Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Breaking Bad Revisited

Back in early August, I found myself home alone for an extended weekend, due to a work requirement that coincided with a family event. Sunday afternoon found me too physically tired to mow the lawn or do much around the house, and too brain dead to write or read; I reached for the TV remote instead–and soon found myself rewatching Breaking Bad.

I know a lot of people will say, “Why rewatch some TV show when there’s so much good, new programming out there?” Indeed, there are only so many hours in a day, week, month, life; why spend it watching something you’ve already seen, especially something that takes so much time? (Breaking Bad ran for five seasons, 62 episodes, roughly 50 minutes per episode. I hate doing math that shows how much time I’ve spent on something, just as I hated looking at the “Time Played” counter on my World of Warcraft characters.)  Yet I regularly seek out the comfort of previous experience when choosing my television, film and reading material. Earlier this year, I finished a re-read of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and I’m currently re-reading It for seemingly the thousandth time. There’s a good bet that, some time in the next year or so, I’ll pick up either A Prayer for Owen Meany or Empire Falls again, too, even though  there are literally thousands of books I haven’t read before coming out each year. Often, I’ll just grab something familiar off the shelf when I’m in between new books, though sometimes I just get a real strong urge to read an old book once more (It came about in part because we watched last year’s movie version, which was actually pretty good).

As a writer, there’s great benefit in following those familiar paths. Watching the first few episodes of Breaking Bad, however, I found myself really viewing Walter’s and Jesse’s actions against the context of what those characters become as the series goes on. It’s especially fascinating to see the breadcrumbs being dropped by the showrunners. One of the central questions of the show was who is the true Walter White? The mild-mannered, bumbling high school chemistry teacher, or the ruthless Heisenberg? I don’t think I started asking that question until more than halfway through the series on my first run through; now, I’ve been looking for it since episode one, watching for clues, and I think “Walter White” may have been the mask worn by “Heisenberg” for fifty years. By the end of season two, which is where I am now, that certainly seems to be more than a slim chance.

Interestingly, I find I interact differently with books when I re-read them than I do with movies or TV. I suspect it has to do with the difference in impact images make on your brain than words, or that reading engages the mind in a different way. I will sometimes pick up something as foreshadowing, or the first appearance of a motif in the work, but for me, re-reading a book is much more like reading it for the first time than watching TV or a movie.

How about you? Do you experience TV, movies and books differently the second (or third) time around? Do  tell!B

6 Responses

  1. I think it depends on how long it's been since I first watched/read it. If it's been decades, it's like I'm watching/reading it for the first time–I just don't remember most of it. Is that sad or what? But for more recent reads/watches, I'm reading/watching it because I love it and want to experience it all over again. Like I want to memorize it or something. Must work. I don't forget those stories. But I also pick up more the second (or third or fourth) go round than I do from those that I've waited decades to repeat. Mainly because I still REMEMBER most of the story. 🙂

  2. I experience books and movies differently, even the first time. I will often re-read or re-watch several times; to catch what I missed, or to learn something about the craft. I think the "imagery" of movies imprints on the brain longer that print because it is less subjective. The mind has no blanks to fill in as it does with the written word. For me, some genre's are easier to grasp when watched (sci fi and mystery, for example) than read.

    I had those same questions about Walter White – and Jesse – the first time I watched also. And I get it about looking for those bread crumb clues. That is one part of the "craft" that I look for in multiple watching, and in reading other good books. I learn about character and world development, sprinkling backstory, adding in foreshadowing (Easter eggs, lol) and general structure. Reading how-to books and taking classes is no substitute for studying successful works. I've written some fan fiction – for my own personal reading only – to practice what I think I've learned from multiple reading/watching.

  3. I always pick up new things when I reread. And some authors are great at hiding little treasures. Rowling spoiled me for a lot of other authors who don't go into their stories as deeply as I think they could have. lol

  4. I can never keep up with all of the TV programming. There are few shows that I watch and I haven't seen any of the big binge watch shows that people talk about.

    So true about watching something another time. Just a couple of months ago I watched one of my favorite films that I'd seen many times before and this time it seemed like I was seeing it for the first time.

    I especially enjoy watching old films that I liked when I was a child some 60 or 50 years ago and seeing from the perspective of who I am now. There was so much I didn't get then that makes sense to me now.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

  5. I suppose it can teach us a lot about storytelling as, being familiar with the story already, we might be more attuned to picking up on technique. Apart from that, sometimes it's just plain comforting to spend time with a world and characters we already know and love. For a writer, everything is grist to the mill!

  6. First off, thanks everyone, for your comments. I do appreciate them. I think it's interesting to see how it works (or doesn't) for others.

    More important, my apologies for not responding sooner, and not responding more personally. I let this week get away from me a bit. Hope you'll keeep coming back, despite my lack of attention.

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