Mud: Go to Heaven for the Climate, Hell for the Company

This is a difficult film to describe; it’s not really about the title character Mud, portrayed by Matthew McCounaghey. It’s also fundamentally about love but in a way it’s also about the opposite of that feeling. It’s about that place in time when the purity and optimism love creates is shown to be illusory in the stark light of reality; that day in our youth when the romantic players in our mind’s eye are replaced by actual flawed people, who are sometimes cold or dismissive or just plain awful for reasons we’ll never understand. This is a bleak description to start with, inaccurately so, as the overall feeling the film imparts is a positive one. It seems to say that every failure is an opportunity to start over, if we can only let go of our pain and expectations. More than that, Mud is about people using other people. Specifically, adults using people to get what they think they want, while taking advantage of a child’s belief that adults have some idea of what they are doing. That’s what I believe makes a good coming-of-age story: successfully depicting that moment when we realize that grown ups can be just as clueless as kids and don’t always know best.

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols took inspiration from Mark Twain while writing this story, it’s hard to miss the influence. The Mississippi River is depicted as both beautiful and dangerous to these two kids as they explore places that, as a grown adult, I would be hopelessly lost in. But when you are still that age when getting lost is part of the fun, before you know how much trouble you can really get into, it’s a thrilling experience to relive. Most films tend to use children as props for adult characters to have their own adventures around, but Ellis and Neckbone (yes, that’s his name) are treated with genuine respect by the storyteller, both are fully capable of making decisions for themselves, and Ellis allows himself to be maneuvered not out of ignorance but because he believes in the message that the adults only half believe themselves. His naivete is part of the strength of his character, he uses it to his advantage because he, unlike Mud or the rest of us, has not been bitten by that snake yet, the one named Betrayal. And although he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to define him, Ellis is a good man by his actions and mannerisms, and when that lesson arrives it’s impossible not empathize with him even as far off as we see it coming.

What I found most amazing about this film is how suddenly and completely it drew me in. The pacing is deliberate, there is not really anything stylish or cinematic about it at first but ten minutes after I thought I might be getting a little bored I realized that I was completely engrossed. This is that quality of some films that doesn’t come around very often, that feeling of forgetting you’re watching a movie and being completely invested in every character. Like a retired grandmother sitting at home watching her soaps, I found myself having an inner dialogue about certain characters (oh no she’s not… she better have some excuse for not returning his calls…she’s off with some other guy isn’t she…UGH). Every character feels real, with real pathos and personality that the film makes no attempt at decoding. Because just like in real life, most people we meet we only see one side of, one singular aspect of who they are. Sometimes this is a facade, sometimes it’s a small kindness, other times we see a monster when we’re really looking at a wounded desperate soul struggling to right themselves in a difficult situation. It’s all relative. Ellis continuously hears conflicting descriptions of the same person from all different perspectives and this is the beauty of Mud as a piece of storytelling. Excluding the violent people hunting Mud, the principal characters are all just trying to be happy in their own way. Usually failing, but still searching, searching, searching, inevitably hurting the ones who love them.

The performances are to be applauded all around. McConaughey has come a long way since Failure to Launch, and if it didn’t seem physically impossible for him to not have a perfectly sculpted upper body at all times, I’d call this an Oscar worthy performance. Probably not an Oscar winning one, but definitely an effort that he should be more than proud of. It just seems improbable that while on the lam and starving he’d still have time to do crunches. Take a note from Christian Bale, muscle memory is your friend. Taye Sheridan, as young Ellis, is the emotional lynchpin of the whole story and he does an excellent job of displaying insecurity right alongside the stubborn nobility of youth. He is the pillar of morality throughout while the adults of the story are mired in their own self-interest and when he finally discovers his hands have been dirtied his indignation is righteous, his presence commanding. The supporting cast is loaded from Sam Shephard to Sarah Paulson to a complex and lovely Reese Witherspoon who ably sheds her quirky good girl debutante image in a role that is both challenging and mature.

It’s a very fine filmmaker who is able to capture the human condition as it can be: confusing, out of control, and too often tragic. And a lesser filmmaker would take the edgy road, leaving his audience to dwell on the unkindnesses that seem to find us all at one time or another, when intentions, however good, are paving that inexorable path towards trial and misery. Instead of meditating on sadness, Nichols continues the story, showing what people do after things fall apart: get back up. Eventually, at the bottom of everything, a person moves on with what’s left. Because there is always a new love to be found, another fork in the road, a new tributary to take that leads to another until we reach that final body of water. As the man once said, “Life is short, Break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that makes you smile.” – Mark Twain

