Breaking Bad S05E14: “Ozymandias”

“This is your fault. This is what comes of your disrespect. I warned you for a solid year. You cross me, there will be consequences. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

Last Sunday, I was talking to my friend who does not watch Breaking Bad (kind of an oxymoron. He’s on thin ice). “Why does it make people so insane?” he asked. Actually he asked “Why does it make you so insane?” but I changed the names here to protect the innocent.

I didn’t bother to correct “insane” to a gentler descriptor like “selectively unstable.” How could I make an outsider understand why I felt these events and these characters so deeply? I said, “Because it’s real.”

The plausibility kills me. This world in which actions garner consequences and no one may exit the way they came. Breaking Bad is as pure and dangerous as Blue Sky meth; at near 100% integrity, it’s guaranteed to move a much greater volume of feels than I’m used to. “Ozymandias” was a killer, wasn’t it? I took the pulse of the Internet for awhile after its airing and was just delighted by the outpouring of intelligent discussion and fan passion. Every week it gets better and worse, and this episode is one of the top ever produced. I don’t get tired of saying it: Thank you, Vince Gilligan, thank you, writers, thank you, cast, for loving your creation the way it should be loved.

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So. Foregrounded in my discussion of constructed realities, the rules of fiction-physics, and crime and punishment is the brutal death of Hank Schrader.

It happened in the first 15 minutes of “Ozymandias.” Where the Nazi vs. DEA gunfight left off last week, Hank’s doom seemed inevitable. Skinhead ringleader Uncle Jack is a pragmatist with a mean streak and his gun is trained on a lone agent, bleeding leg, no backup. Walt tries to save his brother-in-law by offering up his entire buried $80 million: a desperately human gesture that proves to be too much, too late.

Just like that, the money and the man are gone. Jack puts it bluntly: “There’s no scenario where this guy lives.” Setup; payoff. Hank gets one last moment of badassery to remind us what a goddamn solid man we had:

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And then a shot to the head. Curtains on Hank. A really beautifully written character, a meditation on masculinity and goodness and the backbone as a man’s Achilles heel. Dean Norris shall sleep on a bed of Emmys before the year is out. And these were some of his last words: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met. But you’re too stupid to realize he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” When the word “stupid” (a stock insult for egghead Walt) ricochets back at him, it comes from the family he’d hoped his cunning would always protect. Sad justice.

Hank’s death precipitates the tailspin Walt enters during the entirety of “Ozymandias.” His first victim is Jesse, an easy target after his betrayal last week and the fact that he’s always been a stand-in for family. In his grief, Walt does Walt; he lashes out at anyone who’s ever cared for him, because their love defies logic and pokes holes in his rotten resolve. He wastes no time in pointing out Jesse’s hiding place to Jack and his crew, and looks on emotionlessly as Hank’s killers cock a handgun to the kid’s head.

At this point, the connection between our protagonists has been effectively severed. Another slow clap for Aaron Paul, who had me bawling with Jesse’s terror and hopelessness. Particularly quiet, disturbing shot here as he fixes his eyes on two birds and internalizes the image before his death.

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I really do not think I could have handled it, had Jesse actually been murdered in cold blood at this moment. I was prepared for it, you see – like I said, BB goes there when it could very well go there. Since we know this episode is all about crumbling empires – have you read the poem “Ozymandias”? – the death of literally every living human in a 47-mile radius of Albuquerque seemed possible and imminent.

There was also another little death here, and that’s the part of Jesse’s heart in which Jane has always lived. Her overdose in Season 2 had far-reaching repercussions, the most significant of which was the tumorous growth of Jesse’s guilt/self-hatred complex that made him so malleable for Walt’s use. We all wondered when the real details of her death would come out, and how that knowledge would break Jesse or spur him to action. It was horrifying – and again, painfully realistic – that this truth was delivered not by way of an errant clue, or a mistake, but deliberately. From Walt’s mouth. With measurement and  venom.

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Hook. Line. And years later…Sinker. It will be interesting to see how Jesse deals with this information. And trust; he’ll deal with it.

After this bomb, Jesse was saved at the last moment by Todd “Meth Damon,” who helpfully suggests that the Nazis beat some DEA-related facts out of Jesse before offing him. Plus, Todd still really needs an after-school tutor to figure out how to make Blue Sky above 74% purity. It really blows for Jesse, and I hate to say it, but thank god. He’s brutally beaten and chained to a meth lab, but there’s an escape here. Maybe. Just maybe. Hang in there, babe.

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(Can you believe makeup and closeup shots like this? Not as graphic as AMC-mate The Walking Dead, but somehow more frightening, again, because of how realistic these injuries are).

So while all of this is going on, the suburban set is still a few steps behind as usual. Heartbreakingly, Marie has newfound resolve after Hank’s (last) phone call to her, and she marches over to the car wash to force Skyler to cooperate with the investigation. And this – finally! – means telling Walt Jr. everything. Obviously there’s a layer of subtextual melancholy here. Everyone thinks a big nightmare is beginning, with Hank jailing Walt. But they don’t know that a new personal hell has begun, where Hank is dead and Walt still has the reins. They still think the hardest thing they’ll have to deal with right now is letting in Walt Jr. on all the secrets. He is really not about to have an A-1 day.

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I really love that gif. *save for forever reuse*

I did not care for parts of RJ Mitte’s performance in this scene. I think mostly the writing for Walt Jr. is to blame; the character is chronically underwritten. This really isn’t a show flaw, since the sweet teenager with crutches and a winning smile is supposed to be an oblivious foil for BB‘s overarcing misery. But the kid is annoying, repeating “This is bullshit!” and “It can’t be true!” Dude. Nut up. Get a grip. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to eyeroll at Walt Jr., because he is so endearingly simple and he really does look like a cornered kitten at this moment. I should have known his innocent shock would foreshadow family drama later.

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Back to our Devil with Brown Pants On. Jack leaves Walt with a single money barrel – nothing to sneeze at, it’s still 10 million dollars. He rolls the thing across miles of desert, buys a truck from a wary Native American, and speeds home to whisk his family away. Explanations later. Fleeing the state NOW.

Alas for Walt, an idyllic road trip is not to be. When he arrives home, he encounters a freshly traumatized Junior, a frayed Skyler, and a sobbing Holly (but she’s a baby, they’re just sensitive). It comes out pretty quick that Hank is dead. How else would a crazed former chemistry teacher be wandering free with a drumful of $100 bills and the name of an identity-forger in his pocket? Skyler incorrectly assumes that Walt has murdered Hank; she’s wrong this time, but in a larger sense she is of course dead-on. She reaches a breaking point here; she just cannot have Walt fucking with her kids and her soul anymore, and her husband just killed the only source of normal human justice she could ever turn to. With the death of Hank, another death, more death, the White marriage.

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This is a phenomenal moment for Skyler’s character, and thereafter she takes a good deal of focus in the episode. I was just thrilled. I have always had a slight feminist issue with BB, not because I felt Skyler was a bad character but because her interior life was given such short shrift. The women on this show simply do not see center stage all that much. But this was an awesome opportunity for the audience to see that Skyler has hurt and anguish and a dizzying strength, a beautiful resolve. An intense capacity for hate. She has many reasons to slash at Walt with a butcher knife, and her impulse to protect Walt Jr. from his manic criminal father is married to her deep lust for revenge when she brandishes that weapon. A SUPER fight!

And I had to eat my hat when I watched Walt Jr. come between them to back up his mom and eventually call the cops on Walt. Poor Junior is just working with the facts he has, and when he sees his father wrestle for the knife, he knows the man for whom he built that stupid website is long since dead. Mitte is really excellent in this scene. Watching him struggle with the adults and slam a shield-like arm into the couch across Skyler’s chest was just heartbreaking. Look what you’ve done, Heisy! You happy? The pathetic way he backs off, mumbling, “We’re a family…” I swear to god I smelled a thousand onions being chopped. So sad.

