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Wolf Hall: The Modernity of Thomas Cromwell

Flickering candle flames in chiaroscuro-drenched rooms. Sunbeams that stream through castle windows, casting clear patterns on the floor. Innumerable shots in the engrossing six-hour miniseries Wolf Hall seem to scrupulously define—even call attention to—to the sources of natural light that the tale’s 16th-century characters depend on. Of course, resonant visuals and careful historic touches are what you’d expect from pedigreed programming like Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels that airs April 5-May 10, as part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming.

But the meticulous lighting here amounts to more than just pretty cinematography and check-the-boxes historical verisimilitude: It contributes to one of the salient themes of the miniseries, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the chief fixer for King Henry VIII. Amidst the power struggles and religious turmoil of Tudor England, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a lawyer whose level head and supreme competence become essential to Henry (Damian Lewis), especially when the monarch decides to get rid of Wife # 2, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). In the larger scheme of things, Cromwell is essentially a forerunner of the modern era. He is a capitalist—a player in an information economy—living amidst the dying embers of feudalism. He is a self-made man, surrounded by people accustomed to a rigid social order.

The luminous candle flames and daylight-channeling windows in the televised Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, underscore the contrast between Cromwell and his environment. Surrounded as we are by bulbs and glowing screens, it is hard to imagine functioning in the years before electricity. For Cromwell, such a dispensation was normal—and yet, in this telling, he is able to analyze financial and legal realities as efficiently as any accountant-turned-lawyer  living in calculator-and-legal-database times. 

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The New Detectives: Dazed or Crazed?

We don't watch TV shows; we watch DVDs of TV shows on TV. As a result, we are working our way belatedly through a mess/mass of mystery/crime shows with detectives that are...that seem either dazed or crazed.

Last night it was "The Bridge," a girl detective in the El Paso police department is definitely dazed and obsessive (aspergers?). Finished with "Homeland" (season 3) where our heroine is crazed (bi-polar). Before that, puzzled over "True Detective's" "hero," an alcoholic with intuitions; more dazed than crazed.

Since our chronology is not "real-time" watching, are the dazed and crazed copy-cat portrayals? Or is this a trend?

UPDATE: Alessandra Stanley has something to say on this subject. See Comment @10:21, 1/22

Route 66 (and a Former Self) Revisited

Recovering TV addicts have no business pining after those shows that got them hooked in the first place.

Yet for more years than I care to admit, I would periodically burden my long-suffering wife with my memories of one series in particular: Route 66, which debuted in 1960. She’d listen patiently and nod as I waxed rhapsodic about the “breakthrough” program. Then one day recently, out of an abundance of love and understanding (and perhaps to test the efficacy of aversion therapy), she presented me with the complete DVD set of the show’s first two seasons.

Created by Academy Award winner, Stirling Silliphant, and producer Herbert B. Leonard, the show followed the lives of Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buzz Murdoch (George Maharis) as they traveled the country in a Corvette convertible in search of themselves and a rapidly evolving social and political landscape.

Buzz and Tod were a study in contrasts and had interesting back-stories. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Buzz worked for a Hudson River barge business owned by Tod’s father. Tod was Yale student who worked summers on the barges. When his father died after Tod’s junior year, leaving his son a pile of unpaid debts and the Corvette, Tod was forced to leave school. Their worlds upended by the failure of the business, the book-smart Tod and the street-smart Buzz decided to hit the road and “catch a star,” in Buzz’s words.

What they discovered about the country they traveled around and the lives of those they encountered along the way made for compelling watching.

The series was groundbreaking in so many ways. The hour-long episodes were filmed almost entirely on location throughout the U.S. The episodes tackled difficult issues head-on: racism, xenophobia, drug addiction, mental illness, nuclear annihilation, neo-Nazism. Heady stuff for a young teenager with intellectual pretentions (and, alas, pop-culture sensibilities).

The scripts, a great many of them written by Silliphant, were literate and populated by memorable characters who were brought to life by an interesting mix of actors. Some were at the end of successful careers: Ethel Waters (who was nominated for an Emmy for her role, the first African-American woman so honored), Lew Ayers, Akim Tamiroff, Everett Stone, Regis Toomey, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Some were virtual unknowns who would go on to stardom: Robert Redford (who had auditioned for the Tod Stiles role), Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen, James Caan, Ed Asner, Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, Keir Dullea. And others were in the prime of their careers: Lee Marvin, Susan Pleshette, Jack Warden, Anne Francis, Peter Graves, Tuesday Weld, Nehemiah Persoff, Nina Foch.

