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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Rompiendo Malo: Metástasis

Metástasis (2014)
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How cool is this? The Spanish-language remake of Breaking Bad will air on Univision next year, and to my eyes, ¡es perfecto!

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

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

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

The Beatles, Breaking Bad, and How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pop

Back at liberal arts college, people were always telling me about “self-care.” Taking vanilla-scented baths and getting exercise and letting the sun shine on your face and whatnot. I dunno, are you supposed to do that stuff even if it’s not part of your normal happy routine? When does self-care become more annoying than depression itself? I’d rather feel shitty in bed than drag my ass to the yoga mat.

I’m currently engaged in a Herculean effort to bring myself back from the brink after watching my best friend die right in front of me (aka the Breaking Bad finale, for you laypeople).

I ran out of vanilla bath beads last NEVER, so I can’t do any of that normal inward-healing shit. I’ve just been consuming the hair of the dog: more media! Whenever I feel sad or bereft, I go back to the music and movies that have given me life since I was wee.

BB was a pretty serious blow, so I had to bring out the big guns. Four big guns. The cutest and most trusty guns I’ve ever known.

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I dunno, guys. Nobody GETS ME. I wish I had someone else to wax Beatles with, but I live alone on this beautiful and quaint little island. I mean, I know you like The Beatles and everything, but does a new day dawn on your heart when you hear them? Do their adorable antics cradle you in a bassinet of joy? Do you obsessively compare Paul and John’s different but equally arousing approaches to masculinity? Actually, I did hear a really good joke the other day that you might like. How’s sex with Paul McCartney? Your mother should know! BEATLES HUMOR. GET INTO IT.

When I am really far gone, I delve into The Innocent Era, 1965 and earlier. Usually it’s just repeated viewings of A Hard Day’s Night, which I shall now attempt to convince you is the most wonderful medicine for the sads.

For me, the music heals most of all. A Hard Day’s Night is a REALLY charming film (more on that later), and the soundtrack is just extraordinary. Although 1964 was the high point of their teen pop era, these songs can’t be discounted in the larger pantheon of Beatles genius. This soundtrack in particular has such an awesome capacity to lift me; the songs are perfect pop compositions, so clearly composed by youngsters. Their harmonies are simple and jaw-droppingly pretty. And performed by such delightful kids. One of my favorites:

You might be aware that I’ve been like, insanely obsessed with The Beatles since I’ve had ears, so of course these songs, and this film, have a very specific nostalgia factor for me. I watch A Hard Day’s Night when I want to remind myself of what it felt like to fall in love with art. I watch it when I’m devastated to lose one of my fictional touchstones (DAMN YOU, “Felina”) that help me so much on my road to self-discovery.

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You’ve got to keep your favorite things alive inside you. You’ve got to know what you like. To re-consume my favorite pop culture is to fall in love with humans, with the CRAZY fact that we’re on this planet and we get to make things. I remember being really bowled over by the fact that this music was real, and made me feel, and other people made of flesh and blood had made it, and I had the privilege to be alive and be able to hear it and be happy. What? No. I’m not on drugs. Are you on drugs? Quit that cynicism and dig my open soul here.

I used to watch A Hard Day’s Night with my middle school best friend, a girl who wasn’t afraid to try a fandom on the edge. We were twelve, so we liked a lot of weird things, and we had a bottomless capacity for fawning and flailing and general hysteria. We identified with those screaming chicks in the film. It just didn’t seem that strange to be so far gone with celebrity worship that you would heave your body over railings towards four boys in suits, and then go home to your special room padded with Beatles posters to drool and to dream.

At that time in my life, there was little shame in anything. I mean, I thought I was self-critical then, but MAN, pre-teen Leah doesn’t even compare to mid-20s Leah. Back then, I didn’t get into things because anyone said I was supposed to (and here’s an essay about that). I just loved what I loved. I was unafraid to tell others what I loved. It was just my best friend and I after school, gorging ourselves on culture and unwittingly molding our perspectives on the media all around us. There was no social media profile where I picked and chose which movies and television and music to publicly display allegiance for, so people would get “the right idea” about me. Back then, I didn’t even know it was an option for me to look cool, so I let it all hang out.

And I miss that, so much. That’s what The Beatles still do for me. They gently unzip my heart again, and let it all hang out. I don’t let anyone really see it anymore, but to see that it’s still there, still beating and still so weird, is enough for me.

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This is a clipping from a teen magazine in 1965 that I saved for ten years or more. It’s just one of those moments, frozen in time, that makes me smile. Because this is what it’s like to be a fan – to let something so small, so superficial, like pop music, give you pleasure as intense as you allow it to be.

As I stood in front of my favorite Beatle, the only thing I could think of was that his contact lenses looked like they hurt him. He smiled and stuck out his hand and without thinking, I rested my right arm on top of his left while we shook hands!

“John,” I said, “are your contacts bothering you?”

“No,” he answered. I got the distinct feeling that not too many people had asked that question.

Undaunted, I plunged on. “I have them too!” I confided.

He leaned closer and stared searchingly into my eyes. “Are yours bothering you?” he said with a straight face.

“No,” I stammered, and then we both laughed.

“They’re good, aren’t they?” John said seriously, and I could only nod, not trusting my voice. “But your eyes are prettier then mine,” John said, and to my dismay, unwanted tears rolled down my cheeks. “Hey,” John said with a slight laugh, “don’t cry or they’ll wash away!”

I smiled through my tears as I blurted, “John, you’re my favorite.”

He smiled warmly, gave my hand a final shake and said, “You’re my favorite.”

Perhaps the boys and their corresponding Beatlemania, the expansive cultural influence, have something to do with their status in my life as a soul-salve. It feels to nice to be part of something, doesn’t it? To love The Beatles means that I love something integral to the fabric of modern civilization. I might be a little on the extreme end of the spectrum, but you and I can agree that George Harrison plucked a wicked 12-string.

Did you see the tsunami of Breaking Bad wash across your newsfeeds and dashboards and real-life interactions? Even if you didn’t watch the show, or didn’t like it (whatever THAT means), it was certainly an exciting time. When pop culture ripples like that, it makes me feel so alive and so connected. And that feeling becomes doubly wonderful, dare I say spiritual, when I’ve got a real emotional stake in it. Thank goodness for storytelling in all its forms – thank goodness for creativity! We’re all creating dreams for one another. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re watching or making a show, a movie, or a song. You’re writing and painting my dreams. And I’ll accept that gift with open arms and I’ll never quit typing or tweeting or talking about it, because you deserve to know that it meant a lot to me.

Hmm. It kind of gives these shrieking girls a touch of nobility, no?

Forgive my effusiveness (that’s a fancy word for “crazy”). I’m feeling a lot. This post is how I cope. Not afraid to say it felt awesome to share.

Don’t be afraid to love what you love. There’s no shame in fandom, in any of its forms. “Guilty pleasure” is a term created by the cool kids, and honestly, you don’t wanna be them. They’re soulless and alone even when they’re with people. Let’s come together, right now. I bet you’ve got a few pop-culture coping mechanisms of your own. Feel free to leave me a comment and unzip ’em. I’ll be waiting for you in the vanilla steam of a Los Angeles bathtub.

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Breaking Bad S05E16: “Felina”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From “Kafkaesque,” Season 3:

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

Group Leader: What happened to the box?

Jesse: I…I gave it to my mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OH, SNAP!

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

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

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

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That’s right, bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some last words:

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

– Huell is still in that hotel room.

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

– Also a video of my Hector Salamanca impression.

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

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

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.

The Changing State of Feels in American Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?