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The rest of “Ozymandias” covers Walt’s short-lived flight away from the city – with baby Holly in tow! She’s the last symbol of total innocence now in Walt’s life., and it makes sense that he would abduct her as a lasting memento of the man he used to be. She doesn’t know Heisenberg, she barely knew Hank, and maybe they could start anew, father and daughter. May I call your attention to a throwaway Walt Jr. quote from the aforementioned www.savewalterwhite.com?

And every day that goes by is one less day I’ll have with him. And I don’t want to tell my little sister about my dad.  I want her to know him for herself.

Well, nobody wants that anymore. Holly definitely doesn’t, anyway. Walt can coo to her all he wants in a gas station bathroom, but she’ll still cry “Mama, mama.” Who’s he fooling? He can’t take a baby on the lam, and Skyler doesn’t deserve that.

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This sets the stage for another wrenching scene in “Ozymandias,” where wrenching is kind of the baseline. In the cool evening, Walt calls Skyler at home, where she waits on the line surrounded by police. Walt knows this, even as she tells him they’re alone on the phone. He levies a tirade at her, rising in pitch and hysteria, beating home the point that she’s clueless and she deserves every indignity and wound she gets. Why? Because she didn’t listen. Because she betrayed him by getting others involved. Because she’s a “stupid bitch.”

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Now, at first I was like, yo, this is it. He’s completely black-hearted now. This is the height of his un-sympathy. But then it dawned on me…

Walt knows the authorities are listening in, and he’s performing. This is probably Heisy’s greatest and most necessary put-on. Read these lines closely:

Walt: You never believed in me. You were never grateful for anything I did for this family. Oh Walt, Walt, you have to stop! You have to stop this! It’s immoral, it’s illegal, someone might get hurt. You’re always whining and complaining about how I make my money, just dragging me down, while I do everything. And now, now you tell my son what I do? After I’ve told you, and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? You stupid bitch! How dare you?

Skyler: I’m sorry.

Walt: You have no right to discuss anything about what I do. What the hell do you know about it, anyway? Nothing! I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else!

He implies there’s no blame for Skyler and paints her as a victim, not a partner. It’s the kindest thing he’s done for his wife in years. She understands the nuances of the move. Walt rounds off his last spate of good deeds by confirming Hank’s death and dropping off teary-eyed baby Holly at a fire station. This next part of the journey is his alone to walk. With a decaying cancer-ridden body and a black heart full of misdeeds. A red van to nowhere. A trail of blood.

Two episodes left.

Idle notes:

– I nearly cried at the opening flashback. So bittersweet. A random and portentious moment on that small plot of desert in To’hajiilee, when Walt and Jesse were still two bumbling amateurs in underwear and a do-rag. The rewind makeup wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. It felt real. The repartee (“You’re an idiot.” “Dick”), Jesse’s karate, Walt’s careful rehearsal of his small-scale lies. The nostalgia really hurt. And nice touch with Walt mentioning that he’d pick up a pizza. Never again will our culture look at pizza and roofs the same way. And this beautiful narrative technique-ing:
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– This episode was directed by Rian Johnson, most well-known for directing Looper and many of Breaking Bad‘s standout episodes. His style is just perfect for this episode, with so many gorgeous landscape sweeps and telling closeups. So many small touches that stagger in their photographic genius and kinetic energy.
tumblr_mt79o9D3MY1s5ky44o1_500Also, nice Looper Easter Egg in the fire department scene, where the volunteer who discovers baby Holly is none other than Kid Blue! I guess he becomes Jeff Daniels sometime after his noble career as a New Mexico lawman.

– The episode was also co-written by Vince “Fuck You” Gilligan and Moira Walley-Beckett, who is responsible for many of the same standout episodes directed by Johnson – including the perennial subtext-drenched classic “The Fly.” This all points to a Walt/Jesse showdown of epic proportions. You know which other episode Walley-Beckett wrote?

– “Problem Dog.” The same one that trots across this episode right before the credits roll. Jesse ain’t down and out just yet.
photoYeah, I took that one with my phone, off the TV. It’s plan B, after raiding the internet for as many same-night pics and GIFs as I can find.

So? Phew! Comment! Let’s be together in this dark time.

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Breaking Bad S05E13: “To’hajiilee”

“I did all those things to save your life, as much as mine. Only you’re too stupid to know it!”

So…close. Three episodes left. It’s so delicious and terrifying that this episode, “To’hajiilee” felt like a penultimate when it’s only a quadrultimate. Holy shit! No squiggly red line?! Quadrultimate is a word? Yeah, bitch! Word science!

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As a series, Breaking Bad has earned a perfect ending. Following from a slow setup, following from satisfying character development, following from a meticulously woven multi-plot, the ultimate orgasmic finale is guaranteed. I’ve been thinking about The Sopranos and that final, famous cut to black that we were forced to extrapolate. Forced to assign meaning. Tony Soprano’s death and the suddenness of fate? A writerly yanking of the band-aid before we could feel the pain of a real final scene? It wasn’t a bad way to go, but it was a loose end, flapping in the wind.

Breaking Bad will never have the problem of a bad ending, thanks to its pedigree. The show is perfect, and what goes around always comes back around. “To’hajiilee” was nuts, but don’t quit humming “The Rains of Castemere” just yet. The horror’s just begun.

It’s pretty interesting to see all of our second bananas growing some really thick skin. Jesse is out-Walting Walt. He has become The One Who Knocks Back, pointing out potential new angles for revenge that Hank’s never ever considered. Turns out that when he’s not losing himself in vibrating subwoofers, Jesse’s been absorbing mad knowledge. He knows that Walt’s pride is tied to his money is tied to his mastery is tied to his manhood. Last week, he reveled in his newfound power over Mr. White; this week, he put it to good use. Although Walt attempts to “flush him out” by paying a warning visit to Andrea and Brock, Jesse’s vision is too clear at this point for distractions. He doesn’t take the bait. He’s so close to nailing this Dementor who’s sucked away his life. No looking back. This just might be the day that justice is served. Say it with me: “It’s almost too good to be true.”

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“I know some evidence that greedy asshole will never destroy.”

Jesse is referring to  Walt’s money, and he’s also unwittingly referring to himself. He knows that threatening Walt’s cash is a betrayal of the highest order, and there’s no more honor amongst thieves here. But Jesse is also Walt’s greatest achievement, his last hope. By destroying the cash, Jesse destroys Walt’s trust, his hard-earned love (after a fashion). By teaming up with the DEA, Jesse has also crushed Walt in the deepest way possible.

I’m delighted by the dues being paid to Hank Schrader’s impressive policework. Throughout the series, Hank has always displayed talent at his job, but his professional achievements have been overshadowed by his blustery pride, his obliviousness to Walt’s machinations, and his minerals. The first half of “To’hajiilee” demonstrates some shockingly underhanded and brilliant strategy on Hank’s side. It puts a little more stock in Hank as the late-hour hero. He manages to turn Huell with some really dastardly manipulation worthy of Heisy. That photo of a “murdered” Jesse next to some supermarket cow’s brain was a moment of sublime black comedy, and a clincher in his burgeoning collection of clues.

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I’d also like to call attention to this year’s dark horse for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: Huell’s tongue.

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As the episode builds to its own climactic showdown, there are a couple of portentious moments worth considering as the series closes. First, let’s take stock of Walt’s family unit. Although he insists to the neo-Nazi hitmen that Jesse is “like family,” we all know that Walter’s decayed human heart still rests with Skyler, Walt Jr. and Holly. “To’hajiilee” hearkens back to the only thing that drove Walt in the early days of BB: his wife, his children, his legacy as a human being. As he stands watch at the car wash, knowing the end is nigh for either him or Jesse, he gets a tiny glimmer of that old paternal urge. Reinforcing the innocence of the family (and thus their impending death, let’s get real), is precious little Walt Jr., delighted that locally famous Saul Goodman has deigned to stop by the family business.