So, there I was, boxes in hand, a bit giddy at the prospect of binging on all 64 episodes. After tearing off the shrink-wrap, I cued up Disc 1 and invited my wife to sit with me to watch the first episode. She dutifully complied, but at the conclusion of the show (about a small backwater town in Mississippi with a dark secret) she politely excused herself. I expected as much given the amount of squirming she did during the show's last half-hour.

Although I sat still for the entire 51-minute running time (the commercials were excised), I wasn’t enthralled. In fact, by the time Nelson Riddle's hypnotic score began to play over the closing credits, I felt somewhat hollow. And that feeling, along with an embarrassed self-consciousness, continued through the remaining 63 episodes. The story lines were as topical and hard-hitting as I had remembered, but too many of the treatments now seemed ham-fisted and didactic. The guest stars all turned in credible performances, but many of their characters, along with those of the two leads, exuded an earnestness that my former self thought noble, but my present self found naive.

Truth be told, it was I who was really naive. Going in I knew full well what to expect of '60s-era drama, even the "breakthrough" ones. The U.S. was transitioning from the post-war era to the New Frontier. Issues that incubated during the Eisenhower years emerged fully formed in the early '60s, affecting all levels of society. Bravo Stirling Silliphant for taking on those issues in the spirit of the times. And shame on me for not using that historical lens when evaluating the show’s scripts and performances and production values and the tastes and conceits of a certain Catholic school ninth grader.

For those considering a trip through the TV or cinematic past to re-create a fondly remembered time or experience, be forewarned: nostalgia ain't what it used to be and a former self deserves loads of empathy. And don’t forget the popcorn.

'The Rockford Files': Secret to a marriage?

A couple of decades on, my wife and I still find ourselves telling people about our Pre-Cana experience, held at a parish in a Brooklyn neighborhood known then, with implied notoriety, as an Italian-American enclave. The catechist couple spent much of the Saturday session enumerating (in colorful Brooklynese) the ups and downs of their own lengthy marriage, though dropped in among the anecdotes were tips targeted at the mostly very young couples of the community. Girls, admonished the wife, make sure you’ve put on some lipstick and nice clothes when he comes home from work, since the last thing he wants to see after a long subway ride is a tired, washed-out woman at the stove. From the husband: Guys, go easy on your daughter, if you’re blessed with a daughter, because they can’t help but choose losers for boyfriends and they’re going to get into trouble.

Whatever works, we’ve since come to understand. 

If up to my adolescence I was convinced that every argument between my parents augured divorce, I was equally reassured of the marriage's endurance by their weekly viewings together of “The Rockford Files” on Friday nights. I was reminded of this habit of theirs after the actor James Garner died last Saturday. It was the one hour they would set aside for themselves after a week of demanding work for my father and the arguably more demanding job my mother had in overseeing a house overrun by four boys. It might not rise to the level of the “date nights” that some magazines today prescribe for the harried-parent demographic, since it consisted only of a frozen eggplant parmigiana and a decanter of Carlo Rossi burgundy, set out on a dinged-up coffee table in front of the nineteen-inch black-and-white TV, the only one the house. But for the mid-1970s, in a rural town twenty country miles from the single-screen movie theater, it seemed to work.

Probably because they worked to make it happen—my mother feeding us early and hurrying us to bed before the program began, my father making sure to get home in time (and to pour the wine). From my bedroom I could hear the show’s famous ringing-phone opener and the unmistakable instrumental theme, if not very much of the dialogue. Eventually, as we got too old to be forced to bed early, we were grudgingly allowed to watch along with them, as long as we stayed quiet and sat far away from their private table. They loved watching James Garner as Jim Rockford—together—and they weren’t going to let their night be taken away.

It was probably inevitable that I grew to love “Rockford,” too, and some of the other things in which Garner appeared (his turn as the white-turtlenecked Scrounger in The Great Escape is a favorite). He not only famously did his own driving in movies and television; he also drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. He did Polaroid commercials. He liked to say he met his wife at an Adlai Stevenson rally, in 1956, and he was still married to her when he died. This last detail stuck out for me, not just because I tend to expect multiple spouses listed in celebrity obituaries. I guess it also seemed sort of appropriate. I've probably long since bored my wife, and more recently my kids, with stories of my parents’ “Rockford” nights; it was a bit of simple modeling on their part, I guess, and even if done unwittingly, has maybe been more valuable than whatever I could have taken from Pre-Cana. In October, they’ll have been married fifty years. Whatever works?