mud

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Netflix Suggested Viewing #3: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Directed by George Clooney (actor, Batman and Robin, The Peacemaker) and written by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich) and starring Sam Rockwell (Matchstick Men, Moon, being generally awesome) this is a film based on the autobiography of Chuck Barris, the creator of The Dating Game and The Gong Show who may or may not have moonlighted as a contract killer for the CIA during the Cold War.
If none of those shows are familiar to you that’s because you are using the Internet and are computer literate. No offense to the previous generations but trash TV is not an invention of the 21st century and Chuck Barris was apparently something akin to Jerry Springer in the 70s. Come to think of it, that might be a dated reference as well. What would be more apropos? Snooki. Chuck Barris did to television what Jersey Shore did to television.
Aside from that he may have murdered a few dozen people at the behest if the CIA, although there is no way of proving this and the man appears to have been something of a sociopath. When I say this film is based on his autobiography I use the word loosely. Anyone familiar with Charlie Kaufman’s writing should be aware of his ability to mold surreal, absurd stories into fascinating films that somehow make perfect sense throughout but are truly bizarre in reflection, like dreams upon waking. Take an already outlandish story and add a rookie director in Clooney, who goes out of his way to use any number of filters, unorthodox camera framing/angles and transforming stage design and you should end up with an expensive student art film with enough cameos to make for a good, if baffling drinking game.
What ties the whole experience together is the performance of Sam Rockwell, who delivers a staggering range of skill and emotion as Barris, a thoroughly unlikable, shallow, boorish, truly creepy character as realized by the script. Somehow Rockwell is pathetic enough but not loathsome (in spite of a really unsettling flashback to his youth where he is portrayed by a certain Arrested Development actor you will have a hard time looking at the same way again), charmingly manic, suave as all get out, and, ultimately, infinitely watchable all in the same role. It makes for a strong sense of cognitive dissonance that Barris would confess to his most deplorable characteristics and insecurities while also portraying this fantastic alter ego as an assassin. Without all the stylistic flourishes, this movie would be less charming and more of a depressing character study in delusion and self aggrandizing fantasy.
But with all three factors, Rockwell, Kaufman’s script, and Clooney’s overcompensation, the resulting film is entertaining as hell. Period. I’d go so far as to call it uneven, poorly paced, and disorienting in tone throughout, but I’ve seen it four or five times and enjoyed every viewing. I think the idea was to be slightly schizophrenic in theme. Keep an eye out for symbolism, specifically when it comes to refrigerators. And I finally noticed who Barris’ buddies are while he’s in CIA school (name tags).
This film is absolutely worth a viewing; it is, for lack of a sufficiently sophisticated descriptor, cool as hell.

Netflix Suggested Viewing #2: End Of Watch

End of Watch
Written and Directed by David Ayers (Training Day) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Bubble Boy, Prince of Persia: Something About Magic Sand) and Michael Peña (Crash, Observe and Report), this is a film about two uniform LAPD officers in South Central. Using a combination of found footage style self-shot POV digital cameras mixed with hand held documentary style filming techniques to surprising effectiveness, this movie is highly entertaining, visceral, and emotionally powerful throughout, all while having a sort of ludicrous plot that occasionally detracts from the overall realism of the violence it portrays.
The real strength of End of Watch comes from the camaraderie between the two main characters who vacillate between frat boy shenanigans while on watch and efficient professionalism when doing their actual jobs as police officers. The gravity of how dangerous their jobs are is given real weight and consideration right alongside the sheer boredom of the day to day drudgery. Their families and love lives are balanced against the brutality of South Central Los Angeles and its pervasive gang related violence. Ultimately, both actors did a lot of research preparing for these roles and they both do a superb job of humanizing these two men, warts and all. A lot of people tend to hate cops as a general policy, without regard for context or motive, but the fact is these men and women deal with the worst humanity has to offer on a daily basis. Whatever attracts these individuals to this profession, be it the excitement, the sense of power, or some genuine desire to do good (I hope this is the case more often than not) the reality of the toll it takes and the depth of brutality encountered has been pretty well sanitized by Cops and any one of the color-by-numbers police procedurals that crowd the airwaves.
This is the other strength (if it can be called that) of this film: the depiction of violence and depravity, without a soundtrack or an elegantly framed reveal. The surreality of a poorly lit backyard, the sputtering gargled breaths of a female officer laying in a driveway, her face savagely beaten into a mess of blood and contusion, while her assaulter is subdued and handcuffed, this is what Cops doesn’t show us. That sometimes, maybe most times, they don’t get there in time to save the day, display the title card and cut to commercial. And the result is pretty shocking when the worst day most of us have to deal with at our jobs is the AC failing on a hot day in July. Ayers does a great job of demonstrating that the professional demeanor and controlled attitudes of these officers is a thin veneer belying the fact that their very presence in a situation is a lighting rod for chaos, and that they are fully aware of it. Behind the bravado and cocksure talk, they are fully aware of their own vulnerability as well as the courage it takes for their families to live with the imminent possibility of receiving a phone call no one should ever receive.
Okay, so, weaknesses. Well, the plot is a little bit too Hollywood for this to go down in the annals of fine cinema. The late great Roger Ebert described End of Watch as ‘one of the best police movies in recent years’. I don’t know about that. It’s one of the best movies about police that I’ve seen in a while, but when it comes to procedure and politics, I must object. As an example, the (kind of kick ass, thrilling) opening chase scene and shoot out depicted exclusively through dash-cam is a great opening. The subsequent high-fiving celebration after the shootings of the perpetrators would have landed on KTLA within a week. Controversy would descend, like a bandwagon Lakers fan on win-streak.
I have a mixed opinion of Los Angeles after growing up there but there is one thing I can say for sure about it: cops are not held in high regard for their self control or likability. From Rodney King to the Rampart Division scandals and everything in between, the LAPD is, well, not quickly forgiven. And some of the cowboy nonsense these two get up to strain credulity. Further, the villains that are set up to avenge the cartel activity they have disrupted are at first kind of scary, then cartoonish, then just silly. To avoid spoiling anything, the final showdown is kind of dumb. When it comes to officer related shootings, the real LAPD does not do what they do in the film. This is coming from someone who watched the North Hollywood shootout in ’97 go down live, a few miles from where it took place.
Plot absurdities aside, this film may not make you suddenly love police officers and respect all the hard work they do. But it does a good job telling a good story about two good guys trying to do a good thing. It’s pretty…good. I think you’ll like it if you are looking for solid action, drama, character, heart, veracity about the human condition, and an exciting take on a certain part of our country that is still, in some ways, the Wild West. As scary as that place in the heart of Los Angeles can be, I kind of appreciate that it exists, with its own sense of honor and values, however alien it is to the rest of us. And I like the idea that there are guys like these two trying to hold the line, men with compassion and humility and courage. Better men than I.