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It’s his childlike happiness, his ignorance, that seals little Waltie’s fate for me. He has to die! Right? This is a small reminder of how in-the-dark he is; how is he to know how many hours and days his parents have spent conspiring with “Better Call Saul?” RJ Mitte’s engaging young smile hits you in the heart like none other as you realize just how much these next few days are going to ruin his life.

Then there’s Lydia, stilettoed representative of crooked conglomerate Madrigal and almost-certain next target of the neo-Nazis. Her scenes in “To’hajiilee” are short, but they make clear that she’s losing her grip on this merry band of sociopaths. Here’s a chilling shot of creepy Todd (internet handle: Meth Damon) handling the coffee mug she left behind. Lydia, too, is almost certainly not long for this world.

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But that’s enough of that. Fie on you, structure and anticipation! Let’s talk about the long, long climax of the episode, that brought you to the edge of pleasure and pain over and over until you were just like “GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY, IT HURTS TOO GOOD.”

Hank plays a staged Snapchat for Huell, and he quickly realizes the potential of fabricated visual evidence. Thanks to Jesse’s lead on Walt’s cash burial, Hank fakes another photo, of an unearthed barrel and has Jesse text it to Walt. The student becomes the professor, and Jesse goads him enough to get him out to its exact hiding point in the desert.

I love that conversation, and the heart-pounding way that Michelle McLaren shot it (she has to be the best director the series has seen its entire run). To the last moment, Walt attempts to play Jesse, insisting that he planned Brock’s poisoning to be non-fatal, and he’s dying, and doesn’t Jesse have a thread of human decency?! I found it very telling that in the last moments of that phone call, Walt’s heartfelt truths sounded like the same old lies. He’s told Jesse how much he cares, but that was to keep the kid under this thumb. This time, when Walter explodes with “You’re just too stupid to know it,” it has a certain melancholy ring to it. “Stupid” has always been a term of both abuse and, oddly, endearment when Walt uses it. Its use here underlines the deep bonds he and Jesse share, and their imminent dissolution.

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And then, of course, we’re in the desert, and it all happens.

Walt realizes pretty quickly that he’s been had, when he doesn’t spy a tower of smoke or a furiously prancing Jesse anywhere in the vicinity. Walt throws his cell phone battery into the dust of To’hajilee, the site of his comeuppance. This is where it all got as real as it’s ever gonna get on this show. The reckoning, the apocalypse, whatever – as soon as Hank pulls up with another DEA agent and Jesse in tow, Walt crumbles. His famous ingenuity and resolve all turn to smoke, in the face of this ultimate double-cross.

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It’s a really earth-shattering sequence. It’s just plain sad. I appreciated the deliberate pacing as Walt first broke inside, then cancelled the hit on Jesse, then hung up, and then laid against an anonymous red rock, deciding how best to end his life. This is one of those make-or-break story moments that BB carefully prepares and then milks for every drop of audience blood.

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Take a moment to drink in Cranston’s acting here. Vince Gilligan has stated that he saw Breaking Bad as an homage to The French Connection until he was forced to switch locations to the New Mexico desert. It was then that the show began to shape itself into what Gilligan calls “a modern Western,” about a lone man “testing his mettle.” At this point, we’re dealing with a trio of mettle-testing men: Hank, Jesse, and Walt. But it’s Walt, at this moment, who most exemplifies the crushing loneliness and the savagery of the deep hot desert. He lost. And it’s either going out in a blaze of glory or a quiet whoosh of dust.

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What a high-impact moment for the viewer. Who are we rooting for, here? Walt, our anti-hero? Jesse, our underdog? Or Hank, our everyman? It’s a microcosmic few minutes that force us to examine our protagonists from all sides. Because Walt is going down at Hank’s hands; the nightmare has come true for him.

It’s Jesse that clinches the emotional payoff, noticing that the burial spot is located at the exact place he and Mr. White cooked their first batch in the RV. Perhaps due to his newfound agency, Jesse seems unfazed by the sentimentality, but Walt simply cannot abide the fact that his protege is so far beyond his control. “Coward,” he hisses. And then…THE SPIT HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD!

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I swear to god, I heard choruses of “OH DAMN!” rise up all over Los Angeles as I watched it live. Also, I may have just been repeating “OH DAMN.” Amazing rejection move! However, the blatant show of disrespect may have pounded another nail into Jesse’s eventual coffin. Walt doesn’t abide condescension, rudeness, and least of all saliva – look at what happened to Mike after he committed the simple sin of blaming Walt for shit that was his fault.

It’s when Hank makes his phone call to Marie that we suspect this swift stroke of justice may not go down as planned. Hank has always had a sizeable hubris problem, and its his tender but swaggery conversation that started clanging the chimes of doom for me. Instead of calling for backup, or securing his suspect, he chose to seek validation from his wife, wasting precious seconds and losing his focus. When he told her “I love you,” I wailed. The happier the ending, the deader than a doornail you be.

And lo and behold, the neo-Nazis showed up and the gunfight began.

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Another week, another cliffhanger. Walt can’t negotiate his way out of this one; he’s handcuffed in the backseat and the hitmen he hired are more interested in his indentured meth services than a good employee reference. Jesse, the target of the hit, is a sitting duck. It’s two DEA guns against a heavily armed group of supremacist crazies. One of the more high-octane final moments in the show’s history. The only thing to do is go get a paper bag, breathe deeply, and induce yourself into a coma until next Sunday.

I am just so fucking upset that Breaking Bad is three away from its majestic funeral pyre. None of us are even ready. Even if we do get the rumored Saul spinoff, nothing can take the place of an experience like this. This show is one of the finest examples of why television’s closer to a novel than a movie, and it’s closer to religion than entertainment. The fact that passion and disgust war within me so deeply as a viewer, that they start to blur together, is a testament to the artistry of this fictional world and the drop-dead commitment of those who act within it. I never know what to feel when an episode’s over. I have to watch them two, even three times, to fully appreciate every layer: story, philosophy, cultural purpose, art, performance. Where the show will go from here, in its scant time, is anyone’s guess. But I guarantee you this: it’s gonna hurt bad.

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Breaking Bad S05E12: “Rabid Dog”

“Mr. White? He’s the devil. He is smarter than you, he is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite of that is going to happen.”

This week, Breaking Bad was a much-needed exhale; a strangely quiet bloom of catharsis. And between the lines of “Rabid Dog,” groundwork is being laid for a finale the likes of which we can’t even CONCEIVE. If you look real hard and listen real close to this episode, you can see dark figures whispering and building scene pieces in the background.

The slow boiling tone of “Rabid Dog” is interesting. I found the lack of white-knuckle action very frustrating for reasons I couldn’t pin down. I wanted to keep getting hurt and gasping for breath. That’s what this show is for! Then I thought a little more, and everything seemed more deliberate.

“Rabid Dog” is a story about being broken. Bad. It was a contained analysis of psychological abuse.

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It may not have been exciting, but we needed an episode like this to really show us what’s at stake and how we got here. Because the Walt/Jesse relationship is the show’s core, an emotionally resonant finale must rely chiefly on a story that forces their issues front and center. Much of this week’s dialogue was expository, nearly heavy-handed, intended to evoke our nostalgia and stoke our hearts. Shamelessly manipulative! Vince Gilligan, your Walter White is showing, ya bastard. There are many allusions in the script to classic moments, particularly of the Walt and Jesse variety. Walt asks Skyler if she remembers “when Jesse came for dinner,” Hank reminds Jesse of Walt’s heroic drug dealer hit-and-run, and the list goes on. Meeeemory, I can smile at the old days, it was beauuuutiful then.

