Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Say My Name: Walter White as Rumpelstiltskin and Reading 'Breaking Bad' as a Classic Fairy Tale

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Say My Name: Walter White as Rumpelstiltskin and Reading 'Breaking Bad' as a Classic Fairy Tale

Article excerpt

In his 2014 book, The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slayers and Slingers Who Changed TV Forever, Alan Sepinwall builds a case that identifies the early 2000s to the mid-2010s as the "Golden Age of Television." Drawing on his experiences as one of the most respected and prolific television critics in the internet age and leveraging his uncommon access to TV creatives, in each chapter Sepinwall identifies a different show that he argues helped bring about this golden era. Shows like 24, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost, The Shield, The Wire, Mad Men and others are analyzed in detail as Sepinwall celebrates what he sees as an unprecedented collection of quality narrative television. This "golden age" was one where TV was commercially and critically taken seriously as a truly artistic medium--a place where difficult, complex, and long stories were told over seasons the same way a novel unfolds its story over time. In short, TV showed its prestigious potential, hence an accompanying moniker for the "golden age," Prestige TV. One of the last shows highlighted in Sepinwall's book about Prestige TV is Breaking Bad (2008-2013), the five-season series about a chemistry teacher who decides to use his considerable talents to cook crystal meth to provide for his family when he learns he is dying of cancer. In those six years on the air, the show became more and more popular as fans found it through reruns on its parent network AMC, through illegal downloads, DVD box sets, and an inventive Netflix streaming deal where seasons would be available the week before premieres of the next new season, offering incentive for those behind to catch up via binge watching. All this combined to help Breaking Bad capture the Zeitgeist of internet culture websites, social media, and water cooler talk in a way few television shows have.

The popularity of Breaking Bad has been attributed to many things: writing, pacing, acting, directing, and cinematography. These are the very factors that lead to Breaking Bad not only being a prime example of the "Golden Age of Television," but also put the show in conversation with the "best TV shows ever." In 2016, Sepinwall and fellow critic Matt Zoller Seitz dedicated an entire book to picking the best TV shows (scripted American dramas and comedies) of all time and ranked Breaking Bad #4, behind only The Simpsons, The Wire, and The Sopranos. Others, like media scholar Jason Mittell, see Breaking Bad as a complex examination of the limits of "grimdark" anti-hero centric prestige shows (most of the shows Sepinwall highlighted earlier in "The Revolution Was Televised" follow this pattern of male antihero-led shows: Mad Men's Don Draper, Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Al Swearengen of Deadwood fame, and Vic Mackey from The Shield). Many fans seem to appreciate the series for the fascinating and gripping in-depth character study of Breaking Bad's anti-hero Walter White (played by Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston). Series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan pitched the story to TV networks as an examination of what it takes to turn a regular man into a Prestige TV anti-hero: "we're gonna take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface," is how Gilligan famously pitched the show (Mittell 50). As Walter White's story progressed it became clear his was more than a story about anti-heroes, but closely resembled the narrative arc of a classic Greek tragedy--the story of one man brought down by a tragic flaw, which in this case is Mr. White's stubbornness and pride.

However, there are more layers to Breaking Bad than reading it as the simultaneous pinnacle and deconstruction of the male, anti-hero prestige drama. We can find new insights by placing the show in historical narrative context and more closely examining the building blocks that were used to make one of the most popular AmericanTV shows of recent years. Breaking Bad, the story about an Albuquerque drug kingpin doing whatever it takes to feed his ego and stay on top, has just as much in common with classic fairy tales as it does other "golden age" shows. …

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