That pesky blubber. If it wasn't for that, he'd be Superman.

Binging Late (S2:E2) – Bring Me My Red Slippers

by dougiedigital

I’m glad Tuco’s dead.  It was bugging the hell out of me that a guy so tweaked out on his own product was allowed to even masquerade as a drug overlord.  Hasn’t this guy ever noted what happened to Tony Montana?  Or listened to the Ten Crack Commandments?  Or heard the tragic story of Tyrone Biggums?  Here’s a hint, Tuco: it’s Rule Number 4, and I know you heard this before.  Get with the program, you snarling, degenerate piece of filth.

Aside from cheering Tuco’s death, this was a strange episode for me to watch.  I mentioned in my first entry that, before starting this binge, I’d only seen about ten minutes of a single episode in passing through the living room while my roommates were watching.  That ten minutes happened to be a scene in which Tio got blown to bits, by Walt, in a nursing home.  It was very confusing for me to contemplate what the connection between that scene and his appearance in this episode must be, especially as it became clear that Tuco wasn’t long for this earth.  Somehow this evil-eyed, bell-ringing, crusty old bastard emerges from this house, and is still getting up Walter’s ass enough that he’s worth offing?

Whatever, I’m done thinking about it.  The Wicked Witch of the South Valley is dead, and that’s enough for now.

RickBlaine USA’s Take:

Amazing that you hated Tuco and relished his death when I just loved the dude (the character and the actor’s performance). He was only in 4 episodes, but he brought a real energy to the show that it desperately needed after the initial excitement of the pilot wore off. And his name is always popping up on lists of best BkBd side characters.

With The Wire providing me with my only education on the drug trade, Tuco still seemed plausible. And even if he weren’t, he gave Walt his first big education in how dangerous and unpredictable this business can be. To Walt, it’s as simple as him manufacturing an in-demand product and Tuco distributing it. To Jesse, who is wiser to the drug trade, it’s working with a mad man.

Walt encounters rivals throughout the show, who display varying levels of sophistication. Part of Walt’s learning curve in the business is figuring out how to handle these different personalities, and his downfall is when he badly mishandles one.


Binging Late (S2:E1) – Puppy Dogs and Pool Scenes

by dougiedigital

The opening scene, featuring black and white slow-moving images of a backyard pool with a creepy one-eyed doll floating in it, was cool.  This must be some sort of flash forward that will make sense later in the season.  I hope it doesn’t involve imitating the clever folks in Traffic with the whole drugs-in-a-doll idea, but we’ll get to that I suppose.

At some point, maybe we’ll also get to an explanation as to why Walt is keeping Jesse around.  Given the way Walter treats his family, it doesn’t seem plausible that he keeps him around out of moral obligation or loyalty.  We learned in the first season that Jesse doesn’t know how to cook good meth; doesn’t know how to conduct a narcotics transaction; and doesn’t have a lot of common sense.  In this episode, we learned that he doesn’t even know how to open the chamber of – let alone handle – a firearm.  He’s as close to dead weight as it gets.  So why is he getting half?

As I thought about this some more, it dawned on me that perhaps Jesse’s uselessness is his greatest asset to Walt.  Walter has repeatedly demonstrated he has the ability to bully Jesse into submission when a dispute between them arises.  Jesse has just as clearly demonstrated he wouldn’t have the ability to competently pull a fast one on Water if he wanted to.  In this regard, Jesse’s two most critical traits are: (1) Walter trusts him, or at least trusts him to be the bungling lapdog he’s behaved like, and (2) he’s a criminal.  The latter point is especially important as Walt seems intent on trying to maintain dual identities in dueling domains—a decision that must come back to bite him, right?

I’m intrigued by RickBlaineUSA’s hint that the Jesse/Walter relationship is the show.  It’s starting to unfold, though at this point remains a bit perplexing.  Trust can be a funny thing.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Walt is, by trade, a teacher, even if we think of him as a brilliant chemist who has unleashed his inner mad scientist. But even mad scientists have sidekicks: The Brain had Pinkie; Dr. Frankensteen had Eyegor. Where Jesse falls—student, sidekick, partner, son, friend—changes as Walt’s predicament does.

Without spoiling anything, I think I can safely and confidently say that the teaser payoff is one of the show’s weakest.

Walt’s ‘737’ calculation is beautiful moment in the show. He sees what he’s gotten into, and precisely what he needs before he can get out. He’s a realist, acknowledging the danger but accepting the risk in return for his family’s financial future. At some point, all that changes.