W.W. is in such deep shit. He’s having a really bad Adele moment, surrounded by Turning Tables. Jesse’s just doused his home in gasoline and mysteriously disappeared off the map. Hank is this close to exposing Heisenberg. There are too many fires, and Walt’s getting wheezy trying to put them out. The old lungs aren’t what they used to be since the cancer came back.

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Walt’s first real signs of fatal weakness are revealed during his performance of an elaborate lie he invented, to explain away his house’s near-death encounter with a lighter. While he embarks on another patented Mr. White Histrionic Monologue, Skyler and Junior trade knowing glances behind his back. As usual, Junior assumes something normal and stupid, like his dad is trying to hide cancer symptoms – but Skyler has become much more shrewd. She systematically dismantles Walt’s fiction and gives it to him blunt. She knows Jesse is the threat, and there’s only one foolproof solution in the lawless hell her husband’s created. “You have to deal with this,” she spits, and for the first time Walt is floored by Skyler’s homicidal (and pragmatically so) instincts. Behind every great man is a great woman; behind Heisenberg is someone with balls enough to kill a threat. And right now, that’s Heisenberg’s wife.

In many ways, Walt is so pathetic now that, for us viewers, some of that vestigial sympathy is coming back. Things have gotten out of his control, including the one person we always knew he really loved. He cannot bring himself to “deal with” Jesse. And now, not even his surrogate son will save him.

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But thank god for Breaking Bad, thou of having cake and eating it too. Walt’s not our only protagonist anymore. Jesse’s taken his seat in the cockpit of the show for the remainder of its doomed flight. We now get to see things through his eyes. And the truth is, Jesse’s just that – a rabid dog. Walt’s dog. Stomped, kicked, chained on a short leash, imprisoned in a mental torture box. Walt has chipped away at his self-esteem for years and manipulated him so deeply that Jesse’s not only ruined, he’s helpless without his abuser.

This has never been more clear than in the very last scene of “Rabid Dog.” Background: Hank and Gomez convince Jesse to meet Mr. White, wearing a wire, and pretend to hear him out for the sake of taping a real confession. To Hank’s mind, this is the crucial piece of evidence; he doesn’t give a shit how it’s obtained. Jesse’s cooperation is helpful, but there’s no real kinship born by “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” illusions. Jesse’s another expendable pawn in this situation; Hank hypnotizes him with a soft-spoken, “Sounds like he saved your life. He really cares about you.” He’s using Jesse the same way Walt uses him. Big mistake.

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Jesse lashes out, desperately trying to express the trauma he barely has the vocabulary for. “He’s the devil.” Mr. White is supernatural. He’s not a Walter, a brother-in-law, a drug kingpin. He’s a reaper. A ghost. He’s more than mortal and he’ll be darkening Jesse’s horizons as long as they’re both alive. Jesse can’t even cry about it anymore, so resigned is he to living with the pain and fear.

Say it with me, fangirls: “Poor Jesse!” But Aaron Paul shines here as usual, inspiring savage triumph when Jesse takes control of the sting in his own signature way. When he spots Mr. White waiting for him in the public plaza, bursting at the seams with soothing words, it really triggers something in Jesse psychologically. We actually see him hallucinate multiple Mr. Whites, in a way, as he suddenly has a wild suspicion that a nearby bald bystander is poised to assassinate him. In his frayed delirium, Jesse is suddenly moved to reclaim his power in any way possible. No one’s giving him fucking permission for another great idea; no one’s stealing his truth.

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So Jesse calls Walt from a payphone and watches his face. “I’m coming for you, asshole,” he says calmly, avoiding the “Mr.” like his life finally depends on it.

He tells Walt that the time for conversation is over, and the master’s about to become the bitch. “I’m going to kill you where you really live,” are the cryptic last words his torturer hears.

Hank’s plan is blasted to smithereens. Walt’s plan hangs in the balance. Because it’s Jesse’s goddamn motherfucking plan now. It’s amazing what an exciting game can be played with only two pieces left on the board.

BB is almost always about exposing pathos through the unexpected but logical progressions of the story. Now, because the plot is slowly painting itself into a corner, final-showdown style, here’s a chance to see the rotten fruit of everyone’s labor. Our characters are all messed-up empty husks and we’re an audience of moral degenerates. Celebrate good times. Come on.

Some notes:
– Let’s not forget about Marie’s seemingly irrelevant confession session about Googling poison. Krazy Klepto Marie tends to act rashly in overwhelming situations. Curious to see what kind of part she’ll play in this big denoument.
– Always nice to see Junior get a moment with his father, even if it was a bit of filler. I have always been interested in the comparison of Junior vs. Jesse as son figures and victims, and maybe these small scenes will contribute to some interesting Walt/Jesse nuance.
– Speaking of Walt/Jesse? “Mr. White’s gay for me! Everyone knows that!” And just like that, a thousand fanfictions were born.

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So much for subtext, you two.

Kill Your Idols: Lady Gaga’s Final Round of “Applause”

I sincerely apologize for the astronomical length of time that’s passed between the VMAs and this blog post (3 days)! It’s just that Breaking Bad is also on Sundays and I had to go to work and then it was Monday, and then Tuesday…whatever. Tardy to the party.

I pointedly refuse to address Miley’s moment, because my analysis will bear no new fruits. It was terrible in so many ways. You’re all smart people, you know racism and internalized mysogyny when you see it, right? You don’t need to see the word “twerk” again in print, do you?

Instead, here’s some words on my fave moment, because I think it deserves a little sweet love from my fangirly fingers. Witness the Lady:

Color me disappointed, but not surprised, that Gaga’s performance of “Applause” was met with a lukewarm reception. People were meh on the staging because it wasn’t up to her usual standards of insane, and they were meh on the fact that she even appeared. I hate to say it, but Gaga’s zeitgeist is nearing its end, fading gently into the warm embrace of the 2000s. Perhaps the viewers expected more of a shocking swan song after last year’s provocative performance of the best thing she ever wrote.

If it wasn’t obvious before, let me state definitively for the record that I’m a big Lady Gaga fan. I admire the cultural work that she’s doing from the precarious ledge of a pop star. She’s a gifted songwriter, producer, storyteller, and performer. She knows Americana inside and out, and she actively critiques it through her art. The thing I love most about Gaga is that she TRIES, she ASPIRES. She may not always get it right, but she is unafraid to disgust people or lose favor. She believes the iconic and/or the transcendent is possible in pop, following in the great tradition of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. I think her career would last longer if she was male. I think she knows this.

I respect that she sticks to it when she enters a new phase of her career. The new album, ARTPOP, may be terrible, and this song “Applause” may also be terrible (it is), but I’m digging the meta-ness of her new identity. This time around, Gaga Is Art. She chooses to reveal herself as a changeable construction. I think that many viewers missed the nuance of this performance, like her visual shoutout to The Birth of Venus:

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Note to female pop stars and females in general – THIS IS A BODY! I’m so hungry for all the meaty feminist living flesh hanging off this bitch!

And then there was her rapid transformation – five onstage costume changes to make clear that the persona of Gaga is ever-changing, ever-derivative, like the culture she lives and thrives on. In case you didn’t get it the first time around, during the “Telephone” era, Gaga reminds us that Warhol Matters:

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And then there’s the actual song itself. “Applause,” like I said, is really not great when you stack it up against her far superior stripped-down-dance hits like “Alejandro” or even “Judas.” The melody is super weak, as is the beat. But I found that it grew on me when I actually watched her perform it. I kind of got that the song is about the utter desperation that drives our icons, and the constant switching-up and face-clawing that becomes necessary to stay on top. It’s also about how celebrity is contingent on the fans, and that a star can’t measure their worth by box offices or concert attendance, but by how loud their audience screams and how long they clap. For now, Gaga is interested more in occupying the space of a star, and reminding all of us that we’re basically religiously beholden to a cycle of building/destroying false idols. And YOU thought it was just a show! For shame, little monsters!

