Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Meth Mondays

Okay, okay, I'm a stupidhead.

There's been no "Meth Monday" for two weeks now, and also no explanation for its absence. Unfortunately, what I'm about to write is the explanation. In a perfect world, all I would do is write, go to cons and conferences, and play with Mockingbird (and not necessarily in that order), but it's not a perfect world. Currently I have all of four weeks left in my first semester of graduate school. In those four weeks, I have to produce three research papers totaling some seventy-five pages of original research. Since I'm a stupidhead (see above), I have more work to do on those papers than perhaps I should this close to the end of the semester. All is well, however, and the work will get done, but it does mean than my writing energies and attention pretty much have to be focused solely on those papers for the next month.

Therefore, "Meth Monday" will be taking a brief hiatus until the second week of December, when weekly installments will resume. In the meantime, follow me on Facebook and Twitter for links to the latest Breaking Bad stuff that comes across my screen, and be sure to visit my co-author's blog Unfettered Brilliance regularly for her updates on new films, Breaking Bad, and all sorts of good stuff. I will also try to post here, but it is likely to be short and linky, and irregular.

On a final note, Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad is on schedule to be out in the spring of 2014 from ECW Press, after Season 5 has wrapped up and probably around when the "Complete Series" Blu-Ray/DVD/Whatever packaging is hitting the shelves as well.

So be well, and I'll see you back here for "Meth Monday" on December 17!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Meth Monday No. 14: The Ecstasy of Gold, Seasons 1 - 5A (beta)

Okay, Reader's Mine, I've got a treat for you this week: the latest version of Wojtky's "Ecstasy of Gold mash-up where Breaking Bad meets Ennio Morricone, by far the most gripping, brilliant bit of Breaking Bad fan-art on the web. Enjoy, and subscribe to Wojtky's You Tube channel here. I think you'll agree that this is plenty for one week, so I'll see you next Monday! Oh, and you're gonna wanna see this one in full screen mode.

Trust me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Tweaker Tuesday: Oops!

Did you ever have one of those days where you just blithely sail through the day feeling pretty good about everything you've managed to get done, only to wake up the next day and remember you had forgotten something really important the day before? Yeah. I'm sorry about yesterday's missing "Meth Monday," Readers Mine. It's Fall Break in these parts and I think I was a bit too much in the vacation mode. In any event, let me try and make it up to you with today's brand-new installment, "Tweaker Tuesday."

"Lily of the Valley" fan art by Phantom City Creative

One of the main things that has always drawn me to Breaking Bad is the show's ability to place the viewer in  a very morally ambiguous place in relation to the story. For Seasons 1 and 2, the audience is mostly rooting for Walt, with a few notable exceptions. (I have to admit that my own honeymoon of Walt-backing came to an end with "Phoenix" (2.12).) Even early in Season 3, when Walt appears to seriously be considering saying "no mas" there is a nervous relief that he might be able to pull back from the darkness. In Season 4, the viewer becomes more convinced that Walt is irredeemable, but the presence of Gus, who seems to be so much more of a Bad Guy, still allows fans to come down on Walt's side in that particular contest.

Season 5 is a different story. From what I can tell by lurking about (and occasionally posting) on various boards devoted to the show, and from #BreakingBad searches on Twitter, Season 5.1 was more difficult for viewers. In part this is revealed by a slight lessening of the constant fan-love for the show, and by a general sense of unease among long-time viewers. I think this arises from the fact that, without Gus around anymore, and with Walt's new kingpin attitude, the viewer can no longer ignore the fact that the person s/he's been rooting for over the last four years now is an increasingly vicious, greedy, manipulative, selfish, violent, murderous, drug lord who doesn't care who gets hurt so long as he comes out on top. What do you do when the character you've been conditioned to think of as the (kinda) Good Guy is revealed to be the Biggest of Bad Guys?

This is just brilliant stuff on the part of Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, and the rest of the cast and crew of Breaking Bad. In interview after interview lately, Gilligan & Co. have been emphasizing that what sets Breaking Bad apart from other shows is that BrBa places change at the center of the story. While this is usually referring to the characters, and to Walt and Jesse in particular, I think it is also referencing the audience's reaction to and engagement with the story itself. As the character of Walter White changes, so do the viewers' feelings towards him. We've always known that Walt and Jesse aren't Boy Scouts, but with Walt in particular, the audience has gone along on a journey from middle-class white male revolt to what appears to be true evil, and virulent violence. Walt can no longer be convincingly framed as the Good Guy, and the audience must deal with that, and with the uncomfortable realization that this change has been in constant, visible evolution, and that they have been rooting for Walt at every step.

So what happens when your hero become the villain? Some began rooting for Hank a couple of season ago. Others have shifted the primary focus of their feelings from Walt to Jesse, who has become (in a very weird and unexpected way) the heart and moral center of the show. Still others... have doubled down on Walt, apparently hoping for some kind of Tony Montana-esque bloodbath of a finale involving Walt and the M60 machine-gun in his trunk, and an all American ending of redemption through violence, where the Bad Guy gets it in the end, but goes out in a blaze of glory.* Me? I'm a Hank fan, and I want to see Walt caught, imprisoned, and crying like the cowardly little bitch he really is. I want to see Walt really and truly LOSE.

What can I say? I loved Jane too.

*NOTE: I love Al Pacino. I Hate Scarface. Perhaps Pacino's worst film, but it illustrates this trope. For a better film that does the same thing, and does it better, check out James Cagney and White Heat.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Meth Monday No. 12: the Origin of Wanna Cook?, or How I Wound Up writing a Book About Breaking Bad

Good morning, Readers Mine, and welcome to another Meth Monday here at Solomon Mao's! This week I thought I might do something a little different and use this space to tell you how I ended up co-authoring a book on Breaking Bad. It's called Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad and it's being published by ECW Press in the Spring of 2014. Or have I mentioned that already? Anyway, my co-author, K. Dale Koontz, already has an academic monograph to her credit, so this isn't her first time at the rodeo, but it is mine, and I thought one or two of you might be interested in how that came about.
Breaking Bad fan art by Ian Glaubinger
It all began when Dale started letting me tag along to the popular culture and Joss Whedon conferences she was regularly presenting papers at, and in the process introduced me to a group of incredibly smart, fun, funny, and accomplished scholars who were also into pop culture, Whedon, and TV scholarship. Up until this point I had no idea that I could combine some of the things I love and am passionate about with rigorous scholarship and actually do something I love as my work. This was a pretty exciting and important discovery.

For full disclosure, at the time all of this started I was 37 and had just gone back to college after finally getting some things figured out in my life (I am, Readers Mine, a slow learner at times), so while I was new to  the world of academia, I also had some miles on me, and during the previous 25 years or so I had almost always been writing. Bad poetry, stories that started but never finished, angry poetry, editorial essays, a self-indulgent ream of paper I called a novel, and even some pretty fair blank verse. The point of telling you all of that is to emphasize that, despite never really having done anything with it, I had been writing pretty constantly and consistently for much of my life, and I have always (and still do) read voraciously. In other words, I had accidentally created the basic structure of my own voice as a writer. That turns out to be important.

So, after going to a couple of Popular Culture/American Culture Associations (PCAS) in the South conferences, meeting people, and hearing some amazing papers, I had an idea that no one seemed to have looked at yet. I wrote a piece called "'We Just Declared War': Buffy as General" and presented it at the 4th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses in 2010. Later, the full paper was published in Watcher Junior: the Undergraduate Journal of Whedon Studies, and I was over the moon. So I kept writing, kept presenting, and kept going to school. I like to think I've built a reputation for doing quality work on time, and have a speaking style that generally keeps my audience interested. I also can't emphasize enough the importance of sticking my hand out and asking for guidance and mentorship from the scholars and friends around me. Rhonda V. Wilcox encouraged me to publish my Buffy piece. David Lavery mentored me in television studies. David Kociemba at Watcher Junior gently guided me through the review and revision process of academic publishing. Oddly, they were all eager to help. All I had to do was ask. Who knew?

