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Breaking Bad #507: "Say My Name"

Wow. I suppose we should get right to the thing I know everyone wants to talk about from last night's Breaking Bad: the use of the terrific but little-known Monkees song "Goin' Down" to underscore the meth-cooking montage! I've always felt Micky Dolenz was one of the '60s' most underrated great pop vocalists. No?

OK, let's jump and talk about the episode's big shock:

Walt shot Mike! And he did it for no practical reason; it was violence driven purely by emotion. A new and frightening step in his progress toward villainy. In the New Yorker essay that I linked to last week, Emily Nussbaum wrote perceptively about how the show is balancing out Walt's losing viewers' sympathy by giving us other characters to root for. "The grizzled ex-cop Mike," she wrote, "with his dry wisecracks and his Realpolitik masculinity, fulfills our antihero needs." I think that's right on, and it makes it especially shocking and daring for the show to have Mike killed by Walt. It's not hard to hate a character who keeps killing the characters you like.

Walt's power to manipulate Jesse is waning as well. During Walt's "You have nothing in your life" anti-motivational speech trying to convince Jesse to stay in the partnership, it occurred to me, and I wonder whether it occurred to Jesse, that in fact it is Walt who has nothing and no one else in his life now. Walt has all but lost his family and is finding it lonely at the top of the meth-cooking game. Now that Walt has turned violent, my husband wondered after we watched, is Skyler in danger? A good question -- but I recall that in the past, Walt has reacted to violence and frustration by taking it out on her. (The scene that haunts me is the one where Walt all but rapes Skyler, after witnessing traumatizing violence that he has no way to process. I'm trying to track down the episode -- I think it was the season 2 premiere.) The dynamic in this episode seemed almost the opposite: Skyler is the one freezing Walt out and making him feel powerless, and "professional" violence is his release. It can't be an accident that Walt's gloating in the opening scene (echoed in the episode's title) made him sound like a sexual predator.But, with the loss of Mike, the show has introduced a new way to shape viewers' attitudes toward Walt: dramatic irony. We now know something he doesn't -- namely, that his new meth-cooking apprentice is not simply the diligent (if doltish) student he seems. We know Todd kept a souvenir of the murder in episode 505. We don't know exactly what that means, but I expect it to bode ill for Walt.

I continue to suspect that Hank's "promotion" was really just a gambit to get him off the trail of the Fring empire.... And the mommy in me hopes we'll hear about what happened to Mike's granddaughter after he abandoned her on the playground (one presumes). (Another data point for Nussbaum's observation about how children in peril is "practically the shows trademark.") Your reactions?

From antihero to villain: 'Breaking Bad' #506

Another week, another chance for me to recommend something Emily Nussbaum wrote in the New Yorker: this time it's an essay on the way Breaking Bad keeps us watching as it goes into ever darker territory, and specifically how "Breaking Bad has always put children in danger, to the point that it's practically the show's trademark." (We were discussing that theme a bit here in the comments on last week's episode.) Nussbaum's explication of the "Mr. Chips-to-Scarface" trajectory is particularly relevant this week, I think:

Were deep in the Scarface stage; the hero of the show is now its villain. There are only ten episodes left, eight of them due next summer, a welcome deadline that has allowed Gilligan to shape his ending without the vamping that mars so many multi-season dramas. But, even if his show ends brilliantly, he's already told us that it wont end well.

And on that note, this week's episode...

I think last night was the night I finally stopped rooting for Walter White. Up to now I've had some sympathy left for him, but now, as Nussbaum wrote, he seems fully the villain. Maybe it was the faux-sympathetic way he rationalized the murder of the spider-collecting boy, counseling Jesse not to beat himself up about it. Or the way he whistled as he worked once that chore was over. Or maybe it was the way he manipulated both Skyler and Jesse by inviting Jesse to dinner, calling Skyler's bluff (if the kids are out of the house, why not bring "business" home?) and making Jesse feel guilty about refusing Walt his drug-kingpin fun. But by the final scenes of the episode, when Walt was cuffed to the radiator, I realized I was no longer cheering for him. I was interested in his plight, but not emotionally invested. I didn't want him to get free.

Since I had considered the possibility last week, I was pleased (and horrified, of course) to see that the show did pick up right where it left off last week, presenting us--and Walt, and the others--with the grim aftermath of the murder and disposal of the evidence. I loved Jesse's attempts to make smalltalk at the Whites', and Skyler's massive punchbowl of wine. I very much enjoyed the scene where baby Holly chewed happily on her mom's bracelet as Skyler and Marie talked, though I must admit I was mostly just watching the baby (wondering, did they plan this, or just go with it? And do they have to stop shooting a lot because the babies keep pulling off their hats?). And Todd's keeping the spider: was that a souvenir? Shudder. Your reactions?

