It Was Always Something: Salute to Gilda

tumblr_mv59e3NsTx1qdrojco1_500

So 25 years ago today, Gilda Radner flew into the great Saturday Night in the Sky.

It strikes me as kind of poignant that she left this world the same year I entered it. To your face I’d say she’s my favorite comedienne, but really, she was my best friend. My first love. In my childhood TV cabinet, there nested a meticulously organized hive of SNL videotapes, the most well-worn being the 1975-1980 years. There were many reasons that I favored the early years, but Gilda was the reason, the one, my north star. What unbelievable sweetness and light. What gangly alien strangeness. What vulnerability. What big hair.

Gilda fascinated in a way no female performer has ever done. She had these huge eyes and a Cheshirey grin, sort of a manic ’70s Judy Garland thing going on, and a very odd presence that stood out during a time when funny women always had to find a workaround. Her counterparts on SNL, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman, were respectively ice-cold and coked-out, both dripping with defensive cynicism. Not saying they weren’t special in their own right, but Gilda was…blinding. Innocent, immensely affectionate, kind of scary with her flaily-armed happiness. Like a baby giraffe.

Said Candice Bergen: “A lot of people had a real edge that comedians usually need to have in order to score with people. And she never did that. I mean, obviously, she was such a talented comedienne, but her kindness was so startling.” And from the first moment she opened her mouth, in any of a dozen different but equally shrill voices, you loved her, wildly, and protectively.

Gilda was a complicated person with gaping emotional chasms she struggled to fill, as I guess all entertainers are. Her husband Gene Wilder has always publicly remembered her with painful honesty, discussing her mood swings and ambiguity towards fame, and her self-doubt as an actor and a human being. I don’t think she would have been as funny without the pain. Sometimes, in-character as bumbling schoolgirl Lisa Loopner, Gilda would slam into walls so hard it looked like she was trying to shake something loose inside. I watched her and I knew what that felt like, to bruise yourself for the holy grail of a laugh. Didn’t Mel Brooks say something like, “It’s always funny till someone gets hurt, and then it’s hilarious?” Sadness is hilarious. Wanting, and never quite having, is hilarious. The laugh is the release of the pain valve. That was really the key to Gilda’s comedy – her loneliness. I loved her because she wanted everyone to laugh, she wanted me and you to laugh, she just wanted us all to be inside the laugh together. For just a sweet second.

Watch her here, delivering the opening number of her one-woman show Gilda Live in 1980. Her heart’s filled to bursting when she realizes they’re happy to see her. Then she starts to prance and say some really adorable, filthy shit.

It really sucks that Gilda passed away so young, only 42. At least she had Gene, the love of her life, to humor her and comfort her through the mess of ovarian cancer. She was the kind of celebrity for which people genuinely wished happiness, I think. From what I’ve read, she was a rare diamond of her time, beloved by fans and her peers, especially the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

tumblr_llf2ekyR0S1qjjtkzo1_500

I love this story Bill Murray told about the last time he ever saw her. It’s a beautiful tribute to Gilda, today and really anytime I wish to remember her like the treasured friend she was to me, through a screen, through the years.

Gilda got married and went away. None of us saw her anymore. There was one good thing: Laraine had a party one night, a great party at her house. And I ended up being the disk jockey. She just had forty-fives, and not that many, so you really had to work the music end of it. There was a collection of like the funniest people in the world at this party. Somehow Sam Kinison sticks in my brain. The whole Monty Python group was there, most of us from the show, a lot of other funny people, and Gilda. Gilda showed up and she’d already had cancer and gone into remission and then had it again, I guess. Anyway she was slim. We hadn’t seen her in a long time. And she started doing, “I’ve got to go,” and she was just going to leave, and I was like, “Going to leave?” It felt like she was going to really leave forever.

So we started carrying her around, in a way that we could only do with her. We carried her up and down the stairs, around the house, repeatedly, for a long time, until I was exhausted. Then Danny did it for a while. Then I did it again. We just kept carrying her; we did it in teams. We kept carrying her around, but like upside down, every which way—over your shoulder and under your arm, carrying her like luggage. And that went on for more than an hour—maybe an hour and a half—just carrying her around and saying, “She’s leaving! This could be it! Now come on, this could be the last time we see her. Gilda’s leaving, and remember that she was very sick—hello?”

We worked all aspects of it, but it started with just, “She’s leaving, I don’t know if you’ve said good-bye to her.” And we said good-bye to the same people ten, twenty times, you know.

And because these people were really funny, every person we’d drag her up to would just do like five minutes on her, with Gilda upside down in this sort of tortured position, which she absolutely loved. She was laughing so hard we could have lost her right then and there.

It was just one of the best parties I’ve ever been to in my life. I’ll always remember it. It was the last time I saw her.

tumblr_mjwa5vblkz1qfap4co1_250 tumblr_mjwa5vblkz1qfap4co2_r1_250

Gilda Radner
1946 – 1989

Advertisements

Mad Men Season 7: Sneak Peek

Here they are: the first images of Mad Men’s seventh and final season. Debonair flailing!

Although I think I can speak for the entire Internet when I say Season 6 was a pile of expensive doodie, I’m so genuinely excited for 7. My instinct says the season will be depressing and murky, but if Weiner veers back onto the main highway of workplace intrigue, fast-clip philosophy, and period-piece candy for the eyes and ears, we’ll be cooking with gas before the finale. Jesus. I don’t want it to go. Even with the betrayal of shitty-shit-shit Season 6, I’m rooting for a WOW. How will Mad Men end? How will this utterly ambitious series leave its mark? Things are so…UP IN THE AIR! I made an airplane joke because Don is probably D.B. Cooper. Have you read this theory yet? It’s so crazy. So crazy it just…might…work.

Let’s do what Mad Men fans do best and tear these screenshots a new analytical asshole.

a_560x375 (1)

a_560x0

*steeples fingers*
*adjusts microscope*

Don’s wearing a brown suit and a hat. There’s a curb and a building involved. Probably a leitmotif of death, life, time…thinking…also transportation. Looking for a cab. A cab to the afterworld. Or rebirth? Did the Buddha ever reference a Big Yellow Taxi?

It’s a real red-herring pair of images, because in one he’s looking right, and in the other he’s looking left. Kind of like the Season 6 poster. Is that deliberate? Probably. Even when Mad Men is arbitrary, it’s deliberate, you know what I mean? And like, the fact that his hands are in the same position both times really indicates the growing generational gulf Don’s struggling to straddle, as well as a preoccupation with FINGERS, with POINTING, with, you know, FINDING ONE’S DIRECTION.

He’s adjusting his cufflinks but there’s no one there. Isolation. The search for God? The search for companionship? Sexual addiction. Definitely. The Madonna versus the whore. Cufflinks are signifiers, you know.

Of course, there are the earth tones of Don’s suit juxtaposed with the austere New York architecture. Is this a nature and nurture question? I mean, WHO IS MAN, really, situated amongst the byproducts of his artifice? These beautiful columns could support dreams or nightmares. And the temperature is unclear. Because that’s a jacket but not a coat. Cloudy? Sunny? Are we in the winter? Maybe the world is the winter and advertising is the sun. Perhaps the final season aims to settle questions of whence humanity’s creativity springs forth, or maybe it’s about weather and stuff like that.

Also he’s wearing black shoes and you’re not supposed to pair brown and black. Unless you’re a maverick. I suppose this could be a reference to Ayn Rand. I might be reaching, but I MIGHT NOT BE.

The diagonal tie is throwing me off, though, because that’s a clear allusion to…Kafka. A parody of straight lines, signifying a thematic shift to moral relativism. Diagonals are very crucial to masculinist ideology, clearly. I don’t have to tell YOU that. When you pair these gendered geometrics with the concept of a necktie-as-noose, you get into some very shaky nihilist quicksand.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the shrubs. Those things are SO loaded. Who even knows, with shrubs and Don Draper.

But, you know. Phallus.

Jessica Lange Has More Sex in One Neck Wrinkle Than You Do in Your Entire Body

There have been three iterations now of American Horror Story, and Jessica Lange has slain them all. I honestly believe that this miniseries would have collapsed into a supergay, supergray pile of smoldering pop culture ashes – trademark Ryan Murphy Mediocrity – had Lange not taken the helm of those three ships.