So, along the way, I met Nikki Stafford, another scary-smart scholar who is also the ultimate companion guide writer, an editor at ECW, a geek's geek, nerd's nerd, and more fun in 5'5" than should be legal. This was around the time of Breaking Bad's third season in 2011, and she was a fan like I was. She heard that I was presenting a paper on Lonnie Athens' theory of violentization in regards to emotional realism in Breaking Bad and asked me to send her a copy. I did, and never heard from her again. Until six months or so later at the 2011 PCAS Conference in New Orleans, when she blew me away and left me walking about 12" off the floor by practically gushing  about how much she liked my paper. She also seemed to really enjoy my presentation at that conference on Samuel Colt and Supernatural. After the conference, I struck up an e-mail correspondence with her. (Turns out we both like to write LONG chatty e-mails [and blog posts, apparently]). In one of her letters one day, she broadly hinted that I ought to write an episode guide on something. With everything going on school-and-life-wise (Dale and I married in 2010), I wasn't too sure about taking on a book project all by my lonesome, and Dale was every bit the Breaking Bad fan I was, her style was also adored by Nikki (and most everyone else who's ever met her), and Nikki was really excited about the prospect of both of us working on a guide, so Dale and I expanded our partnership into a whole new area, and it's worked out beautifully.

All of that sounds like happenstance and good luck and I'll be the very first to admit that Fortune has favored me, but there's also a good bit of hard work and discipline there (remember the "quality work on time" bit?) The scholars who helped me are not only kind people, but produce brilliant works of rigorous scholarship, expect nothing less from me, and also expect me to get better, so I can help mentor the folks who come after me. All of this is incredible fun, but it is also an incredible amount of work. Often it doesn't feel that way because of the whole passion-work combination thing, but it is. At the end of the day though, I get to do something I love, and to call myself a professional writer and scholar. And that ain't bad.

That's it for this week! Tune in next Monday when I promise to look at something beyond myself, and in the meantime, check me out of Facebook and Twitter for all the latest BrBa news that crosses my screen. Until then, be well.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Meth Monday No. 11: The Academy Breaks Bad

Hello there, Readers Mine! I know, I'm late again this week, but once again I plead graduate school. The couple of days before and after a conference always seem to be really busy, but what needed to get done today is done, and it's time to play a bit.

Fan art by Paul Flanders
Speaking of conferences, you might be interested to know that the one I just got back from was the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in the South, held this year in Nashville, Tennessee, at the incredible Hutton Hotel. Seriously, I have never stayed in a hotel with such exquisite customer service. We were gypsies in the palace, for sure, but boy what a palace! Anyway, we'd driven half-way across Tennessee in order to present Friday morning in a panel devoted to Breaking Bad. Unlike this blog, or even Wanna Cook? PCAS is a full-on academic conference, and so were the papers.

Dr. David Lavery of MTSU chaired the panel, and gave a presentation on "Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, and Television Creativity. When it comes to the critical study of television, David's name pretty much heads the list, and his work has been instrumental is establishing television studies as a vibrant, growing field of scholarship. In his presentation (which I unfortunately missed half of in an ultimately vain attempt to fix some of the tech issues the panel was facing) David looked back over Gilligan's career in television to find the roots not only of Breaking Bad, but of Gilligan's own inimitable creative style. Focusing on some similarities in his work on The X-Files, David demonstrated that Gilligan's latest success was the product of a long process of dues paying, and continuous creative work.

Next up was Trevecca Nazarine University's Dr. Jeffery D. Frame with "Walt's Wake: Chemical Disincorporation and the Break Down of Breaking Bad's Secondary Characters." Jeff used Walt's technical term for dissolving bodies in acid as a bridge to looking at the ways in which Walt destroys so many of those he comes into contact with after he has decided to "break bad." Examining what might be called the collateral damage, Jeff looked at how Walt's actions corrode his family, his enemies, and even true random innocents through various direct or indirect chain reactions. Jeff also referred to Walt as the agent and Jesse as reagent/reactant, and framing which I think is just brilliant. I'll have to ask him if I can use it.

Then came yours truly, with "Buying the House: Place in Breaking Bad," where I used humanist geographic theory to examine the ways in which Jesse's house at 9809 Margo St changes throughout the series, and how those changes are projections of Jesse's own psychological state as he moves through incredible - and often incredibly painful - transformations of his character. This evolution, which the audience watches, imbues Jesse's house with indelible history and memories that reach out beyond the narrative universe and into the viewers' and thus makes the house a place with significant meaning for both Jesse's character and we who travel along with him for 8 - 13 weeks a year.

The panel was closed with true brilliance by my wonderful partner and co-author, K. Dale Koontz, of Cleveland Community College, with "Pregnant Pauses: The Uses of Nonverbal Communication in Breaking Bad." To set the mood, she began by "ding-ing" a bell like the one attached to Hector "Tio" Salamanca's wheelchair, which go the audience ready for more. From Marie's penchant for purple, to the foreshadowing "bell of doom," to Gus's stillness, to deadly car horns, to the Cousins' creepy crawling to the shrine of Santa Muerte; Dale showed us that the words we hear are only part, and not even the major part, of how information is communicated to us in Breaking Bad, what's not said, but seen; not articulated, but heard, sometimes tells us more than anything else, and more than we realize.

Needless to say, and gratifying to report, the panel was packed and all of our papers very well received. The rest of the conference was spent in leaping from panel to panel to try and hear at least most of the presentations we wanted to, and catching up with old and very dear friends from across the country, a process which included a walking ghost tour of downtown Nashville, and one hilarious night spent with 10 friends packed into our hotel room watching Joss Whedon's Avengers with the English subtitles on and the snark in full bloom. The kids on the Satellite of Love would have been proud.

That's it for this week, Readers Mine. Be sure to head over to Dale's Unfettered Brilliance this Wednesday for "Walter White Wednesday," and in the meanwhile, look us up on the social media and whatnot - we'll keep you in the loop of all the Breaking Bad news.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Meth Monday No. 10: The Emmys

Okay, Readers Mine, the day has gone well, the workload has been reduced, and I even had a chance to see an interesting lecture on James Hunnicutt to boot! Now it's time for my usual Monday ramblings about all things Breaking Bad.

Giancarlo Esposito gives props to Aaron Paul at last night's 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards
Well, the Emmys are come and gone, and if you're like me, you didn't watch them, preferring instead to be surprised this morning on teh intrawebs. And it was a surprise. Despite the considerable pre-show hype about the contest being between AMC's Breaking Bad  and Mad Men, the night's big winner turned out to be Showtime's original series Homeland, which took the awards for Outstanding Drama, Outstanding Actor, and Outstanding Actress. Since I finished watching Season 1 of Homeland just last week (don't have Showtime, but I got Netflix!), I gotta say, it's one hell of a show, and yeah, Daiman Lewis and Claire Danes are heavy hitters, who are doing phenomenal jobs with two very complex roles in Homeland. I really have no problem with them getting the recognition they deserve. As for our boy Bryan Cranston, it's worth remembering that the Walt of Season 4 was a largely passive character, seemingly moving in reaction to other people's actions. I expect to see quite a different outcome at the 65th Emmys, when Cranston's viscous, scene dominating Walt comes under consideration.

Of course, there was one notable win for Breaking Bad, as Aaron Paul came in ahead of both Giancarlo Esposito, and Mark Margolis to win his second Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor. This one was well deserved. As much respect as I have for Esposito and Margolis' acting chops (and that respect compares to Luca Brasi's for Vito Corleone), Season 4 was Jesse's - and Aaron Paul's - season. Paul continued to bring an astonishing depth to Jesse's character, finding a new hardness, a new acceptance, and fully realizing the bravery which has been lurking in Jesse throughout the series. From the open to "Box Cutter," where, as Gus cuts Victor's throat, Walt recoils, almost puking, but Jesse, leans forward and meets Gus' eye, Paul gave us yet another layer to Jesse. His portrayal of a young man desperate to drown out his own thoughts and memories in drugs, noise, and constant activity was heart-wrenching and very real. His recovery through an unexpected friendship and mentoring by Mike, allowing Jesse to give his loyalty to someone who he could truly respect, was equally well played, as was utter rage at Walt when he believed he'd poisoned Brock. Jesse was the role of a lifetime in Season 4, and Aaron Paul played it to the hilt with true style. Well done indeed.

