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!