They are the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria of horror in the 2010s. And AHS both reinvigorates and redefines the genre for television, thanks to the stewardship of one of the most complex and beautiful actresses we’ll know this lifetime. Now that I have time to catch my breath after the mid-season finale, I think it’s high time that we talk about Lange’s work on the show: her old-school approach, her centralized embodiment of AHS‘s changing sexual and psychological themes, and the way she both resists and embraces The Age of GIF.

tumblr_lvtcfe5I1z1qft8ogo1_400

Way back when, AHS: Murder House featured Lange as Constance, a potent but underused side character who provided a certain regal Southern spice to the LA-ness of the season. This first AHS hinged mostly on a teenage love story and the deep, soaking sense of disquiet that one feels in both a haunted mansion and a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family. It was a campy debut. The season worked pretty well as kind of a Dark Shadows homage – the main family unit was eclipsed by a much more vibrant and intriguing cast of sidekicks, drifting in an out of episodes through a Revolving Door of Bitchery.

tumblr_mxm0m1VMcx1rbvhreo1_500

Constance was a good character, if not great: steely, mean, witty, miserable. Lange worked hard to nuance her despite her limited screen time, and by the end of the season it became clear that she was a fan favorite. The majority of viewers were 13-24, and had never heard of her beforeAfter Murder House, Jessica Lange the former box office star was a sensation again for the first time since the late ’80s, and even more surprisingly, television served as the pile of ashes from whence her phoenix arose.

Much of Constance’s storyline on Murder House revolved around her self-delusion, her armor-building in the face of her decaying youth and beauty. Think flashbacks. A lot of flashbacks. Lange is pretty amazing at playing these emotions as an elegant but aging former sex symbol; perhaps this is why her turn on the next season, AHS: Asylum delved into this theme so heavily. Asylum was, of course, the coming-out party for one of the most sensational, powerful, and disturbed women I’ve seen on a TV screen: Sister Jude.

tumblr_mhcaysbHvq1s1mluqo1_500

It’s hard not to celebrate that kunty Lange-tongue, but that right there is TERRIBLE writing. Even so, Lange managed to twist every clumsy feminist zinger into a deadly barb, every over-the-top freakout into a very human implosion. Sister Jude is the protagonist of Asylum, more than any of its younger, more “attractive” cast. This character developed in such a stunning way over the course of the season. Jude’s storyline was one of moral redemption, female strength, time’s slow attack on beauty, and sexuality disfigured by guilt and social pressure. And let me tell you, Murphy and Co. only know how to write that stuff in broad strokes. That’s all they know how to give an older actress to do. This performance was all Lange, all blunt honesty disguised as acting.

It was hands-down the most terrifying season. It was a true achievement of horror, especially when it came to the visual effects. Lange was often photographed with monstrously detailed lighting. But the strength in her eyes and body made Sister Jude fearsome, not grotesque. Age was slowly overtaking her physical beauty, but Jude’s raw open heart gave the character a certain incandescence that was at once so painful and so sexy.

tumblr_mhteh7TK4H1s517nho1_500

On the occasions we saw Sister Jude out of her nun’s habit, I was often struck by Lange’s allure. She played a kind of smoky-throated classiness that flirted with vulgarity, an unattainable kind of Old Hollywood confidence. Honestly, I’d never seen anyone be so sexy past age 60. It was a golden, electrifying, sobbing sort of sexiness. The thing is, Lange’s performance in Asylum is one that many of her peers could not have delivered. This actress’s eyes were wide open as she fell down fame’s gaping maw; now that she’s back on TV, you can feel a certain sad wisdom radiating from her, a really angry hurt. Sister Jude makes me regret how easily I disregard the spirituality and sexuality of non-Millenial women. There is nothing old about Lange, just old-school. Just real. Sister Jude is a great embodiment of aged female power in an moment of fickle young women too confused to take control of their bodies and lives. This character wonderfully illustrates that time does not degrade a woman, but the people around her surely do.

Of course, I’d also be remiss if I didn’t toss in a video of the cast performing “The Name Game.” Asylum may have been the scariest season, but it also has its fun moments and occasionally recalls the delectable camp of Murder House. Let’s play a game:

Which brings us to the current season, AHS: Coven. This isn’t a bad season, per se, but I think the showrunners got a little spooked by the mature-skewing extreme darkness of Asylum and were not sure they could keep the momentum going for the Tumblr generation. Thus Coven was born: a superficial, exciting, bright teenage supernova of witchy little bitchies whose post-modern malaise bleeds through every captioned GIF. Coven is no world for a classy faded starlet. But still, Lange uses her character, Fiona Goode, to excavate that generational divide and bring the youthful exploits of the titular coven full-circle. Fiona is another meditation on feminine power, on sex, and on heartache, nursed over long decades.

85659-fiona-goode-sad-crying-gif-AHS-GybO

I can’t stop watching Jessica Lange cry, honestly. Like the two Lange AHS femme fatales before her, Fiona is a failure and an egomaniac, a tragic creature who seesaws between self-loathing and self-worship. She is constantly at war, and so tired of disappointing herself and everyone around her. The party’s long over and she doesn’t know how to deal. And Lange makes it so real and so sad. When her eyes brim over, there’s a twingey reminder that Fiona’s story is pretty universal for the bad bitches of the world who have been passed over by their friends, their lovers, and their admirers.

tumblr_mus0skkgyV1s8g9k5o1_500

Coven takes this theme to an obvious place, pitting Fiona (the Supreme witch) against a pack of skinny blondies whose rising power threatens to eclipse her own. Fiona feels her mortality quite acutely, as she not only has a rapidly metastasizing gut cancer, but also an addiction to glamour. She lived fast, but refuses to die young. Or to die at all. Ever. This leads her to murder the seductive little whore Emma Roberts, in a bid to preserve her waning beauty and stop the young girl from draining her supernatural hotness. Of course, we all know where that girl-on-girl crime leads…to the biggest TV meme of the year.:

48503bf0-458d-0131-05eb-4603fac3aa024a530600-458d-0131-cefa-1e71d45c74b6

Now, Coven is campy, but it’s not the trope-saturated, inky-dark kind of camp of Murder House. This is a very distinctly 2013 camp, aka boring camp, where ladies just snipe at each other and claw for the alpha position. It would seem that R-Murph is starting to devolve and do what he does, where he writes for some weird gay stereotype audience that watches All About Eve once a week. And even though Fiona suffers along with the rest of characters, whose writing grows more anti-feminist and pedantic with each passing episode, Jessica Lange continues to do Her Thing.

tumblr_mxmnvzCPEL1qgtl4po1_500

Her impulsive, highly sensual relationship with serial killer The Axeman makes Fiona into a self-immolating stick of hot dynamite. One moment, we’re watching her decrepit cancer-ridden body crumble, her hair fall out and her papery lips tremble; the next, we’re seeing a grown tiger spread her limbs across black satin and purr with desire. Lang is still playing with the image of the mature woman, accepting of physical death but not nearly as amenable to the sexual death, the death of the soul.

Ae2LfAc y1reRRv 2CFkmpa qZE57J0

I guess I’m just awed by the fact that Jessica Lange still has so much in her, and that she is able to give it so generously when most of her scripted lines are a commentary on her own changed appearance and relevance to her audience. As an actress, she’s able to use the exhaustion and the exploitation and the violence of fame in such an interesting and multi-faceted way to inform her performance. Thank goodness someone cast her in such an incendiary project, in something that required grounding and grit to make it a true success. Horror is a tough genre: it requires the players to vibrate on an extra-human level, with the volume turned up on the joy and the pain and the sexy. This is what makes the frightful moments so delicious. Horror is feelings, universal truths, turned upon us in the most terrifying way possible. Lange innately understands this. She’s the most beautiful walking wound I’ve ever seen.

So, AHS fans, tell me: which was your fave season? Which Jessica Lange creation resonated most with you? And what should happen to Fiona when Coven resumes this January?

tumblr_musor7Jvab1qij1mgo1_500

Hello, Ladies: Season One

Just finished all of Hello, Ladies season 1, which was not a tall order because there are precisely 8 episodes and what I do after work is no one’s business but mine and my bed. I’m still on THE HBO PROJECT. And when it comes to Stephen Merchant’s new solo effort…I don’t hate it!

I got a similar sort of charitable pity-watch feeling from Episodes, but Merchant is a much cuter Brit than the shriveled sad sacks in that show. I actually found myself compulsively watching it because it has that rare thing one doesn’t often find in comedies, which is an undercurrent of existential sadness. I think many modern comedies try for it, but few actors have the black-hole-desperation to pull it off. I just fucking love existential sadness. Especially in the midst of cringe humor, which tends to hinge, essentially, on the human grab for love and acceptance. That’s what Ricky Gervais’ The Office was about, and it’s what his partner Merchant has similarly wrought in Hello Ladies – albeit in a more stylish, HBO-snooty, LA way.

tumblr_mx954ueySC1r1mc57o1_500

It’s peculiarly weightless, centering around a crop of Angelenos with zero problems except their self-worth (which is everyone living above Sunset Boulevard, I guess). Occasionally funny, always awkward, buoyed helpfully by Merchant’s insane marble-like eyes. He does a lot to carry the show, and I’m really pleasantly surprised by his subtlety and pathos in the emotional scenes. Who knew Gumby could be a leading man? Good for Stephen Merchant; best of luck, you weird tall monster. HL is not consistently well-written, but never offensively bad. And the central will-they-or-won’t-they couple is a weak but charming little ship, which I will willingly sail into season 2.

tumblr_mw61qoAvIQ1rlpdfuo4_250     tumblr_mw61qoAvIQ1rlpdfuo1_250

tumblr_mw61qoAvIQ1rlpdfuo6_250tumblr_mw61qoAvIQ1rlpdfuo2_250

 

 

 

 

Oh, and I almost forgot! The entire season is basically worth watching for this one line. Saving for reuse.

tumblr_mwi1kjRzvi1rfpisco2_400

tumblr_mwi1kjRzvi1rfpisco1_400

I’m addicted most of all to the theme song, which does indeed lend itself to driving alone down LA freeways, feeling cool but living lame. Give it a try. Nothing says existential sadness better than Hall & Oates. *side-eyeing myself*

Scandal: Oh…IT’S HANDLED

I’m not caught up yet, but I couldn’t wait another EH-SECOND to EH-BLOG about ESCÁNDALO!

