Panel 5

The Edge of Narration

Thomas Morsch
Christoph Dreher
David Marc
Constanze Ruhm

Constanze Ruhm

Experimental Emulations in Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos


An emulation is a copy, a reproduction of something. The representation of an analogue clock on the desktop of a computer can be called an emulation. "An emulator is hardware, or software or both that duplicates the functions of an earlier computer system in a different second computer system, so that the emulated behavior closely resembles the behavior of the real system. This focus on exact reproduction of behavior is in contrast to some other forms of computer simulation, in which an abstract model of a system is being simulated. For example, a computer simulation of a hurricane or a chemical reaction is not emulation." 1

Embedded within the complex narratives of several episodes of the American TV series Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Sopranos are references to or expressions of experimental film, aesthetic, or narrative forms, that also fall back on film historical tropes (avant-garde film aesthetics, surreal dream sequences etc.) To reference cinema history (and within it, the history of its transgressions) is an operation of intertextuality – a long-standing tradition in avant-garde cinema that by now has arrived also in mainstream movie making. Strategies of intermediality, referentiality, and quotation appear in post-modern (and post-classical) cinema as well as in contemporary TV series such as the ones mentioned above.

New narrative forms which have emerged in TV series since the 1990s and which, as David Marc has pointed out in his contribution, have been developed based on epic traditions in literature and cinema, also bring about new (and eventually experimental) characters. These characters can be ambivalent, transgressive, morally ambiguous, conflicted, multi-faceted if not split personalities. Oftentimes, they don't follow conventional rules of character development and connected teleological logics like, for example, the coming-of-age of a main character in a moral sense: rather frequently, the opposite is the case. They move from average citizen to evil gangster (Walter White in Breaking  Bad); they are cold-blooded criminals and loving family fathers (Tony Soprano in The Sopranos); or their entire lives and identities are based on a crime (Don Draper in Mad Men). Their lawyers, for example, are not criminal lawyers, but "criminal lawyers" (like Saul Goodman, Walter Whites lawyer in Breaking Bad); their friends carry some inkling of madness already in their names (the "nuts" in Paulie Walnuts, Tony Soprano's loyal soldier); or, as with Don Draper, guilt feelings emerging from the illicitness of one's assumed identity are the main drives behind their actions.

David Marc writes: "The Godfather, novel and film, marks the next evolutionary milestone in the American epic narrative. Mario Puzo's novel begins with an epigram from Balzac: ‘Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.’” This quote rings true for all three main characters of the series being discussed here: obviously, with Tony Soprano, a Mafia character born out of the spirit of The Godfather epic; with Don Draper, whose success is built on the fact that he took on a new identity in order to escape from his former miserable life; and of course, with Walter White as well, the chemistry teacher turned meth-cook who makes so much money that he needs to rent a storage room in order to keep it.

So how are these characters related to specific aesthetic forms and visual or narrative strategies as emulations of experimental cinematic forms? In the case of Walter White and Breaking Bad, such an emulation frames an entire season (Season 2). In Episode 3 of Season 2, called The Benefactor, Don Draper goes to the movies where he is confronted with European avant-garde cinema. As dreams are at the core of the narrative of The Sopranos, not only Tony Soprano, but also a number of other characters dream, thereby linking to the surreal logic of cinematic dreams from Buñuel to Jean Epstein.

2 Breaking Bad

My first example relates to the opening sequences of the 2nd season of Breaking Bad. These sequences serve as an anticipation of the season’s ending, which we come to fully understand only after its resolution in the concluding 13th episode.  The sequence introduces episodes 1, 4, 10 and 13 (the rhythm of 1 - 4 - 10 - 13  represents a perfect overall mirror structure, a classical story telling device: episode 1 mirrors episode 13; episode 4 mirrors episode 10). Every time the sequence opens a respective episode, more is revealed of where the ongoing narrative is headed; nevertheless, its actual meaning remains a mystery until the end of the season. As a viewer one always interprets the sequence in light of the current events, while trying to solve its secret. But the only thing that becomes clear rather soon is that something catastrophic has happened: Did Walter White blow up himself and his family by installing a meth lab in the basement of his home? Was his house destroyed by some Mexican drug cartel gang members? Did somebody else take revenge on Walter? Did his D.E.A. brother-in-law Hank find out about Walter's illegal activities? Of course, the real (and apocalyptic) dimensions of what has happened becomes clear only in episode 13, the 2nd season’s finale. I chose this sequence as an example because despite the fact it has a clear narrative function, at the same time it represents a self-contained structure inside of the series which is placed in a relation of striking aesthetic difference to the overall form and style of Breaking Bad. What follows here is a description of the entire, complete scene as it is rendered in the last episode of Season 2.

The entire sequence is shot in black and white. We see Walter White's house, outside. A garden hose drips. A lantern fixed to the branch of a tree gently swings in the breeze. A snail trails along a stone wall. Windchimes spin and tinkle softly. A shot of the pool, the house in the background, dark and looming. Everything is empty and still. The pool's water surface. From the right, an artificial eyeball enters the frame and slowly drifts through the image. An underwater shot, now the eye drifts towards the drain and is being sucked into it.  Still underwater, from below (now interrupting the b/w sequence), the only colorful object, a bright pink teddy bear drifts vertically toward the surface. When it reaches the center of the frame, it slowly spins around its own axis, then faces the camera. The pink fur on its left side is burnt, an eye is missing (the eye that was sucked into the drain). Together with the bear, the camera reaches the surface. The silhouette of a man becomes visible. He wears a protective suit and helmet.  The toy bear is picked from the pool with a fishing net, is wrapped in plastic and stored in a plastic container. Through a broken windshield, two people in protective suits and rubber boots become visible, they carry a large, heavy container filled with different evidence, among these the bear. One person from the investigation team takes a picture of the broken windshield (seemingly belonging to Walter's car). A top shot, the camera moves over the scenery: the car parked in the driveway, the picture taken, the box being carried away, on the ground two corpses in white body bags; next to them, another person in protective suit takes notes. The scene remains black and white; just the bear shines in a bright pink color. A series of close ups follows: a single shoe is removed from the ground; a half-burnt book, pages flapping in the wind; a strip of something caught in the brushwork; a flag sticking from the ground displaying the words: "Evidence. Do not remove"; a metal or radiation detector swings through the frame; two guys still carry the plastic container towards their van, while two others lift up one of the dead bodies; the doors of the van close. On its roof, we see the initials NTSB. Now the camera moves up into bird’s-eye position, the image turns from black and white to color, an overview of the entire scenery is presented: Walter's house, a number of people in protective suits taking notes, collecting evidence and investigating. Debris litters the area, in the back of the house, two black columns of smoke become visible.

Finally we are given a resolution:  the entire residential neighborhood and with it, Walter’s house, were severely affected and partly damaged by debris of two planes that collided in mid air, due to the mistake of a depressed air traffic controller. And Walter, of course, is responsible for this. In fact, he is guilty. The debris is not just remains of two planes and their passengers, but also the debris of a character and its story.

3 Mad Men

Don Draper from Mad Men is a smart guy. He is interested in what's going on in contemporary culture around him: outside of the restricted, conservative world within which Don moves, there are beatniks, bohemians, hipsters, and feminists; issues of equal rights for black people, drug use and women's lib are  narrative side strands to the drama of Mad Men woven into single episodes. Don Draper belongs to a genre of characters that read books and go to the movies, thereby an instance of media reflexivity is introduced to the series.

In his contribution to the publication Auteur Series: The Re-Invention of Television 2, Diedrich Diederichsen writes:

So when books show up in the new brand of television series, they not only refer to a character who the book is meant to explain, but also refer to the practice of those who are watching. They create connections, much like the affectionate scenes with and in cinemas in Nouvelle Vague films, the use of historical pop songs in the post-linear contemporary cinema of the Tarantino generation, or the flickering televisions that broadcast the subsidized images in Fassbinder films.

Not surprisingly, Don also goes to the movies. At one point, he enters a small New York cinema to see a European (French) avant-garde film. This scene takes place in the 3rd episode of the 2nd season of Mad Men called The Benefactor.

The film is in black and white. The voice over recites a poem by François Villon in French, spoken by a female voice and accompanied by soft musical themes rendered by a small orchestra. The poem is called Ballade des dames du temps jadis from 1460 and recalls famous women from history. The film is subtitled in English. The first shot we see is a slow pan from left to right over a kind of mountainous area, a single steep hill stands out prominently, big white clouds pass through the sky. In the next shot, the camera zooms slowly away from a close up of what seems to be a kind of blackboard with children's drawings on it. Then, the shot shows a house, or perhaps a very small church, in a snowy landscape. A carriage stands in front of it, covered in snow. Cut to a stone sculpture of a kneeling angel, followed by a shot of a silhouette of a hand pressed against transparent glass; behind it, blurred and foggy, one can recognize a human shape (the image reminded me of a part of the beginning sequence of Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona, when the boy touches the projected image of his mother).

