Tony Soprano. Nucky Thompson. Walter White.
The three characters from “The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Breaking Bad” respectively have committed despicable crimes and murders, yet we absolutely love watching them on television.
However, it’s not clear why we enjoy watching violent characters on screen.
“Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston, “The Sopranos” executive producer Terence Winter, and Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour James Fallon broke apart the complicated question during the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Psychos We Love” panel Tuesday.
All three provided a mix of answers ranging from science to living vicariously through fictional characters to explain what audiences get from watching violent — possibly psychotic — characters on screen.
Fallon suggested a scientific interpretation of what draws people to become naturally fixated on high intensity moments.
“It’s like horror films,” says James. “You can see that it stretches out people’s sense of what a person is. You watch it and it really stretches out all the possibilities — right to the breaking point if you will. Once that is released — through techniques that are used in the writing and direction — it releases dopamine … and gives you this wonderful feeling of euphoria.”
Dopamine is a chemical released by the brain when you experience something pleasurable. (Of course, it has many other functions, too, dealing with memory and movement.)
Terence Winter compared viewer’s consumption of violence to riding a roller coaster.
“You get to experience the feeling of what it may feel like to almost die … and not die,” says Winter. “You get to spend time with Walter White — and be inside that world, be inside that head … what it must be like to live that life … or Tony Soprano or Jordan Belfort and not have the consequences.”
Winter gave the example of a famous scene featuring Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”
“You really feel like you’re in the shoes of a guy who is about to kill somebody for the first time. The way that thing is constructed it’s just so brilliant because you really feel one millionth of what it must feel to be really doing that. Again, where else do you get to suspend time like that or ever be in that circumstance — God willing never — but that’s what it gives you and it’s pretty exhilarating.”
Cranston gave another, simpler reason for why we’re drawn to such characters like his “Breaking Bad” character Walter White.
“Well, I think he’s relatable. The more complex a character is the more honest the character is depicted,” says Cranston. “I think it touches people and it resonates through them, and it was done very craftily. A psychopath is more interesting to watch in a drama because they are just more interesting period.”
Cranston didn’t really agree with White being pegged as a psychopath, and neither did James.
Instead, Cranston saw his “Breaking Bad” character as someone reacting to a situation — in this case a cancer diagnosis — as a call to action.
“For Walt, it was simply about leaving something for his family, having more control of how he was going to die,” said Cranston. “It was more pragmatic. How much money do I need for my kids to go to college? How much money do I need for my wife not to lose the house? How much money do I need so they won’t bankrupt themselves from my care? … That initially was what he was going for.”
“Anybody in that position can identify with all those things,” added James. “What will it take for me to save my image? … I could really identify with a lot of the things in the character. I think many people can. The question you have to ask is ‘How far would you have to be pushed in order to jump out of society?’ That’s a very legitimate question and you don’t need to be a psychopath to do that.”
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