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"!