As to giving Homeland the Emmy for Outstanding Drama, I think that was a bad call. Much as I like the show, and I do, it's nowhere near as tight and bright as Breaking Bad, and where 96% of the time I'm able to believe Walt and Jesse and crew, Homeland, Carrie, and Brody only have be about 75% of the time. I expect Season 2 to be better, but I have a feeling that Homeland's shiny newness had more than a little to do with its big win last night.

That's it for this week, Readers Mine. As always, be sure not to miss Dale's "Walter White Wednesday" this week, and I'll see you all back here next Monday! 

Meth Monday Delayed

Hey Readers Mine! I just wanted to let you know that this week's Meth Monday will be posted today, just not this morning. My co-author, K. Dale Koontz, and I are headed to Nashville Tennessee to present papers on Breaking Bad at the Popular Culture/American Culture Associations in the South Conference, and that means there's a pile of stuff to get done before we hit the road Wednesday. Therefore, Look for Meth Monday late this evening (EST), after I've gotten my head above water a bit. In the meantime, here's a picture:

Aaron Paul celebrating his second Emmy win for Breaking Bad last night!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Meth Monday No. 9: Reactions

Well Readers Mine, a couple of weeks have gone by in which folks have been digesting Breaking Bad's mid-season finale, "Gliding Over All" as it relates to the rest of the season and to the series as a whole. There are a lot of opinions out there, and who knows how many blogs, reviews, recaps, Tweets, Facebook postings, reddits, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Today I thought I'd engage with one of the more thoughtful writers out there, Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg, and her article "Why the Season finale of Breaking Bad Didn't Work." If you haven't caught up on Season 5 yet, be warned, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!

Breaking Bad official art by Christopher Monroe DeLorenzo
Ms. Rosenberg's issue with "Gliding Over All" (5.08), is that the reasons behind Walt's apparently sudden decision to quit cooking meth are left unexplained, which is a bit of a shock after this season's build up of Walt as a megalomaniac hell-bent on going into "the empire business," as some kind of twisted revenge on a world that he thinks has used him badly, and especially on Gretchen, Elliott, and Gray Matter. As Rosenberg points out:
"There are a number of possibilities here: that he’s bowed to Skyler’s reasoning, that in that pile of money, he’s finally found satisfaction, that having gotten the meth business running smoothly and efficiently, he’s no longer attracted to or challenged by the prospect of perfecting his operation. That, or it’s possible that he’s lying, and he intends to continue cooking."
I'd like to offer another theory, and one that I think is very likely: that Walt only thinks he's out. Judging from the cooking and distribution montage preceding Walt's announcement to Skyler that he's out, Walt and  Todd have been busy little drug-makers, enough so that, possibly there is a bit of a surplus of Blue Magic built up and/or still moving though the supply chain. Walt can declare that he's out pretty easily at this point, but besides making monetary amends to Jesse, we haven't seem him delivering the news of his decision to Todd, Lydia, or Declan, and somehow I doubt all (or any) of them are going to be too willing to shake hands and walk away from what is just an insane amount of money, and a market that can never be more than temporarily surfeited.

So okay, there are some complications likely heading Walt's way, but Rosenberg is right, none of that explains the why of Walt. She's also right in that the only real clue we have is Walt's reaction to that pile of money. Which Skyler keeps sprayed for silverfish. Because she has to store it. Because she can't keep up with laundering it. Because there's so much money there she doesn't even bother to count it any more. Is it the sheer visual impact of all that money that finally, finally hits home with Walt? Does that combine with the fact that the only way Skyler is going to let his kids back in the house is to stop cooking meth? Or is it just that things are running smoothly, and Walt's no longer getting the adrenaline rush high of leaping from one deadly mess to another anymore? Of course, we know that Walt has a tendency to find an excuse to walk away from things once he gets dissatisfied with them - see Gray Matter, so maybe being emperor isn't all he though it would be, and he's just bored.

In any event, as things stand now, Rosenberg is right: we're missing something here, some further twist in Walt's character and his thinking. Where I tend to disagree with her is in her analysis of whether Walt's moral state at the time when Hank finds him out really matters:
"If he’s Heisenberg, still confident and arrogant, Walt’s moral reckoning will involve the utter dismantling of his identity. But if Walt’s grappling towards decency, his reaping of the whirlwind will involve different kinds of pain, shame, and disbelief. If it’s to be the former, we need to know how Skyler came to be able to live with him, to laugh through dinner with Hank and Marie, to enjoy watching her children play together. If it’s the latter, we need to know how Walt found his way to a third self, neither the emasculated Mr. White nor the dominating Heisenberg."
I think we'll be dealing with the latter of Ms. Rosenberg's character sketches. I don't think Walt's personalities are truly divisible any longer. There is no telling anymore where Heisenberg ends and Walter White begins, but I think we've seen how that gestalt emerged, and I think it happened in Season 4. That was the season where Walt went from a terrified man about to puke as Gus slit Victor's throat in front of him to a man who could coldly calculate the murder of his two greatest enemies and afterward calmly tell Skyler "I won." Walt's frightening self-assurance throughout Season 5 has not been the result of climbing fully into the Heisenberg personality, but rather of reconciling the various parts of his character into a (relatively) smoothly functioning whole. We've not been dealing with "Heisenberg" all season, nor have we been dealing with "Mr. White," but with a disturbingly self-actualized and virulently violent Walter Hartwell White. The arc of this change is signaled back in Season 3 where the newly-sober Jesse latches onto the seeming paradoxical idea of accepting who you are, but while Jesse claims to be "the bad guy," he can never quite accept that, whereas Walt, who once said "I can't be the bad guy," now most most definitely is, and has truly accepted that. Just as there was no split between Pablo Escobar the murderous cartel-king and Pablo Escobar the philanthropist, so too there is no difference between Walt the meth-king and Walt the married man. It is all Walt, and the whirlwind he reaps will involve everything Rosenberg posits and more, because it will fall upon the whole man.

So that's it for this week, Readers Mine. Click back here next week for the next installment of "Meth Monday," and don;t forget to head over to my partner, K. Dale Koontz's blog, Unfettered Brilliance come Wednesday for another one of her "Walter White Wednesdays." Meanwhile look me up on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ for all the Breaking Bad news and tidbits that pops up in my browser. See you next time!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Meth Monday No. 8: Withdrawal

Well, last night was the first Sunday in eight weeks without a new episode of Breaking Bad, and I doubt I'm the only one having a bout of the shakes as we enter the Long Dry Spell until July of next year. Still, I'm going to start this week's post off with my usual !!!SPOILER ALERT!!! because if you haven't caught up through Season 5.1, Readers Mine, this and subsequent Meth Mondays may well spoil the story for you. So, onward!

Breaking Bad fan art by Alexander Iccarino
So Hank knows. Now he's got to prove it, and now I get to play around with what may happen between Hank's toilet-seat-revelation and the cold open to "Live Free or Die" (5.01). As he leaves a $100 tip for his free breakfast at Denny's we see the 52 year-old Walt with a New Hampshire driver's licence and apparently a whole new identity to go with it. If he really has left Duke City and started a new life, it's likely that Hank's investigation drove him to it. Why he's come back and bought an M60, is still a complete and utter mystery, but let's stick with how Hank may start to crack the Heisenberg case.

The obvious place to start is Jesse. All the way back in Season 1 Jesse's name started coming up in connection with Walt (as his pot dealer, no less!), and it was while chasing down Jesse during his search for the missing Walt that Hank had his deadly encounter with Tuco Salamanca in "Grilled" (2.02). Further, who can forget Hank's cornering of Jesse (and unknowingly, Walt) in the RV at Old Joe's junkyard in "Sunset" (3.06)? And Hank knows all too well where Jesse lives. Of course, Hank himself can't easily approach Jesse, not officially, not after putting him into the hospital in "One Minute" (3.07). On the flip side, Hank's now the ASAC in charge of the Albuquerque DEA office, so he's got the juice to get a deep investigation going - assuming he can justify the expense to his superiors. Unknown to Hank, of course, is that Jesse and Walt are out of the business. Even extended stake-outs are unlikely to reveal any illegal activity at this point.

