TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Felina” (05.16, 2013)

Written by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” “…And the Bag’s in the River,” “Peekaboo,” “ABQ,” No Mas,” “Full Measure,” “Box Cutter,” “Face Off,” “Live Free or Die,” and “Madrigal”)

Directed by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Full Measure,” “End Times,” and “Face Off”)

As I have said, Breaking Bad exists in a moral universe. Its biggest characters, therefore, had obvious fates (even if I questioned one of those for a long time): Walter White had to die, and along the way had to pay for his sins in some way; Jesse Pinkman had to get to escape into some sort of freedom from the hell he had endured as punishment for his sins; Skyler White couldn’t escape scot-free but Flynn had to come out with more than he had. What the show’s finale had to do was reach all of those fates in ways that weren’t overly predictable, and for the most part it did. It was by no means one of the strongest episodes of Breaking Bad–particularly coming so closely after “Ozymandias,” which might well be the finest episode of television in history–but it was a generally fitting conclusion to a series that has often reached predictable conclusions in unpredictable ways.

Alice Cooper has commented over the years that the reason his stage persona dies at the end of every concert is that it is the way in which the audience receives absolution for its enjoyment of his crimes, transgressions, and sins throughout the evening. The audience delights in the man with the strange eye makeup as he desecrates corpses, takes on the persona of a serial killer, and even runs for President. So that they can be forgiven for their delight, Alice dies. In the same way, Heisenberg had to die. The glamorous, sexy sort of criminality in which he so often engaged thrilled the audience with shootouts, explosions, and frantic drives against time, and he had to pay for providing those thrills. But he died two episodes ago, leaving behind Walter White.

Did Walter White have to die? Probably. This version of Walter White finally admitted that his criminal activity made him feel “alive” and that he had done it all for selfish reasons, not to help his family (and admitted it not just to himself but to Skyler in perhaps the most effective scene of this episode). This version of Walter White, while he was broken and dispirited the way the Walter White of the first season was, had embraced the darkness and evil within as a part of himself. He may have been afraid to wear the black hat, but he also no longer needed it. This Walter White was a danger to everyone, but he was also walking into his own death and knew it.

In the end, Walt was able to design and effect a cunning plan that forced Gretchen and Elliott to acknowledge their relationship with him, got nearly $10 million to his son, gave him a chance to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, ensured that his empire would not continue on without him, and let his former loyal partner go. It was smart, efficient, and, ultimately, exactly the kind of selfishness-masquerading-as-righteousness that has always characterized this man.

Did he save Jesse out of some feeling of guilt over all he’s done to the young man during the last two years? No. He saved Jesse because he wanted Jesse to believe that he was sacrificing himself to save Jesse and because he was too selfish and weak to pull the trigger on himself and he believed that he could still force Jesse to do it.

Did he kill Jack, Todd, and their crew because he wanted to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, and protect the world from this evil that he had unleashed? No, he wanted to make sure that his empire remained his, even visiting a lab in which he had never worked and leaving his blood on it with his dying breath, marking it as his even though he had in fact never even seen it before, because Walter White wants everyone to know that it was his and his alone.

Did he leave his money with Gretchen and Elliott for Flynn out of some sense of obligation to his son? No, he wanted to force his rich former partners to admit their connection to him (And to do so in a way that would likely become public and severely cut Gray Matter’s stock prices, considering that they had already been taking actions to distance themselves from him.), and he wanted to ensure that he had not done all of this for nothing. After he pleaded Flynn to take his money so that it was not all for naught last episode, this time he is manipulating his own son into being the outlet for what he has left, emphatically telling Gretchen and Elliott that they cannot even pay any taxes or legal fees related to the trust themselves because it must be only from him.

It was all so fitting, and yet it felt too neat and tidy. Like the conclusion of season four, it felt like an overly quick and clean conclusion to a messy series of events. It felt like tying off the threads that remained instead of a continuation of what had made the show so special. Most people like resolution and like their resolutions to be as full as possible (Just look at the reaction to the final episode of The Sopranos even all these years later.), but I’m often not sure it’s the right course of action, and this episode was a good example of why. Not everything needs to be The Sopranos and leave its ultimate resolution so clearly hanging in the air, and Breaking Bad was always a very closely contained show, but it still felt too pat, too much like running a spell check on a finished document.