(Scandal. Talking about Scandal here. But I think the Spanish gives it a nice zing).

I live in the real world, okay? And by that I mean, I live on Tumblr. I’m not stupid. I knew this show would get me eventually. It was just a matter of when. And then two weeks ago, on a Wednesday, I knew it was time.

By Sunday, I was done with Season 2 and shopping for cream-colored business suits. #shutitdown

anigif_enhanced-buzz-14144-1381940527-22

Oh, Shonda Rhimes, you beautiful fucking monster showrunner. With sexy men and powerful women dangling from your soapy puppet strings. How do you do the things you do? This show is the LIVING END! Let me tell you all about why it’s such a significant beacon in our current TV landscape, and why primetime romance-political-thriller-dramas on ABC need not be discounted on the basis of their questionable pedigree.

So many layers going on. “Masculine” vs. “feminine” approaches to political quagmires: the stereotypes, the subtleties, and the frustrations wrought by the power dynamics of gender. Racial fault lines, and their significance in a professional landscape founded on pragmatism and not justice. The curious game of identity: how one’s self-worth and life’s purpose may be manipulated with loyalty, that most lethal of tools. Yeah, there’s a lot of naked skin-slapping and DUN-DUN-DUN plotting going on, but that’s what makes Scandal such a tasty dish. You’re caught up in the fun, and you’re learning some hard truths about women, color, women of color, leadership, and this seedy-ass nation of ours. It’s a wonderful tapestry of intellectual titillation, and pulp of the thickest and finest variety.

tumblr_muui6xmMHj1qbwkkro1_500

For starters, no one but Kerry Washington could have played the part of D.C. “fixer” and White House guardian angel Olivia Pope. Her mouth is always saying no, but her eyes are always saying let’s go. Washington has this rare combination of angular coldness and newborn vulnerability that make her a walking puzzle. Sure, she overacts sometimes, but that’s because the script can be twisty and over-the-top. She’s completely committed to this TWO FUCKING FEET ON THE GROUND character, who I would assert is a lone gunslinger kind of protagonist.

Olivia is a problem-solver, but an emotional cipher, a problem herself, and she refuses to be solved, categorized, and subsumed by anyone. She is first a hero/leader, and second a human being with a backstory. In my mind, that’s classically a man’s role – that’s the kind of hero we see in The Walking Dead‘s Rick Grimes or Justified‘s Raylan Givens. That kind of role grounds a show in simmering steady power. Don’t worry, viewer – your lead character will never let you down, because they do not know weakness like the rest of us. And Lord give me strength, that role is being played by a black lady. WHITE HOUSE? Not so much, anymore, now that Olivia owns its #1 tenant. CAN YOU FEEL THE LIGHT ON YOUR FACE? THAT’S PROGRESS! THAT’S GOOOOOD TV!

tumblr_muyvwsFEGf1roe28io1_500

That brings me to President Fitzgerald Grant, played to foxy perfection by Tony Goldwyn. If Olivia Pope has one so-called “weak spot,” it’s the President (and as weak spots go, girl I will give you that one). The only time we ever see her resolve shatter is when she’s faced with the awesome love and the tight body of The Leader of the Free World. But this relationship is markedly different, set apart by the flipped power dynamics inherent in Scandal.

We must posit Olivia as the gunslinger, and thus Fitz as the damsel in distress. He is her Achilles heel – a slightly less rounded and complex character whose purpose is often to upset Olivia’s well-laid plans with EMOTIONS. The guy is the girl here, you see? The President is the piece on the side. Our love interest, Fitz, is helpless to do anything but worship Olivia, and he even prepares to give up his position for her. On the other hand, our female protagonist never feels the need to choose between power and love. She just isn’t built that way. Can you pick up what Shonda is putting down?! Refreshing, like a sex shower in the White House!

hi 1

tumblr_muzwdng9cX1rgo0c8o1_400

And the physical chemistry is undeniable, my friends. We’re allowed to have our cake and eat it too with this show. No one’s ashamed of their bodies or their sexuality or their agency or their moral underbellies. It’s a festival of characters just speaking their truths.

tumblr_mv12mtltPs1saj40qo1_500

Besides the unorthodox and ground-breaking relationship between these two lead characters, there’s also a lot more going on with the background crew. Olivia has a whole team of “fixers” – they’re fine for comic relief and short diversions from the more important plot lines, but I prefer not to write about them because they don’t really exist as signifiers. They don’t really say as much as Olivia and Fitz do, in a meta sense. But you know who does? Fitz’s wife, the First Lady Mellie, who again subverts classic female representations and brings really delicious Bitch game to the trope of The Bitch Wife.

tumblr_muunm7hVTJ1s54iyyo1_400

Time and time again, Mellie is confirmed by other characters to be super-intelligent, a clever political climber who realized too late that the post of First Lady is a trap. She never apologizes for her lack of maternal instincts. She manipulates her husband and the White House team deftly and without second-guessing herself. She shows a soft spot for Fitz, but it’s minute in comparison to her many hard spots, and she never hesitates to use  her position. By this, I mean she knows very intimately the intersection between her femaleness and her thirst for power. She knows the public function of her image, evidenced by her ruthless use of a fake miscarriage story and her stellar ability to perform marital affection for the press. She’s kind of the only character who gets that EVERYONE in politics has to be a whore, and she gets shit on by the more idealistic characters for it. Mellie is a straight Queen Bee, who is again a female character more nuanced than the President. She really gives Olivia a run for her money in terms of mettle and moxie. A fascinating anti-hero, or villain, depending on the angle from which you look at her.

tumblr_muuis5JiAh1qd1agyo5_250

And then there’s Cyrus, the right-hand man of the president. Just wanted to touch on him briefly, as his sexuality is quite significant as well. He is perhaps the darkest character, a man who is completely addicted to the rush of running a country behind the scenes, and he does not hesitate to order the odd assassination or shakedown when necessary. Cyrus is a total grey area – we see him feel loyalty and affection for his husband James, and his best friend Olivia, but we also see him drink in violence like a fine wine, and betrayal like a yummy aged cheese. He is tortured by his gayness, as well, and always seems to be one step shy of accepting himself and allowing his marriage to deepen in trust. Cyrus sees himself as a monster, and is thus a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

tumblr_muxrdocfp21s03u14o1_250

I think it is SO FUCKING INTERESTING to watch the interplay between Cyrus’ human urges to protect those he loves, and his more buried, fiery urge for power and immortality. This here is another character who helps unveil the great complexity of “making history” – he feels, in large part, that his sexuality has much to do with his inability to live forever as a Great Man, so he contents himself with doing the darkest deeds possible so at least he has a hand in the making of Fitz as the Great Man. And his status as a man who loves a man isn’t really beaten to death in storylines about anti-gay protests or bullying or all that tired poop, which I really appreciate. This is just another relationship, with its creepy nooks and crannies and its painful realities and its sometimes epic, sometimes clumsy romance.

Scandal-Episode-3-01-It-s-Handled-Promotional-Photo-scandal-abc-35485306-595-409

ALSO really interested in the race conversations that seem to be ramping up as we move into Season 3. What I like about Scandal is that Olivia’s blackness is a significant, but not end-all-be-all facet of her identity as a character, her place in the show’s universe, and her position in the great pantheon of TV heroes. We must address it, but not dwell on it, because it would be a disservice to this strong character to dissect the ingrained self-doubt and trauma that racialized society can rain down. There is, of course, this infamous scene between Olivia and her dad, which gracefully bring to the forefront a theme that we viewers need to be reminded of.

tumblr_mu4oluu0Sm1qb9jcko5_250 tumblr_mu4oluu0Sm1qb9jcko6_250

Lest we forget, Olivia Pope is TWICE as impressive as you thought she was, because the shit she’s dealing with goes way deeper than presidential sexytimes and misogyny. I feel like I don’t need to expound more on the point – this is just another beautiful instance of Shonda Rhimes’ artistry as a “showrunner for the people.” She’ll tickle your naughtybone, but she won’t let you get away with the pleasure scot-free. Characters, especially black female characters, do not simply exist on Scandal to entertain, but to forcibly illustrate the complex matrix within which we all operate and fantasize.

