Monday, October 24, 2011

Mind Blown

I'm sure I'm way late to this party, but I just watched last night's The Walking Dead and was embarrassingly elated to spot the blue meth from Breaking Bad, casually and seamlessly displayed in a B-plot. In light of Gus's zombie face from the BB 4th season finale, I can safely assert that this is no accident but a bona fide TV Crossover Situation! I love those!

So glad I didn't opt out of this show, you know, yet. Not only is it a cool idea that Heisenberg's blue meth would exist in the TWD universe, but it's also a nice little homage from one AMC bro to another. Next to an episode in which Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon attempt to mutually change each other's outlooks on life while being uniquely hilarious, I can't think of a more delightful merger of two television shows. Well, I probably could, but the dramatic statement must live on!

Oh, man. Does this mean Walter and Jesse have been cooking all the way up to the zombie apocalypse? Did they eventually tire of the New Mexican desert and relocate to Georgia? Do they still dysfunctionally love each other? Are they - GULP - still alive? Did Hank regain his walking ability in time to outrun the zombies? Who is watching Holly??? Much to ponder, but let's be real: Walter Jr. was probably the first to bite it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Ding Bang Boom

"You're damn right. He had to go."   --Walter White

A filler flower. That's what the past two episodes, including the minor heart attack I suffered while watching "End Times," hinged on. What, did we think that Walt all of a sudden would start playing nice? "Break good," as it were? Just because he gave a nice speech to Skyler about accountability? Just because he tenderly kissed his baby daughter goodbye in a heart-twisting scene that one time?

I should have known that Walt would not come out of this one looking as lily white (no pun intended) as we were briefly led to believe. And I did, after all, want for him to stop rolling with the punches and freaking do something, because that's what heroes are supposed to do, even those of the anti- variety. And in "Face Off," Walter White has established himself as an antihero bordering on antagonist. Multiple homicide was the least of Mr. White's sins this week. He connived and he deceived and he sacrificed lives and loyalties, and in doing so, got the job done. And the end result has left me feeling full of... there isn't even a word. Hatemiration? Get me Merriam-Webster's on the phone!

Hoooh boy.This show will kill me dead, inside and out, by the time it's over. What a season. What an episode. Among other things, "Face Off" totally cured me of my penchant for titles with multiple meanings. Was Gus's death theatrical, jarring, and borderline fantastic? Sure it was. But what a way to go for such a ruthlessly precise villain with his own personal flair for drama! From the moment Gus flipped the lid on his surveillance laptop to his beautifully scored slow walk toward Casa Tranquila (ha!), all of his scenes this week were tinged with a sense of finality; it was obvious we were watching a dead man walking. And you have to hand it to Walt for his carefully constructed, if somewhat convoluted, kill plan. To give Gus such a poetic sendoff -- using his own emotional ties to the past against him and making his own sworn enemy into the instrument of his ultimate downfall -- yet to destroy him without ever coming face to face with him... this is the stuff of great fiction.

Also the stuff of great fiction? Walter White. Has a more despicable yet still maddeningly sympathetic protagonist ever been penned? Such is the tragedy of this character that his most heinous acts are the ones he has committed out of love. Walt has done many reprehensible things, starting with killing Emilio and Krazy-8 in self-defense, standing purposefully by as Jane choked to death and outright murdering the two child-killing goons -- ostensibly to save Jesse -- but for the first time, he has plotted a premeditated murder that went more or less according to plan and in doing so played dangerously with the lives of not one, but two innocents. For the first time, Walt's darkness has taken something of a Machiavellian form, allowing himself a single tortured look after so deceitfully extending his hand to Jesse. "I won," he tells Skyler by way of explanation for the disturbing news permeating the media, and it's true. Walter White's victory is both hard-won and well-earned by his being at once the smartest and the worst. Not so bad as to kill Brock outright but bad enough to take a chance with the boy's life (and to manipulate Jesse back under his control in the most selfish way imaginable). And that handshake! God, gross, Walt! So much deception in that handshake, at the other end of which sits Jesse, once again the victim of some pretty serious remorse over something for which Walt is largely to blame.

If the beauty of this show lies in its deliberate pacing and gradual tension buildup, then the beauty of "Face Off" -- which refers to the episode's central showdown and nothing else, dammit -- is in the excruciatingly (yet rewardingly) slow advancement of Walt's plan, scored at every turn by one perfect musical selection after another, and in the double payoff it leads up to, both in Gus's epic death scene and the oddly triumphant White/Pinkman teamwork as the two go about destroying the lab. And yet the episode does not end there, as there is another important ingredient to Breaking Bad's excellence: rich characterization, seen here in the vastly different reactions to Gus's death experienced true to form by Walt and Jesse, respectively, and ultimately in that final shot of the lily of the valley plant in Walt's backyard, confirming the sickening extent of his duplicity and the moral depths to which he has sunk in the name of familial duty. As convincing as his innocence seemed last week in the showdown with Jesse, Walt's credibility was shot the second he sent his elderly neighbor into the line of fire to serve his single-minded agenda. There is officially nothing sacred to this man. Nothing he won't do and no one he won't sacrifice to further his own interest. Yes, everything Walt has done has been to ensure the safety and well-being of his family, but, as with his foray into the crystal meth game, his best intentions are always undercut by the prominent element of pride that drives him at the macro level. "I won," he tells Skyler, and it is as much an expression of relief as it is a declaration of dominance. He is the one who knocks.

So much great material here that I'm willing to overlook the improbable logistics of the cigarette swap last week. And even though it was all secondary to the main events of the episode, I must give props to the writers for managing to incorporate some great comedic moments courtesy of Saul, his extortion-savvy receptionist ("endearingly" dubbed "Honey Tits" by the criminal lawyer himself), and Jesse, who offered the APD detectives that maybe he got the idea for the ricin poisoning from watching House; even Tio Salamanca had one last opportunity for some funny wordless exchanges with his lifelong DEA adversaries before going up in a blaze of hateful glory.

All in all, a terrific fourth season, capped off by an incredible finale (figuratively, and if I were being nitpicky, literally so) that managed to be conclusive at the same time as it set up some great unanswered questions for future development. After such an episode, how can Walter White's story end if not in his death? Perhaps by ricin? Perhaps at Jesse's hands? The thought of that doesn't bother me as much as it did last week, but I am willing to go along with any other changes of heart this show finds fit to put me through. If this is psychological abuse and/or emotional manipulation, then I don't want to be spared. Strap me to your table, Gilligan and Co., and go about your torturing ways.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Appropriate Response

"There's got to be another way."   --Skyler

I can't believe I'm saying this, but a part of me is relieved the season ends next week, because I cannot take this anymore. This show is simply too intense for my peace of mind and general mental health. I've been saying for years that watching Breaking Bad was giving me heart palpitations, but I never really meant it. Not literally. But tonight... Wow.

As soon as Jesse finished that phone call, I knew that Brock was in trouble. As soon as Andrea confirmed that Brock was sick, I knew it was the ricin. And as soon as Jesse discovered the missing cigarette, I knew that he would be paying Walt a visit. And it's no surprise I knew all this, since the seeds for each of those events have been systematically planted by the writers throughout the entire season. Like Walt, my first thought was that Brock found the cigarette in Jesse's pockets and somehow ingested the contents of the tiny vial, as curious kids are wont to do sometimes. Not again, I thought. Hasn't Jesse -- not to mention Andrea -- been through enough? I shuddered at the version of his future that flashed before my eyes: heart-wrenching images of him plummeting back into emotional instability with the added element of rage -- at himself, for being negligent with the deadly substance; at Gus, for not making it easier to use up the poison on its intended target; at Walt, for bringing it into Jesse's house in the first place -- and that ever-present guilt he had just barely been able to reduce to a manageable degree. When Jesse turned up at the White residence, I was sure he merely intended to question his estranged partner about Brock's chances for survival. I even went along with the evident psychological distress that would drive him to pull a gun on Walt. What I did not anticipate was the unbearably dread-filled showdown that followed. Suddenly, Jesse was talking ricin cigarette timelines and conspiracy theories involving Walt plotting to kill Brock out of spite. Whoa, Jesse, what? "Why in God's name would I poison a child?" Walt asks, all perplexity and rational science teacher. Jesse: "To get back at me! because I'm helping Gus! And this is your way of ripping my heart out before you're dead and gone!" ...Yeah, OK, Jesse is obviously insane with grief, he is grasping at straws, etc. (Also, Aaron Paul is single-handedly selling this scene.) But then Walt concocts a theory that is just as far-fetched: "Who do you know who is OK with using children?" Umm, seriously, show, what?