Assuming Walt can stay out. He new distribution partner, Declan, doesn't seem like the type to walk away from the kind of money he's been making with Walt over the past few months, and Lydia is not exactly the most trustworthy partner either. Still, I think Hank will start with Jesse, but I also think Hank will very quickly come to Skyler. Her and Walt's gambling story has got to be looking pretty thin, and of everyone involved, Skyler is the least prepared to notice and evade surveillance. And Hank even knows about Ted. My best guess as to what happens is that Skyler, in order to protect and keep her kids, claims ignorance of the source of Walt's money, claims to have believed the gambling story, and makes Walt take the fall all by himself. Which, after all, he should be more than willing to do if he really has been doing all of this for his family! So Walt goes on the lam with the help of Saul's vacuum cleaner repair guy, and Skyler, with the car wash and who knows what else likely seized by the feds, but helped by Hank and Marie, who's she's managed to convince of her ignorance, lives small with Jr. and Holly. On the other hand, if Hank manages to make Ted crack, or follows Skyler to her secret storage unit, she's in the crapper too. 

I suppose Walt and the rest of the family could be in Witness Protection in New Hampshire, but who does he really have to roll on? Jesse, Declan, and Lydia are far smaller fish than Walt himself, after all. No, Walt's  in hiding under a new identity when we see him in "Live Free or Die." So what brings him back? Maybe someone is trying to force him to go back into business, likely by threatening his kids, and Walt has returned for a grand, Tony Montoya-esque, finale. It's problematic, though. For one, it makes Walt, ultimately, a good guy, and he's gone too far for that kind of redemption. I think it's more likely that something has pricked Walt's pride and ego, but I can't even hazard a guess. I don't want to count Jesse out either. After all, Walt has killed the love of his life, poisoned Brock, and has generally made the last two plus years of Jesse's life a waking nightmare. Something in me wants Jesse to find out about Jane and Brock and all the rest, and for him to be the reason Walt is back in ABQ with a machine-gun. 

I do have one end of series prediction that I still feel confident about: Walter Jr. and Holly wind up living with and being adopted by Hank and Marie, because Walt and Skyler have destroyed the White family, and are either dead, on the run, or in jail. Everything else is way up in the air. Ultimately, we'll have to wait until next year to see what the hell is going on, but if there's one thing I've learned from watching Breaking Bad for five years is that you can never, ever, count on this show to do the expected. 

So that's it for this week's Meth Monday. Tune in next Monday for more ramblings, predictions, fan-art, and who-knows-what. In the meantime, be sure to check out my partner K. Dale Koontz's "Walter White Wednesday" post over at Unfettered Brilliance, and check me out on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+ for all the random BrBa stuff that comes across my screen, as well as a pile of other semi-useful information. See you around!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Meth Monday No. 7: "Gliding Over All" (5.08)

Well Readers Mine, we've reached the end of Season 5.1 with last night's "Gliding Over All." If you haven't watched the episode yet, stop reading, and come back after. Trust me, you really don't want to get spoiled on this one, so with that said: !!!SPOILER ALERT!!!

Skyler and Walt (Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston) survey Walt's 401k.
Gliding Over All
Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.
                                        -- Walt Whitman, "Gliding Over All," Leaves of Grass   
There you have the origin of the title for Breaking Bad's mid-season finale episode "Gliding Over All' (5.08), which also serves as the key to the episode's structure. From the cold open forward, the viewer sees Walt being confronted with reminders of the past year plus of narrative time, and four seasons of air time:

  • The fly Walt stares at so intently as Todd reports back from having Mike's car destroyed recalls Walt's long night of the soul in Season 3's "Fly" (3.10) where he teeters on the brink after killing Jane and indirectly causing the Wayfarer 515 collision, but ultimately decides he can live with what he's done, what he's doing, and who is is becoming. 
  • During Walt's first conversation with Lydia in the coffee house, after she's pitched the idea of expanding Walt's empire into the Czech Republic, Walt tells her to "Learn to take 'yes' for an answer,"  thereby repeating the advice given to him by Mike in Season 4's "Thirty Eight Snub" (4.02) when Walt has won his place as Gus' cook through the death of Gale. Later, after the deal is struck, Lydia offers her hand, and unknowingly quotes Tuco Salamanca in "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal" (1.07), as she tells him "We're gonna make a lot of money together."
  • Sitting in a crappy motel room with Todd's prison-gang connected uncle and other Aryan Brotherhood types, Walt is confronted with the same painting showing a man in a dingy rowing away from his wife and child on the shore towards a ship anchored on the horizon that hung in his hospital room in "Bit By A Dead Bee" (2.03) after his "fugue state."
  • After his biannual PET/CT scan to check on his cancer, Walt comes face to face with the still-dented paper-towel dispenser he repeatedly punched at the end of "4 Days Out," when he is given the news that his cancer has gone into remission, and thus that his excuse for doing the things he's been doing no longer exists.
  • Finally, after Walt has paid off his debt to Jesse and supposedly gotten "out," the familiar scene of a White/Schrader family cookout around the White family's pool opens with shots of a dripping garden hose, a colorful mobile/wind-chime, and a beetle crawling along the top of an adobe wall, the same sequence of shots which opened the black and white cold opens of the first and last episodes of Season 2, "Seven Thirty Seven" (2.01) and "ABQ" (2.13). 
These incidents are more than just a review/reminder of seasons past for the viewer, but milestones along Walt's "voyage of the soul," markers of where he has been and how he came to where, and who he is. So too do they sing of "death, many deaths." Jane, Wayfarer 515, Tuco, Mike, Gale, Gus, Hector, Krazy 8, Emilio, and finally nine men Walt didn't even know. These are the places Walt has been on his voyage from milquetoast high school chemistry teacher to ruthless meth kingpin.

Along the way, he's collected some souvenirs, which are also featured prominently. The ampule of ricin hidden on the outlet-plate behind his nightstand, and which he took to his meeting with Lydia, to kill her after she gave him the names he wanted. The expensive, beautiful watch Jesse gave him for his 51st birthday, and with which he times the murders of nine men in three different prisons over the course of two minutes. And finally, of course, the copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass so thoughtfully placed on his nightstand in "Live Free or Die" (5.01), and ultimately so carelessly left in the magazine basket atop the toilet, where Hank finds it and reads the sentimental inscription:
"To my other favorite W.W. It is an honor to work with you. Fondly,  G.B."
Already some bloggers and recappers are referring to the "poetic justice" of all of this, but this is more than a bad pun. Instead, despite his cold and ruthless attitude this season, it is Walt's sentimentality and pride which proves his undoing. For the book, the watch, the ricin are not just mementos, but trophies, icons of the "victories' Walt thinks he's won. Unfortunately for him, he had no one to whisper in his ear at the moment of his triumph and remind him of his own mortality. At least, no one he would listen to.

Unfortunately for us,  we don't find out what happens next until July of 2013! In the meantime, however, Meth Mondays will continue as I ruminate over what has happened in season 1-5.1, and keep you updated on the progress of Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad, the book I'm co-authoring with K. Dale Koontz for ECW Press. We hope to have it hit the stands in the spring of 2014, right about the time the complete Season 5 DVDs will be released. I think you're gonna like it, Readers Mine, I really do. See you next week!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Meth Monday No. 6: "Say My Name" (5.07)

Hello again, Readers Mine, and welcome to another Meth Monday, were I'll be taking a look at last night's episode of Breaking Bad, "Say My Name" (5.07). As usual, I'll be writing about the episode as if you've already seen it so, if you haven't: !!!SPOILER ALERT!!!

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut
Coming out of the gate, Walt is large and in charge, showing no fear as he, Jesse, and Mike meet with Deckland and his crew, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Walt's demand that Deckland "say my name" not only gives the episode its title but also lets everyone know just exactly how much Walt is getting off on being the big bad man. Furthermore, Walt's power-tripping attitude actually works, and he gets everything he wants: Mike out with enough money to pay off his crew, a new distribution network, and Jesse at least temporarily prevented from leaving. Take note of this, because it is the last time Walt gets what he wants for the entire episode, and maybe longer.

