season. One death, many ramifications.

There’s another factor in the math, which applies to even a single death: how much work does a story do dealing with the consequences of that death? If somebody dies just to give the main character the right to grieve and be sad and to be consoled by a beautiful costar, well then, the story is being exploitative. But if that death is a central and deep part of the story’s structure, then you know the writer hasn’t killed someone in vain.

There is no formula for telling whether a story is well told, but I like this particular formula as a thought exercise.

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