Cheever to Weiner to Draper

The final week of May brought the confluence of John Cheever's birthday and the final-season mid-season finale of Mad Men, whose creator Matthew Weiner has lately been speaking on the record about the writer's influence on his show. Easy connections have been made from the beginning--1960s suburban setting; middle-aged malaise; alcoholism; adultery--the identifying of surface-level similarities tracking well with the general tendency to reduce Cheever's work to nothing more than a critique of post-war, upper-middle-class bedroom-community mores. But anyone who spotted the street sign reading "Bullet Park" (the title of Cheever's third novel) outside the Draper residence in one early episode probably knew to start looking for deeper links. One of the best came at the close of last season, when Don Draper went way offscript in a major presentation, recalling the ad-copy-writing narrator of Cheever's "The Death of Justina" turning in the Twenty-Third Psalm as his swan-song submission. Anyway, it's been fun hearing Weiner speak more directly to some of these ideas.

Some commenters have helpfully picked up the conversation, noting how Mad Men's central conceit--the conflicted selves of Don Draper/Dick Whitman--explicitly reflects what's central in Cheever's short fiction, namely, characters (usually men) like Neddy Merrill and Johnny Hake trying somehow to reconcile their warring halves and yet hold everything together on the work- and home-fronts, all while battlefield glories fade and the familiar metrics of success and happiness are challenged on something like moral grounds. (Others have inevitably touched on the "warring selves" the conflicted bisexual Cheever himself tried unsuccessfully to manage, which, fine, I guess; it's probably hard not to take up this obvious thread, so, why not?)

With the yearlong mid-season hiatus of Mad Men's final slate of episodes here, you could take a fresh look at Cheever's collected stories in light of what you know about the show. You could also turn to the novel mentioned above. Bullet Park, from its complementary/oppositional pair of main characters, Hammer and Nailles, to the lyrically conjured suburban setting and paens to better pasts that might never have been, seems to inform Weiner's work even more than some of the stories. Its opening page reads like something directly from the brain of Don Draper:

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Forensic Toxicology and the Inner-Circle Thrill

If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series. A tale of the birth and maturing of forensic chemistry in New York City beginning in 1918, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” chronicles a series of murders and suspicious deaths that were solved by two scientists of Holmesian genius and rationality: Charles Norris, a groundbreaking New York City medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the pioneering toxicologist who was Norris’s colleague.

Over several decades, starting around World War I, the two men worked on cases that had to do not only with cold, calculating homicide, but with Prohibition, Standard Oil and leaded gasoline, poverty during the Great Depression, and a notorious case of radium poisoning at a watch factory. According to the documentary, directed by Rob Rapley, the two men built forensic science into a respected institution—without them, there would have been no “CSI,” no Patricia Cornwell novels.

It’s a suspenseful yet educational documentary, packed with old film footage and shots of sensational early 20th-century newspaper headlines. It does use reenactments—a technique I usually find annoyingly cheesy. But these reenactments are atmospheric, and appear carefully done (lots of glimpses of early 20th-century laboratories and primitive-looking morgues). When I interviewed Rapley about a year ago about his fascinating documentary series “The Abolitionists,” he told me that he had initially hesitated to use reenactments, but ultimately had decided that they added a needed visual dynamism, and that an abundance of reliable written records allowed for scripting the reenactments with great accuracy. I haven’t spoken to him this time round, but after watching “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” I would assume that the rationale for reenactments in this case was the same.

The perennial popularity of police, detective and hospital story programs on television demonstrates that audiences love to get behind-the-scenes glimpse of professional procedure—the kind of detail that abounds in “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” The attraction is partly voyeuristic thrill, but I think procedure-heavy stories also give us the comforting illusion of being part of a team or select professional circle. In an era that often seems increasingly impersonal, when people telecommute, and text instead of talk, and work in specialized fields that others can barely comprehend, enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes police lab and medical diagnostic stories—stories that provide an illusion of professional companionship and inner-circle reassurance—will surely only increase. (Mystery fans will be interested to note that Dr. Marcella Fierro, a forensic expert interviewed in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” is the former chief medical examiner for Virginia who inspired the figure of Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels.)

After tonight’s airing, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” will be available on DVD or for online viewing on pbs.org, according to the press release. There is also a related “interactive online graphic novel.”

Breaking Bad #516: "Felina"

Yesterday, as the final episode of Breaking Bad approached, Samantha Bee (of The Daily Show) raised a good question:

I'm sure we'll think of something. If you are among those who never caught up, now you can feel free to do so on your own time. And to help you in your journey I'll keep all the spoilers in our discussion of the finale after the jump...

