Full-on Immersion in Defeat: The Initiation of Tragedy

In the subjective mental terrain of a man convinced he can manipulate his universe, there is no clear foothold for the consideration that a larger nothingness holds sway over chemistry. So there’s an unwitting double entendre in Walt’s sweeping characterization of reality (“revealed” through a misreading we can effect by inserting a simple comma and perhaps ellipses: “There’s nothing here, but chemistry...”), which makes chemistry a caveat to the nothingness. Certainly my reading reflects a Buddhist bias: Mahayana Buddhists conceive of reality as being premised in sunyata or emptiness, which is inseparable from impermanence and all that brings unease (duhkha) in our lives, but also consider reality to be endowed with soteriological features that free us from the extremes of nihilism and eternalism. Embracing emptiness, impermanence, and defeat has a strong and stable role in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The eleventh- to twelfth-century Tibetan teacher Langri Thangpa distilled the root principle of the so-called lojong (in Tibetan, “blo sbyong,” or mind training) tradition into this aphorism:

No matter what profound scriptures I open, I find none that do not suggest that all faults are one’s own, and that all higher qualities belong to brother and sister sentient beings. Because of this, you must offer all gain and victory to others and except all loss and defeat for yourself. I have found no other meaning.7

Tolkien, too, wrote repeatedly of what seems to comprise the basic existential and historical geography of his worldview, a so-called long defeat, in both his Middle Earth fiction and his private correspondence. In a letter to his friend Amy Ronald in 1956, he wrote:

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat - though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.8

Tolkien puts similar words in the mouths of other characters who vocalize this view, in particular Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring, who actually speaks of having “fought the long defeat.”9

Tolkien’s cautious theological realism stands in sharp contrast to the hubris of Walter White. Many moments in the show speak of off-the-charts hubris, even in the face of grave risk: from a chilling flashback scene, pre-cancer, of the day that he and Skyler view a house which they cannot afford while he encourages her to “Live a little,” to the gambling addiction cover story the couple tell Hank and Marie (poignantly too close for comfort to his actual addiction to his meth cooking and its attendant adrenaline). The fundamentalism here is overconfidence in the power of the intellect.

Tolkien is valuable to any discussion about the value of examining defeat over gross expressions of ecstasy or triumphalism. Philosophers from Plato to Heidegger and Levinas have been wary of the latter, and appropriately so; modern evangelical exponents of the “prosperity gospel” sink to a new low in proclaiming their high, and anyone who has experienced or witnessed unbearable suffering can only wonder, “What is he smiling so much about?” But for a religious writer like Tolkien, who invests authorship with some order of divine creation, there is a continuum of considerable time and investment between creator and creation. I tentatively call this the “Dramaturgic Continuum” from creator to viewer. Despite Gilligan’s agnosticism and Tolkien’s Catholicism, the two artists can be compared vis-a-vis both the scope and the meticulous level of detail they impart to their respective visions. In the case of Tolkien, the impression that the author has memorialized every word ever spoken and mapped every square inch traversed or fought over represents acts of visionary historiography beyond the work of most historians. As for Gilligan, he commented on the visual work of Breaking Bad in an interview two years ago:

With giant, wide TVs, you get to frame and emulate John Ford or Sergio Leone and, in the case of Breaking Bad, you can place characters in an endless expanse of Mexico prairie which gets to look very painterly and cinematic. That’s a wonderful development.10

The aesthetic demanded by Gilligan pulls the background into the foreground as part of the dramaturgy—a visual movement akin to musical scoring, but at a multigenre, multisensory, nigh-synaesthesic level—immersing viewers in the experience of the story. It is my argument that cinematography of this order is at the core of the Dramaturgic Continuum.

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