Am I glad I hitched my wagon to this star. ESCÁNDALO SIEMPRE. Can’t wait to see what juiciness awaits us in the coming episodes! Any thoughts? Comment me, gladiators!

Rompiendo Malo: Metástasis

Metástasis (2014)
Extended trailer

How cool is this? The Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad will air on Univision next year, and to my eyes, ¡es perfecto!

Seems like a bit of an Office situation (and never in my life did I think I’d compare BB to The Office). All of those familiar lines and scenes are there. “Wipe down this!” = “¡Lave eso!” The dialogue, tone, and plot may shift in later seasons, but for now, Metástasis appears to be meticulously faithful to the source material. Walter Blanco is so legit. And Latina Skyler can GET IT. Am I right?

If you’re a diehard BB fan, I encourage you to watch this. I’m curious to see how this series will evolve, and how the very American themes of middle-class angst and tortured suburban masculinity will play out in a foreign context. Who knows, I may even watch it myself. ‘Bout time to brush off the old AP Spanish. Only TV would force me to do so, but learning is learning.

What do you think? Thoughts on the new Walter Blanco and Jose Miguel Rosas?

Breaking Bad S05E16: “Felina”

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long my love
All that time without a word
Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret

The special love I have for you,
My baby blue.

a_560x0 (4)

What we just watched was not a finale. I mean, Breaking Bad is still over and we’ll still have to struggle to rediscover meaning in our lives, but last night’s end-of-the-line “Felina” was not a finale. No, this was one of the rarest final episodes you’ve seen on television, befitting of BB‘s iconoclastic and violently inventive legacy. An epilogue: slow and heavy. It’s a beautiful, gut-punching, elegant hour, and it’s not letting you leave without scars so deep they’ll never heal.

We already had our finale, you see. Vince Gilligan wasn’t kidding when he called third-to-last “Ozymandias” the best episode they’ve ever done. There was your classic BB: the unrelenting tension, the action, consequences raining down on the innocents like hailfire, a Walt/Jesse showdown, and Hank’s terrifically crushing death. But after it all came crashing down, we had the sad, post-apocalyptic “Granite State” to punish us for our vicious fun. This is the GENIUS of Breaking Bad. Action and reaction. Vince Gilligan knows that silence often speaks loudest. And when it all ends, you’re going to lie down as Walter White does, in a dark room full of meth vapors and irredeemable sins, all fucking alone.

Ah, the rewards of watching this show. They’re myriad and they feel a lot like torture, but trust me. They’re rewards.

tumblr_mtx5gaNsUk1s4abjfo1_500

Personally, I feel the principle theme carrying “Felina” is divine retribution. Which is a really weird thing to say about Breaking Bad, especially since last week I went onnn and onnnnnn about how logically grounded this story is. But this show has also always been hyperrealist, kind of like “you just can’t make this stuff up”, underpinning feasible plot with crazy strokes of luck and weird coincidences. Season 2’s plane crash stunned a lot of us at the time, because it just felt so on-the-nose and Butterfly Effect-ish, but now I’m thinking it wasn’t such an odd thing to happen in this universe after all. Someone is watching over Walter White. For a long time, it was a dark force; a deal with the devil. Now in this final hour, good must be rewarded with good and things MUST work out. Walt is ready to repent.

You can feel this just from the opening scene, in the cold confines of a stolen car in New Hampshire. We’re not sure exactly where Walt’s going, but it’s clear the journey will be his last. Heisenberg can’t live inside that waxy skin and pair of shaking hands. This is just Walter Hartwell White, a man with cancer that’s metastasized far past his body. Without that porkpie hat and its trappings of ego, he now feels the weight and panic of mortality more than ever. You see how he prays?

“Get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”

When have you ever seen him send up a plea like that? And I can understand his extra bit of faith here, but it was that shot of the car keys that really convinced me that “Felina” was going to be about something more than human consequences. He doesn’t find them in the glove compartment, or under the seat. So he looks upward.

tumblr_mtxyzuahrt1qgkofwo1_400

One tug on the visor, and we watch as the keys fall into his hand. A magnificent bit of cinematography and a subtle moment of deus ex machina that lets us know that more is at work than an evil genius and a machine gun. Wow. I really do get the chills even watching that gif.

Next stop on Walt’s journey is the Denny’s from Season 5, Episode 1, “Live Free or Die.” We last saw him there arranging bacon for Mr. Lambert’s birthday; now we get a longer look at exactly what kind of shenanigans a dying charlatan gets up to during a routine pit stop. Great moment after he makes that sneaky phone call to find out Gretchen and Elliott’s address, where he leaves his watch on the phone booth. Ouch. Jesse gave Walt that watch back in “Fifty One,” so I presumed this portended terrible things for the chained-up protege. However, I watched Vince Gilligan and the cast get interviewed after the show, and he BRILLIANTLY addressed that moment. In fact, that scene was inserted to cover the continuity error of Walt not wearing the watch back in “Live Free” – but, as Vince says, it can also be interpreted as Walt shedding another layer of baggage related to his now-former life as Heisenberg. Another small marker of the off-the-cuff perfection that marks Breaking Bad.

GretchenElliott

I’m going to be honest. I thought the Walt/Gretchen/Elliott scene was a bit of a misstep. Now, in BB, missteps are so minute they might have been made by ants, but still, I wasn’t sure they got the tone exactly right. Of course, it was essential to return to those two, as they feed the hottest fires of Walt’s self-loathing, allergy to failure, and misguided ambition. I thought it was a great decision not to have Walt murder them, as expected, but to reveal them as a surprise conduit for Walt’s dirty money.

The plot was all there, and fitting, but I found the execution a little heavy-handed. I did gasp when those lasers appeared, but my anxiety gave way to a snort with Walt’s next line: “I hired the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi.” Really? And then all those other threats, delivered with such bravado: “If you do not do this, a kind of…countdown will begin.” “Don’t worry, Beautiful People. Now you have a chance to make it right.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I sat on the remote. Are we watching 24 here? There’s no need for those kind of theatrics.

I mean, I get it. Breaking Bad is a Western; always was, and in this finale, the genre has to sing. I mean, even last episode, Saul appealed to Walt by painting a picture of “John Dillinger” walking through an Albuquerque prison. The episode title, as well as the throwback to Marty Robbins in the opening shots, drives home the point that you are supposed to see Walt as a modern outlaw, trapped by his past and dying with style. But why did that feel so wrong in this scene? I think that’s a point I’ll re-approach later. Put a pin in that.

Anyway, we get the home-run punchline of the season shortly afterward, with Badger and Skinny Pete revealed as the gunslingers with naught but skullcaps and laser pointers. Perfectly executed bit of comedy to even out the tension – something we’ve come to expect and love from BB. God, I love Skinny Pete’s line here: “The whole thing is kinda shady. Like…morality-wise.” Out of the mouths of babes. I’ll be sad to see these two go.

tumblr_mtxclrrOVe1r7bwg3o4_1280

There’s a short respite between this and the final stretch of the episode, when Walt goes home to pay Skyler one last visit. First, more cinematography kudos on that absolutely stunning reveal of Walt behind the beam in Skyler’s kitchen. He’s a bit of a ghost these days, isn’t he? Materializing everywhere he couldn’t possibly be, haunting those he loves and those who once loved him. This scene is a complete knockout. So many tears. As Marty Robbins’ “Feleena” tells us, once you’ve done your killing you gotta go on home to your sweetheart.

Anna Gunn again proves how indispensable she was to this series. Her vulnerability during that phone conversation with Marie becomes immediately offset by Walt’s presence, revealing that Sky’s still got it: she is a marvelous actress when she needs to be. By all rights, Skyler should be completely broken by now. But she’s more of a lone cowboy than Walt at this point, defending the ruins of her homestead with a cloud of cigarette smoke framing her steely features. Look at the state he left her in. Look at this marriage. It is so poignant to watch them together, to watch Gunn’s face struggle to hold composure as Walt finally, finally tells her the truth:

tumblr_mtxcevS3yT1rnm1ldo1_500

What a terrible and crushing relief for Skyler, to hear those words. Too late, of course. I think it’s clear that she never really stopped loving Walt, but she made her peace with the fact that that sweet husband of hers had died long ago. It must have been unbearable to see him climb out of the rubble of Heisenberg and briefly see him again in those glassy hazel eyes. This relationship has layers I’ll be puzzling out for years to come. Quite satisfying to see it end on this note, with such cruel resignation.

