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!