The scene was terrifying in scope and execution, from the beating heart soundtrack that punctuated it to the gun barrel imprint Jesse left on Walt’s forehead, but as well-acted and believable as Jesse’s paranoia and Walt’s hysteria were, something about the explanation they settled on rang false to me. If Jesse’s timeline of events and Walt’s reading of the situation can be trusted, it would have been pretty difficult, even for Gus, to gain access to Brock long enough to poison him, and pretty ballsy to do so just in hopes that Jesse would react in one of several possible ways. And even if I can believe that Gus would resort to such measures, this plot device just seems a little too soapy for a show like Breaking Bad, which has always remained rooted in realism even at its most serendipitous/chance-encounteriest. The poison plot as a whole was a curveball, to be sure, but if it just had to be done, I would have been able to live with random tragedy a whole lot easier than with implausibility, even if Brock being poisoned by accident/negligence would have been by far the cruelest twist of fate (ahem, the writing team) ever to befall Jesse Pinkman. (I want the show to stay perfect slightly more than I want Jesse to be OK.) But here’s hoping Vince Gilligan and Co. anticipated and planned for this reaction and deliberately withheld the truth for the moment. After all, we still don’t actually know how Brock ingested that ricin -- if it was ricin -- or if he was even poisoned at all.

But logistics aside, "End Times" definitely brought it on the suspense front, and it may be the most emotionally charged episode to date. At least that's what it felt like as I white-knuckled my way through the latter half of the episode, especially the frantic scenes with Jesse at the hospital, which were almost unbearably effective. Jesse's arc has been chipping away at my emotions this entire season, but tonight he destroyed me like he did those damn cigarettes, and I had no doubt that he would have stayed by Brock's figurative bedside, murder plot or no murder plot. And even though I resent all the ways in which worrying about this fictional goddamn junkie has taken over my life, it sure is nice to have the guys back together, as united in their singular goal as they haven't been since the season premiere. Also nice: Walt remembering he is a chemist! I don't pretend to understand what he was concocting in his witch's cauldron, but that other thing seemed like such a nice little car bomb. If only Gus didn't have a sixth sense about imminent danger. Or something. Next week, I fully expect ten kinds of shit to hit the fan. Sunday cannot come soon enough.

  • Another super-tense final scene this week, and I don't just mean the parking structure/roof; I think I visibly flinched along with Jesse when Gus touched his shoulder in that sinister little chapel. "You will start a new batch when you are ready to return. Next week."
  • Gus to Jesse: "Is there anything I can do? I am on the board of this hospital..." Is there anything in the greater Albuquerque metro area this guy doesn't have his hands in? 
  • If I'm not mistaken, this week was the first time Jesse has been inside Walt's house. Also, the first time we've seen Holly crying. If that's not an omen, then I don't know what is. End times, indeed.  
  • This episode was so heavy, that even Saul sexually harassing his receptionist came as a bit of a welcome distraction.
  • Does anyone else think Hank will come closer to implicating Fring next week? That scene with Gomie at the carwash was super fun, but there's no way this show would waste that many minutes of screen time so close to the end of the season on an entirely fruitless excursion. Gus is going down.
  • I'm sorry, I just can't get past this Brock thing; first of all, his symptoms didn't sound like the ricin symptoms Walt described earlier in the season. Secondly, Walt also said that it takes about 24-36 hours after ingestion for someone to get sick. Brock is a child, but still. Could he just have a really bad flu? Maybe Gus poisoned him with something non-fatal just to manipulate Jesse but not actually kill a(nother) kid? Could Walt have actually done it to manipulate Jesse back on his side? But then, where is the lucky cig? "Huell" doesn't exactly seem too adept at sleight of hand. What is happening? It's entirely possible I may lose my ever-loving mind weighing all the different scenarios. Most of all, I really don't want to look back on this episode a year from now and remember it as the moment Breaking Bad jumped the shark.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Weeds Recap: The End, Maybe

"Everyone's a little happy, everyone's a little miserable. That's family."   --Nancy

Oh, Nancy Botwin. How you continue to taunt me even in (almost) certain death.

Having just finished watching the Season 7 finale -- a few days late because, honestly, I forgot this show was still on my roster -- I am left feeling strangely puzzled. Yes, this mediocre season got it together long enough to end with a few strong episodes, but that's sort of a weak sauce consolation, considering the fact that the last episode conveniently abandoned almost all the story arcs the season had invested in week after week. If the individual subplots weren't already so forgettable this season, they have certainly been rendered moot by the finale. Dimitri, Zoya, Emma, Klein, Heylia, all moot. Granted, some of them had definitely overstayed their welcome -- Vehement Capital, anyone? -- but the most promising development of Season 7 -- Silas's long overdue break from the family (extremely temporary, as it turned out) -- was cheaply glossed over with a quickie reconciliation and some sentimental dreck about family ties and regrets and forgiveness in spite of how badly a son (or mother) screws up. Never mind that Silas was the one character on this show with the slightest chance at (and temperament for) actual independence. Never mind that any potential Season 8 plot that dealt with a possible rivalry between Nancy and her oldest would have been several times more interesting than yet another Godmother-style season arc predicated on the idea that Nancy is somehow still the best chance this family has for survival. That may have been a believable concept back in Agrestic, where Shane and Silas were still defenseless children, but it's no longer the case. Even Shane is showing some promise by secretly enrolling in cop school.

And what was that, by the way? What was the point of introducing this new element into the alleged series finale, mere minutes before Nancy more than likely gets nailed in the face by a sniper? I have no problem with the idea of Nancy dying in the end, but a) the ending was ambiguous in a way that Weeds has neither the right nor the dramatic cred to attempt to be and b) if you are going to kill off the lead character, a nameless shooter in the bushes (with no inkling as to who might have hired him) is not an OK method of doing so; even Nancy deserves better. This is why I have such a gripe with this episode as a series finale, and though I swore I wouldn't, I find myself now rooting for a Season 8, if only so that this show can get a proper conclusion, preferably in the form of an organically progressive season. 

That said, the episode by itself struck a good balance between the light and the dramatic and featured several strong, well-written scenes, particularly the big showdown between Detective Ouellette and Shane. It was also surprisingly funny, and all the interactions between Nancy and Jill were nearly brilliant; even Andy had some actual grownup material to work with, which is always great. Well... it's better than the alternative, let's just leave it at that.

If this show gets another season, I'm not well-adjusted enough to abstain. And if it doesn't... well, I'm no longer invested enough to really mourn the lackluster conclusion.

Until next summer, fellow prisoners! Or not.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: One Hour

"I'm done explaining myself."   --Walter White

Has it really been only a week since Gus's big hero moment in Mexico? A single episode ago that I applauded his cunning as Don Eladio watched cartel goon after cartel goon hit the ground before collapsing into his own watery grave? Oh, Allegiance, how fickle you are. This week's episode, "Crawl Space," aside from advancing a crazy amount of plot, wastes no time in making Gus into ever the bad guy, once again, as he immediately goes back to working angles and threatening the lives of essentially all the White-Schraders, including baby Holly (as if there were any doubt he ordered the hit on Tomas). Even the New Mexican clouds serve to reinforce this guy's malevolence. Truth be told, I even felt a little sorry for Hector this week.

Even just moments after he and Jesse leave the makeshift Mexican hospital that saved his life, Gus ominously hints at his Plan A, which he's likely been harboring ever since he drew that box cutter across Victor's throat: getting rid of Walter White permanently. To Jesse: "I think you can run the lab by yourself now. Don't you?" The implication is crystal clear, and though Jesse asks Gus not to kill "Mr. White," the days of Gus caring about other people have been gone for a long time. "Then you have a problem," Jesse states unblinkingly (his loyalty not entirely shifted from one man to another but seemingly split between the two), at the start of a 6-mile walk alongside his taciturn employer, no less. (In the end, when Gus agrees to give Walt some more time, it's not out of compassion, but out of a need to appease Jesse, his one remaining cook, who, Gus says, "will come around" to the idea of Walt being killed.) If Jesse has been conflicted over using the ricin cigarette in weeks past, he has to know now that waiting is no longer a luxury he can indulge in and that he might soon come up against the need to make a decision one way or another. He doesn't seem willing to let Walt die, though he understandably wants nothing to do with him, but is he ready to accept that Gus is, indeed, a soulless monster, in spite of all the carefully orchestrated good daddy soundbites?

