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...