Binging Late (S1:E7) – Morally Awake

by dougiedigital

I feel like the producers are trying to send a not-so-subtle message.  A few episodes back, we witnessed Skyler being a bad girl, snooping around Walter’s back doing the nosy spouse thing and then lying to her sister’s face about her motives for asking about the effects of marijuana.  In this Episode 7, things were even more explicit.  Hank tokes up on an illicit Cuban cigar, laughing it off when Walter suggests those things are “illegal.”  Then Marie, for the second time, goes full on klepto, this time janking an expensive, white-gold baby tiara. What’s the word here, that’s there’s some sort of moral equivalence between these “citizens” breaking the law or lying to loved ones, on the one hand, and Jesse and Walter ripping off a drum of chemical solution from a warehouse and cooking up crystal by the pound, on the other?

Whatever equivalence there might be, there’s a difference between the two in that Hank and Marie’s crimes were strictly for the thrill, where Jesse and Walter break the law to make ends meet.  Or do they?  Earlier in the episode, after a steamy boinking session in their stylish Pontiac Aztec, Skyler asks Walter why the sex they just had was so good.  “Because it was illegal,” he replies.  It already seemed, back in Episode 5, that Walter’s reluctance to undergo cancer treatment wasn’t really about the money.  Is the same true about his descent into criminality?  While the money appears nice, it certainly feels like Walter is getting a lot more out of playing Heisenberg than just the cash.

This episode also marked the end of Season 1.  While there was some resolution in that Walter and Jesse now seem pinned together and to have established the foundations of their business with Tuco, the wrap-up on the first season felt quite abrupt.  Sort of like this blog post.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

It’s hard to shake the finale from my head when reading your recaps. The ‘strictly for the thrill’ observation is prescient, and nicely laid out in the episode. Walt’s famous ‘I am awake’ line to Jesse in the pilot, in response to his question ‘why are you doing this?’, colors so much of the series. Marie, too, needs to feel awake, so she steals. Hank spends his life raiding meth labs, so he’s already awake. Skylar doesn’t have an outlet yet, which may explain some of the hate flung her way as the show picked up steam. The other three already have vulnerabilities and peccadillos while she doesn’t. (This is really exemplified in the pillow scene.)

I will say that the illegality of drugs is taken as a given in the show, rather than a point for debate. Whether the show is consciously staying apolitical or it’s just not a focus, I could never find a ‘the drug war is pointless or bad’ or ‘drugs are bad and should be illegal’ message, as much as I tried to dig out the former.

The ending is so brilliant and perfect that it really makes me jealous of people who saw it in real time and therefore had however many months to think about it. The truth of Walt’s business— and his utter inability to control it—are laid bare. And he and Jesse can only gasp and stare, just like us.

On the finale of Breaking Bad

by rickblaineusa

Spoilers below.

When your first (or second) thought is “Was that all a dream?” you should probably spend more time thinking and less time writing, especially when the work you’re responding to isn’t garbage. And while you’re doing that thinking, you should examine why your own expectations, biases, and desires have led you to reject what is on the page for something that’s not.

That is what Emily Nussbaum and Norm MacDonald and anyone else should have done before flicking out their thoughts that “Felina,” Breaking Bad’s final episode, was all “Walt’s fantasy.” Or, if you think instant reactions are both useful and necessary, then each should have by now written pieces explaining how their knee-jerk responses were, at heart, silliness.

The “Walt’s fantasy” version goes like this: Walt gets into the Volvo; he can’t hotwire it; the cops arrive at the bar; he leans back and says some prayer. At that point, the reality ends, and Walt’s fantasy begins. In the fantasy, he finds the key, goes to NM, and does all his deeds. There’s no reason to deconstruct what comes afterward scene-by-scene to explain why it wasn’t a fantasy. But it is worth diving into the course and themes of the show to figure out why anyone would gravitate to that theory, and explain why they’ve missed the point of both.

Point 1: Everything in the finale was too clean and perfect. This is not just a criticism of the fantasy mongers; it’s virtually ubiquitous. It’s equally hilarious. A comment like that leads to an important question: “Did you watch any of the show?” Like, say, “Face Off,” in which Huell manages to pick Jesse’s pocket, Walt manages to sneak Brock just the right about of derived-from-a-plant poison, then deceive Jesse, then rig a bomb with enough precision to kill three people. Or, “Dead Freight,” in which Walt manages to steal 1,000 gallons of precursor from a train, kill the only witness, dispose of his body, and never have anyone find out about either. Or, “Live Free or Die,” wherein a giant magnet is used to fry Gus’s laptop. Or, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” where Walt and Jesse steal the first barrel of precursor from a facility with only one security guard and apparently no other security measures. Or, “Gliding Over All”‘s prison killings, where everyone got slaughtered in a totally absurd and impossible manner. Or “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” Walt’s first big scene as Heisenberg when he bombs Tuco’s office with mercury fulminate, which manages to explode the windows but not injure him or blow his eardrums out. Or, “Caballo Sin Nombre,” with Walt avoiding imminent death from the twins’ hatchets. Didn’t everyone trade nods and smiles when Jesse tells Hank that Mr. White, among other things, is “luckier than you”?

