Photo by Connor Huchton

The Digital Refrain Podcast: Episode 3 With Michael Levin

On today’s Digital Refrain Podcast, co-host Yu (@YucciMane) and I (@ConnorHuchton) talk to Michael Levin (@Michael_Levin) about Twitter, basketball, film, Hollywood, and the meaning of life itself. You can listen ...

Photo by Connor Huchton

The Digital Refrain Podcast: Premier League Preview Podcast

On today’s Digital Refrain podcast, co-host Yu (@YucciMane) and I meander pleasantly (?) through the nature of this year’s Premier League. It should be an exciting season across the pond ...

Image by @daCPlanet on Twitter

HBO Hard Knocks: KD VI

Part 1: Training Camp We all have different ways of dealing with the offseason. Some need to get as far away from the pressure of the season. Some use it ...

The Rest

Playing It Bogart: The Evolution of Film Noir in Video Games

Bogart, Playing It (Illustration by Maddison Bond)

Film Noir (literally “black film”), first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, is a term referring to a certain style of (primarily American) film that rose to prevalence during the post-war period. To pin down exactly what makes something Film Noir is hard to do, since the genre (if it can be called such) has proven to be extremely expansive and easily translated, but most critics agree that there are a few common criteria. Generally, the stories star a cynical, world-weary anti-hero chasing down shadowy leads in a dark, often rainy, always foreboding environment. Usually, the anti-hero is a private detective, or beat cop (the “Harboiled Detective”) who stumbles into a tangled web of lies and deceit, often in New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles or some other modern metropolis where one can disappear in plain sight. Oftentimes, the protagonist encounters corruption, betrayal, and a series of unenviable moral choices.

All of this is almost by default coated in pessimism, as the hero bemoans not only his involvement, but the irrevocable nature of his existence as a whole. More often than not, this fatalism is expressed through the hero’s inner monologues, which are as close to a trademark as the genre/style can get. At the core, Film Noir is essentially hyper-stylized crime procedurals. French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton simplified the style as being “oneiric (dreamlike), strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel,” and it is the first of these, oneiric, that distinguishes Film Noir for perhaps more traditional crime films. For instance, The Godfather fills many of the criteria often associated with Film Noir. It’s a dark, cynical crime starring a hero pulled into a bad scenario mostly against his will, a scenario filled with scheming, betrayal and backstabbing. What holds it back from being considered Noir? The lack of any sort of dreamlike state and/or a central narrator. Michael Corleone is undoubtedly a reliable narrator. The events are presented very realistically and without too much of a stylized or expressionistic quality.

Many of the most well-known and seminal works from the so-called “Classic Age” include The Maltese Falcon (1941), Angels With Dirty Faces  (1938), Double Indemnity (1944), and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). All of these films generally fit neatly into the criteria listed previously, but what’s interesting is just how many classic films can be seen as Noir from certain points of view. The aforementioned The Godfather being one. Other examples are Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958), and of course Casablanca (1942). In the 1960’s, well after the concept of Film Noir was retroactively applied to these films, “Neo-Noir,” or “New Noir” was also conceptualized. Essentially, Neo-Noir fits the same criteria as Classic Film Noir, just without the trappings of setting restricted to 40s Noir. A great many films fall under this designation, including, but not limited to: Training Day (2001), Serpico (1973), Pulp Fiction (1994), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Drive (2011) and of course Sin City (2005) an adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic series, which essentially played out as a tribute to Film Noir. Sin City aside, the most important impact Film Noir had on comics comes from the world of Batman, which accepted and flourished using Film Noir clichés and tropes to elevate itself to hitherto unseen heights. Think about it. Every notable Batman story features the Caped Crusader meticulously winding his way through a dark elaborate labyrinth filled with colorful villains and dangerous dames.

All of this leads me to the film that was probably the most influential to Film Noir in video games: Blade Runner (1982), a sci-fi/thriller/noir/detective flick starring Harrison Ford. At the expense of explaining the film (if you haven’t seen Blade Runner then you have more pressing issues than reading this internet post), I’ll just say that, aside from its visual legacy (it’s hard to think of a film that has done more to affect the visual tone of video gaming), it’s most important feat was marrying the seemingly disparate science fiction and Film Noir styles. Although both, at their best, ostensibly run on pessimistic ideals and sensibilities, the thought of them together resulted in a strange brew (obligatory shoutout to Philip K. Dick for writing “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, which the film was based on). And yet, Rick Deckard searching the dark and steamy underbelly of a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles for runaway androids fit so well that it seems as if it’s always been there, and will continue to be there into the foreseeable future (note here that one of the biggest missteps the film made was trying to shoehorn in some truly awful Film Noir-styled voiceovers).

