24 August 2012

Episode 6: Buyout

These sure are some excellent green beans, Mrs. White.
[Coletta Factor:Breaking Bad-current]
As exciting as the heist was, as shocking as its aftermath, it all seemed like so much table-setting. There needed to be a dramatic event to throw a monkey wrench into the boys' operation. We've seen children threatened and even murdered before on this show, and it's a relatively easy way to go super-dark and serious. I guess it just seems like a rehash for me; it would have been much more interesting to see a major character go into the clearing at the end of the path. (Listen up, Vince Gilligan: you need to kill someone off before the end of these 8. Shit has gotten as real as it can get without it.) 

Having said that, the cold open of this episode was, to quote the Bald Move guys, "one of the most effective...in television history." Dave Porter's somber score is the only thing we hear as Mike, Walt, and Todd carefully disassemble the boy's dirtbike, dropping all the pieces into one of those translucent white barrels so handy for disposing bodies. The bike is a substitute for the boy, and it feels just as chilling and somber, more so even then if it were the boy's body we saw them placing into the barrel. Thankfully we are spared that sight. Jesse sucker-punches Todd, opening credits. 

Lot of good moments in this one. Mike is listening to the bug in Hank's office as they discuss his throwing of 3 DEA tails. Hank tells Gomie that sooner or later Mike will slip up, and they'll be watching. It's kind of a trite line, but the way Jonathan Banks plays Mike's reaction to it is brilliant. He knows; Mike knows Hank is right, that Mike will eventually make a mistake. Mike knows his career as a criminal is over, and you can see mixed in his eyes relief, sadness, contentment, closure. Mike also gets a funny line later on when he tells Walter they will be spending the night sitting up together at the office "like it's my birthday."

In the absence of a Walt we can identify with, Mike has started to fill that role for me. He's an ex-cop who broke bad himself somewhere along the line, and I'm sure someone who'd been on the business end of his gun would tell you he was soulless, (dead mackerel eyes, anyone?) but Mike has a heart. He's not corrupted by power or greed. He does his job, and damn well, too. Everyone we've seen him kill has been in the game and therefore fair game. (And most of them came north looking for trouble, which they found.) He has a granddaughter; he buys her balloons and plays Hungry Hungry Hippos with her. He's funny, too, and as much as I want him to have a happy retirement, he's got Walter White, the famous Heisenberg, to deal with before he can ride off into the sunset. 

If Walt and Mike are 2 points of a right triangle, Jesse is at the right angle. equidistant from each of the older men. Jesse's had a hard life, and as he pointed out from his hospital bed after Hank whooped his ass, he's lost everything since hooking up with Walt. Walt has used, abused, and manipulated Jesse even as Jesse has matured into a responsible, sober young man. Walt's breaking bad has caused a Newtonian opposite direction break for Jesse. I like Jesse and I feel for him, and I want him to get out of the game and move far away from the ABQ, but he's got to make it through at least one more of Heisenberg's machinations before he can ride off into the sunset. 

Another good moment: the Marie-Skyler scene. First, that is the 2nd cutest baby in the world. I think Marie may break bad herself and abscond with the little cherub. But Skyler was gonna tell!! Skyler was all ready to confess everything to Marie, which would have been game over. Good thing Marie had to open her mouth about the affair, giving Skyler a chance to play off the Ted thing as the only thing wrong with the marriage. 

Another note to Vince Gilligan: Gomie needs Hank around. Hank is such a good cop that he makes Gomie look good, but Gomie as the lead on a team looks almost as bad as Barney Fife or that deputy from the Dukes of Hazzard. Gomie sees his subject make a dead drop and wonders aloud if someone is going to pick it up. "Geez, that could take hours, and I want to go to Applebee's. Lemme run over there real quick and check it out." Stupid. If Hank's out of the field, Walt can just go crazy, because the DEA is not going to catch him. 

Gray Matter. We learned in this episode a little more of the backstory, and again I was reminded of Lost, how the past so closely mirrors the present, how one's choices are made in large part based on one's experiences of regret, bitterness, joy and happiness. On Lost, Michael's rocky history as a mostly-absent-but-not-by-choice father meant predetermined that he would betray everyone for just three minutes more with his son. Here, Walt took a $5K buyout 30 years ago from a company that is now worth billions, and as much as we are not really clear on the history, it seems Walt blames Gretchen in particular for some heartbreak or another. Gilligan, on the insider podcast, said this calls into question for him whether Walt is breaking bad now or if Walt always had a darkness in his heart over this perceived slight. (Great thing about Vince Gilligan: he wants you to argue about people's characters and motivations; he freely admits that he has his own interpretation of the story he tells, and that his take on it is not necessarily canon.)  Either way, the Gray Matter buyout  turned Walt into a George Bailey-type sympathetic loser, someone who dreamed big but was never able to pull the trigger.

What else? Walt used science to get out of a tight spot. Great effects on the burning hand by KNB, the same house that does the zombies for Walking Dead.

Oh yeah! How could I forget? The dinner scene. Probably the seminal example of how Breaking Bad does comedy. Walt recklessly invites Jesse to his house. As Jesse is making his pitch to dissolve the business, Skyler comes home, and Walt decides to punish them both by inviting Jesse to stay for dinner. At the table, Skyler is well interested in her wine, Walt is silent with that smug look on his face, and Jesse, trying to be the most poilte dinner guest ever, fills the awkward silence with a monologue about false advertising and frozen lasagna. It's exquisitely painful and funny as hell at the same time. This is the first time we've seen Jesse and Skyler together since season 1, and I have to wonder how much Skyler put together during the dinner. Can she guess that Jesse is Walt's partner? Does she think Jesse is a customer? Also, keeping Jesse away from the house in the beginning was smart, as he didn't want Skyler to find out, and it's colossally arrogant and stupid to have him over now that Hank knows Jesse is involved with the blue meth. It's looking as if, like so many powerful men in the world's history and literature, Walt's hubris will be his downfall.

