How Major TV Shows Define My Love Life
Domenica Ruta is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir With or Without You (Speigel & Grau, 2013).
Right now I am isolated in a singular class of post-modern loneliness. All of you — every sentient being in America, it feels like — are breathless and reeling from the series finale of Breaking Bad . Together you are licking your wounds, probably sublimating your feelings of loss in fierce series-centered debates, so afraid to let go forever. I know exactly where you are. I’ve been there before. But not now, as, not only have I missed the last episode, I haven’t seen the show at all.
“You haven’t seen Breaking Bad?!?!?” you all scream, eyes bugged in cartoon incredulity. No, I haven’t, which is strange, because I’m known to some as a sommelier of TV drama. I’ve had passionate, satisfying long-term relationships with Breaking Bad’s predecessors, and like I said, every single person I know has urged me to watch it. I took your advice one winter a couple years ago and got three or four episodes into the first season, patiently grinning and bearing. I was not immediately transported by the first few episodes, but that’s usually the way it is with me and TV love affairs. The beginning of any new series is always a little laborious and awkward, like watching a skinny, gooey foal taking its halting first steps. It can take an entire first season for writers and actors to finding their footing, and only in successive seasons does the narrative start to gallop and leap in ways that truly dazzle. As a writer, a measure of patient forgiveness is required for me to get engrossed by a new series. I’ve been through the process before — The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men being notable examples of shows I did not love at first sight, then later became devoted, almost rabid in my appreciation. But midway through season one of Breaking Bad, I just gave up.
It was winter in New England, a time I call the suicide season, not ironically or glibly. That particular winter I had the opportunity to hear about a lot of goddamn suicides in my suburban Massachusetts town. I was doing less than okay myself those days. I won’t call it depression — that’s an overused term, an insult to people who truly battle the disease — but I was definitely low. Waking up in the dark early morning, walking to the train in a raw, wet cold that didn’t have the decency to snow and make the freezing misery at least pretty to look at, working for a shit hourly wage, disconnected by a long, unaffordable plane ride from anyone I considered a kindred friend. What I needed at that time was some low stakes comedy, so I fell back on my stand-by, my TV-equivalent of methadone, and re-watched old episodes of Family Guy.
As I sit here today blocking my ears from all your post-partum grief and joy in the wake of Walter White’s swan song, I have uncovered the real reason I haven’t seen Breaking Bad: I didn’t want to watch it without a boyfriend.
My romantic history is entangled with specific TV dramas in lovely and bittersweet ways. I once delayed breaking up with a boyfriend for three months because we were watching The Wire together — for him it was his first time, for me it was a second round — and I felt obligated to sit through the end of the series before letting him go. When we first met we were both in uncomfortable transitional periods: he had just started medical school, where he was several years older than most of his peers, and he was unsure if he even wanted to practice medicine. I was newly sober and cleaning people’s houses for a living while writing a book I had no idea was any good or not. We were comically incompatible from the start, but we latched onto each other fast and strong the way people do when they are morbidly insecure with their lives.
This is not to say we weren’t affectionate. We had some fun times, but our relationship seemed to be more of a preparatory exercise; approaching thirty, we were both late bloomers who had missed some critical life lessons along the way, and now we were helping each other catch up. Jake took me through a master class in Bob Dylan, a musician I had stubbornly avoided all through college because of the nauseating sanctimony of his fans. I will be forever grateful to Jake for helping me get over that, and bringing Blood on the Tracks into my life. When I met him, Jake was of the antiquated opinion that television was an appliance abused by simpletons. “Oh, honey, I’m not talking about network shows. I’m talking about HBO,” I explained, in the only way he could hear it, lying half-naked in his bed. And so I became his spirit guide into the world of contemporary TV drama.
By the time we finished Deadwood (again, his first time, for me, round two) Jake and I were talking about getting married. Lying together in our uncomfortable beds in a our grimy apartments where neither of us had a TV let alone a living room to put one in, we contorted our bodies into those always-shifting configurations so familiar to modern couples: you struggle to balance the laptop between you, at such an angle that no one gets the solar glare or a painful neck creak, you tuck the tiny speakers in the crack between the bed frame and the wall, hoping you won’t roll over and disconnect them, all the while somehow managing to cuddle. If Jake and I can figure this out… I reasoned in my anxious, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life panic attacks. I realized midway through Season Three of The Wire, that, as cute and tidy as the metaphor was, a lot more is needed to make a relationship work, and Jake and I simply didn’t have it. It felt painfully irresponsible to say this to him before Stringer Bell got executed, so I tried to wait it out. But enough was enough and I ended it. He never finished the series, he told me a few years later, and my heart stung with codependent guilt.