I said before that one of Film Noir’s most distinguishing characteristics is the unreliable narrator, or the sense that the protagonist isn’t seeing exactly what he thinks he’s seeing. “Oneiric” is the word used for this. Few, if any mediums are as capable of capturing this dream like quality as video games are. Through changing the viewpoint of the character, game designers are able to convey that the hero may be having hallucinations, ranging from the influence of an enemy to out and out schizophrenia. A great many games do this well. Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain (2010) is a prime example of this, as one of the main characters, FBI Profiler Norman Jayden, has a very tenuous grip on reality amplified by his drug addiction. In many ways, some of the best, most imaginative Noir works of the last two decades have been video games. Among them are Grim Fandango (1995), a stylized fantasy-adventure game in which Manny Escalera, in his duties as the Grim Reaper, uncovers a sinister plot in the land of the dead, replete with nearly endless references to Casablanca. Other examples are the Deus Ex series, futuristic conspiracy stories set in Blade Runner-inspired dystopian futurescapes filled with mystery, deceit and the worst excesses of human nature. Another notable, if limited example of Noir Gaming is 2009’s Halo 3: ODST. ODST was a departure from the bombastic, more straightforward sci-fi of the other games in the Halo series, as developer Bungie adopted a more muted take upon their mythos. Where there usually was a genetically modified super soldier waging a one-man war on a xenophobic alien horde on vast, imaginative planetscapes, there was a lone soldier sneaking through a dark, conquered city, searching for clues to the whereabouts of his scattered squad. This new take extended as far as the soundtrack, which was punctuated by soulful saxophone and lonely piano interludes. Where it pales in comparison to some of the other games here is in its protagonist, a silent blank slate of a character named only “the Rookie.”

Ultimately, however, there are two shining examples of Noir in the world of video gaming. The first (though not chronologically), is 2011’s L.A. Noire, developed by Australia’s Team Bondi. As the title suggests, L.A. Noire is extraordinarily aware of the style, and for good reason. To say that the game takes inspiration in the genre is a massive understatement. Hell, the main source of collectibles in the game come in the form of film reel cases named after many of the greatest Noir films of the Classic Age, including some listed above. The plot centers on Cole Phelps, a brooding former soldier turned cop who slowly uncovers a vast conspiracy in 1940’s Los Angeles. Everyone wears sharp suits, drinks sharp liquor and hurls sharp insults. Cole seems, at first, the very picture of the straight-laced idealization of the perfect policeman, but it soon becomes apparent that he is hiding major flaws, both in his past and in his character. This makes him a perfect Noir anti-hero: broody with just the slight hint of major psychoses. Many of the most iconic visual cues and styles of the Classic Age of Film Noir are recreated to perfection in L.A. Noire. Shadows cascading through the slits of a window blind, endless rain pouring down on a dark and empty alleyway, shifty men being shaken down by shiftier cops. Everything’s here. It’s a beautiful, thought-provoking game.

In Noir, characters are less characters than they are concepts. If done correctly, they should be seen primarily in how the protagonist sees them. The villain is a dark, shadowy form on the horizon, oftentimes secondary to the more pressing threat of the hero’s metaphorical demons chasing down alleyways and empty streets. The love interests are as undefined and idealized as they are dangerous and unpredictable because, to the hero, the idea of love itself is a dangerous and unknowable thing. The plotting, while sometimes tense, taut and terrifying, will usually take a backseat to the inner monologues and broody musings of the haunted, vulnerable anti-hero, and no game series has ever captured this as perfectly as the Max Payne series. Remedy Entertainment’s first installment, 2001’s Max Payne, stars the eponymous, indefatigable former beat cop as he investigates the racketeering of Valkyr, a nightmare designer drug that fueled the men who killed his new wife and infant daughter. Where L.A. Noire played as a tribute to all things Noir, Max Payne played as an absolute love letter. Everything about this game is steeped in Noir. Max himself is as engrossing poetically pessimistic a Noir hero as anything Humphrey Bogart ever gave us (Max namedrops Bogey several times, including the prefix of the title of this very article). The game takes place in New York City during a torrential blizzard (which leads Max to dub it “Noir York City”), and deals with Max’s hunt for the men and women responsible for his wife’s death and framed him for the murder of his best friend (even if he blames himself more than most, another common Noir trait). Also notable is the impressionistic, almost dreamlike quality of the graphic novel cutscenes. While they were obviously done to hide the fact that the “actors” were just developers in tacky outfits, they work to accentuate the confusing haze Max is in, how everything blurs together and coalesces to a singular course of revenge.

