Skip to main content

I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really... I was alive.


Breaking Bad
Season 5.2

I think it may be a consequence of the relentless downward spiral into hell of the last half of the fifth season, but I had never really paid attention to the deep conservatism of Breaking Bad before. It isn’t really a problem that Vince Gilligan is a really nice, apple-pie, aw-shucks small “c” conservative kind of guy; the series spins on his storytelling flair, the twists and turns he and his team pull off with such effortless style that you’d believe it was fully mapped out in advance if he hadn’t told us otherwise.


So when I level the charge of conservatism, it’s not so much a complaint as a means of emphasising that the brilliance of the show is in its construction rather than its message. I’ve heard Breaking Bad referred to as a morality tale, although I don’t think the series is ever delineated quite so starkly. But it definitely had a very clear idea for where Walter White’s moral path should take him. And that place very clearly conforms to a traditional idea of punishment for one’s actions. Much as I found the season finale (more than) satisfying on a visceral and sheer popcorn entertainment level, I can’t help thinking that it took Walter to a place that wasn’t very interesting morally and ethically. It more than serviced our yen for punchy dramatics, but offered no lasting resonance.


There’s only been one conversation from the start; how morally (un)justifiable is Walt’s behaviour. Much of the debate since has been about the audience examining their identification with him (which flip-flops from scene to scene, if we’re honest). More recently the discussion has become overwhelmed by a perceived either-or empathising with Walter or Skyler. It seems, if you don’t particularly care for Skyler, that it’s everyone’s fault but the writers’. Indeed, to dislike her is tantamount to hatred of all women.  The tone of the intercourse has become so mangled that any comment must be prefaced by a statement that no, you never had a problem with Skyler throughout the series; just in case you might leave yourself open to charges of latent misogyny. If some viewers have gone overboard in their decrying of Skyler (and, it seems Anna Gunn), it’s not for Gilligan to start wagging his finger without first examining his role in such reactions. He’s the expert manipulator, the cunning provocateur. 


Perhaps his soundbites concerning how he really didn’t like Walter White by the end of the show are a recognition of this to an extent; guilt over the monster he has manufacture. The conversation about Walter is a great conversation, and Gilligan’s push-pull of like and loathing for the character has been as masterful as that of a comedy writer who in one moment makes you hideously embarrassed for the protagonist and in the next still rooting for him. I’m not confident there is anything terribly deep here. And I think I really realised this when Walt’s cancer came back. Perhaps it only came to exist in the first place as punishment for the crimes he would later commit, like some physiological manifestation of the Grandfather Paradox.


Perhaps the “from Mr Chips to Scarface” reference was an unintentional noose, as in Felina Walter literally unleashes his little friend and then dies from a bullet wound.  It might have been equally too obvious a reference if Walt had ended up without the very thing he wants most, but alive and healthy (like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III). I say that not because I’d prefer Walt to have survived, but because the moralism felt too simple in the final frame; I just don’t think Gilligan would have bee able to justify Walt succeeding financially, even if had cost him in all the important ways. Obviously the series never went for realism, but it could have attempted something that felt more emotionally complex. As it is, I’m left with the sense of a rollicking good ride, and a hugely compelling central character, but also a tale that was kind of shallow. Or rather, without any of the depth that the debates it provoked might indicate. I think that’s more to the point; the discussion, as is invariably the case with hype, over states the case.


It seems that Conservatives do embrace the series, which is not to suggest this is any more indicative of its quality than David Cameron being a fan of RadioheadThe argument goes that “The show might not be explicitly conservative, but the underlying moralistic and conservative themes are undeniable”. Of course, the idea that right wing thinking is the last bastion of correct and true societal values remains a peculiarly broken-backed one given how fixated most of its advocates are on ensuring that caring and sharing are not available to all. There’s no reason to think that Walter living by his own rules is aligned with liberal thinking, other than the idea that liberal thinking is inherently corrupted thinking; indeed his behaviour might arguably be construed as a warning against the evils of libertarianism. There’s a broader, unpartisan parallel here; that the more powerful you are the less shackled by the norms of society you become. There are many at the top of the tree who consider themselves to be as untouchable as Walter, just without the mess that dogs his footsteps. Which is rather the point I’m after about Gilligan’s scales of justice). It is embraced by those of a Conservative bent because, “That moral compass might not show us virtue and what to emulate, but it clearly shows us vice as vice and as something not to emulate”. 


It’s interesting how Gilligan pulls back in the last episode, offering us a series of classic Walter moments we can get behind. It seems like a shrewd move in terms of series longevity (if he had crashed and burned everything, the same way as the way the rest of the last half of the season had gone, would we want to revisit such a downer?) He plays it safe, as Walter’s cunning saves the day for the last time and very neatly does for him too. But, after so unequivocally showing that Walt is the villain in recent episodes, in particular the chilling confrontation with Skylar and Walt Jr, one wonders if he mightn’t have copped out. There’s a nagging feeling Gilligan didn’t have the courage of his convictions in the final moment.


For Gilligan, the master plotter, the construction of Felina is akin to falling back on a couple of classic party tricks (oh look, ricin). The manoeuvring required to place Walter and Jesse in the same room again couldn’t help but feel contrived, but it was more than worth the slightly stodgy set-up. He achieves one genuine surprise with Walter’s visit to his old colleagues (with the lovely visual cue of only his feet showing on the shadowy porch); it’s just that type of scene that seems so perfect in retrospect. But it seems he had pulled all his rabbits out of a succession of hats during the previous seven episodes. I watched those over a couple of nights, and they were riveting viewing; a torrent of exposed wounds after the plastering over the cracks of the previous four years. 


It was perhaps a surprise to see Jesse so sidelined in the finale, his supreme act of revenge aside (and Jesse Plemons’ Todd is easily the unsung star of the season). The decision underscored that this is Walt’s show, but the horror show Jesse endured, in particular the murder of Andrea, felt beyond the pale and that it was building to something more substantial; indeed, Andrea’s murder was the point where I thought Gilligan might actually be intending to stretch the limits of the format, pushing towards something truly calamitous that no one had countenanced.


In contrast, Saul’s unremarkable departure seemed about right. The demise of Hank was somehow appropriate, although the character’s highpoint was his adverse physical reaction to realising Walter’s identity in Blood Money. Elsewhere, the sparring and tensions between the Schraders and Whites made for many of the best written scenes of the season. True, some aspects seemed a little undercooked; if Plemons was great, his cohorts made for undeveloped stock thugs. And Jessie’s realisation at the car stop concerning the ricin felt as much of an “Oh, we’d better get along to that now” as Hank’s toilet-time read.


I don’t think the show is likely to rank as one of my all-time greats, and ultimately its cultural cachet during the last year has rather overshadowed its true merits, but the standard of plotting has been remarkable throughout. Gilligan is a master of the rug-pull, and the pullback realisation. Whatever he goes onto next (and he’s already got something brewing – an old idea called Battle Creek) is sure to be arresting. Cranston has already assured his afterlife with a string of big screen supporting roles. The only question will be if Aaron Paul can make good. Not with that Need for Speed, he won’t.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

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…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.