Perhaps the most telling Jesse scene this week was the one at his house, his guard down with Brock and Andrea, then back up again with Walt. Both times there's hardly a visible trace left of the scared, guilt-ridden killer in Jesse; if he feels any guilt at this point, he's at least forgiven himself enough to allow himself the company of the closest people he has to family. And if he acts more like Brock's buddy than his father figure, well, he's still Jesse Pinkman and damn it, he loves his video games; it doesn't make his and Brock's boyish banter any less touching. But this is Breaking Bad, and there's only room for so much unadulterated cuteness before Walt shows up to piss all over it. After a frustrating instant of the good kind of bromantic tension between the former partners, Jesse remembers he hates Mr. White's guts. He might not want him dead, but he's not ready to just up and help the guy after everything that's transpired. For the second time in less than a week, Jesse forcibly removes Walt from his house. And to his credit, Walt swallows his pride for once and just sort of takes all the abuse Jesse dishes, even apologizes at one point. Looks like Junior's words last week made an impression on his old man, after all.

Most of this season has seen Walt repeatedly acting out at home in a pathetic attempt to compensate for his impotence in the face of his real enemies. His precious control has consistently eluded him since Gale's murder, and the misguided bravado has been nearly impossible to root for week after week. At this point in the narrative, it is not Walt's moral bankruptcy that makes him unsympathetic; it's his cowardice. (It is no wonder that his most triumphant act to date involved running two thugs over with his car and shooting one of them dead.) After that sinister final scene of him in the crawl space, laughing maniacally at the terrifying absurdity of his situation (framed and shot in a manner that evokes burial imagery), I'm thinking Walter White has had enough of merely staying alive and playing it passive. Going into the season's penultimate episode, too far gone to escape Gus's wrath and too broke to disappear his family, it's time for the great Heisenberg to become an anti-hero worth rooting for anew.

What an intense episode ending this was. Something tells me next week's will be intenser still. 

Some more observations:
  • This has been a good episode for Breaking Bad trivia: Not only do we learn Jesse's age (25), blood type (A-) and other health-related factoids (Erythromycin allergy), but we also learn Mike's last name: Ehrmantraut.
  • Think Mike might be at all bitter about being treated as an afterthought at the Mexiclinic? Wonder if that will come up again. 
  • What do we think about Mr. Sadsack Beneke? Ted or alive? (I'm so very sorry for that terrible pun.)
  • It's pretty rare for this show to have a four-day jump within one episode, but then, I can't grumble too much about anything that gives Hank an excuse to refer to Walt as "Mr. Magoo" and has Marie refer to Walt and Hank's stakeouts as "your Hardy boys routine." Also, the season would have ended without any serious damage to Walt's Aztek; can't have that.
  • This episode sees both White and Pinkman wielding their only remaining leverage to keep the other (ex-)partner alive: their willingness to continue cooking for Gus; they literally will not function without one another. Be still, my fragile heart. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Revenge, She Is Double-Edged

"Either we're all going home, or none of us are."   --Mike

Love, love, loved this episode. The parallelism between Jesse's two killings to date, the recurring circumstances of Walter's big moment of sincerity, and of course, Gus's masterful execution of his vendetta against the odious Don Eladio... lots of things to appreciate here for the English-major-and-proud-of-it in me.

Let's start with the great scenes between the two Walters. First off, it's an interesting role reversal we have here in contrast with the way things looked at the start of the season: Jesse has swiftly dust himself off of the big fight in preparation for scarier and seriouser things to come, while Walt is now the one who hides out in a cave of self-pity and self-medication. Once again narcotics and/or alcohol are here to remind us who the real Walter White is. We saw this in "Fly" (or as I like to call it, the decade's best bottle episode) when a cup of coffee spiked with Tylenol PM unleashed Walt's guilt over Jane's death to the point of almost admitting his greatest sin to Jesse, and we saw it at Hank's dinner table in the season's early weeks when a wine-drunk Walt foolishly refused to let Gale get the credit/blame for his work. In this week's "Salud," we finally get to witness those "mountains of contrition" Saul was raving about to his police buddy on behalf of the unrepentant Walt of a few episodes ago; those leftover painkillers carve a path for him to become sympathetic again, and not a moment too soon. His tearful admission of guilt is delivered to Junior, the show's purest character, who "absolves" him of his mistakes and tucks him into bed -- the son taking on the father's role -- but is promptly mistaken for Jesse, the surrogate son and intended recipient of Walt's remorse. Just like in "Fly," Walt delivers an apology the full of extent of which is known only to himself. Is this man capable of ever finding real redemption? Does he even deserve it?

Certainly the speech of the following morning does a lot toward explaining Walt's obsession with appearing strong and in control while adding even more layers of complexity to an already rich character. For a second, the knowledge of Walt seeing his father succumb to a disease that is debilitating to the point of utter helplessness seems almost like a good enough excuse for him to have destroyed lives, relationships and his own humanity all because of a desire to leave behind a different legacy for his own children. It's not just pride with Walter White; it's fear, too. He is ashamed of the prior evening's emotional display, and it's safe to assume that any admission of guilt is a sign of weakness in Sober Walt's eyes. Even though he has a lot to feel guilty for and he knows it, his superior scientist's reasoning is always there to pull him out of those moments of so-called navel gazing, much like that time early in Season 3 when Walt briefly flirts with the idea of destroying the money he earned through actions that indirectly killed lots of innocent people; in the end, he salvages the money from the flames, because what sense is there, after all, in doing a bit of symbolic penance when the damage done is irreparable?

So which version of Walt is more authentic? Is it the clearheaded rationalizer or the man whose defenses are occasionally breached by various chemical substances? Junior seems to think it is the latter; as pitiful as Walt was in that drugged state, "at least you were real," his son notes."Remembering you that way wouldn't be so bad." These words should theoretically assuage Walt's fear of being remembered as a weak, pathetic mess of a dad, but will Junior's acceptance be enough to triumph over his father's pride?

South of the border, Jesse faces off against some of his own demons, starting with a test of self-confidence as a meth maker. Having very little self-worth to begin with, then spending all those months being berated and ridiculed by Mr. White have likely taken a negative toll on the poor kid's morale, but Gus and Mike's influence is more recent, and bolstered by Gus's encouragement ("You can do this"), Jesse eventually channels a great composite impression of Walter White and Heisenberg that is at once confident and authoritative. Gus and Mike are duly impressed with the bluster he displays with the cartel chemists, but what's more impressive still is how little bluster has to do with Jesse's tirade. When Mexico's equivalent of Mr. White starts in on him with the typical scholarly condescension, Jesse doesn't cower like the ignorant little sidekick, glorified lab assistant to the great Heisenberg; he stands up for himself and satisfyingly owns the guy, first with words and later with results. But the victory is short-lived when Jesse finds himself once again under [literal] fire and forced to take a life in order to save his own and that of his mentor(s). His instinct to protect is as knee-jerk as it was when Walt needed him to kill Gale at the end of last season and more immediate than that, given the life-threatening circumstances of the present, but even with such clearly defined self-defense parameters, Jesse still looks shell-shocked to be firing a gun at another person. And if after all these near-death bonding experiences Gus and Mike haven't supplanted Walt in Jesse's loyalties, they've at least earned themselves a spot. I am legitimately nervous about the day that Jesse will really be forced to choose whom to follow. For now, I'll try to just sit back and enjoy his unique coming of age.

A few more notes:
  • Walter Jr. attempts to mask his disappointment like a champ upon setting sight on that awful PT Cruiser (Skyler: "It has a CD player, so you can listen to some tunes while you're cruisin' around.") Is Skyler's bad car sense perhaps also to blame for Walt's avocado green Aztek?
  • In the past, Jesse bandying about epithets like "asshole" and "little bitch" in a rant would have been hilarious, but in the Mexican superlab it is sort of intimidating.
  • Why did Mike take Don Eladio's necklace? Perhaps a future souvenir for Hector?
  • As for Gus, what was that? I'm not referring to the immensely satisfying mass poisoning of his enemies, like a scene straight out of Monte Cristo, but to the leisurely way in which he went about purging the noxious substance out of his own body with mere moments to spare. Even kneeling in front of a toilet or doubled over in pain, Gustavo Fring is, for lack of a better word, hardcore.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Weeds Recap: Loyal Soldier

"I already fucking know it's all about my mom."   --Silas

Finally a good episode! This week's was easily my favorite of the season, probably because it was such a throwback to the show's early days when Nancy peddled pot to bored, rich suburbanites. More enjoyable still was the overall feel of an episode that set Nancy back into a society that she neither understands nor belongs in -- now more than ever -- but one whose collective idiocy she will nevertheless use to her advantage. If there's one thing this show has always done well, it's stereotyping privileged people for laughs. This here was vintage Weeds. Also, in a pretty disjointed season replete with abandoned plot threads, "La mère..." seemed to be the one chapter that might give this show some actual direction. This whole mother-son business split would be an interesting angle, should the Jenji choose to pursue it, but as much as I applaud the gradual emancipation of Silas this season ("My loyal soldier days are over"), I still think Andy has been grossly underutilized in a real "missed opportunity" kind of way. 

