TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Dead Freight” (05.05, 2012)

“Dead Freight” (05.05, 2012)

Written by George Mastras (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Kafkaesque,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)

Directed by George Mastras (No Previous Episodes)

 

Longtime Breaking Bad writer George Mastras gets his first shot at directing in this one, and doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the usual directors, but the best that can be said for him is that he shows some restraint. Bryan Cranston has directed some episodes in the past, and they have been characterized by overreach, attempting unusual angles, lighting, etc. just for the sake of drawing attention—they haven’t been so much as to be bad, but they’ve been weaker than the usual episode of this show. Mastras goes in the other direction—he’s a bit too afraid to draw attention to himself, following conventions for the most part and only breaking with them for a penchant for longer shots (I mean in terms of distance, not time). Usually, when Breaking Bad gets itself in visual trouble, it’s by trying to be too cute (Remember Shovel Cam and Roomba Cam last season?), so perhaps it’s good that Mastras didn’t do that, though he shows a bit of a lack of imagination. The episode also misses a bit of an opportunity to play around with some genre conventions—it’s a train robbery, for Pete’s sake!—but keeps itself a bit more serious for that, which is in keeping with the tone that the show has adopted this season.

Some of this episode is really spent spinning its wheels yet again. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that Heisenberg has replaced Walter White, and yet we have a sequence of Heisenberg replacing his once-again-resuscitated (a great comic moment) Aztek and deciding to wear his hat out in broad daylight, even in front of his son and his trusted mechanic. He is Heisenberg now, but we’ve already had that established.

The centerpiece of this episode is Lydia’s continued growth and the unsurprising arrival of Todd as a long-term character. The train robbery is a fun sequence and a rare example of Walt and Jesse’s plan going well (with adrenaline junkie Heisenberg threatening to get everyone in trouble after Mike calls for abortion but in the end not causing any actual problem), as well as the second time this season that Jesse’s insight actually provides the way to do something when Walt and Mike are at an impasse, but it’s the character growth that matters more for the long term, as well as the very end of the episode.

Lydia proves not to have planned what Mike feared she had. However, she also shows just how cold, how smart, how calculating, and how strong she really is by planning the train robbery. Mike reiterates his worries about this second loose cannon, and now we have a bit more to back up his concerns. This is a woman to be reckoned with, whether Walt and Jesse recognize it or not.

Meanwhile, Todd, who was clearly a more important character than the rest of the Vamonos Pest crew from the beginning, rounds out the robbery gang. Like when he saw the danger of a nanny cam earlier (and paying off what was a bit of a heavy-handed moment in a surprising enough fashion that the earlier moment can be forgiven and in fact becomes a far stronger moment now than it was at first), he takes care of the possible danger of a kid who happens upon the robbery without a second thought, pulling out a gun and shooting the kid, thus undermining what had been a successful operation. He’s a cold criminal and clearly has ambition to be a bigger part of the meth business instead of the Vamonos Pest business.

We know how the heartless Heisenberg and the sensitive Jesse will react to this: Heisenberg as though it is just the cost of doing business (or, in Skyler’s words, “shrugg[ing it] off as ‘shit happens’”) and Jesse as yet another death on his own head, particularly since this train robbery was executed according to his own plan. Mike, ever the professional, is likely to react more similarly to Heisenberg, though he will accept Jesse’s self-punishment and not twist it to his own ends the way Heisenberg would. Since Breaking Bad is a show that normally eschews shortcuts, we will have to see it, but hopefully it doesn’t mean more wheel-spinning.

Overall, it’s a decent but uneven episode. For most shows, the train robbery followed by the murder would be an incredible sequence, but for this show it just isn’t quite up to standards.

At this point, it really feels like Vince Gilligan & co. are strained to produce a 16-episode season after building the show on 13-episode seasons. They know where they want to get, but need to fill time getting there, and it’s leading to some issues. It’s still been a good season, just not up to this show’s incredibly lofty standards.

Movie Review: “Searching for Sugar Man” (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK 2012)

The Story in the United States

In 1970, Detroit-based folk rock singer-songwriter Rodriguez released Cold Fact. While very commercially successful, the album was a miserable failure commercially. A year later, Rodriguez released his second album to a similar mix of critical acclaim and public yawning. He was then dropped by the failing Sussex label and disappeared from the music industry.

The Story in South Africa

In the early ‘70s (the exact date is not so easy to pin down), an American singer-songwriter, Rodriguez, took the country by storm. His album Cold Fact was one of the most popular albums in the country’s history and ranked with The Beatles as the albums most important to the nascent liberal anti-apartheid movement. The single “I Wonder,” with its shocking lyrics (“I wonder how many times you had sex?”), became an unofficial anthem for the liberals of the country. In spite of (or more likely in part due to) the banning of some of his songs (notably “Sugar Man”) by an extremely conservative and anti-freedom of expression government, his position as a musical giant and leader of the liberal movement in the country was unquestioned.

