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Kurt R.A. GiambastianiGrey is the new black.

Moral ambiguity. It’s everywhere you look in popular culture. Television, movies, politics, books. We have taken away all the black hats and white hats; now everyone wears a grey hat. To an extent, this can be a good thing, but more and more I see it simply as a way to be “edgy” or “raw.”

I’ll use two examples, one of which worked for me and one for which the jury is still out.

As an example of the latter: We’ve been bingeing on “Breaking Bad” this past week (having a summer cold leaves us energy for little else). Through Seasons One and Two, we watched the moral decline of Walt (the main character) until, by the finale of Season Two, he commits a sin so egregious, so callous and cold, that I wasn’t sure I cared to continue on to Season Three. The writers were able to take me along on Walt’s descent into criminality, and I was interested only insofar as (a) I understood it, and (b) could empathize with it. However, when the writers finished Season Two, Walt was no longer any one I cared about; his acts, his behavior, and his internal justification had become muddy, lost, or obscured. In short, I no longer understood him, and, once a character goes over into Crazy Land, I don’t care what happens to him.

To their credit, the writers of “Breaking Bad” had provided enough to carry me forward. They may have lost me with their main character, but I was willing to push onward just to see what happened to the secondary roles. As I write, we are in the middle of Season Three and I’m not sure if they can turn it around, as now it seems that everyone is in a downward spiral.

On the flipside, I give you the re-dux of “Battlestar Galactica.” The level of moral ambiguity in this show was very high, uncomfortably so at times. We saw characters change, both in reaction to events and in response to their own ambitions. “Good guys” became murderers, “bad guys” became heroic, and some characters were just so facile that you couldn’t pin down their moral direction for more than a scene at a time.

Regardless of a character’s relative morality/amorality, though, I always understood the reasons for action or change. I was always cognizant of why a character did something that was immoral/amoral. Whether or not I agreed with the reasoning, I could comprehend why the character thought it was a logical move.

And there is the difference. In “BSG,” the characters acted in agreement with their own internal logic, whereas in “Breaking Bad” the writers are either hiding or obscuring that internal logic, or it doesn’t seem to exist at all. When a character acts against his or her own moral code, we need to understand why. Otherwise the acts (usually violent) seem gratuitous, and it seems that the writers put it in just to add an “edge” to the episode.

Now please, don’t misunderstand me; I’m not some bluestocking crying out for a reincarnation of the Hays Office to ensure the “bad guys” always pay for their crimes and “good” always triumphs in the end. I am not advocating anything like it. What I am advocating is making the motivations of characters comprehensible, and not putting in morally ambiguous actions for their own sake.

It is my theory that for the most part, in their own mind, no one ever commits a crime. Crimes are always justified, internally. Phrases such as “victimless crime,” “He needed killing,” and “He deserved it” all point to the internal logic and moral calculation that has preceded the act.  In my own writing, I work very hard to make every character’s thought processes logical and relatively clear. You may not like my bad guys, you may not agree with their chosen course of action, but you understand them. Violence and immorality are facts of life; we cannot ignore them. But neither should we add them in just to titillate or make our writing “edgy.”

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