Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

Breaking Small (or The Revenge of the Tighty Whities)

 

It’s been a rough year for Breaking Bad junkies.

First, we had to go cold turkey when the finest drama on television concluded its remarkable run. Then Aaron Paul starred in the abysmal Need for Speed. Bryan Cranston took a forgettable role in Godzilla (though he redeems himself playing a legendary screenwriter in Trumbo). And we won’t discuss  Metastasis, the Spanish-language remake of the series that turned out muy mal.

METASTASIS spa

Even the Vince Gilligan-helmed Better Call Saul, the prequel to Breaking Bad, lacks the tension (though not the dark absurdity) of its source material. Besides, Season Two doesn’t even begin until 2016.

But like a rush of Blue Meth to the market, a show has emerged from BB‘s ashes that not only takes its cues from the dusty drama; it eerily parallels the spectacled odyssey of Walter White.

Say hello to Fargo, Season Two.

Violent, gory and grinning with a wicked sense of humor, Fargo has established itself as the finest crime drama on television. And by avoiding the sophomore jinx that beset shows like The Killing and True Detective, Fargo towers as TV’s best “anthology” series, in which plots and, sometimes, entire casts, reset with each new season.

Such was the challenge of Fargo, which won 10 Emmys last year. But instead of mimicking the first season, which was really an homage to all Coen Brothers films (Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo is a reinvention of No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh) antonchigurh, Fargo instead tips its cap to something just as sinister, but more New Mexico-centric.

Consider:

  • A touch of suburban evil. A mild-mannered protagonist (Jesse Plemons) tries to live a quiet, domestic life, but finds he has a knack for the macabre (even in tighty whities). Unlike Walter White’s “molecular dissolution” of victims, Ed Blomquist chooses to turn the unfortunate into hamburger. overalls
  • A son struggling with physical disability: Walter White Jr. (R.J. Mitte) suffered from cerebral palsy; in Fargo, young Charlie Gerhardt (Allan Dobrescu) copes with a crippling, as-yet-unnamed condition that resembles muscular dystrophy. cerebralpalsy charlie
  • A Bob Odenkirk past. He was a founding father of Breaking Bad and the first Fargo, playing a deputy in 10 episodes. saul
  • Location as character. New Mexico played as big a role as any character in Breaking Bad, much like Minnesota deserves a screen credit in Fargo.
  • The death bell. Breaking Bad‘s uncle Hector rang a bell whenever hell broke loose, much like the bell that scores Fargo‘s soundtrack when a body winds up metabolically challenged. bell

 

Of course, Fargo need only sustain itself for one season, requiring just a sixth of Breaking Bad‘s endurance record. And there’s always the risk of the show running out of gas by season’s finale.

But ask any diehard Breaker if they’d take even a nostalgic sliver of the crime classic’s heyday, and you’ll get a resounding, uniform response. toddnjesse

Ding ding.

 

 

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A Farewell to Don, Walter, Omar, and All Those Against the Grain

 

Ask me my favorite television show, and I’ll blurt out “Breaking Bad!” before you can get to “…of all-time.”

But I have to concede. Mad Men, which begins its final arc Sunday, may be TV’s greatest drama.

The difficulty is in separating the two, favorite from greatest. Our inclination is to defend our passions as quantifiable, as if to validate an opinion. My father’s favorite basketball player was Larry Bird, as is mine. I remember dad spending, literally, hours explaining why Bird was the greatest of all-time: the best passer, the most versatile, toughest and hardest working employee of the NBA.

But I’ve come to acknowledge that Bird’s (and my) former arch nemesis, Magic Johnson, as the better player. More head-to-head victories, more championships, more influential in the game we know today. Even taking a learned path in life.birdnmagic But that’s okay. I’ve quit trying to argue my love as something empirical. What’s wrong with conceding a fanaticism — for a show, a drawing, a person, a poached egg — followed just as openly by a confession that what we love most may be flawed, human, non-sensical, perhaps even broken. Does that diminish a devotion? Surrender a defense?

So in deference to Walter White: You are my antiheroes of antiheroes. I am your Jesse. I sizzle the glass with you.

Yet, Don Draper and Mad Men could be the greatest feat in television history.

Consider other dramas regarded legendary: Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, ER, Law & Order, The West Wing, 24. All, as do 90% of today’s television dramas, subsist on crime, law (including making) or medicine. It makes sense. Those are exciting worlds, full of irresistibly low-hanging dramatic fruit.

Now imagine the pitch that Matt Weiner must have made to AMC for Mad Men. “It’s a show set a half century ago, in a New York ad agency. We’ll get into specific ad strategy — for Kodak, Lucky Strike, Playtex, Utz potato chips, Sno Ball and Ocean Spray, along with (literally) 76 other real-name clients.” Oh, and it’s a no-name cast, with no crime, law or medicine for subject matter.

That it would earn network approval and an eight-year following is about as miraculous as landing Conrad Hilton’s trust (which Don did, briefly). And much ink and megabyte will be spent praising the show for its look and fashion (all deserved) as well its now-known stars (deserving as well).

But let’s recognize its sheer artistry for a moment, if not first. Consider the ad pitch for the folks at Kodak, in season 1, episode 13, for an episode called The Wheel, a what-if with Draper as pitchman for the carousel projector.

 

Lady Lazarus, from season 5, episode 8, is as dark and artistic as the Sylvia Plath poem that inspired it, just with a kick ass Beatles finale. (Sorry about the Spanish subtitles; it appears to be the only video of it on the World Wide Intertubes.)