The pieces are set. Jesse and Mike both want out, but Walt can't do it alone. He's got some kind of plan that will probably involve him double-crossing the Phoenix crew, and with Gilligan's semi-spoilery remark that episode 7 would be a doozy, I am amped for next week's episode, entitled "Say My Name." (Interestingly enough, this episode was originally titled "Everybody Wins," but this and 1 or 2 others were changed within the last week or so.)

Quick Hits:

  • I was able to get my hands on an advance DVD copy of the Avengers and can safely say that it still holds up as a fantastic superhero flick, now that all the hype has worn off. (Temporarily, anyway, until end of next month when everybody, myself included, will buy the film.)
  • Our dog is doing much better now. She's eating again, and we couldn't be more relieved. She seriously has more lives than a cat. Every time I think she's ready to call it a day, she bounces right back. Someday she won't, but I'm enjoying today.
  • "Legitimate rape?" "Shut that whole thing down?" Get a fucking clue already.

17 August 2012

Dead Freight

[Coletta Factor: Breaking Bad-current]
"Sooner or later the day comes when you can't hide from the things you've done"
                     --Commander William Adama

This episode should have wowed me. The boys, with a little help from Todd and Bill Burr, pull off a massive train heist that will keep them in precursor for the immediate future. Jesse had a great idea, Mike had one or two great Mike-isms. ("Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head." or "There are two kinds of heists: ones where the guys get away with it and ones that leave witnesses.") Walt actually went into Hank's office and planted not one but two listening devices, for pete's sake. So why was I not thrilled?

Of course, there was that moment, and when I saw that moment, I knew that it didn't matter how good the episode really was, because Gilligan had given us another watershed water cooler moment. (Does anyone actually talk about stuff around the water cooler?) Let's tackle that one first, then. The cold open showed us a boy on a dirtbike catching a tarantula as a train whistles in the background. Of course, it was beautifully filmed, showcasing the New Mexico desert like only Breaking Bad can. And maybe Oliver Stone. Anyway, this kid shows up again at the end as Todd, Jesse, and Walt are back-slapping each other over a heist well done. After about 10 seconds of awkward, tense silence, Todd pulls out his pistol and shoots the kid, fade to Gilligan's name and closing credits.

It reminds me a bit of the Sopranos. At least twice on that show there was a character who wanted to make an impression on the boss. One robbed a card game and one tried to kill Tony's nephew Christopher. Both took liberties that were not theirs to take, and both ended up dead. It's hard to see how Todd makes it out of next episode alive. No way he can go to the cops; the best that would do is take the death penalty off the table. All three of the "owners" are going to be furious with him: Jesse on humanitarian and moral grounds, Mike on practical grounds, and Walt on the taking liberties ground. Me thinks Todd will get a boxcutter to the neck before too long.

Everytime a kid goes missing, well, every time a white kid goes missing, they always have a million volunteers out there on a search grid, sifting through the landscape for a button or a drop of blood. I don't know what kind of ground this kid covers on that dirtbike, or what kind of ground his parents think he covers, but it's likely that train trestle and surrounding area will be swarming with heat within 48 hours. A couple of freshly filled in holes under a bridge? Suspicious, getting dug up immediately. Funny fumes coming from one of the holes? Test the soil and find residual methalymine. It's not too far a jump to say killing this kid will be Walt's downfall. And Hank supposedly put together a surveillance team on Mike last week, too. Was the DEA watching the heist go down, ready to swoop in, Reservoir Dogs style, after the fact?

Why was I not thrilled? It seems to me like they (the writers) rushed through the job of planning a believable heist just to give us that moment. There's a lot of good stuff here, it's just not quite as tight as I expect the best show on television to be. For example, last week we had an epic bedroom showdown between Walt and Skyler, the point of which was, if I read the scene correctly, that the power dynamic in the marriage had shifted almost completely to Walt. The key moment is when Skyler admits she is powerless, a coward. It was a powerful moment, and the scene between them this week took some of that power away by letting Skyler dictate terms to Walt. It felt redundant but also a little contradictory.

I said there was some good stuff, and I was mainly talking about the scene with Lydia, where the boys have her cuffed to a table in an abandoned warehouse. Lydia is a great new character. I know there's haters out there, but she's a mom, she's a corporate bigwig, she dabbles in the meth trade and seemingly was a notch above Gus in the food chain. You take those things I just listed, and 99% of TV series will give you a domineering, confident, cold-hearted bitch. I'm not railing against strong female characters, just saying that's what you would expect, instead of the twitchy, jittery, constantly anxious squirrel that is Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. From her super-spy routine in the diner with Mike to her mismatched shoes to her awkward simultaneous hiding and peeking at her henchman as he's led off in handcuffs, Lydia gives us all these entertaining moments that cast her in three dimensions. Laura Fraser, a Scotswoman who does an American accent for the role, does an excellent job of selling Lydia as believable, and I hope we get to see a lot more of her. 

That's most of what I have to say about this week. Long on action, short on character, pretty much the polar opposite of last week's brilliant, Rian Johnson-directed episode, "51." I didn't cover "51" last week, and my apologies again, but let me tell you what stood out for me. The bedroom showdown I referenced earlier was pretty epic. Walt chased her around the room like a cat does a mouse, cornering her then letting her scurry away only to play with her some more. Any pretext of love between them is nullified, and their relationship is now a grim battle of wills over the fate of their children. (Hank and Marie stepped up and took in Junior and Holly, and it was another good thing about this week's episode to see Hank enjoying that baby so much.) Johnson has a visual flair that melds so well with the way Breaking Bad tells the story, and "51" was rife with meaningful visuals, most of them callbacks to earlier episodes.

That is all, except for a couple of non-BrBa quick hits:

  • The Olympics were awesome. NBC's coverage, not so much. However, they did a great job of promoting their fall line-up. The sitcoms look pretty lame, but I'll be tuning in to Revolution for at least an episode or two.
  • Russell Brand is not The Walrus. Russell Brand is a jerkoff. 
  • The date is set: On May 1, 2015, Avengers 2 will be released, written and directed again by Joss Whedon. Can't wait!
  • Decided to skip Total Recall in theaters this summer, due to poor reviews and a weak box office. I'll just wait until this fall and bootleg it, oops I mean legally purchase or rent it.
  • Paranorman opens today; it probably won't be as good as Coraline, but still a lot of fun. Better than that Pixar rubbish anyway.
Ok, see ya next week!