Suddenly, in the last episode, every utterly implausible and lucky outcome is mocked and maligned—to the point where the implausibility leads to the “Walt’s fantasy” theory. It’s baffling. You might as well roll things all the way back to the pilot, and argue that the entire show took place as a fantasy in the split second before the gun went off in his mouth, with the first image of the fantasy being the gun not going off. Implausibility is a hallmark of the show. Nothing in the finale was remotely as implausible as the prison killings, or the train heist, or the magnet. Seriously, how many movies have you seen where cars get hotwired? A dozen? Two dozen?

But wait: it’s not just that the plan worked, it’s that it worked without repercussions, so the complaint goes. The train heist led to a boy’s death; the magnet led to the bank account numbers being discovered; Gus’s murder led (sort of) to Jesse turning on Walt. To that, I ask: What did the prison murders lead to other than a ton of money for Walt? How did the precursor theft in the first season go wrong? The idea that something always comes back to bite Walt in his improbable plans isn’t true. In fact, throughout the show, most of the fallout rains down on those close to him, not on Walt himself.

But more importantly: Walt’s plans in Felina didn’t exactly work. His first—making Gretchen and Elliot set up a trust for Flynn—was as long a longshot as they come. Those two people are very smart, with very smart people who can, and will, advise them that Walt was lying. That money was in the DEA’s hands before Walt was dead on the lab floor. His second—using the coordinates to help Skylar avoid prosecution—is equally dubious. Her fate will hardly be improved by finding those bodies. His third—poisoning Lydia—was flawless, to be sure. We’ll give him that. It also wasn’t that difficult a plan (even though I’ve heard people describe getting the ricin into the stevia as most complicated maneuver since Bruce Willis blew up that asteroid). That plan was also signaled at least ten times over 15 episodes. [Fantasy theorists: Did Walt know that Todd brought Lydia tea in the lab, or that Lydia ordered tea but settled for hot water with lemon in her first meeting with Mike?] His fourth—killing the Aryans—led to him taking a bullet and bleeding to death, and not recovering his money, which was his stated goal to Saul at the start of “Granite State.” Sure, he killed those guys, and Jesse strangled Todd, and Walt executed Jack. Yes, implausible in the world we live in. But not the slightest bit implausible in the world of Breaking Bad.

And he got shot. We don’t know how Walt wanted to die, or whether he was planning to just stand there and get mowed down like everyone else before he saw Jesse, ending it all with a suicide run. The Walt we’ve all come to know and love, though, must have wanted to look upon his destruction, rather than die in the midst of it. He’s a man who loves control and power, which the bullet to the side robbed him of in his final minutes. So to call what Walt did in “Felina” so unrealistic and flawless as to only be fantasy is to ignore the 57 episodes before the finale, and ignore the suffering still endured in “Felina” despite Walt’s meticulous planning.

Point 2: Walt was redeemed after spending the whole show turning into a monster. To this I say: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT??? This take is baffling. Let’s consider the things that Walt decided to do on his last day on earth, keeping in mind the problems that remained for his family. First, he does the whole thing with Gretchen and Elliot, which served not to get Flynn any money and instead to grease Walt’s ego and let him get a final jab at the two people who fueled so much of his rage. Next, he buys a machine gun and retrieves the ricin. Then, he rigs the stevia packet with the ricin. Then, he poisons Lydia and sets up the meeting with Jack so that he can unload the M-61. Then he goes to the middle of the desert to rig the M-61, after buying the necessary parts. Then he says goodbye to Skyler and Holly and sees his son for the last time. Then he goes out and kills the Aryans.

So, Walt chooses for this day to be his last one alive, which is, in itself, a very ugly decision. Then he decides to spend it killing people for no reason except revenge.

[Stop reading now if you believe that Walt had to kill them to keep Skyler and the family safe. It’s a legitimate, however weak, argument. If Walt ever believed that he needed to kill Lydia, Todd, Jack, and the rest of the crew to protect his family he never would have disappeared to NH. Nothing happened between deciding to go HDThoreau and coming back to NM that changed anything on that front. And he ricined Lydia before he knew about Todd’s scare tactics. And Walt decided to kill Jack because Jack killed Hank and stole his money before he went to NH. Walt was moments away from turning himself in before Charlie Rose’s penetrating questioning roused him into action, and nothing revealed in that interview related to his family. On top of that, Todd already decided that he wouldn’t kill Skyler, and she doesn’t know anything anyway. Uncle Jack kept Walter alive, after all, when killing him along with Hank and Gomez made all the sense in the world. So, as stated, it’s a colorable but wrong argument, and if you ascribe to it, the rest of this essay won’t be persuasive.]

