By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)
“But if the battle looks to be going sour they’ll break, and they’ll break bad.” – Jocelyn Bywater, p. 710 of A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Paperback.
I declare right up front that if you haven’t watched Season 4 of Breaking Bad, read A Game of Thrones or read A Clash of Kings, there will be SPOILERS ahead. I warn you because part of the joy of these pieces of art is the unknown journey and a spoiler would change your perception. However, it’s also because part of the journey consists of knowing that no character is truly safe. I found that out as did viewers of the HBO Game of Thrones series when four-fifths of the way through the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Eddard, the Stark patriarch and one of the narrators, gets his head separated from his body. Needless to say, he doesn’t return in the second book. If you know he dies and the others live, part of the experience is gone. However, once a main character–not only a main character, but one of the narrators–perishes, you know that no one is safe.
Viewers of Breaking Bad saw that with the finale, as the main bad guy for the past two years, Gus Fring, died as well. I’ve already spoken with at least six people on the magic of that final episode of the season as well as his death scene as everyone excitedly wants to talk about it. As fanatic, or even casual viewers, that episode makes us giddy.
When real stakes exist, I posit that a show is better for it. If we know that the two main characters of a romantic comedy will end up by the last act no matter if one likes pizza and the other likes sushi, it’s not near as interesting. If the only time a TV show takes a chance is during sweeps or a “very special” episode, then we know all of the other car chases, break-ups, boat chases, misunderstandings or motorcycle chases will end up ok.
However, to have real stakes, you have to care about the person. To care about the person, they have to be real.
For example, I just saw the movie Moneyball last week. It’s ok. My favorite part is the footage of Jeremy Brown at the end because I cared about him. The dialogue leading up to real footage of his time in the minors made him a real person (that and the fact that he is a real person with a cool story detailed in the book.) I felt an emotional connection to that moment. Brown diving back into first touched my heart more than any other moment in the movie.
On the other hand, the portrayals of Art Howe and Grady Fuson (probably very similar to the portrayals in the book, but it’s been a bit since I’ve read it, so I can’t say with an absolute certainty) made me shut off my mind. Let me sum up the characters:
“I’m an old man, I’m set in my ways and I refuse to change. Harumph.”
That’s all the audience is given about these two real life people. So, when they meet the wrong end of the pink slip, you’re expected to cheer. Yea! Stubbornness defeated! Bad guys lose! Yea!
It doesn’t have to be that way.
For example, in Breaking Bad, by my count, the main protagonist Walter White has killed eight people directly and put many more in danger. He cooks meth for a living. He lies to his family. He’s arrogant. He treats Jesse Pinkman, his best friend in the world and his substitute son in his life in the underworld, worse than you’d treat an enemy. He has poisoned Jesse’s girlfriend’s son. He has watched as Jesse’s ex-girlfriend died through suffocating on her own vomit. As I write all of this, I can’t imagine too many former high school teachers that would be worse human beings.
Yet, everyone I talk to about the series cares about him and, dare I say, roots for him to survive. Why? Because we know him beyond a simple archetype like “man in a black hat” or “drug dealer” or “bureaucrat” or “stubborn old man.” We know that he has survived cancer for now. We know how much he loves his son and his daughter. We know how he wants to provide for his family. We know that he lets his pride get in the way of accepting charity. We know he wants to live.
He didn’t get to murderer in one step. It took a while. He struggled with the first step. Jesse and Walt flipped a coin to determine who would kill the first person that stood in their way of survival. That he needed to keep breaking bad for his own self-preservation made sense the further and further he plunged down the road to becoming a drug lord.
For another example, take Game of Thrones or Clash of Kings. At the heart of the story is the Stark family, the sons Robb, Jon, Bran and Rickon, the daughters Anya and Sansa, father Eddard, mother Catelyn and ward Theon. As different narrators with different perspectives, we follow them as they separate across the Seven Kingdoms. We see through their eyes how they perceive those around them, their friends and their foes. For example, we see Catelyn refuse to acknowledge Jon, the bastard son of Eddard through some unknown woman. We see Catelyn take Tyrion Lannister prisoner to answer for the partial paralysis of her son Bran, though Tyrion was innocent. Later, we see Catelyn release one of the most notorious prisoners and her son’s best bargaining chip in a war so that she can try to get her daughters back.
In other words, she makes a whole lot of decisions that make the readers think she is a heartless, impulsive idiot. But, we understand her idiocy. Catelyn wasn’t supposed to marry Eddard, but rather his older brother who died in a war to usurp the Targaryen king, so as a woman in this time, she’s never really felt safe in her role as his wife. All she has is her kids and as they are flung to the corners of the kingdom, she is alone and scared. How do you react when your world is turned upside down? I don’t know, but Catelyn makes decisions that are very probable.
Conversely, in A Storm of Swords we get narration from another Lannister (Jamie joins his brother Tyrion) and we see more of the viewpoints from the faction opposing the Starks. We are familiar with their exploits and as we learn more about their father (Lord Tywin) we see how the Lannister “monsters” in the form of Jamie, Cersei and Tyrion came to be. They also care about their family. They also care about honor. They also care about love. They want to live.
We all do. But, when someone opposes us, we don’t look at it from their viewpoint, but rather the view that they are blocking our happiness. Their motivations are the same. The pursuit of life, liberty, love and happiness are the daily stakes in our lives. We all want the same thing. Great characters want the same thing. The pleasure is seeing when an artist knows that and makes the “bad guys” every bit as sympathetic as anyone else. That’s when a story captivates us. That’s when we leave the movie theater, when we put down a book or stand up from the couch and smile in happy amazement. I look for those moments in every piece of art and in the books of A Song of Ice and Fire and Breaking Bad I’ve found them.