Okay, everybody. You ready? Because after that family visit, “Felina” begins its bloody, elegaic swan song.

No finale is complete without a callback to beginnings, to the hopes and dreams that fueled the story and drove it ever-forward. My nomination for the most unexpected, chilling and perfect moment of this episode is Jesse’s box scene, providing us an ESSENTIAL reminder of exactly how integral he is to Breaking Bad. Remember Vince Gilligan’s one-word clue for this episode? “Woodworking”? If you didn’t shiver and grab for the tissues here, you are an unforgivable monster.

tumblr_mtx8qkOo8c1rrl12ro4_250tumblr_mtx8qkOo8c1rrl12ro6_250

Christ, did I get some feels. That’s Jesse in high school – not quite the chemistry class flashback we were all holding out for, but in fact, something even better. Killer choice of callback.

As Aaron Paul so touchingly observed post-“Felina”, Jesse is an artist. He is bright, and he seeks out pleasure he can make and touch and feel. He lives to create and is forever offering parts of himself to others, straining to connect: his meth, his box, his heart. Recall the first time he praised Mr. White’s Blue Sky meth in wonderment: “This is art.” Not a science, but a beautiful creation he desperately wished to be a part of. He wanted an A+ and he wanted to excel. In the end, they both might have mastered the process, but it was that gorgeous and deadly final product, a sheet of azure glass, that made them dream harder and drove them both mad.

From “Kafkaesque,” Season 3:

Jesse: My project for his class was to make this wooden box. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked. You know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade, he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but…it was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better.” So I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs, no screws. I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put nose in it and breathed in, it was…it was perfect.

Group Leader: What happened to the box?

Jesse: I…I gave it to my mom.

Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes, adult extension program at the University…

Jesse: You know what? I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

Jesse just picked the wrong project. The wrong teacher. Mr. White and his product weren’t anywhere near a source of redemption, but this kid couldn’t figure that out fast enough. He was too eager for love. Too easily beaten and chained. A problem dog who was never, ever going to get that bone.

The series always had to end with Walt and Jesse. See, I had a prediction. Not that Jesse would kill Walt – too neat, too revenge-y – but that Jesse would kill Walt Jr. For all their parallels, the two had never met, and I felt that the surrogate son murdering the real son would finally prove to Walt, and us, just how far the pendulum had swung. And while that didn’t happen, we did all realize how far outside Walt’s immediate orbit his children lie, and how close Jesse always is in comparison. His last moments were spent rescuing that poor child he once flunked.

Of course, at first Walt’s still on his revenge game, even when it comes to Jesse. When he rolls up in that Nazi camp with a pocketful of sunshine (that’s a euphemism for trunkful of machine gun) he’s ready to take Jesse down with those swastika-wearin’ Hank-killin’ chain-smokin’ basterds. But the sight of Jesse, haunted and thin and topped with a head of matted six-month prison hair, does something to Walt. That paternal instinct, the partner instinct, that we know has been so warped for so long, returns in a way he probably can’t muster for his real son even if he tried. Suddenly, it all seems to make sense to Walt. This is the kind of legacy King Ozymandias leaves: a broken prince in rags and chains. He’s fucked it all up, but he’s going to do one last good thing before death takes him.

a_560x0 (2)

tumblr_mtxe02zSUT1qjjy0zo1_500

While the bullets empty into his enemies, Walt protects Jesse. Finally. And, of course, in one of the most fitting moments of all, he takes a stray ricochet to the stomach, which would undoubtedly have hit the kid instead. It’s far past loyalty with these two, but damn does it feel good to watch Mr. White take a bullet for Jesse.

It’s. About. Time. Jesse has always been Walt’s pain, externalized. What our cold antagonist could not feel, our protagonist could, and did. The endless fear, doubt, pain, even flesh wounds endured by Jesse make him a Jesus-y representation of the human horrors wrought by Walt over so many years. Jesse is basically walking scar tissue, and his status as a garbage dump for trauma does not escape him. It is cruel justice, cruel and right, that he should finally be shielded by the corporeal body of Mr. White, who finally gets the bullet to the gut that he’s been dodging all along.

Of course, our problem dog also deserves one more revenge bite. Todd HAD to go, and of course we all shrieked in savage delight when we heard that graphic neck-crunch:

tumblr_mty5hmDosw1qcfevwo1_500

OH, SNAP!

And another hugely significant moment here, when Uncle Jack thinks he can still turn this uber-shitty situation in his favor. Money is Heisenberg’s Achilles heel, right? 80 fucking million dollars and there’s no way he walks away. But Uncle Jack doesn’t know that he’s no longer dealing with Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s gone. He’s talking to a walking dead man with scores to settle and zero to lose.

tumblr_mtxdpyE0mW1rz41lqo1_500

After that, it’s all Walt and Jesse. Last moments. Love this scene where Walt essentially asks the freed Jesse to kill him. He assumes Jesse wants revenge, regardless of the fact that Walt just saved him last-minute. He knows it’s never going to be enough, and this debt will never be repaid, and Jesse’s probably going to bleed a little bit forever as a result of his association with Mr. White. But he thinks that Jesse killing him might offer some small comfort.

Again, he’s wrong about Jesse’s instinct for destruction. An artist is not interested in decay, but growth. Transformation. He never had a taste for vengeance. Probably because, almost always, he was never gaining vengeance for himself, but for Walt. He is so fucking over being someone else’s tool:

tumblr_mtx8e2Lzbz1r2bzz4o2_250

That’s right, bitch.

Before he goes out with a bang, Walt makes one last phone call to Lydia, to helpfully let her know that he laced her precious Stevia with the ricin. Many people predicted that the poison was meant for her specifically, but I have to admit I never thought it’d go that way. It makes sense, though. She never wanted to get her hands dirty with the fallout of the Madrigal criminal enterprise. Walt’s making sure everybody meets their appropriate end. For Lydia, it’s going to happen alone, afraid, and with a weak little humidifier.

For Breaking Badit’s never gotten better than these last moments with our two gunslingers:

tumblr_mtx9pdAt7v1rxnwbuo3_500

tumblr_mtx9pdAt7v1rxnwbuo2_500

Can you DEAL?! God, how many multitudes were contained in those looks? At this point, who’s won? Who’s lost? Does it matter more that Walt watched Jane die, or saved Jesse at the last moment? Will he shoot himself? Was there ever any love here, any hate? Are they the same? Does it matter anymore? Jesse may be raw and confused and angry and ruined, but he’s in control. This is a goodbye, said by two pairs of eyes, each on their own terms. An “acknowledgement” seems like too gentle a word for the look that passes between these two lost souls. Watch them leave a piece of themselves, right there on that concrete, a gulf between.

And finally *gulp sob* FINALLY, Jesse gets away.

If Aaron Paul does not win an Emmy for this stretch of episodes, especially this finale, this moment, I’m going to have to drive a heavy trunk to next year’s Emmys (to all law enforcement: I am merely being facetious BUT AM I?). When he busts out of that Nazi compound, engines roaring, the freedom is so overwhelming he can only cry and laugh and scream. He’s free. He’s escaped the vice grip of Mr. White, and there’s no words for these feelings. Did you not feel the goosebumps rise during this joyful, tortured howl?

tumblr_mtxbqvNF8h1syfa2xo2_250 tumblr_mtxbqvNF8h1syfa2xo1_250

That shot reminded me of the ending frame of Oldboy, when the hero finally finds happiness, but he’s so irreparably drained and damaged by its cost that his face freezes in a rictus, a horrifying combination of ecstasy and agony. Who knows where Jesse can go from here? I want to believe that his spirit is indomitable, that he will find some place, some small place, where he can finally inhale clean air and build a life. But much as the viewers, Jesse will carry the burden of Mr. White, of Breaking Bad, for the rest of his life. Like I said, there are scars we can’t see. Jesse has a long way to drive before the sun ever breaks again. Bless you, baby.

And then we return to Walt in our last few minutes. Where it all begins and ends.

He doesn’t share this moment with Jesse, with his baby daughter, or son, or wife, or any human, really. For all he’s done, Walter White doesn’t deserve a companion in death, and to be honest, I don’t think he’d want one. As Walt dies, he’s alone with his masterpiece: the most perfect chemistry set he’s ever created. This 99.2% meth is his life’s work – not the money or the empire. He knows that know, and he caresses the metal like the cheek of his most precious darling. This is what makes me feel for Walter White, suddenly and intensely. Just a man and his work of art. A legacy that burns in a million glass bowls, and a dream that literally turns only to smoke in the end. Wow.

tumblr_mtxu6jvX3g1rjf3j7o1_1280

So, before I conclude, I want to come back to that whole “divine balance” thing, and the tone issues I had with small parts of “Felina.” I think I have something substantial to say. I have that twitchy feeling in my typing fingers.

