Television As A Shared Experience

September 30, 2013

This post might seem like it's about Breaking Bad, but it's really about television as an art form. There are no spoilers until the end where it's clearly marked, so most of this post is safe for anyone to read.

I haven't felt this way in 6 years, 2 months, and 8 days.

I remember the weeks leading up to July 21, 2007. All the theories. All the speculation. Who will live? Who will die? It was the topic of most of my conversations for a brief period of time.

And then Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published. After investing hundreds of hours reading and re-reading the books, watching the movies, and talking about what had happened and what might happen, the series ended. And I, like everyone else, experienced that ending alone. Because that's how the medium works. With literature, everything surrounding the story can be a shared experience, but the story itself is a personal one.

It was a similar, albeit condensed, experience for me leading up to the finale of Breaking Bad. I started watching the show about two years ago, at which point I binge-watched the first three seasons on Netflix in three days. And, just like when I started reading Harry Potter, I didn't know many people who had experienced this story yet.

But then, as the series started wrapping up, that all started to change. Many of my friends caught up on the show over the summer and were ready for the final eight episodes. Those people experienced the same thing that I had experienced years before.

And then we talked about it. We speculated. Who will live? Who will die? It was the same thing that happened 6 years ago. I've had many conversations about Breaking Bad with people I had just met. One of the best ways to start getting to know someone is to use a common bond as the starting point. With anyone who watched Breaking Bad, this was that common bond between us. We were on the same ride together, and we were equally excited for the rest of it.

And then the show went out in one glorious finale. But this time it was different. This time I wasn't alone. I was surrounded by at least a dozen of my friends. We were eating fried chicken, which we pretended was from Los Pollos Hermanos. There were moments when we gasped. There were moments when we cheered. There were moments when our hearts stopped.

We were together through the weeks of endless anticipation, and we were together for the ending.

That's something you only get with television. Books can certainly build up anticipation, but everyone experiences the story by themselves. Movies certainly have that whole "shared experience" thing going for them, but there's no way to talk about it throughout the story's progression.

With television, you get both. I've probably spent close to a hundred hours watching the episodes, re-watching them with friends who need to catch up, talking about the show with friends, talking about it with strangers, reading forums online, and coming up with my own theories about what will happen.

Spoilers ahead

And after all that, I watched the finale with people I care about. And we shared the experience together. We gasped as the machine gun in Walt's trunk killed Jack's gang. We cheered at the TV as Jesse strangled Todd. Our hearts stopped as Walt fell to his death surrounded by the meth lab that Jesse had built.

Those moments, moments that we all experienced together… that's what made it all worth watching.

To Vince and the entire cast and crew: Thank you for giving us this shared experience.