Serial Characterization and Inferred Interiority
by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
December 14, 2011 – 00:00
One great challenge facing moving image media is portraying a character’s interior thoughts and emotions. While literature excels at revealing a character’s inner thoughts, films and television must usually resort to devices like voiceover narration or staging dream sequences that fracture more immersive and naturalistic storytelling styles, or forcing characters to voice their thoughts and feelings through awkwardly revealing dialogue. Yet without resorting to expository dialogue or such awkward techniques, television can take advantage of a core storytelling mode to explore a character’s inner life: seriality.
Through a long-term investment in a series, viewers accrue knowledge and experiences about characters that allows us to provide our own version of their internal monologues, as long as a show’s producers provide time for us to think along with their characters. Take this opening scene from Breaking Bad’s season 4 episode “Open House.” On first look, nothing really happens: Walter White comes to work, drinks coffee, notices the newly-installed surveillance camera, and flips it off, with the only line spoken being a muttered “Son of a…” And yet for serial viewers sharing Walt’s memories from more than 30 previous episodes, we can read Bryan Cranston’s subtle cues and infer the interior drama raging within Walt that contradicts the lack of exterior action:
Walt enters the lab demoralized, evoking his feelings toward his old car wash job and representing the workaday life he tried to escape via the drug game. His one moment of pleasure comes while drinking coffee made in an elaborate contraption, as he fondly remembers its quirky architect, former coworker Gale. His joy turns to grief as he thinks about Gale’s recent death, then guilt when he remembers that he is directly responsible for ordering Gale’s murder. In typical Walt fashion, guilt turns to indignant anger, as he rationalizes his own acts and convinces himself that he is actually the victim of other people’s actions—an anger confirmed and further stoked upon discovering the camera. The scene concludes with Walt channeling his anger and sense of outraged victimization into an impotent attempt to fight back, represented by the obscene yet ineffectual gesture and reminiscent of many other times he raged against people purporting to be his superiors.
While every viewer might construct their own particular account of Walt’s interior emotional state, through the power of serial memory we can overcome television’s limited access to character interiority.