First, Jesse still wants out, and no amount of praise, disdain, manipulation, or withholding of money by Walt does one damn bit of good. Skyler will only sit at a table with Walt for as long as it takes to eat a meal, and she certainly isn't going to engage in small-talk with him. Walt is burning bridges and at every step he is becoming more and more alone, while trying more and more desperately to control a situation which is fundamentally uncontrollable. The 'break-up" scene with Jesse is a perfect example. Walt starts with flattery, offering Jesse his own lab, his own cook, telling him that his cook is every bit as good as his is. Back in Season 3, when Jesse was so wounded in mind and body that he desperately needed affirmation from Walt, this would have worked like a charm. But that was a different Jesse. That was before Gale, and Don Eladio, and the last Salamanca, and Gus. Jesse has had enough of killing and of the chaos that cooking causes in his life. By choosing to walk away, even if it means doing so without any money, Jesse is refusing to walk Walt's path of violence, death, and utter loneliness. After all, Jesse has seen how Walt's business has destroyed his relationship with his family. He knows Walt's arguments and attempts at manipulation are bullshit, and he's not buying it anymore. Jesse is a long way from being the kid we met in Season 1.

Walt, of course, can't comprehend any of this. Can't wrap his mind around how anyone could not want the power he thinks he has and the money he thinks he will make. More than this, though, he can't understand why his efforts at manipulating others are failing. It doesn't fit in with his inflated notion of himself as some sort of criminal mastermind. All of this comes out in what, for my money, is the best scene in the entire episode, when Mike - God bless him - tells Walt off and calls him on his bullshit. In Walt's mind nothing that has happened in the course of the last year and few months has been his fault. His primary method of rationalization has been to convince himself that he has never had any choice in any of his actions, that he has been forced to do things in response to the situations he has somehow "found" himself in. It's all an enormous load of bullshit, and finally Mike lays it out for Walt:
"We had a good thing you stupid son of a bitch! ...You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed - it was perfect. But no, you just had to blow it up! You! And your pride and you ego - you just had to be the man. If you'd done your job, known your place, we'd all be fine right now!"
Because it's all true. All of this, everything that's happened, every person that has died, every bloody misstep and mistake is ALL WALT'S FAULT. He owns all of it. Mike tells Walt the truth so clearly and fiercely that Walt can't help but hear it, and he just can't stand it. Can't stand that his reasons are bullshit, can't stand that all he has done is create one crisis after another, and certainly can't stand that someone like Mike can see right through his precious skein of lies. That's why he shoots Mike. Not because of the names he needs, but because he's in a pouty snit over being told the truth to his face, and like the tantrum throwing child he his, when he's in that state Walt just acts without thinking. At all. Only with Walter White, the child in question is a man who has come to see deadly violence as the first, best solution to any personal or personnel problem he might encounter.

Goodbye Mike, and good on you for telling Walt to "shut the fuck up." It's about time someone did.

That's it for this week, Readers Mine. Next Sunday brings the final episode of Breaking Bad this year, and marks the half-way point in the show's final season, which AMC has split into two shot season over 2012 - 2013. Episode 5.08 is entitled "Gliding Over All," and R.J. Mitte (who plays Walt Jr.) has said that next week we'll see a "season" ending "with an amazing twist," so I'll be here next Monday to ramble on about it and I hope you will too. In the meantime, don't miss my co-author's regular spot "Walter White Wednesday" over on Unfettered Brilliance later this week, and check me out on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for various interviews, updates on Wanna Cook and other Breaking Bad goodies that come across my monitor.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

'Teenth Tuesday, 5.06 "Buyout"

Having successfully crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into Tennessee and begun to find places for the various things I brought with me to live, it's time to return to Breaking Bad and Sunday's latest episode. Again, I write these posts as if you've already seen the episode, Readers Mine, so: !! SPOILER ALERT!!

The cold open gets right into it with Walt, Mike, and Todd cleaning up the mess from the end of last week's "Dead Freight." To a strange and moody track of synthesized chimes, the crew disassembles and dismembers the dirt-bike belonging to the the child Todd killed. The pieces are collected and dropped into translucent white polyethylene barrels, and followed with several gallons of hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the evidence. In a brilliant piece of staging, Todd is shown uncovering the child's hand from where they have temporarily buried him in the back of a dump-truck, and Walt is seen opening up another empty barrel. Like the best horror films, we don'tsee what happens to the child's body, but we know, and not seeing is somehow even worse.

The rest of the episode is also fallout from "Dead Freight," and Jesse and Mike are both trying to call it quits in light of this latest unintended consequence. Mike's even got a way to tie up all the loose ends: sell off their shares of the Great Methlaymine Heist for a cool $5 million each. Mike takes care of his people who're in jail, and he and Jesse fade into the background, wealthy and free. Enter Deckland, Mike's contact from Phoenix who's in the market for some methylamine, provided that such a purchase insures that Blue Magic meth disappears from the market. So it's either all the methylamine, or none of it. I've read a couple of recaps which posit Deckland as this season's "Big Bad," but somehow I doubt it. I still think that Walt is going to fulfill that role this season, no matter how uncomfortable the audience may be with seeing their beloved anti-hero turn full-fledged villain. Deckland is more along the lines of being a complication, and in many ways is Arizona's own Walter White: a man "in the empire business."

By far the best, and most significant, scenes in this episode take place in the White house, as Jesse tries to convince Walt to sell his share of the methylamine and get out of the business. Jesse calls Walt on his too-cool-for-school, hard-liquor-sippin' attitude, reminding him that he was there when Walt figured out that he needed $737,000 to do everything he wanted to do (2.01: "Seven Thirty Seven"), and that $5 million is that amount plus, you know, almost $4.25 million more. Walt, of course, will have none of it, and here's where things begin to get really interesting inside the dark corners of Walt's noggin. Remember Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliott? The people who were willing to pay for Walt's cancer treatment? Well Walt does. Spinning a deeply embittered tale of being bought out of what is now a $2 billion business for $5,000, Walt tells Jesse he'll never settle for pennies on the dollar again, and the way he tells it, he was the injured party way back when. However, the picture Gretchen painted of the dissolution of the Gray Matter triumvirate back in "Peekaboo" (2.06) is quite different. In that version, Walt was vacationing with her at her parents' place and suddenly stormed away, leaving her, Elliott, and Gray Matter behind. Meaning that Walt got pissed off, pouty, and stalked off with a chip on his shoulder without explaining anything to anyone, or even trying to work things out like a reasonable human being. And every week since he's been checking the stock quotes on Gray Matter, twisting the knife in his guts, squatting in his own private desert and eating at his heart.*

Finally, however, we get a break from all the heavy stuff in a tremendous "guess who's coming for dinner" scene between Walt, Jesse, and Skyler, where Aaron Paul once again shows off his comedic chops as the ultimate unwanted guest and witness to an ongoing family fight. His attempts at being polite ("Well, great job with the shopping then, because these are choice!" and retreats into long drinks of water while his eyes flick back and forth, had us howling. Interesting too that while Walt continued to sip hard liquor and Sky found a glass big enough to hold 3/4 of a bottle of wine at a go, Jesse was drinking a tall glass of ice water. Jesse is also sitting at the table opposite the place usually reserved for Walter Jr., and is very much navigating the same emotional currents between Walt and Sky at dinner that Jr. has been lately. Walt as much as says that he's given up his biological kids (he blames Sky, of course, nothing is ever his fault, after all), so who better to fill the void left by his oldest son than his younger partner. Things are just weird at the White house.

In the end, Walt has a plan that will let everyone win (don't hold your breath), and is cocky enough to maintain his smug, self-satisfied smile even when Mike is pushing the muzzle of a gun into his skull. This can only end in tears. So join me next week for the post-mortem of 5.07: "Say My Name" (only two episodes left in this mini-season!), and be sure to check out what my partner's cooking up over at Unfettered Brilliance for tomorrow's "Walter White Wednesday." In the meantime, check me out on Twitter and Facebook for all the Breaking Bad goodies that cross my desk, and I'll see you next week!