13 August 2012

11 August 2012

51, not quite

So it looks like this week is a wash. Between a sick doggie and working an extra day, I didn't get to write a post for "51" this week. I'm just going to leave it for now and move on to next week. It's a shame, too, because Anna Gunn did some great work as Skyler this week, we got quirky Lydia, cold Heisenberg, sweet Jesse, and Mike being sexist. I'll hit the major points next week. My sincerest apologies to all 3 of my readers.

01 August 2012

Hazard Pay: The Return of Badger and Skinny Pete

[Coletta Factor: Breaking Bad-current]
Great episode. First thing I want to say is that it was great to see Badger and Skinny Pete back on the show.  Every time we see them it's comedy gold. Before we get too much further into it, let me share this video with you of my favorite Badger-Skinny Pete moment: the argument about zombie games.

We saw them in this episode mainly to illustrate how far Jesse has come since the beginning, when he was little more than a street-level cook, dealer, and user. Now that he's not on the same level as Badger and Skinny, I don't expect to see them again, unless Gilligan feels the need to leaven some of the heavy drama coming up and throws them in for comic relief.

There were about 41 minutes of this episode that had no Badger or Skinny, and that's what I should be getting to now. In the cold open, we see Mike, undercover as a paralegal, going to see Dennis in jail. You may remember Dennis as the manager of the laundry; he was the guy who let Gomie and his partner in to snoop around last season. The point of this scene is to say that Mike is keeping his word to his guys about their hazard pay, the money they would get when things went pear-shaped. Dennis, and by extension all of the guys, are understandably worried. The boss is dead, the business is gone, the DEA took all of their money. They want to believe Mike will make good, but they just don't see how it's gonna happen. Mike, in a real honor-among-thieves move, visits each one to give them his personal assurance that he will "make them whole." I had two thoughts as the opening credits rolled after this scene: 1. Mike is a real stand-up guy, a Hufflepuff to the end, and 2. Walt is not going to like this one bit. It's the second thought that becomes the central conflict in the end in a terrific scene.

 The final scene is Mike, Jesse, and Walt and 3 stacks of cash, the bounty from their first cook as owners of the business. (I'll get to that in a minute.) Mike breaks down their expenditures, taking cash off each pile as he does. He saves the biggest one for last: legacy cost, 117k each. An argument ensues, and it's hard not to see Walt's point a little bit: he killed Gus, and he doesn't like having to pay Gus's guys for their silence. They are Mike's guys, it should come out of Mike's end. Mike disagrees, primarily because he wants to honor his deal with them, but also on pragmatic grounds. Any one of these guys could really put the screws to all 3 of them if they felt they were not being taken care of. Gilligan wants us to see both sides, and we do, but I come down on Mike's side: they pay the guys because that's what you do.

Walt agrees, until Mike leaves and he and Jesse are alone together. Walt starts talking about Victor and why Gus killed him. At first, Walt says, he thought it was a message to him and Jesse not to fuck with the boss. Now that Walt is sitting in the big chair he sees it a little differently. Victor took the liberty of cooking a batch, he took the liberty of going into Gale's apartment and getting seen. We're led to understand that Walt thinks Mike is now taking liberties with their money, and that Mike just may be in Walt's crosshairs now. This is a Walt we are becoming more and more familiar with: ruthless, calculating, almost sociopathic in his self-interest. For the record, I want to say that it would be a huge mistake for Walt to turn on Mike. Not only is Mike the only one who has the business and supply contacts, but he could smell Walt coming a mile away. The quickest way for Walt to get himself killed right now would be to go after Mike.

Onto the middle part of the episode: setting up the business. There's a lot of good stuff here, most of it pretty light in tone. We start with a close-up on Mike's face and hear this odd sound, kind of like breathing, but also kind of like snoring. Who could it be? It's Huell! The big guy is standing in front of the door to Saul's office, apparently sound asleep. Inside, Saul is worried about bringing Mike into the operation because of that time Mike threatened him for Jesse's whereabouts. Walt tells Saul to grow a pair: threatening people is what Mike does; he probably threatened someone before breakfast. Now they have to find a new place to cook, and we get a few quick scenes of potential sites. One is a box factory, where we get to see Walt wax poetic about a simpler time in his life; the moment is soon crushed by pragmatism. The steam and salt in the air at this location would ruin the product. Next, a tortilla factory, which is no good because the tortillas would start smelling like cat piss, not to mention that food production facility is subject to unannounced government inspections. Here we get a funny Jesse moment, as he grabs a tortilla off the production line on the way out. Next up, Lazer Tag, the place Saul's been pushing on them since last season. They didn't even get inside before the boys put the kibosh on it.

What they finally settle on is not one place, but many: they make a deal with a pest removal company whose employees are all small-time crooks. The pest removal guys get a job bug-bombing a house, which means the owners go away for a few days and a tent is placed over the entire house. No one in the neighborhood goes near it, no one complains about funny smells. They go in, they cook a batch, they bug-bomb on the way out. It's as brilliant as it is devious. Walt and Jesse figure out what they need, Junkyard Joe gets the equipment, Badger and Skinny buy them roadie cases, and they've got methylamine from Lydia. Next we get  the first cook, and probably the best cooking montage we've seen on the show.

2 more things I want to talk about: Walt's manipulation of Jesse and Scarface. Walt playing Jesse for a sucker is really nothing new, but the way he does it now is so effortless and apparently guilt-free. This time he uses a kernel of truth from his own life, telling Jesse in regards to his relationship with Andrea and Brock that secrets have a cost, that they drive people away and take a piece of your soul. This is true, and you believe Walt as he's saying it, but it's dirty because he's leading Jesse to break it off with her, which he does. Their relationship is starting to remind me of Tony Soprano's relationship with his nephew Christopher; there's a love, a familial bond there, but the business comes first, and anything's fair game for the big guy to do to the little one. This dichotomy between the familial bond and the machinations of a crime lord was one of the central themes throughout the entire run of the Sopranos, and it's coming to the fore here as Walt assumes the "Don" role. It's really fascinating to watch, and we hope that things will turn out better for Jesse than they did for Christopher.

Scarface. Finally, after Gilligan telling anyone who will listen that Walt's journey is that of "Mr. Chips to Scarface," we get an explicit in-universe reference to Brian DePalma's gangster opus, which is probably one of the 3 seminal gangster movies. (The other 2 are The Godfather and Goodfellas, but the point can be argued.) In the season opener, we saw Walt buying an M60 machine gun, which is not quite the same weapon as Tony Montana's "Little Friend," but close enough. It's well known that Scarface is the story of the rise and fall of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, who comes to Miami with his best friend Manny, played by Steven Bauer. Breaking Bad fans will recognize Bauer as Don Eladio, the head of the Mexican cartel who killed Gus's partner Max and was later poisoned by Gus. If you can imagine the rise and fall of Tony Montana as climbing and ascending a mountain, Tony made the summit by killing his boss and taking over his business. His downfall was caused first by picking the wrong guy to be his money launderer. He was caught on camera laundering millions of dollars. (I remember this scene, with the camera hidden in a wall clock, very well because on the old VHS copy I had, that was the last scene before you had to put in the second tape.) Desperate, he goes to South America to see his supplier, Alejandro Sosa, a major player in the continental drug trade. When Tony first met Sosa, Sosa delivered Tony a warning: "Don't you ever try to fuck me." This time, Sosa offered Tony a way out: kill a man who was scheduled to deliver a major speech at the UN naming Sosa as the man behind the flow of drugs into America. If Tony would do it, Sosa would make Tony's legal problems go away. Tony agreed, and Sosa sent an assassin for Tony to work with. The assassin is also someone known to Breaking Bad fans: Emmy nominee Mark Margolis, who played Tio Salamanca. They put a bomb on the man's car and were all ready to blow him to bits, until he picked up his wife and kids. Tony refused to do it, killing the assassin. The man delivered the speech to the UN and Sosa sent his goons to Miami to take Tony out. This is the shoot-out Walt and Junior are watching in this episode.

The parallels to Breaking Bad are there if you look. Walt became the king by taking out his boss, Gus. (In a great line of dialogue from this episode, however, Mike told Walt "...just because you shot Jesse James, it doesn't make you Jesse James.) Now he's on top, but the paranoia is starting to set in. A man in power is afraid of nothing more than losing his power, and we see this in Walt's argument with Mike over the hazard pay: Mike is a threat to Walt's bottom line, but also to his absolute power. The epic money laundering scene from Scarface is mirrored in the money counting scene in this episode, and it also signals the beginning of the end for Walt. We have the fact that Gus was somebody important in Pinochet's Chile, important enough that the cartel couldn't  kill him. Whatever it was that Don Eladio was afraid of is now to be Walt's fate. Is Future Walt buying that M60 to fend off waves of armed Chilean thugs? My answer is yes. Walt's rise to power contains the seeds of his inevitable downfall.

That's about all I want to talk about on this episode. What about Skyler, you might say? She had a breakdown, and we see the Scarface scene through her eyes as she realizes just what kind of monster she's sharing a bed with, but nothing really changed for her this week. I am waiting for her to do something, whether it's suicide or trying to kill Walt or telling Hank or filing for divorce or just skipping town with the kids. This deer-in-the-headlights thing she's got going on is fascinating, but it feels much like the funk Jesse was in last season after he killed Gale. I'm just waiting for it to break.

That's all I have on Breaking Bad this week. A few other points:

  • The final season of Weeds is rather disappointing so far, although I enjoyed Andy's meditation this week on the karmic origin of his being an "effortless receiver of tail."
  • I saw The Dark Knight Rises this weekend, and it was awesome. Maybe not quite as tightly plotted as The Dark Knight, and of course you feel the absence of Heath Ledger's Joker, but Tom Hardy was terrifying as Bane, and Anne Hathaway's Catwoman was sexy and fierce and left you wanting more.
That's all for now, see you next week!

30 July 2012

Instant reaction: "Hazard Pay"

Great episode. The hospital tent cook montage was maybe the best cooking montage yet. We finally got an explicit Scarface reference, a scene which ties back to the cold open of the season premiere, with Grizzly Walt buying a huge machine gun. Who knew that Skinny Pete could play the piano?And Mike reminded me so much of Joe Cabot from Reservoir Dogs in that one scene with the pest control guys. That's it for now, more on the 'morrow

25 July 2012

Season 5, episode 2: "Madrigal"

[Coletta factor: Breaking Bad-current]
You've seen Jonathan Banks before: his IMDB rap sheet lists 133 acting credits over the last 40 years, reading, in part, like a list of the most popular TV shows: Barnaby Jones, Hill Street Blues, Simon & Simon, Falcon Crest, Designing Women, Walker Texas Ranger, Alias, ER, Dexter, Modern Family, and so on. And  then there's the movies: would you believe me if I told you he was in "Airplane!," the seminal absurdist spoof of the 80's? It's true, here's a picture:
"He's all over the place. What an asshole!"

If you're of a certain age, and you didn't grow up under a rock, you also saw him in Beverly Hills Cop, playing the thug who guns down Eddie Murphy's best friend at the beginning of the film:

All this is to say that Jonathan Banks has been around the block, something he shares with Mike, the character he now plays on Breaking Bad. One can imagine all of these different roles and scenes swirling around in Banks's head as he prepares to play Mike, and you can imagine him putting all that experience into playing the world-weary Mike, who's seen it all before, who's tired and grumpy and doesn't want to be bothered. It's in this episode that Mike comes to the forefront, as he deals with unexpected fallout from the magnet scheme last week.