Yet, little was known about the American singer who had never appeared in South Africa. Even his name was a mystery, as the album cover to Cold Fact credited him as simply “Rodriguez,” the sticker on the center of the record credited him as “Sixto Rodriguez,” and the songwriting credits were mixed between “Sixth Prince” and “Jesus Rodriguez.” He had only recorded two albums before dramatically committing suicide either through self-immolation on stage or shooting himself in the head to complete what had already been a dismal concert in support of his last album. The suicide shamefully robbed the world of a great talent, but only served to further the legend of Rodriguez.

Searching for Sugar Man

One of Rodriguez’s biggest South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname came from mispronunciation of his last time and Rodriguez’s song “Sugar Man”), and music writer Craig Bartholomew Strydom set out to discover how Rodriguez had in fact died. The latter eventually found Mike Theodore, one of the producers of Cold Fact, and after much discussion asked his pivotal question, “How did Rodriguez die?” only to hear the incredible response, “He’s alive and kicking. He lives in Detroit.” His mystery solved, Strydom wrote an article about his search and moved on to other projects.

That’s not even the end.

As part of their search, Segerman and Strydom had set up a website about their search for Rodriguez. Suddenly, one day, the site received a message from a woman claiming to be Rodriguez’s daughter. Incredibly, she had received a copy of Strydom’s article and immediately recognized the man as her father. Segerman called her and learned more about the man he had idolized for so long, then was shocked to get a call from Rodriguez himself in the middle of the night thereafter.

Eventually, Segerman headed to Detroit to interview this superstar, discovering a humble man who had responded to the failure of his albums by dropping out of the music industry and working hard labor, moving into a house immediately after the label dropped him and never leaving. He made some unsuccessful forays into local politics, but otherwise seemed to be nothing more or less than a simple laborer, a member of the working poor not dissimilar from many others. He had never known about his popularity in South Africa (and really still didn’t look like he believed it), and apparently never received any payment for it.

Still not done.

In 1998, Segerman convinced Rodriguez, 27 years after he had left the music industry, to come play a series of concerts in South Africa. The concerts were an enormous success, sold out immediately and played before 5000-person crowds that were as enthusiastic as anything short of the Beatles at their peak, and well-reviewed. Shockingly, the unassuming singer-songwriter whose trademark had been playing bars with his back to the crowd was perfectly comfortable performing songs he had not played professionally in a quarter century before these large crowds.

Since, he has continued to tour South Africa successfully. And, the quiet Detroit laborer who has lived in the same house heated by a wood-burning stove for 40 years has given away nearly everything he has made from those concerts.

The Review Proper

It took that long just to tell the story that Searching for Sugar Man tells in less than an hour and a half, and I obviously left some things out. It’s a truly amazing story, with more twists and turns than anyone could ever expect, and it doesn’t get any less amazing after you’ve already heard it. Bandjelloul deserves a lot of credit just for recognizing what an incredible story this was and deciding to commit it to film, as it deserved.

The film isn’t perfect, but it’s difficult to make a bad documentary when you have a story that strong.

It opens up some questions that it never really answers or even explores fully. Why didn’t Rodriguez sell in the US? Why was Sussex chairman Clarence Avant so confrontational and argumentative about Rodriguez’s success in South Africa? Segerman asks, “Who wrote these songs?”

The first act of the film is a little muddled, as it attempts to mix together praise of Rodriguez’s talent, his commercial failure in the US, his success in South Africa, the legends of his death, and the beginning of Segerman’s search for him, the banning of “Sugar Man” and the repressive apartheid-era government in general, and the importance of Cold Fact within the anti-apartheid movement all at once—it’s rather dizzying and could have used tighter editing tying itself around a stronger central element. After that, it follows Segerman and Strydom and everything is much easier to follow.

The film occasionally drops in pieces of rather silly-looking animation and shots that are really just meant as pretty backdrops while Rodriguez’s (often fantastic) songs play, which really feel like wasted time more than anything else. I would have preferred more in-depth discussion of any of the above questions rather than these moments. The songs are great, and I understand wanting to make sure that the audience hears them, but it did a little much. However, outside of those animations, the film also didn’t bother to do much of anything visually. It’s rare to have a visually interesting documentary, but this really wasn’t one of the rare exceptions.

All in all, this is an excellent film and the rare successful feel-good documentary. Not many stories this fascinating have ever been told, let alone told truthfully.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”–“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

Written by Sam Catlin (Previous Episodes: “Down,” “4 Days Out,” “Green Light,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Open House,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly”)

 

It’s not every TV show that can get the best film director working today to direct a few episodes. In fact, it’s exactly one TV show: Breaking Bad. My fandom of Rian Johnson is apparent just from the name of the blog, and then I’ve praised him with regularity as well.