*with apologies to Stephen Crane

Monday, August 20, 2012

This Week's Meth Monday Comes to You on 'Teenth Tuesday

Okay, Readers Mine, I watched Breaking Bad 5.06 "Buyout," last night, and though nowhere near as shocking as last week's episode, this one is no less of a game-changer. However, I'm off to the great State of Tennessee this morning in order to move into my new graduate student digs at East Tennessee State University where I'll be going after an MA in American History. Therefore, look for this week's installment of Meth Monday tomorrow, on a special 'Teenth Tuesday where I'll rhapsodize, theorize, and agonize over the latest schemes of Vince Gilligan and Company. See you tomorrow!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Meth Monday No.4: "Dead Freight" (5.05)

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to another Meth Monday! As always, this is being written as if you've seen last night's new episode of Breaking Bad, "Dead Freight," and believe me, if you haven't, you don't want to get spoiled on this one, so: !!SPOILER ALERT!!

So there's this kid, see...

With "Dead Freight" (5.05) Vince Gilligan & Co. once again prove that they're willing to break all of the rules to give the viewer some incredible TV. The episode's cold open is apparently completely random. Who is this kid? Why's he out messing around on his dirt-bike somewhere in the wide open scrub desert of (presumably) New Mexico? Besides gathering tarantulas, I mean. Perhaps most befuddling, what in the hell does this have to do with anything?

Those familiar with the show were probably as confused as we were, but also reassured by 4 season where Gilligan & Co. have often used circular episode structures where the cold open is tied directly in to the final scenes of the episode. So too with "Dead Freight." After the kid has safely stowed his spider, remounted his bike, and carefully strapped on his helmet, he turns to look towards his left as he hears the sound of a train horn, and then heads off. The train horn in the background is simply brilliant, and chilling to hear upon rewatching the cold open after seeing the entire episode. It turns out that the kid and the tarantula have a lot in common. Both of them just happen to be in the wrong place at wrong time. The tarantula's just going about it's spidery business when this kid just scoops it up and shoves it into a jar. The kid's just poking around outside riding a dirt-bike, collecting bugs, and checking out all the stuff that is inherently interesting to preteen boys. Only he comes across three guys with hoses dancing around under a small train trestle in the middle of nowhere - and he gets killed for it.

Jesse's careful scheme, his (and, somewhat surprisingly, Mike's) reluctance to kill innocent people, has just blown up in everyone's face. Keep in mind that Jesse has a real problem with hurting kids. Remember the redhead in "Peekaboo" (2.06), or his emergence as the moral center of the show in "Half Measures" (3.12)? And let's not forget how torn up he was about Brock potentially being poisoned by ricin in "End Times" and "Face Off" (4.12 - 13). To Jesse (and to most decent people) using, abusing, or killing children is simply unconscionable. It is a line Jesse has never crossed, and a line which has led him to throw everything away in an effort to punish those who would do such a thing. Jesse is going to have a REAL problem with this. Walt? Well, likely, not so much. Remember the Lily of the Valley. This is also a straight-up, unabashed murder of an innocent child, which should be completely un-rationalize-able, and which for Jesse will be. For the viewer it was made even more effectively horrific by the shooter being Todd, played by Jesse Plemons, who audiences are most familiar with from his role of Landry Clarke, the ultimate good guy. This is an exquisite use of an audience's blurring of the lines between a given popular character portrayed by an actor and the actor himself to help subvert the viewers' expectations and make a shocking scene even more so. Just brilliant TV. Again.

So what now? The methylamine has been secured with no one the wiser, but a child is dead. Murdered in cold blood. There's no hiding that, no way to avoid an investigation. And there's Jesse, who was willing to buck Gustavo Fring over the use of children in his business. Finally there's Walt, and by now the viewer knows that Walt is not likely to stop at anything to achieve his ends, amorphous as they may be. In a curious way, Season 5 has been a far more uncomfortable and uncertain season for the viewer. Up until now there has been a "Big Bad" of some kind: Cancer, Tuco, Gus. Now however, the Big Bad is Walt, and the audience, which to a greater or lesser extent has been rooting for Walt throughout the series, is increasingly being forced to acknowledge that he is now the Bad Guy.

We've been rooting for evil for almost 5 years now. See how easy that was? Makes "man's inhumanity to man" a little bit more comprehensible, doesn't it? It also forces us to realize that we are complicit. We wanted Walt to get this far, we've been rooting for him, and now at least a little of that kid's blood is on our hands as well. Good luck washing it off.

See you next week.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Meth Monday no. 3: "Fifty One" (5.04)

Hello, Readers Mine, and welcome to the latest installment of my regular series, Meth Monday, where I chat a bit about the latest episode of Breaking Bad, and hopefully whet your appetites for more via the forthcoming Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion guide to Breaking Bad which my co-author K. Dale Koontz and I are knocking out right now. As always, I'll be writing as if everyone reading this has seen last night's episode, so !!!SPOILER ALERT!!!

Skyler is the heart and center of this episode, but before moving on to focus on her, it's worth taking a brief look at another element. Walt's birthdays are becoming progressively more lonely. In "Pilot/Breaking Bad" (1.01), Skyler had cheerily arranged Walt's faux-bacon into the big 50, and later Walt came home to a house full of people celebrating his birthday with a massive surprise party. Last night, Walter Jr. had to talk an increasingly distant and frayed Skyler into repeating the tradition by spelling out 51 on Walt's plate, and Walt came home to an awkwardly quiet family dinner (comprised largely of take-out). As seen in "Live Free or Die" (5.01) Walt's 52nd birthday breakfast is a grand-slam from Denny's served by a professionally cheery waitress, and he breaks his own bacon into a 52, all alone. This is a very nice shorthand for the ongoing disintegration of Walt's family and home. Family has always been Walt's excuse for his actions, yet what he does progressively destroys what he professes to love. His actions belie his words.

On to Skyler, played by the incredible Anna Gunn, who is really showing off her chops this season. To this point in the season, Skyler has been living in terror in her own house. She had made an accommodation with Walt's meth-cooking, particularly as it provided a way for her to move into a business of her own, and to share in Walt's profits from the more or less controlling position of being his money launderer. Granting that Skyler never really understood the world she had dealt herself into until season 4's deadly final episode, her eyes have been open wide throughout the new season. Her sudden walk into the deep end (yo, metaphor much?) was just brilliant TV. Remember how she kept screaming at Marie to shut up during her breakdown in "Hazard Pay" (5.03)? Well last night Walt was spinning another exquisite line of bullshit about everything he had been through during the last year, playing on Hank and Marie's sympathy, and Skyler, unable to make him shut up literally went to a quiet place. The similarity in the shots of Skyler floating in the pool to those of the electric pink teddy bear in Season 2 is no coincidence, and may well carry the same significance in the ongoing storyline.

Skyler has rather literally hit bottom. She has been pushed down and aside, ignored, and overruled. After all, it was Skyler who put the kibosh on the fancy cars in Season 4, with a very reasonable fear that such sudden expenditures would look more than a little suspicious. Season 5 sees a whole new Walt, and a much meeker Skyler. Until last night. There's really only one place to go from a bottom that doesn't kill you, after all, and that's back up. Skyler began that climb last night, and with a vengeance. She is done with being powerless, done with being passive, and done with Walt. because she sees through all of his bullshit. From throwing his own words into his face ("I thought you were the danger") to telling him that she's just waiting for him to die, Skyler is coming back, and if Season 5 has brought the audience a new Walt, I believe it is also about to reveal a new, and much more dangerous, Skyler.

Finally, there's the hat. The Heisenberg Hat, which Walt dons for the first time this season as he takes Jr. on a car-buying spree, and again at the end of the episode when he tells Mike and Jesse that "the methylamine must flow" (yo, Dune much?). Walt is beginning to realize that the hopes and dreams of Walter White are going to Hell in a hand-basket. He is never, ever going to have the family he had before. So if those dreams are dead, the only ones left, the only ones he might have some control over, belong to Heisenberg.

On a side note, Skyler is the character that fans love to hate, and more than hate, with comments on various fan sites regularly reaching a disturbing level of vitriol, which Anna Gunn discusses in an interview with Rolling Stone. She identifies this kind of hatred as being aimed not just at Skyler, but also at other female characters, and as a disturbing cultural trend, and she's right. Its yet another facet of the widespread misogyny on the web, and honestly, if you hold the character of Skyler in contempt, or see her as nothing more than a bitchy obstacle to the plans of the Great and Powerful Walt, you're missing the point, and are likely not going to be happy with the way this show may end. Not to mention that you're overlooking the consistently stellar performance of Anna Gunn, who brings this character so completely and complexly to life. The thing to remember about Breaking Bad  is that nothing is ever static. Everything, especially the characters, are in a constant state of change. Watch Skyler, take things from her POV and you see things very, very differently.

