Monday, September 30, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.16 - "Felina" (The Series Finale)

"Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me...tonight nothing's worse than this pain in my heart."
-Marty Robins "El Paso" (as heard in the snowy cold open of "Felina")

I have a tendency to react to emotionally or physically draining events with deliberate self-amusing understatement. Be it fictional or real, my common refrain is often a nonchalant "Well, wasn't that something?" I save my blustery overreactions for the more trivial and silly. The big stuff? Not so much.

But last night, before that moment of winking pseudo-acceptance, I had one reddened eye on the clock. The countdown that had begun at 9:00 (or 5 years, 8 months and nine days ago) was winding down all-too quickly. And as we rose above the lifeless body of Walter Hartwell White with a God-like view last seen at the end of Season Four's amazing "Crawlspace", whatever tears I found myself wiping away were those of happiness.  Tears of not simply contentment, not just settling for something, but a true feeling of satisfaction. The Series Finale of Breaking Bad reflected the series as a whole. 

It gave me everything I could want. Yet, I was still left wanting more.
Even though I knew full well, there was no more to give.

That is the definition of a truly transcendent experience. And for me, that's what this series has provided, and what this finale underscored and then buttoned up. Was it the greatest TV finale of all time? I don't know. Is To Kill a Mockingbird better than Great Expectations? Is The Godfather better than Casablanca? It becomes a question more based on the individual's own sensibilities and tastes.  It's more the fact that it's even in the conversation. 

And even if one can rank other dramatic TV finales ahead of BREAKING BAD (though outside of THE SHIELD, most memorable finales are often due to the overall character "wrap-up" method used in the final minutes of series like SIX FEET UNDER and THE WIRE), it may be truly difficult to make the case for another series being a finer overall work from top to bottom. I know that's a case I can't make. Perhaps someone better call Saul?

In my previous blog, I ended my conversation about "Granite State" by positing that Walt was coming back to New Mexico to settle scores. And the structure of this episode -- the methodical way Walt takes care of was as if he had a "To-Do" list once he reached the Land of Enchantment.  Or to be more precise considering his health and overall plan -- a bucket list.

When Walt is hiding inside that Volvo, the red-and-blue police lights penetrating the snow-covered windows, he is literally hiding in plain sight. Much the way he always did before his one-way trip to New Hampshire several months ago. But after evading the authorities and loading the trunk full of cash, we discover the first things to be checked off Bad Santa's list are ensuring his family's financial future...and sticking it to Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz. I will freely admit I did not think we would see the Grey Matter duo again after that Charlie Rose interview, and that they were merely the catalyst in this latest reaction -- the spark that lit Walt's fuse. Clearly I whiffed on that one!

But after Walt lays out his plan for the Schwartzes to create an irrevocable trust for his son for his 18th birthday, that pride and ego of Walter White is still very much alive and well, even if his overall health isn't. He makes it clear that any and all financial issues arising from this trust -- be it the actual gift of the money to taxes or lawyers' fees -- must come from the $9.7 million dollars he's given them. 

And to hammer that point home, and more importantly, to further ensure that THEY carry out this task for him, he has them lit up with the red dots typically associated with laser scope rifles.  The scene plays both tense and funny, and far funnier still when we discover the so-called hit men are in fact just Badger and Skinny Pete with a pair of laser pointers. It's a moment of levity which has become quite rare over these last few episodes. And, it's also nice to see these beloved drug addled comic foils one more time, even if I didn't get my wish fulfillment of hearing them discuss BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

After daydreaming about making the perfect box, we learn that Jesse is still trapped inside one. His almost lifeless and vacant stare will serve him well if he decides to audition for one of AMC's other flagship TV series (and I don't mean MAD MEN -- and BTW, one wonders if this final season of BREAKING BAD may be just one more nudge for Matthew Weiner to raise his already impressive as fuck game -- but that's a blog for another series and time). 

When we reach the sequence that begins with brief snatches from the flash-forwards (the bacon forming the numbers 52, the M60 rifle in the trunk and removing the ricin vial from the outlet) and ends with fifteen seconds from the pilot episode, I was struck by a simple thought. I had previously stated that Walt's initial descent into this meth-madness wasn't the ride-along with Hank, but when Hank flips on the TV during Walt's 50'th birthday party to bask in the glory of his major crystal meth bust. 

But Walt having that memory while standing in his old living room (where it started) -- and on his 52nd birthday (so exactly two years later -- math, bitch) is another in a long line of things coming full circle on BREAKING BAD. Using past clips is exceedingly rare on this series, and it's done only to clarify a point that would otherwise remain an internal thought of the character with no realistic way to convey the information. Think of Hank sitting on the toilet at the end of "Gliding Over All". 

These fifteen seconds inform us of exactly what Walt is think and recalling at that moment, and being a very specific memory, its use is justifiable. Thankfully, Vince Gilligan knows that certain scenes later on, particularly the last few -- do not require our hands to be held in such an expository way.

Next up on the bucket list -- or perhaps now I should it Walt's hit list -- is one Lydia Rodarte-Quayle.
I was reluctant to embrace the more obvious speculation that the ricin was intended for her, but the moment we see her wheeling her little luggage trolley into the Grove Cafe, the writing was as clearly spray-painted on the wall as the word HEISENBERG. And this idea had been planted since we first encountered Lydia, with her reliably precise order of Chamomile Tea with Soy Milk and extra packets of Stevia.  So now I understand the danger in ordering the same food or drink all the time, meaning I better watch it with the Jameson & Ginger and those chicken fingers...