Simmer on that for a moment. Walt decides to (1) go on an apparent suicide mission that is not designed or intended to protect his family, and (2) spend his freely chosen last day on earth preparing for that suicide mission, rather than with his family. What were his other options? He could have turned himself in, and begged to have his family kept safe. This course would have protected Skyler from further prosecution, and protected his family from Jack. [There’s a decent argument that Walt could have traded a lot of information for reduced sentencing too. He didn’t kill Hank or Gomez; he didn’t organize the prison killings; and he’s now in custody. Information about Jack and Todd and that operation would have been enormously valuable.] It would have also shown that Walt actually regretted the choices he had made. It would have also given him the chance to communicate with his son and daughter, even if only in one direction, and even if only briefly. But that’s not what he did.

Instead of telling Skyler, “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive” and then continuing to do the things that he liked, was good at, and made him feel alive, he could have done the right thing. But the right thing—coming clean and facing the consequences of his actions—isn’t part of Walter White’s world. So he did what he did instead. And in doing so, confirmed that he is the monster he always was: an out-and-out narcissist who can’t see beyond his own reflection, a point nicely underscored in the flashforward with the ricin, in the bulletholed car in Ozymanidas, and in the last shot in the lab.

In the course of it, he saved Jesse, but there’s no reason to think that was his intention. [I encourage anyone making that claim to re-watch the scene with Skinny Pete and Badger. When Walt says “Jesse” after Skinny Pete says the blue is better than ever, Walt is furious. There is not the slightest hint in that scene that he thinks Jesse is enslaved. Then, when Walt sees Jesse enchained, he is surprised and crushed. Walt’s gambit about Jesse was a ploy to save Walt’s life, not Jesse’s. It just turned out that he did both.] Walt’s split-second decision to spare Jesse while killing the Aryans is a nice gesture by a man who is about to execute his plan and offering some humanity to the person whose life he destroyed and whose death he ordered. But it wasn’t redemptive.

Then, with everyone dead and his life slipping away, Walt taunts Lydia, tosses the phone, and walks to the lab. He looks upon his works, and then upon himself, and dies. He seems satisfied with that end to his life, and by extension, with the two years that have rained hell upon his family and strangers, all sparked when Walt realized that he could cook up the best fucking meth the world had ever seen. I would argue that he is actually satisfied. He’s a narcissistic monster who believes in his own solipsistic mind that he got the $9M to his son, that he gave Jesse and Skyler their freedom, and that his name would live on. He did the job he set out to do. We, as the people who watched him unleash this monster for 55 episodes, should understand that his plans will fail and that the name that will live on is that of a ruthless murderer who left a stream of dead bodies and destroyed lives in his wake. And that even at the last moments of his life, he never recognized the carnage he had wrought, let alone acknowledging, admitting, or apologizing for it.

That’s not redemption.

And maybe that’s why people are unsatisfied with the ending. They aren’t recognizing the differences between Walt redeeming himself in his own fucked-up mind, and him redeeming himself in the eyes of the other characters in the show. He did the first, which viewers reflexively felt as redeeming himself in their eyes. But Walt should only be redeemed in the audience’s eyes if he is redeemed in Marie’s or Flynn’s or Skyler’s or Jesse’s. And he wasn’t. So that tension had viewers wondering if it was a fantasy, and poking holes into the plot machinations, and claiming that Vince Gilligan changed his mind about Walt—all of which overlooked how Walt’s final decisions were perfectly in line with his trajectory throughout the show.

I should admit now that I desperately wanted Walt to be redeemed somehow. To turn himself in and help the DEA take down Uncle Jack and Todd, saving Jesse in the process. Or to find out definitively that Todd was torturing Jesse, and go back and save him. Or to just stay in NH and spend his time writing apology letters to his family and Jesse and then die. To do anything that showed growth instead of decay. But that’s not how Walt went out. Not at all.

Binging Late (S1:E6) – Fulminated Montage

by dougiedigital

Looking for the video posted above (more on that in a minute), and knowing it aired in episode 6 entitled “Crazy Handful of Nothin,” I ran a Google search for the phrase “Breaking Bad episode 6 Crazy Handful.”  The second result that turned up, and the first one under the “News” heading, was a Slate Magazine blog entry with the title: Did the First Episodes of Breaking Bad Scare You Off? Watch This One.  You’ll be Hooked.  The episode it’s referring to is Episode 6.  And although I declined to read the blog entry because I fear it contains spoilers, I suspect (based on the image it features of Walter White shortly after his exit from Tuco’s lair) that its premise is that White’s metamorphosis into Heisenberg is what really got the show going.