Walt’s able to die satisfied here, because his last and best-laid plans worked. He made it back to New Mexico. He exacted revenge against Uncle Jack and his crew. He slipped Lydia the ricin. He evaded the police entirely.

But how did that work exactly? Doesn’t it beggar explanation that all this stuff went off without a hitch? Walter’s had inspired plans before, but most times, he found a wrench in the works. He had ricin for Tuco, but Jesse had to go and tell him that it tasted like chili powder. Hank found the laundry, so Walt had to drive into full-speed traffic. Gretchen showed up to expose his insurance scam to Skyler. Baby Holly wanted her mama after all. Life isn’t a Western. It’s not a spy novel, or a thriller. Breaking Bad is beautifully choreographed, but it’s grounded in practical reality, and Walt often had to improvise when his plots were thwarted by logistics and coincidence.

Not so in “Felina.” It’s my belief that because Walt finally chose to Break Good, so did fate. Karma stopped raining fire on him (and Jesse) once his intentions were pure and he acted as Walter White would, the way he was always meant to be. The keys dropped out of the sky.

This is why I preferred “Felina” in its expansive, philosophical moments. Stuff like that Elliott/Gretchen scene was a necessary bit of fan service, to remind us of the suspense and thrilling action that hooked us all in the beginning. I suppose it felt kind of nice to see Walt as a badass again, after the humbling emptiness of “Granite State.” But I didn’t need that. Breaking Bad can end as a fantasy where Walt goes all Scarface and we cheer…or as a reality where an old man dies all alone with only science for company.

Action and reaction. Whether it’s something as small as swatting a stray fly in the lab, or something as big as setting Jesse free forever, every move will garner consequences for Walter White. So his ending, you see, cannot categorically be happy or sad, but right and just. This episode, this genius piece of television, works because it pulls most of its punches. A show and not a tell. Cold, unforgiving, gorgeously rendered chemistry, is “Felina.” A teacher’s lecture is fleeting, but the image of a bright red flame, conjured by matter and set aglow by change, is indelible. And all bad things must come to an end.

tumblr_msv54ocIew1sq7pofo1_500

Some last words:

– I am really going to miss writing these reviews. I’m sure I’ll write more about Breaking Bad in the future, but it’ll never be the same. That’s the way it has to be, and it feels good. Thank you from the bottom of my heart if you’ve been reading. These words are my wooden box.

– Huell is still in that hotel room.

Here are some photos from my own finale party, complete with Blue Methoritas and Pollos Hermanos chicken. An awesome night, and being around people probably helped my grief process.

– Also a video of my Hector Salamanca impression.

– Better Call Saul…you got a big hat to fill. I’ll be excited to see how that pans out.

– As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments, where we can all hold one another as we’re riddled with emotional bullets. We did it, guys.

I Watched All of Sex and the City and All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Post

Generally I write stuff when I’m inspired, but I feel like it’s just my civic duty to let the world know that I finished the entire run of Sex and the CityWhy did I do this? Because there are many episodes of it, I like boobs, and hate-watching is my “me time.” I just refused it for SO LONG that I figured it was time to bite the bullet. There’s bar trivia to win! I can’t be missing out on crucial late-90s/mid-2000s television. Also you might be aware of my ongoing project: Watch Everything HBO Has Ever Produced. But I’m tapped out now. I’m going to hurl if I hear one more Carrie narration: “I began to wonder…”

Usually when it comes to female-centered content, I have much to observe, but SATC is a useless trifle of a show. It’s really only worth it for Kim Cattrall’s deliciously campy sexbomb Samantha Jones. Carrie is a self-obsessed little bullshitter, Miranda is a joyless working-woman stereotype, and Charlotte is a perpetual virgin. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there’s truly witty bitchery peppered throughout, but that’s because this series was created by a rich New York gay man. If there are really any revelations about sex or humanity contained within SATC, they are shallowly rendered and applicable only to the emotionally needy upper crust. Ugh. If I’m going to binge on something, make it steak. Not frosting. I feel ill. I swallowed all of it so quickly! THAT’S WHAT SHE SAID!

Anyway I thought I’d make the most out of this assignment and offer you the public service of a Samantha Jones GIF collection. If there’s one thing I can get behind, it’s an unabashed dirty mouth and a confident woman treating her body like a wonderland. If I got one thing out of SATC, it’s this: sex and shame must be mutually exclusive for the soul to be whole. And now all I can think about is holes. Bless you, sweet Samantha.

tumblr_mtmdkxpZNW1s8fyi8o1_500

tumblr_ls31684ldg1qjmdrno1_500

sTDdJLN

tumblr_mjn2va4ICQ1qmn826o1_500

tumblr_inline_mpbvutdhKD1qz4rgp

tumblr_mnyzks9FQH1st0nmvo1_500

 

tumblr_inline_mtmml63gAu1s2b111

tumblr_mn9bc7LNBU1s34r45o1_500

 

Are you thinking to yourself, “Wow, Leah is really running out of things to say between episodes of Breaking Bad?” You’re right on the money. Wait till you see what I come up with next week. I now live in the bottom of the barrel.

Breaking Bad S05E15: Granite State

tumblr_mtke099YOL1qzi80do2_500

Breaking Bad. The study of change, of transformation. Of lives in flux. But then there’s death, isn’t there? Waiting quietly, striking out to claim Hank and Gus and Crazy Eight and all the rest.

Death spared Walt for a long time. It spared Jesse. It spared the show. But it’s all about to end next week. Now we reap what we’ve sown. “Granite State” does what all truly great penultimate episodes do: it describes in vivid strokes the terror of “goodbye.”

We are not afraid of death, really…but of being alive right before it.

tumblr_mtk517KMG31qefn6co1_1280

Remember last week, when Jesse stared at those birds before squeezing his eyes shut, readying himself for the click of the trigger? It was hard to even conceptualize the direction this great masterpiece could take us after last week’s punishing, all-stops-pulled “Ozymandias.” But “Granite State” sidesteps our expectations and clocks us right in the heart by taking a very unusual tone, very different from the timbre of Breaking Bad, and very brave. It’s a slow story, isolating small human notes from the entire journey and magnifying each of them with love, to remind us that BB is not supposed to entertain us, but show us every awesome and ugly side of human nature.

Take Walt and the money, for example. We’ve seen his Heisenberg fortune in various forms, from luxury cars to vacuum-sealed bags covered in crawlspace dust. In a sense, we always knew that money had a certain kind of supernatural hold on Walt; his naked ambition led back to protecting that big pile of paper, time and time again. But once Walt is left alone and anonymous and dying, with only his barrel for company, we suddenly see the money for what it really is.The scenes revolving around that cash are sparing in their dialogue and painstakingly generous with time and visual detail. To watch him crouch over that barrel, to handle those bills with shaking hands, to try too late and so desperately to finally use it for good, hurts like a bitch. The money’s as alive as its owner, nourished by Walt’s need for power and validation. In the end, the money is a powerful expression of Walt’s raw spiritual want.

But I digress. Let me take it chronologically. Because in “Granite State,” pacing is everything.

tumblr_mtkf2zECXE1qfglgeo4_1280

First, we get to see WHERE THE RED VAN GOES. What a red-letter day for BB fans (kind of like the day we finally saw White Walkers on Game of Thrones: “I’m so satisfied, but fuck this is escalating quickly”). Act I of this episode is all about the gritty process of changing identities. We finally get to meet the “disappearer,” played by none other than genius character actor Robert Forster! Gilligan is a total whiz at choosing just the right people to play these small but pivotal roles, and Forster really grounds the episode. He’s tough and professional, not unsympathetic but also not unrealistic.

As The Disappearer says, Saul and Walt are two extremely “hot” clients, especially the former meth kingpin. Their chances as anonymous country-dwellin’ folk are still slim at best, and TD makes no bones about it. TD’s attitude reinforces that kind of vivid, hysterically normal pre-death reality I was talking about earlier; it’s all business to him, and the quiet cool with which he conducts his tasks like Photoshopping new drivers licenses seems almost absurd in the face of the truths he’s stating. “There’s a nation-wide manhunt for you,” he reminds Walt. What must it feel like for Walt to hear those calmly spoken words, hiding underground amidst the chaos?

tumblr_mtk6cvtATU1s3n704o1_250tumblr_mtk6cvtATU1s3n704o2_250

I really enjoyed Bob Odenkirk’s brief screen time as Saul, as I always do. His silliness always relaxes that familiar BB vice grip for a needed moment. Like TD, he’s a realistic guy. He knows he’s weak and he’d just as soon “manage a Cinnabon outside Omaha” then face decades in prison. And what a telling conversation this is, as Walt attempts to browbeat Saul into organizing a hit on Uncle Jack and his crew:

tumblr_mtk3rq0zoa1qzpjeno2_1280

Saul’s done doing Walt’s bidding; there’s no power struggle between these two nobodies now, and the point is hammered home as Walt collapses in a fit of bloody coughing. “It’s over,” says Saul. Finally now, he speaks without a trace of his weaselly swagger. He’s already started imagining himself in that Cinnabon uniform. I’m such a glutton for Goodman that I hope we get one last glimpse of the bastard in our final episode, but if not, this was a logical ending point for the character. Saul is a survivor above all,  a cockroach. He knows he’ll never be as fearsome or clever as Walt, but at least he’ll be sane. And alive.

