The Meaning of Violence
Just as everyone remembers where they were when JFK was shot or when 9/11 happened, I remember exactly where I was when I saw the box-cutter scene. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, you know exactly what I’m talking about—and if not—just hang in there. It was late, and I was sitting in my luxurious dorm room at Oxford University, in surroundings that made me feel like I was constantly living in a fairytale. But that feeling soon faded. All alone and glued to my computer screen, I watched in horror as a man comes up behind his once-trusted coworker, grabs his head and swiftly slices his throat with a box-cutter, holding his head up in a way that exposes the gushing artery, causing him to bleed out quickly and efficiently. When the man is done helping his coworker die, he takes off his hazmat suit, washes his hands, gives one cold glare to the intimidated workers that were forced to watch, and leaves the room. There’s no scary music, no cuts to a dramatic spattering of blood on the wall, there isn’t even dialogue—just the sound of desperate gags as a man tries to breathe through his severed windpipe, only to choke on his own blood.
I wouldn’t consider myself a lover of gruesome things. There are many shows and films, like the Saw franchise, that I refuse to watch because I feel that violence is the sole force driving these productions, and I just don’t enjoy watching prolonged scenes of torture and human suffering. So after witnessing the infamous box-cutter scene in Breaking Bad, I had to wonder: How could I judge certain violent films and shows when I was addicted to a show that showed such graphically violent scenes?
After I watched that scene all alone, quietly in my room, I thought about what my mother would have said if I was watching this at home and she had walked into the room. My mother won’t watch anything with violence in it, and I mean pretty much anything with blood, guns, or bodies colliding, she refuses to see. Whenever I’m home visiting, she’ll come into the living room, look at whatever I’m watching, and if it’s violent she always responds with something along the lines of, “Ugh, I don’t know how you watch this stuff. Is that really necessary?” She sees all violence on screen as “senseless” violence. While I don’t agree with her, I found myself wondering: in an ever-increasing violence-oriented culture, is there ever a time when violence can be meaningful?
In the criticism of violence in American culture, especially of violence on the big or small screen, there seems to be a binary divide on whether violence is “good” or “bad.” There are critics who think our culture is desensitizing people to violence, hurting our country, and making our youth want to go out and shoot up their town. On the opposite spectrum there seems to be the “it’s a free country” defense: violence is out on the screen and if you don’t like it, then don’t watch it. I agree with both sides to some degree—it is a free country and there are some forms of entertainment that are desensitizing violence’s effect—but both of these responses are an inadequate assessments of our culture’s violence. We need to see past the blood-spray and bullet holes to look at how violence is being used on screen, what the motivation for putting it there is, and what we can take away, if anything, from its viewing.
Long before Breaking Bad ever graced the small screen, there were films created by one man, who was, and still is, the subject of the controversy of violence on screen: Quentin Tarantino. When I was about eleven or twelve, I used to sneak into my brother’s room when he wasn’t home and shuffle through his movies to further my deviant education on films that were much too mature for a kid my age. I soon got to his collection of Tarantino’s films and watched all of them, letting the candy-apple colored blood and flying bullets wash over me; I was in awe, and I was horrified. I was revolted by some of the truly gruesome moments in his movies: the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs and the leg that’s snapped off a woman as easily as you would from a Barbie in Death Proof. But I also found his movies and sometimes the violence, entertaining. For decades, Tarantino has been criticized for glorifying violence to create merely a spectacle, and he doesn’t disagree. Quoted from a press conference in Newsday, Tarantino said of violence in his films, “If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It's one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it” (Zuckerman). Tarantino makes no apologies for using violence as a form of pure entertainment in his films. For Tarantino, violence is an art form: it’s not hard to see that he enjoys directing which way a stream of blood will be spattered and what the close up of a gunshot will look like.While the violence in Tarantino’s films isn’t totally meaningless—it’s motivated by a desire to entertain, shock, and excite the viewer—Tarantino realizes that there are different types of violence on screen.
