Tarantula Boy and Surprise Memory


Last night’s Breaking Bad episode, “Dead Freight,” offers an interesting example of a phenomenon I’ve termed “surprise memory,” or the narrative effect of being surprised by something you know but have forgotten (or more accurately, allowed to be archived from your working memory). I discuss it in the latest chapter of Complex TV about Comprehension – here’s a direct link to the section where I use Battlestar Galactica and Lost as examples of surprise memory. (Please read & offer feedback if you’ve got time!) While those two cases involve serialized memory, where long-term memory allows us to forget narrative details from weeks & months earlier, the Breaking Bad example is self-contained, inviting us to forget something from the beginning of the episode to payoff the final sequence. (Spoilery details to follow…)

Breaking Bad is well known for its enigmatic and puzzling opening teasers – as Lisa Coulthard analyzes for the first three seasons, these often involve flashbacks, flash-forwards, or enigmatic moments whose relationship to the main action is oblique. Such moments invite us to think about the narrative function of the opening via the ludic, puzzle-solving mode of forensic fandom and the operational aesthetic that I’ve discussed at length in Complex TV. “Dead Freight” starts in that vein, with an unknown boy riding a dirt bike in the desert, collecting a tarantula, and hearing a train whistle – cut to credits. Experienced Breaking Bad viewers are left to question how this relates to the main characters and their exploits.

The bulk of the episode ignores this dangling thread, so it’s left to viewers as to whether we actively remember the teaser as something to anticipate, or file it away into the memory archive until Tarantula Boy returns in the final moments. And it seems that viewers’ experiences varied–personally, I got swept away by the train heist (even though the train whistle was the clear link between the two timeframes) that I completely had forgotten about the teaser until Tarantula Boy returned to see Jesse’s celebration dance, creating a moment of surprise memory (punctuated by a surprise gunshot). My wife said she’d remembered throughout, and was waiting to see what might happen when he returns, creating a classic case of Hitchockian narrative suspense.

I posed the question on Twitter & Facebook to see if other people experienced these different narrative engagements. Based on my highly unscientific sample & responses, viewers were split: 10 people reported that they’d remembered Tarantula Boy and anticipated his return in some fashion, while 11 viewers forgot like me. A few others said they were spoiled on the ending, either by Twitter reports or watching a rerun and mistakenly seeing the last minute of the episode’s previous airing, and those viewers said it didn’t ruin the experience, as the anticipation toward the inevitable was also quite compelling. I think it’s quite telling that three different modes of cognitive engagement – surprise, suspense, and spoiled anticipation – were all rewarding for viewers, offering varied but potent pleasures. Such experiences are a great illustration of the range of narrative engagement that I explore in the Comprehension chapter of Complex TV.

While I’ve got your attention, I want to talk about the character arc and thematic impact of Todd’s shooting of Tarantula Boy. A few reviews of “Dead Freight” that I’ve read (such as James Poniewozik’s) question whether having Todd pull the trigger is a cop-out, letting Walt & Jesse off the hook of figuring out how to deal with the witness and rationalize whatever action they take. But I think that Todd’s action sets up some better moral questions: if Walt & Jesse are now the bosses, how do they deal with a crew member who follows orders so well–remember Jesse’s instructions, “The point is, no one, other than us, can ever know that this robbery went down. Nobody”–that it results in a dead child. And it’s no coincidence that this situation mirrors the exact events that caused Jesse (and later Walt) to turn on Gus in season 3: Gus’s crew killing a child to tie-up loose ends, and Gus dealing with it as a rational, business-minded manager. Now Jesse has similar blood on his hands and conscience, and Walt must face the reality that if a random kid can get shot as collateral damage for his operation, then he cannot pretend that his own kids are truly safe.

One of the main themes of season 4 was that Walt resented being treated as an employee, and he felt he deserved to wear the mantle of leadership. Now that he “won,” season 5 is playing out the consequences of being the boss, and forcing both Walt and Jesse to grapple with the costs of being in charge, shattering their illusion that there is a way to run this dirty, death-creating business cleanly. For these characters, dealing with Todd’s obedient service without derailing the business is a much bigger and more satisfying moral quandary than solving the problem of Tarantula Boy as the heist’s only loose end.

7 Responses to “Tarantula Boy and Surprise Memory”

  1. 1 Kathryn

    Really interesting stuff. I agree about the moral quandary of a leader reacting to a horrifying act by a subordinate following instructions is actually more interesting in the long run than the decision about how to deal with the innocent boy itself. One small quibble: working memory should be replaced with long-term memory. Working memory only lasts minutes at most. The sort of surprise memory you’re talking about is actually retrieval from long-term memory. 😉

    • Thanks for the comment. I think that working memory is correct here – when you’re watching something, it gets put in your working memory & stays there as long as you’re thinking about it. Once you’ve “put it out of your mind,” it shifts to long-term memory. I’ve read that you can only have 6-7 discreet items in your working memory at a time, so we’re constantly pulling things out of the archive & filing others away, whether that’s over the course of a single episode or over many. I think for those people who remembered Tarantula Boy throughout, they were actively thinking about it & keeping it in working memory, while people like me had filed it away until it was reactivated.

  2. 3 Billy

    The “surprise memory” involved here is made even more complicated by the way the show uses both flashforwards that don’t pay off for several episodes (the bear in the pool, Walt’s 52nd birthday) in conjunction with those that depict events that directly relate to the episode in which they appear. So, even if you remember the tarantula boy, you might be inclined to think that his significance won’t be made apparent in this particular episode. It seems like you’ve got several possibilities at work: you forget about the kid, you anticipate something happening in relation to the kid, you already know about the ending and you dread/look forward to it, or you remember the kid but assume it is one of these long-range flashforwards.

    • This is definitely a factor, as the show has established a range of intrinsic norms for what teasers might be referencing – and the narcorrido ballad from season 2 seems to be a flashforward to something that doesn’t really exist!

      I had seen the preview for “Dead Freight,” and thus knew that they were going to rob a train. Thus when Tarantula Boy heard the train whistle, I thought that he’d come into play during the heist (ruling out the future episode hypothesis). But, of course, I got so involved with the heist that he slipped my mind. Thanks for the comment!

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