Having placed a bloody X on Lydia in his mental checklist, Walt merrily hums a happy tune while constructing a device to help deliver a final message later that evening. But he's reminded of another big task awaiting him when he tucks his wedding ring string necklace back into his shirt: a proper goodbye to the love of his life that was neither blue nor green -- Skyler.

After Skyler speaks with her still rightfully angry and protective sister Marie, she gives Walt five minutes. She tells him about the 3 masked thugs who threatened her and Holly if she ever blabbed about that woman she saw at the car wash. Which will only make a later conversation with a certain skittish brunette that much more satisfying for Walt. But Walt is there to give Skyler something that will finally pry her free from the boulder he rolled atop her a long time ago. It's the lottery ticket with the GPS coordinates -- to find the burial site for Hank and Steve Gomez.

He tells her to make up a story about how he forced his way in, and she now has this as a bargaining chip she can trade with the prosecution. Skyler than hears the true story of what happened to Hank, and one can speculate that Skyler will soon be telling her son and her sister the truth as well, as they will undoubtedly want to know what was said to her when Walt appeared at her home.  

Is there a reason for Skyler NOT to tell them?  It may not redeem him in their eyes, but it might help to some extent.  At least Flynn can know his father wasn't actually his uncle's murderer, and in fact killed those who were directly responsible. 

But the most important thing in this scene (and possibly this episode) happens next...

After Skyler testily cuts Walt off when it sounds like he's going to yet again repeat his mantra of how everything he did, he did for the family...he says something decidedly different:

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

And more than anything else that Walt has ever said that wasn't based on a scientific principle or mathematical fact -- this is the most honest he has ever been over the past two years. Finally, an admission that's free of the denial and delusions (of grandeur and in general) that have plagued his words so often before. The truth, in all its unvarnished ignominy. Skyler sees this is the case, and even allows him a final moment with the daughter who will never know him. Something we see he will never get with his son. Unlike his closure with his wife and baby girl, that's one item on his list he will never be able to check off.

The final act or denouement features the payback we all knew was coming. My friend, paraphrasing the movie "Tombstone", put it well when he said "It's not about revenge, it's a reckoning." As one would expect in the final minutes of any BREAKING BAD episode, it's about tension growing more and more taut until it is snaps -- and here, it is released in a ballet of violence which was part Batman and part Sam Peckinpah (kids, just pretend I said Tarantino). 

I'd like to note that before the bullets start flying, Jack makes a decision that is completely based on impulsive anger and emotion and nothing else. As I've pointed out before, practically every time anyone does that on this show, there are severe consequences for what is invariably a bad decision. Why he needs to prove himself to a man he's about to kill is probably one of those villain cliches that BREAKING BAD would normally avoid, but it's so much damn fun here it's easily forgiven.

Walt lunges at Jesse, and it's reminiscent of the Walt/Skyler wrestling match, only instead of a knife, it's a car keys remote that's being held above them. CLICK: The crew is slaughtered in the most satisfying display of Nazi-killing carnage since Inglourious Basterds (I brought it back to Tarantino after all). 

But the real business at hand happens after that M60 runs out of ammo. Jesse wraps his slave chains around Meth Damien's throat.  As Walt watches, one is struck by the notion that they're like Cain & Abel, and certainly represent Walt's two surrogate sons -- even if he only ever truly cared about one of them. Back in Rabid Dog mode, Jesse strangles Todd to the point of eventually breaking the now truly Dead Eyed Opie Piece of Shit's neck. 

Meanwhile, Walt is holding a gun on Uncle Adolf/Jack, who's comically reaching for his cigarette while trying to reason with the former Lord of the Blue. It's a distorted mirror reflection of how Jack executed Hank. Except Hank went out with a sense of dignity, accepting his inescapable fate...whereas Jack is bargaining for his life, telling Walt if he wants to find the money they stole--

And just like Hank, Jack's words are cut off by a bullet to the brain, blood gruesomely spattering across the camera lens. FINALLY, it wasn't about the money.

After that, just as I and a million other bozos predicted, Walt and Jesse are the last men standing. Walt slides the gun over, encouraging Jesse to kill him. He never planned on leaving here alive, and if he ever had a thought to kill Jesse, it's clearly gone now. Actually, Walt's original intentions are debatable, as one could speculate that Walt would have easily deduced that Jesse was being forced to cook and was being held prisoner -- it's actually less of a leap that realizing that Hank took his "signed" copy of Leaves of Grass and then checking to see if there was a tracker on his car.

"Do it." "Say the words -- say you want this! Nothing happens until I hear you say it!" "I want this"

As Jesse sees the blood seeping out of Walt's side, he lowers the gun. "Do it yourself."

Walt takes a call from Lydia on Todd's cell phone, and he also takes some obvious pleasure in telling her he poisoned her. After all, this is a woman who had his family threatened and even ordered his own death. Tossing away the phone, he shares one last look and a nod with Jesse, and that moment says more about these two men than reams of dialogue ever could. Jesse is free, and whether that freedom is short-lived due to the cops snaking their way up the road or he makes a new life for himself -- that's all post-credits and up to our own imaginations.

Weakened by his general health as well as the blood leaking from his side, Walt takes his first and last tour of the meth lab. As he gazes lovingly at the equipment, including a gas mask, one can just make out the sound of police sirens far away.  Much like those calls to scramble the police earlier in the day (according to Marie), I imagine Walt made sure either Badger or Skinny Pete called the cops at a certain time, as the Nazi compound is way too far from civilization for anyone to hear anything, even an M60 machine gun. 