Netflix Suggested Viewing #1: Dutch

This is a new type of post I’ll be doing as often as I can think of a good recommendation. Have Netflix but aren’t ready to commit to a full television show? Need a movie to throw on while you’re making dinner for yourself? Want a distraction from the voices in your head (Why, why do they come to me to die?!). Here are some suggestions from someone with too much time on his hands and too many opinions to keep to himself.

Dutch
Written by John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) and starring Ed O’Neill (Married With Children, Modern Family) this movie holds a special place in my heart.
Essentially a road comedy about two strong willed, stubborn people from opposite ends of the social spectrum who find common ground and mutual respect by beating the hell out of each other emotionally and, in a few cases literally, on their way home for Thanksgiving dinner.
To be more specific, a smarter, confident version of Al Bundy attempts to bond with his girlfriends elitist wealthy-born son by forcing the two of them on a cross country drive during the holiday season. Add a healthy dose of O’Neill’s brilliant physical comedy and sad sack, craggily faced Everyman with The Worst Luck in the World persona to a script from Hughes, the man who mastered the world of heartfelt, funny emotional comedies in the 1980s and you end up with one of the more under appreciated and enjoyable flicks to ever be completely lambasted critically and financially that I have ever seen.
Hughes had a brilliant knack for combining disparate personalities and egos into situations where they are forced to breakdown each others prejudices, finding mutual respect and affection in ways that change their attitudes entirely by the end of the story. Breakfast Club is the obvious example, but the process in this particular movie deeply effected me personally. Steve Martin’s revelation about John Candy’s obnoxious, cloying character at the end of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles never fails to bring me to tears. Even in Home Alone, young Kevin finds his confidence in the council of the creepy old guy, regardless of what a bad message that sends. Hughes, as a writer, was enormously optimistic about people and their capacity for empathy, a sentimentality that he masterfully disguised with humor, sometimes slapstick, occasionally absurd, but never mean spirited.
I had a hard time bonding with my stepfather for a long time, we were mostly alien to each other about too many things to ever find common ground. But watching this movie together had a strongly cathartic effect, and although ultimately we never found enough common ground to maintain that feeling, I’ll never forget the sense I had that this movie approached the idea correctly. It’s a scary thing trying to be a father to someone else’s child. It’s a scarier thing to find a stranger taking care of your mother, the most important person in the world when you are a child. So what is the correct approach?
Dutch Dooley is a working class man with a wealth of life experience. Doyle is an entitled self involved child affecting the ignominious attitude of his rich father. When they meet in the middle they immediately conflict over their idea of values, both assume an attitude of arrogant superiority over the other. What makes this movie excellent and endearing is the simple fact that they are both completely wrong. If Dutch was simply correct about his belief that a man’s worth is tantamount to his hard work, the movie would be a persecution of the upper class, a soulless (and false) statement about social inequality. Instead, the young self assured Doyle, does learn and adapt. And his notions of what it is to be a good man change, rather than disappear. Instead of realizing he’s a terrible, entitled jerk he discovers the value of the opportunities that he has are only one part of the man he can be, as opposed to the boy that he is. Dutch, the weathered, experienced older man, recognizes this change in him for the quality that it is: nobility, and both are improved for the experience.
His approach to adopting this kid is the right one and he states it outright, further, he demonstrates it. He is not Doyle’s father and he never will be. But he can be his friend. First and foremost. And when it comes to a child from a broken home, when it comes from a child from a broken home, a good and honest friend can make all the difference in the world.

