Introducing Characters in BREAKING BAD


I’ve produced and posted the final video (save the introduction) for my videographic book, The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad. As discussed below, this chapter has one of the most extensive written commentaries, which I’ve reproduced to present and contextualize the video. (All the videos are now available in tentative sequence on my Vimeo showcase.) I hope to finish the introduction by the end of January, and then submit the full manuscript to Lever Press! So this will likely be the last public update on this project for awhile – I hope it is well-received.

Introducing Characters: Lydia and Todd

A particular challenge for an ongoing television series is how to add new characters to its ensemble late into its run. For programs with minimal serialization, such as family sitcoms or police procedural, such introductions are typically made to reinvigorate an ensemble or replace a departing actor, often with mixed results. Probably the most infamous example of such an introduction was Cousin Oliver on the final season of The Brady Bunch, a character shoehorned into the family to provide a burst of youth to counter the aging kids—the failure of this strategy prompted it to be later termed “Cousin Oliver Syndrome” to mock this tendency on family sitcoms (Riesman et. al.). Such a ploy was broadly enough known to audiences as to allow Buffy the Vampire Slayer to mockingly play with the device via the introduction of Buffy’s previously-unmentioned younger sister Dawn in its fifth season, a retcon later explained by supernatural magic (Mittell, Complex TV, 86-7).

For series with more elaborated serialization, adding new characters often involves expanding the scope of the storytelling. One extreme version of this is The Wire, which notably added another institutional realm and an associated large group of characters each season on top of its core portrayal of the Baltimore police and drug criminals featured in the first season (which already included at least 30 significant characters): dock workers in season 2, politicians in season 3, a middle school in season 4, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper in season 5. As I have discussed previously, The Wire embraces a centrifugal approach to storytelling, spreading its fictional scope across an expanding palette with a similarly expansive cast of characters (Mittell, Complex TV). Adding characters to this ongoing storyworld was an ongoing process that becomes regularized throughout its run.

Only a few series follow The Wire’s ever-expanding model, such as Game of Thrones broadening its geographic scope or The Leftovers relocating the main characters each season; instead, most serialized dramas focus on a smaller defined ensemble of characters defined by a single location. A more typical approach can be seen in The Sopranos, where the focus remains consistent on Tony Soprano’s interwoven dual family units of his personal domestic family and professional mafia crime family. Most of that core cast remained constant for all six seasons, with the notable exception of Tony’s mother Livia, who was written out after two seasons due to the death of actress Nancy Marchand; her familial role was largely replaced by the addition of Tony’s sister Janice to the ensemble during the second season. Yet most seasons introduced one or more new characters, primarily as antagonists, rivals, or love interests for Tony: Richie Aprile and Furio Giunta in season 2; Ralph Cifaretto and Gloria Trillo in season 3; Little Carmine Lupertazzi and Carlo Gervasi in season 4; Tony Blundetto and Phil Leotardo in season 5. Most of these characters only last one or two seasons before dying or otherwise leaving the story, allowing their narrative roles to be filled by others to refresh the dramatic stakes.

Introducing new antagonists each season, often referred to as the season’s “big bad” after Buffy’s development and explicit naming of this structure, allows for continued drama and renewed storytelling momentum. Many series, especially those foregrounding crime stories, embrace a similar approach to adding new characters as antagonists each season to raise the dramatic stakes, including Dexter, Justified, The Shield, Boardwalk Empire, and Homeland. In each of these series and more, the addition of new characters work to complicate established relationships and generate new story material to sustain the serialized drama.

Breaking Bad does not follow a seasonal big bad model for the most part. I have argued that the series is structured by a force opposite from The Wire, exhibiting “centripetal complexity” by pulling everything toward the “gravitational center” of Walter White’s psychology and characterization (Mittell, Complex TV, 223). While certainly Walt faces a series of adversaries in his progression from chemistry teacher to drug kingpin, the narrative structure is not designed to foreground these antagonists as in other comparable crime dramas. The closest the series comes to a big bad adversary is Gustavo Fring, who is introduced briefly in season 2 before becoming Walt’s employer and rival; season 4 is the only one that is structured around the defeat of an adversary, as Walt proclaims “I won” in the season’s final moments to signal the end of the Fring era.

This video considers the aftermath of that victory by looking at how season 5 resets its narrative stakes once Walt sits atop the Albuquerque drug world. As with most series, Breaking Bad introduces new characters to create fresh dramatic situations, bringing Lydia Rodarte-Quayle and Todd Alquist into Walt’s orbit and eventually onto his team as part of Heisenberg’s drug empire; neither character serves as the season’s “big bad,” although both get pulled deeper into Walt’s orbit and ultimately die as part of his climactic revenge plot. The video takes a close look at the strategies that the producers use to introduce these characters via writing, performance, and production techniques, offering contrasting dramatic styles in presenting their personalities.

In many ways, this was my most challenging video to finish, as I grappled with the overarching question that troubles so many academic analyses across all formats: “so what?” I knew that I wanted to make a video to address the introduction of new characters, as it is a crucial facet of serial television storytelling, and one that differs from the models developed to analyze films. Murray Smith emphasizes that one crucial facet of characterization is recognition, as viewers need to differentiate a character with narrative significance from an extra or a figure who appears only fleetingly, and films use a range of techniques to help guide audience comprehension (Smith, Engaging Characters). For ongoing television series, this recognition process is even more complex because many characters appear only briefly before disappearing by the next episode, or they might reappear after a longer hiatus unlike anything in a standalone film—for instance, Elliot Schwartz appears in one first season Breaking Bad episode, then reappears only in the two final installments. By charting the ways that Breaking Bad introduces Lydia and Todd as two late-stage characters, I hoped to provide an analytic framework for understanding this process across television storytelling.

However I could not find a way to both explore the specific techniques from this case study in sufficient detail, and argue for the significance of this process for television more broadly without making an overly long video that lost its analytic focus. After playing with many drafts and versions of the video, I decided that to lean into the written component here to provide the broader context and framework for the specific analysis. Each aspect of this chapter aims to embrace what each format does best: the video offers a detailed account of specific moments and choices from the series while conveying the impact and experience for viewers, while the writing situates this analysis in broader contexts of scholarship, history, and comparative strategies between Breaking Bad and other series (as well as reflecting on my own methodology and process). One of my overt goals for this book was to have every video be able to function on its on, distributed through Vimeo and YouTube, coherent and effective (and hopefully enjoyable) on its own terms. I hope that this video meets that bar, even as I know that this written commentary is needed to fully accomplish my critical goals. But that is one of the key benefits of this videographic book format, allowing writing and video to work together in an integrated presentation.

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