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!