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.