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.