Date of Award

5-2014

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

English

First Advisor

Jennifer Greiman

Second Advisor

Bret Benjamin

Abstract

“Breaking Bad: on the Western Genre and Audience Reception” examines the recent TV series Breaking Bad making use of cultural scholar Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding theories in order to better understand what meaning is imbued into the series and what meaning is extracted by the audiences. By treating Breaking Bad as a cultural artifact moving across what Hall defines as the parts of the circuit of culture – production, identification, representation, consumption and regulation – I will be able to answer the question of why the show is so popular and to consider the significance of that popularity. While the popularity of the TV series can simply be attributed to the excitement and pleasure surrounding an average father’s secret life as a meth kingpin, I am discovering that there are gaps between the meanings imbued by sources like the network, writers, actors, and producers and those that the audience interprets and receives. Following my interest in the show’s popularity, I read Breaking Bad as a Western narrative and explore how the updated tropes of the Western genre create a strong identification with the American audience, which in turn provides a springboard for examining all five parts of the circuit of culture. While the cultural scholar and political philosopher Robert Pippin argues that the Western genre is the building of modern bourgeoisie law abiding society, I argue the opposite — that Breaking Bad reverses the Western narrative by updating the concept of ‘winning the west.’ The character of Walt asserts a masculine force of mastery, which is so crucial to a Western Hero’s image of dominance, but he does this in a way that documents the change from law-abiding social order to its dissolution into lawlessness. The production chapter focuses on the gap between the motivation of AMC to gain affluent viewers and the show’s dominant message of financial struggle and the failing middle class. The representation chapter explains how this dominant message is represented through camera angles, visual composition, audio, and mise-en-scène. This chapter also examines Breaking Bad in relation to Classical Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Searchers to see how Breaking Bad preserves the Western aesthetic while reversing Pippin’s Western. The consumption and identification chapter switches to the audience’s perspective. A demographic breakdown of Breaking Bad fans by age and sex is examined, but demographics can only tell us who watches the program, not what meanings they extract. In order to take this information a step further, I combine Stuart Hall’s theory of decoding with the TV gratification typology developed by Denis McQuail, a communications scholar, in order to extract the identities fans form with the Breaking Bad characters through online posts and comments by the fans. The chapter on regulation concludes my cultural study and further builds on the previous chapters by bringing in the post-modern theorist Jean Buadrillard in exploring how fans’ reactions and strong connection with the series reflect our epoch’s visual culture and dependency on simulation and reproduction to receive gratification.

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