Pacific Rim: The Least Appropriately Named Rim

With all due respect to the man, Guillermo Del Toro is all over the place as a filmmaker. Where I enjoyed the character design and humor of the Hellboy movies, I cannot for the life of me remember any plot points of either one. On the other hand, he has a free pass with film fans because of his haunting and beautiful Spanish fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth. Pacific Rim falls squarely between these two examples, exhibiting awesome, visceral design and character effects alongside a deep unapologetic love for a specific genre of film. Del Toro approaches storytelling the same way he approaches the creation of the gorgeous and sometimes deeply disturbing monsters that populate his films. Each he constructs with meticulous research, informing a rich back story in every detail, sometimes to the detriment of approachability. But when he finds the tone he is looking for, as in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth and here, in Pacific Rim, it’s hard to not enjoy the work of someone who so clearly loves what he’s doing. That passion shines through and as long as you don’t take a film about giant robots fighting sea monsters too seriously, the resulting ode to mech anime and the Godzilla films is a great example of why people love movies in the first place: they can be so much damn fun.

My first feeling when I saw the trailer for this movie came close to shock. How has this not been made already? Hollywood, like some kind of coked out group of overpaid, underqualified hacks, has been so desperately casting about for ideas to keep the money train rolling that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars producing a movie based on the board game Battleship just because we, as an audience, are stupid. I wish I could fault the studio system entirely but the sad fact is, not enough people go to films that aren’t about recognizable intellectual properties. Quality and originality take a backseat to accessible nostalgia and given the amount of money these studios throw at the average summer blockbuster I can’t entirely blame them for treating filmmaking as a business. Because to them, that’s what it is and until the next big sea change in special effects makes these movies cheaper to produce, we’re going to keep getting Transformers movies about beautiful vacant people running away from giant billowing clouds of chrome and noise that I am told are supposed to be robots. Which brings me back to my point: how has this genre of film, specifically anime and all its incarnations, not been mined for all it’s worth? And why have we waited this long to see giant robots beating the hell out of things?

If you try to use Transformers as an example that we already have, I have nothing but contempt for you (not really). The one thing that Michael Bay’s cinematic orgy of CGI, abdominal muscles, and jingoism (oh and product placement) fails at is one of the things that Pacific Rim does extremely well and that is imbuing a sense of size. Opticon Prime and Megalux (whatever) are whipping around the screen like kites, doing robot kung fu that, even in slow motion, has no visual fidelity to speak of. At no point is it possible to shake the underlying feeling that you are watching extremely detailed and complex computer generated special effects. On the other hand, when a Kaiju (monster) picks up a Jaeger (robot) and hurls it at a freeway overpass there is a palpable sense of, in that second or two before impact, “Oh holy shit, that’s going to do some damage”. There is a feeling of scale and the effect is thrilling. Even in a more subtle way, when a wounded pilot tumbles out of the head of his crashed mech, the damn thing takes up half the horizon in the background. I want one. I want one so bad.

The combat itself starts to feel a little repetitive after awhile and the combination of low lighting and ubiquitous water effects don’t do the bizarre design of the monsters any credit. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell what we’re looking at. But there is a payoff in these battles because they build to something. The Kaijus are not easy to kill, victories are come by hard making them that much more rewarding. In true anime fashion, the Jaegers have more toys at their disposal than they first let on and, not to give anything away, one scene in particular reduced me to a 12 year old boy grinning stupidly at a perfectly framed scene of badassery and kick assitude (minor spoiler, it took place in space and involved a sword, because of course the Jaeger had a sword).