Then we move on to Skyler. These days she’s got a touch of the Jesse Pinkman Dead Eye. I’d call it Pink Eye, but I’m just too classy for that kind of thing.

tumblr_mtkeqrcQao1qm8elfo2_250

Walt tried to throw her a bone with the whole “IT WAS MY FAULT, YOU STUPID BITCH” phone tirade last week, but the Feds aren’t convinced. If Sky can’t come up with some kind of clue about Walt’s whereabouts, she is royally effed. No money, no family, no dignity, no one to blame but herself. What a sad position she’s in. We fans like to spotlight Jesse as the prime example of a Walter White victim, but as we watch this steely woman crumble under the weight of karma meant for her husband, it’s hard not to see total tragedy in the way Walt used and abused his marriage.

In fact, like Walt, Skyler’s fatal flaw has been her intelligence and her pride. Once she recovered from the shock, the idea of supporting a lucrative criminal enterprise started to seem dangerous in the sexy way. Remember how turned on she was by the “money laundering” Wikipedia article? Or the exhaustive planning she put into their gambling alibi? Somewhere along the way, the Heisenberg myth sucked her in, too. She learned she was also capable of amazing duplicity. Nothing feels more thrilling and potent than telling a good lie.

tumblr_mtk8dcQhpe1qzxu2do3_1280

And now here she is, right before the end, reaping and reaping. Psycho Todd terrifies the hell out of her in baby Holly’s room, ensuring that she never speaks about Uncle Jack or Madrigal’s involvement in this whole thing. Nazis in the house, family shredded, everything gone. Stare at it. It’s another horrible thing you need to see before the end.

That scene with Todd, amongst MANY in “Granite State,” really shows us what kind of a sociopath we’re dealing with. Todd is actually the opposite of Walt in many ways: where Walt debates murder and is loathe to pull a trigger himself, Todd will pop a cap between bites of breakfast. Where Walt avoids relationships, Todd trots up with a friendly smile. He’s a creature of childlike pleasure and malice. I doubt Skyler will ever forget those big dark beguiling eyes behind the ski mask.

tumblr_mtk90oMeyN1qhjvx6o3_1280

His innocent affection for Lydia is so unnerving against his casual disregard for human life. When Todd first showed up on Breaking Bad, you could smell trouble. No one is that simple, right? Well, Todd and the Nazi crew make it simple. Insane people peddle hard drugs. Cruel killers perpetrate these crimes, and it’s the dregs of humankind that benefit from empires like Heisenbergs. Did you enjoy all the action-adventure? Sweet. Because this is where it got you. This is who wins at meth contests. Not two cool cats in hazmat suits, but a bunch of soulless swastika-tattooed weirdos. If you chose to enjoy this show all the way through, you’ve got to accept its inevitable consequences. More last-minute epiphanies for you, death row viewer.

Speaking of people who feel like they’re condemned:

tumblr_mtkdnlpxxK1recw11o1_400

Can we all agree that (at least until next week), this episode marked the climax of Jesse’s story? What a horrific, beautiful, and nail-biting arc for my favorite lil’ homie.

At the commencement of “Granite State,” still a prisoner of Uncle Jack, Todd, and friends, it would appear that Jesse has checked out. The endless physical/mental torture and the shock of Walt’s poison-tipped arrow – “I watched Jane die” – are amongst the worst things this character has ever been put through. But the beauty of Breaking Bad is that your favorites sometimes zig when you think they’re going to zag, and when they do, it’s dazzling.

Some of us might be too jaded to remember a time when Jesse’s calling card was his boyish ingenuity. He began a slacker and ended a tragic hero, but in the middle he was a fucking clever little problem-solver. MAGNETS, BITCH! When between a rock and a hard place, this character always, always chooses to fight to live. It’s that inexhaustible flame that makes us root for him so hard. Is it crazy to try and use a paper clip, buckets, and sheer upper-arm strength to escape a Nazi-guarded hole? Yeah. So crazy it just might work.

tumblr_mtk6y3KDJi1qb9jcko2_250tumblr_mtk6y3KDJi1qb9jcko7_250

Dear Aaron Paul,

1. You do your own stunts and that shit was fucking harrowing. I love you.
2. You infuse Jesse with such an unexpected scrappy nobility. I love you.
3. The “bitch” you spit at the lock made me so happy. I finally realize what you were talking about. I love you.

tumblr_mt074uqQSo1qkgh4go4_250tumblr_mt074uqQSo1qkgh4go1_250

tumblr_mt074uqQSo1qkgh4go2_250

(YES. NOW I FINALLY KNOW.)

Anyway, it all goes to shit again. Obviously. Poor kid! He gets caught, and not even his moxie could save him from yet another terrible blow. We all knew it was going to happen. Andrea (and Brock) were Jesse’s last ties to a soul, to a happy ending. Despite all the crap he’s gone through, this character has not yet lost his innate empathy or loyalty. Plus, Andrea means twice as much to him now that he’s haunted by visions of the last girlfriend he put into a murdery situation. Talk about reaping what you sow.

tumblr_mtk7w9TtiW1qjjy0zo4_250tumblr_mtk7w9TtiW1qjjy0zo1_250

tumblr_mtkausWJlb1r28lbso2_250

tumblr_mtkausWJlb1r28lbso5_250

 

 

 

 

 

Ugh. 😦

Aaron Paul, in the behind-the-scenes for this episode, commented that after witnessing Andrea’s death, Jesse is finally “totally vacant.” I take this to mean that the character now has a blank emotional slate. Jesse’s baggage has hindered him in the past, bogging him down with guilt or pain or anger and preventing him from doing what needs to get done. And that included rebelling against the man who stole his life. Now that he’s truly lost the last good thing that he loves, it’s my feeling that Jesse can only now become a revenge machine. It’s a sad thought, considering how much complexity he lends the show as its unexpected moral center, but I suppose it’s the only way he would be able to possibly kill Walt. That’s pretty much the last “good” thing we can hope for Jesse. This is Breaking Bad. No one climbs out of the rubble unless they’re bleeding from some place or another. If Jesse’s going to EVER come out on top, he probably won’t be able to enjoy the victory.

Alright, alright. Last stretch, and then the sermon shall conclude.

9891179454_31346c7c71_c

A different kind of desert. He comes from the land of the ice and snow, where the regrets howl and the cancer blows.

The New Hampshire scenes in this episode are crucial and lend it that feeling of strange gravitas. This is top Penultimate Episode game, putting our protagonist somewhere only temporarily quiet and safe, giving him that last moment to breathe. Watching “Granite State,” I was reminded of the mother of all second-to-last episodes, The Sopranos‘ “Blue Comet.” I remember Tony in that abandoned safe house, surrounded by the few friends who hadn’t died during that hour, and yet utterly alone. The look on his face as he cradled that rifle in bed echoes Walt here; shut down, overwhelmed with loss, maniacally determined to succeed somehow when it was clear the avalanche had already begun.

The eye of the storm. Barricaded in that cabin, with only a visit from The Disappearer once a month. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Walt, with only his wall-ful of newspaper clippings, a wood-burning stove, and his rapidly metastasizing cancer. Things have come full circle in so many ways.

When we met Walter White, he was a meek man with ugly resentments brewing under the surface. Like so many of us, he had internalized his greatest failures and shellacked them over with a pleasant personality and an average lifestyle. He missed out on the million-dollar profits of Grey Matter and that knowledge ate at him in places so deep that no one could see.  Cancer had been eating away at him before he ever received that diagnosis. When he finally saw death approach, freedom and glory suddenly didn’t seem so out of reach. Now or never. Don’t you recall being a little bit inspired, pumping your fists, waiting for this man to claim life before life claimed him?

bb9-i-am-awake

But as we all slowly realized, the persona of Heisenberg was a different kind of cancer indeed. His megalomania, ruthlessness, and virility so filled Walt that it became difficult to catch glimpses of the sad small man underneath. Once in awhile, he was there: fainting on a bathroom floor, breathing a sigh of relief upon seeing Jesse open his door, holding his baby daughter. But the Walt we once knew has been so warped and corrupted beyond recognition that once the kingpin facade is gone, all we have is a malformed shell. He’s a bit Voldemort-ish. Hiding shards of his soul away in eight barrels. Destroy the Horcruxes and what do you get? A pitiable monster without a nose. I mean, heart. A wasted body who can’t even keep his wedding ring on a skeletal finger.