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Breaking Bad: Death closes in on Walter White

The Breaking Bad commentary has reached a fever pitch, with everyone weighing in with their predictions and last-chance-for-relevance think-pieces before Sunday night's series finale. The Twitter account Pour Me Coffee imagined the president offering his own take (instead of the expected remarks on Iran):

And Emily Nussbaum -- whose Twitter feed is a great source for worthwhile Breaking Bad commentary -- wrote this week,

Television this good is actually pretty exhausting. And so it's with some relief, as well as the familiar sense of dread, that I approach the final session of this not-for-credit course.

But I'm here to offer one more bit of recommended reading before we start our post-mortem on Monday. "The Dark Art of Breaking Bad," by David Segal, from the New York Times Magazine, is actually a few years old, but I missed it at the time (I may not even have been watching the show yet, which would put me in good company; plenty of johnny-come-latelys on this bandwagon). Reading it now sheds a lot of light on what the show has been doing (according to its creator, Vince Gilligan) with the themes of evil and its rewards and punishment, and where it is all likely to end up tomorrow night.  

It also offers a good answer to anyone who has been wondering why this show is worth all the fuss:

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Breaking Bad #515: "Granite State"

I understand last night's Emmy Awards telecast included some sort of Breaking Bad-related interpretive dance. All I can say is, if you were watching the Emmys instead of Breaking Bad, it serves you right. (I also heard that BB finally won the Emmy for best drama series. Well, duh.)

Here's a Twitter joke that both made me laugh and filled me with now-familiar dread:

Not quite. But close. Let's discuss the details after the jump....

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Crime and Punishment

God help me, I’m still rooting for Walt.

I’m certainly not blind to the evil he has done: the killings he has committed or ordered, the way that lies--even the ones he tells himself--have come to define his life, the destruction his “product” has wreaked on the lives of thousands of people he has never met.  I understand why many viewers are taking, if not pleasure, then a certain degree of righteous satisfaction in the judgment being visited upon him.  What goes around comes around.  Ye reap as ye sow.

Yet from the beginning of the show, there was something in me that connected with Walt.  Not with his choices, to be sure, but with the existential situation that gave rise to those choices.

I’ve done enough men’s ministry to know that the age of 50--Walt’s age at the beginning of the show--is often a crisis point for many men.  By the time a man reaches that age (and I’m getting pretty close), the trajectory of his life is largely set.  From what once may have seemed an infinite array of options, the choices he has made at each stage of his life have progressively narrowed the next set of choices. 

It’s true that those choices allow you to live more intensively rather than extensively, to go deep rather than broad.  There may be less “freedom,” but life is generally richer for having made those choices.

But there are times--usually in the middle of the night when the devil does his best work--when the shadow side of those choices emerges from a dark place in your soul.  You can begin to feel as if you have lost control of your life, that you are merely reading a script that your younger self has written.   You look around and see friends and family members who are no smarter and no more hardworking than you, but who seemed to have grabbed the brass ring while your hand came up empty.  Even if you have advanced in your career, this is often the point at which you realize the number of musical chairs is diminishing and there may not be one left for you when the music stops.

Yes, there are stories of people who have radically reinvented themselves in mid-life.  But that never seems to be you, does it?  Marriage, children, an underwater mortgage, overdue bills that keep your credit rating on the ragged edge of disaster, they all seem like obstacles to the new life you crave and feel you deserve.

This is the point at which many men “break bad” in ways large and small.  While Walt’s cancer is the spark, it is this broader emotional context that provides the tinder.  But in the same way that most college students infatuated with Nietzsche don’t bludgeon the local pawnbroker with an axe, most men suffering from a mid-life crisis do not become lords of a multi-state methamphetamine empire.  Like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov, Walter White is a fictional character whose story is made extreme to illuminate a psychological and spiritual narrative that speaks more universally.  Even the character’s name--Walter White--suggests some kind of everyman, a symbol of the downwardly mobile white middle class whose anger has done much to shape our current politics.

When I saw that I am rooting for Walt, I want to be clear what I mean.  I’m not rooting for him to triumph over his enemies in an orgy of redemptive violence, although I fear that may be where we are headed.  To steal a line said to Michael Corleone by Cardinal Luciani in The Godfather III, Walt’s sins are great.  It is right that he suffers.  His sins are great enough to be beyond any meaningful human forgiveness.

Am I suggesting then, that my desired end would be for Walt, like Raskolnikov, to embrace Jesus Christ?  If Walt were a real person, that would very much be my wish.  Fictionally, though, I’m not sure how Vince Gilligan could pull that off without it seeming false and sentimental.  Sentimentality in art does not advance the cause of Christ.

