Memorable and ambiguous: the dramaturgy of violence in complex serial drama

Author: Peter Ellis

Ellis, Peter, 2020 Memorable and ambiguous: the dramaturgy of violence in complex serial drama, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

Terms of Use: This electronic version is (or will be) made publicly available by Flinders University in accordance with its open access policy for student theses. Copyright in this thesis remains with the author. You may use this material for uses permitted under the Copyright Act 1968. If you are the owner of any included third party copyright material and/or you believe that any material has been made available without permission of the copyright owner please contact with the details.


This thesis offers an appraisal of violence depicted in twenty-first century U.S. complex serial drama that is conducted over four chapters. It employs textual analysis to evaluate the affective roles of violence in the relationship between these series and their viewers. These affective roles are contextualised by the cumulatively serialised narrative structure of complex serial drama, and its character-driven stories that focus on moral transgressions. The arguments in this thesis are informed by research aimed to identify three components of this affective relationship: how viewers engage with violence; the relationship between violence and character information; and how visual style can be used to convey ambiguous truths.

Beginning with a graphic example from the ultra-violent complex serial drama, The Walking Dead, the thesis identifies the characteristics of violence that affect comprehension. These characteristics are the clarity of its depiction, how close to the violence the viewer is made to feel, and the intensity of the emotions characters express. The perception of violence affects viewer comprehension by eliciting heightened levels of cognitive attention, concentration, and interpretation, as well as easily recalled memories created through its experience. The thesis argues that these features demonstrate both the short-term and long-term affects of violence upon narrative comprehension.

Complex serial drama encourages viewers to psychologically investigate protagonist characters. Textual examinations of Mad Men and Breaking Bad reveal how developing an appreciation for protagonists is essential for sustaining engagement. This appreciation informs the perception of character information communicated through violence, and the evaluation of violence influences what is subsequently noticed about character behaviour. This demonstrates a feedback loop between interpreting character and interpreting violence.

The thesis performs a close textual analysis of The Sopranos to demonstrate how it employs visual style to create narrative ambiguity. This ambiguity is created by the depiction of multiple conflicting, yet equally viable, truths. Violence in complex serial drama increases viewer engagement with narrative information. The ambiguity of truth restricts rational comprehension, elevating the role of personal value in accepting what is true.

The arguments in this thesis contextualise depictions of violence to provide the basis for a broader understanding of the affective relationship between complex serial drama and its viewers.

Keywords: Serialised drama, violence, television, television drama, tv drama, tv, complex serial drama, theory of vivid media violence, the sopranos, breaking bad, the walking dead, game of thrones, mad men, viewer engagement, character engagement, complex television, narratively complex, narrative complexity, ambiguity, second-degree style

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Julia Erhart