This is the fourth in a series of Breaking Bad–related stories, all leading up to the series finale airing this Sunday. (Click to read parts one, two and three.) Tomorrow: A conversation with Mark Margolis (a.k.a. Hector Salamanca).
I don’t watch Breaking Bad. Never have. And — though I know you’re not supposed to say never — probably never will.
As Breaking mania ramps up with the approach to the series finale on Sunday, it seems lonelier than ever to be a nonwatcher — even though, practically speaking, most Americans don’t watch Breaking Bad. Most don’t watch any given show, and, especially considering all the shows available on TV and online and on DVD, I don’t watch most shows. Recently, however, Breaking Bad is the one that requires a rock-solid defense, even though it’s one of the ones about which I feel least guilty for not watching. (Sorry, Battlestar Galactica! Soon! I promise!)
The most obvious reason is that there are only so many hours in the day and, sadly, even fewer in which it’s practical to watch television. Everyone has to make choices. See above, re: the huge number of shows available; see above, re: Battlestar.
The corollary to that choice-making is that everyone has certain criteria they apply to make choices about their TV time, even among shows getting good critical notice. (These guidelines must be especially rigid for those of us who don’t give up on a show once we’re in it. Fifteen seasons of ER, I’m looking at you.)
In the case of Breaking Bad, the level of buzz has only reached its current fever pitch in the last couple of seasons; by the time we knew it would be a show everyone would talk about, we also knew it would be a show that was turning stomachs. Any inkling of an urge to binge-watch and catch up was crushed by friends and colleagues who described a sense of relief that the stress of the show would end soon and the way that fans (and even one of its stars!) describe the experience of watching Breaking Bad as physically sickening.
Yes, I know they mean that as a testament to the power of the show. And I totally, completely believe it. Breaking Bad sounds really good. It just doesn’t sound enjoyable, and I’d rather spend my TV time watching something that is. Tuning in would make me like Elaine in that scene from Seinfeld where she keeps sniffing the pen even though she knows it smells weird: I can’t say for sure whether Breaking Bad is too violent for me to like, but I’m certain that I don’t feel the need to find out.
That’s only half the explanation. After all, “difficult” art is some of the best art there is. A life spent avoiding artistic depictions of cruelty (or sadness or loneliness or any other bad thing you want to avoid in real life) wouldn’t be a rich one at all.
But Breaking Bad has something that most other sad-violent-difficult art does not: recaps.
Obviously, in order to say anything serious or critical or truly thoughtful about the actual goings-on within a show, it’s necessary to watch it. But (especially as someone who writes about pop culture but is not a critic) that’s not necessary in order to think something that’s not so much about the show as it is show-adjacent. If you’re not trying to stay immune from spoilers or to have an actual opinion, it’s very possible to satisfy one’s curiosity about a cultural phenomenon without partaking.
Case in point: I wrote a story last week about “Ozymandias,” a poem that was used as a Breaking Bad episode title. I saw that was the title of the episode and thought that was an interesting reference for any TV show to make, so I read James Poniewozik’s recap and did some research into the poem’s history. Nothing in that piece requires any knowledge of Breaking Bad beyond the name of its main character. Another example: a story about the meaning of the phrase Breaking Bad. Another example: what you’re reading right now.
In ye olden pre-recap days, this scenario would not be possible — and perhaps, in the end, that’s mostly an argument against recaps. Following a show at a distance, through other fans’ eyes, means hitching your ideas to someone else’s. It means robbing the Breaking Bad creators of the chance to show you what they’ve got. It means missing the art of it, the camera angles and facial expressions and music cues. On the other hand, maybe it’s better than nothing.
I don’t begrudge anyone his devotion to the show. I hope the finale is nauseating, in the best way possible. I hope every last second is full of realistic violence and psychological torment. And, after it’s over, I hope somebody spoils it for me so I never have to watch.