I will say one thing about this show: it never does what I expect, though I haven't decided if this is a strength or a weakness; on the one hand, yay for unpredictability, right? But on the other hand, it really makes it obvious sometimes how entirely writer-driven this show is. This isn't one of Shane's puppet shows, folks; you're not supposed to see the strings. The setup from last week didn't really seem to go anywhere as exciting as I was imagining; Silas was nowhere near the site of the police bust on Pouncy House, though maybe Nancy will still have some 'splaining to do now that Emma knows about the Botwin cop connection. But I don't even care about all that, because what actually took place -- Silas reaching his limit on being treated like an employee/child by Nancy -- is so much more promising a story than most of the stuff they started to do this season, though it does read like more of a Season 8 exposition move than a series wrap-up move, which... whatever, I'll watch it if they make it, but I won't be super happy about it. 

So it's off to the Hamptons for Nancy, Doug, and Andy this week, where the latter dons his Bill Sussman hat in yet another nod to Agrestic in order to convince the rich (and apparently, stupid) masses to invest with Vehement Capital. His ensuing drunken breakdown was great comedic fun ("You're gonna bend for me, bitch."), but mostly it was just a reminder that this character is essentially exactly where he was three seasons ago, complete with elaborate yarn spinning and unrequited crush on Nancy. Would that his loyal soldier days could be over, too. Back in Manhattan, Shane continues to be annoying, even for being mostly dead weight, and Silas unilaterally decides to dissolve the partnership and go off on his own after learning of Nancy's role in Emma's arrest. Nancy doesn't fight her son for the client database -- it was, after all, acquired somewhat unscrupulously --  but it does look like she will fight him for Andy next week. Until then! 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Fighting Spirit

"You kill Mr. White, you're gonna have to kill me, too."   --Jesse

Sweet Sassy, with the irony and the sinister cold opens! This week was another doozy: Walt picking up his broken glasses off Jesse's floor (recognized it!) while droplets of blood fall onto a certain someone's grandpa shoes. Very brief, very tense. Roll credits. Rewind clock.

"Bug" kicks off with another Walt/Hank road trip back to Pollos to collect the GPS tracker, which Hank figures must be bursting with incriminating evidence against Gus but which Walt knows will yield zero results for his brother-in-law's rogue investigation. Hank is defeated and unaware that his every move is being watched. And after a legitimately badass moment in which Walt coolly calls the cops on Tyrus while looking him right in the eyes, we can see that lately Walt has reached a place of defeat, as well. He knows Jesse has been keeping something from him and that it's only a matter of time until Hank will find something on Gus. (And who knows what the PET scan from last week actually showed?) In spite of his "never give up control" speech from the previous episode, Walt is going about his day as though he is sure his days are numbered. The urgency is gone from his demeanor; he doesn't even seem interested to hear Jesse's half-true status update on Operation Kill Gus -- he'll do it, cross his heart. "What does it matter?" Walt casually retorts. "We're both dead men, anyway." This complacency even carries over to his interaction with his second-favorite target, Skyler, where he doesn't even bother to come up with a suggestion, let alone an argument, about what kind of keeper car to buy for their son. Then at the end of the episode, as Walt hobbled away in shame and literal defeat, I felt sorry for him for the first time in a long time, not just because he'd been effectively cast out of Jesse's life -- that had been brewing for a long time -- but because his fighting spirit seemed to be totally snuffed out, exposing the broken man beneath.

And is there really anything to talk about this week other than that clumsy, furious fight, which was the culmination of episodes' -- nay, seasons' -- worth of resentment and distrust between the unlikely White/Pinkman duo? Even at its most basic level, it served as a fitting analogy for the protagonists' relationship throughout the series -- Walt bullying Jesse and usually coming out on top, then Jesse gradually coming into his own to stand up for himself and fight back. (It remains to be seen whether or not the fight's outcome is meant to foreshadow anything.) It was only during the latter stage of the altercation -- when Jesse, seemingly spent but bursting with anger and disappointment, attacks "Mr. White" again, violently -- that my reaction to the scene went from mildly amused to worried, shocked, and ultimately, sad. Sad that this show's core partnership, flawed as it was, had reached such an ugly dissolution, sad that Jesse beat up an old man with cancer, and sad that these two crazy kids just couldn't pull their heads out of their respective asses long enough to actually hear each other. And that final edict from Jesse ("Can you walk? . . . Then get the fuck out of here and never come back.") was so full of rancor and finality but also maturity, which made me smile in silent triumph for this unlikeliest of heroes, who is ever-so-earnestly trying to figure himself out. Dare I say, I'm finding his journey rather moving?

Next week, it appears that Jesse's job in Mexico begins. Will he fumble without Mr. White's help or will he perform brilliantly, carving for himself a whole new, legitimate reason to feel important that will owe nothing to Gus's machinations?

Some odd observations:
  • I love how Walt is trying to catch Jesse in a lie via the magic of small talk. Walt: "Ice Road Truckers. What happens on that one?" Jesse: "Guys drive on ice."
  • Ted Beneke is forcing Skyler into yet another creative accounting situation. I love it when this show reminds me of its deliberate plotting by returning to seemingly-abandoned story threads (as with Marie's kleptomania, which I doubted could be salvaged and reincorporated logically after Season 1's amateur-hour demonstration). And besides, I always enjoy seeing Skyler in theatrical mode, this time as Busty Blonde Bimbo: "This building is so confusing -- there are doors everywhere!"
  • Jesse to Mike: "Killing a cop... I don't know... It could look suspicious if the dude who's investigating suddenly up and dies. . . . And then there's Mr. White . . . he'd never cook for Gus again. I guess there's a lot of angles to consider." Jesse is still so adorably transparent whenever he takes a stab at subtlety. And was there ever any doubt that Mike would save him from the sniper attack?
  • So it seems the non-negotiation Gus had with the cartel was over Walt's formula for blue meth. Or was it?
  • Mike to Walt: "I don't want you talking to me or Jesse, just get the barrel. And if you ever plan on calling the cops on one of my guys again, you go ahead and get two barrels." Mike has officially usurped Walt as Jesse's mentor figure and by openly undermining his authority in front of the kid, no less; the co-parenting period is over.

Monday, September 12, 2011


...If I had to sum up the Entourage finale in one word. Awkward to the max. Awkward, like if Michael Scott was a real guy you knew. I shall go ice my grimace-sore face muscles now.

Skinny Turtle should have been my first clue to the
saccharine "perfect turnout" ending.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Interview

“This is what comes of blood for blood.”   —Gustavo (Gus so doesn’t seem like an appropriate name for this guy anymore)

I love this show so much. I love this show So. Much. Just when I thought I knew the direction this season was going, just when I fancied myself impervious to surprise, BOOM — Roasted! I knew the character of Gustavo Fring wouldn’t forever merely hint at a third dimension, but in no way could I ever have predicted such a mind-blowing backstory for him — one that asks way more questions than it answers.

Right from the beginning, it was obvious “Hermanos” would be no ordinary chapter in this dark saga, from the unsettlingly cryptic cold-open to the Gus-POV shots before and after the interrogation. But all that is small potatoes in light of all the ways in which this episode deviates from the Breaking Bad norm in both style and content. Not only is the final act composed of a single intensely drawn-out flashback, but the flashback in question does not even belong to one of the show’s protagonists. In fact, Walt and Jesse are almost totally marginalized this week; Jesse shows up just long enough for me to finally declare him a MILF* (upon the realization that he’s been taking care of Brock and Andrea from afar), then immediately take it back (upon the sight of him wearing this bedazzled T-shirt — I swear, it’s like they don’t want us to like him too much). As for Walt, aside from his hilariously awkward comportment with both Hank and Gus and the bit of counter-development with Jesse, his big moment this week comes in the episode’s first scene, when, clad in only a hospital gown — basically the most vulnerability-evocative garment in existence — he once again asserts himself as a control freak of colossal proportions — Gracious, Walt, all right! Tell me something I don't know. “...who's in charge? Me. That's how I live my life,” he boasts to the hapless young cancer patient, which is pretty much the definition of dramatic irony when we put Walter White and Gustavo Fring side by side.