Okay, that's it for this week's Meth Monday. Tune in over at Unfettered Brilliance for Dale's Walter White Wednesday later this week, and check me out on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for various updates throughout the week. Next week on Meth Monday: "Dead Freight" (5.05). See you next time!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Meth Monday No. 2: "Hazard Pay" (5.03)

Welcome back, Readers Mine, to the second installment of Meth Monday, where I take a look at last night's new episode of Breaking Bad. As usual, I'll be writing this as if you've already seen the episode, so: !!SPOILER ALERT!!

Season 5's beginning has been all about ratcheting up the tension, and doing it without any violence whatsoever, a complete change from Season 4's opening episodes. Yet every scene is weighted with the potential for violence, and I can feel my shoulders knotting as I sit through every 42+ minute episode, just waiting for the right domino to fall and for the screen to go bloody. In the meanwhile, Gilligan & Co. are giving viewers some truly brilliant TV.

My favorite licks from last night's "Hazard Pay" include the soundtrack of a bunch of children playing as Walt, Jesse, Mike, and Saul check out Vamonos Pest, and again as Walt and Jesse enter that big tented house in its upper middle-class neighborhood and begin to cook. Breaking Bad has never shied away from presenting the viewer with the realities of crystal meth, and this is another dose of the same. Walt and Jesse are cooking poison so vile that it has to be tented away from the rest of a house that is itself tented so it can be filled with poison gas, and they're pumping out the fumes from their cook right beside a brightly colored kiddy pool in the back yard. This isn't the first time the audience has seen meth cooking going down in an affluent suburb of Duke City. Way back in the series pilot during Walt's ride-along with Hank and Gomey during their bust of a suburban lab (manned by none other than Jesse and the late Emilio), Hank carefully has his team wait until a school bus has left the area before assaulting the cook-house. Now Walt and Jesse have come full circle to cook near a neighborhood playground, maybe even one connected to a school. These two men are the protagonists of the show and the viewer roots for them more often than not, but Gilligan & Co. always remind the audience of exactly who they're pulling for: a couple of guys who will plop down a poison mill next door to a playground without a second thought. It's an uncomfortable position, and makes the viewer complicit in Walt's ongoing moral descent.

And then there was the Scarface audio-visual edits. Skyler, terrified to the point of breaking, wakes to the sound of shouts and gunfire, to find her murderous, drug-kingpin husband holding her baby girl and sitting with their teen-age son, reveling in the uber-violent climactic scenes of Scarface as a cocaine-fueled Al Pacino introduces his house-guests to his "little friend." As Skyler is bombarded with the sight, Walt, chuckling, says, "Wow, everyone dies in this movie don't they?" as the chattering of Tony Montana's M-16 slides into the chattering of a cash counting machine ripping out Walt, Jesse, and Mike's take from the first batch. Just freaking brilliant!

Finally, note how pouty Walt gets when confronted with the necessity of "legacy payments" to keep members of Gus' old organization quiet. Walt bring sup Victor at the end, but he still doesn't get it. Victor wasn't killed because of hubris, as Walt seems to think, but because of carelessness. He was seen at the scene of Gale's death, and potentially left some prints. Victor was killed to protect Gus' organization, and ultimately Gus himself. Gus was more than willing to make that sacrifice, and his message was that he would make any sacrifice to accomplish his goals. Walt isn't even willing to sacrifice part of his pay to protect his organization and himself. Mike's right: "Just because you shot Jesse James does not make you Jesse James."

That's it for this week's Meth Monday. Tune in next week for 5.04 "Fifty-One." My prediction is that Gilligan & Co. will give us another flash-forward cold open to Walt's 52nd birthday, to tease us with some more of the plot that involves Walt driving around with an M60 in his trunk. Next Sunday's episode marks the passage of a full year in the series storyline, a year in which Walt has gone from milquetoast chem teacher to cold killer and druglord, and as the cold open to "Live Free or Die" (5.01) showed, the next year may well be even more eventful!

See you here next Monday, and in the meantime, catch me on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ for almost daily Breaking Bad updates and sneak peeks, and don't forget to head over to Unfettered Brilliance where by co-author, K. Dale Koontz posts about all things media, and where you can find Walter White Wednesday for your mid-week fix.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Meth Monday 1: "Live Free or Die" and "Madrigal"

Welcome to the first "Meth Monday", where over the nest few weeks I'll be briefly laying out some thoughts/speculations/raves and rants about Breaking Bad's 5th Season, concentrating on the latest episode which aired the previous night. Be warned that I will be writing these as if you have already seen the episode(s) in question so: !!SPOILER ALERT!! Since I was in Vancouver, BC and taking a computer break when Season 5 premiered, I'll be looking at two episodes today, so let's get cooking!

5.01: "Live Free or Die" 

I watched this episode in BC with a room full of friends, some already fans of BrBa, some newcomers to the show. Those of us who were coming to Season 5 with Seasons 1-4 under our belts watched the cold open (the scenes seen before the credits) with gape-mouthed wonder. Did you see what Walt did with his bacon, laying it out on his breakfast and shaping it into the number 52? All the way back in Season 1, episode 1, "Pilot/Breaking Bad" Walt is celebrating his 50th birthday, and at breakfast that day, Skyler arranges Walt's veggie bacon into a "50." So the cold open is a flash-forward, and one that takes the viewer farther forward in time than Vince Gilligan & Co. have ever done before. Roughly speaking, slightly more than a year has passed between the events at the end of Season 4 and the cold open to "Live Free or Die." Walt's 52 now, and to top it off he has hair, a beard, a fake identity, and a New Hampshire driver's licence ("Live Free or Die" is New Hampshire's state motto, BTW). He's also buying an M60 machine gun from his favorite gun dealer, played by Jim Beaver (Deadwood, Supernatural, Justified) in another brief cameo. The series' trademark upward-looking POV (point-of-view) shot is seen several times as Walt transfers things for the trunk of his car (an old Volvo, just like Gus used to drive) to another car that came with the MG. Has Walt actually been in New Hampshire? Has Skyler left him? And who or what does he need the M60 for? I hate to admit it, but I'm stumped.

The rest of the episode, which picks up right where season 4 left off, introduces us to yet another new Walt, this one cold, confident, and in control. Walt doesn't fumble, hesitate, or even raise his voice for the entire episode, and he's scary as hell. Bryan Cranston delivers menace like few actors can, and Anna Gunn's portrayal of a woman suddenly terrified in her own house is simply brilliant. She can barely stand to have Walt touch her any more. Mike's back, Hank's still the first best chance for law-enforcement to break the Heisenberg/Gus Fring mystery, and Jesse, while darker and harder than previous seasons, still shows his youth with a "Magnet, bitch!" that brought wild applause from those of us watching in Vancouver. Primarily, this first episode is tidying up from last season, introducing us to the new Walt, and injecting a new sense of impending doom into everything. It works. As violent as "Boxcutter" was last year, "Live Free or Die" gives the viewer an equal, or greater sense of deadly purpose, without shedding any blood. Hang on, Readers Mine: Season 5 promises to be a wild ride.

5.02: "Madrigal"

Okay, so Gilligan & Co. spent last night setting some things up for the season. Madrigal Electromotive, the German combine which apparently ultimately owned the  Los Pollos Hermanos chain, and to which Hank traced some of the industrial equipment used in the Superlab last season, was apparently more than just a covering shell company. Based upon the cold open, at least one of Madrigal's higher-ups was at least aware of Gus' meth operation, but how deep he was in remains unknown(and now I really want to try some "Franch" on my chicken nuggets. Thanks guys. Not to mention the creepy black turtleneck-and-suit wearing owner of the company himself, who comes off as some unholy mix of Bauhaus and Gestapo, and claims to be willing to cooperate fully while flanked by a dozen lawyers. New player? Ultimate Drug Czar? Again, who knows?