Further, for all of the memorable moments this show has given us, there simply wasn’t anything comparable in the finale. Walt’s threat to the Schwartzes and the reveal that the “assassins” were just Skinny Pete and Badger with laser pointers was a great sequence, and his final admission to Skyler was a very good moment, but neither is anywhere near as memorable as much of what came before, and that is a shame.

I’m finding it difficult to explain how I could find this a rather weak episode when it was so fitting and so little of it could have been any different, and yet it was. It wasn’t fun the way the show was in its early days and it wasn’t harrowing the way the show had been in its final run. Instead, like Walter White, it went out with a whimper. And yet, there is really no other way it could have gone.

Notes

  • My former English professor mother has repeatedly claimed that if Walt died in any way it would make him a hero. I argued that he could die a pathetic death and not come out as a hero. Since he was able to get something to Flynn in the end and his final plan went off essentially without a hitch, I’m not sure he didn’t get a heroic gloss. Vince Gilligan has been clear over the years that Walt is a bad guy, not an antihero, but in the end, he put everyone through two years of hell and killed a brother-in-law whom he always resented but left his son with $9.7 million. If you asked him back at the beginning if that would be a good result, I think Walt would say it was. I’m not sure that makes him a hero, but it seems rather a questionable end for the villain of a show that exists in a moral universe.
  • The gun was for the neo-Nazis. The ricin was for Lydia. Once again, the show actually did exactly what we could have guessed from the beginning but took such a circuitous route to get there that it was easy to get it wrong.
  • I don’t see how he could have gotten the ricin into her Stevia, but I don’t think that’s an important detail.
  • Jesse’s ending was as happy as it could be, escaping into the night away from Walt, knowing that he would never see the man who has caused him so much pain again. It had to end there, because Jesse is, in the end, a criminal who has nothing to show for his own crimes; is probably wanted by the DEA, who knows about his connection to Heisenberg; may be a target for the cartel if it ever recovers because of having been there for Gus’s slaughter of Don Eladio and his men; and has seen both of his relationship partners of the last two years end up dead. I doubt he has a happy life, so we had to stop here.
  • Jack’s reaction to Walt’s statement about Jesse made no sense with respect to how the neo-Nazis have acted in the past. They have been exactly the sort of villains who just shoot Walt as soon as he walks in the door, and that’s what was terrifying about them. That was a bad moment for the show, placing plot above character consistency.
  • This was the greatest series in television history and if we call season 5b its own season that well might have been the greatest season in history as well, even if its finale didn’t live up to what came before.
  • If Vince Gilligan plans on continuing in television, he will have impossible expectations for his next series. Good luck to him.
  • Bryan Cranston’s performance throughout this series was absolutely a sight to behold, and I feel like every other dramatic performance in television  is going to pale in comparison for a very, very long time.
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TV Season Review: “Orphan Black” Season One (2013)

Plot is the story being told. Annie Hall‘s (Woody Allen, USA 1977) plot is that two people meet, have a tumultuous relationship in which they fall and break up numerous times, and then finally break up for good. Narrative is the way the story is told. In Annie Hall, it is told through a series of vignettes from throughout the relationship and even some flashbacks to before then all based on the mind of lead character Alvie Singer. It’s a simple plot with a very complex narrative that confuses some viewers but otherwise keeps the film from falling into predictability.

Orphan Black takes the reverse approach. The series starts with a bizarre, complex plot about a company that creates a series of clones for some sort of long-term experiment (the specifics of which still elude us) who begin to discover their own identity as clones. However, to tell its story, it uses a very simple narrative that follows events chronologically, not giving us flashbacks or even simultaneous actions and consistently following one of the clone characters.

Further, it gives us a series of memorably different characters who make things easier to follow, and it succeeds in this part largely because of how incredible lead actress Tatiana Maslany is. Sure, the changes in hair and makeup do a lot to differentiate the characters, but her differences in voice/accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions are also powerful elements that separate each character. We have Sarah, the streetwise criminal who is swept up in everything just as she is trying to put her life back together around her young daughter–she’s smart and rather vicious, a dangerous but useful combination that leads her to push the story forward every step of the way. And then we have Cosima Niehaus, a brilliant biology graduate student at the University of Minnesota (I would like to imagine that she’s actually at the University of Minnesota-Morris so that the evolutionary biology specialist is actually studying under the great P.Z. Myers!) whose technical expertise makes her an incredible asset and whose social skills leave something to be desired. Then we have Helena, a crazed religious nut out to wipe out all of her clones as “abominations.” They’re all memorable and all distinct even though they share enough characteristics that it’s believable that they are clones. Even the supporting characters, like Sarah’s foster brother Felix, are memorable, and they make it easier to enter into the strange world in which the show exists. Once again, it’s a very smart idea that lets the show get away with its outrageous premise.