I get that the whole slamming a volatile chemical compound disguised as crystal meth onto the floor in a room full of armed and dangerous drug dealers was dramatic, and a pretty courageous thing to do.  I totally see how “Heisenberg” avenging Lil Jesse’s beat-down, on Tuco’s turf, would immediately earn him the “badass” title among legions of fans (who were, no doubt, similarly impressed by his unflinching decisions to blow up Ken’s car and squeeze the life out of Krazy 8’s neck by hand with a bicycle lock).  It was a fearless move, and probably a turning point for Walter White in his quest to earn the respect and clientele of deadbeat meth pushers.  But if it was also an event that caused viewers who were bored with the show after five episodes to keep watching, I’m questioning the tastes of viewers who weren’t as intrigued by the first five episodes as I was.

The badass moment that had me exploding out of my seat on this episode wasn’t Heisenberg’s throw-down in the dope house; it was the montage set to “It is Such a Good Night (Scoobidoo Love)” earlier in the movie.  I can’t imagine how one minute and twelve seconds could have better captured Jesse’s night on the town pushin’, and hustlin’, and usin’.  From the off-kilter and drifting camera shots of the apartment complex, to the rapid cuts during the hand-to-hands, to the close-up face-shots of Jesse’s customers, everything about that montage (including the music) perfectly brought it to life.  Just look at that dude’s face at the 0:33 mark in the video above – pupils dilated and glaring like a possessed demon straight through the camera – and tell me that doesn’t breath indescribable life out of a fleeting glimpse of meth dealing.  I’m hooked.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Lots of good stuff in this episode. The first (I think) innocent victim in Walt’s lies as the janitor goes down for the theft of the school’s chemistry supplies. Walt gives his “No more bloodshed” line to Jesse for the first of many empty promises that he has the power, and will, to stop the violence. Hank underestimating Walt. Walt’s first manifestation of Heisenberg, his got-nothing-to-lose, will-do-anything-to-win alter ego. And, as you describe, the use of some wild visual style. (I’m not sure the financial situation of the show at this point or it’s probability of being picked up, but there feels like a meta aspect to this episode with the show itself going for broke just as Walt does.)

Binging Late (S1:E5) – Dark Matter

by dougiedigital

My enduring memory of this episode is the scene in which Walter White and his family sit huddled around the living room, talking pillow in tow, to discuss Walter’s decision to forego cancer treatment.  From wife Skyler’s insistence that everyone speak freely, to sister-in-law Marie’s audacity to actually speak freely, to brother-in-law John McClane’s awkwardness, to son Walter Jr.’s Jimmy-like stammering around the word “pussy,” that single scene was rife with so many powerful moments that I suspect it is indelibly etched into my cerebral cortex.  What I will remember most from it is Bryan Cranston’s performance; as he sat through that train wreck, Walter White’s reaction was dramatic, compelling, and almost exactly how I envision I would have reacted under the circumstances.

What else I’ll remember about this episode is what it made me feel: fear, regret, confinement, anxiety, hopelessness, despair.  We learned a lot about Walter and his motivations in this episode, including that his reluctance to undergo life-extending treatment is not really about the money, and that the romantic flashbacks we’ve glimpsed revolve around the now-wife of his once-schoolmate friend.  Mostly, though, we learned more about what Walter’s predicament feels like; and it’s awful.  The cathartic effects notwithstanding, it’s difficult to expect an audience to consistently sit through material as distressing as this.  Placing viewers in a position to contemplate wrangling with specific knowledge of one’s impending and premature death, or being forced to make the gut-wrenching decisions that such a death sentence entails, is to force those viewers into a place of intense discomfort—not exactly the best way to boost ratings early in a show’s inaugural season.  I respect the show’s writers for taking us there despite the unpleasantness of the journey.

Decades later, one of Walter’s schoolmates still seemed tickled by the notion that a biotech company conceived of by men with the last names Schwartz (“black” in German) and White took the name “Gray Matter.”  The show’s creators obviously shared in this delight, bestowing the same title on this episode.  As I experienced it, “Dark Matter” would have been more appropriate.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Everyone eventually called The Sopranos a family drama. Not so with Breaking Bad. It was in many respects the opposite: Tony had Carmela, AJ, Meadow, Christopher, Adriana, Sal, Paulie, Artie, and the rest. Those were people he had real, honest interactions with, showing vulnerability and love and hate. Walter has those people in the pillow scene, and Jesse, but almost everything is a performance. Walt uses the ‘this is about my family’ trope as a disguise for what it’s really about, revealed in the perfect juxtaposition this episode with Gray Matter.

I wonder if a fair reading of the show is as one big send-up of the ‘I did it for my family’ cliche. (Latrel Spreewell’s comments immediately come to mind.) It’s an all-forgiving, all-excusing explanation for behavior that would otherwise be deemed avaricious, or evil. On that couch you have four people who love and support Walter, unconditionally. They respect his reluctance to go though chemo, despite desperately wanting him to live. Isn’t that what every person wants? And yet he consciously–and repeatedly–shits on that love, choosing to exorcise his regrets instead.