Tarantino’s most recent film, Django Unchained, follows a freed slave seeking revenge on slave owners in the antebellum south. The film, once again, brought criticism to Tarantino’s use of violence. Writer Geoffrey Macnab referred to the film as “new sadism” in cinema, calling scenes of slave torture and brutality Tarantino’s “tongue and [sic] cheek”: “Scenes that would be very hard to stomach in a conventional drama are lapped up by spectators who know all about the director’s love of genre and delight in pastiching [sic] old spaghetti Westerns” (Macnab). But Macnab seems to be missing a shift in the type of violence Tarantino uses. In an interview with NPR, Tarantino talked about Django’s violence: “There's two types of violence in this film: there's the brutal reality that slaves lived under for ... 245 years, and then there's the violence of Django's retribution. And that's movie violence, and that's fun and that's cool, and that's really enjoyable and kind of what you're waiting for” (Gross). Viewers can undoubtedly recognize the “cool” violence in Django which Tarantino is so fond of using in his films. But for the first time in his films, Django brings a different type of violence into the picture: one that is not entertaining, but instead forces the viewer to think about its serious moral and historical implications. I don’t know if Macnab went and saw Django in theaters, but when I did, I saw no one “lapping” up the scenes that showed the brutality of slavery: everyone was silent, and no one seemed to be enjoying what they saw. Much like the box-cutter scene, in scenes in which slaves were being beaten, whipped, or ripped apart by dogs, there was no dramatic music or stylistic enhancement that Tarantino often pairs with his “cool” violence. These violent scenes were a different type of animal. They were raw and needed no artistic touch because the realistic cruelty of slavery was enough to resonate with the viewers long after the movie had ended. I believe many, including myself, left the theater of a Tarantino movie for the first time not talking about the most “awesome” shoot out scene of the movie, but left in silence—still trying to assess the implications of such an immoral, cruel practice lurking in our society’s recent past.
There’s something about films and TV shows like Tarantino’s where you know what you’re getting into: if watching someone’s head get blown off with a shot gun upsets you, you probably shouldn’t be watching it. But for the first time in Tarantino’s movies, Django had a type of violence that you didn’t have to enjoy or at least not be bothered by, to appreciate its meaning in the movie. The violence of slavery portrayed in Django was not there to entertain the audience, but to make the audience aware of a graphically violent atrocity in our country’s past. I don’t think entertaining violence can be deemed as meaningless because there is a purpose behind that type of violence: to amuse and excite the viewer. But with this type of violence, entertainment is as far as it can reach when it comes to resonating with the viewer, because it rarely, if ever, provides any thought provoking material. While the audience may leave entertained, they are unlikely to be inspired to consider serious intellectual concepts, and this can often leave the viewer desensitized and the critic asking whether this violence was “necessary”. But it’s a lot harder to see a realistic and unglamourized violent scene like the slave scenes in Django and say, “Oh God, did they have to show that? Was that really necessary?” because in those scenes violence has deeper meaning: it is being used as a tool to expose important and often unanswered questions of morality and human nature.
When I first started watching Breaking Bad, I didn’t want to see the violent scenes because I had heard from friends that they were gruesome and hard to watch. But I came to realized that if I did miss these scenes, I wouldn’t be able to witness many pivotal moments of transformation in a character’s moral compass. Breaking Bad wastes no time getting into these scenes, and by the second episode, the audience is faced with the main character, Walter White, committing his first murder. Walt and his drug partner Jesse have locked up a gang member and rival drug dealer in Jesse’s basement, after capturing him when he tried to kill them. Knowing he will kill Walt and his family upon his release, Walt comes to the decision that he must kill the drug dealer. Even though he is holding this man prisoner by chaining him around the neck with a U-Lock to a rusty post, he feels sympathy towards his prisoner and gives him a sandwich and water. Walt talks with the man for the entire day and even considers releasing him—until he realizes the man has made a shiv from the plate on which the sandwich was brought. When the man tries to stab Walt, Walt runs behind him, grabs the U-Lock, puts his foot up on the post and pulls with all his might to strangle the man. Just like the box-cutter scene—there’s no music, no stylized directing—just the sound of a man being strangled while Walt cries over and over again “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
This scene is even more powerful when compared to another graphically violent scene in one of the last few episodes of the series. In this horror-montage, the viewer must watch as Walt gives the orders to have ten witnesses that could implicate him in a massive drug ring, killed in prison by neo-Nazis. Although Walt is not committing these violent acts himself, director Vince Gilligan pairs cuts of Walt peacefully looking out a window while ten men are stabbed, strangled and lit on fire. Watching Walt “deal” out violent deaths with no hint of remorse is perhaps even more powerful than Walt killing them himself, because the viewer can see just how powerful he’s become, and how Walt’s full transformation from a once moral and remorseful man to a ruthless killer has become complete.