This is the basic message I’m trying to communicate about this movie: it’s just a good time. There is a decent amount of plot in between action sequences and it’s obvious that Del Toro takes the human characters and their stories very seriously. As long as you don’t go in expecting Shakespeare (although Idris Elba could lecture me on the benefits of a gluten-free diet and I would give him a standing ovation) and have a decent familiarity with how melodramatic anime can be, the whole thing makes a kind of perfect insane sense. This is the language of that kind of story. It’s populated by heroes that are somewhat two dimensional who are haunted by one specific traumatic event or another. Multiple nationalities are on display in the form of various stereotypes. I’ve forgotten the anime I saw where the giant fighting mech representing the nation of Mexico wears a sombrero but it’s not offensive because, well, they are at least trying to represent other nations. So the Russian characters are super Russian. The Chinese mech crew are emphatically Chinese. And Charlie Hunnam represents white guys, being the whitest guy of all time.

So obviously I’m going to recommend Pacific Rim, especially now, while it’s still in theaters. Because unless you have a TV that is twenty feet high, you’re going to miss out on that feeling of being 12 years old again, lolling back at the screen while your brain goes ‘nnngaaaaaaaahhhh….‘.

Orange Is The New Black: Like Caged Heat, Except Funny, Intelligent, and Sincere

There is a lot to like about this new Netflix original series. Based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, the show tells the story of an affluent diet-conscious yuppie with dreams of creating her own line of scented candles who instead takes a year long detour in a women’s prison, serving time for assisting her former heroin trafficker girlfriend a decade previous. That sentence has to read as bizarrely as it felt to type but somehow, with pitch perfect casting and a wry sense of humor, Orange Is The New Black succeeds at being an absurd, funny, heart-wrenching, and compulsively watchable show. It also effectively explores a some important subjects in a unique forum: female empowerment, gender roles, and the lifestyles of the LGBT community and, ultimately, Piper’s own maturity and sense of responsibility (which she achieves to varying degrees of success).

The lynchpin of the show is the performance of Taylor Shilling as Piper Chapman, a naive yet endearing young woman struggling to adapt to a new environment. She plays the airhead so believably it’s hard to imagine she’ll actually survive longer than a month but the transformation that takes place is both believable and very satisfying. It takes her and the audience a few episodes to figure out who the good guys are and with one exception (kind of) none of the good guys are actually guys at all. In fact, the male prison guards all have one vile characteristic or another while sharing one universal one: an unerring belief that they know what’s best for these women. The enforcement of this belief is usually the main source of hardship in one form or another and this is what makes this story about a women’s prison so compelling. When left on their own these female characters whether heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, elderly, or borderline crazy work really hard to create a sense of family and community. Racial factors unavoidably play a big factor but on the whole the relationships portrayed are sisterly, motherly, or genuinely romantic before anything else.
While the prison environment seems hostile and surreal at first, Piper and the audience steadily become more comfortable with the oddities; the capacity for the human spirit to adapt to the strangest circumstances has always been a fascinating subject to me. It’s amazing how in the worst conditions after enough time a kind of equilibrium is reached and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem weird at all for a person to create a makeshift air filtering mask out of a maxi pad and a few rubber bands. With the flu going around and no alternatives, it’s actually pretty clever. And this is true of any stressful or oppressive situation, at a certain point ego and pretension become meaningless baggage in the grand scheme. When a large group of people are crammed together in a difficult environment, be it prison, boot camp, or even an awful job, a natural social hierarchy somehow assembles itself from the chaos. Like a pocket full of pennies, people trend towards order, towards neat even stacks.
In this particular hypothetical pocket, a pretty young white girl serving time for a non-violent offense is a wad of chewing gum just waiting to come unraveled. This might just be my experience, but I’ve noticed that the first friends I make at a new job or in a new place are never the ones I keep in the long run. Piper has a similar experience with both amusing and tragic results. I have to say this about Susanna (Crazy Eyes, she’s hard to miss), this woman, the character and the actress, are brilliant. She is somehow both unbalanced and distressing and damn hilarious all at the same time. She occupies the atmosphere around her, inspiring the sense that I want to pay attention to everything she does along with a great feeling of relief that she isn’t talking to me. She also has one moment that broke my heart in two because of something else this show does very well, at least in my opinion and that is portraying sympathetic homosexual characters with dignity.
The portrayal of gay women in film and television is generally more accepted (and to certain degrees glamorized) than gay men for some obvious and regrettable reasons. The hypersexualization and objectification of the female body is basically the accepted norm in modern media and as a result the lipstick lesbian earns a free pass for being palatable (using that word makes me feel dirty) to mainstream audiences but the reality of the LGBT community is fewer hour glass figures and more crew cuts. To the credit of OitNB, there a few butch lesbian characters accounted for, they are relevant to the story and interesting without being portrayed as monsters for our pretty characters to fear. But to be completely honest, the show does trend towards pretty attractive actresses, all things considered. Such is television, although they may have overreached with Laura Prepon. I never had a thing for her back on That 70s Show but if someone out there does, your ship has come in. I’m also aware that Natasha Lyonne has had some substance abuse and health problems, so good for her that she’s working in a role that is extraordinarily appropriate for her. That being said, she looks like her face was manufactured in a Jim Henson workshop. My point is, the lesbian relationships that develop are treated with dignity and substance, if a little bit melodramatically (but what’s a relationship without melodrama?). The relationship I have the hardest time understanding or relating to is between Piper and Jason Bigg’s character….Steve something….Larry? Larry.