All in the name of family.

Binging Late (S1:E4) – Why Guard Pandora’s Open Box?

by dougiedigital

This episode really drove home the severity of the White household’s financial predicament.  I’m sure that was the point, as revelations of $5,000 doctor consults, $90,000 treatment deposits, etc. put a new level of detail on the box around Walter White and his family.  We got a taste of Jesse’s story, too, capped off when the elder Pinkman took the fall for his piccolo-playing, pot-puffing, pre-pubescent pissant protégé (brotégé?).  Enabling a schoolboy’s weed addition, what a sweet thing to do.

What wasn’t particularly sweet was the way Walter White spoke to Jesse when his one-time partner stopped by for a “de-brief” session.  I can get why Walt is pissed: Jesse’s repeated carelessness nearly got both of them killed, significantly increased their odds of being caught by the police, and created an unfathomable mess of acid and dissolved human remains that they were left to clean up by hand.  Yet I still don’t really understand Walter’s reluctance to cook up another batch.  Dude’s obviously a premier “artist,” there’s a demand for the product, and it makes a lot of money, which he sorely needs.  Aside from the risk of getting caught – which was just as real when he so enthusiastically took the plunge on his first batch – what has changed that now makes him suddenly so reluctant?

In addition to being comical, the very thoughtful pros/cons list Walter penned when he mulled over Krazy 8’s fate was helpful in understanding his hyper-analytic thought process, and reveals that Walter is a man with a conscious and concerns about the demons in his head.  At this point, though, when it comes to deciding whether to whip up another few thousand dollars worth of crystal, isn’t the genie already well out of the bottle?  You’ve already cooked meth.  You’ve already lied to your wife and hidden it from your DEA-agent brother-in-law.  You’ve already killed a man, TWICE.  Can Walter really be concerned that he’s going to have any more trouble sleeping at night or focusing at his job if he decides to hit the lab again?  On the other hand, maybe having some more cash in hand would give him a little peace regarding the bills he faces, or ease apprehensions of his family being left debt-ridden when he’s no longer around.

I understand Jesse proved himself to be a screw-up, and that Walt certainly feels lucky to be alive after the debacle that was his first experience.  Jesse’s unreliable nature shouldn’t exactly be news, though, to a guy who first-hand witnessed the kid flunk through high school chemistry and frantically leap half-naked through a second story window as his partner got dragged away by narcotics agents two doors down.  Besides, if Walter is really concerned about his own welfare and minimizing the risks he takes, maybe blowing up the “KEN WINS” Beemer to satisfy an emotional urge wasn’t really a sound course of action, either.

Cmon, Walt.  Get your ass back in the kitchen, and cook us up some pie.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I decided to read the literalist recap on the BrBd wiki page before I respond so that I can jog my memory about the episode. There, I saw that this is the episode where Jr. says: “Why don’t you just die already?” to his dad.  Fuck.

I have some essay-length thoughts on Jesse, the cancer treatment, and Walt’s list. So I’ll try to dole them out where appropriate along the way. For now, let me just tease a few ideas.

Jesse: the Walt-Jesse relationship is the show. Although the whole show is essentially about Walt’s choices after his diagnosis and the other characters’ choices in light of his choices (and persuasion), Jesse is the prime responder. Call it teacher-student, father-son, God-Jesus, Aggamemnon-Achilles, whatever. It’s the heart of the show, so savor the early development.

Money: there’s a popular take on the show that Walt represents the beaten down, privileged white man who is unhappy that he can’t get his anymore.  [i can provide links.] That take hurts me, deep. It’s wrong, and misreads the show. But that’s fine. It’s truly painful because it’s so close to getting it right. The show is about money, and health care, and the current winner-take-all economy. It’s not the slightest bit oblique in that regard. The show (like the editorial voice do this blog) despises the current economic realities in which (to paraphrase Catwoman) the few have so much and the rest of us so little. It’s not Marxist, but when the entire premise of the show rests on the unaffordability of health care and the shitty salaries of teachers, and then adds in about 17 other markers along this line (spoiler!) it’s undeniably a part of the show. So when critics turn the laser scope on Walt instead of the elites (politicians, business leaders, intellectuals, artists) who have condoned the inequality of lifestyle that has turned us into Russia, I’m saddened. None of this ultimate excuses Walt’s behavior, or does it:

On the list: I’ll come back to that.

Binging Late (S1:E3) – The Jitters

by dougiedigital

Walter White almost lost me.  When he went up those stairs ready to set Krazy 8 free, I immediately felt a mouthful of crow swell up in my jaw while the kind words I just wrote about what an unusually thoughtful, and deliberately bad guy he is starting traveling the wrong direction up my esophagus.  Then he started to piece that broken plate back together, and I knew my man still had it.  Well played, Walter White, well played.

