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

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

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…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I’m not the Jedi I should be.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
(SPOILERS) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the only series entry (thus far) I haven’t seen at the cinema. After the first two prequels I felt no great urgency, and it isn’t an omission I’d be hugely disposed to redress for (say) a 12-hour movie marathon, were such a thing held in my vicinity. In the bare bones of Revenge of the Sith, however,George Lucas has probably the strongest, most confident of all Star Wars plots to date.

This is, after all, the reason we have the prequels in the first place; the genesis of Darth Vader, and the confrontation between Anakin and Obi Wan. That it ends up as a no more than middling movie is mostly due to Lucas’ gluttonous appetite for CGI (continuing reference to its corruptive influence is, alas, unavoidable here). But Episode III is also Exhibit A in a fundamental failure of casting and character work; this was the last chance to give Anakin Skywalker substance, to reveal his potential …

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.