Maybe it’s because I have a hard time picturing Biggs as a romantic…anything, but it is their struggles to maintain a normal functioning engagement that seems the least convincing or entertaining aspect of the show. It’s not clear who, if anyone, I’m supposed to be rooting for and without spoiling too much, towards the latter half of the season, it seems like Piper is having the same problem. I was surprised to find myself irritated when the show followed Larry outside the prison. At first I thought it was because he’s so dull and unlikable that I’d rather be back in the hoosegow (my favorite new word) with the ladies but after another episode or two, I realized it’s because it was comforting inside those walls. I wanted to keep up with the women and find out more about their stories.

I’m glad this show has already been picked up for a second season, I’m on board with it one hundred percent. I wasn’t sure if I’d find it accessible, considering how far I am from what I suspect the target demographic is but the appeal is absolutely there. Captain Janeway with a Russian accent? Awesome. Strong, compelling transgender character portrayed by transgender activist Laverne Cox? I learned so much! Mythical feral chicken adventures symbolically representing the illusion of confinement and the freedom of the human spirit? You had me at ‘feral’.

Now someone show me how to make wine in a toilet, please.

Breaking Bad: This Will Never End, I Want More

In the interest of honesty, this article is a big ol’ mess. I had to stop writing now or it would just keep going, there is too much about this show to talk about, too many details to analyze. So instead I’ve just rambled on about some ideas and a few favorite moments. Okay, a lot of favorite moments. Good luck, there may be a pattern somewhere in all this chaos.

Fever Ray, If I Had A Heart

It is too easy to write about how good this show has been and too tempting to ramble on about the best moments so far. I may not be able to avoid either but the purpose of this piece is to curl up in this exquisite moment, one month before the final episodes air and pretend like it’s never going to end. This is the small window between an excellent dinner and the arrival of that perfect slice of New York Cheesecake, the one with the right amount of blueberry. We get to meditate on the excellent time we’ve had so far and, thanks to Netflix and Time Warner On Demand, I’m able to go back and rewatch every episode. The primary appeal, like most shows with long story arcs, is the suspense between episodes. What’s going to happen next? How are they going to get out out of this tight spot? What kind of trouble are they going to get in next week? While Breaking Bad excels at this method with pitch perfect acting, pacing, and just plain fantastic storytelling, the real genius becomes apparent upon repeat viewings when that tension and suspense is relieved enough to actually notice all the wonderful details.

Jesse: Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass, age what – 60? He’s just gonna break bad?

Walter: I’m 50.

Jesse: It’s weird is all, okay? It doesn’t compute. Listen, if you’ve gone crazy or something…I mean, if you’ve…if you’ve gone crazy or depressed, I’m just saying…that’s something I need to know about. Okay? I mean, that affects me.

Walter:[long pause] I am awake.

There are few things as satisfying to me as discovering the hidden meanings and messages in a great story. Foreshadowing, allusion, symbolism, when they are used well they can add all kinds of new dynamics to a story. From the giant skull t-shirt Jesse is wearing when he first starts to woo Jane to the persistent judgment of the (creepy) plastic eyeball that survived the Wayfarer midair collision, the show is littered with self aware clues to its deliberate plotting. Personally, I am awful at picking these things up the first time through, at least until I understand the story as a whole. Breaking Bad is a perfect example of how to use all these story elements and after repeat viewings I find I only love the show more. There is a confidence in the narrative and in the way that each episode and season plays out. Most importantly, there is fidelity. This show exists in this universe with its own set of rules. Fate plays a big part in the way the story unfolds and how the characters develop. If there is a message behind the entire story so far, it has to do with action and consequences. Cause and effect. In descriptions of the show, chemistry puns abound, but I’ll make one more; each character interacts with every other and there is a reaction that changes and drives the story along, like chemicals in a solution. Walt is an easy example.

Hank: [looking at Gale’s lab notes] Right here, here at the top, it says, “To W.W. My star, my perfect silence.” W.W. I mean, who do you figure that is, y’know? Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?

Walter: Heh. You got me.