Aside from noticing my own fickle nature as I doubted our protagonist only to immediately regret my own doubt, I also really started to notice the camera jitter in this episode.  Before I ever started watching Breaking Bad, a friend told me that the hand-held camera effect was something the show regularly employs.  I don’t know if this effect was present in the first two episodes, but it was in the third that I really noticed it, and I have to say, it felt a little distracting.  When I’m thinking during the episode about the technical details of the camera bobbing around, instead of thinking about what’s substantively happening on the screen, I’m not sure the show is really having the desired effect.  Then again, I didn’t notice the camera moving at all during the first two episodes, and maybe that jitter really subconsciously heightened my viewing experience and took things to another level.  I don’t know, and I’m sure the show’s director and cinematographer have their reasons, which I’m not one to question.  I just hope I can stop noticing.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

On the camera: My memory of the show is that it used the shaky, Friday Night Lights camera stuff early, then tamed it down a lot, and eventually rarely used it. (The camera would move slightly on tight shots but not much. Again, the real shaky cam is always what I associated with FNL, and it didn’t do that.) When I think of the show’s cinematographic brilliance, I think of widely framed vistas; Rian-Johnson-ish, surreal perspective shots; and action sequences filled with dread. This is a show that drastically built its budget over time, and used a few outstanding, unique directors for shows each season. So you will see a marked increase in quality over the series.

On Walt as the bad guy: It is fascinating to me that you’ve slotted him into that category. The central conflict of the show is whether Walt is a bad guy—internally, externally, etc. I wonder if you’ve absorbed so much of the zeitgeist around the show that you walked in knowing this guy would ultimately be ‘bad’, so you see these first episodes as an origin story of a villain. Or are you just being more objective than the rest of the viewing public?

Binging Late (S1:E2) – Say Hello to the [Good] Bad Guy

by dougiedigital

Where Episode 1 covered a tremendous amount of ground in a one-hour episode–spanning three weeks, introducing central characters, and briskly highlighting our protagonist’s transformation from upright school teacher to calculating meth chef–Episode 2 did the opposite.  In this second piece, little more than a day elapsed.  Within this time, Walter and Jesse barely finished a fraction of what they set out to, effectively dissolving Emilio’s body (along with the bathtub) in hydrofluoric acid and accomplishing essentially nothing with respect to his cousin, Krazy 8, save for keeping him alive (not exactly their objective).

I appreciated this slowdown because it provided an opportunity to glean a more deliberate sense of Walter White and how he operates.  I also appreciated it because I like what I gleaned.  I often get the sense in shows and movies that I’m rooting for bad guys: Hannibal Lecter, Tony Soprano, Stringer Bell, Wile E. Coyote, Dr. Horrible from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog…  Maybe it’s the me-against-the-world underdog  roles they play, or maybe it’s that many of those doing the law-breaking amount to antiheroes designed to evoke our sympathy.  Whatever the reason for cheering them on, these bad guys almost always break our hearts because, well, the good guys are supposed to win in the end.  So often, they exacerbate the inevitable letdown by failing us in ways that seem so preventable, either not paying sufficient attention to detail, or ignoring that nagging issue that everyone knows will come back to bite them, or arrogantly taking shortcuts because they assume they’re unstoppable.

Not so with Walter White.  For someone who just picked up criminality, this guy’s taking to it like a duck to water.  He goofed a little in the early going, allowing Emilio to get rid of his cigarette by tossing it out of a window, while lit, into a parched desert tinderbox.  Otherwise, though, homeboy has been on point.  Throughout the second episode, Walter consistently and reliably thought through angles and quickly crafted lies that we’d normally expect out of only the craftiest veterans.  My favorite example was the kitchen scene, in which Walter is planning to finish off Krazy 8, when he first reaches for a butcher knife, next for a hammer, then for a handgun, and finally settles on a plastic shopping bag—because why create a mess?

Of course, it didn’t work out in that instance because the show’s creators had other plans (I suspect we need Krazy 8 for something later).  But that was hardly the fault of Walter White.  This is a bad guy I can get behind.  Please don’t let me down.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

Walt’s planning abilities—and his execution of those plans—has been discussed quite a bit post-finale, so it’s fitting for both your first viewing and the finale that you recognize those two things as already central to the show. It’s no spoiler to say that much of the show hinges on them. Sometimes Walt is MacGyver, thinking fast and using the tools at hand to get out of a sticky situation (e.g., the pilot). Other times he’s Kasparov, moving four steps ahead (famously, Walt will later ironically lament that another character is always ten steps ahead of him).

But that’s just plotting. Thinking now on the full series, Walt’s planning is an insight into his character and themes of the show. Planning, and explanations for the plans, are integral to everything that happens. The trigger for Walt is his cancer (and the trajectory of the entire show), leading him to devise a plan using his best skills to get money into his children’s hands before he dies. At least that’s his excuse. Later, other characters get into the act, laying extraordinary traps for their enemies.