As Lord Gaga’s time on earth comes to an end, I find myself saddened. Why did she have to die so soon? Who will take her place? I guess only history will tell if Stefanie Germanotta managed to achieve immortality. I really hope so. Not because I think she’s perfect, but because I badly want a female to ascend to pop legend – not selling sex, but truth and humanity like the dudes are allowed to sell. Side-eye, Madonna.

What did you think of Gaga’s performance? Toss me some brainjuice in the comments.

The Special Puns Unit: These Are Their Stories

This post doesn’t need an introduction. Just imagine you’re in a development meeting at USA Network.

Him: my best friend
Her: my roommate
Me: me

~~~

Him:  hows this pitch: a gritty crime drama about an epileptic detective
search & seizure

Me:  i see your pitch and i raise you:
emotionally unavailable new york prosecutor finds only one person who was present at a brutal murder. the problem? she’s gorgeous. and she’s blind. and she might be exactly what he’s looking for.
Leading the Witness
Him: also Blind Justice

Him:  a revenge-style drama about a cunning new ADA who secretly teams up with dangerous ex-convicts to bring down the corrupt coven of lawyers who tore apart his family
each episode culminates in a dramatic, vengeful courtroom showdown
In Contempt

Him: a high-powered lawyer is brutally raped by recently released con she jailed a decade ago
though she’s a modern woman, her public stance on abortion forces her to carry the fetus to term
she vows she’ll find the proof to convict her tormentor, &, come hell or high water, she’ll have her day in court
only one problem: she’s only got 9 months to put all the pieces together
coming this fall: Due Process

Me: bright-eyed, bushy tailed Miranda Spencer, recent graduate of Yale law and the first black gay female editor of their law review, ends up breaking up with her longtime girlfriend the night of graduation
depressed, she decides to leave New Haven for rural Iowa and is hired as an associate at a small law firm (they’re forced to hire her because of unfair representation of minorities in their firm)
the old white partners are loathe to allow her progressive stance in their courtroom, but little by little the small town and the firm begin to warm to her
but when Miranda meets the woman of her dreams – the founding partner’s daughter – will she be able to overcome prejudices and stand tall, black, gay, female, and proud?
that’s right, ladies…it’s
Miranda’s Rights
Him: idk how i didn’t see that coming

Me:  two sisters
the older one grows up to be a soulless but successful entertainment attorney
the younger one always feels overshadowed, but finds solace in her hobby of ballet
and one day she goes to visit her sister, who is having trouble with an ornery client, former dancer worth millions
and the younger sister manages to convince the client to settle, earning her sister’s firm a pile of money
suddenly she discovers she has an aptitude for the law
and is put into competition with her sister, but this time she just might win!
Passing the Barre
Her: or Pointe of Order

Him:  i actually just thought of a turn on the genre
a fashion-police-type show that analyzes & critiques famous or outrageous courtroom outfits
Worn Under Oath
or it can just be a special that chronicles the courtroom choices of LiLo

Me: dating/courtroom show that forces the female defendant to choose which of her jurors isnt a randomly selected juror at all, but a male prostitute
Hung Jury
(adaptation of Her “male prostitute turns lawyer”)

Him:  when a revered artist is accused of homicide, his adoring public is scandalized
although his sick, brilliant mind has the nypd scrambling for clues to definitively link him to the murder, a lucky find by a novice detective reveals that a recent painting holds the secret to this heinous crime
after conviction, the creative killer reveals that his victim was his last hurrah in a lucrative killer career
with scant leads to go on, the detectives’ only clues lie within the intricate workings of this artist’s vast ouevre
only they can bring justice to the families of this monster’s countless victims
this is .. EXHIBIT X
the letter can be omitted or changed
yeah i think just EXHIBIT is good

Me:  quirky forensics investigator usually enjoys her job, except for one thing: she’s a psychic
and anything that happens to crime victims – bruises, laceration marks, etc – also happens to her body at the same time
kind of a sympathetic pain
every new case forces her to not only examine the crime scene, but investigate herself
a provocative new thriller:
Body of Evidence

Him: this somnambulant attorney can close any case .. but only in his sleep!
he is: Laying Down the Law

Me: a master butcher discovers an uncanny ability to create sketches of perps using meats
don’t miss Cold Cut Case

Him: a Harlem beat cop tries to resist the powers of police corruption around him as well as his longterm sex addiction in FRISK

Me: when a serial killer strikes a nudist colony, a conservative detective must overcome her discomfort and join the community to bring him to justice. coming soon: Barely Legal
Her: or The Naked Truth

Her: Courtroom fashion police.
Under-Duressed

Me: a disturbing case drives an elderly police chief to retire and barricade himself in an apartment, obsessively collecting evidence. now the killer’s on the loose, and it’s up to the chief’s son to hunt his father down inside the dirty, overstuffed apartment before it’s too late.
Law and Hoarder

Him: a direct descendant of the famed physicist, Bob Newton can solve complex mathematical equations in his head, but when consulted as an expert witness, he can barely keep his feet on the ground! this summer, he’ll learn the gravity of the justice system in:
Newton’s Laws

Me: i’m obsessed with how we just spent all that time
Him: wait. are we done?

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Breaking Bad S5E11: “Confessions”

“Just ask me for a favor! Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me!”

Let’s talk about two holyfuckingshit things that happened on Breaking Bad this week. I’ll start with the doozie and end with the doozie-squared.

Walt’s Confession Tape
Hank continues to scrabble against a solid brick wall in terms of building a case against Walt. Still not ready to throw his DEA career repeatedly against the fan like the proverbial shit, Hank struggles to find the piece of evidence that will clinch the case and at least allow him to officially NAB Walt into custody. It’s either that, or drag a confession out of Jesse or Walt, and his efforts have been fruitless. But Hank is unrelenting. Walt (and Skyler) know it’s only a matter of time before Hank pries the case wide open.

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There’s something very interesting going on with our story here. I mean, as viewers, we KNOW what happened. Walt is Heisenberg, he fucked over Fring and blasted his face off, he took out a simultaneous hit on TEN guys across the country. Walt is a sociopath and a criminal. Hank KNOWS it too, and just can’t make the leap between the hunch and the truth. Right now, to an outsider, this story is just a story – believable, maybe, but a stretch.

Suddenly, Walt gets it. That’s the key. A story’s just a story. An imaginative lie that can be truth, if framed properly.

Thus the tape. The confession tape, which took up a good ten minutes of “Confessions” and completely eviscerated the audience before even the halfway point of the episode, was a perfect piece of writing, acting, and pure filmmaking. Walt maims and twists the truth of what he’s done to blame Hank, saying that Hank was the mastermind and Walt the pawn. He manipulates the tale so deftly that it rings true – and Walt’s quavering voice and crocodile tears seal the deal. “I make this tape in the hopes that the world will see this man for what he truly is.” WOW!

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Bryan Cranston is stunning here. He is convincingly acting a man who is convincingly acting. Every time Walt lies, he tends to state the actual truth with such scorching skepticism that his victim is forced to discard it. This video is the pinnacle of his duplicitousness, his careful and careless evil. A  true testament to Cranston’s gift.

But once one wound has been sewn, another opens…

Jesse’s Epiphany
Last week, I expressed my fervent wish for more Jesse story. Were the show not to return to its core relationship, the emotional journey of these past five seasons would’ve been for naught. Walt had a son in broad daylight, but he also bore a son in total darkness – a kid raised in fire and destruction and pain, whose goodness is his Achilles heel. Jesse is such a tragic character, manipulated so hard by his father-figure that he’s been left drifting in space with no one to hold on to. He’s smart, loyal, eager to please, and Walt brutally capitalized on that and left him a shell.

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But not even Jesse knows how bad he’s been played. He knows his relationship with Mr. White is unhealthy and unequal, and tries his best to shock Walt into leveling the playing field. Such a hard scene to watch, because as we know, Jesse still has no idea about Walt poisoning Brock (or murdering Jane). Still a pathetic chump. But he knows Walt’s used him, and he just wants him to SAY IT. To just ADMIT it for once, so Jesse can have some peace and quit feeling like a beaten puppy.