As we hear "Baby Blue" by Badfinger playing on the soundtrack, Walt finally succumbs to his ultimate fate, but with a look of...if not contentment, then satisfaction. His list has been completed, ending with being found in a meth lab so that it will now be assumed he was always the one manufacturing the drug, no one else -- including Jesse Pinkman.

Again, whether one chooses to compare this series finale to others is an individual choice. I will say that the quality of a story should never be measured by the weight of tears alone. BREAKING BAD has never been a "tear-jerker" style show; it doesn't go for sweeping music that plucks at the heartstrings nor does it go for either extended tear ridden reunions or goodbyes. So any tears shed are truly earned, and not wrung out of the audience by the easiest employed of manipulative story machinations.

But my final tears actually had nothing to do with the story...they were induced by our collective farewell to the most well crafted, exquisitely acted and beautifully written television series I have ever and possibly will ever see. 

Although they will never read this silly blog, I want to thank Vince Gilligan and his spectacular team of writers as well as Bryan Cranston and his superlative roster of co-stars for amazing me and inspiring me with each and every episode. I'm even a little choked up as I type this, so all that's left for me to say is...

"Well, wasn't that something?"

Whoops, almost forgot -- I'll just cut & paste what I did last time (as this blog wore me OUT).

PS: Some of you may know that I've been a featured guest on the Breaking Geek podcast. It's a fairly free-spirited, occasionally ribald and always entertaining conversational podcast with the gang from Geek Girl Soup. We've been recording Tuesday nights, and they're usually available to feed your ears the next day. You can find them here:

However...I am ALSO going to be co-hosting a LIVE Breaking Bad podcast with Jack (of the Jay & Jack Podcasting Empire) starting tonight at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time. 

Not only will you get the full recap that I've largely abandoned in these blogs, but there should be some LIVE-ly discussion, especially when we open it up to the listeners to call in with comments, questions and whatever heck else they wanna say (but without cursing). Here's a link with the information on how to access that podcast tonight:

Monday, September 23, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.15 - "Granite State"

If "Ozymandias" felt like being creamed by a runaway Pontiac Aztec, then "Granite State" was the equivalent of Peter Gould (the writer AND director of this episode) backing that car over us, grinding our guts into the pavement. I fully expect the finale will feature Mister Gilligan himself stepping out of the vehicle and putting a bullet in our collective brain pans.

Last week dealt with the immediate impact of Walt's choices. But this penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD was more about the long-lasting and lingering effects of what Walt has done....those consequential echoes that either literally or figuratively continue to imprison Jesse and Skyler. And fittingly enough, it is Walt's own skewed perception of his "lasting impact" that will lead him back to Albuquerque.

Walt Is Mad (cough cough)

Walt is in full-on rage mode. He's compartmentalized the recent horrors he's essentially responsible for (the death of Hank and Gomez, the betrayal by his surrogate son Jesse, and the deeper cutting betrayal and loss of his actual family), reducing it all to wanting revenge on the Jack Welker and the Neo-Nazi gang for their betrayal -- stealing his money. One could say there's no honor among thieves, especially those who brandish swastika tattoos all over their bodies.

Walt's bloodlust is countered by some solid points from Nebraska-bound Saul. True, Walt's phone call may eventually lead to a mistrial for Skyler, but that's many months from now. In the meantime, she will be forever linked to the meth-manufacturing murderer Heisenberg.  Which means she loses the car wash, loses the house, their assets are frozen and good luck getting a decent job. But since Walt is likely to eventually succumb to the cancer, why not give himself up?  That's the best chance to completely exonerate Skyler, and it's also what can finally "free his family".

And at this point, going down that road may even feed into Walt's ever-present ego problems and his need for acknowledgement, for respect, for significance. Remember, this is the man who couldn't stand the idea that Hank thought that Gale was Heisenberg. Saul even picks at that scab by saying that Walt could be the "Dillinger of the Metropolitan Detention Center".

But in one the ever-present running themes of the series, Walt has tunnel vision that's further blinded by emotion. And while he's slotted away all the family tragedies, it always comes back to the money. As Jesse said, that was the way to get to Walt, and his consistent self-denial of his culpability in everything else leaves those remaining six barrels of money as his sole focus. Interesting that Walt's most common way of disposing of his enemies also involved barrels -- only those filled with acid, not money.

However, Walt's impulse to once again act upon his anger is restrained by both his failing health (which affords Saul the opportunity to finally sever their relationship) and his limiting circumstances (he's in no position to be dialing up hit squads -- or anybody, for that matter). Walt has been neutered, and even with millions at his disposal, he's as powerless as he was when he first learned he had the big "C".

Jesse is Smart...Wait, Maybe Not-So Smart

Jesse gets his inner MacGyver (or is it his inner Walter White) going when he uses a paper clip to pick the multiple handcuff locks. Of course, I wondered if Jesse discreetly took the photo from the lab during one of the cooks? Maybe Todd would have let him have the picture of Andrea & Brock, but certainly not the paper clip. Jesse stacks his folded up paper-thin mattress and his piss bucket, and after exhibiting an America's Got Talent-worthy sense of balance -- he leaps and grabs the grating. Slides the bolt and he's kid.