And that’s what makes the show understatedly deft, that straddle between detail and tedium. Sure, it’s stylish and a bit too beautiful. But throughout you’ll see artistic touches — and outright show-long homages — that no show but The Simpsons would dare broach, from Dante’s Inferno to Stanley Kubrik to author Philip Roth. In fact, Don Draper is simply a rendition of the protagonist in Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, about an impossibly handsome Lothario who can’t fill his cavernous soul with his conquests. (And wouldn’t that be a kick finale, if the entire show were a flashback as Don spills his guts to a shrink?)

The show also differed in its treatment of time. Normally, shows dread time like Dracula at sunrise. Look at 24, a season created out of one day. M*A*S*H lasted longer than the Korean War. Breaking Bad pretended six years was two; The Simpsons has been on a quarter century, and Maggie is still an infant not yet talking.

Mad Men, on the other hand, bounded through the 60’s as if were tripping acid. Smack into MLK’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations, Nixon, the Vietnam War, the counterculture movement. If most dramas focus on a singular, familiar place — a bar, a coffee shop sofa, a triage unit— Mad Men concerned itself with an era, often brutal. That’s unheard of for an industry whose limited view on time usually includes a future with a zombie apocalypse.

The show had its failings. Like the 60’s literature that littered i story lines, Mad Men can’t help but paint most women as mothering, smothering or emasculating. And no entertainment has glamorized smoking this much since Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns.

But in bidding farewell to the womanizing, alcoholic Don Draper, we also wave to a vanishing TV breed: the antihero. Perhaps reflecting the mood of a nation already somber by real-life events, execs seem to favor the lantern-jawed heroes of late, particularly when they don spandex. Tony Soprano, Dexter, Mr. White, Omar Little Omar_little(you’ve really got to see him in The Wire) all salute you from television’s cloud circuit, where antiheroes appear headed.

I know you’re a doomed drunk, Don. And Mad Men’s outer-shell shiny emphasis on advertising was really an inner reflection of how we see ourselves. Or, more importantly, want to see ourselves.

Still, through your Old Fashion-addled, oversexed, orphaned logic, you have come upon something profound. That, at our best, we are all antiheroes: flawed, flailing, but fighting nonetheless. And that’s worth another round. Cheers.

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Say My Name (Four Times)

Technically, this story contains spoilers to a show some unfortunate souls have yet to see. If so, read no further. However, in this Twiteration, any plot point not revealed 30 minutes after a show airs constitutes less a ‘spoiler’ than an ‘archaeological find.’

 

First, a firm and earnest caveat: I am perhaps the planet’s most ardent fan of Breaking Bad, and it remains my favorite show of all time (though Mad Men, considering its subject matter, may be the greatest). So I realize this is blue meth heresy.

But the fifth and final season pales in comparison to the first four, and, however slightly, tarnishes the show’s legacy.

That’s not to say the fifth season wasn’t awash in genius. Todd and “Ozymandias” should take their rightful place as two brilliant offspring of their (crystal) Glass parents. “Ozymandias” may be the most tense, melancholy and heartbreaking 42 minutes of television.

But consider the first four seasons as a whole: It was unique in that it a) Turned middle class rage inside out and b) Paid attention to the grisly, pesky details of death.

Walt was the ultimate nerd anti-hero. And who was the show’s greatest villain? Fast food manager Gus. Our relatable hero? Jesse, a skinny junkie who sucks at math. It took three episodes (its first shows) to dispose of two bodies, blasphemy for a crime drama.

And remember: Vince Gilligan and writers weren’t sure whether the show would be picked up for a fifth season, so he wrote the fourth-season finale, “Face Off,” as a prospective show-ender.

And what an ending it was! Never has a book seen a more elaborate final chapter. Walt, ever the chemist, luring Gus into one more bump from the one dope he could not resist: vengeance. Gus and Tio’s final, wordless exchange. That Walt simply provided users the tools of their destruction (much like his meth to junkies) proved a perfect, explosive finish, as did the upbeat-yet-bittersweet postscript of the poisonous depths Walt was willing to plumb.

But overdue popularity made a fifth season (and its drawn-out cash-in over two years) inevitable.

And let’s be honest: The fifth season didn’t match the previous in subtle decadence.

For one, the fifth season finale is terribly derivative of the fourth: Jesse, imprisoned in a lab, forced to cook for evil dealers while an armed Walt with uncertain motives arrives for the showdown.

The fifth-season nemeses, as well, lacked that unexpected villainy. Aside from Todd and Lydia, our evil-doers are white supremacists with prison records and swastikas tattooed on their necks. Not hard to hate — or spot, in a run-of-the-mill crime story. Our fifth season cliffhanger is a dying killer on the lam with nothing left to lose. It can turn out only one way.

And to have Walt’s cancer return was a misstep. It made his death a certainty and his life a waste. Walt needed to die from the life he’d chosen (even if it’s by Jesse’s or Skyler’s hand), not from the genes he inherited. His dramatic turn on Jesse, from protector to predator, strayed the what were always the show’s true addictions: Jesse’s need for a father fix; Walt’s high from dealing it.

Of course, this is to critique a Monet. That the show invited such fine-toothing, debate and dispute is to testify to its greatness.

And yes, I still know your name. You’re that high school chemistry teacher. The one with the doting-but-watchful pregnant wife and the high school son with Cerebral palsy that you’re desperately trying to still impress.

You’re Heisenberg.

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