“Can you just stop working me for once?” Heart. Pangs. Ouch.

And then Walt pulls out the big guns. Because it’s now or never – either Jesse cooperates and disappears, removing himself as a witness, or he has to die. I think at this point, Walt would kill Jesse in cold blood, but the tiny tiny shred of the man he used to be is screaming against it. So when he does this to Jesse, this horribly manipulative and deadly cruel manuever, it’s also maybe the last time we’ll see him feel.

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That hug. That hug seals Jesse’s doom. It’s so fucking nourishing to his needy soul that Jesse immediately gets that he’s been had. Again. And because he needs that validation from Mr. White so badly, all he can do is stand paralyzed, and cry.

GOD DAMN!

And then of course, later in the episode, comes the big reveal. Right when Jesse’s finally ready to move on, adopt a new identity and start over, he makes a tiny connection. And there’s a domino effect. And it’s pretty fucking big.

He discovers that Huell pickpocketed his weed. And then remembers another time he was pickpocketed by Huell. And then remembers the cigarette. And the ricin. And nnnnnoooooooOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

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The internet’s all abuzz about whether Jesse’s epiphany is believable – that the character could make the jump from Huell’s small theft to the ricin plan from a few seasons ago. Originally I was like, “Wait, what? How did you get there, sweet glassy-eyed Jesse?” But then I read this review over at The Atlantic that really tipped me towards the favor of the writers. They point out that when you’re already in a vulnerable place, as Jesse is – deceived and conned and disoriented and scared – your mind works in different ways. You make connections you might not have made earlier, because suspicion for one thing translates to suspicion for everything. Maybe nothing was real. And when Jesse allows himself to see the light, it’s so blinding and so terrible that he really, truly loses it.

And it’s not just a typical Jesse breakdown. This is Aaron Paul’s finest work over the course of the show. I said it. The way his entire face is crumpled, the way his eyes stare without seeing, consumed by betrayal…I mean, oh my fucking god. Look at what this poor boy has become thanks to Heisenberg.

Before:
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After:
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My favorite line of this episode is delivered by Paul during the aftermath of the discovery, as he drags the truth out of Saul. Saul witnessed that hug, so the deception cuts even deeper. Add embarrassment to Jesse’s lethal cocktail of horror and fury.

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The way Paul delivers this line, sobbing, the way he says “Mr. White.” God. I was so fucking speechless. The nuance in his performance! He sounds so sure and yet his voice betrays him, and you can hear him begging for someone to say he’s wrong. It’s just horrible. And brilliant. Brilliantly, perfectly, astonishingly horrible.

Why even have the Emmys this year, honestly? The game been played and won and done.

I’m obviously still processing. Let’s talk about those feelings, friends! What were your thoughts on this watershed episode?

Breaking Bad S05E10: “Buried”

“You keep the money. Don’t ever speak of it. Never give it up, and pass it on to our children. Give them everything. Would you do that? Please? Please don’t let me have done all of this for nothing.”

Oh, BB, bringing your perfect A-game as usual. Last night’s episode, “Buried,” was without a doubt one of the most tightly choreographed, story-cruxing hours in the show’s history. It’s pretty amazing how this season is developing week to week (she said with an authoritative keyboard flourish, two episodes into the season).

This last stretch of episodes is proving to be so fascinating in terms of ending strategies. As viewers, there were certain HUGE THINGS we hoped would never happen, because they rang the toll of BB finality; the biggest HUGE THING was undoubtedly Hank discovering Walt’s true identity, because the subsequent disintegration of family trust and Walt’s business (including his giant pile of money) would remove all the moving parts that comprise the essential tensions of the show.

But that shit has already gone down in the first couple episodes! And OPENED UP ENTIRELY NEW AVENUES WE NEVER EVEN SAW BEFORE – mostly emotional. What’s amazing about BB‘s long final bow is that from the dust of the biggest bombshells, more monsters arise. So Hank found out. Insane. But how is Skyler going to deal with him? Can she walk the fine line between morality and allegiance to her husband? Has their original union even survived the past five seasons? What kind of partnership have they come to? How is Hank going to handle the inevitable combustion of his police career? What’s his best strategy for revealing Walt and saving professional face? Questions! Questions! Hysterical! Vapors!

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I reiterate my awe at Dean Norris’ incredible performance. The way he is handling the character is so many light-years beyond where Hank started; once a blowhard macho gorilla with a heart of gold, now a frazzled shell hellbent on revenge. This particular scene, between him and Skyler in the diner, had me completely catatonic in front of my screen, simply basking in its genius. Norris really fucking kills it. It’s shocking in the first place to hear him actually verbalize the litany of Walt’s crimes – to ask Skyler about possible abuse she suffered! Heisenberg-wise, Hank never had any idea what he was dealing with; he still doesn’t, but the difference now is that he has the facts. He has the man. He may not have the evidence, but the truth of Walt’s betrayal is so obvious that it’s EATING Hank. It’s a great episode to showcase Norris’ particular gift for emotional subtext. His shaking hands and clipped, desperate dialogue delivery show us the surface anger. But it’s his eyes, the tearful shellshock, that makes Hank so compelling in this moment. He perfectly performs hatred for a monster as curdled love for his brother.

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I liked Skyler in this scene too. I’ve never been Anna Gunn’s biggest fan; it’s not that she’s a poor actress or anything, but Skyler’s mostly been clueless, a victim, or a killjoy and I was never a fan of her self-righteousness. But Gunn has a LOT to deal with in this scene. Skyler may be annoying, but she’s a master strategist and a really clever liar. However, she also loves her family, and part of her is still desperate for the support she lost when she chose to stand with Walt and help clean up his messes. Here, she has to negotiate with Hank at his edgiest, maintaining her own innocence while attempting to snatch back the power. She struggles with protecting Walt, her husband, at the expense of her own moral code. Actually, at the expense of her life, pretty much. Her sister, her children, her identity. I loved the way this conversation ended, with Skyler screaming, “AM I UNDER ARREST?” and wrenching herself from Hank’s claws. She makes her choice. She draws the lines in the sand.

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Marie was also AMAZING in this episode. One of the best bitch-slaps ever delivered! Betsy Brandt has played Marie as flighty, girlish, and weird for so long that her reaction to Skyler’s treachery reads as a long-overdue release. And when she leaves her sister’s house and sits with Hank silently in their car? And brokenly whispers this line? Chilling. All the chills.

Also, this episode was amazing because the darker things got, the more black comedy reared its amazing quirky head. So many lines that I would have laughed at, had I not been frantically meditating to lower my own blood pressure.

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SAUL. SAUL IS PERFECT. BB needs Saul, because his weaselly survival instincts and distaste for ruthless violence provides such a delightful and unexpected counterpoint to Walt. Bob Odenkirk always plays Saul to perfection, but in “Buried,” he delivers one of the character’s best moments ever. He doesn’t want to bring it up, but he knows the best way for Walt to save his ass is to murder Hank. Saul doesn’t like that his biggest client is a psychopath, but he does like his client’s meth money very much. How to bring it up, how to bring it up…

“Maybe you could send your brother-in-law on a trip to…Belize. You know. A vacation to Belize. Where Mike went.”
“BELIZE? Are you kidding me? What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s worked very well for you in the past.”

So good. So funny, despite the gravity of the situation. As usual, Bryan Cranston performs Walt’s reaction with such on-point disgust that I could not help but replay the line 3 times.