Indeed, this episode belonged to Gus and the event that so completely defined him as a businessman, a drug criminal and a person. That flashback explains so much about the show’s most mysterious character, his legendary composure/self-control, his questionable business tactics, the full extent of the blow he suffered in losing Gale, and perhaps most pertinent of all, his recurring trouble with the cartel. (It also draws some interesting parallels between Gus/Max and Walt/Jesse.)

As per Walt’s assessment last season, I, too, was convinced that Gus was acting purely out of business-related self-interest when he gave Hank a head start on the heretofore nameless assassins’ (Marco and Lionel) imminent attack and the resulting DEA involvement that ultimately resulted in the death of Juan Bolsa. How much more interesting and layered (and terrifying) does this character instantly become once we learn that he, in fact, is not motivated merely by money or success but also by vengeance. “Sangre por sangre,” he says to the invalid Hector, whose once-able hands spilled the blood of Gus’s lover (or at the very least, dear friend), protégé and first-ever business partner some two decades earlier. (Poor Gus (can I say that?) keeps losing his meth chefs. Like Max, Gale was an integral part of Gus’s business, but he did not partake of the additional elements of love and equality that clearly existed between the Pollos Hermanos.) Looking at the demure Gus of today, it’s hard to believe that he was once as helpless as Hector is now, as indignant as Jesse and as rash as Walter, but it’s also very easy to see how that experience would have created the lying, calculating, manipulative monster we’ve observed thus far but far from known. Not that we “know” Gus any better than before; we might have a more complete understanding of his motivation and his ultimate agenda, but we are still miles away from knowing Gustavo Fring. More than anything, this glimpse into his past created more questions. Who was the young Chilean of the lifesaving resources and, as Jesse would say, “unwastable” connections in the eyes of Mexico’s track-suit-wearing cocaine don of the ‘80s? And speaking of Don Eladio, has he already been a victim of what appears to be Gus’s personal vendetta or is his destruction yet to come? How long until Gus's endgame, the cartel’s ultimatum — whatever it is — and Hank’s rogue investigation collide noisily? And where exactly do Walt and Jesse figure in all of this?

I love this show so much!

*The M stands for murderer, naturally!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Weeds Recap: Miscommunication

 "Ahhhh, now I see!"   --Every Weeds fan who doesn't realize, doesn't care about or chooses to overlook the fact that even though some of the loose ends were tied this week, we've just had too many episodes lately of this show being a light-to-moderate chore to watch.

I'll admit that this episode was an improvement over most others this season, in that it finally brought some of the subplots together and might even deliver on that ol' storyline advancement we've all been hoping for. Still, everything was just a little too calculated -- it was much too obvious that every scene/detail from the past few episodes that seemed odd and pointless at the time was placed there for the express purpose of assisting the story. Sure, no one ever regarded this show as gritty realism, but I still value the escapist aspect of TV viewing. In fact, I value it kind of a lot and resent anything that yanks me out of the fictional world created by the show. Behold the contrived plot devices that put Nancy once again in the driver's seat: Shane forms something of a father-son relationship with the cop who mentored him, causing the latter to feel more compassion for Shane than for any other prisoner and thus making him more susceptible to Nancy's scheming; Silas screws Emma, then Emma screws Silas and Nancy, giving Nancy the perfect opportunity to get her son out of jail and her business back;  and Andy is generally useless and behaves uncharacteristically (though who can really say with the inconsistent characterization running rampant on this show?) like a baby brandishing a nail gun. God, just when I thought we would finally get to see a more emotionally cogent side of a frustrated, desperate Andy, he still winds up looking and sounding like a fucking clown. But whatever, because shrill Andy is kinda funny, I guess? (I am being facetious; I really do hate the way this character has been bastardized this season.)

What I liked, however, was the setup for the next episode (a real complication, finally!). In the immortal words of J. Walter Weatherman, that's why you don't make plans without first consulting with your business partner. Will Silas get arrested? Will he be forced to sell out Nancy to save himself?

Elsewhere, I guess the Vehement subplot is still unresolved. Oooookay. By the way, is that SEC overseer lady not the ultimate 21st century manifestation of the Alice personality on United States of Tara?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Loyalty

"I'll kill him. First chance I get."   --Jesse

Ah, Episode 7. I had high hopes for this one, seeing as how it marks the season's midpoint and also because Episode 7 of last season was so explosive and such a game changer for the rest of Season 3. This week's episode did not disappoint; though it did not involve the stylish action sequence or elicit the sheer fear of "One Minute," "Problem Dog" gave us some similarly enthralling moments -- such as another terrific Jesse monologue -- and wrapped it all up with yet another exciting Hank-centric final scene. The two episodes essentially serve as bookends of Hank's most recent arc, in that this Episode 7 is all about his triumph over the -- understatement alert -- setback suffered in the last Episode 7. As Gale might have said: neat!

Chilling cold open this week of Jesse playing a first-person shooter video game, though we could see the implications of this even without the flashes of Gale popping in and out of his consciousness. (I mean, we get it: the kid has a traumatic history with guns; come on, show!) Elsewhere, Walt finds himself the begrudging object of yet another of Skyler's bossy directives, but instead of communicating his displeasure outright, like an adult, he goes out and does doughnuts in an empty parking lot in the very car his wife oh-so-gently instructed him to take back to the dealer. (He's still so repressed!) As cool as that scene was, the act itself still reads more like a nerdy Walter White interpretation of badassery than it does a  Heisenberg one, which is all the more evident when terminally uncool Walt finally gets the car stuck over a parking block, then takes petty pleasure in lighting it up and watching it go up in flames. But I do appreciate the unfulfilled expectation of the car exploding long after Walt was done walking dramatically away from it.

After a quick fix-it visit to Saul (Hi, Saul! Also, way to have your lawyer clean up your messes, Walt!), Walt visits his partner at home. This is the first time we've seen Jesse in his personal environment since Mike took him out for a drive, and in keeping with his new persona, he is hard at work painting over the graffiti on his walls, covering up all evidence of the hellpit he once lived in. Turning over a new leaf, as it were. And if the realization that it was Mike and Gus who motivated Jesse to at least overtly return to the land of the living gnaws on or registers at all with Walt, he doesn't show it. You see, he came with a plan -- attempting to beat Gus at his own game -- and as much as it bothers me to see him treat Jesse as a pawn in his power move, I can understand why Walt might see this as a last resort at this point. But, because he's Walt, he slathers it on way too thick. "Does [Gus] think you are that naive?" he asks Jesse, wink wink. To Walt's credit, at least he's graduated from outright calling Jesse an idiot to merely treating him like one, refreshing his memory on Gale and Victor and Andrea and Tomas and everything that spells out Gus = Evil. "Is it possible that he would think that you were that weak-willed?" Way to stick the landing, Walt! Is it possible that you would still think Jesse is no more than an idiot slacker addict? I get it: the blustery street speak fooled me too for a season and a half, but wake up and smell the series of personal traumas, man."Drop the sales pitch," Jesse says, proving once again he's not as easily duped as Walt thinks. "I'll do it." He agrees to kill Gus at the first opportunity.

But, whether it's the lingering Gale-guilt or the fact that Mike trusted him with a gun, Jesse ends up losing his nerve (making this the third time someone was not killed with ricin on this show), then after some more bonding with Mike, he rethinks it altogether and even lies to Walt about having an opportunity to carry out the plan. Mike later opines that the thing Gus sees in Jesse is loyalty, "only maybe you have it for the wrong guy." Whether this is Mike talking or merely carrying out Gus's edict is unclear, but the seed is planted. Jesse takes his newfound uncertainty straight to the NA meeting, where he does his best to elicit compassion, then hatred from the most theoretically understanding group of people available to him. But not even the so-called dregs of society can remain judgment-free when presented with Jesse's tale of executing a figurative "problem dog." That ensuing speech slash lashing out is full to the brim of his guilt, self-hatred, anger, despair. So much damned angst. Is there anything about Jesse Pinkman that won't decimate my heart this season? Throughout that quest for absolution and punishment alike, what he's seeking most of all are answers. "What's it all mean? What's the point?" he ponders. (He may not know the meaning of the term "Kafkaesque," but this kid is an amateur philosopher!) At the existential level, it's life itself he is conflicted about, but at the immediate level, it's the particular life he's chosen. What he's really asking is, Who do I pledge my loyalty to? Will it be Walt, whose days in this business (possibly on the planet) are numbered, or Gus, who himself has had a significant setback this episode? (That scene with the cartel representative was an excellent reminder that Gus is not the biggest threat our meth-cooking duo will face, and it wouldn't surprise me if he were eliminated as such by season's end, whether by getting killed or getting caught.)