Visually, the show is nothing special. I often say that Breaking Bad is the only visually interesting show I’ve ever seen, and Orphan Black does nothing to change that. It does a decent job of covering for what seems to be a limited budget by not writing itself into places where a larger budget would be necessary but every once in a while it pops up in the show’s visual aspect, giving us some low quality effects or backgrounds.

Overall, Orphan Black is a smart, well-written show in its first season that is held together by Tatiana Maslany giving an incredible performance in the lead to rival any TV performance this side of Bryan Cranston. It’s definitely worth a watch, and I’m sticking to it in the future.

This review is coming out short no matter how much time I spend on it, because the simple truth is that it’s a plot-driven show and spelling out the nuances of the plot here would be boring. I still suggest watching, nonetheless.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Granite State” (05.15, 2013)

Written by Peter Gould (Previous Episodes: “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” “Bit by a Dead Bee,” “Better Call Saul,” “Caballo sin Nombre,” “Kafkaesque,” “Half Measures,” “Problem Dog,” “Salud,” “Hazard Pay,” and “Blood Money”)

Directed by Peter Gould (Previous Episode: “Problem Dog”)

Back in “End Game” (04.12, 2011), a despondent Walter White sits at his backyard table, certain that Gus Fring means to kill him and unable to figure out a way to survive. He absent-mindedly spins a gun around on the table. It winds up pointing at him. He spins the gun again. It points at him again. He spins it again and it finally points at a potted plant, giving him the idea that he uses to escape certain death at Fring’s hands. At that moment what is left of Walter White dies and is replaced by the pure darkness that is Heisenberg. It’s perhaps the single most important scene in Breaking Bad‘s history: a very bad man is being told that he will be punished, understands it, and yet keeps pushing until he finds a way to delay that punishment. This show’s universe is a moral universe, and not just one where morality exists but one where “bad” behavior is punished (even if “good” behavior is not necessarily rewarded).

In “Granite State,” we see that one of the relative good guys, Saul Goodman (who may be a slimeball but is certainly not a villain the way many of our remaining characters are), is allowed to leave in order to live out his life free and clear of Heisenberg. He’s stuck in Nebraska (The horror!) and says it will take everything going right to end up managing a Cinnabon, but he’s not trapped inside Heisenberg’s web any longer.

And the reason that he’s no longer trapped is that Heisenberg is dead, replaced by the empty shell of a man that Walter White was clear back in the pilot. He’s trying to play the part of Heisenberg still, but he can’t do it. He tries to intimidate Saul the exact same way he has done previously, and yet even the cowardly Saul realizes he has nothing to fear when Walt breaks down into a coughing fit. When he ends up in a cabin in New Hampshire, hiding from a nationwide manhunt that the disappearer warns him means he will be caught if he its seen at all, even putting on Heisenberg’s black hat does not give him the strength to walk to the nearest town in order to act out a typically hubristic Heisenberg scheme. The cancer causing him to weaken is obviously part of the issue (The disappearer did say it was eight miles to the town, trudging through snow in the cold.), but there’s also the simple fact that Walter White is a sad, risk-averse man who isn’t willing to risk getting caught so easily. Heisenberg was always convinced of his own ability to do anything he wished and didn’t stop even when prudence should tell him to do so, and Walt’s inability to make the journey to the nearest town even with the hat is a sure sign that Heisenberg is no longer here.

Walt’s New Hampshire adventure also serves to tell Walt that the world no longer has any use for him. While on the surface his pained cabin experience appears to be just a man starved for contact, he also can’t send money to his family, can’t order hits on Jack and his crew, has no Jesse to boss around, can’t contact Skyler, and his son says point-blank, “I don’t want anything from you!” Heisenberg is dead, and Walter White has been rendered completely useless. He’s as impotent as he was for that handjob back in the pilot.

Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis have taken over the show and in so doing deconstructed it. The criminality on this show has often been glamorous and “cool” in much the same way that violence and criminality often is in media. There have been Heisenberg’s bad guy catch phrases (“I am the one who knocks!”), the fancy cars, Lydia’s legs, and always cunning, elegant plans from Walter White. Todd and the neo-Nazis aren’t glamorous. They’re down and dirty pragmatic criminals, and they’re all the more dangerous because of that, and if we didn’t know that before, we certainly do after the murder of Andrea, which is perhaps the darkest moment in this show’s history. It’s not a dramatic moment like when Gus killed Victor or Jesse killed Gale. It’s not a major action sequence like Hank killing the twins or the neo-Nazis killing Gomez. Instead, they just make sure Jesse can see it as Todd lures Andrea outside and calmly puts a bullet through her head and leaves her dead on her own front porch, probably to be found by the little boy Heisenberg decided to poison back when the gun finally pointed away from him.

Meanwhile, we finally got a good example of the cold cruelty of which Lydia is capable, as she nearly broke off her partnership with Todd in anger for Todd having decided to scare Skyler into submission instead of simply killing her, saying, “We’re not Western Union, Todd. We can’t settle for you sending messages.” That scene also was loaded with some brilliant detail emphasizing Todd’s infatuation with Lydia (Todd is drinking tea. He’s disappointed that she wants to sit facing opposite directions. He won’t actually keep from looking at her.) and yet another instance of Lydia mentioning Stevia. It seems clear to me that the ricin is going to replace her Stevia, or else they have paid considerably for placement on the show.

Finally recognizing the futility of his own continued existence, Walt decides to turn himself in, but then he discovers a reason to live, which is of course an attack on his pride. The biggest driving force in Walt’s life as he has cut a swath of destruction through the world has been his pride, so of course it is only a blow to that pride that could bring him back to Albuquerque. The interesting part is who delivers that blow, as it is none other than Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, his ex-partners who bought him out of a multi-billion dollar company back when it was a startup after a rude ending to Walt’s romantic relationship with Gretchen that has never been fully explained on the show but surely has something to do with his pride again. Hearing them claim that his only contribution to their company was the name apparently* sets Walt off, and he is gone before the federal agents arrive to look for him, making one wonder if he has some plan to attack the Schwartzes and/or Gray Matter in the end. Meanwhile, Gretchen Schwartz, the person who always seemed to understand Walt more than anyone (except maybe for Mike), explains the duality of Walter White and Heisenberg but claims that Walt is clearly gone while we can see that Heisenberg has died and left behind the same Walter White that she knew.

*They also talk about the blue meth being seen throughout the southwest and in Europe, so it’s possible that Walt is reacting instead to the fact that his meth is being peddled without him. Or he could be reacting to Gretchen’s description of him as “the sweet, kind, brilliant man we once knew.” It seems more likely to me that it’s their belittling his contribution to their company, but it’s not impossible that it’s one of those other things.

Peter Gould didn’t distinguish himself as a director in his previous episode (and on this show, that’s praise), and he doesn’t this time either. He makes nice use of some great high contrast lighting in the bar and otherwise composes his shots very smartly, but there isn’t anything that stands out from what Breaking Bad usually does. It doesn’t do him any favors to follow up the incomparable Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson, but he holds his own.

Overall, this was yet another amazing episode of Breaking Bad that continued moving chess pieces but left the finale open. It cannot be easy to set up a show like this and not make the finale obvious, but Gilligan and company have done it.

Notes

  • This show has always had more than its share of surprises, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised than I was when it was Saul stepping out of the van at the beginning.
  • From what we hear on the Charlie Rose Show, it’s clear that Walt’s crimes have become public knowledge–even the name Heisenberg and the color of his meth are mentioned.
  • Gretchen and Elliott must be bored as hell during that “interview.” Not much back and forth there!
  • Maybe Jesse will be hidden underground when Walt shows up with the machine gun, so that Walt inadvertently saves him. The fact that Jesse has survived this long makes me think he’s making it out of the finale.
  • Jesse Plemons deserves more attention than he gets for the job he does with Todd. Look at the little smirk he gets at Jesse mentioning his killing Drew Sharp–it’s a kid enjoying his brush with fame at his name being mentioned on TV and he doesn’t care at all that it’s for killing an innocent kid.