What I am hoping for is that Walt can encounter God’s forgiveness in a form he can accept, a form that will allow him to acknowledge the true depth of his depravity without despairing of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  It is the hope that Walt can, in some mysterious way, make the words of St. Paul his own: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8).

Unprecedented liberal love for the Pope?

Commentary marking six months of Pope Francis has been a love-fest from the most unexpected place: liberal talk show hosts.

Chris Hayes started the series last week with the "Best. Pope. Ever." segment on his show, All In (MSNBC), in which we learned that Hayes's father had been a Jesuit and Hayes is feeling closer to the Church than he has since childhood. Then Melissa Harris-Perry, also on MSNBC, did a similarly positive piece on Sunday morning, highlighting many of the innovative pastoral decisions of Francis's young pontificate. While not Catholic herself, Harris-Perry is married to a Catholic and confesses deep connection with Catholic culture in her native New Orleans. Finally, a couple nights ago on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart joined the cascade of puff pieces about the Pope (though he ultimately redirected the segment to a satire of the possibility of his own successor also being more popular than him).

What's gotten into these liberal TV hosts? A secret cabal of pro-Catholic media executives in midtown? But that wouldn't explain the fact that evangelical flagship Christianity Today has similarly adored this Pope, nor could it account for liberal evangelical columnists on the west coast professing their admiration (e.g., critically-acclaimed journalist Cathleen Falsani).

Some might say it's just a chance to highlight religiously-grounded progressive causes. Maybe so. But I'll take Chris Hayes and Cathleen Falsani at their word. Falsani has a "crush" on this Pope, in the end, because "He's not fancy. He's a servant. ... He's leading by example." Hayes, for his part, is not holding out for dramatic changes in teaching, especially in the area of sexual ethics, but he nonetheless offered the on-camera encomium, concluding with these words:

Given the constraints of what being pope is, you can operate in one of two ways: you can be a jerk about it, or you can be awesome. And this guy is choosing to be awesome. And not only is that great for the Church, it’s great for the world to have a pope talking about what this pope is talking about: grace, humility, peace and compassion for others. Because that is the Church at its best, and the one that some part of me still loves. Amen.

Such closing words are not a normal throw-to-commercial on MSNBC, or any national network for that matter. Note also the relative youth of those praising the Pope in the segments cited above -- and their viewership skews even younger.

One undeniable fact about evangelization -- whether we call it "new evangelization" or not -- is that its outcomes are not entirely predictable. But the most tried and true method is walking-the-talk. Pope Francis has this in spades. And he's teaching us how to do it.

Breaking Bad #513: "To'hajiilee"

Here is how the TV listings in my local newspaper summarized this week's episode of Breaking Bad:

An unexpected turn of events leaves the normally tranquil Walter White struggling to maintain control of the already-chaotic world around him.

I think you'll agree that they really captured the spirit of the episode. But there are a few things they left out, which we'll discuss after the jump...

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Standing still with Orange is the New Black

“Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard.” You’d be forgiven if you thought these words came from Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century philosopher and mathematician, who famously said that all of humanity’s problems stem from the fact that people are not able to sit quietly by themselves. The words come not from Pascal, but his twenty-first century avatar Regina Spektor, who sings them in her latest single “You’ve Got Time,” which is the theme song for the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. The show has gotten a lot of good press, and it seems as though everyone in my demographic watches it. The good press the show has received has focused rightly on the solid writing, the excellent acting, the tight storyline. And although I appreciate all these things, I also think Orange is the New Black is the most morally serious television show since The Wire. It helps us confront uncomfortable truths.

[Below there is some profane language and perhaps a mild spoiler.]

 

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Breaking Bad #510: "Buried" (Updated)

Your breathless Breaking Bad commentary will be a bit delayed this week. (It turns out two-month-olds are just not that into prestige television.) But I am putting this post up now so that you all can weigh in with your own impressions of last night's episode. I'll be back with my own thoughts soon.

In the meanwhile, may I also second Celia Wren's endorsement of the BBC America mystery series Broadchurch. We're hooked after the first two episodes, and it's breaking up the long weeks between Breaking Bad instalments nicely, as we swing eagerly from one midweek cliffhanger to the next.

UPDATE (8/20): Thanks, all, for your patience and your comments -- and if you haven't read Grant's thorough recap in the comments below, go ahead and do that now. My thoughts after the jump:

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Breaking Bad #509: "Blood Money"

Some friends told me they finished watching Breaking Bad (for the first time) on Saturday night, cramming in the last two episodes so they'd be caught up for last night's premiere. I was jealous: they only had to wait a day to find out what would happen when Hank got up off that toilet. The rest of us have been turning that question over in our heads for a year. After the jump, let's get to discussing what we learned...

