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

Are you, by any chance, in a trance now, Mr Morrison?

The Doors (1991) (SPOILERS) Oliver Stone’s mammoth, mythologising paean to Jim Morrison is as much about seeing himself in the self-styled, self-destructive rebel figurehead, and I suspect it’s this lack of distance that rather quickly leads to The Doors becoming a turgid bore. It’s strange – people are , you know, films equally so – but I’d hitherto considered the epic opus patchy but worthwhile, a take that disintegrated on this viewing. The picture’s populated with all the stars it could possibly wish for, tremendous visuals (courtesy of DP Robert Richardson) and its director operating at the height of his powers, but his vision, or the incoherence thereof, is the movie’s undoing. The Doors is an indulgent, sprawling mess, with no internal glue to hold it together dramatically. “Jim gets fat and dies” isn’t really a riveting narrative through line.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

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.

Fifty medications didn’t work because I’m really a reincarnated Russian blacksmith?

Infinite (2021) (SPOILERS) It’s as if Mark Wahlberg, his lined visage increasingly resembling a perplexed potato, learned nothing from the blank ignominy of his “performances” in previous big-budget sci-fi spectacles Planet of the Apes and, er, Max Payne . And maybe include The Happening in that too ( Transformers doesn’t count, since even all-round reprobate Shia La Boeuf made no visible dent on their appeal either way). As such, pairing him with the blandest of journeyman action directors on Infinite was never going to seem like a sterling idea, particularly with a concept so far removed from of either’s wheelhouse.

I can do in two weeks what you can only wish to do in twenty years.

Wrath of Man (2021) (SPOILERS) Guy Ritchie’s stripped-down remake of Le Convoyeur (or Cash Truck , also the working title for this movie) feels like an intentional acceleration in the opposite direction to 2019’s return-to-form The Gentleman , his best movie in years. Ritchie seems to want to prove he can make a straight thriller, devoid of his characteristic winks, nods, playfulness and outright broad (read: often extremely crude) sense of humour. Even King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its fair share of laughs. Wrath of Man is determinedly grim, though, almost Jacobean in its doom-laden trajectory, and Ritchie casts his movie accordingly, opting for more restrained performers, less likely to summon more flamboyant reflexes.

Five people make a conspiracy, right?

Snake Eyes (1998) (SPOILERS) The best De Palma movies offer a synthesis of plot and aesthetic, such that the director’s meticulously crafted shots and set pieces are underpinned by a solid foundation. That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a sheer pleasure to be had from the simple act of observing, from De Palma movies where there isn’t really a whole lot more than the seduction of sound, image and movement. Snake Eyes has the intention to be both scrupulously written and beautifully composed, coming after a decade when the director was – mostly – exploring his oeuvre more commercially than before, which most often meant working from others’ material. If it ultimately collapses in upon itself, then, it nevertheless delivers a ream of positives in both departments along the way.

I’ll look in Bostock’s pocket.

Doctor Who Revelation of the Daleks Lovely, lovely, lovely. I can quite see why Revelation of the Daleks doesn’t receive the same acclaim as the absurdly – absurdly, because it’s terrible – overrated Remembrance of the Daleks . It is, after all, grim, grisly and exemplifies most of the virtues for which the Saward era is commonly decried. I’d suggest it’s an all-time classic, however, one of the few times 1980s Who gets everything, or nearly everything, right. If it has a fault, besides Eric’s self-prescribed “Kill everyone” remit, it’s that it tries too much. It’s rich, layered and very funny. It has enough material and ideas to go off in about a dozen different directions, which may be why it always felt to me like it was waiting for a trilogy capper.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Did you not just hand over a chicken to someone?

The Father (2020) (SPOILERS) I was in no great rush to see The Father , expecting it to be it to be something of an ordeal in the manner of that lavishly overpraised euthanasia-fest Amour. As with the previous Oscars, though, the Best Picture nominee I saw last turned out to be the best of the bunch. In that case, Parasite , its very title beckoning the psychic global warfare sprouting shoots around it, would win the top prize. The Father , in a year of disappointing nominees, had to settle for Best Actor. Ant’s good, naturally, but I was most impressed with the unpandering manner in which Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton approached material that might easily render one highly unstuck.