Episodes: Characters are actions, not dialogue


If you have a couple of minutes today and you're interested in the decline of the antihero drama, go and read Noel Murray's excellent piece on the "Dead Freight" episode of Breaking Bad, an episode I really like that, nonetheless, underlines some of my problems with the show's final season. (Namely, the need to split the season in two meant that story arcs had to be shortened dramatically, which led to shortcut taking here and there. This is never more apparent than in the fact that Todd goes from innocuous dummy to criminal mastermind in, like, five seconds. It's a good idea on some level, but jeez, the Breaking Bad of season three would have made a meal of that shift.)

Noel suggests that something Breaking Bad has over the shows that followed in its (gigantic) footsteps is its willingness to engage with the idea of plot, rather than endless exploration of character. Vince Gilligan and his writers were willing to do everything to back their characters into corners, then try to find some other way out. There were a few times when they seemed to pull a magic solution out of thin air, but far more rarely than you would expect when your theory of writing television is "Let's try to get as stuck as possible." And through this, they realized that nothing Walter White could say could ever be as monstrous as anything he could do. The moments you remember from that show involve the ways that he erodes the relationships that are so core to the series simply through his actions.

Noel contrasts this with, say, The Walking Dead, where the characters talk endlessly about what they're going to do, then pretty much go out and do it. Usually, there's a complication they didn't foresee, but it's very, very rare that such a complication leads to better understanding of who they are (because they're forced to think on their feet, for instance). More often, they have some sort of backup plan, or they fall back on some other idea, and all is well. I think this is why the characters' encounter with Negan was so detrimental to the show. Rather than regroup to try to find a way to fight back, the show did an entire season about how the characters didn't want to fight back. That's absolutely a choice you can make, but the absence of character decisions is incredibly difficult to make work. The Sopranos pulled it off. Mad Men pulled it off. But The Walking Dead isn't either of those shows.

Reading this made me think of when we sent the first draft of a pilot script to a trusted friend. He got back to us with the usual frothy compliments -- it was fun to read, etc., etc., etc. -- but something he said stuck with me. The first draft was really talky and kind of internal. Stuff happened, but you mostly knew it was happening because the characters told you it was. TV, my friend said, has to be bigger in some ineffable way. Even for a smaller-scale coming-of-age drama like our pilot, there needed to be something more, something memorable.

I am not claiming we are anywhere near the talent of any of the writers mentioned above, even on the shows I don't necessarily like. We're still learning. But the solution we backed our way into was the same one that the Breaking Bad writers utilized: action is always more interesting than dialogue. When a character does something that externalizes their internal feelings, that's when you have TV that is something more than functional. When they just talk about it, that's when you find yourself shrugging it off.

And this is true of shows that are far more focused on character than plot, too. Think, for instance, of all of the tremendous moments in Mad Men that revealed a character via an action they took instead of a choice bit of dialogue. Betty shooting the birds. The endless reversals and reprisals of the idea of Peggy taking Don's hand. Don running home to meet his family for Thanksgiving -- and finding he was too late. Even moments we remember more for their dialogue are moments that root that dialogue in a specific choice to start speaking. Think, for instance, of when Don decides to tell the Hershey's folks about his childhood. That's a lovely bit of dialogue -- but it's also a very specific action beat. He's doing something that tells us how he's changed and how he hasn't over the course of the series, if he's going to be able to share this part of himself.

The thing about this lesson is that you constantly have to remind yourself of it. When you're a writer, words are your friends, and dialogue is made up of so, so many words. But even in the most internal, literary novel you can think of, character is revealed so much more through action than anything else. (Indeed, some of my favorite novels contrast the internal monologues of their characters with the ways that their external actions completely subvert what they want from the world.) When you're stuck in a story -- any story -- ask yourself not what the character might say next but what they might do next. If it's something internal ("well, they would feel sad..."), see if there's a way to externalize it that isn't the most obvious one you'd think of. (Can they angrily lash out at whatever's making them sad, instead of retreating and crying?) Prestige drama's in a bit of a rut right now, and the only way out of it might be by taking a blowtorch to that wall marked "talking about all of our problems."

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox