TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Say My Name” (05.07, 2012)

“Say My Name” (05.07, 2012)

Written by Thomas Schnauz (Previous Episodes: “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Shotgun,” “Bug,” and “End Times”)

Directed by Thomas Schnauz (No Previous Episodes)

Once again, a longtime Breaking Bad writer gets a shot behind the camera in this one, and Thomas Schnauz turns out to be up to the task. This episode looks like it could easily have been made by Michelle MacLaren or Adam Bernstein, and that’s about as high praise as a director could get on this show. He doesn’t show any of the timid lack of imagination that George Mastras showed a couple of episodes ago, but he also doesn’t show the penchant for overreach that Bryan Cranston has shown. It’s a tightrope that most of this show’s directors have successfully walked for years, but it’s been difficult for some rare or first-time directors, and yet Schnauz succeeds.

This episode contains one of the two major plot points that were clearly coming this half-season as it began: Heisenberg killing Mike (the other is Hank’s discovery of Walt’s identity), and it spends much of the episode implausibly setting up that confrontation.

It starts off with a desert stand-off like we’ve seen so many times before on this show as Heisenberg sells Mike’s old Fring contact on a partnership whereby this new partner essentially buys out Mike’s share. He forces the buyer into calling him Heisenberg as a sign of his own dominance, but we see in this scene that Heisenberg isn’t quite as big as he thinks: the buyer considers just killing him in the desert right then, pointing out that without Heisenberg the blue stuff goes off the market, which is what he wanted in the first place. While he’s able to muscle his way through the conversation by making a strained analogy to Coca-Cola and suggesting that the buyer doesn’t really want to live in a world without the blue meth, the fact that there is no logical reason Heisenberg can give for his life is enough to tell us that he’s not on firm ground. Could this guy be the reason Walter White needs a machine gun in his trunk in a year?

The contrived series of events required to get to the final confrontation between the bald men is not strong enough to make up for its implausibility. Mike’s lawyer gets caught making payments and the DEA is convinced he will roll. Mike already had his exit strategy in place, of course, but with this new possible evidence, Hank is able to thwart Mike’s attempted exit plan by watching for him at the airports. So, fairly enough, Mike calls Saul to get the “go bag” he needs to make his escape. However, somehow Heisenberg ends up doing it, with no explanation of why he is doing it or how on earth Mike would have agreed to it. The worst part about this moment is that there actually is a logical explanation for why he would need to be the one. The DEA knows that Jesse is connected in some way to the blue meth, and so may decide based on its stronger position to keep watch on him.  Meanwhile, Hank is really out to get Mike at this point, and knows that Mike’s lawyer is Saul, so it makes perfect sense that they would watch for any suspicious activity by Saul as well. That sequence of reasoning could explain Heisenberg being the one to deliver Mike his go bag, but instead we’re left with the impression that he said, “I’ll do it,” intending to kill Mike and then Mike just said, “Oh, of course. I have always trusted you, Mr. Heisenbeg!” It’s a frustrating, very un-Breaking Bad sequence that really hurts the episode.

However, then we get the confrontation. Heisenberg demands the names of Mike’s people whom he is paying off in prison and when Mike refuses to tell him and points out that Heisenberg is to blame for the mess their situation now is, Heisenberg shoots him with a gun he stole from Mike’s go bag. Walter White suddenly makes an appearance and runs to a dying Mike, apologizing and saying that he just realized that he could get the names from Lydia anyway. Mike tells him to shut up so that he can die in peace, a perfect exit for one of this show’s largest characters. This sequence is fantastic and would rank among the best in the show’s history were it not marred by the contrived way in which the show brought it about. It’s also a great showcase for Bryan Cranston, as he gets his first opportunity to show some real emotion this season, transforming back into Walter White for just a minute.

Outside of that confrontation, we get a great sign of growth from Jesse. Heisenberg doesn’t bother to negotiate his exit money from the partnership and expects Jesse just to follow him because that’s what he’s always been able to get from Jesse. But it doesn’t work. Jesse has gotten enough strength to stand up to Heisenberg’s manipulations, a powerful moment for the character that essentially completes his metamorphosis through the show’s run. Aaron Paul, unsurprisingly, also plays this moment perfectly.

Todd takes Jesse’s place in the cook, but worries Heisenberg by proving a diligent and enthusiastic worker who doesn’t care about his money. He’s looking a lot like Gale Boetticher, which is not a good sign for his future.

Overall, this was a good episode, but it took a major, major shortcut. Part of what makes the show great is its unwillingness to use those short cuts, so it’s a problem when it uses one, even if it’s one that can be explained, like this one.

Notes

  • It never made any sense to me for Mike to pick a different lawyer to do his drops instead of Saul. Sure, he doesn’t trust Saul, but Mike doesn’t exactly seem the type to trust anybody, does he? It was nice to see Saul rip him for it, almost like an acknowledgement of its silliness by the writers.
  • Seeing Jesse finally ignore Heisenberg’s manipulation gave me a thought I often have about this show: I don’t know if it would have worked, but it definitely would have been a completely different show if Jesse had been killed off when Vince Gilligan planned. It also puts them in different enough positions that we can see them beginning to prep themselves like opposite sides in a war.
  • When Todd was first introduced, I thought he would turn out to be an undercover cop. Now, I think that was clearly wrong, but I still think there’s a reason he’s been introduced. I suspect that he is going be a major part of the DEA’s case against Heisenberg somehow, if Heisenberg doesn’t kill him first.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Buyout” (05.06, 2012)

“Buyout” (05.06, 2012)

Written by Gennifer Hutchison (Previous Episodes: “I See You,” “Cornered,” and “Salud”)

Directed by Colin Bucksey (Previous Episodes: “Phoenix,” “I See You,” and “Bullet Points”)

Colin Bucksey, another veteran Breaking Bad director, follows first-timer George Mastras here, and the difference is stark. It’s a beautiful episode, filled with thoughtful, careful textures and colors. The opening scene, watching Heisenberg, Mike, Todd, and Jesse clean up after its mess with another set of hydrofluoric acid barrels, is a masterpiece of direction. It’s done in silence, with only a score, and with a dusty, dry look in the low-key high contrast lighting. Everything emphasizes how much this scene is something these people have all gotten used to and how often we’ve all seen it before. Heisenberg keeps telling Jesse, “This time it will be different,” and yet every time they end up melting bodies down in hydrofluoric acid again, and it’s Bucksey’s choices that really emphasize this point so strongly. The rest of the episode remains in the Breaking Bad tradition, absolutely beautiful.

This half season’s largest plot has been the battle between Heisenberg and Mike for control of the partnership and of Jesse. It’s been a cold war to this point, but now we have an actual skirmish, even if it’s not the violent final altercation we still have to expect is coming. In the aftermath of Todd’s shooting the child witness to the train heist, we see Jesse unsurprisingly angry and disgusted at Todd and filled with the self-loathing that has so often overtaken him until Mike offers him a life raft by saying, “I’m out” and negotiating a sale of his and Jesse’s portion of the methylamine.

Heisenberg of course doesn’t want out, drawing an analogy between selling the methylamine and the buyout he accepted from Gray Matter when Jesse calls him on it. While it makes some logical and narrative sense for him to explain this to Jesse, it’s also a rather heavy-handed moment by this show’s standards. Unsurprisingly, the writers throw a monkey wrench into Mike’s plans, but Mike and Jesse appear to be able to get out of it anyway when Mike locks a reluctant Heisenberg in the Vamonos Pest office while he and Jesse go to negotiate the deal. But, in a scene reminiscent of many of the science-based solutions Walt found to problems back in the first season, he MacGyvers his way out and hides the methylamine.

Mike is about to kill Heisenberg in response when Jesse talks him out of it, having heard Heisenberg’s “good plan” that goes unexplained for this episode. It looks like, in the end, Heisenberg’s ability to manipulate Jesse is going to win out again. One wonders when we will see their partnership break, which I expect must happen soon in order to set up the series ending standoff between them.

There isn’t a lot to say about this episode because it’s rather straightforward. Even the awkward Heisenberg/Skyler/Jesse dinner is exactly what one would expect from a dinner among these three (though it’s also a comic showcase for Aaron Paul). It’s not really a bad episode, but it’s unsurprising and not very deep.