But we start in Germany, at the headquarters of Madrigal Elektromotive, the multi-national corporation behind Los Pollos Hermanos and Gus's meth operation. Herr Schuler is tasting sauces in the company's test kitchen, but his mind is a million miles away. There's a handful of cops in his office who would like a word with him, presumably about his connection to Gus. Instead of talking to them, he grabs an emergency defibrillator off the wall and locks himself in a bathroom. He calmly undresses and hangs his clothes up, shades of the deliberate way Gus did much the same in last year's opener "Box Cutter." And then he electrocutes himself. Exeunt Herr Schuler, cue opening credits. Great opening scene, one that should probably have been the cold open for the season premiere, if they had wanted to save the flash-forward for another time.

The open question concerning Madrigal is this: who knew? Is there a big bad, some powerful Chilean ex-military badass at the top of the Madrigal food chain, or was it just Schuler and the woman I haven't mentioned yet, Lydia? Early in the episode, Mike is sitting at a diner when a woman comes in and sits in the booth next to his. Judging from her interaction with the waitress, the diner is beyond slumming for her, but she came to see Mike. There's some good comedy that comes from their interplay; she's acting like she's in a James Bond movie, but Mike has no time and no patience for it.  She wants Mike to kill the 11 men who know enough about the operation to sink her if the DEA ever got their claws into them. Mike knows the guys are solid; he hand-picked them, vetted them carefully, and they are well-paid to take the heat if things ever got out of hand, wheelchair-bomb wise. He manages to talk her out of it, or at least she agrees to drop the idea, but when the DEA finds the very same money earmarked for those guys, she finds that one of the 11 is willing to carry out the hits. His name is Chris, and he manages to kill one man before Mike kills him. So Mike travels to Houston (not made obvious in the episode, but Gilligan confirmed it.) to pay Lydia a visit. He is about to kill her when she starts pleading with him that she not disappear. She actually wants her young daughter to find her body. Something in her pleading and Mike's own self-interest save her life, as Mike, instead of killing her, asks her if she can still get methalymine, the blue precursor that Walt and Jesse are having a hard time finding. Mike calls Walt and agrees to join the operation.

I jumped ahead a little because I wanted to talk about Mike before I talked about Walt. This really was Mike's episode, and well-deserved for both the character and the actor, but the star of the show had a few moments, too. We see him channeling the calm dominance of Gus Fring as he moves his pieces around the board, first trying to recruit Mike into a 3-way partnership then directing Saul to find them a new place to cook. (We get a good laugh here when Jesse refers to the RV as "the crystal ship" and insists that's what he's always called it.) Walt has changed, and it's made plain by his interactions in this episode with his two partners, Jesse and Skyler.

In a wonderfully shot montage we see Walt preparing a dummy ricin cigarette while we hear a phone call between him and Jesse. Jesse can't stop thinking about the cigarette that disappeared out of his pocket; he's worried that someone will find it and poison themselves. This is a very human and vulnerable worry, and it illustrates the degree to which Jesse is now the moral center of the series. If you remember, one of Saul's guys, at Walt's behest, lifted the cigarette off Jesse at the end of last season as part of Walt's plan to poison the kid and make Jesse think that Gus did it. So now that Jesse is worried about the missing cigarette, Walt feels compelled to protect his lie by making a dummy cig for Jesse to find. Walt plays Jesse for a sucker, and Jesse is so relieved when he finds the cigarette that he breaks down in tears. We the audience, at that point, want Jesse to scream at Walt for making ricin in the first place, scream at him for turning them both into killers. We want Jesse to turn his back on Walt and move on, but Jesse is actually crying out of guilt for having blamed Walt for poisoning the kid. You feel his pain and despair, but you also feel sorry for him for being duped by the man he trusts the most. This scene, the way it's written and the way it's played by Paul and Cranston, sets up what could be the game-ending conflict of the series. You hope Jesse will get wise, but you're afraid he won't, and you're afraid because you know that Walt would kill Jesse in a minute if Jesse ever became a threat.

Skyler, poor Skyler. The woman we hated for so long has become a victim. She's living with a man she hardly knows anymore, a man she's deathly afraid of. She has gone into this very depressed, submissive mode that lacks any of the spark or bite she previously had. In her scenes with Walt this week, the camera stays on her, and we don't see Walt's face. We see him from the chest down, directing Skyler to get out of bed. We see her sad face in bed as Walt gets undressed, telling her that the guilt she feels over the Ted situation will go away in time. This is a situation that fills me with dread, because I know Skyler is a fiery woman, and once she snaps out of the funk she may decide to do something about her husband. Whether she goes to the DEA or tries to take matters into her own hands, Walt won't like it. Walt is now so far gone into the Heisenberg persona that he's forgotten why he started down this road in the first place, to provide for his family after he's gone, and he will kill Skyler if he feels threatened by her.

What was Hank up to this week? We got 2 scenes of the big guy: one with Gomie and Merker and one with Gomie and Mike. (Am I the only one who remembers that Hank left the DEA after he beat the snot out of Jesse? His investigation into Gus last year was on his own time, and we haven't seen him officially reinstated. I guess we have to take that as a given.) Merker's been thrown under the bus for the Gus situation, and he has a drink with Hank and Gomie before he leaves. The key takeaway in this scene is Merker's story about having Gus over to his house for dinner once, laughing and telling stories, pretending to be one person while he was actually someone else. Right under Merker's nose. Sound familiar? It just adds to the dread/tension level that the camera's not on Merker during this story, it's on Hank. Dean Norris plays it so well that you really can't tell how Hank is reacting to it. The big question on my mind regarding Hank is whether, on some level, he knows about Walt. It could be that he suspects, but he knows that he would go down just as hard himself. My own interpretation is that some part of his mind knows, and there's something tickling him just out of reach of his consciousness. What he'll do when he becomes fully aware is anyone's guess.

The other Hank scene was great. They bring in Mike and turn on the heat. Hank's doing his best, but Mike is an ex-cop and far too smart to fall for that kind of intimidation. It's a battle of iron wills, and Mike wins, ultimately because Hank and Gomie have nothing but their hunches to go on. It's a great moment when Mike puts his hands on the table, palms down, and looks at the two agents. "What, did you forget your handcuffs?" Mike is such a badass.

