Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Western Society

Last week I received my copy of CommuterLit Selections: Fall 2013 in the mail. I still find it really exciting to see a new piece of writing in print; granted, in this case it’s an old story in a new format. But still exciting, and I don’t think the giddiness will ever pass. I’m sure even James Patterson gets that warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction three or four times a year when one of his new books comes out.

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Totally unrelated to the above news, I want to talk about television. In this case, I want to talk about the recent finales of Breaking Bad and Dexter, both of which have been talked about at length in print and digital media. To be honest, I haven’t watched either show, but I’ve read a lot about both, especially the comments about the finales, and I think there’s something to be said about Western society based on the reactions I’ve seen.

Overwhelmingly, the response to these finales has been ecstatic and approving toward Breaking Bad and extremely critical of Dexter. Why? Most people seemed to enjoy Walt’s death, seeing it as a proper end for a character immersed in drug dealing and organized crime. The major criticism of Dexter is that Dexter Morgan does not die, despite eight seasons living as a serial killer. In an article I read in The Guardian, one journalist says the disappointment with the season is specifically because “viewers don’t get to see him caught or killed” – instead his sister Deb, the show’s “moral center,” is the one to die.

The reaction toward these shows has been so universal that the optimist in me can’t help but be pleased. Though a lot of stories – not just TV shows, but novels and movies as well – glorify villains as their protagonists, readers and viewers expect to see these people fall or, if possible, earn redemption. When we do cheer for criminals and murderers, it’s usually because they’re heroic in some way. In Gone in 60 Seconds, for example, Nicolas Cage plays renowned car thief Memphis Raines; though he’s a criminal, we hope for his success because he’s working to save his younger brother, and is generally honorable and moral. The fact that people aren’t cheering for the survival and success of characters like Walt and Dexter tells me that our society doesn’t glorify villains. Despite everything that seems to be wrong with our society, we still prefer our heroes.

Of course, there’s another possibility, which my wife suggested to me last night: that the reaction toward these two finales has more to do with the arc of the story, and what viewers expected from the plot, than the nature of the protagonists. Expectation is definitely tied into satisfaction with a fictional work. One of the cardinal rules of writing is not to disappoint your readers, and part of this is to fulfill their expectations; if your space opera builds toward an epic final battle that you never deliver, your reader will feel let down. So with Breaking Bad and Dexter, it might be that the particular stories demanded the protagonists’ deaths, but only one delivered on this demand. This expectation likely has to do with the nature of their characters, though, so I think my wife and I are both correct.

The lesson here, fellow writers, might be just to never disappoint your readers, and to follow the natural path that your story is taking. If a character needs to die because that’s the path she’s on, don’t fight it; if you try to alter that path in an unnatural way, your readers will notice. This doesn’t mean you have to write just to please your readers – my number one rule is to write for yourself, not others – but keep in mind that they’ll know when something doesn’t work, and they’ll call you on it. I’m sure the writers of Dexter would agree.

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