The film Don Draper watches seems to be an "experimental film" of some sort. From an American perspective of the 1960s, it is a stand-in for everything "avant-garde": European, French, black & white, poetic, strange, mysterious; it renders the story in a non-narrative way, images are montaged instead of edited invisibly, and so on. This brief clip of a film serves as a symbol for "art," and for "otherness" – for everything that Don is interested in; and no matter that the film is completely alien to him, he is sensible enough to recognize something when it appears the first time. The fact that the poem by Villon melancholically refers to important women characters from ancient times might hint to the prominent role of women in Don's life – and particularly one women from the past, Anna, who is the only one who knows his secret. A contemporary Don Draper might watch this particular sequence on YouTube instead of in a movie theater – or, most likely, he would upload the film himself, chosen from the vast film collection he most certainly would possess.

"Hollywood movies hung on to a distinct identity for decades, even when Hollywood was gradually disintegrating, aesthetically and industrially into the complex of video forms that would form the foundation of digital media," writes David Marc. As opposed to American experimental cinema, which was, according to Marc, "cutting new shapes in old celluloid", this episode shows "old celluloid" as a source of contemplation and possibly, inspiration to Don Draper, which might appear, in one form or other, in some upcoming ad campaign for his agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price.

The poem by François Villon quoted in the film clip seems to hint to a film by Abel Gance called La Tour de Nesle of 1955, which ends with a recitation of this very poem. The problem is that Gance’s film is in color, while the one Don watches is black and white. Furthermore, neither the image track nor the voice over match (in the case of La Tour de Nesle it's male, in the brief sequence of Mad Men it's female). So the origin of the clip remains a mystery. When asked about this film sequence, Matthew Weiner, author and producer of Mad Men, replied: "It’s a very rare French film. A film by a famous director. I won’t tell you the name. I won’t say the title. I’ll never tell. Because I don’t have the rights to it."3 So the origin of the sequence remains a mystery. Or, much more likely, the scene is an invention specifically created for this episode of Mad Men, and it belongs to a film that doesn't exist: an emulation, so to say.

My claim here is not to assume a specific influence of experimental, European avant-garde cinema of the ‘60s on the visual, aesthetic, or narrative form of Mad Men. But there are two points of interest: one, that with regard to TV narrative conventions and character standards, Mad Men (or The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad for that matter), represents "experimental" forms itself.  Not only does this scene characterize Don Draper as a sensible character and someone who is alert to the signs of his times (his interest in French avant-garde will transform later on in the series into a subject much closer to his real desires: his attraction to Megan, his liberal, emancipated French-Canadian wife-to-be) – but the notion of "experiment" or "avant-garde" has been inscribed several levels below into the structure of Mad Men, into the very narrative itself. The other point regarding this particular scene is that its very subject is also a process of reception. Thereby, another self-reflexive level is introduced. Don Draper stands in for any viewer trying to make sense of what's going on in a film. We are characters watching a character watching a film who tries to make sense – so we also watch ourselves.  As Diederichsen writes, " If, in contemporary TV series, books appear, they do not only refer to the respective character which the book should explain, they also point to the practice of those who are watching."

In this scene it becomes clear how visual and narrative experiments of avant-garde cinema now reappear inside new narrative structures, where they not only characterize characters but also the way a story is told. Therefore, they hint to the possibility that a story could also be told otherwise. Encounters of various narrative forms and traditions, or for that matter, experiments within contemporary TV series (literary epic forms, recourses to pop culture, avant-garde film, pop music, music video, and so on) could be understood as a strategy of narrative hybridization, and therefore, of representation.

4 The Sopranos

Epic narration is renewed by these contemporary forms of serial story-telling – but they are also in crisis, as much as the characters who inhabit them. Not only does the narrative become experimental, so do the characters and their lives as well. They are experiments in their narrative frameworks, and they also experiment with their narratives. Viewer identification is subverted by characters that reflect the complexity of the epics they are part of. The ambivalences of the characters' personalities mirror the ambivalence of the story, and the viewers, towards them. They become prisms, kaleidoscopes, and projections. They are reflected and refracted through mass media, pop culture, psychoanalysis and their dreams.

As in every epic, questions of responsibility and morals are at stake. As in classic Greek drama, characters live through scenarios of crisis, failure, and punishment. The difference to Greek drama nevertheless consists in the fact that it isn’t gods anymore punishing humans. Everything that happens is self-inflicted. Since there is guilt that cannot be resolved anymore by divine intervention, it needs to be repressed; and this repression as we know, always returns – mostly in the characters' dreams. They have nightmares in which guilt is transferred, condensed, and projected. Of course, only in the serial format is it possible to have characters dream in the elaborate way they do. The Sopranos have become famous not least for their dream sequences. It is a dream of Tony that introduces the whole series ("The Duck Dream"); and the entire episode 11 of the 5th season (Test Dream) is dedicated to Tony's dreams, while Tony himself is in a coma after his Uncle Junior attempted to kill him. The fundamental meaning of these sequences is of course firmly anchored in the nature of its narrative construction, as one of the most important narrative threads of The Sopranos can be said to be Tony’s psychoanalytical sessions with his analyst Dr. Melfi. But Tony is by far not the only character who dreams. Carmela, Paulie Walnuts, Jennifer Melfi, and Christopher Moltisanti: they all have dreams, and more often, nightmares. The so-called Emil Kolar dream of Christopher gives a striking example. In this dream, Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti is haunted by the first person he has ever killed, a Czech guy named Emil Kolar:

Christopher sits at a table at Sartriale's, cup of coffee in front of him. The camera zooms towards him. 
Zoom towards a large coffee machine.