I think that's all I have for this week. After the jump break, minor spoilers. You have been warned.

19 July 2012


The 2012 Emmy nominations were announced this morning, and Breaking Bad scored big. Bryan Cranston was nominated for a 4th time as lead actor in a drama, an award he won for each of the first 3 seasons of the show. There's no reason he shouldn't win again. Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, and Giancarlo Esposito got nods in the supporting categories. Of course I would love to see them all win, but Esposito is the one to watch. His calm, ruthless Gustavo Fring is the most menacing TV villain in recent memory. And, of course, the show itself was nominated for best drama. We'll find out who wins on September 23.

edited for previously unknown information: Also nominated was the Mark Margolis, whom I was thrilled to see come back as Tio Salamanca this year. What that man can do with only a bell and a mean face puts a lot of actors to shame. There's one more nomination: Vince Gilligan for directing "Face-Off," the brilliant season 4 finale. Of course he should win.

17 July 2012

Breaking Bad # 5x01, "Live Free or Die"

[COLETTA FACTOR: Breaking Bad-current]

Before we begin, let me apologize. I wanted to do a preview post before the start of season 5, but the real world intervened this weekend and I spent most of it taking care of our sick dog. So here I am on Monday night, the dog is sedated, and I've seen the new episode twice already. I'm ready to rock, but first, a wag of the finger.

A wag of the finger to Netflix's streaming service, which made available season 4 a mere 7 hours before the season 5 premiere, making it mathematically impossible for me to watch the entire season before last night. If Netflix wants to focus mainly on TV shows and let their movie selection wither on the vine, the least they should do is to do TV right. That means putting the old season up in time for people to get caught up. I guess you shouldn't expect much for 8 bucks a month.

The poster above was released last week, and it seemed vaguely spoilerish at the time. There was a bit of discussion about the possibility that the object in the foreground was the hatch leading to some underground bunker at the junkyard where Walt and Jesse would get back to cooking. Someone said it reminded them of the Hatch that John Locke found on the Island. I noticed that, too, and right away noticed Walt's resemblance to Locke. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this episode was all about magnets. Let's put a pin in that one for now.

Flash-forward Walt
The episode's teaser is a flash-forward, but a rather unique one for Breaking Bad. When they've used flash-forwards, it's usually been a tease, a snippet of the future for the purpose of filing you with dread or tension. I'm thinking here of the burnt teddy bear in season 2.  There's no story in those scenes; they're just images that reinforce the terror and tragedy of the plane crash as it's happening.  What we have here is a much more "Lost"-style flash-forward; it's the beginning of a story that's probably pretty close to the end of the series, and it feels like the writers want to spend some time with this older, more grizzled Walt. We linger over breakfast with him, listen to the mostly inane chatter of the waitress, people come and go. I would love to see this story with this Walt play out in parallel to the present-day storyline of the aftermath of Gus's death and the seemingly inevitable rise of Heisenberg the kingpin. (Also, as a life-long Bostonian, I felt a gush of pride to hear Walt say we had a good science museum. It's true, we do.) 

If the story of this episode is Walt cleaning up his mess from last season, the theme of the episode is how Walt's relationships are changing now that he has taken such a clear step to the dark side. He asserts his dominance over Mike, Saul, and Skyler here. The only reason he doesn't have to put Jesse in his place is that Jesse knows now that he is the apprentice. Vince Gilligan, in doing press for season 5, said that Jesse's arc for this half-season will be reinvestment, and we can see that here. He gets between Mike's gun and Walt, and later he tries to convince Mike to listen to Walt's plan. There's a level of trust that Jesse has in Walt, and it will be interesting over time to see that develop. One of the Bald Move guys said, and I agree, that Walt and Jesse will not survive another falling out. Next time they find themselves at odds, the stakes will be high; Walt has to pay the piper for Jane and Brock and Jesse's savage beating at Hank's hands. It seems too easy to predict that Jesse will kill Walt; I'd like to think that Gilligan can give us a little more surprise than that. It would be really interesting if Jesse were to turn state's evidence on Walt.

Where was I? Yes, Dominance. Walt demands Mike's faith that the magnet worked based only on his saying so. There was something about the way that was filmed, with Mike and Jesse in the front seat and Walt in back. It leaves no doubt that Walt is the boss. Saul explains the Beneke situation to Walt and tries to walk away. Walt refuses: "We're done when I say we're done."

Poor Skyler. I used to hate Skyler, because she was always up Walt's ass about something, but I also respected her. She was a fiercely loyal mother and wife who was never afraid to speak her mind. In the first 3 seasons, she had the upper hand in the marriage. Walt was keeping a pretty big secret from her, and she knew it. Her anger was righteous, and she threw Walt out on his ass when she finally was able to prove her nagging suspicions. 

All that has changed now. Walt is back at home, and the first thing we hear Skyler say this season is that she's afraid of her husband. Later, after Walt finds out about the money she gave to Ted (of I.F.T. fame) he holds her tight and whispers "I forgive you." This is probably the worst face we've seen on Walt yet. Saying "I forgive you" to someone who hasn't asked for forgiveness is pretty awful. It completely disregards any reason Skyler may have had for doing what she did, and it presumes without discussion that she was totally in the wrong. You could argue that Skyler had no choice but to give Ted the money, you could argue that she was protecting her family in the same way that Walt had always done, but Walt doesn't want to hear any of it. Skyler giving money to a man with whom she cheated on Walt is an affront to Walt's manhood and he takes it as such. That he chooses to be benevolent and offer forgiveness is no less dismissive or controlling than if he had beat her for it. 

We don't see much of Hank in this one, but there is a beautifully shot scene of Hank and Gomie exploring the burned-out superlab. This episode was directed by Michael Slovis, who is the director of photography on the series. He's the guy responsible for a lot of the innovative camera work that defines the look of Breaking Bad, and we got some nice stuff here. The cars-playing-chicken wide angle shot was neat, but the best one was when Hank was looking around the lab. At one point, we see a POV from about a foot in front of Hank's knees looking up. The camera tracks a semi-circle around Hank as he stands in tableau looking up. It's not only that it looks cool, it's that they used a neat shot to move the story along. It's a cue that Hank's found something important: the video camera Gus installed in the superlab when he realized he could no longer trust Walt. 

