When Are Audience Interpretations Wrong?

Note: Spoilers for Breaking Bad follow

“Good.”

“Finally somebody tells the truth about her.”

“She deserves worse.”

These are various tweets I read during last week’s brilliant, overwhelming Breaking Bad episode, “Ozymandias.” The tweets were directed at Skyler, the long-suffering wife of a sociopathic drug kingpin responsible for (including a plane crash) hundreds of deaths.

The fans were reacting to a monologue Walt delivers near the end of that episode, where he unloads two years’ worth of sputtering hatred on her while the police are listening.

These fans, the ones who believe a woman should completely support her husband no matter how dangerous he becomes, seem to have missed the point of the show entirely. And yet they continue to watch, enthralled and overjoyed at the prospect of finishing it.

How can that be?

I recently went to a book signing for an author I really admire. She said that, to her, the readers are always right in their interpretations of her work. She said her novels are constantly interpreted in new ways, ways she never intended, and that she’s completely fine with it. She encourages it.

As a writer myself, I’ve often found interpretation complicated. Sure, there’s a “right” way to read the text in my head, but couldn’t there be alternate readings?

It depends, as everything else does, on context.

While this author might find it refreshing for a reader to view her book as a beautiful meditation on identity and love, she might cringe at the thought of somebody using her book to start a race war, or a religious coup.

These are extreme examples, but they’re also things that have happened. How many wars have we fought over small interpretational differences in religious texts?

Our own Civil War was, in part, a war between two sides of the country who viewed the constitution very differently.

Audience interpretation can sometimes be everything. Minority Report, for me, is a movie about America’s complicated relationship with abortion politics. For others, it could be about homophobia or racial passing.

Are any of them wrong? I don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

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When viewers are so actively engaged in a show like Breaking Bad, they’re obviously getting something out of the experience of watching it. But what are they getting?

It seems that those so aggressively opposed to Skyler, they seem to be so in defense of Walt. Is this a wrong interpretation?

The show is based, as Vince Gilligan will never stop repeating, on the rise and fall of Scarface. He’s the American dream-turned-nightmare. An egomaniac, like Rome or America itself, that falls under the weight of its own power and narcissism.

Brian DePalma’s Scarface is about an everyman who becomes his own worst enemy, eventually leading to his death. By the end of the movie, Tony Montana is a monstrous bundle of id. We’re not supposed to be on his side anymore. We’re not supposed to be on anybody’s side. And yet fans of the film idolize Montana as a hero, as somebody to embody and admire. Why?

Che Guevara, the man responsible for a horrifically violent political upheaval, is the source of admiration for thousands of middle-class white teenagers who want to stick it to their parents. Shirts featuring his image are sold at corporately owned stores like Hot Topic, which, to me, seems like a completely misguided evaluation of his legacy as a political figure. Is this interpretation wrong?
For me, yes, but it’s a complicated question.

In “Ozymandias,” Walt accuses Skyler of, word-for-word, the very things that fans have been laying on her for a few seasons. This is a direct reaction to those comments, and they’re laid out in a very clear way.

What is Walt doing in the scene? Is he trying to declare that he’s won? Has he reached the end of his rope with this terrible wife of his?

No, he’s saving her. He’s vindicating her of the crime she’s committed with him.

Those threats? Intentionally empty, with no substance or evidence to back any of them up. He’s so wrong about her, so haunted by the words he’s saying, that he weeps.

In that moment, Walt falsely becomes the “hero” some fans view him as, but the character himself cannot deal with the emotional fallout of the hatred he’s producing.

It’s rare that a show addresses something like this head on, but the problem with Skyler has become so severe that Anna Gunn, the woman who plays her, released a New York Times article about the constant harassment she’s received from viewers.

Are these viewers right to interpret her character this way? [pullquote align=”right”]Are they right to follow Walt down his descent, and yet punish his wife for trying to protect her children?[/pullquote]

As this scene points out, Vince Gilligan is not on board with the hate for Skyler. This scene perfectly incapsulates how empty the fan threats really are, and how wrong it is to see her as nothing more than a nag.

When the creator of the show so directly challenges an interpretation of his work, it’s fair to listen. Sometimes an interpretation isn’t right, and sometimes an audience can make something better.

The famous Ferris Bueller fan theory makes that movie better, and the idea that James Bond is nothing more than a codename is intriguing, but these theories are more inherently flaccid than those seemingly predicated on a conservative and sexist view not only of marriage, but of gender in general.

What do you think? Do some fan theories deserve credit? Are others just plain wrong? Is it all due to context, or should the viewer always interpret in his/her own way? Let me know in the comments!

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  • thisgirltv

    I’ve been thinking about our conversation concerning the female characters on the show. You brought up some interesting points about their growth versus the growth (or lack thereof) of some of the male characters. I haven’t hated the female characters, just not felt much of a connection with them as a female. I think that the men feel strong connections with Walt and Jesse and that connection makes them not understand why Walt worked so hard to protect his family. I felt that, after seeing his brother in law killed, after basically sentencing the only person outside of his family that he cared for to death, Walt has finally seen the “out, out damned spot” on his hands and is doing the only thing he can do for his family… make himself so hated that they can all band against him, thus saving themselves. His son saw him waving a knife at his mother, his sister-in-law lost her husband because of him, and Skylar’s life is forever disrupted because of him. Watching that scene where he tells Skylar she was a bad wife was almost heartbreaking, not just because of how harsh he was being with her (and Anna Gunn was brilliant in that scene, by the way) but because of how untrue every single word was. I don’t know what I thought Breaking Bad was before this scene, but in this one scene, Gilligan has summed up the entirety of the show and I almost feel a little responsible, and a little bit unclean, for having watched someone’s life degenerate so completely from start to finish without doing anything to stop it.

  • thisgirltv

    I’ve been thinking about our conversation concerning the female characters on the show. You brought up some interesting points about their growth versus the growth (or lack thereof) of some of the male characters. I haven’t hated the female characters, just not felt much of a connection with them as a female. I think that the men feel strong connections with Walt and Jesse and that connection makes them not understand why Walt worked so hard to protect his family. I felt that, after seeing his brother in law killed, after basically sentencing the only person outside of his family that he cared for to death, Walt has finally seen the “out, out damned spot” on his hands and is doing the only thing he can do for his family… make himself so hated that they can all band against him, thus saving themselves. His son saw him waving a knife at his mother, his sister-in-law lost her husband because of him, and Skylar’s life is forever disrupted because of him. Watching that scene where he tells Skylar she was a bad wife was almost heartbreaking, not just because of how harsh he was being with her (and Anna Gunn was brilliant in that scene, by the way) but because of how untrue every single word was. I don’t know what I thought Breaking Bad was before this scene, but in this one scene, Gilligan has summed up the entirety of the show and I almost feel a little responsible, and a little bit unclean, for having watched someone’s life degenerate so completely from start to finish without doing anything to stop it.