Notes:

  • The confrontation between Saul and Hank was great—it was pretty much the only time this season we’ve gotten to see Saul work his magic properly.
  • I like how the buyer seems to think it’s impossible for the third partner to get more methylamine and cook more.
  • “You asked whether we’re in the money business or the meth business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? Isn’t that really just another way of saying, “The meth business?”
  • Even the consummate professional Mike cannot escape Heisenberg. He said that he could see that Heisenberg was a ticking time bomb, and yet here he is.

Movie Review: “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA 2012)

A note: I need to polish up the last few “Breaking Bad” reviews, so I sneaked in a couple of others. This one is a repost of a review I wrote on Facebook back when the film first came out.

Paul Thomas Anderson is still probably best known for his film Magnolia (USA 1999), a film with essentially nothing to say that was only watchable at all for Tom Cruise’s performance and Julianne Moore looking like Julianne Moore that captured the public’s imagination because of its ridiculous frog-raining and the simple technique of parallel editing that for some reason convinces the public that films are “deep.” He’s been something of a popular critics’ darling, much the same as Wes Anderson (I always confuse the two of them.) and Ang Lee. Like those directors, he has fared far worse with the more academically-minded critics, but has become highly thought of by the public because of consistent Oscar success anyway.

However, Anderson’s most recent film is supposedly (as far as I know, he is not explicitly denying this, but of course he will not say it) based on L. Ron Hubbard and his founding of the “Church of Scientology.” I couldn’t ignore something like that, especially when he gets such a great pair of lead actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. (The latter of whose career has been distressingly slow to recover from the marketing stunt-gone-bad surrounding I’m Still Here [Casey Affleck, USA 2010], seemingly from people who refuse to believe that it was marketing. That’s just stupid.)

However, while Anderson’s lead character, Lancaster Dodd, is similar to Hubbard, he really isn’t him. This guy is charismatic (Which is a word I would not have suggested fit Philip Seymour Hoffman before, a tribute to his performance.) and, while he definitely shows a propensity toward anger when questioned, he is a calm, reasonable sort of character the rest of the time, except that he is spouting a remarkable amount of nonsense. He’s more the traditional archetype of the cult leader than Hubbard was, which is a bit less interesting.

The lead character is really Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell: a severely scarred war veteran with extreme anger issues who ends up running into Dodd, who takes it as his personal mission to “fix” Freddie’s mental health issues instead of sending Freddie to a professional (however, oddly, none of Hubbard’s famous vitriol at psychology/psychiatry made its way into the film). Phoenix’s performance was really difficult to judge, because he was playing the broken man with some severe physical issues (inability to move one side of his face being the most obvious) that were never explained and he spent the entire film just angry and horny–there wasn’t anything else to him. Needless to say, Dodd’s methods don’t work, which is oddly the entire point of the film.

And that’s where everything really falls apart: the entire point of the film is that Scientology doesn’t fix mental health problems. Really. That’s all Anderson has to say. It’s not impossible to make a film about someone’s inability to change that works extraordinarily well, see In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA 1950), but it doesn’t work when you just show us the same exact scene of the guy breaking down repeatedly and go out of your way to ensure that we have no sympathy for him. However, Anderson doesn’t bother with the depth and nuance of In a Lonely Place. His film is about an angry, horny drunk who spends years following around a cult leader who doesn’t fix him and he shows us Freddie “falling off the wagon,” so to speak, in the same way every time. While there’s certainly a logic to this idea, it’s plain boring.

Visually, the film looks excellent but not original. It was shot in 70 mm (I think that makes it the first film released in the US to be shot in 70 mm since Hamlet [Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996].), which means that it is as sharp and vibrant as films come. However, there’s simply nothing unconventional about it. The only thing that really stood out visually was the very slow editing, appropriate for a story that’s basically about two guys talking over a long period of time.

Hoffman is, as always, fantastic. He makes a much more credible cult leader than Hubbard did in reality. I don’t know what to make of Phoenix. The only other person with significant screen time is Amy Adams, who handles her very simple part well enough but of course doesn’t have to do anything.

Johnny Greenwood’s score is quite excellent, which is not an easy task when it’s stuck trying to make sense of such a dull, repetitive movie with no point.

This was a failure of a film, one that’s getting by on its “scandalous” origins as a film based on Hubbard and a fantastic performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Can we please stop being shocked every time he’s great? Seriously, people keep acting like he’s some sort of new revelation in every role just because he’s not good looking enough to be a major star.) It really isn’t worth watching, which is a shame for a subject that could make a good film.