...or is he? After hiding in the shadows for all of ten seconds, he then breaks for the barbed wire fence (instead of discreetly checking out the entire perimeter) while running past a camera (which one can assume is in working order, or else why show it at all). So OF COURSE his escape is going to be short-lived. Dumb

And then he eggs on his captors, declaring he'd rather die than ever cook again. Meaning he's already forgotten that photo he was clutching in his hand earlier that evening. The one thing that the Neo-Nazis were using to compel him to work for them. He forgot about the safety of Andrea and Brock. Double dumb. Remember, he's already witnessed Todd coldly execute an innocent child, so why would he ever think the threat against Andrea and her son would be an empty one?

One cannot deny that every tragic death does ultimately lead back to Walt, but this is one that didn't have to happen. It may be a notion most of us won't want to admit, but despite the fact it was the Dead-Eyed Opie that pulled the trigger, the lion's share of blame actually lands on Mister Pinkman's shoulders.

Todd and the Ladies

This may have been the best work by Jesse Plemons (Todd) on the series to date. Witness:

~His prideful smile while watching Jesse Pinkman recount his murder of Drew Sharpe is nothing short of chillingly creepy. 

~His "aw shucks" embarrassment when his Uncle Jack chides him for his crush on Lydia as well as his noticeable ire when Jack continues to insult her. 

~His treatment of Jesse like a pet, rewarding him with ice cream (Stephen Colbert shout-out with "Americone Dream").

~His taking the scary meter up a few notches by threatening Skyler and the insinuation that her family is at risk as well

~His schoolboy crush when he meets Lydia. Unlike Mike, he totally goes along with the "sitting back to back in a public place" plan that ever-skittish Lydia prefers.

~And finally, his cold, flat, "this isn't personal" execution of Andrea. 

I've said before that BREAKING BAD constantly reminds us that nothing is as it seems and things are rarely black and white (the "Grey Matter" name of the corporation has always stood as a metaphor for the series as a whole).  However, Todd and his Uncle Jack are about the closest we get to the dark abyss of "black" since Tuco, and at least he was demonstrably insane and often in a drug-induced frenzy. 

My friend/producer said to me this to me last night, and it rings truer than Uncle Tio's bell: 

How do you make us root for a villain? By giving us a worse villain. 

So how can anyone possible ever root for Walter White? By making HIS antagonists even worse. It's no accident that Uncle Jack and his crew all have prominently featured swastika tattoos, as that is universally recognized as THE symbol of evil.

Walt is Sad (cough cough)

The months go by, and Walt's now sporting the Unibomber look we saw in those flash forwards. But his existence has been a lonely and sad one.  Outside of the bundles of newspapers and family updates that Robert Forster* brings, Walt has no connection to the outside world. No TV, no phone, no internet, nothing.

*I realize that as of yet, the character that Robert Forster plays is unlisted on IMDB. I was told that Gilligan has been referring to him as "The Disappearer", and perhaps I'll use that term on the two podcasts later tonight and tomorrow (more on that later).  I originally referred to him as 'The Mini-Van Man", but that makes little sense after the first few minutes of the episode. He's not exactly "The Wolf" or "The Cleaner" (though working out of a "Best Vacuum Service" front makes that last one somewhat appropriate). Anyway, back to Walt...

Still, this is the life Walt has chosen instead of giving up, even if he is still a prisoner. He hasn't given up on living just yet, as he continues to receive chemo treatments administered by Forster. But how effective getting such treatments on a monthly basis as opposed to weekly -- I suspect this is only delaying the inevitable. Walt's diminishing health is made clear not just due to his coughing jags or his weight loss, but by what he says to Forster after pleading with him to stay for just two hours (and Forster cruelly negotiates him down to just one hour)

"One of these days, when you come up here...I'll be dead. 
My money over there -- what happens to it then? 
What if I ask you to give it to my family? Would you do it?"

Even if he hasn't quite given up. he has accepted the fact that due to the circumstances (unable to get regular medical treatment), he IS going to be beaten by cancer after all.

But when he he finally makes his way to a local town bar and contacts Flynn, the last light in Walt's decayed soul is then snuffed out. His son not only rejects him, but wishes he were dead. Walt's scheme, an ill conceived salve of a $100,000 care package -- is rendered pointless. And that's when he truly gives up. He calls the Albuquerque DEA office, identifies himself, and leaves the receiver dangling as he sits down at the bar for one last drink...

Walt is Mad Again

And here we're beaned by the curveball we never saw coming, even as it harkens all the way back to Season One. In fact, it's tethered to the events that began the rotting of Walt's soul long before that ill-fated medical diagnosis.  When the metaphoric cancer in Walt's life first metastasized: Grey Matter.

As he watches the Charlie Rose interview with Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, Walt's pride and ego don't just take a Pinkman-esque beating; every accomplishment, every aspect of his legacy good and bad is dissected and made to seem trivial and unimportant. His contribution to the creation of Grey Matter was nothing but helping to come up with the name. He's just a criminal whose product is still being produced without him, and he's seen as little more than a sad, sweet little schmuck who gave into his baser urges and broke bad.

As this goes on, Walt's long empty tank of rage (like the very tanker he was hidden inside when transported to New Hampshire) is finally refueled. The dormant side of his nature truly rises once again. Several months ago, it was only but a glimmer when he put on the infamous hat. But this proves that "clothes don't make the man (or in this case, "Heisenberg")" -- we're responsible for our own decisions and those consequences.  

