Students Probe Relationship between AMC TV Show 'Breaking Bad' and Classic Authors
AMC's hit TV crime drama Breaking Bad may have wrapped up last year, but a senior seminar at Assumption College called "Reading Bad" has spent the past semester peeling back the layers of the award-winning series and exploring its incorporation of classic literary references and the show’s relationship to writers and poets Walt Whitman, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
"My seminar is called 'Reading Bad' for a reason,” points out the instructor, Assumption College English Professor Paul Shields, Ph.D. "Our focus is on the show's allusions to literature. We don't just sit in class and watch TV. The goal has been to make connections to works by these great writers."
Take "Ozymandias," for example: Breaking Bad fans may recognize that name as the title of the show’s third-to-the-last episode, in which Bryan Cranston’s character, Walter White—a struggling chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer who turns to producing and selling methamphetamine as the mysterious "Heisenberg" to ensure his family's financial stability before he dies—sees his life crumble around him.
Drill deeper into English literature, however, and one will discover that the title is a reference to an early 19th century Shelley poem of the same name that details the crumbling legacy of a once-proud king.
"Why did the writers of Breaking Bad decide to title this episode after the piece written by the Romantic Period poet?" Shields asked his class of 12 students—not all of them English majors—during an April 29 class.
The students then proceeded to break down the poem and probe how it relates to the themes of the episode. After some intense, thought-provoking discussion, the class watched portions of the episode to examine how it correlates to specific lines of the poem.
"Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramesses II, pharaoh of Egypt for 67 years, who lived in 13th century BC," Shields explained. "In the myth is where we find our Breaking Bad characters. Walter wants to be Ozymandias. He wants to be 'King of Kings,' and this is related to Christianity, as Christ is known as king of all kings.
"This is about a world that has fallen. 'Nothing beside remains,'" Shields quoted from the poem. "Walter's is a world of ruin."
Reciting the following lines of the poem, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert," Shields then played a clip from the episode, and the students noted how, in the scene, Walter's bare legs are firmly planted, statuesquely, on the desert's raised, stone-like ground, as if on a pedestal.
"Walt's crumbling is about to happen," Shields pointed out. "(Supporting character) Jesse sword-fights in the background—it's nation versus nation. Walt stands in ruins and decay. All emperors are ruins in waiting—dead men walking—and Walt is an emperor. He is a dead man walking.
"The 'shattered visage lies'—Walt is on the ground, in the desert," he added.
While the seminar focuses on literary allusions in Breaking Bad—which aired from 2008 to 2013—the students have also engaged in debate about the nature of art and the question of authorial intention.
"Students have discussed whether an artist's thoughts about his or her own work matters when it comes to interpretation," Shields explained. "Do we need to know what the creator of Breaking Bad thinks about his show to comprehend it? Why should we care what the creator has to say? How do the show creator's thoughts change the meaning we might find in a work of art?"
Assumption College's English Department offers at least four senior capstone seminars each year. Each faculty member selects a topic based on his or her area of specialization.
"Professor Shields's course provides an opportunity for students to apply both literary and mass media theory to Breaking Bad and other texts in a creative and challenging way," said English Department Chair and Professor Becky DiBiasio, Ph.D.
As part of the course, each student developed an independent research project, where they made connections between the show's major themes and characters and the literary texts they're reading. Several students examined similarities between Breaking Bad and Beckett's plays. Another wrote about the significance of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" in relation to appearance of flowers on the show. Still other students wrote about the relationship between Breaking Bad and Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis—comparing Walter White to the story's main character, Gregor Samsa. The students presented their projects at Assumption's annual English Department Colloquium on May 2, 2014.
"'Reading Bad' is easily one of the best classes Assumption has offered," said senior Kayla Morrison of Clinton, Mass. "I had initially never seen Breaking Bad, but the seminar has given the series a whole new meaning to me. I have a deeper understanding of not only why I like the television show so much but also of the literature we've read.
"I feel like I have truly grown as an English major through this seminar," she added. "It's very philosophical, and the topics we cover branch out from the series and apply to real life."
Vanessa Arroyo, a junior, was eligible to take the senior seminar because of her participation in Assumption's Honors Program. She said the course has led her to think beyond the surface level of the media she watches and to examine all types of arts and the allusions that exist in art.
"I now see allusions more frequently," she said. "For example, the other day I used the phrase, 'How Kafkaesque,' which comes directly from season three of Breaking Bad. I cannot seem to watch or read something without seeing other connections."
Arroyo wasn't a fan of the show prior to her enrolling in "Reading Bad."
"My roommates had watched the series and were encouraging me to do the same," said the Bridgeport, Conn., native. "I wanted to wait until the start of the seminar so that I was not too ahead in the class. Although I started the series in January, I was able to finish all five seasons in two months."
"I guess you could say I eagerly jumped on the 'Heisenberg' bandwagon," Arroyo quipped.
IN THE NEWS
(Worcester) Telegram & Gazette, May 6, 2014: "At Assumption, Lessons to Be Learned from 'Breaking Bad'"
Kimberly Dunbar, Director of Public Affairs, Assumption College