We only see Hank in one more scene, at Gus's office at Los Pollos Hermanos, when the APD takes custody of the laptop with surveillance footage of the whole operation. Hank has kind of a faraway look in his eye. It could be that the most recent threat on his life brought back unpleasant memories of El Paso and his run-in with the Twins. We've seen Hank moody and on the verge of breaking before, but I don't think that's it. Hank has good instincts, and he may already suspect that Walt is Heisenberg. Remember when Tony Soprano had that dream where Big Pussy was a fish on display at the market and told him that he was an FBI informant? Tony's unconscious mind had put the pieces together and had to break through to his conscious mind despite Tony not wanting to believe it was true. I think that's where Hank is now. He's got all the pieces, and if he ever decides to ask Walt about his relationship with Jesse, it's game over. Another game over scenario, which I would love to see happen, is Walter Jr. casually mentioning to Hank that Walt called him Jesse once. As soon as Hank loses the blinders, it's game over.

So let's talk about the magnet. First off, this episode's focus on magnetism and the flash-forward scene made me think that Vince Gilligan must have watched a few episodes of Lost during the hiatus. Even the theme of leadership so prevalent in Lost is present here, as we see Walt seize control of all of his people and assert his position. 

Right, the magnet. I like a lot of how it was executed. The scene with Mike and Walt arguing in the foreground while Jesse keeps repeating "magnet" while out of focus in the background was a really neat piece of visual storytelling, and the look on the faces of the two older men, a kind of mutual amazement that Jesse actually had a viable idea, was a good bit of comedy. The junkyard guy is hilarious too: "Why would anyone wanna put a metal ring through the end of his prick?"  

The heist was pretty well-done. It was tense but funny, and I liked how Jesse's triumphant attitude rubbed up against Mike's surliness. I'm not so sure that Mike was wrong to be worried about the truck. How many of those giant magnets are there in the city? And what happens when Hank remembers that it was a guy at a junkyard who kept him from busting Pinkman and taking the RV? All Hank has to do is go to the junkyard and ask to see the guy's giant magnet, and it's game over. 

Notice a theme here? Game over. Hank finds out about Walt? Game over. Jesse finds out about Jane and Brock? Game over. Ted tells the police about Sklyer's involvement? Game over. Walt bought a giant machine gun and is planning on using it in town? There's not a lot to go on there, but doesn't it feel like game over? There's a real sense of finality to this first episode; they want us to know the last act has begun and the house lights will be coming up practically before you can blink. 

A few tidbits:

  • Mike feeding chickens in his bathrobe? Awesome. This is a great supporting character.
  • Apparently the final shot of last season, in which the camera tells you that Walt poisoned the kid, was too ambiguous for some. There was enough debate about what it meant that Gilligan felt he needed to confirm it for us in the scene with Saul and Walt. I thought it was unnecessary; Gilligan said then and now that it wasn't meant to be ambiguous. I wonder if viewers didn't get it or didn't believe it because they couldn't accept that their protagonist would stoop so low. 
  • My previous spoiler about Max coming back turned out to be pretty minor: the actor was credited for appearing in a photograph among Gus's possessions. It's a little disappointing, but it would have sucked hard if it had been revealed that he never died, that he was behind Gus all along, whatever. I wanted a flashback, dammit!
  • Holy shit, Beneke's alive! Did not see that one coming.
A few more non-Breaking Bad tidbits:

  • If you get the chance, you should check out this movie called Triangle, with Melissa George. It's a thriller about some pretty people who go out one afternoon on a boat and end up on some kind of a ghost ship, and if you think you've seen this story before, you're wrong. It's really mind-bending where the story goes, and I won't ruin it for you except to say that the title "Triangle" has nothing at all to do with the Bermuda Triangle. It's more of a triangle of narratives.
  • Weeds is also in its final season, and I'm digging it so far. It would be really interesting to write a post comparing and contrasting Nancy Botwin and Walter White. Their stories, at least at the beginning, are quite similar but played very differently. 
That is all. No spoilers tonight. I wouldn't tell you anything except episode titles and guest cast, and you can find that stuff on IMDB. 

Next week: "Madrigal," as in Madrigal Elektromotive, Gus's parent company. This smells like  big trouble for Walt...

25 June 2012

Breaking down "Breaking Bad"

Walter White is the danger.
[Coletta Factor:Breaking Bad-current]
Breaking Bad is a story about a man named Walter White. When we first met Walter, he was a high school chemistry teacher with an after-school job at a car wash, a teenage son, a pregnant and overbearing wife, and an ever-present sense of quiet desperation, like he'd given up hope of having any control over his life. Two things happened to him in the pilot episode that sent him on his journey: first, his brother-in-law Hank, who is a DEA agent, took him on a ride-along to see a meth lab busted. Walter was the only one who saw one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the lab through an upstairs window. They shared a moment of eye contact. Jesse made the universal "don't tell" sign, a finger to the lips, and Walter kept his mouth shut. The second thing that happened to Walter in the pilot was that he found out he had lung cancer and no more than two years left to live. This is where things started to get hairy; Walter went to Jesse's house and gave him a choice: the two would partner up and manufacture (cook) and sell crystal meth or Walter would tell Hank about Jesse's involvement in the busted lab.