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Gearing up for the end of 'Breaking Bad'

All you Breaking Bad obsessives are surely aware that this Sunday is the beginning of the end: eight more episodes to finish off the tale of Walter White.

We ended last season (or what the folks at AMC would call the first half of this season) with Hank having finally uncovered Walt's secret. And we began that season with a glimpse of where Walt will be a year hence, celebrating his fifty-second birthday en route from New Hampshire to Alberquerque (or so it would seem) with a trunk full of major firepower. How we get from here to there, and what comes next, are questions I've been mulling over all year, so I am very very keyed up for this Sunday night. And I hope you'll come here to talk it all over, like we did last summer (that series of posts begins here).

To prepare ourselves, some recommended reading.

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New issue is live

Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.

Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.

Gandolfini & Tony

Alan Sepinwall writes in The Revolution Was Televised that the role of Tony Soprano was originally conceived for Anthony LaPaglia and at various stages in the show’s initial development could have also gone to Michael Rispoli or Steven van Zandt (consider that a disaster averted). That it went to James Gandolfini came down to creator David Chase’s decision to take The Sopranos in a very distinct direction: “The show I envisioned is the show that’s got Jimmy in it. It’s a much darker show with Jimmy in it,” a characterization that, in Sepinwall’s recounting, Chase modified to “more real” to improve the salability of The Sopranos in an era when darkness was still anathema to industry executives. Thus, as Sepinwall and many others have noted, was the future of television born.

Sepinwall was among the earliest practitioners of (and probably the best at) the form now known as the recap, and his writing on The Sopranos for New Jersey’s Star-Ledger was reliably veined with insights shaped by a local’s perspective. Yet his appreciation of Gandolfini, who died Wednesday at fifty-one, is like many others in that it seems to arrive at a kind of conventional-wisdom conclusion: Gandolfini didn’t play just a mob boss, but someone with whom many in the pay-TV audience could identify—the upper-management, upper-middle-class family man with working-class roots, who was also charming, vulnerable, and cruel, which layered the role with a complexity that kept it from becoming a caricature. At least he didn’t say “mobster on Prozac,” which is about as reductive and silly as you can get. (Cathleen Kaveny wrote on The Sopranos for Commonweal in 2007, looking at the show’s treatment of such concepts as fate, moral failing, redemption, and salvation; it’s definitely worth [re]reading now.)

That no one can imagine anyone but Gandolfini playing Tony says how much he inhabited the role—another consensus opinion, maybe, but also true. Once when the show was filming in my neighborhood I watched him prepare for a scene by pacing the sidewalk, working himself up into a state of gasping agitation; the temperature was close to a hundred degrees and it looked as if he might drop right there (as it turned out, the scene did call for him to collapse after a severe panic attack). A couple of years later, after The Sopranos had ended, I saw him come out of a building trailed by a small group of attendants, one of whom complained about the cold. Gandolfini, sounding exactly like Tony, said, “I toldja you shoulda worn a [expletive] coat.” Maybe he did it for the benefit of the two or three of us there to witness the moment.

What Gandolfini definitely did was make Tony recognizable to viewers who might have had someone like him in their own families or neighborhoods. The voice, the carriage, the sentimentality (“it’s about family”), the sudden, explosive rages—even if their father or uncle or brother wasn’t a murderer, many people nonetheless saw something pretty familiar there. As a New Jersey native of Italian heritage, I suppose I saw something recognizable in Tony too, in the way he chewed up the words “Hacklebarney State Park” (site of numerous grade-school picnics) or fed himself cold-cuts in the light of the open refrigerator; friends from the midwest called after one episode desperate to know the meaning of “gabagool,” and I was able to inform them that it was capicola. It was good to be in the know.

But Tony was a murderer, and relatively few in the audience were likely to be in the know about that. Maybe it explains the portion of the viewership wagering on who’d be whacked in the next episode, or who complained when the body count wasn’t high enough (Sepinwall also addresses this in his book). Gandolfini brought Tony close, but not so close as to disturb the artifice. Even those who weren’t specifically tuning in for violence could enjoy the weekly transgression of watching someone almost like them get away with something they never could.