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Normally I like to conclude my Breaking Bad reviews with some thoughts on Jesse, because 1) the critics severely neglect him and he is the story’s dark horse, and 2) I like to write about every nuance of Aaron Paul’s performance because it’s the closest I’ll get to exploring his body in intimate ways. However, it seems like Vince Gilligan and Co. are keeping Jesse on the back burner for now, letting him slip into his biggest emotional crisis and removing his immediate impact on the plot. Although the whole Traumatized Jesse shtick has the potential to bore us, I hold out hope that Heisenberg’s surrogate son and right hand is about to have his explosive moment in the sun. He’s stuck in a cycle of despair and guilt, evidenced by this slow dizzy playground ride, but he’s also perceptive in a way that none of the other characters are. He’s done everything Walt’s done, but he’s the only one to feel the consequences, to grasp the weight of it. He’s been so irreparably damaged by Walt’s emotional manipulation, but he’s also a bit of a savant when it comes to navigating hot water – thanks to Walt’s tutelage. I only hope that the story brings him and his mentor/torturer back together somehow, because their connection is truly the heart and soul of the show.

MAN! Can you believe how good things are getting?! Did you watch last night? How did you like the episode, and where do you think our motley crew of moral misfits can go from here? Besides Belize. Always an option.

Witch, Please! New “American Horror Story: Coven” Teaser Trailer

Hey! Who’s excited for American Horror Story: Coven this November? It’s gonna be a tasty Thanksgiving indeed. Look, there’s me in the corner, happy as a clam and gnawing at my TV screen trying to get to the sweet flesh of Jessica Lange’s well-tended jowls.

I am very interested in this teaser trailer. Loving the sterile Shack O’ Horrors which seems to be this season’s prime setting. What exactly is going on in this scene? Girls stuck to the walls? What does it all mean?

Some thoughts:
1. The Salem witches were actually just weird teens who swallowed all the magnets.
2. Female students in a supernatural boarding school are finding any means necessary to access the peepholes to the boys’ showers.
3. The snozberries taste like snozberries!
4. Little girls learn to levitate and ruin all the furniture. They become trapped in enchanted flypaper.

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You know, way back when, I REFUSED to watch the AHS franchise because of how badly I hate Ryan Murphy. I could not, in good conscience, support the man who raised beautiful children and then systematically traumatized them until they found creative ways to kill themselves (I’m talking about Nip/Tuck and Glee, calm down). I was worried that AHS would follow the same formula – brilliant beginning, disappointing ending bathed in fire.

However, Murphy and Co. found the secret formula: a mini-series! Now, continuity, which is Ryan’s worst enemy, no longer has to be a thing. The characters, tone, and story can completely change between seasons. So thank you, Ryan Murphy! Thank you for bringing true horror back to American television, and experimenting like a crazy person, and generally GOING THERE with every new season. Last year’s AHS: Asylum was one of the finest shows to exist so far this decade, thanks to its unrelenting tension and the dynamic duo of Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson.

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This time, we get not only Lange and Paulz, but also Kathy Bates AND the domestic-violence double-team of Evan Peters and Emma Roberts! It’s gonna be such a wild ride. Normally I’m not really into witch stories, because they end up being woman-demonizing eye-rolly pieces of shit, but I’m optimistic here. This stellar cast would never let me down.

If you’re interested in the real-life inspiration behind Kathy Bates’ character this season, check out this gut-churning Wiki article. It’s bound to get you pumped for the goings-on of Coven, and not-so-pumped to eat your lunch.

Pretty Piper: Orange You Glad She’s Not Black?

So I just heard this interview with Jenji Kohan, where she expounds on the heap of race/class/gender complexities embodied in Orange is the New Black. And there I am, sucking on my chia-seed-riddled smoothie and listening to NPR on the 405, thinking about the idyllic Los Angeles fucking nightmare that my life has become, and I’m like JESUS CHRIST I’M CHOKING ON WHITE REALITY. This interview frustrated me. It’s an extension of the frustration I feel generally about OITNB.

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Awhile back, I wrote a little bit about the show. I’d only finished a few episodes, but I was annoyed because my mind wasn’t blown enough. Yes, there are all of these previously-unknown actors of color being given screen time, and meaty stories, and brilliant dialogue. There are more black and brown faces in front of my audience face than I’m used to. Females vastly outnumber males. There’s a thoughtfully written transgender character, and the nuances of social class and the prison-industrial complex are not ignored. And the lesbianism is honest, and hot, and fun. This should be a big moment for all of us! I should be as excited as all the other media studies majors on my Facebook feed. I should feel better about the show now that I’ve concluded the season, and the white protagonist has gotten thoroughly served. But I’m not.

Kohan calls heroine Piper Chapman her “Trojan horse” plot device. She basically says that in order to mine the rich depths of characters normally relegated to short side roles (the black and brown faces I mentioned earlier), she has to bring her audience in through an accessible narrator. The “cool blonde” next door, Kohan says, is the perfect draw for viewers who would not ordinarily seek out a show about Latina and Black women prisoners; they need to have Piper to cling to as they walk further down the dark halls of OITNB addiction.

Just Jenji bein’ Jenji.

Now, I have no issue with all of that – in the sense that Kohan speaks the truth. When I compared OITNB to Weeds, I noted that Kohan has a VICE GRIP on Stuff White People Like, and she knows that they are loathe to experience the stories (and the histories) of people who they routinely indirectly stomp on. They need someone like themselves to hug for reassurance. If Crazy Eyes’ revelations about black-white divisons in prison populations makes you uncomfortable, you always have Piper to hold your hand, mirroring your nervousness and confusion about such issues.

My problem is that Kohan calls the Trojan Horse principle “useful.” She kind of posits it as a necessary evil of making her show, like it had to happen or OITNB would have never made it on the air (or on our computer screens, as it were. Yo, Netflix, respect). It’s wildly annoying to me, as if none of us already knew how much she loves and fetishizes middle-class white people. You didn’t pop her in there like a pale cherry on top, to make your chocolate sundae more delicious! You STARTED with the cherry, Jenji. You love the cherry.

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To me, OITNB doesn’t succeed because of Piper’s presence. I think it’s obvious to TV critics, audiences on social media, even Kohan, that literally the entire cast has Breakout Roles EXCEPT for the protagonist. And that’s kind of a feat in television – to produce a show in which almost every supporting character catches a special place in the audience’s heart. The show is, in fact, NOT as good as it could be because of the mere fact of Piper’s presence. Her story is boring. It’s privileged, and the drama between her and her ex is super manufactured, and it’s not even relatable, and Taylor Schilling’s performance reads like Diane Kruger after a prolonged visit from a Dementor. Piper sucks. No one likes her except maybe sometimes when she’s making out with Laura Prepon, because Prepon can get it.

Personally, I think that this show could have taken off without a Trojan Horse character. Actually, Kohan could have achieved a very similar show had she simply relegated Piper to another supporting role. OITNB could be perfectly watchable as an ensemble prison comedy-drama, like a lighter female-driven Oz. Piper doesn’t have to be the entrance point, you know? She can still function as a white-people security blanket without sitting in the middle of every promotional poster, and taking up my precious time with her tearful entreatments of Jason Biggs. Nobody. Cares.

I will say, however, that OITNB is a big step, regardless of the misguided way Kohan rationalizes its structure. The deep dimensions afforded to every character, the cultural contextualization of their stories, the endless in-jokes that only gay women will get – these are all things that have been long overdue on mainstream television. And Netflix, at this point, is approaching the mainstream. I would argue that it’s pretty positive that millions of casual viewers binge-watched OITNB for its addictive drama and humor, and simultaneously got hit in the face with narratives they’d usually avoid like the plague.

Like THIS. ALL OF THIS.

