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

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…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Never mind. You may be losing a carriage, but he’ll be gaining a bomb.

The Avengers 5.13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station
Continuing a strong mid-season run, Brian Clemens rejigs one of the dissenting (and departing) Roger Marshall's scripts (hence "Brian Sheriff") and follows in the steps of the previous season's The Girl from Auntie by adding a topical-twist title (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum came out a year earlier). If this is one of those stories where you know from the first who's doing what to whom, the actual mechanism for the doing is a strong and engaging one, and it's pepped considerably by a supporting cast including one John Laurie (2.11: Death of a Great Dane, 3.2: Brief for Murder).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

That living fossil ate my best friend!

The Meg (2018)
(SPOILERS) There’s a good chance that, unless you go in armed with ludicrously high expectations for the degree to which it's going to take the piss out of its premise, you'll have a good time with The Meg. This is unabashedly B-moviemaking, and if a finger of fault can be pointed, it's that director Jon Turteltaub, besides being a strictly functional filmmaker, does nothing to give it any personality beyond employing the services of the Stat. Obviously, though, the mere presence of the gravelly-larynxed one goes a long way to plugging the holes in any leaky vessel.

I freely chose my response to this absurd world. If given the opportunity, I would have been more vigorous.

The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
(SPOILERS) I suspect, if I hadn’t been ignorant of the story of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee selling secrets to the Soviets during the ‘70s, I’d have found The Falcon and the Snowman less engaging than I did. Which is to say that John Schlesinger’s film has all the right ingredients to be riveting, including a particularly camera-hogging performance from Sean Penn (as Lee), but it’s curiously lacking in narrative drive. Only fitfully does it channel the motives of its protagonists and their ensuing paranoia. As such, the movie makes a decent primer on the case, but I ended up wondering if it might not be ideal fodder for retelling as a miniseries.

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
(SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison.

Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War, Infinity Wars I & II, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok. It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions (Iron Man II), but there are points in Age of Ultron where it becomes distractingly so. …

You just threw a donut in the hot zone!

Den of Thieves (2018)
(SPOILERS) I'd heard this was a shameless Heat rip-off, and the presence of Gerard Butler seemed to confirm it would be passable-at-best B-heist hokum, so maybe it was just middling expectations, even having heard how enthused certain pockets of the Internet were, but Den of Thieves is a surprisingly very satisfying entry in the genre. I can't even fault it for attempting to Keyser Soze the whole shebang at the last moment – add a head in a box and you have three 1995 classics in one movie – even if that particular conceit doesn’t quite come together.