Matthew Bolton, associate English professor and director of the new film studies program, has taught ENGL 394: “I prefer to see it as the study of change”: Chirality, Uncertainty, and Corrosion in "Breaking Bad" (Topics in Film) which he began teaching in 2013 right after the show ended.
The class functions as an upper division film course, looking at television through a literary eye, analyzing plot, character, camera angle, editing and more. Meeting once a week at night, students watch all five seasons of "Breaking Bad", some separately for homework and pivotal episodes together.
“I try to recreate that experience of the big plot twist that nobody knows is coming,” Bolton said. “We all get to watch that together. And that also nicely breaks up that long, three-and-a-half-hour stretch to talk about what we read and watched that week. Then, we take a break and watch 15 minutes of television and immediately the lights come up and we get to react to it.”
Students watch several episodes for homework for the week and engage with supplemental texts, such as "Macbeth," "Paradise Lost," the myth of Sisyphus, Oedipus Rex, analyzing the common threads with "Breaking Bad."
“I think it also teaches you just really well to analyze like texts, whether that’s video, text or a book or anything,” said junior English major Peter Jonas. “It's some of the best engagement I've had with different arguments, different conversations, different pieces of literature. Yes, I learned specifically about "Breaking Bad," but I think it is just a really great class for any English major.”
The classes have been mostly full, drawing a mix of English, STEM, history, sociology, political science and more majors and about half have already seen the show.
“Sometimes we’re reading philosophy and literature, other times I need somebody who knows more about science than me to talk us through Heisenberg’s uncertainty theorem, or what chirality means in chemistry, before we can talk about it as what it means is a metaphor,” Bolton said. “A lot of different knowledge in the room is really, really helpful.”
The classes are also very discussion-based and junior Megan Rice notes the importance of new and different perspectives on the material.
“There was a senior who was studying marketing, so she had some really cool insight on some of the motivations behind like release dates and season length,” Rice said. “It was really cool to hear everyone else’s perspectives on the show because I was able to learn a lot from that that I wouldn’t have known otherwise, just watching it by myself.”
Bolton’s favorite part of the class is witnessing the creativity of the student projects, as they have more options than the traditional English paper.
“We have a lot of freedom to explore topics you’re interested in and then also the medium we were interested in,” Rice said. “It really is a class where no matter what your major is I feel like you can decide for yourself how to approach analyzing the show.”
The class has two short assignments, a quarter and three quarters through the semester, focusing on single episodes and the response. The midterm project is lengthier and students have created trailers for the course.
The final project takes on the series as a whole and Bolton has seen people make podcasts or board games, digitally map the physical locations of the series, create video essays on a character’s plot arc, or focus on the swimming pool in the backyard. They can write traditional essays, too.
“The big takeaway that I care about students getting to is that digital media is this machine for transformation and reflection,” Bolton said. “A movie or a television show is always reflecting us back to us, but also transforming the way we see ourselves, and that can be a really positive thing.”
“It’s made me a lot more critical of a TV viewer because it used to be I just sit there and just watch the show,” said junior computer science major and computational thinker Michael Finch. “Now I started going, ‘Whoa, why do I think this character is cool?’ ‘What is the show trying to tell me, what is the deep underlying message in this show?’”
“Breaking Bad” also operates as an interesting morality test, as people’s perceptions and opinions reveal how they think.
“It’s a show where Walter White starts out as the hero, and by the end, he is definitely the villain, but it’s that middle space that I find really interesting,” Bolton said. “At some point, we’re all going to turn on Walter. And some people have already gotten there by the end of the first season, some people that might be the last episodes of the show before they get there.”
Bolton describes how the nation’s viewing of George Floyd dying at the hands of police and the dislike of this reflection caused people to want to transform the world. Other times, visual media can cause complacency or persuade us against what we normally believe.
“A lot of our culture…comes from what we see on the TV,” Finch said. “I think, even if you don’t take one of [Bolton’s] classes, that’s something that’s important to know. Learning how this is influencing me, how am I influencing this, is an important question to ask.”
These four students interviewed all took this class either because they had taken a class from Bolton before or heard that they should, and he was often mentioned as their favorite part of the class.
“Dr. Bolton is a great professor,” Finch said. “This class is really challenging at times, really gets you out of your shell, really gets you like thinking really hard about things that you normally never think about. If you need an English credit, I’d say take one of his classes.”