There’s a minor subplot in season two in Breaking Bad in which the main character, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), is caught in a relatively minor lie. He witnesses a gruesome crime, but is unable to tell his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), and has become increasingly withdrawn from her. One evening, his second cell phone rings – one Skylar doesn’t know about – and he panics. Moments later, he steps outside his home and is kidnapped at gunpoint.
For viewers who haven’t seen the show, I’m not really giving away much. All of this happens early in the first episode of the season. I’m also not giving anything away by saying that he survives the ordeal. But what makes Breaking Bad a noteworthy series is that the writers don’t let the cell phone go.
In the past few decades, TV shows have followed a rule to resolve most of the tension by the end of each episode. However, a shift occurred years ago (I have my theory as to when this happened, but I’ll save that for another post) and shows started delaying the resolution. Frankly, I find this much more true to real life, where decisions lead to consequences which lead to further actions and so forth. In lesser shows, tension can only get raised so high because most of the issues will get resolved at the end of 22 or 45 minutes. But not so in Bad.
Skylar didn’t see Walt’s kidnapping, so he tells her he had momentary amnesia, which sounds like an overused explanation but Cranston’s an extremely talented actor and pulls the lie off terrifically. She has no reason not to believe him, but still asks about the cell phone, which he denies by explaining it was his one and only phone that rang. Most TV wives would have accepted this – not because it’s a reasonable explanation, but because in the interest of more over-the-top plot twists, a husband lying to his wife is small potatoes. But Skylar doesn’t believe him and, although his lie about the cell phone pales in comparison to the multiple lies he’s told her, her suspicion is more intense than most car chases, shootouts, and kidnappings.
This is how modern television shows like Bad and Dexter operate. Resolution takes several episodes, which likely builds a more loyal fan base. The drawback is that missing an episode means missing out on a lot of information. But they’re considerably better than the same crap we’ve had for decades where the mother-in-law drops by to casually ridicule her son’s wife and the lead in a crime drama gets buried alive by a serial killer and returns the next week for the next assignment. But as long as there are great shows like Breaking Bad, there’s hope for TV.