Meanwhile, Walt's broke, and even into Jesse for several hundred thousand dollars. Also he now thinks he's truly Billy Badass: King of the (Meth) World. He wants to start cooking again, and Jesse's all in, particularly after Walt's manipulations with the ricin cigarette (I'm guessing that the fact that Walt has that little vial tucked away behind his nightstand is going to be important later on). So now Jesse feels like he owes Walt a kind of atonement for threatening to kill him last season. I have to admit to being furious as Jesse broke down crying, apologizing to Walt, so ashamed of himself, when all the while the viewer knows damn well that Walt did poison Brock - not to mention murdering Jane in season 2 - all to manipulate Jesse, which he's still doing. Damn his blackened soul to hell. As for the rest, Walt, Jesse, and Mike's magnet attack on the police evidence room in "Live Free or Die" inadvertently gave the cops access to Gus' offshore accounts, which leaves Mike and his old crew broke, and most of them vulnerable to manipulation and turning state's evidence which, in turn, forces Mike to go into business with Walt and Jesse, making the meth venture a three-way partnership. Like I said, this episode was primarily set up. Hank's back, with a new boss, and a proven track record as a hell of a detective. Madrigal has entered the frame as a new player, though of what game remains unclear. Sky's so terrified that she can barely get out of bed. Walt, Jesse, and Mike are in business together, and Walt thinks he's won. Again. Of course, this is only the second episode, and Walt may well be counting his chickens before they're hatched.

Well, that wraps up this first edition of "Meth Monday." Join me here next Monday for a look at 5.03: "Hazard Pay," where i'll go a bit deeper with only one episode to look at than I've done above with two. In the meantime, check me out on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ for daily interviews, sneak peeks, and random cool stuff about Breaking Bad. Until then, Readers Mine, keep cookin'.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Slayage 5 and Coming Attractions

Hello, Readers Mine! Long time no see.Things are finally easing up on the homefront, with the Avengers chapter for A Joss Whedon Reader done, and the 5th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses having wrapped up last weekend. Soon as one thing gets done, though, the next thing comes along: in this case Season 5 of Breaking Bad, which looks like it's going to be a wild ride.

First things first, though. Slayage 5 (SCW5), was an absolute blast, my paper, "War in the Whedonverses: Representations of World War II in Angel, Firefly, and The Avengers" was very well received, as was that of my co-author and partner K. Dale Koontz, "Some Call Me the Space Cowboy: Anime, Outlaws, and All That Jazz." We got to catch up with a ton of really good friends from all over the US and Europe, and even made a bunch of new friends while we were at it. Vancouver was lovely, Canadians as polite and friendly as advertised, and the papers presented were dazzling examples of incredible scholarship. Other than that, however, I'm not going to say much more about SCW5. For one thing, recapping the conference is a time consuming task that very rarely gets completed, and for another there are already some folks out there who're doing a hell of a job at it! I recommend checking out the always brilliant and funny Nikki Stafford's conference round-up at Nik at Nite, and also David Kociemba and Kristen Romanelli's recaps on Watcher Junior: the Undergraduate Journal of Whedon Studies' blog. Additionally, you can find a copy of the conference program here, and Slayage: the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association will soon be posting the traditional conference reports, put together by Ian Klein, Elizabeth Rambo, and AmiJo Comeford on the Slayage website. Trust me, between these three sources, the conference will be well covered! Plus, you can bookmark Watcher Jr.'s blog so you can find it more easily when I put up a few guest-posts there in the next couple of months. So head on over to get all of your SCW5 news!

Next up, of course, is Breaking Bad  Season 5! The season premiere, "Live Free or Die" got things started off with an intensity that promises that the final 16 episodes of this remarkable series (which will be split into two 8 episode mini-seasons airing this summer and next) will be utterly insane. Episode 5.02 "Madrigal" (remember Gus' international shell company?) airs tonight at 10pm Eastern/9 Central on AMC, and if you're a Dish customer, AMC will be streaming the episode in full after it airs tonight, and a standard definition season pass on iTunes is just $14. To get you psyched, here's a sneak peek released by AMC:

Looks like ASAC Merkert may be making some things click for Hank! Hot damn! Which brings me to thing three tonight. Starting tomorrow, and continuing throughout the season,every Monday I'll be posting my thoughts on the previous night's new episode of Breaking Bad. I'm not going to do plot summary or recaps, but something a bit more analytical and even speculative, which will also serve to give you a little sample of how parts of our forthcoming book Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad will read. These weekly posts will appear under the title "Meth Mondays" and will complement Dale's stunning work over on Unfettered Brilliance where she has been posting "Walter White Wednesday" for months now, ramping up to Season 5. She'll also be posting on the new episodes every week, and it's worth checking us both out, as we often tend to spot very different things when we watch.

So that's it for now. Catch "Madrigal" tonight on AMC, and I'll see you tomorrow for the first "Meth Monday"!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Thanks Mr. Bradbury, and Godspeed.

“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again, he would never carve another piece of wood or help us raise doves and pigeons in the backyard or play the violin the way he did, or tell us jokes the way he did. He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death. Often I think what wonderful carvings never came to birth because he died. How many jokes are missing from the world, and how many homing pigeons untouched by his hands? He shaped the world. He did things to the world. The world was bankrupted of ten million fine actions the night he passed on.”
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury died today. He was 91. He took me to Mars, and he gave me Dandelion Wine (even though I was underage). My heart hurts to know that he's gone. But God, I'm glad he was here. Goodbye, Mr. Bradbury, and thank you so very, very much. I hope they have books where you've gone. Lots of 'em!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Speaking Out, Speaking Up!

Jeez! Where the hell did all of this dust come from? I mean, I know I haven't posted here since... um... March. Waaay early March. Still, how does server space get dusty?

Okay, okay, I'm a lousy blogger lately, but I plead personal stupidity in taking on too many projects all at once. I'm also pretty sure that I won't be posting regularly here for at least another month or so, but we'll see. Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Guide to Breaking Bad is coming along nicely. We're turning notes into prose and our editor at ECW Press seems to like the sample pages we've sent her way. Unfortunately from a fan perspective (yet fortunately from a writing deadline perspective), AMC has announced that it will be splitting the final 16 episodes of Breaking Bad into two mini-seasons, airing eight episodes beginning July 15 this year, and the final eight in the summer of 2013. So, it looks like Wanna Cook? won't be hitting stands until the very end of 2013 at the earliest, and most likely not until the spring of 2014.

In other news, I've been awarded a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, graduating summa cum laude (yay!), and I'll be entering the Master's program in history at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN in the fall. Currently I'm working on knocking out the first draft of a chapter on Marvel's The Avengers, written and directed by Joss Whedon, for the upcoming edited colection A Joss Whedon Reader. It's a short deadline, but I'm really enjoying the project and the film has me firing on all fan-scholar cylinders.

Also, as most of you know, North Carolina, where Mockingbird and I make our nest, passed Amendment One to the State Constitution on May 8, a "Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State." We worked hard against this amendment, not least because it's just not right to write discrimination into our state's constitution, but also because it is stupidly written law which could dramatically and negatively affect all unmarried couples in NC. Anyway, we lost, but the people in my state who were politically "activated" to oppose this issue have refused to disband and disappear. We're all determined to keep fighting for civil rights for all citizens, and to speak out against discrimination and hate.

Which brings me to Pastor Charles Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, NC (NOT to be confused with a church of the same name in Charlotte, please!). If you haven't heard Worley's deal, here's the sermon, on Mother's Day no less, which has got me and some 1000 other people driving up to Newton tomorrow to protest using the pulpit to preach hate:

Now, Worley and his congregation are going to be meeting at an undisclosed location out of town tomorrow, thus demonstrating the strength of their convictions, and we are going to gather with like-minded folks on the lawn of the Catawba County NC Justice Center in Newton to protest hate speech, particularly hate speech which has been despicably presented as being the word of the Christian God. Which it ain't. Mock and I will be there with a these signs:

You can even come and join us if you want! For more information check out the Protest's Organizational Facebook Page, but please, if you do come, familiarize yourself with the code of conduct we're going to be abiding by:

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So, remember: we lost a battle in NC, not the war, and people like Worley are not representative of my state. And if you decide to come to Newton tomorrow, look Mock' and me up. We'll be the ones with the signs! ;)