Mere moments after telling his son things happened that he never intended -- the time has finally passed for reaping what he has sown. His life, his legacy -- adding up to nothing?  That's more than simply pride and ego, it's the need to have mattered ("Grey Matter"-ed). 

And for what I believe is the first time in all 61 episodes, the actual Breaking Bad "theme" is used in the show, as the final shot is accompanied by those familiar twanging guitar chords. From an unfinished drink to unfinished business...

Up until this episode, we have been speculating as to why Walt returns to Albuquerque. Was it revenge, was it for his family, was it for the money, was it for Jesse...was it for something else entirely? Turns out we were all right and we were all wrong. Walt's not returning for any ONE specific reason.   

Now, it's all about settling scores. 

PS: Some of you may know that I've been a featured guest on the Breaking Geek podcast. It's a fairly free-spirited, occasionally ribald and always entertaining conversational podcast with the gang from Geek Girl Soup. We've been recording Tuesday nights, and they're usually available to feed your ears the next day. You can find them here:

However...I am ALSO going to be co-hosting a LIVE Breaking Bad podcast with Jack (of the Jay & Jack Podcasting Empire) for the next two Monday nights starting at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time. 

Not only will you get the full recap that I've largely abandoned in these blogs, but there should be some LIVE-ly discussion, especially when we open it up to the listeners to call in with comments, questions and whatever heck else they wanna say (but without cursing). Here's a link with the information on how to access that podcast tonight and next Monday as well:

That's all for this week. Until next time, be good, even if BREAKING BAD is better!

Monday, September 16, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.14 - "Ozymandias"

Without a doubt, this was the most gut-wrenching episode of BREAKING BAD to date, and in a series that deals regularly in the consequences of lies, deceit and death, that's really saying something. It feels wrong to try to chop my coverage of this episode into my precious little categories, so I've decided to freestyle it a bit and see what spills forth. What could go wrong?

The poem "Ozymandias" tells the tale of how a once all-powerful king has been brought down, his empire destroyed, and all that remains is the stony debris of dust and decay. All leaders, be they benevolent or ruthless -- eventually decline. Kingdoms rise, but they inevitably fall. And that's the story of Walter White. I remember how the title of every Friends episode begins with "The one where..." So the alternative title for Episode 5.14 could easily be "The One Where Walt Loses Everything"

The opening flashback takes us back to when & where it all it began. The beginning of Walt & Jesse's relationship: the former student and the chemistry teacher in his smock and undies.  And Walt and Skyler were still the sort of couple that said "Love you" when they ended a phone conversation.

But the significant thing about this scene is not the naming of the as-of-yet unborn Holly (though one can say mentioning the child foreshadows the final act of the episode); it's the first time Walt has to fabricate a lie about his new "line of work". We see him practicing his cover story, choosing the right words, adding details that (as always) are unnecessary. Of course, he barely gets a sentence out when Skyler cuts him off with a blithe yet blissful acceptance of his delay.

Forget the foreshadowing of the baby; THAT's the real hint of what's to come in the final act.

And when Walt, then Jedi Master Jesse, and finally the RV each fade out of existence, there is a certain poignancy, as we remember how comparatively innocent the beginnings of this tragic saga truly was.

Sixteen months later, To'hajiilee is once again the site of buried secrets and murder.  Uncle Adolf and the Aryan Brotherhood have already shot and killed Gomez, and now Walt is pleading for Hank's life, even offering his entire fortune in exchange for his brother-in-law's safety.

But Hank knows what the "deal" really is, even if Walt's again in denial:

"What? You want me to beg? 
You're the smartest guy I've ever met, and you're too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago."

Uncle Adolf punctuates Hank's last words ("Do what you're gonna do-") with a bullet to the brain, and that causes Walt's own brain to short out. He collapses in a state of whimpering near-catatonia, very closely resembling Gus Fring's reaction to seeing his partner killed back in Season Four.  Of course, characters falling into a state of speechless shock is nothing new on BREAKING BAD.

But even though the Aryan Brotherhood is about to make off with most of his money, Walt is still seething far more over Jesse. Because as far as he knows, EVERYTHING that has happened is Jesse's fault. He knows that Jesse is a traitor, betraying him to Hank. And that alliance is what led to the ultimately tragic standoff at To'hajiilee. 

It doesn't matter if one can say the blame is truly Walt's. Of COURSE it is (duh). The entire story of Walter White is about the decisions he makes, which are often times bad, poor or immoral -- and what the eventual consequences of those crossroad moments are. One can play the "If Walt Had Only..." game going all the way back to the very first episode.

And if we're going to be silly about it in our attempt to absolve everyone BUT Walt, then I have to point out the fact that if Hank hadn't been the self-aggrandizing goofball that puts on the local TV news at someone else's 50th birthday party, none of this ever would have happened. Forget the ride-along; THAT's when Walt gets the idea in the first place!

However, since Matt Damon with a missing chromosome steps in to give Jesse a stay of execution (and beyond finding out what Jesse said and to whom, it's a clear sign that Jesse's going to be cooking again -- see last week's blog), Walt is robbed of his cathartic revenge. But as he wants Jesse to suffer the way he just did, he hits him with the darkest secret of all:

"I watched Jane die. I was there, and I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. 
I could have saved her, but I didn't."

The fleeting moment of sympathy some may have felt for Walt vanishes like the tail end of the flashback. But Walt's a wounded animal, lashing out the only way he can. Again, he holds Jesse responsible for Hank's death (not to mention losing close to $70 million dollars). So this verbal kick to the gut is not merely justifiable in Walt's mind, it's justice.