And speaking of Hank, he may just be the one character this week who is absolutely sure about his purpose. Oh, Hank, you beautiful bald bastard! I cannot even express how worried I was for the reception his borderline-fantasy story would get from his former partner and boss. I feared the worst: that they would politely yet resolutely laugh him out of the office, and all the hard work, determination, and sheer force of will he had summoned up over the past couple of weeks would all just dissipate back into the self-lamenting, wife-abusing, mineral-collecting depression of a few episodes ago. And when the actual conversation onscreen reached that cringe-worthy moment, I was already shaking my head in sympathy. And then "Except..." happened. That single word uttered by an adorably smug Hank followed by an irrefutable piece of evidence establishing a connection between Gus and Gale had me promptly changing the sentiments behind my head shake. Just like that, I was the sap. Because of course Hank wouldn't present his findings to the DEA unless he was certain he had something good to show them. Hank, for me, is like the other side of Mike's coin, in that they are almost polar opposites in almost every way (position on the criminal spectrum, personality, demeanor) yet so very similar in their cleverness, efficiency, resilience, and plain awesome factor.

Other noteworthy bits:
  • Loved the vegetable platter Mike and Jesse brought to the would-be cartel meeting. 'Cause nothing says you're amenable to a negotiation with your drug rivals than offering them crudites. Also loved the way Mike makes Jesse repeat the rule of the day back to him like a six-year-old -- "Eyes open, mouth shut." Ha!
  • Great scene with Hank and Walt Jr., and I totally called it that Hank was after Gus's prints when he accepted that soda refill. But if Junior starts working at Pollos, so help me, I will flip my shit.
  • It's merely Skyler's maiden voyage into active criminality, and she's already freaking out about the amount of money she needs to launder. Yet still she doesn't walk away.
  • Mike to Jesse: "I figure I'd better teach you how to shoot." Oh, Mike -- so paternal! Maybe you two can toss a ball around after dinner.
  • Hiding a vial of ricin inside a cigarette in case of an impromptu body search is the perfect kind of reminder for when I, too, sometimes forget that Jesse is sort of smart. For a while I had this character pegged for a future post about TV's most loveable idiots, but never mind now.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Weeds Recap: Watch It Burn

 "Babe, these are cops. I'm a drug dealer. You're a murderer. We can't all play on the same kickball team."  --Nancy

So, remember how last week's episode ended with a super-tense (ha!) gathering of family, lovers, business partners and feds that threatened to blow Nancy's cover and possibly send her back to prison? "Cats! Cats! Cats!" skips right over that awkwardness and straight into the morning-after, where Nancy wakes up in Foster Klein's gorgeous townhouse for the first time. They have some romantic repartee, which might be sexy (but probably not) if the chemistry between the two actors weren't sadly lacking.  I get that Legends of the Fall was a long time ago, but Aidan Quinn is still a decent-looking older guy, so why does he come off so smarmy here? (And were we supposed to buy their later scene as some sort of tearful farewell? Puh-lease. There's no way that anyone is buying these two as star-crossed lovers after such minor and unimpressive relationship development.) At any rate, romantic repartee exhausted, Nancy comes clean about the SEC investigation and her role in it. Hello! That I was not expecting; how is she ever going to stay afloat and out of prison if she burned the one sort-of bridge she had left? Oh, I get it: she acted selflessly because, having shagged him once, she's too gosh-darn fond of Klein to let him be unwittingly arrested for a crime he committed -- so fond, in fact, that she was willing to put her own freedom in tremendous jeopardy to save him. So I guess Nancy is sentimental and selfless now -- see what they did there? Either that, or she just wanted him out of her hair? Or she wanted him to be safe from the arson she'd been planning all along? So confused. Let's get back to the warehouse.

...Where Zoya is wreaking havoc on Silas and his models, but mostly on Andy, who's just trying to get his honest business off the ground. Poor guy. And not just because he's hitched his wagon to a decidedly not honest enterprise but because his character now seems relegated exclusively to comic relief. It's OK, though; he was pretty funny. I especially enjoyed him taunting Zoya with so little effort. Easiest mark ever, that one. It's funny, 'cause she's crazy. She really is crazy, though, and Andy wants her gone, and Nancy will take care of it, she promises, but first: the SEC. Oh, man, these guys are pissed! Nancy screwed up their investigation and she's a drug dealer? Whatever will happen? Anticlimax alert: Doug (Doug!) shows up to save the motherfucking day through blackmail. And it works! It turns out the SEC pension plan is tied up in Vehement Capital, and these feds are sleazy enough to drop their investigation and let everyone off the hook, just like that! God, I miss Roy Till. He may be dancing it up in that big gay club in the sky right now, but he was a legit law-enforcing antagonist.

Meanwhile, Shane uses his in with the police department to glean information on Pouncy House, but then gets busted by his new mentor. Oh, well, at least Nancy will finally have a chance to come to someone's rescue. Silas does his own research on the competition, by hiring and subsequently sleeping with Michelle Trachtenberg's character, Emma, who secretly runs the operation. Oh, man. I like Silas a lot, but I couldn't help but chuckle when it was revealed that she totally played him because he was too dumb and horny to pay attention. So now his business computer with all the clients' contact information is gone, which, OK, as far as cliffhanger endings go, this was a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the whole upside-down bike shop bit, while cute... how many people got that done in one night? How did they even get inside? Also: poor Andy!

Oh, and Nancy "takes care" of the Zoya problem by setting fire to Klein's house herself and making Zoya think the feds will pin it on her. It's all bullshit, but crazy Zoya buys it and she takes off for Vermont (OK, doesn't this woman have any parole conditions whatsoever?), where she'll be waiting for Nancy --"Soon," she promises -- so they can open their hotel for dogs and nary a cat or an Andy in sight, thankyouverymuch. OK, then. Two crises averted in one fell swoop. I'm a little fed up (no pun intended) with all these quick conflict resolutions; it made sense last season when the family was on the run, but now they are bound to one place -- and have been for almost an entire season -- with no real sense of danger. On the contrary: eeeeeverything's coming up roses for Nancy, freedom and townhouses just dropping into her lap. What, is Emma going to be Nancy's downfall this year? I highly doubt it. I keep thinking this whole thing is a ruse, lulling us into a false sense of security only to later introduce something lame, like Guillermo coming back or something. And the funny thing is, even that would be a welcome change of pace from what's currently going on with this show.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: The One Who Knocks

"Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."   --Skyler

Holy crap. I'm going to go ahead and declare Walter White's egomania the theme of Season 4. The beginning of last night's episode does see Walt offering a good two minutes of contrition in the form of awkward backpedaling on the morning after his ill-advised dinner outburst, but all it takes is Skyler's fear-fueled implication that he might be "in over his head" for him to go right back into wounded-pride mode and arrogantly out himself as the indispensable mastermind he wants/believes himself to be. "I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger," he bellows, scaring Skyler enough to contemplate fleeing, however briefly. Because if there's one thing Walt hates more than not having control over his own situation, it's being thought of as the weak, passive, emasculated schoolteacher he once was and, as far as everyone else is concerned, still is. (And what a painful reminder of that guy his later interaction with Bogdan must have been.) But as far as he is concerned, gone is Walter White, the loser chem teacher who let life pass him by and fear rule his existence... well, not gone, but overshadowed now by Heisenberg, the genius chemist and lethal alter ego who has gotten where he is by the sheer force of his own agency.

It took a while for Walt to actually decide to be a criminal and to later decide to keep being a criminal, but now that those and other decisions have been made, by God, he is owning them! Like Walt says to his son, "What is going on with me is. . . about choices. Choices that I have made. Choices I stand by." It is not, as it first appears, a charitable attempt to convince Junior to cut his mother some slack for coming down hard on the fake gambling. It is, rather, a declaration of intent and self-satisfaction -- Father is not the helpless victim of a disease; he knows what he's doing, and he's doing it on purpose. It was a seductive package Walt was offered by this double life, and somewhere along the way, he went from being a guy who wanted to provide for his family to being a guy who gets off on being that guy.