I guess this post is a bit of a re-tread of last time, but needed to reiterate that OITNB ain’t the brilliant groundbreaker or the saving grace that some critics, and Kohan herself, are making it out to be. It’s just a show, created by a human with the same cultural limitations that we all have. Yeah, it’s important, and yeah, sometimes it says something new. Now, if Kohan would depart radically from the source material and kill off Piper dramatically in the second season…we’d have a real Subversive Winner on our hands.

Thoughts? Objections? You’ll shank me later.

Breaking Bad S05E09: “Blood Money”

Tread lightly. Our time is almost up. The last episodes of Breaking Bad are descending through the needle and soon all our hearts shall be poisoned with the eternal glory of amazing television. Too much? Go away. You know nothing of perfection.

Last night marked the beginning of the end. “Blood Money,” the mid-season premiere, began Season Five’s death march towards immortality. If you watched it, you know that you beheld a master class in premiere episodes. If you did not watch it, what the fuck were you doing? “Eating dinner”? “Spending time with your children”? Get a life. Wait…no. Ditch your life. Gain this show. Breaking Bad is a rare work of art. Hop on this mind-blow train before it leaves the station forever!

Now let us address last night. It was a magical hour, during which our anti-heroes began to choke on the tight coils of destiny.

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In traditional BB fashion, this episode features a brief future-jump, which reveals that Walter White’s worst nightmare has come true. The former chemistry teacher has been unmasked as none other than Heisenberg, the fastest-meth-cookin’ hands in the West. Clearly every last piece of shit hit the fan. Walter’s home is abandoned, in tatters, and we can only assume that the same fate has befallen his family. He sports the disguise that we saw briefly in this season’s first episode last year: hipster spectacles, beard, skin paler than death. I love that Vince Gilligan chooses to structure his seasons this way; we can conjecture about the events that brought the story to this point, but what actually happened is bound to be completely out of left field. Was Walt betrayed? Who set his plans to burn? My bet’s on Junior. That boy gets crazytown without breakfast and Skyler’s been skimping on the bacon lately.

The important thing is, it’s now been established that in the end, Walt’s world is dark, sad, lonely chaos. He is clearly on the run and the myth of his domestic life has been torn to shreds. And you know that these episodes will push us inexorably onwards, towards this reckoning.

But first, there are loose ends. The first of which is our sweet, damaged Jesse Pinkman.

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Jesse’s first appearance in “Blood Money” was a little shocking. I never thought Aaron Paul could look so facially busted, but Jesse is purple-white, bloated, and sweaty with guilt and misery. He’s seen a lot of shit during the course of this show, and has always been an emotional yo-yoer, but it seems that the disappearance of Mike Ehrmantraut has finally sent this little sidekick off the deep end. Because he knows it was no disappearance. Deep in his simple little heart, Jesse knows that Walt not only had nine men murdered simultaneously, but that he eliminated Mike. Jesse knows that Walt is lying about it, as sure as he knows that all of his earnings are bathed in innocent blood. He’s finally cracked. This terrible moment is only slightly mitigated by the hilarious conversation that opens his first scene, courtesy of scene-stealing junkies Badger and Skinny Pete. Dumb homies, but Jesse’s dumb homies nonetheless.

Many viewers have expressed frustration with Jesse, and the fact that he never seems to get over things. He has that in common with Mike, who served as a sort of moral compass against Walt’s self-serving machinations. Without Mike, Jesse is rudderless, and he now knows just how deeply and irreversibly he’s been corrupted by Walt. Jesse managed to overcome Jane’s death (at Walt’s hands), Gale’s death (at his own hands, instead of Walt’s hands), and Drew Sharp’s death (at Todd’s hands, instead of Jesse’s hands, at Walt’s command). He’s Walt’s pawn. He’s a life-taker. He’s already in Hell.

The episode takes its title from Jesse’s five million dollars, packed neatly into two bags meant to uselessly comfort his victims. He might have seemed like the same old Low Point Jesse during this episode: crying, detached, searching fruitlessly for ways to unload his conscience. But I found significance in the scene above, where Walt attempts to convince Jesse that it’s time to move on with life, and Mike’s alive somewhere, and everything’s alright. Jesse hates Walt so much, but there’s one point where Walt calls him “son,” and you can briefly see him jarred back to life. Jesse is 26 years old, and he’s given over most of his early 20s to Walt. Despite all the pain that Mr. White rains down on him, he’s still his teacher, and pretty much his father. Jesse’s past the point of no return. He finally knows he’ll be tethered to death for the rest of his days.

But Jesse’s the last thing on Walt’s mind (as usual). Because Hank. Fucking. Knows.

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Clearly the scene that everyone’s talking about today. The last we saw of Hank, he had just made the staggering connection between Walt and Heisenberg. The look that flooded Dean Norris’ face last year as he stared at Gale’s copy of Leaves of Grass  was nothing compared to his prolonged reaction during “Blood Money.”

As Hank assembles the jigsaw puzzle of Walt’s double life, the reality of his brother-in-law’s betrayal threatens to completely overwhelm his senses. In fact, Hank suffers a panic attack as the weight of this truth runs him over like a freight train, again and again and again. His brain is battling between horror, sadness, rage, and too many question marks to count. This confrontation between Walt and Hank was one of the most amazingly written and photographed moments in Breaking Bad‘s history, as one of the last normal humans in Walt’s immediate orbit realizes they’re basically walking with the devil. Norris’ performance is LEGENDARY. He plays every second with so much emotion that it’s impossible not to bite off your fingers when you’re watching him. I had to push rewind with my big toe. Twice.

Of course, Walt reacts with typical Heisenberg bravado, advising Hank to “tread lightly” because he has no idea who he’s dealing with. Even though Hank literally knows everything (having assembled a giant GUS FRING IS RELATED TO GALE IS RELATED TO JESSE IS RELATED TO WALT) box, he’s kind of at a disadvantage because the betrayal has ruined him psychologically. Walt basically killed the entire Mexican cartel. How do you confront a guy like that in your garage?

Lastly, let us discuss the fact that obviously Skyler is gon’ die.

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Let me just state for the record that I do not think Skyler is a bitch. Nor is her sister Marie. The women on this show are not inherently bitches. But let us concede that Breaking Bad is primarily a show about masculine selfhood, and that questions of identity and fate are framed through a male lens. In the end, BB is somewhat formulaic in its construction of the family and the marital unit. Skyler is not essentially bitchy, or boring, but the story doesn’t give her many moments of her own. Her existence simply defines a certain side of Walt; it does not stand on its lonesome and give us insights into a specifically female experience of crime and powermongering and self-delusion. It just doesn’t. Talk to me about Ted Benicke and money laundering all you want, but Skyler White is just an avatar standing in for Walt’s prior life as a law-abiding, cowardly domestic type.

The fact that the Whites’ marriage seems to be improving is a terrible sign for Skyler. Perhaps you’ve read of the Skyler death theory? I find it incredibly insightful, and it really locks in my expectations. She’s the only thing standing in Walt’s way, really. She makes him feel things, remember things. He just can’t abide that anymore, not with the threats of Hank and Madrigal closing in on all sides. Skyler Must Die.

And if my quiet musings at all approach correct prediction, Walt will have to choose between Skyler and Jesse somehow. The old family and the new. And I will just CUT everybody if Jesse has to go before Skyler.

Those are my two cents about this absolutely phenomenal episode. “Blood Money” re-proves that Breaking Bad is an essentially perfect show. It is so fucking taut, so perfectly choreographed, like a ballet of meth and money and blood. I love that it has this distinct ending point, and that each episode is going to dole out one shocking resolution after another until the finale, when we will all be tearing our clothes off and screaming because GODDAMN IT’S PERFECT AND IT’S OVER. Cinematographer Michael Slovitz recently noted in an interview that Breaking Bad is going to “redefine last seasons in television.” I have no doubt whatsoever.

Phew! So did you watch “Blood Money”? What did you think? Any guesses as to what these last few precious episodes shall bring? Leave a comment and close the garage door.