These plans give the show its unstoppable momentum and week-to-week excitement. (“How will Walt get out alive??? Tune in next week!!!”) They also embody these well-worn lines:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often awry,

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy!

Remind me to respond to your bad guy thoughts.

Binging Late (S1:E1) – Good Timing

by dougiedigital


Prompted by the palpable anticipation among my friends for the series finale of Breaking Bad, last week I engaged in a bit of crowd-sourcing: should I just stay off social media for a few days around the time of Sunday’s episode to avoid spoilers given my intent to eventually catch up and watch the show?  Among the abundant stream of enthusiastic responses, most of which advised that I should hide out in a cave for a few days unless I was prepared to spend 50 of the ensuing 68 hours catching up in order to watch the finale with everyone else, a friend suggested I should just start watching and blog the show as I do.

 I took his suggestion to heart and this blog is the result.  As I weave my way through 62 episodes, I intend to reflect and offer up a short commentary on each one before I dive into the next.  I don’t approach this from any particular angle; I just want to memorialize the process of experiencing one of the most acclaimed dramas of my lifetime as it happens.  Co-blogger and avid Breaking Bad aficionado RickBlaineUSA will offer up his own meta-commentary on my perspective as he sees fit.  With any luck, vicariously experiencing the show once again for the first time through me will inspire others of you, all of whom are welcome to contribute with your own takes.  Please, just bite your tongue on what’s yet to come!

Folks have been telling me for years how much I’d enjoy Breaking Bad.  They know I’ve worshiped at the altar of The Wire, repeatedly, and Breaking Bad just seems to them like the sort of show I could really get in to.  Besides, they love the show themselves, and it’s won a ton of awards.  Everyone’s talking about it.  Yet, before yesterday, I’d never watched more than about a 10-minute segment I caught walking through the living room while my roommates had it on.

I never set out to avoid watching Breaking Bad, and I’ve no interest in being a contrarian.  When my friends – who know what I like and who have good taste themselves – tell me they think I’d really enjoy the show, I always expect they’re probably right.  And while I do usually keep myself fairly busy, it isn’t as if a one-hour episode per week is going to break my back, or as if there haven’t been enough vacuous Wicked Tuna episodes or Bachelorette seasons in the last five years that I’ve somehow found time for.  For whatever reason, I just haven’t ever tuned in to Breaking Bad.

Last night, a little after 9pm, that changed.  While the rest of you (minus those on the East Coast who live three hours in the future) snuggled up to catch the season finale on AMC, I plopped down on the couch with a generous buddy’s Netflix account to get started.  The timing could not have been more auspicious.  During the opening scene in which Walter White hectically maneuvers his RV through rugged terrain, ostensibly to escape police pursuit, the spotlight of a local ghetto bird caught my eye through the living room window (thankfully, they weren’t coming for me any more than the police were coming for Walter White).  Later in the episode, as we caught up to the opening flash-forward to see White again barrel through the desert, a car alarm went off in the neighboring parking lot, so in tune with what I was watching that I had to pause the show to discern whether the alarm was coming from my television or from real life.  As if just to spook me, the alarm suddenly stopped the moment White placed the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

Though it first aired almost six years ago, the episode’s social commentary also seemed eerily timely.  Early in the episode, I suffered flashbacks of the past 9+ months of gun debates as Walter White’s brother-in-law chided him for his ignorance on how to properly defend himself with a firearm.  The prospects for our nation’s decaying middle class sure haven’t gotten any more promising than they were for Walter White in January of 2008, nor have they for our Sisyphean War on Drugs.  And as we stare down an imminent government shutdown over Congress’ refusal to fund the Affordable Care Act, could there be a more appropriate time for Walter White to demonstrate in very plain terms just how dire life is for the millions of Americans who lack health insurance?

I don’t put a lot of stock into the notions of fate, or destiny, but it was hard to avoid feeling last night like this was the perfect time for me to start Breaking Bad.  Let’s enjoy the ride.

RickBlaineUSA’s Take:

I am relieved this series is over. Watching week to week since season two has been a joy, but a terrible one. There are no triumphs in the show, just a slow, deliberate descent as Walt’s cancer swallows up the tiny world where each character breaks bad. It’s a terrible, heartbreaking journey. The joy comes from the brilliant acting, gorgeous cinematography, tight plotting, beautiful score, and the rawness and simplicity of the story.

And it’s all there in the first episode. It’s all there in every episode, relentlessly pushing towards the true finale in Ozymandias, the most terribly perfect episode in television history. Watching Breaking Bad for five years is like peering over his shoulder as p.p. creates Guernica.

So, from someone who’s watched every episode at least four times, to someone starting from scratch: Good luck.