I was living with Ben, my college sweetheart, when The Sopranos first aired. Ben surprised me on Valentine’s Day senior year by having cable installed in our dilapidated off-campus house and paying up front for a semester’s worth of HBO. It was an act of incredible generosity for a broke college kid, the moment our relationship shifted from hormonal puppy love to real commitment. For the years that followed, week after week, season after season, we learned all kinds of cheesy but true relationship lessons through watching our favorite show: what it meant to be patient during a hiatus (The Sopranos, if you remember, was famous for unpredictably postponing their season premier dates), how to carve out space and time every Sunday night and honor that consistently (TiVo technology emerged later in the series, not that Ben and I were ever in the position to afford it), how to persevere through awful episodes, sometimes whole seasons that seemed like a mistake. Because that’s what you do when you’re in love.
Ben and I were teenagers when we first fell in love. Eight years later we were not. We’d grown up together, and now we were growing apart. I remember the deep psychic pang in my heart when I tried to get Ben interested in a new show called Arrested Development, and he dismissed it. “I can’t stand all the fast-paced wit. It’s annoying,” he said. It seems shallow, but it’s as good an example as any other that we were becoming new people who needed and wanted different things. We loved each other so much, but I had to face the most searing lesson of adult relationships: love is not enough. Later, when we became friends again, we exchanged notes on the series finale of The Sopranos. Our opinions were wildly different, because we had become wildly differently people, but with the passage of time, and without the pressures of romantic relationship, it was finally safe for us to agree to disagree.
After Ben I ran straight into the arms of a graduate student named Don. We had one of those incendiary, all consuming love affairs that made us crazy and cruel and totally incapable of imagining happiness without the other one nearby. Together we didn’t watch TV series, we devoured them. Our sick little psyches so perfectly aligned that we seemed to stumble magically into dark, foreign TV shows that no one else had heard of. Don gets credit for discovering Lars Von Trier’s brilliant series for Danish TV called The Kingdom, a combination of Twin Peaks, ER, and the X-Files, full of vengeful ghosts, Downs Syndrome heirophants, and succubus pregnancies. As professional writers with reasonable success today, Don and I both cite The Kingdom as an artistic influence on our work as powerful as any book we read in graduate school. I am responsible for bringing a British series called League of Gentlemen into our lives. To call it sketch comedy is not quite accurate. Imagine The Kids in the Hall on LSD. Our shared passion for these and other shows left us so enraptured we developed our own language, the kind of interpersonal code deeply imprinted couples develop, much to the annoyance of their mutual friends. In the middle of the day, Don would text me a single line from Reno 911. Not a catch phrase, not a punch line, but a throw away bit of dialog that hit us both in the same place at the same time, so that I felt, in those moments, that no one else in the world understood me like he did.
We’d broken up briefly during the final season of The Sopranos (we broke up constantly — we were that couple), a time I spent black-out drunk, and so the mystery of “what happened” was preserved for me. We got back together when the last season was released on DVD, and Don made a point to be with me when I watched the last episode. He’d seen it already, but said it wasn’t the same without me. “I want to watch you watching it,” he said.
I don’t think I’ve been seen so completely in a relationship before that, and I know I haven’t been since. A year after later, Don and I broke up for good, and though we’d both sooner pluck out an eyeball then be romantically attached to each other, I often wonder, not when, but if, I will feel this kind of closeness again.
Neuroscientists have measured the physiological responses to new love — the nausea and elation, the serotonin spikes, the narcotic haze. They’ve also measured that the physiological spell of early love gets shorter and shorter with each new relationship. Does the same thing happen when you fall in love with a long-form narrative? If so, does that mean I’ve already spent my whole store of rapture? Will there ever be another show that takes hold of me like that again, that takes hold of a lover in the same way, so that we are locked together in that extraordinary collective thrall? What if Breaking Bad doesn’t live up to that? What if no one is willing to steward me through the show, like I did with Jake, after its historical moment has passed? What if it’s just too late for me?
What I know for sure is that I’d rather never find out what happens to Walter White than dive into his story alone. The thought of watching Breaking Bad on my laptop in my studio apartment reminds me too much of childhood, when all of these obvious intimacy fears and defenses were first established. Like many children of the eighties, my full-time parent was a television set. I had my one in my bedroom when I was four years old and a hook up to premium cable as young as eight. I was allowed to watch whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. No bed time, no censorship, no rules. Although I was acutely aware that I was lucky (none of my peers had these luxuries), it in no way relieved me of that profound, uniquely post-modern ache – sitting numbly in front of a blinking television, an ersatz hearth, canned laughter shadowing jokes I couldn’t pretend were funny, totally alone.
The nostalgia for 80s TV baffles me today. The nineties were not much better. The gates of hell for me will be introduced by the announcer saying, “this show was taped before a live studio audience.” I never want to relive that loneliness again. But a new kind had taken its place and I don’t want that, either. While I will never again have to turn to bad TV to take the edge off my day, I don’t want to have to watch great television drama — as you all promise Breaking Bad is — alone. So I’m staying out of the fray for now, standing at the periphery of your big triumphant farewell party, like a virgin at the senior prom, saving herself for love.