Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?tumblr_nmdab07a401qhmg1fo1_1280
  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

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The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.

Better Call Saul S1E1: “Uno”

Take a drive with me, buddy. Let’s go all the way back.

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Nostalgia is the watchword of Better Call Saul, a really intriguing piece of TV that’s currently tiptoeing into our homes in the too-large shoes of its big brother. Saul is a rewind, a retcon, a strange kinda memory. In this prequel, we get to spend all of our time with Breaking Bad‘s beloved comic relief: the slippery lawyer Saul Goodman, who was once Jimmy McGill. Watching Saul is like seeing your weird uncle in an old family photo, frozen in time and seeming so much more human. It’s also like a comic-book origin story – not about the superhero, but the sidekick.

Better Call Saul is an experiment. It has to be satisfying for Breaking Bad fans, but also stand on its own two feet. It’s got to fabricate an entire history starting in 2002, while remaining steady on a temporal track towards the events of BB, which begin in 2008. This is a really complicated and ambitious conceit for any spinoff, let alone a spinoff of a show with such deep cultural impact and hysterical audience loyalty.

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Based on the first of the two-part premiere – “Uno” – I think it’s all gonna work out just fine.

Part I: “Uno”

First and foremost, “Uno” was an aesthetic statement. This episode reminded me that creators/writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have vision. This episode was striking, both visually and narratively, with a bravely economical script.

You don’t need to look any further than the first quarter of the episode to see what I mean. For the first twenty minutes of the show, there is no dialogue. We open with a very long black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s post-Breaking Bad existence as a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha*. He wears nondescript eyeglasses and a sad wiry mustache. He kneads dough and stares jumpily at his customers. It’s a colorless life, depicted in noirish high-contrast.

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At night, he drinks a strong, nonsensical cocktail (Dewars and lime juice?) and watches Saul Goodman’s old commercials. It’s a sad image paired with sad sounds: the first person who we hear speaking is effectively dead and exists only on a VHS tape. This is how the show begins: at the end. It’s almost practicing a reverse Breaking Bad: set the stage with tragedy, in order for the comedy to shine brighter.

Which it does.

“Oh, to be 19 again. You with me, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it’s soft, and summer’s gonna last forever.”

Those are the first actual words spoken by our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, back in ’02 when Saul begins. He’s attempting to defend, with romantic poetry, three kids who fucked the head of a human cadaver. That’s how someone like Saul Goodman started out. And that makes perfect sense.

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It’s so cool to watch Bob Odenkirk work. He was so larger-than-life as Saul, but as Jimmy, he’s tentative and high-strung. The character hits many of the same neurotic, blustery, salesman-ish notes, but he hits them softer. He’s still trying on his shark suit. Jimmy doesn’t have a secretary – he’s got a fake British accent that he uses to schedule Mr. McGill’s appointments. He doesn’t rumble into his office parking lot in a white Cadillac DeVille – he parks on the street in an incredibly shitty Suzuki Esteem and works in a closet behind a nail salon*. Early on, we watch him try to win a client at a coffee shop, and his anxious face says it all as he watches the guy almost sign the dotted line. Jimmy McGill is a nobody, who’s in the beginning stages of building the persona of a somebody.

I really enjoyed the storyline involving Jimmy and two scam-artist skateboarder brothers, who he meets when they choose him as their mark. Their scheme is this: one guy videotapes while the other deliberately jumps in front of cars and artfully takes a hit. They then extort the driver. Great scene in which the brothers unsuccessfully try to shake Jimmy down:

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This plotline offers us our first small glimmer of Saul Goodman.

In the scammers, Jimmy sees an opportunity for the kind of hybrid criminal/legal partnership which will eventually become his bread and butter. He attempts to inspire his accomplices with a rambling autobiography, puffing himself up as a legal mastermind. He takes them on a drive to test their skill at remembering crime-scene details.* He’s making clients, fabricating advantageous situations out of nothing, which will eventually become Saul’s number one survival skill. It’s a fun way to introduce the methodology of the character, with his first small-time racket.

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I’m also really excited to learn so much more about Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill. Much of “Uno” focused on Jimmy’s efforts to force Chuck’s legal practice to buy him out, since Chuck’s dying of cancer. The two brothers live together in Jimmy’s squalid apartment, eating uncooked bacon from a watery cooler and having conversations by the light of portable lanterns. Chuck is played with great aplomb by the timeless Michael McKean, who effortlessly parries with Odenkirk (“That’s correct, minus the sarcasm”). We get some valuable insight into their relationship in their scenes together: Jimmy is protective of Chuck, but also seems a little jealous of his older brother’s success as a partner in a legitimate multi-million-dollar practice.

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Wonderful scenes at that business as well, in which Jimmy grandstands in front of Chuck’s partners. I plan to walk into every room shouting “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, AND YOU! WILL! ATONE!” It is so Jimmy/Saul to quote Network and then feel the need to explain that he’s quoting Network. A tic right out of Michael Scott’s playbook.

Also have to mention the beautifully staged moment outside Chuck’s practice, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with a woman who appears to be a sometime-girlfriend. The shot is dramatically lit and lingers long, allowing us to see subtle changes in the actors’ faces. Great cinematography, which is again unsurprising considering Better Call Saul‘s pedigree. This team has always been amazing at breathing life into bland industrial spaces.

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Anyway, back to the plot. “Uno” ends with a giant bang, as Saul follows his witless skater accomplices into a home that belongs to none other than TUCO SALAMANCA. Tight tight tight tight tight! As a BB fanatic, I was so excited to see Tuco, but we shall see in Part II how gimmicky his inclusion proves to be.

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Lastly, I just have to say that I’m so consistently impressed with this team’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to costuming, hairstyle, even the attractiveness of the extras. Everything about Saul screams early 2000s, and it really makes it easier to accept the show as a prequel when the actors have noticeably aged (I’m looking at you, Mike Ehrmantraut).

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A review of Part II: “Mijo” – up tomorrow!

Random addendums…

  • * I starred every Breaking Bad  nod (excluding Saul’s paycheck, which says he lives on Gale’s street: Juan Tabo). It is a running mental list I am compelled to keep.
  • Obsessed with the Back to the Future tribute, in which the skaters cling to the back of a pickup truck! Was this a reference to the 2015 premiere date? A meta wink to the time travel back to Saul’s beginnings? So brilliant.
  • Wondering if anyone caught Bryan Cranston’s charming Mad Men promo spot during the commercial break.
  • The title card was so very chintzy and analog:
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  • Seriously, that long introduction was so fucking beautiful. I’d almost like to see the whole series in black and white. It would be amazing to see a show someday that’s unafraid to embrace the B&W palette.
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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.

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*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.

Breaking Bad S05E15: Granite State

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:
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– 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.

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.

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.

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.