~Walt's car running on empty is a nod to the RV running out of gas in "Four Days Out".

~Walt rolling the barrel of money shows he learned from his previous method of barrel transportation back in "A No Rough Stuff Type Deal".

~And eagle eyed viewers might have spotted a pair of pants, crusty and stiff in the foregrounds - recalling the iconic image that led off the entire series in the "Pilot".

Whenever anyone allows their emotions to get the better of them, to give in to baser impulses such as anger, revenge, spite and so on -- it invariably leads to no good. That has been one of Walt's biggest weaknesses and flaws, from his stubborn stance of remaining in the meth business (despite a number of opportunities to get out) to killing Mike Ehrmantraut.  The same can be said of Jesse (be it going after the drug dealers in "Half Measures" or trying to burn down the "White House" in "Confessions"/"Rabid Dog"), Gus (how else does he fall for Walt's scheme in "Face Off") and even the way Hank has operated as a rogue DEA agent for the past several episodes.

And now, it's Marie's turn. Logically speaking, she absolutely should have waited for Hank to return home before forcing Skyler to tell her son the truth about his meth-making murderer of a dad. She would want Hank there to not only fill in any gaps in Skyler's story, but to provide support for the sure-to-be devastated kid. Hank would (yet again) be the surrogate dad for him. 

But Marie has the need to rub it in her sister's face, even as she talks about forgiveness.  Forcing Skyler to tell Walt Junior/Flynn NOW -- is nothing short of malicious.

The writers make yet another canny move by sparing us needless (and possibly endless) exposition. Much the way we didn't need to see Jesse's confession -- we don't see Skyler telling her son the whole story, we only see the awful aftermath. The pain of learning what his father truly is (and by extension, his mother as well) is the next biggest crime after murder in this episode -- as the kid has his innocence ripped away from him. His family of liars...lies in ruins.

But this merciless episode presses on, and the sight of a bruised, cut and swollen Jesse is all too familiar and sad. The knowledge that it's been Todd delivering the punishment (perhaps recalling how Jesse decked him back in "Buyout") makes it even worse. As expected, Jesse will be forced to cook once again.  He's even chained up like some sort of puppet, which is appropriate, as Jesse has been one often enough (for Gus Fring and Walter White).  

But what even I didn't predict was the true method of coercion: a photo of Andrea & Brock.  Jesse won't be cooking to save his OWN life but to keep his last remaining loved ones safe. Of course, I'm not sure how he gets the hazmat suit on over that puppet wire...but maybe Todd doesn't think Jesse will need protection since they're eventually going to kill him anyway. Eventually...

Walt's showdown and actual physical fight with Skyler is more than a little reminiscent of Tony vs. Carmela Soprano, but taken two levels beyond. First, the setup shot of the knives and the phone.  Fight or flight, take matters into your own hands or call for help. As Skyler slides out that butcher knife, the death of a member of the White household feels inevitable.  

When Flynn (as I can't imagine he'll ever call himself Walter Junior again) jumps into the fray to protect his MOTHER, I was all but positive that blade would soon be protruding from the boy's chest.  Hell, I even had a sick and macabre thought that the knife would be sent hurtling through the air and through Holly's eye socket (and then she'd really look like that teddy bear). But much like Walt, the writers don't take the easy and obvious way out.

"What the hell is wrong with you! We're a family! We're a family..."

And THAT's when Walter realizes he has LOST his family: when he sees the fear and loathing in his son's eyes as the kid calls the police. Again Walt is betrayed.  First Jesse (telling Hank), then Skyler (telling his son), and now finally Flynn (calling the cops on him). Now there is no escaping and no denying this incontrovertible fact: everything Walt has ever done is now completely for naught. Acting again on emotion rather than rational thought, he snatches up Holly.

However, when Holly later says "Mama" (first time we've heard the child speak as far as I know), that's when Walt realizes not just what he has done, but what he has to do. And THIS is the biggest reason for that opening flashback, because even if we don't see it (like other bits of exposition I cited earlier), one can almost guarantee Walt is about to spend the next couple hours crafting and rehearsing his biggest and most important performance since a certain videotaped confession.

There are some who didn't "get that"upon their first viewing of this episode.  Those people need to go back and watch it all over again. This is not just an interpretation, it's clearer than the purest crystal meth. Walt knows his son called the police when he ran off with Holly, so he also would know that they MUST be there and listening to the call.

Still, it's possible one might not pick up on the mention of the police being an indicator that Walt KNOWS they're listening. Who's really thinking THAT clearly when watching this for the first time? 

However, when he states he "warned her for a solid year" there would be consequences if she crossed him, even the most casual viewer must realize what Walt is up to, since that never happened.

As Walt mocks Skyler for all her whining and complaining, that also functions as a slight knee to the groin to the "I Hate Skyler" crowd. But that's also the moment when Skyler catches on to what's happening.

Jesse never gets to say "Bitch" in this episode, but he also never said it with such cruelty the way Walt spits out "Stupid bitch." Even if it is an act, it's a very convincing one. 

And when Skyler responds, "I'm sorry", THAT's when Walt knows that SHE knows what he's doing, and that's when he cries throughout the rest of his latest not -altogether true "confession". 

Last time, it was all about self-preservation; this time, it's to protect Skyler so she can still raise Flynn...and Firehouse Holly. As the sun rises on the end of this tear-filled stomach ache of an episode, Walt boards a minivan to his new life in (presumably) New Hampshire.

