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Frank Kelleter

[oups, something went wrong there … here’s the rest of my text again]: 

Which brings me to my two comments/questions: My cue is Jason’s sentence, "viewer memory can run counter to this": (1) Collective memory-creation while the narrative is still unfolding or temporarily suspended is not only a possibility of popular seriality but one of its distinguishing marks. For me, this complicates the attractively clear-cut distinction in Anglo-American TV studies between series/serial (ongoing/episodic) in fundamental ways, beginning with the strong possibility of viewers (and be they producers acting as viewers/fans of their own products) beginning to read flat figures as deep characters, and this affecting the narrative. (so @Ruth: yes, I do think the backstory in MM is a conceit; but I also think that for the most part it doesn’t function as one (as if this was a medial self-critique) but that the series very successfully counts on viewers to let it do its work of ongoing characterization).

(2) Extending these thoughts: I would argue that viewer&fan activities are not so much after-the-fact-appropriations than integral (necessary) parts of serial narration itself. In the large division of labor that is serial narration, viewers&fans perform genuine narrative work (made possible by the distinct temporality&rhythm of serial storytelling). This is such a reliable feature of popular seriality and it has become so pronounced in recent decades that I wonder if series are not now actively&regularly outsourcing large parts of their work of coherence-building, retcon, memory-creation etc. to these unpaid laborers of popular culture.

Well, this moves away from Jason’s insightful analysis but I wonder if it can be tied in with it (and what this would mean for the question of serial "agencies" or for a "narratology" of serial forms)?

Shane Denson

Just a brief footnote on "objects": I wonder if an object like the coffeemaker, an elaborate apparatus to be marveled at, is not a concrete point of convergence where the original sense of the "operational aesthetic" (as Neil Harris uses it to describe PT Barnum’s exhibition practices, related to 19th century technology and science exhibitions, as well as the spectacle of the magic show and, as Tom Gunning argues, to early cinema) comes together with your narratively focused usage of the term, Jason, to describe the observation of "narrative special effects." In other words, it seems that the sight of this impressive machine is both impressive in its own right, as something to be looked at and marveled at (how does it work? i.e. a sort of Rube Goldberg aesthetics), and simultaneously as an articulator of serial memory on the narrative level. I find this simultaneity—and particularly the embodiment of both functions or levels in a concrete object—fascinating, and i think this is one of the things that fascinates me most about Breaking Bad in general.

Felix Brinker

Great post & discussion so far! I wanted to add one thing about the function of the coffee maker in the clip you chose, and the way that it references Walt’s and Gale’s backstory: Not only seems it to be central for inferring Walter’s thoughts here, but I think that things/objects are repeatedly used in such a way throughout the series. I think in the 4th episode of the first season there’s a similar scene: I think Walt and Skyler discuss something at home and the camera briefly frames a small label on visible on Walt Jr.’s bed, which turns out to be the logo of the furniture store where Krazy 8, the meth dealer Walt has killed the episode before, worked when he was younger. There are probably more examples, sometimes barely noticable, other times fairly obvious (like Don Eladio’s Gold Chain that Gus gives to Tio Salamanca; or the Lily of the Valley in the season 4 finale); and I think they function as cues for the audience to make the appropriate connections to the backstory. It seems to me that Breaking Bad relies on such moments much more strongly than other recent shows; and without the coffeemaker the scene above probably wouldn’t have worked so well (and it’s an particularly impressive example, since the coffeemaker was introduced way back in season 3!). 



Ruth Mayer

Fascinating material, thank you! I watched the clip before I read your post - and, uh, am not familiar with Breaking Bad. While this is an inexcusable deficit, it might not be all bad for our purposes here. There was no serial memory to guide me through the scene. And still I got most of what you were writing about. It might be a banal observation: but didn’t already film noir – besides using voice over and flashbacks – draw heavily on music and soundscapes (and lighting)  to create a sense of a character’s emotional state? And the music is laid on quite thickly here, isn’t it? In contrast, MM uses a very sparse musical score – and it introduces an emotional backstory through the explicit discussion of feelings and deviations from a social code. Then again, the backstory there is a mere conceit, right, Frank?

Shane Denson

Jason, this is a problem I’ve encountered in very practical terms: my 9-year-old son discovered Batman a few years ago but really got into it this year—first through a Lego Batman game on his Nintendo DS, then the films and comics. For his age, I would say he’s pretty media- and narrative-savvy, and yet there were some difficulties trying to understand the discrepancies between these (and it’s these discrepancies that lead me to speak of plurimedial rather than transmedial serialities at work here). Some things were easy: the several Robins that one can unlock in the game are explained by reference to the comics (and the history of retcons, etc., that always test the boundaries of, but generally reinstate continuity). But the status of comics as telling the "real" story is far from clear for him, and it’s interesting to see how he constructs canons, draws distinctions, and comes to terms with discrepancies. In general, I would say that he alternates between the assumption that there is a definitive story that could in principle be deciphered and the attitude that all of these versions are just that: versions, tellings (i.e. primarily medial rather than narrative events). The really interesting thing, though, is that he’s apparently able to switch quite easily between these modes (I have to admit I probably have more difficulties). But watching him navigate these alternatives has highlighted some of the texts’ mechanisms for me: for example, as Ruth points out, the scene shown here simultaneously establishes continuity (defining the true continuity by revisiting origins) but self-reflexively marks that fact as well (emphasizing through plurimediality that it’s re-visiting ground covered differently elsewhere). I think my son has come to the point where he can appreciate both (like Frank said, serial self-reflexivity is not just an academic invention), and I think that’s a sign of really understanding the current status of Batman as a borderline case. But that only happened after watching Batman Begins’ re-telling of the origin story and confronting other texts like comics that, after several pages, acknowledge the reader’s surprise that this Batman is not Bruce Wayne but then explain the recent proliferation of Batman, Inc. I guess it’s cues like these, both acknowledging discontinuity and explaining (establishing) continuity, that (after repeated exposure) guide readers through the muddy waters.