What makes an ending a "cliffhanger"?

Since I've been posting so much about television lately, I want to say a word of appreciation for the New Yorker's new (well, fairly new) TV critic, Emily Nussbaum. (She's already written a whole lot of copy, but I think it's OK to call her "new" until the magazine gets around to including her in its online list of contributors.) I enjoyed the "On Television" columns by Nancy Franklin, but I got the distinct impression that no one at the New Yorker, including and perhaps especially Franklin, actually thought they mattered much. Franklin wrote not as a person who cared deeply about the medium and spent a lot of time thinking critically and intelligently about it, but rather as an intelligent person who could take or leave TV and thought about it only when a deadline loomed. Her approach to the beat was casual to a fault. Nussbaum, on the other hand, takes television seriously as an art form, and takes her job seriously enough that she watches pretty much everything. What is more, she seems to really enjoy a lot of what she watches (sometimes to an alarming degree), which is a good quality in a critic. I don't watch that much television, but Nussbaum's enthusiasm is almost enough to make me think I should, in the same way that Sasha Frere-Jones can make me briefly consider listening to more Rihanna. Also, Nussbaum's writing is crisp and funny and insightful (though I often think her pieces are a little longer than they need to be). Since she started at the New Yorker I am more excited about the back of the magazine than I have been in a long while.

The July 30 issue has an extra-long article by Nussbaum, "Tune In Next Week," a cultural history of the cliffhanger. Much thought and research went into this piece, which covers everything from Scheherazade to Dickens to Dallas and beyond. It's full of interesting historical tidbits and smart critical commentary about the evolution of serialized storytelling and what separates (or only seems to separate) "trash" from art.

A cliffhanger, Nussbaum says, "makes visible the storyteller's connection to his audience.... [Cliffhangers] reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing." This is fascinating to reflect on. But by the end of the essay I felt the notion of "cliffhanger" had been stretched well beyond its useful meaning. Nussbaum gives a quick and very interesting history of how television went from shows like "I Love Lucy," whose episodes were self-contained stories "designed to run in any order," to "long-arc" series that sustain a story over many episodes and require more committed viewing. But is telling an ongoing story, one that ends and then picks up again in another installment, enough to qualify as employing "cliffhangers"? In her third paragraph, Nussbaum offers two definitions of the term:

Narrowly defined, a cliffhanger is a climax cracked in half: the bomb ticks, the screen goes black.... Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying.

That narrow definition is a very good one. But if you broaden it too much, it seems to me, you end up saying that any serialized story is a succession of cliffhangers, and that waters down the definition of "cliffhanger" too much for it to be useful. If a show is telling a story, in a serial fashion, well enough that I am invested in the characters, I will want to "tune in next week" to know what happens next generally. That is just the nature of being an audience to a narrative that isn't over yet. But a "cliffhanger" is something more specific -- a break, however long, that leaves a particular question unanswered. So the "Who Shot J.R.?" season-ender on Dallas, which Nussbaum discusses in detail, is a cliffhanger for sure. But when Jim kissed Pam at the end of season 2 of The Office -- to take another of her examples -- was that a cliffhanger? A "climax cracked in half?" Or was it just...a climax? A cliffhanger, I think, would have stopped the action just before Jim declared his love. ("Pam, I have something I need to say..." black screen; "to be continued.") As a devoted fan of The Office I spent the summer before season 3 in suspense, eager to find out where the characters and their story would go when the show started up again. But I don't think that suspense was specific enough for the ending to qualify as a cliffhanger.

This leads me to a quibble, and yes, it relates to Breaking Bad. Don't read on if you haven't gotten to the end of season 3 of that show (and you think you someday will). Go read Nussbaum's article instead. Now, Breaking Bad viewers, I want to know what you think:

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Let's talk 'Breaking Bad'

breaking bad cast

I was late to the party when it comes to Breaking Bad, the exceptional series on AMC that begins its fifth season tonight (10 p.m. EST). I started watching only last year, when I had a newborn and a lot of television-watching time on my hands, and my husband and I tore through the first three seasons on DVD. After a long and painful wait for the DVD release of season four last month, we are all caught up and very excited for tonight's premiere.The only problem with watching season five as it airs is that I'll have to wait a whole week between episodes. But I'm thinking there might be a few other Breaking Bad fans out there, and if so I'm thinking you all might like to discuss it here at Verdicts while we wait for next Sunday night to roll around. Let me know in the comments, and if there's interest we'll make this a regular thing. To whet your appetite, my prediction for season five is after the jump...