~ Where was Saul? I've gotten so used to Mister Goodman showing up in every episode this half-season, I was initially shocked by his absence. Then I realized this was about as laugh-free an episode as has ever been done for BREAKING BAD, so maybe his exclusion was necessary. We do know Walt must have used Saul to contact the minivan man.

~ Speaking of Saul, whatever happened to Huell? Is he still sitting in that motel room guarded by an agent who doesn't know what's going on?

~ Did Walt leave the To'hajiilee coordinates on the note pinned to the sadly crying Holly? Or will Hank  (and Gomez) forever be buried out in the desert?

~ Would Skyler and her brood qualify for WITSEC? Do they remain under police protection for an extended period of time?

~ Is everything Saul knows protected by attorney-client privilege? I think it is, but I'm no legal expert.

~ Does the Aryan Brotherhood plan to keep Jesse alive forever as their cook, or will Todd eventually feel he can handle it on his own?

~ Will Lydia find out about Jesse?  Remember, since he actually saved her life (or at least spoke out for her when Mike was about to blow her away), she may feel indebted to him.

~ The Aryan Brotherhood has $70 million plus a guy who's as good a cook as Heisenberg, so is there any reason they'd want to track down Walt or menace his family?

~ Which brings us back to Walt: we know about eight months later, he arrives in town with a (supposedly) full head of hair and a beard.  He buys an M60 machine gun and goes back to his now abandoned house to get that vial of ricin. 

If the gun is for the Neo-Nazis -- then why?  For revenge?  For the money?  I espoused a theory last week about going back to save Jesse -- but what causes a change in Walt's conscience regarding Jesse? The realization that the blame for all his misfortunes is his and his alone? Or is his family in danger?  But why WOULD they be in danger, and HOW would he know? I initially thought even Saul wouldn't have a way to track down Walt, or else it defeats the purpose of what the minivan man can do. However, maybe Saul would have such info. Just in case...

Based on the first 60 episodes of this series, I'm confident that practically all of these questions and many more will be tackled and answered in the final two episodes. We may not ever get a happy ending (barn door open), but I'm damn sure we will get a satisfying ending.

That's it for this week's episode.  Until next time, be good even if BREAKING BAD is better!

Monday, September 9, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.13 - "To'hajiilee"

One key to writing a story that's laden with drama and suspense is to create situations from which the solution or escape is not readily apparent. It's a tradition that harkens back to the movie serials of the 1930's and 1940's all the way to the prime time soap operas of the 1980's. In more recent years, it was the hallmark of season enders for shows like THE X-FILES, OZ and especially LOST. Those last few minutes where the viewers' jaws are left unhinged while the same thought is blazing through brain waves across the country: "How the hell do they get outta this one?"

This final stretch of episodes -- in fact, even going back to LAST summer -- have managed to achieve this "finale effect" with nearly EVERY episode. Mouths agape and eyes wide, we're no longer focusing on what will happen in the final episode -- we're consumed with what will occur in the first five minutes a week later. Hence why the delayed gratification of last week's "Rabid Dog" was so deviously ingenious.

Perhaps more than any previous episode, after last night's whirling dervish of drama, people are theorizing up the ying-yang.  Be it the next few minutes to the last remaining ones on September 29th, everybody's all abuzz with predictions. So, I'm going to add a new segment to this week's blog in deference to such speculation. 

But I'm going to "delay a little gratification" myself here. Let's see what else there was to learn and discern from "To'hajiilee" (beyond how to pronounce "To'hajiilee").

Todd's a Sociopath with a Crush

Watching Todd invade Lydia's personal space while suggesting Uncle Adolf "smooth things over" with those Slavic buyers was creepy enough. Running his finger around her lipstick imprint on the mug, and after nonchalantly discussing his Uncle's next murder-for-hire -- drinking from that very cup -- was as skin crawling as it gets. 

Follow the Money, Find the Money...
Either Way, it's All About the Money

When Jesse said he was going to hurt Walt "where he lives", I knew it wasn't about family.

Everything had always been about building that pterodactyl sized nest egg. This is Walt the Empire Builder, remember? 

Plus, even though I believe Hank officially "Broke Bad" by going rogue and not caring whether his informant lived or died, he still would never go along with a plan that would have used Walt's kids. Although there's a slight "leap of faith" in Jesse thinking Huell would have ANY information about Walt's money.  If this had been just a couple days earlier -- Huell would have nothing to tell them. At THIS point, Hank's the one who gets lucky. But more on luck later...

We Kill, You Cook

Uncle Adolf continues to be UN-impressed by Walter White, and his sneer is more prominent than his swastika. They'll keep Walt's hands clean from Jesse's murder, but he has to slip the hazmat suit on once again to give Todd a refresher course on how to cook the blue.

You Trap Me? Oh No, I Trap You

Walt's plan to lure Jesse out by showing up at Andrea & Brock's casa goes awry.  But Hank & Jesse's scheme to trick Walt into leading them to the money goes just fine.  Well, almost...

Foreshadow much?

Fear and Greed Leads to Blabbing

First Huell folds like one of Saul's cheap suits because he's scared of The Wrath of Walt. Then later Walt admits everything outside of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping on the phone with Jesse (and presumably Hank).  Now, the wire Jesse wore at the park was legally obtained, but if this call was recorded, it doesn't appear Hank and Gomez had time to go through legal channels for it to be admissable in court. 