The end of '30 Rock'

Tonight the funniest comedy on television ends its seven-season run, and I feel compelled to say a word of farewell to 30 Rock. I came late to the show, in part because everyone I knew who enjoyed it kept talking about how great Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan were. I had trouble believing either claim. And for what it's worth, I was right about Tracy Morgan -- he was and is just as limited and barely adequate in his performance on 30 Rock (playing a version of himself named Tracy Jordan) as I'd always thought he was on Saturday Night Live. Fortunately, it doesn't matter much; if the show is often funny in spite of rather than because of his presence, it's still very, very funny. On the other hand, as Jack Donaghy, an NBC exec, Alec Baldwin was a revelation. I still find him fairly odious as a celebrity/public figure, and I'm still scornful of his under-rehearsed, cue-card-dependent appearances on SNL and elsewhere. He even seemed bizarrely unfamiliar with his own show when the cast appeared together on Jimmy Kimmel Live Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (whoops) last week. But on 30 Rock, Baldwin is a one-man master class, turning in an utterly disciplined performance with consistently perfect comic timing. Even in the two live episodes they did, Baldwin brought his A game. He is indeed a major reason for the show's success.The major reason, of course, is Tina Fey, 30 Rock's creator, star, and guiding sensibility. The show is ostensibly based on her experiences as head writer at SNL, but it's really about the character of Liz Lemon, who happens to be the creator of a lame sketch-comedy show on NBC. The writers'-room stuff has always been hit or miss; the personnel connected with the show are often funny but, on the whole, disappointingly one-note (in part because there are so many of them; certain minor characters disappear for such long stretches that the show cracks nervous jokes about it when they return). The writing is always sharp and original, and every character has quotable one-liners. But it's Liz quirks, and her fraught relationships -- with New York City, with work, with success, and most vividly with Jack, her boss -- that make 30 Rock satisfying and, for a lot of viewers (say, young women balancing careers and life and various insecurities in NYC), amazingly familiar. Liz is specific and finely detailed, and while I'm reluctant to start picking her apart as a feminist role model/betrayal to the cause of womanhood (as many have done and still do), I will say that I see in Liz a kind of womanhood-on-television that I haven't seen anywhere else: fully individual, smart and driven but also flawed and human and hilarious, and frankly anxious about the very questions of What Should a Woman Be? that critics and commentators project onto her. (A recent episode found Liz fretting about the trappings of being a bride. Her supportive boyfriend told her, "Liz, it's OK to be a human woman!" prompting her to moan, "No, it's the worst! Because of society!")

A word, too, for Jane Krakowski, who plays Jenna Maroney, the vain, self-centered star of Liz's show, TGS. The character of Jenna has shifted over the course of the show, from (as Fey put it in a recent interview) "TV best friend" to "bananas and an awful person." She was never an especially credible best friend for the uptight Liz Lemon, and the "bananas" role she took on in later seasons has stretched whatever consistent character Jenna had precariously thin. (I had very little patience for Jenna's kinky romance with a Jenna Maroney impersonator, played by Will Forte, a joke that lasted well past the point of diminished returns. And for a stretch, "Jenna opens mouth, makes reference to freakish past involving Mickey Rourke" was such a predictable part of any scene that I found myself bracing for my own Liz Lemon eye rolls.) [UPDATE: I am pleased to note that the final episode included a joke about how overdone the Mickey Rourke gag was.] But Jane Krakowski is a master at her craft, and as Fey says in that same interview, she "has grown Jenna into this ridiculous comedy powerhouse." Her performance, like Baldwin's, is incredibly disciplined (though in this case I wasn't surprised, having admired her in other shows/films, and especially on stage). As an actor she is Jenna's opposite: always listening, always giving her best to every moment of every scene. There have been times I've rewound the show just to rewatch her react to a line I didn't even find funny.My favorite example, which of course I cannot find a clip of online: Jenna and her TGS costar Tracy teamed up at one point to form an inept team they called "The Problem Solvers." That episode ended with a brief promo for their services, with both wearing shirts that said "THE PROBLEM" ("SOLVERS" was supposed to be, but was not, printed on the back). At one point Tracy had a punch line about finding a stripper passed out on your boat. I found the joke too effortful and Morgan's delivery typically halting, but Krakowski's reaction -- a fleeting expression of confusion and horror, suppressed and turned back into a sunny smile for the sake of the camera -- makes me howl every time. And she has found ways to make the character seem fleshed-out despite Jenna's ever-shifting countours. She's been nominated for an Emmy 3 times, so she hasn't exactly been overlooked or unsung (see also this appreciation from Grantland's Molly Lambert, which features some of Jenna's great moments). But it can't be said enough. [UPDATE: The finale ended with an amazing callback to one of my favorite early 30 Rock jokes, Jenna's role in a film with an impossible-to-understand title, The Rural Juror. Krakowski wrapped things up with a song that somehow hit all the right emotional notes while also being one of the funniest things I've ever seen on this or any show. Watch her perform the title song from the musical version ofThe Rural Juror at New York's Vulture blog, where they also went to the trouble of deciphering the lyrics.]In her farewell to the show at The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum focuses, appropriately, on 30 Rock's dedication to and evocation of New York. Unlike a lot of shows set in NYC, 30 Rock was really shot here, and NYC life is one of its richest sources of material. And I'm not talking just "Hey, we're in New York, let's eat bagels and read theTimes on Sunday," but real, specific references to the city's annoyances and oddities -- like the cops with enormous guns checking purses at subway entrances, or (as Nussbaum recalls) a "bakery in the Bronx, located on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Guy Who Shot Malcolm X Boulevard."Thanks to Boston-bred Jack Donaghy -- and Liz's regrettable ex, blue-collar meathead Dennis Duffy -- there were also plenty of Irish and Irish-Catholic gags (and some forays into Catholic practice, with the usual mixed results; Jack in the confessional was funny, but his devout Hispanic girlfriend, played by the humorless Salma Hayek, would have been much funnier if more of the Catholic stuff was "right"). And, praises be, many appearances from the riveting Elaine Stritch in a recurring role as Jack's harridan of a mother. (She once made reference to a parish in their old neighborhood, "Our Lady of Reluctant Integration in Waltham.")It's hard to say goodbye, but it's probably time for the show to go. Nothing gold can stay. The good news is, if you haven't watched 30 Rock, it's never too late. And I do mean that; the show is in syndication now, so reruns air several times a week, and unlike with certain very demanding dramas, you don't need to start from the beginning. Fellow fans, report back here after tonight's finale. We'll have a good old Irish wake, sharing stories of favorite memories. Let's work through our grief together.