Zoom towards Christopher continues, he gets up slowly and moves out of the frame. 

He moves through the room towards the counter, "without moving," his body and the space seem disconnected. His girlfriend Adriana kneels in front of the meat counter. She wears a white dress, almost like a bride. A hand without body sticks out of the counter's display, holding a large sausage. The hand feeds Adriana, she eats delightedly. Christopher stares at her in disbelief. Suddenly, it's Carmela, Tony's wife, kneeling in front of the counter, chewing sausage offered by the hand, like Adriana, and also dressed in white. In the background, the voice of Emil Kolar becomes audible. He says: "In the Czech Republic too, we love pork." 

Emil Kolar stands between the entrance and the meat counter. He is wrapped in plastic and looks dead. Behind him, through the window of Sartriale’s, we see a seascape and a colorful sundown. 

Christopher sees him. "Emil Kolar!"

Christopher is now wearing a kind of work coat, like an employee of Sartriale's, stained with blood. "Help you?" says Christopher to Emil.

"Salami sub. A lot of mayo," says Emil Kolar.

"We're out of Mayo." Christopher bends down to take something that's wrapped from the display and puts it on the counter. Wind seems to blow. Scraps of wrapping paper fly through the air. The light flickers.

"Change my meat to Black Forest," Emil Kolar says. The paper scraps hover around him, his hair streams out behind him. 
Christopher puts a large piece of bread on the counter and reaches down, to pick up a piece of meat from the counter. It is given to him by the bodiless hand that held the sausage before. 
"You killed me," Emil Kolar says. "What do you want me to do about it now?" Christopher replies, annoyed.

"I wanna tell you," Emil Kolar says. "Tell me what, you come here every night," Christopher replies.

"You fucked up," Emil says. "What do you mean?" Emil Kolar lifts his right arm, something falls out of his hand – bullets. "Take these." "Where did you find them?" Christopher asks. "One in the table, three in my skull," Kolar replies. Christopher bends down to hand the bullets over to the hand. "Get rid of these." Suddenly, the hand grabs his arm, Christopher starts screaming: "Let go! Let go!!"

5 The Death of Fiction

David Marc writes: "Tragedy was not possible in episodic television because the protagonist was protected from death by the strongest force possible in commercial broadcasting: fear of cancellation." But of course, there are ways to have characters die and to have them nevertheless go on living without being ghosts – or maybe, as with Walter White, they have been ghosts already for a while.  A beautiful example is given by a short music video, the opener of Breaking Bad's 7th episode of season 2, a sampling of the song Negro y Azul, a so-called "narcocorrido" by the Mexican Band Los Cuates de Sinaloa. A narcocorrido - a drug ballad - is a musical subgenre of the corrido in the north of Mexico, a song tradition which evolved out of the norteño folk corrido tradition. The first corridos that focus on drug smugglers – the narco obviously comes from "narcotics" – have been dated by Juan Ramírez-Pimienta to the 1930s.  In the tradition of the narcocorrido, the song tells the story of the life, fame, crimes, and death of Heisenberg, the name of Walter White's drug-dealing alter ego. In the lyrics for the song, Walter White aka Heisenberg can't survive, as there is a rule to the genre: the cartel always wins. Here is an excerpt of the English translation of the original Spanish lyrics:

The city’s called Duke / the state New Mexico  / amongst the gangsters / his fame has spread / because of a new drug / the gringos have created  They say the color is blue / and it’s of pure quality / that powerful drug / that is circulating in the city/ and the people who run the area / couldn’t stop it 

The cartel’s running hot / because they weren’t getting respect / they talk about some ‘Heisenberg’ / who controls the market now / no one knows anything about him / because they’ve never seen him / the cartel’s about respect / and they never forgive / but that guy’s dead already / he just doesn’t know it    (...)

Suspended somewhere between emulation and simulation is the question of the ontological status of such fictional inserts within a fiction:  a music video that has been written and performed by an existing band for a fiction. The status of such an operation remains ontologically unclear, therefore experimental and as well, contemporary: as the experiment necessarily is a condition and a category of any contemporary artistic and cultural production that's just emerging, and of which we can never already know what it is.