Even as I yelled at the TV screen, thinking Walt should STFU (yes, I may be the only person on the planet still rooting for Walt -- even Gilligan & Cranston aren't on his side)...even as I was later steadfast in my belief that the call HAD to be recorded -- I now realize it might not have been, as the objective of THIS plan was finding the money.

I also want to point out that this was the moment when Walt FINALLY explains how he poisoned Brock, and now it FINALLY makes sense as to why he didn't use the ricin. Of course, we're assuming Walt is being honest and sincere, which is usually a mistake.

Remember...He's LUCKIER than You

Walt's meth-addled goose is cooked. He's in cuffs; hell, he's got Jesse's gob of spit dribbling down his face. Hank even calls Marie to let her know he won (much like Walt's call to Skyler after he took care of the Fring problem, only with a much different reaction from HIS better half). The poignancy of that call cannot be overlooked...

But like Jesse said, Walt is not just smarter than Hank and Gomez (as one can say he certainly wasn't in this episode), he's LUCKIER than they are as well.  And Walt's luck takes the form of Uncle Adolf and the other Neo-Nazi Nitwits rolling up for the rescue despite Walt telling them explicitly NOT to come once he saw Jesse's back up was actually Hank & Gomez. 

Which also means at this point, Walt had genuinely given up. His last bit of Heisenberg-ian rage was spent when he seethes the word "Coward" at Jesse.  As Saul pointed out earlier -- he underestimates his former student, as it turns out the "Angry Non-Rat" does have a taste for cheese after all.

Oh, You Did NOT Just David Chase Me!

I've sat through hundreds of thousands of hours of television in my lifetime. I don't recall EVER seeing an episode stop short in the midst of a high intensity shootout. That sudden smash-cut to black had me thinking of ordering onion rings in a New Jersey diner. Interesting how the episode starts with a Steve Perry song, and the end reminded me of a classic TV moment that famously featured a Journey song.

This was about as laugh-free an episode as I can remember in quite some time. 
So what I choose to note is more mildly amusing than anything else.

- We get not one, but TWO 80's classics during the Cold Open of the show: Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie" AND Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science". First time Breaking Bad's has ever put me in a karaoke mood.

- Hank may have unintentionally converted thousands of viewers to vegans when he dumped those brains on the floor. Not sure if they were cow, pig or lamb -- I'm no Hannibal Lecter.

- Junior's incredulous reaction to seeing local late night TV spot celebrity Saul Goodman, and Saul's line: "Don't drink and drive. But if you do, call me!"

Let's run through a few possible scenarios just for shits and giggles (pun most definitely intended)...

Hank and Gomez are Gonna Be Buried Deeper Than Walt's Money

Right now, it's still hard to believe that not one of those thousands of bullets was able to hit a paunchy dude with a gimpy leg. Still, barring a Hellmouth opening in-between Hank, Gomez and the Klinksters -- it's difficult to conceive of how they DON'T die. Jesse himself said -- it's always the reverse opposite of what you expect.  But, since that's NOW what many of us believe is now an inescapable fate for Hank (hence that last phone call to Marie), let's assume that IS the outcome of this firefight.

First the Cartel, Now the Neo-Nazis...Poor Jesse

Seconds before the shooting begins, we see Jesse slowly opening the car door -- and we never see him again during the bullet-ridden chaos. So let's say he's hightailing it thought To'hajiilee, running for his life. But what safe refuge is there in the middle of the desert? An old cave or mineshaft?

Assuming there isn't some divine intervention, no deus ex machina moment where Jesse conveniently hails down a passing truck or beamed aboard the starship Enterprise -- we can then edge a little further out on a limb and say Uncle Adolf's boys catch him.

But with no Hank or Gomez, Jesse's got no leverage since outside of Marie, no one knows about this. Even the DEA guy who's babysitting Huell knows NOTHING about the case.

So instead of being executed, Walt and Uncle Adolf make a deal. Jesse's life is spared, but HE has to educate Todd for the meth cooking. After all, who's the ONLY OTHER GUY who can cook meth the way Walt can? He said it himself: Jesse.

And maybe that big Rambo-sized gun is indeed to take on the Neo-Nazi brigade several months later, but perhaps it's also to rescue Jesse? Maybe THAT's Walt's last shot at a tiny shred of redemption?

Could the Other Whites Be Wiped Out?

The death of Hank may be enough to permanently drive a wedge between Walt & Skyler.  That video confession was bad enough, but while she was willing to be complicit in the removal of Jesse -- she would never be able to go along with the murder of Hank. 

And THAT could prove to be a problem for Uncle Adolf -- which could lead to an attempt on HER life -- but more likely result in the death of one or both of her children. The death of either Junior or always in pink Holly has been hinted at any number of times - to the point where I'll be genuinely shocked if they both survive by the end of this series.

As For That Pesky Ricin...

There are some who'd say "Who'd trust anything they eat or drink near Walt for him to use such a thing?" After mocking those people with some choice curse words and general intelligence disparagement -- I'd point out that outside of Jesse, Saul and his men and the presumably dead Hank & Gomez -- who else would know Walt had even considered poisoning anybody? Why would Lydia, Todd or Uncle Adolf ever suspect such a thing? 

Poisoning is also traditionally a woman's method of murder, so it's the near polar opposite of an M60 machine gun in terms of murder weapons. Yes, Walt's a chemist, but the murders everyone DOES know about have involved bullets and bombs - they simply wouldn't think poison would be "his style".

That's it for this week's episode.  Until next time, be good even if BREAKING BAD is better!