Johnson’s presence is apparent in this episode’s visuals. It is loaded with the kind of dark but warm-toned shots that characterized much of his latest film, Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) (my review). He also provides much more noticeable contrast lighting, even in the scenes that would not normally be terribly interesting. Notice the scene between Hank and the DEA higher-up who promotes him: it’s all full of shafts of light broken by deep shadows from the blinds, and they are carefully placed throughout the scene—on the top of Hank’s head, between the two men, etc. And of course there is the haunting, exquisitely beautiful shot of Skyler underwater in her suicide attempt, a beautiful combination of lighting and filters that no other television show would come close to. He also gives us a respite from some of the conventions, most notably the always-brilliant montages, that Breaking Bad has fallen into, which is necessary if those conventions are to maintain any power.

We finally get a specific date marker this episode in Walt’s 51st birthday, including an excellent callback to that brilliant opening when Skyler serves breakfast and Walter Jr. insists that she has to put the bacon in the shape of the number 51 because “mom has to do it—it’s like a tradition!” It draws attention to the isolation Walt must have been feeling in that opening scene, breaking the bacon in half the same way Skyler always has to spell out his age. The time marker also emphasizes that we’ve still got a year to go before Heisenberg ends up as Walter White, at Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. Considering that the entire show to this point has happened in a year, that means we have a lot of time that’s going to be covered in the second half of the season. Heisenberg’s fall is going to be swift on-screen, but not too swift in real life, and there is plenty of time for almost anything to become the threat that leads to his need for the machine gun.

Meanwhile, we get some depth to the jittery Lydia character, as Mike explains that she is dangerous and insane and passing her off as nothing more than a an overly nervous but overall harmless person is “sexist.” It’s an interesting moment for a show whose characterization of women has drawn some criticism in the past. However, within the show, it provides an important hint that there is more to Lydia than meets the eye. After all, when consummate professional badass Mike is afraid of her, there simply has to be something to worry about. It turns out that while she is cautious and panicky, she is also conniving enough that Mike actually believes that she placed a GPS tracker on their methylamine barrel in order to scare them into working elsewhere and Mike is willing to say, “She deserves to die as much as any man I’ve ever met.”

Skyler also steps up a bit in this episode. She’s been fearful with little else until now, but she, using her children as the reason (whether it’s sincere or not), is finally able to stand up a bit to Heisenberg, setting the limits of what she will and will not accept. She says that she will accept his criminal life and launder his money but does not want the children there, in danger, even throwing Heisenberg’s own words back in his face. She gets the children away and admits to desperation and an inability to find a real way to get away from him, but says that she will do whatever she can, hoping for his cancer to return and take him away. It’s an important moment for Skyler, as it’s essentially this season’s first sign of the strength she normally offers, and even that show of strength is accompanied by desperation and fear. We see exactly how trapped Skyler has become at this point. The point is also brilliantly emphasized by the actors’ movements, as she backs away from Heisenberg to all corners of the bedroom and he chases her around menacingly, but there is no screaming or actual violence. It’s a truly Hitchockian moment that Rian Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Anna Gunn should be extroardinarily proud of.

This episode is perhaps the best of this season so far. Not only is it simply beautiful, but it advances the plot via its characters, the way Breaking Bad has usually moved in the past. This season so far has mostly seen characters and plot advance rather separately, and the tighter connection in this episode is great.

 

Notes:

  • The Aztek got essentially a Viking funeral, which was a good way of sending us into the show’s final run. It was always rather a symbol of Walter White–a hideously ugly, run-down car that
  • Much as I always love Rian Johnson, that long sequence of Heisenberg and Junior with the new Chryslers was rather silly and overdone. Chrysler more than got its money’s worth, but I hope Chrysler paid well.
  • Walt gets a trophy for his ability to manipulate Jesse: the watch Jesse gives him for his birthday. He then points out that it is really a trophy by using it to tell Skyler that the man who gave it to him recently wanted him dead. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you.”
  • Rian Johnson loves smoke as an image, so it’s great that he gets to work with Skyler for the first time now that she’s smoking regularly.
  • Betsy Brandt’s look just before she tells Hank about Skyler’s infidelity is brilliant. You can see the thoughts cross her mind: “Oh, you were ahead of me, Hank? Really? Want to bet? I promised Walt not to say anything. But, dammit, he looks so smug over there! I’m telling him!”
  • Anna Gunn is having a good season, even though Skyler White definitely is not. Hopefully, some of the hatred that has been aimed at Skyler online during the show’s run will be tamped down by her cowed, fearful existence this season, and Gunn’s performance has been heart-rending.