Skip to main content

Say my name.


Breaking Bad 
Season 5.1

Interviewed by The Vulture, Vince Gilligan had this to say about his vagueness and unease over how the show should end (post- the mid-season cut-off):

It was everything. We knew very little as of last summer. We knew we had an M60 machine gun in Walt’s trunk that we needed to pay off, and that was about it. We kept asking ourselves, “What would satisfy us? A happy ending? A sad ending? Or somewhere in between?”

It’s not a comment that sparks much hope for viewers who came to the stark realisation that series they had invested serious amounts of time in, such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica, were being made up on the fly. Sure, some were happy with the slipshod conclusions, but many were not (in the case of the former most definitely).

Breaking Bad is slightly different in that there are no enormous mysteries to solve; the puzzle for Gilligan to solve is where he leaves the audience emotionally. But I can’t help thinking (hoping!), “Wouldn’t that be clear way in advance?” There’s being adaptable and there’s looking around randomly for inspiration. Probably, I’ve just been let down one time too many to wholly invest in the possibility of a satisfying sign-off (the one I keep flashing on is a Michael Corleone type situation, but that’s probably a little too obvious).

There’s a boulderising effect once a new series gains a place in the online and media consciousness; an exhaustive fascination takes hold , which can do its upmost to wring the joy of discovery from anyone who strays too far from simple straightforward enjoyment. Breaking Bad is just the latest to have experienced a groundswell of passion following its first couple of seasons. While I came on board relatively early, I’ve taken the more laidback approach of waiting for the DVD releases to experience it. As a result, I’ve willfully (or lazily, depending upon your take) divorced myself from the weekly anticipation that gripped me during Lost.

So far, the series hasn’t disappointed. Indeed, Season Four takes some beating, a white-knuckle ride requiring Walt to use all his wits and ingenuity to outwit nemesis Gus Fring. Wisely, Gilligan has stuck to his guns and finished shy of the basic edict of seven season runs (if you get that far). It doesn’t mean he won’t be seen to have peaked early, but at least it ensures the kind of problem encountered by Dexter (all downhill after the unbeatable fourth year) is resisted.

But 5.1 of Breaking Bad begins, by necessity, with the fallout from the tension of the previous run. You can’t hope to equal it, and the series can’t hope to sustain itself in the same way, so it opts for a caper plotline involving magnets and wiping computer hard drives. It’s a wise move, keeping things lively while juggling the balls of where the characters need to realign themselves. Later in the run we’re thrown a train heist, and it’s a reminder of the skill with which Gilligan delivered many of the best X-Files one-offs (Driveand Monday spring to mind).

I’ve read criticisms regarding of the series’ plotting and how sequences don’t ring true, but it’s not something I can readily relate to; it’s only internal consistency (of tone) that is really important. I've found the whole series to be on a heightened plane from the off; to me, this isn’t attempting realism in the manner of The Wire was (one of the reasons the fifth season of that show doesn’t quite work for me is that the serial killer plotline is something out of a more mainstream, glossy show). I've certainly never seen it as something that would hold up to much scrutiny in terms of "Could this happen?" There’s the veneer of realism; domestic strife, guns, violence, deaths, desperate situations. But the series stacked the odds against believability as soon as it had its meth cook doubling as brother-in-law of a DEA agent.

In terms of the moral degeneration and criminal rise of Walt, his burgeoning sociopathy is something that's seemed entirely consistent; from the second season on, when he leaves Jane to die, there’s never been any doubt about the path he will take or the lengths he will go to; the skill is making you care about him despite it all. Bryan Cranston consistently works wonders, wringing out every scrap of nuance in his (d)evolution; you believe that he can be such a (creepy) blinkered doofus on one hand (his behaviour towards Skyler) and a cool customer on the other. I don't think that means he wouldn't indulge a bit of sentiment when it comes to someone like Mike. (Although, it’s as likely that the sentiment is only of the sort he can feel towards himself, reflected off feelings he has manufactured concerning Mike; everything with Walt has become so self-justified and insincere that he no longer has any grounding.)

The most resonant aspect this half season has been Jesse's realisation of Walt’s callousness. While Jesse gets to offer some inspired problem solving, his distancing from Walt means he’s not so front-and-centre, particularly following the heist. It will be interesting to see how this plays during the last half; there’s an assumption that all of Walt’s manipulations need to come out, but really why should they (and would Jesse blowing Walt’s head off really be a satisfactory conclusion?)

As far as Hank discovering the book dedication is concerned, it didn't particularly bother me that the reveal of Heisenberg’s identity hinged on an arbitrary discovery rather than solid detective work. But I was expecting a reveal that Walt is still in business. Going back to his conversation with Jesse about Gray Matters, and how cooking meth is something he's really good at, it seems inconsistent that he'd stop after all that groundwork has been laid to build his empire (of course, we'll probably find he lied during Episode Nine).

Disappointing to see Mike exit, as Jonathan Banks is a mighty screen presence. Many cite his Wiseguy role (I only ever caught the odd episode) but it was the underrated and prematurely curtailed Day Break where he first caught my attention (in a role that makes Mike look like a pussy cat).

I’ve particularly enjoyed the additions of Lydia and Todd. I loved Lydia (Laura Fraser) going batshit paranoid when the DEA are hassling her. I recognised Jesse Plemons from The Master, a kind of junior ginger Matt Damon; Todd showing himself to be a stone cold killer, but then displaying such diligence in getting the cook right, makes him an appropriate successor to Jesse. He mirrors what Walt is now about.

I’m curious regarding Gilligan’s comments suggesting that anyone who has a problem with the female characters in the show are misogynists. It seems like a too neat transference of the blame for not getting the dynamic right. That said, I don't think the problem is with the writing of Skylar (and I do think there is a problem somewhere in the mix, as like it or not the writers ensure you side with Walt; that’s what making a good anti-hero is all about, no matter who the moral compass is), it's that Anna Gunn isn't a particularly sympathetic presence; this is an issue that was there from the first episode (ie before Walt cooked up a batch).

So 5.1? Great stuff, but not quite as great as Season Four. It was probably wise not to find a replacement for Gus (I mean in terms of bringing in a new guest star), as the series should rightly drillsdown to its core relationships for the finale. But so far it’s been a case of holding my attention rather than putting me on the edge of my seat.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.