Breaking Bad #508: Poetic justice

Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I had nightmares after last night's "finale." I will put spoilers after the jump, but here I will say that at least some of those nightmares involved baby Holly toddling around with that uncovered, not-fenced-in pool five feet from the back door of her house. I don't know whether Junior pushing the baby around the perimeter of the pool while the adults chatted happily in the foreground was supposed to fill me with dread, but it did. Are there no parents working on this show?

Now on to other intimations of danger...

How will I make it to next summer knowing Hank is finally on Walt's trail??? The Hank-gets-dangerously-close sequences have always been terrific. And now that Walt has thoroughly lost my sympathy (that prison-killings sequence was so chilling, and I think the way it was presented shows that the creators know we're no longer rooting for Walt at all), Hank is the new hero, as Emily Nussbaum predicted:

To escape this moral checkmate, Gilligan might shift yet another character into the foreground, revealing that the show is actually (as a friend suggested) a hero's tale in disguise. In that version of Breaking Bad, the protagonist is not Walt but Hank, a man with no children. Despite injury and depression, Hank brings down a vast drug ring, even when he discovers that the kingpin is his own brother-in-law, a sneering brainiac who has always considered himself superior. But because Hank is decent, and the show is on the side of good, Hank triumphs. That ending would have the virtue of symmetry, and pleasure, and closure, and relief, for the suffering audience.

"Right now, however," she adds, "its easier to imagine someone innocent coming to harm." Yes, especially with that pool and the chronically undersupervised baby!! Ahem. Or, maybe the one who comes to harm is Hank. Will the last half-season find Walt considering killing his brother-in-law? Once that would have been unthinkable. But now, by the end of last night's episode, I have to ask, Who wouldn't Walt kill to stay on top? (Even though that raises a further question: on top of what?) Whatever happens, next summer's episodes ought to be good and wrenching.

Questions I have: did Walt really mean it when he told Skyler he was out? My first thought was "What game is he playing now?" But he seemed sincere, and I took the final sequence to mean that he really did want to retire on his earnings and go back to family life. (And now justice will catch up with him. It's like the Hayes code says: crime must not pay.) So, if he really did quit, what does that mean for Todd? And for Lydia? I'm guessing we'll see more of the Czech Republic scheme, and I'm certain we'll see more of Todd. I haven't forgotten that he's (apparently) more dangerous than Walt seems to appreciate.

How could Walt have been dumb enough to leave that Walt Whitman book out where Hank (or anyone else) could see it? Did he do it on purpose? Or had he never noticed the very incriminating inscription? ("Dear Walt, Thank you for teaching me to cook such good meth. 'W.W.' stands for your name. Love, Gale.")

Other questions? Predictions? What do you want to see happen (or, what do you dread happening) in the last eight episodes? And who's going to get that ricin?