Perhaps this is what is making him so blind to how his actions are affecting everyone else. Last night's episode made for an embarrassing spectacle of Walt's outrageous self-centeredness, from his failure to consider what Gus would do with the Honduran ladies once they'd seen the inside of the lab, to his inability to appreciate the awful position he'd be putting Skyler in by buying a flashy new car for their son. "This whole thing," he tells Jesse, "It's all about me!" Walter's intelligence is superior, to be sure, and he figures out that Gus is manipulating his partner, but his arrogance and belittling attitude have the opposite effect than the one he desires, and he ends up alienating Jesse further than even Gus could have hoped. "Why [you]?" he asks his partner in the most disparaging tone imaginable. "Is there something about you I don't know about? Are you a former Navy SEAL?" That Walt has been so oblivious to Jesse's psychological frailty post-Gale is the biggest of all testaments to his self-absorption.

Ironically, Bogdan's humiliation tactics at the carwash held a kernel of truth: Walt is not ready to be a boss. At least, not in the context of the drug empire he is in the middle of. If this show's aim is to chronicle one man's gradual transformation from a Walter into a Gus, then Walt has a lot more to learn about dealing with people. Mike and Gus are lying to Jesse and likely don't care an iota about whether he lives or dies, but their management styles are certainly effective. "Maybe I'm not such a loser after all," Jesse says, all but spelling out the crux of his entire existential crisis to a still-clueless Walt.

Jesse, in fact, isn't such a loser at all; he sees a lot more than Walt thinks, but Mike and Gus are presenting him with a seductive package of his very own, and he must be getting as high on all the self-worth and approval as Walt is on being the man in charge. Trouble is, all of it is rooted in perception, at best, and illusion, at worst. Jesse is skeptical -- "Why me?" he asks Gus -- but not for long. "I like to think I see things in people," Gus replies in that terse way he has. Jesse is now seeking to impress the same man he once defied in a monumental way.

Some other good things about "Cornered" (other than another clever title):
  • Walt staying miraculously composed throughout Bogdan's entire condescending speech -- "I'm sure you can handle it, and if not, you can always call your wife." -- then finally refusing to let him take the framed dollar bill -- probably the first-ever instance of Walt being downright mean. 
  • The whole hilarious scene with Walt coaxing the laundry ladies in broken Spanish into cleaning the lab, then offering that self-satisfied smirk to the surveillance cam while sipping Gale's ultimate coffee brew. Did he really think Gus would look the other way to civilians stepping foot in his meth kitchen? "Tell Gus to blame me, not them," he pleads with Tyrus once he learns of the women' impending deportation. "He does," Tyrus answers.
  • "This war stays cold for now." What does Gus intend to do about his latest cartel troubles, and why did he reject Mike's suggestion to go on the offense? This whole storyline seems like it's building up to something big.
  • Just like Walt stands by the choices he's made, Skyler, too, will have to stand by her choice to ignore that would-be fateful coin toss at The Four Corners Monument.
  • Jesse's absurdly inspired handle on the situation with the meth head Tucker was great, and that Miranda Priestley-esque smile Mike subsequently cracked back in the car was genuine. I know it's illusory, but these two are totes adorbs together!  
  • If I ever had even a fleeting thought about trying crystal meth, the scenes with the two junkies have scared me straight.
  • "Why don't you just go break the door down, pistol-whip those bitches and show 'em who's boss?"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weeds Recap: It's a Good Time For Many Things

"I like that you've rewritten history."   --Klein

Oh, boy. Is this for sure the final season of Weeds, because it is well past the halfway point and it shows no sign of wrapping up any time soon. On the contrary, it keeps piling on the new situations and plans and characters that couldn't possibly be more than vehicles for the protagonists' arcs. This week's episode was a particularly farcical clusterfuck of elements: lesbian rape, incestuous voyeurism, hickeys, functional alcoholics, rival shakedowns, illegal seafood, SEC surveillance... everything but the kitchen sink. And that non-cliffhanger of an ending read more like some sort of poorly executed Shakespearean parody -- let's get everyone in a room together and act out this awkward writing, even though there's no logical reason they should all be physically present here!

This show is no stranger to tense episode endings, but by now it's gotten to the point where they don't even really register anymore; we know Nancy will get out of this jam and the next one and be back on her merry felonious way before the following episode's second scene. I mean, is there actually any doubt this will get resolved in a couple of lines of dialogue next week? As if the SEC really gives a crap about a mini-empire of a barely illegal drug as long as Nancy makes good on helping them uncover their precious ponzi scheme. This whole season has failed to deliver a single worrisome predicament that didn't immediately get solved by magic. Remember the urine test? I don't expect all the cliffhangers to rival the U-Turn/Armenian gang gunpoint holdup -- we knew Nancy would come out the other end then, too -- but you've got to make me believe that these characters are at least in some sort of moderately sized pickle. Maybe something along the lines of coming home to find your best frenemy waiting by a swimming pool full of your now-ruined weed, every now and then. (Celia shoutout!)

Enough with these wacky Punky Brewster-style scrapes; and what's with all the tears and whining at the first sign of difficulty? ("I am not going back to prison, wah wah!") Give Nancy a real crisis to maneuver through already; it's tiiiiiime.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Pride and Purpose

"From what I saw, and this is just my humble opinion . . . This genius of yours... maybe he's still out there."  --Walt

How do you shake someone out of a guilt-induced nihilistic funk of total indifference? Give them purpose, of course! (And maybe also make them fear for their life a little bit). Who knew Gus was such a wizard of human psychology?

A great episode, from start to finish. I especially enjoyed the time-lapse sequence and how well -- and hilariously -- it captured both Jesse's childlike boredom and Mike's profound irritation. By the time "Shotgun" ended -- there goes another clever title -- the big question we were all asking in the beginning had undergone a subtle change from "What will Gus do with Jesse?" to "What will Gus do with Jesse?" An agenda, he has; that much is clear. But maybe Mike is getting one of his own. Gus may have orchestrated the set-up and appealed to Jesse's ego, but it was Mike who implemented it and kicked his sense of self-preservation into gear (even though Jesse wouldn't have had a prayer of defeating him with his sad fistful of keys). The "old man" is obviously grooming him for someone, but for whom?

The most revealing Mike moment this week was his angry outburst -- finally! -- in the car. "I just do what I'm told," he bellows, "and now you're gonna do what you're told!" Methinks his breach in unflappability was too great to have been caused only by having to babysit the world's most irritating chatterbox, and I don't quite buy his "I know better than to ask questions" compliant attitude with Gus, either. But whatever Mike's endgame may turn out to be, the short-term goal to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walt is clearly working, as the young junkie is clearly smitten with his new unintentional father figure, and who can blame him? After all, Mike succeeded where Walt disappointed -- identifying Jesse's erratic behavior as a cry for help, pulling him out of his pit of despair and loneliness, and making him feel important on top of it? Yes, please! The look on his face when Mike told him to go ahead and have a victory cigarette was a few degrees short of full-on veneration, and even though I quake in anticipation of Jesse's gradual transformation into a hardened criminal -- the buzz cut, people! -- it was nice to see him enjoy himself this week, and it was definitely a welcome change from all the self-destruction.

And Jesse was not the only one who enjoyed the positive aftereffects of a little shot of pride and purpose this week. Now that Hank is back on the Gale case -- thanks to Walt's gigantic ego -- he is at once a better husband and a happier guy, and please God, let this mean that insufferable mineral collection is a thing of the past, though we will miss all the laughs it has brought us, Amen.

But as we know, nothing bespoke pride this week more than Walt's entire arc: a wonderful illustration of how it can spur someone into self-sabotage just as easily as it can bring someone else back to life. The buildup to his big moment of drunken, reckless hubris was leisurely and deliberate and perfectly in keeping with what we know about Walt. He is a control freak with an overblown sense of pride, both intellectual and masculine, and after such a rough day -- his partner gets kidnapped, he charges into a would-be confrontation with Gus that causes him to fear for his life, he is forced to trudge along in the lab on his own, his wife unilaterally decides he should move back in while his son drinks coffee from a Beneke mug, no less, then he realizes Jesse is being courted by his psychopath of an employer -- it is no surprise that Hank's speech about Gale's alleged genius would push Walt into a typical ego-driven brag session, veiled though it was, at least to everyone but Skyler. And to belittle Hank's detectiving skills in the same breath? A truly irresistible prospect to our brilliant scientist. I had feared this exact type of stupidity from Walt when he and Hank were rifling through Gale's notebook in last week's episode and mistakenly believed we would be spared another of his vanity demonstrations for good. Sneaky, writers! And well done!