You know who else knows that Walt is mostly dead already? Walt Jr.

tumblr_mtke099YOL1qzi80do1_500

RJ Mitte impressed me again this week, with this really hard-to-watch scene. Last week, he was a child frightened by the destruction of his entire world and belief system. This week, he’s a refugee, completely traumatized. When Walt emerges from hiding for one brief dangerous moment to call his son, all he’s hoping for is one shred of affection. He wants to be the dad, saving his family with yet another box of money. “I wanted to give you so much more,” he sobs. “But this is all I could do.”

Even clueless, sweet Junior knows that the money was the problem in the first place. Who IS this man? Who is this murderer who mails $100,000 while his family is languishing in a field of death and shame? The boy has to cut the cord. And he does, brutally. When that phone slams down, it really is all over.

tumblr_mtka1btOkg1qhjvx6o1_1280

I found most of Walt’s time in the cabin extremely hard to watch. I can’t stop thinking about the long scene in which The Disappearer comes to administer chemotherapy, neutral-faced and dutiful. This is literally THE LAST PERSON ON EARTH who will speak to Walt. No words of comfort, just news and weather. “One day, when you come up here, I’ll be dead,” the patient whispers as the low winter sun creeps through the window (see what I did there?). And it’s not TD’s job to sympathize, or care, or give Walt peace of mind about the money’s fate.

Back to the money. Here’s another way it manifests as the scariest and most depressing character on Breaking Bad. It’s no longer a guarantee of security and power; now, in this last hour, it’s a currency of human connection and Walt is running out of it.

tumblr_mtkxx62N6A1rzd6w3o1_250tumblr_mtkxx62N6A1rzd6w3o3_250

He’s always been a talker and a schemer, nourishing himself with intelligent conversation that affirms that yes, Walter White, you are still here and smart and important. TD has no interest in feeding Walt’s ego, though, and even less in being his friend. Walt literally has to pay him to stay in the room. At this point, I was crouched all fetal-like with wet eyes, crushed by the enormous sadness of this moment. This is how it all ends, Ozymandias. An empire turned to dust, and no one to behold it.

“Granite State” concludes on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Walt calling the police and allowing them to trace the call to his location. Obviously a distracting maneuver, as we know that he’ll eventually return to his former home to tie up loose ends. Those ends include Uncle Jack and crew, to be sure, but now it appears without a doubt that he’ll have Jesse and his family to reckon with. But there’s no anticipation or excitement here. “Granite State” took care of that. Now there is only dread. No matter if you walk or run or stay perfectly still, death has come. The only thing Walt can choose now is how he meets his end.

Errant thoughts:

– Breaking Bad won the Emmy last night for Outstanding Drama Series! And Anna Gunn won for Best Supporting Actress! Because we’re talking about Season 4 and not this season, I’m willing to forgive the fact that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were ROBBED (although the fact that Jeff Daniels bested Cranston was pret-ty hard to swallow). Please enjoy this adorable cast photo:
tumblr_mtk830rBGO1qbvlsuo2_500

 

– In the finale, I’d like to have a couple of things addressed. First of all, is the whole Jane thing going to figure into Jesse’s denouement, or was Andrea’s death supposed to wrap that up into a more workable bundle of general girl angst? Also, so much speculation about Skyler’s death, and maybe the children’s – do we think that this episode made that more or less likely? And what about Marie?!

– On a personal note, it’s going to be devastating not to write about this show every week. These blog posts provide me so much catharsis. When you love television with all the glands normally reserved for human love, facing a finale like this can feel pretty shitty. Let us all share in the misery before the lights go out.

Comment below and let’s talk. I’ll give you another ten thousand dollars.

The Changing State of Feels in American Television

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what our favorite television shows say about us, at this moment. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about what our current slate of Art Television tells us about how we view ourselves; tell the stories of ourselves.

(Of course, when I say “us” and our,” I’m speaking really just about the psychic state of the privileged viewer. The audience with the education, the advantage, the time, the luxury to lose themselves. I just need to throw out that disclaimer before I talk about the reflection of humanity in a screen.)

Anyway, this past Sunday I did the usual rotation of overheating and cooling down. Breaking Bad to start, followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey so I have something colorful to look at while I die inside, then The Newsroom, and then Boardwalk Empire if I’m still awake. Although lately I’ve been rewatching Breaking Bad as sort of an evening bookend instead of Boardwalk because I’m over it. Is it a bad idea to put myself on blast like this? Whatever. That’s what I do on Sunday nights. Now you know. That’s why your texts don’t get answered, she scoffed at absolutely no one.

Anyway, this week I was particularly struck by the differences between BB and Newsroom. I mean, of course there’s the main distinction, which is GOOD vs. BAD MASQUERADING AS GOOD. Dear Aaron Sorkin: HBO cinematography and a Thomas Newman theme song do not a quality show make. But I also got to thinking about how these two shows function in our current television landscape, and what they tell us in their successes and failures.

120726-ep06-will-arms-out-1024

Sorkin’s style has succeeded so well on network television. Why is Newsroom such a dud? The problem is that it thinks it’s airing on ABC in the late ’90s. Sorkin is a very gifted writer and an astute observer of the American workplace, but he never really evolved past the zenith of his success, which is arguably The West Wing. Banter banter, men are from Mars women are from Venus, idealistic young leaders, pratfalls. We all saw the Sorkinisms Supercut. He sticks with what he knows. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Newsroom revolves around current political events, it comes from a very un-current place.

Casual sexism and intellectual whimsy aren’t going down so easy these days, especially in a progressive space like HBO. Newsroom‘s main problem is cultural context. It’s pitted against a slate of drama and dark comedy that’s firmly rooted in the NOW. Communication between the genders may still suck, and rapid-fire bickering may stimulate the medulla, but the 2013 privileged viewer just doesn’t give a shit about glorifying themselves anymore. I mean, can we talk about protagonist Will McAvoy’s RIDICULOUS affectation of smoking cigarettes in his office? Jeff Daniels looks like an idiot every time he lights up and I know Sorkin wrote every cigarette into the script to make McAvoy seem like some kind of maverick. Sorkin’s self-obsession worked really well at a time in American history where the president played the saxophone and little girls got board games for Christmas where THE MAIN OBJECTIVE is to ANSWER THE PHONE and TALK TO A BOY. Pre-9/11, pre-Internet, Sorkin was sittin’ pretty. Back before people wanted their popular TV to get really real.

breaking-bad-end-times-aaron-paul-bryan-cranston-tv-show-image-01

There’s a kind of anxiety and self-critique that is essential to good television these days. Breaking Bad is a perfect example, because it illustrates the moral decay of a respectable, white, middle-class family man – and a lot of Walter White’s corruption is tied to the rejection of that stock character. Being a bad guy just feels more honest to him. And the tragedy, the absurdity, the unrelenting tension that marks every episode would not have worked on television in 1999.

I also think that the phenomenon of online watching – THE BINGE – figures greatly into BB‘s success relative to Newsroom‘s failure. The viewer consumes 10 episodes in one sitting if the shit is exciting. There is absolutely no compelling reason to watch a bunch of Newsroom at once because there’s no drive, no hurtling storylines or characters going through anything compelling. Even Girls beats it in that regard, because there’s an urgent sadness to that show and a relatability factor that encourages a sympathy binge. Banter doesn’t make me want to watch an entire season in one weekend. In fact, Sorkin-style banter is so twee and tiresome that it’s tough to rationalize two episodes back to back.

Sloan-and-Maggie-The-Newsroom-Season-2-HBO

You know, the more I write about this, the more I feel I’m floating away from my original point. I guess it’s tough to talk about a cultural moment. There are so many different types of programs on the air, and it’s hard for me to generalize “existential anxiety” to encompass everything we’re watching these days. But I do think that the act of destabilizing – our expectations, our identities, our familiar character types – is something that comedies, dramas, and action series of the 2010s do share. From the cringe humor of The Office to the unrelenting frustration of Lost, we like to feel uncomfortable in this day and age. We hate cute. We hate formula. It has to be downplayed and bastardized to work onscreen nowadays.

It does not surprise me that there’s such an air of uncertainty about Newsroom getting renewed. The finale a couple of days ago probably cemented its fate. It was a super-trite episode, very Sorkin-esque in the absolute worst way. Two characters got engaged after two seasons of sexual tension with NARY A KISS ON THE MOUTH before the proposal. Are you kidding me? There was so much character redemption and neat little one-liners that I wanted to barf. It’s just not cool, anymore, Aaron. Stop trying to make Sorkin happen. It’s never going to happen (again).

I’m interested in what you guys think about the above. Do you think there’s been a significant change in creative output and audience expectations in the last 20 years of television? Any examples to prove me wrong? Curious to know what others think about how the tube is projecting US back onto US.