Tio Baby

I think "Tio" Hector Salamanca will return in the form of a baby, equally nonverbal, equally bent on revenge. Don't turn your back on this guy.

Update: episode 2 discussion here.

'The Killing' Returns

This weekend brings a momentous decision: To watch, or not to watch, Season 2 of The Killing? Anyone who forged through the first season of this AMC police procedural (a remake of a Danish hit) last year is probably still fuming about the lack of answers in the final episode. For weeks, we had been watching the stubborn and slightly self-destructive Seattle detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) plod around the cityoften in the pouring rainas she attempted to solve the murder of high school student Rosie Larsen. We had glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel: Following an ingenious bit of gumshoe work, a culprit had been arrested! Justice had been served! Detective Linden was on a plane to sunnier climes! And then, the episodes final minuteswith fiendish glee, it seemedsubverted that resolution, saddling us with questions we have now lived with for almost a year.According to The New York Times, AMCs head of original programming has promised that the whodunit will be wrapped upreally and trulyat the end of Season 2, which begins this Sunday. Of course, even if we trust his pledge, there remains the fact that The Killing has so far been a real downer of a program. Many of its elementsthe red-herring clues, the multiple suspects, the sleuth with personal problems, the law-enforcement turf battlesare detective-story standards. But has there ever been a police procedural that focused so intensely on the grief of the victims family? In Season 1, scene after scene conveyed the Larsens pain: We saw Rosies parents suffer as they planned her funeral and suffer as they debated whether to clean out her room and suffer as they fielded detectives questions. We saw Rosies younger brothers suffer, too, as their pain-deluged parents ignored them. (In one heartbreaking scene, the boys, getting their own breakfast, wondered whether they dared eat some of their dead siblings favorite breakfast cereal.)The cinematography made the saga even more depressing: Season 1 was shot in blue tones that made each image even more lugubrious than it might have been otherwise. The police headquarters, in particular, might have been dredged up from the bottom of the Slough of Despond. All in all, The Killing strays far from the escapist-puzzle mode that is the default option for the mystery genre. And yet.Yes, I admit it. I will watch Season 2. The lingering suspense from Season 1 is just too strong. But listen, AMC: Dont count on me for any Season 3.

All the World's a (Political) Stage

Just cant get enough of cutthroat politics? Find yourself on YouTube, replaying the meaner jabs from the Republican primary debates? You might want to add the 1990s BBC miniseries House of Cards to your Netflix queue. Based on a novel by a onetime Chief of Staff to Britains Conservative Party, House of Cardstracks the legal and illegal intrigues of Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian party operative who wrangles his way up the rungs of power in post-Thatcher Great Britain. Urquhart (Ian Richardson) uses the press and the ambitions and paranoia of statesmen to his own advantage, but he hides his ruthlessness beneath a polite and even grandfatherly exterior. You might very well think that: I couldnt possibly comment, he primly responds, whenever he has cunningly planted an idea in the mind of a reporter or colleague.Manipulating journalists, tangling with the monarchy, destroying lives and careers with relish, Urquhart is a charming and seductive antihero, and his schemes and deceptions make for an engrossing soap opera. But its the theatrical trappings that really distinguish House of Cards and its sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut. The scheming Urquhart is a Shakespearean figurepart Richard III, part Iago and a very large part Macbeth, and the scriptwriters highlight these resonances with Shakespearean quotes and allusions. The spirit of Macbeth, in particular, haunts the story: Egged on by his equally ambitious and amoral wife (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart eventually racks up so many misdeeds that he might easily say, with Shakespeares thane-turned-king, I am in blood/Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go oer.Even more striking are the impishly self-satisfied remarks that Urquhart periodically delivers straight to us, the audience: In the middle of a scene, he will turn his head, look straight into the camera and share an unnervingly honest confession or observation, while the folks around him carry on, oblivious. These break-the-fourth-wall moments are like miniature Shakespearean monologues, and they underscore an all-too-familiar truth: that politics is, to a large extent, theatrics.It will be interesting to see whether a forthcoming remake of House of Cardsmanages to be as interesting and sly: Director David Fincher (Fight Club, the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is an executive producer of the forthcoming remake, which will be a Netflix original series and will star Kevin Spacey.