In an article entitled, “It’s Okay Not to Watch Breaking Bad,” journalist Sarah Mirk writes:
“Violence is a very useful element in storytelling…Breaking Bad pushes us to explore what we find disgusting and to understand what we consider corrupt. But to me, it feels like there's an increasing expectation to be nonchalant about extreme violence if you want to participate in pop culture—like Engle and I are the odd ones out for not being able to shrug off murder when we flip off the TV” (Mirk).
Besides the fact that Mirk only saw three episodes of the show, I argue that the violence in Breaking Bad is meant to be anything but shrugged off. Almost every violent action in Breaking Bad represents a pivotal change in a character’s moral progress or regress. Even more unprecedented, it feels as though the viewer must re-evaluate their own moral compass with every violent scene: Is it justifiable to strangle someone to save yourself from being killed? Is it morally right to kill someone that’s murdered your loved one and held you prisoner for a year? The series has ended, but I feel many viewers, including myself, continue to have these violent images seared in their minds not simply from fear, but because they are grappling with important moral and philosophical questions of the human psyche.
In defense of the violence in Breaking Bad, film critic Jenny McCartney writes, “the real debate is not about the presence of violence, but the treatment of it. Breaking Bad is a series that eschews didacticism…it doesn’t fetishise brutality, but shows the audience as much as they need to know to understand the weight of what has happened” (McCartney). What makes the violence in Breaking Bad so uncomfortable and hard to watch is that it’s not “fetishised”: there are no frills, no dramatically choreographed scenes of someone falling to their death, and most importantly, there’s nothing to remind you that “it’s only TV.” Unlike any other show or film I’d seen before, Breaking Bad seemed to use violence as a meaningful tool to transform a character’s sense of morality. By avoiding any directorial or stylistic techniques that dramatize the violence, Breaking Bad made the violence on screen as realistic as possible, and by doing so allowed violence to have a positive effect on the viewer. Instead of desensitizing the viewer, the honest, realistic consequences of violence shown made the viewer all the more sensitive to its effects and how violence can change someone’s life and ethics.
I think McCartney is right in saying that the controversy is not over the presence of violence on screen but how it is used on screen. While I don’t envision violence being eradicated from our screens any time soon, I do we think we can change how violence effects the viewer. When I was young and watched every Tarantino film I could get a hold of, I was entertained by some of the violence I saw, but I was never “shook up” by it because it seemed so unrealistic that it exempted me from ever having to seriously contemplate violence’s consequences in real life, which can be a dangerous result of “entertainment” violence. But to say that every type of violence can only have negative effects on the viewer is a mistake. Instead of avoiding violence, Breaking Bad took it head on and did its best to show how these actions would impact someone in real life. Even though I’ve only seen the series once, I can still remember almost every pivotal violent scene in all five seasons, not simply because of their gruesomeness, but because of the way the characters were impacted and transformed from the process. By not removing violence from a realistic context, these graphic scenes keep their authenticity and in the process, sensitized the viewer, perhaps even more so than before they watched the show, to the devastating consequences of violence. Breaking Bad has accomplished the feat of using violence to compel viewers to be more morally conscious and less numb to its effects in the process.
Gross, Terry. "Quentin Tarantino, 'Unchained' And Unruly." NPR. N.p., 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Macnab, Geoffrey. "Django Unchained and the 'new Sadism' in Cinema." The Independent. N.p., 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
McCartney, Jenny. "Why 'Breaking Bad' Is the Greatest Thing on Television." The Telegraph. N.p., 10 Aug. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.
Mirk, Sarah. "It's Okay to Not Watch "Breaking Bad"" Bitch Media. N.p., 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.
Zuckerman, Esther. "Everything Quentin Tarantino Really Thinks About Violence and the Movies." The Wire: What Matters Now. N.p., 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.