That was the beginning. Four seasons later, Walter White has become nearly unrecognizable from the man he was; he's become a shrewd manipulator, a ruthless businessman who apparently has no qualms about risking the lives of innocent people, even children or the elderly. Literally. This is an amazing story, Walter's journey from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," as series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan has famously said. Bryan Cranston plays Walter with a gripping intensity that has earned him three well-deserved Emmys. (The only reason he didn't win four is because the fourth season started too late to be eligible for the 2012 awards. Look for him to win again next year, as well as Giancarlo Esposito for playing the best villain the small screen has ever seen. But put a pin in that for now.) The supporting cast is outstanding; my favorite is Dean Norris (You've seen him before, even if you don't know who he is.) as Hank, whose dogged pursuit of a new meth kingpin provides much of the tension by bridging Walter's family life with his business. Hank is an excellent DEA agent, a good cop, but he's been outmaneuvered by Walter at every turn. One wonders if Hank subconsciously knows that something is up with his brother-in-law; it's a question of how willful his blindness is. Hank is also a source of much of the comedy in the series. You heard me, comedy: this is a dark, dark story, and the level of tension calls for it to be relieved by a solid laugh now and again. It's not jokes, though; the comedy grows organically from the story and the characters themselves, who you feel are true, real, and complex people, each with their own motivations and inner lives. It's good acting, but more importantly, it's good writing. Great writing, even. 

So you've got a good story, tension and comedy, light and dark, cops and robbers. What else could you possibly want from a series? How about setting the action in Albuquerque, NM and allowing the landscape to be so prominent in the story that it feels like a character in the show, just as the Enterprise was the 8th main character in Star Trek? The visuals are amazing, and it's not just the desert landscapes. Breaking Bad even has a signature shot, used to the same effect as Tarantino's trunk-cam. The first time you see it, Walter and Jesse are cleaning up a giant bloody mess in a hallway at Jesse's house. The camera seems to be in the floor looking up at the pair with their gas masks and rubber aprons as they scrub the floor. Over and over we get this floor-cam, and it never feels cheap or over-used. But there's more; the series is like a master class in composition, lighting, camera placement, the use, placement, and varied volume of sound and music. Vince Gilligan must have one hell of a talent for executing his vision, but also a talent for getting the hell out of the way when someone has a really great idea. 

And now it's all coming to an end. We'll get eight episodes for eight Sundays starting July 15, and the final eight next summer. Walter may have vanquished his greatest enemy, but there's danger at his door. If  Jesse were to find out certain things, Walter would be dead at Jesse's hand faster than you can say "bitch!" Hank is still on the trail, what's left (if any) of the Salamanca cartel wants him dead, and there may or may not be a Chilean death squad on its way to the ABQ.Oh, and his wife, who can barely be in the same room with him even as she knowingly launders his dirty money, may be guilty of murder in the service of a cover-up. Did I miss anything? Probably, but I don't want to give away too much. My hope, dear reader, is that you'll pick up and watch the series. If you start now and you're like me, you'll be hooked after the first two episodes; it will be no problem to watch all 46 episodes before July 15. They're streaming on Netflix or you may be able to catch reruns on AMC at the moment. 

My plan is to do one post a week, breaking down the episode and telling you what I think. I warn you now that I will discuss plot points in detail. If you come here before you've seen this week's episode, well, you have been warned. I'll do a couple of posts before then, I think, breaking down certain episodes or scenes that strike me as particularly rich. 

Two more things I want to do: I want to give a shout-out to two podcasts and I want to give you my version of spoilers, which I will graciously put after the jump break so you don't have to see them if you don't want to. Podcasts: The Breaking Bad Insider podcast is the "official" 'cast. It's hosted by editor Kelley Dixon and always stars her and Vince Gilligan, who is a humble, brilliant man who clearly knows he's got the job of a lifetime. They have others on from time to time, whether it's writers, music guys, or the actors themselves. It's an indispensable companion to the viewing experience. The other podcast is called Breaking Good, by the guys over at Bald Move, Jim and A.Ron. They're fans like you and me, but they do their homework and always have interesting and funny things to say. Check out their site, listen to their podcast, support them if you can by buying stuff through their Amazon affiliate link. They deserve it. (They also do podcasts on numerous other shows, like Mad Men, Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, if you're into that kinda thing.)

Well, that's it except for spoilers. The only spoilers I'll ever give you are upcoming episode titles and guest stars and speculation thereupon. Also, I moderate all comments and will not approve anything even slightly spoiler-ific. And, as I have to read all comments in order to moderate, I strongly urge you to not even go there. If I get spoiled by a comment, I WILL hulk out on you. That is all: to the jump break, then:

23 May 2012

My daily routine.

Over a year and a half since I checked in here. There's another presidential election on. MCA is dead. My "work" is spending 3 hours a day with 12 kids, ages 4-5. This is my day:

Wake up around noon, and do the following before leaving just after 2, in no particular order: walk the dog, look for jobs on the internet, play Call of Duty, talk to J while she's on lunch break, make and eat a lunch consisting of PB&J, yogurt, crackers, and iced coffee. Leave for work, listen to a podcast on the way. Get to work. The daily schedule of a pre-school is mind-numbingly routine, and I won't bore you with it. Go home, make/drink coffee with J while watching Jeopardy, maybe catch a sitcom before going into the kitchen with a podcast to do the dishes and make dinner. Walk the dog. Tuck J into bed, which is absolutely my favorite part of every weekday. Watch a movie or a couple episodes of something while rolling our smokes for tomorrow, play Call of Duty, go to bed. Repeat 5 out of seven days.

Weekends are nice: Friday night is relaxing with J and later a friend comes over to blaze and watch some British comedy. Saturday is more relaxing, plus a trip to the grocery store. I always get pizza for Saturday night, when we invariably start the movie too late for her to stay awake. She falls asleep on the couch with her legs in my lap and I finish the movie, wake her up and we go to bed. This is nice, this is living. Sunday is sometimes laundry day, some times not. Sometimes we go down to the Fenway theatre and catch a flick, but not too often, because that shit ain't cheap.

The elephant in the room is the abject poverty and stress that results from only working 3 hours a day. It can seem unbearable, but we're bearing it together. And it will be over soon. Good things are on the horizon. Change is coming. Maybe not from that skinny dude with the big ears in DC; probably get more of the same from him.

The future? Well, it has a shape now, more than just a fuzzy blur. There's probably a pair of rings, maybe some tiny feet, me getting paid to sit in front of a computer and help people fix their problems, new house, learning how to drive, less hair, higher percentage of gray hairs, which is ok, and for the love of Pete, will SOMEONE finally commit to putting The Dark Tower on the big screen?

The End