Finally, one of my favorite moments this week was when Hank begrudgingly admitted to Tim The Detective that he did not believe Jesse capable of shooting Gale. The simultaneous rightness and wrongness of that statement... so much irony!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Weeds Recap: Third Base

"You have no idea what a good day this is turning out to be."  --Nancy

Whatever shadow of sentimentality last week's episode delivered (and who would have thought I would ever require more sentimentality from a TV show?) has been wiped clear away in "Vehement v. Vigorous," the corporate baseball game where most of this week's action takes place, and also the episode where the Botwin saga quickly reverts to treating everything like a big joke filled with self-interest and wrapped in glibness. This may seem like a silly complaint, but I see it as a bit of a problem when Entourage is out-profounding you on a week-by-week basis.

At any rate, Silas is back from California with 30 pounds of MILF weed, looking more beautiful and bitter than ever. And he has a plan -- no more direct-to-customer sales; you have to "insulate yourself," he says, then it's a whole bunch of "Heylia this, Heylia that." And guess who doesn't like that one little bit? I would say that Silas came up with his pyramid business plan to deliberately antagonize Nancy, but he actually seems genuinely committed to making the best of it, so much so that he ignores mommy's directive to get some sleep or "at least run a comb through your hair" (but only until she turns her back -- you can take the model out of the boy, but you can't take the vanity out of the former model, I guess). As for Nancy, she is just excited to return to what she does best: "selling dimebags [to rich douches] at local sporting events." Like Andy puts it, "a somewhat circular journey." Oh, but now Ed is back and he is pissed and he is out to nail her for sort of getting him fired. It seems like just yesterday that he was walking around, exuding world-weary-yet-idealistic charm and spewing off cute little rhymes. Now he is mostly running around, trying to locate the mystery man who inexplicably chose to give Nancy a job at a pretty high profile firm. Doug, of course, is in accidental disguise until the end, when he stupidly outs Nancy as a drug dealer to Ed and -- not for the first time -- demonstrates his inability to distinguish among heavyset black gentlemen. Doug's absurdity as a character hits a new nadir this week, as he spends an entire episode sporting honest-to-goodness man boobs as a result of the steroids he's been ingesting in preparation for the game. Granted, Doug has never much been one for self-respect, but come on!

Poor Ed is once again thwarted in his attempt to expose Nancy and possibly get his job back, because -- get this -- the SEC has just recruited Nancy to act as a mole at Vehement Capital Partners. Gah, I should have known that ridiculous storyline with Whit and Doug deciding to cook the books would turn out to be significant. And just when Nancy seemed to really take a liking to Mr. CEO! But, in true Nancy fashion, she doesn't seem too broken up about assisting on an investigation that could cost him his company and send him to prison. Not if it will get her out of the halfway house and that much close to getting her kid back. The new plot turn makes sense in retrospect, but it's pretty annoying that we're halfway through the season and Nancy has had everything she needed pretty much fall into her lap. She is much more interesting when given the chance to prove herself as a scrapper, and the season so far feels a bit like coasting, for both Nancy and the show. And I bet somehow Shane's new gig interning with the police is going to come into play as some sort of magical save for Nancy, as well. I do have to hand it to the Weeds folks -- they've always done a good job of laying the groundwork for future big events; I'm just worried that these presumed big events are not actually going to satisfy. Meanwhile, I am almost expecting Silas's brief foray into "model boxing" (which reminded me of the "boy fighting" on Arrested Development) to play a role in The Great Season 7 Master Plan, but I fail to see the connection at the moment.

All in all, a good -- if undeserved -- day for The Widow Botwin Scottson Reyes, and "Hello, lover," indeed! Zoya's back and none-too-happy to see Nancy all cozy with her bro; we all remember how the last person to betray the temperamental Zoya ended up, do we not?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Breaking Bad Recap: Fiction


"There's got to be something else that I could do. Some way to keep everything from spiraling out of control."   --Walt

This week's episode, "Bullet Points" -- I sure do love a double entendre -- finally brought the long-awaited (first of many?) Mike mini-sode, and it. was. awesome. Not unlike most of the scenes Mike appears in, but this particular one firmly established this character as the weariest-looking, most blasé BAMF on TV, bar none; with the exception of the events surrounding the night of Gale's death, nothing has elicited an emotion more powerful than mild irritation out of Mike -- not being forced to clean up after Walter's killing spree, not scraping remnants of Victor from his jacket, and certainly not being ambushed in the desert by what I can only describe as an avalanche of bullets. I love this guy.

Back at Casa White, humor reigns, as Walt and Skyler are preparing to come clean -- correction: preparing to "appear to come clean" -- to the family about Walt's gambling and subsequent windfall of cash/purchase of the carwash. Well, Skyler is preparing while Walt just sort of sulks and belittles her obsession with details from the sidelines; I don't know if Walt's had so many narrow escapes that he's taking his invincibility for granted, or if he's simply too proud to admit that Skyler is being incredibly smart in a way that he hasn't been (or both). Whatever his reasons, his reaction to Skyler's bullet point approach couldn't be more dickish. "Maybe lying doesn't come as easily to me as it does to you," she says by way of explanation. We know, of course, that Skyler is actually an exceptional liar, but ironically not one who can see through Walt's own, less convincing lies. What I really enjoyed about this scene was the seamless incorporation of character-revealing statements in an ostensibly routine conversation between estranged husband and wife: both Walt's delusion about his own heroism and Skyler's resentment over his months-long deception are brought to light during their exchange of opinions about her proposed script for their "fiction." Skyler may be willing to enter into business with Walt (and into a world of crime that she knows very little about), but that doesn't mean she has forgiven him. And just when she thinks she's finally gotten the long-overdue apology from her husband, she realizes that he was just rehearsing for their big fake confession. Ouch. Feel-good family drama is not one of this show's levels (though the extended family scenes are often oddly moving; must be all that amenable dishonesty). 

Cut to Hank and Marie's front door stoop, where Walt and Skyler anxiously await the curtain call on their little fiction; I like that shot because I can imagine a similar one taking place on the other side of the door. Sure enough, the door opens, and everyone is positively exuberant to see each other. But just in case we forgot how miserable Hank and Marie have been, we are quickly reminded that Skyler is not the only lady on this show who is harboring husband resentment. Case in point: Marie's passive-aggressive invitation that Hank "show the boys his rock collection"; she is probably aware by now that Hank prefers the term "mineral," don't we think? And that's when the episode takes the dark turn we all knew was coming: Gale guilelessly singing karaoke at Walt from Hank's TV. (If this were any other show, I would accuse it of laying it on a little too thick with the cuteness, but being that Breaking Bad is usually so devoid of sweetness and light, this particular Gale reminder kills me on behalf of Walt, yes, but mostly Jesse, all over again.) And just like that, whatever invincibility Walt may have felt is gone, as he learns that Hank is consulting on Gale's case. He is now worried in a way Skyler's limited knowledge prohibits her from being, and his deeply buried remorse resurfaces, if only long enough to deliver a veiled apology at the dinner table. Walt did pull the metaphorical trigger, after all.

The literal trigger puller, on the other hand, continues to act rashly and dead inside, skimming off meth from the lab and generally asking for it with his out-of-control partying, if one can even use that term to describe whatever the hell is going on at his aunt's house right now. And yet, all Jesse seems to really be interested in is having company and playing video games. This poor kid! Even his interest in money seems to be a thing of the past. And his sharp observation of the blindfolded thief is not consistent with drug use, which makes me think Jesse's been sober this whole time. It would certainly explain his clear-headed rhetoric with Mike and his nonchalant attitude about everything excepting the Gale ordeal, which a fingerprint-obsessed Walt forces Jesse to relive in detail, no doubt confident that the trauma of looking at some crime scene photos is akin to that of shooting a man in the face. Still, it's nice to see that Walt still cares about Jesse as more than just his potential downfall; his fierce "Where is he?" into the camera after Jesse's disappearance certainly indicates more avid interest than he's shown in his own son in quite some time.

One errant thought: When Walt rushes over to give him the Skyler treatment regarding Gale's shooting, Jesse is sporting a new buzz cut, and given this show's obsession with baldness, I have to consider the significance of this. Not only did Walt's own de-hairing signify the emergence of Heisenberg, but the last alteration Jesse made to his head gear -- in losing those teen-thug hats he used to wear -- signified his newly achieved sobriety and general awakening to a new layer of reality after Jane's death. If losing his beanies meant accepting his own darkness ("I'm the bad guy"), then it looks like shaving his head might mean total cynicism. Which would make him perfect for going into Mike training. Which I think is where Mike is taking him at episode's end. Thoughts/predictions?