Smarter writers than myself have already pointed out most of the examples I am going to use but I’m going to look a little bit deeper if possible. One of my favorite details has to do with the way Walt makes his sandwiches. Crazy Eight, hardened drug dealer and gang member who is being held hostage, insists that the crusts be cut off his ham and cheese. This is a pretty innocuous detail from the first season until a few seasons later, when he is making lunch for himself, we see that Walt has started to cut the crusts off his own sandwiches. It isn’t clear if he is doing this unconsciously or not, at first it seems like a kind of cold blooded thing to do. Most people, after being forced to murder someone in such an intimate way, would probably not want to be reminded of the act, however Walt seems unaffected. This is the primary example of how the relationships between characters are essentially a chemical reaction. After killing Crazy Eight, he has taken on one of his characteristics. And like a serial killer, he has made it his own, it’s almost a souvenir. This is also evident in season five, after he has killed Gus Fring. At the office of Saul Goodman, while the lawyer is rambling on trying to make sense of things, Walt is watching him with an emotionless, distant stare, that is distinctly reminiscent of Gus: cold, detached, contemplative.

Walter: I told him that I had a daughter and he told me he had one, too. And he said, “Never give up on family.” And I didn’t. I took his advice. My God, the universe is random, it’s chaos. It’s subatomic particles and endless pings, collision – that’s what science teaches us. What does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?

I would argue that Walter White was never really good to begin with. Some of the best moments in the show focus on his contemplation and awareness of his actions but at the same time, he’s just too adept at crime; too efficient at committing violence. And although I do not doubt that he included the welfare of his family in his decisions, his main motivation and the driving force behind every disastrous action after the first season is his pride. Over and over again, Walt’s judgment is guided by an unerring sense of his own pride, which gives way to entitlement and hubris. Combo is murdered by rival drug dealers because he insisted on expanding into their territory. In the fourth season after Gale Boetticher has been murdered and Hank is satisfied that he has found the mysterious Heisenberg, Walt gets drunk and degrades his former assistant’s notes as being imitative and derivative, completely reigniting his brother-in-law obsession with the case simply because he wasn’t being given credit for his own work. And Mike Ehrmentraut’s fate was sealed the second he was done dressing Walt down, calling him out on all his bullshit. The list goes on from here but I’ll return to my original point. His first and most immediate problem was extremely solvable, legally and with the incentive of a high paying job to boot. The original problem was financing his cancer treatment and when the answer is handed to him with a bow wrapped on it in the form of a lucrative job offer by his former colleague at Gray Matter, Walter’s pride rejects this option with open disdain. Manufacturing and selling a highly addictive and illegal drug, endangering his entire family’s lives and well being, and committing murder in order to defend his enterprise was the preferred choice to swallowing his pride and accepting an excellent job from a former friend in his field of study. This decision, more than any other, defuses his argument that he’s ever made his choices solely in the interest of protecting his family. His actions are not those of a good but desperate man; instead Walter White is, in reality, a sociopath cleverly disguised as mild mannered school teacher whose mask has been slowly and steadily slipping away.

Mike: We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch! We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But no! You just had to blow it up! You, and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man! If you’d known your place, we’d all be fine right now!

Here is my first fan theory I’ve ever committed to public record (the internet). I have a pretty solid idea why there are still eight episodes of Breaking Bad left, instead of one, where Hank comes out of the bathroom, handcuffs Walt and the credits roll. After losing all of his witnesses to the coordinated prison massacre, Hank is in a difficult situation with his investigation. If he suddenly arrests his brother-in-law for being the master chemist responsible for the blue meth production it would destroy his career immediately and here’s why: he would look like the absolute worst law enforcement officer in the Western Hemisphere. In the sixth episode of the first season (Crazy Handful of Nothin’) the two families are playing poker together. Walt goes all in against the Hank’s vastly superior hand, bluffing him into folding. Marie turns over the cards (inappropriately) and reveals that Walt had nothing in his hand at all and Hank is completely stunned. He sizes up the chemistry teacher for a moment but then goes back to the game, seemingly considering this successful bluff as a fluke. Unfortunately for Hank, this was his one opportunity to really see through Walt’s facade but he misses it entirely. He will continue to miss it until the eighth episode of the fifth season, while sitting on the toilet.

Juan: I don’t tell you how to fry your chickens, Gustavo. You should really leave matters of my organization’s politics to me.

Gus: Do I not run my own territory?

Juan: Of course you do. And I will advise them to be patient. But I recommend you finish your business with the man quickly. Or you risk losing the good graces of the cartel. That would not be wise. And those boys inside, I cannot guarantee that they will listen. They are…not like you and I.

