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!