Jason Mittell

Daniel & Shane,

Thanks for the comments. I think this is a crucial issue to understanding characterization, and one I’ll be exploring more in my book: how do series cue us to fill-in a character’s interiority, or dissuade us from doing so? For most shows, we can’t go too deep inside a character’s mind, both because we’re not given the resources to make those connections & fill the gaps, and because interiority would highlight the serial inconsistencies that structure most series. I don’t think that characters on a show like Two & a Half Men are meant to remember all of their previous exploits, as they certainly rarely learn from their past. Character memory is one of the primary variables that distinguish serial from episodic TV, but viewer memory can run counter to characters (in both directions).

As for Breaking Bad, there are a lot of strategies it uses to encourage us to fill-in the gaps, but one of the biggest is shots & scenes featuring the characters thinking (like this). I haven’t watched Weeds in years, but I don’t think it gives us those moments very often. Or a show like Dexter fills in those moments with demonstrative voiceover or flashbacks to ensure we get it in less subtle ways.

Shane Denson

Thanks, Jason, for this great post. It got me thinking about the question you posed to us yesterday about how series define "what matters" (serially) to their audiences. I posted an answer of sorts over there that draws a contrast between Walt and Frankenstein’s monster in terms of interiority and exteriority as the respective sites of serial accrual. I won’t repeat it here, but I think it might also address the question Daniel’s asking here (not that I’ve provided an answer, but perhaps set some parameters for thinking about one). In any case, I agree with the general sentiment being expressed that a simple typological distinction between character types (Walt the series character/Frankenstein the serial figure) will not give us any clear answers, as both the figures and their series are in historical flux, and part of that history is a response to and negotiation with the precedents set by other series and serial forms. So I’m also interested in what you have to say about these finer distinctions that Daniel asks about, and that perhaps also exist between series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men (where I’m thinking of the discussion of the latter’s "cartoon aesthetic" as Frank put it, as well as the general lack of depth, and how that might be relevant to the serial functionalities and constructions of the two series’ respective characters). Anyway, wonderful post, and lots to think about!

Jason Mittell


I see the distinction you’re making between series & serial characters, and agree that it’s a useful one. I’m curious about the boundary cases like Batman where he’s a serial figure lacking clear continuity, except for when he’s embedded in a series that shares a continuous thread. How can we tell the difference? What cues signal readers/viewers that this Batman is distinct from another? I do think that it’s more tied to specific cases, with each medium and serial/series having its own markers of continuity/discontinuity (and different consumption contexts triggering distinct perspectives), but I’d love to see research on how consumers navigate these muddy waters.

Shane Denson

Jason, after reading your own fascinating post today, I think I understand better the parameters of your question, and I think the beginning of an answer might be found in the contrast between Breaking Bad’s Walt (a series character, in our terminology, but one who often exhibits a self-reflexive potential to comment not only on his world but on the medium that frames it) and a serial figure like Frankenstein (the one that I’ve done the most work on). I agree with Ruth and Frank that it always depends on the specific text and context, and so it’s not just a typological contrast I’m making—like Batman, Frankenstein (and the monster) have also alternated between the "series character" & "serial figure" forms of existence, i.e. these things are in motion, and that motion describes a historical dimension of the figures’ seriality. But a figure like Frankenstein’s monster defines "what matters," i.e. what matters serially, in terms of almost purely external factors, very different from the interiority that we (on the basis of our serial viewing) infer in the case of Walt. What matters with a figure like Frankenstein’s monster is not interiority at all or diegetic backstory, but just the circumstances of production and the surface-level irritations that arise: anchored diegetically (most centrally in the creation sequence and the monster’s look), these invoke a seriality of extradiegetic comparisons—how is the creation sequence framed, and how does it compare to James Whale’s versions? Does the monster have a flat head, neckbolts, highwaters and thick boots? How does it compare to the iconic Karloff image? While this is clearly an extreme case, I think maybe it outlines the parameters of the series character/serial figure distinction as one of serial interiority/serial exteriority. Within these parameters, then we can start the more detailed (and difficult) work of sorting out borderline cases like Batman or coming to terms with the self-reflexivity of a deeply characterized figure like Walt.

Daniel Stein


Thanks for this highly insightful post, which made me think about the shows in which viewer-inferred character interiority doesn’t work as well or perhaps isn’t intended to the same degree as it is in Breaking Bad. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, where the characters tend to be somewhat flatter and where the focus seems to be more on bizarre plot twists than on character depth. In the protagonist Nancy Botwin’s case, I find that it’s her actions that are supposed to challenge our understanding of (and sympathies for) her more than the action-less moments in which we are to supply our own interior monologue for her. But as I recall, those scenes do exist as well, so maybe it’s a matter of degree and not of principle. I also wonder how your thoughts apply to long-running sitcoms such as Two and a Half Men, were there’s certainly no really deep characterization but where we do accrue a substantial serial memory of the characters. Maybe it’s the way the show plays with relatively persistent stereotypes and variations of established patterns and expectations that keeps people tuning in.