I read a description somewhere that described Hank as bumbling or clueless but he really is anything but. He’s actually an excellent, natural detective who has discovered Walt’s secret several times but thinks so little of his brother-in-law that he fails time after time to see the obvious truth. The missing equipment from the school chemistry lab known to be used for methamphetamine production was not apparent at first but as further coincidences occurred it becomes a near miracle that Hank has not put two and two together. Stumbling upon Tuco Salamanca while searching for a missing Walt, he was likely too preoccupied with the shooting to make a connection. While surveilling the drug exchange between Badger and the supposed Heisenberg, who bears a shocking resemblance to Mr. White, who shows up and blocks the cameras with his hideous mint colored Pontiac Aztec? When he finally associates Jesse Pinkman with the blue meth production and calls Walt at home (who is, at that very moment, reading a certain Walt Whitman collection of poetry called Leaves of Grass, given to him by a certain someone, foreshadowing an event, oh, two seasons ahead of time, pure brilliance), believing that he used to be his source for marijuana. And even though Jesse is tipped off somehow and immediately destroys the camper, Hank never realizes it. Also, there is Gale’s notebook, emphatically praising the chemical genius of ‘WW’. Or Walter’s sudden and extreme influx of cash from an untraceable and undocumented source. I may have to go back on my initial statement, maybe bumbling and clueless do apply.

Hank: Whoa, whoa, no heavy lifting. I got it.

Walter: No, it’s okay.

Hank: I got it. Jesus, what you got in there – cinder blocks?

Walter: [pause] Half a million in cash.

Hank: [laughing] That’s the spirit.

On second thought, he may not arrest Walt out of pure embarrassment. It is difficult not to love the character. He has some pretty bad luck throughout the series and it doesn’t seem like that is going to end before the show does.

Jesse: Oh well, heil Hitler, bitch! And let me tell you something else. We flipped a coin, okay? You and me. You and me! Coin flip is sacred! Your job is waiting for you in that basement, as per the coin!

Jesse Pinkman was my least favorite character on the show for a very long time. Until he comes into his own in the fourth and fifth season, he is the other half of why they end up in so much trouble all the time. Where Walt is prideful to a fault, Jesse is, well, kind of stupid to a fault. Not even well intentioned, he is the id to Walt’s ego, the Lucy to his Ethel. Another problem I had with the character is that he is so well portrayed by Aaron Paul that he reminds me of every douche bag wannabe druggie gangster I’ve ever had to cross paths with, having never been improved by the experience. As his character evolves over the course of the story, however, he somehow becomes a kind of moral compass to the plot. Although he loses his way and goes to the dark side several times, to the point of attending NA meetings for the purpose of finding new customers to sell to, at the end of everything he is the only one of the principal characters who still feels the gravity everything that they do. In his relapses and drug binges and attempts to escape the business he is actually demonstrating that his humanity is still, somehow, intact; that he still feels the consequences of their actions and, ultimately, holds out some hope of redeeming himself. This accountability is not present in Walt in the later seasons, if it was ever there at all, but through everything Jesse is the one with the heart. In fact, his reasons for doing what they have up until this point are probably closer to Mr. White’s than either of them realize. Having been disowned by his parents, Jesse really does want to be part of a family. He often looks to Walter for approval of his work and tries to spend time with him outside of the meth lab; these moments are quietly heartbreaking when he is rebuffed. As much as he plays up the attitude, affecting a blowfish, he really is just a kid caught up in a pretty scary world of violence, addiction, and greed. In fact, going into the final episodes I’m not sure there are any other characters I’m legitimately worried about more than Jesse, his single mother girlfriend, and her kid.

Walter: Mike, I know you don’t care for me. We’ve had our issues, you and I. But, I would suggest that you leave emotion out of this decision.

Mike: I am. You…are trouble.  I’m sorry the kid doesn’t see it, but I sure as hell do. You are a time bomb, tick-tick-ticking. And I have no intention of being around for the boom.

I’m not sure how to end this other than to say that I’m glad Breaking Bad is not over, not yet anyway. I’m glad it has lasted as long as it has. In fact, I’m glad Breaking Bad is going out on its own terms. If it had succeeded on Fox or NBC or wherever else, I’m sure they would have milked this cow for all it was worth, introducing a plucky young female love interest for Jesse, curing and redeeming Walt over and over again, and transporting the whole adventure to somewhere sexier like Miami Beach. Instead, Vince Gilligan is going to bring this story crashing to earth, inexorably and without mercy. Having read a few interviews with the man, I have come to appreciate his sensibilities; he has a desire for justice, for karma. That a man’s actions have consequences and he will be paid back at some point is an axiom that is going to be present in this universe he created. Rooting for Walter White has become more challenging as the years have gone by, his conscience is all but an afterthought. So now the only question that remains, when karma comes to call, who will be collateral damage? That piece of cheesecake is almost here, just a few more weeks. And I’m going to enjoy every second with it, like it’s a death row meal. Because in a way, it will be for someone.

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