One of the most charming aspects of this series is it never-ending self awareness. In the sequel, Max sees snippets of a television show that acts as a direct parody of his adventures (“When you’re in a situation like mine, you can only speak in metaphors”- Dick Justice). After killing his way through the Mafia, a secret society and a rogue military operation, Max finds himself reinstated as a cop, and in the second game (2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne) tangles with Mona Sax, a nearly flawless example of the “Femme Fatale,” a female character in Noir who acts as a sometime accomplice, sometime enemy, sometime lover of the protagonist. She is a suspect in Max’s partner’s homicide case, and eventually finds herself in the middle of Max’s feud with a shadowy cabal bent on world domination (or something). After Rockstar, themselves distributors of the game, bought the rights to the character, they took their shot, resulting in this May’s Max Payne 3. The second sequel controversially moved the setting to Sao Paulo, Brazil, but kept everything that made Max the compelling character he is, including the wonderful voice acting of the erstwhile James McCaffery, who is as important to the character as his trademark Bullet Time. While the game perhaps puts too much emphasis on Max’s substance abuse (resultant from his retirement and subsequent fall to depression in the nine years since his encounter with Mona), it still fully lives up to the pedigree of its predecessors. It’s Noir to the core.*

I said before that video games have, in a way, taken up the torch of Film Noir in the 21st Century, and indeed, it was playing through Max Payne 3 recently that inspired me to write this, which is not something any recent film or comic that aspires to Noir has been able to do for me. Some might accuse Noir of being shallow and without substance, of relying more on style. They fail to understand that, in this case, the style is the substance. Everything about Noir speaks to one of the darkest corners of the human condition, forming characters and plots out of the deepest human fears and anxieties. Max Payne responds with a disinterested shrug, a fresh glass of whiskey and a night spent wistfully wondering about the dame that got away.**

*I comment on this over-emphasis not because it makes the game any less Noir, but because it replaces the psychotic dreams and hallucinations he once had, lessening him from a dangerous psychopath on the verge of breaking to a sad drunk stuck in his own past. Obviously, this was the point. He’s meant to be lessened, to think so little of himself that he’ll throw himself headfirst into suicidal situations to save a woman he barely knows and hardly likes. Redemption.

**Dame is the weirdest word, am I right? It might be the most genre-specific word in the English language. It’s almost impossible to say it without adopting a shitty Bogart impression.

If you haven’t heard/seen any of Max Payne’s inner monologues, check out the first game’s graphic novel here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_RrJPX3E78)

Digital Goodbye

Image

It was a 21st century funeral. Everyone at least agreed on that much. The burial service had free, intrepid Wi-Fi, and a list of accomplishments attributed to the deceased were presented quite tastefully on latest generation iPads. Even some of the dead man’s greatest moments could be viewed in GIF form on carefully placed monitors. Evan The Nephew got a pretty good chuckle out of the dog one.

A single piece of paper found its way into the proceedings, somehow. The guests look confused as its presence was announced by the man’s son, but they looked on all the same. The most temporary of attention spans snapped into focus for just a moment, and the son’s words rose.

“As you all know, my dad loved technology. He died doing what he loved – surfing the front page of Reddit for hours – and he paid the ultimate price for his joy. And now, as we gather to celebrate his life, he has left us this single page to be read as a goodbye. I read it aloud now:

There are some things you all need to know, as I assume am now dead. In life, I’m sure I loved you all dearly, but I must say that in all my years of searching for fulfillment, I never quite achieved my goal.

You see, I was born to be an author. Not just any author – an author of our time, of our existence.

I was born to write for BuzzFeed, to write all the photo stories fit to print, and to do so with the aplomb of a wise man. And I was born to be the greatest there ever was.

But I was never published. Success escaped me. Maybe I lost myself in those wasted hours, commenting on threads that no one remembers now. I never passed the denizens of the listicle, those guardians of our modern public consciousness.

I do not know why exactly – it is my curse to carry into the grave, I suppose. But now, as I lied cold and dead in the ground, buoyed only by the knowledge that the new ioS probably won’t be that good anyway, I must share with you my greatest work. My software is fully updated, and I have made my peace.

The 10 Best Tarantino Movies:

7. Kill Bill, Volume 2

5. Jackie Brown

2. Reservoir Dogs

The young man paused.”I think that’s it,” he said, “There’s nothing else written here.”

“What do you mean?” A voice cried out.

A series of wails came from the crowd.

“There’s nothing else? That’s it?”

“What about the rest of the list?”

“Jackie Brown really is underrated.”

“I never saw Reservoir Dogs, but I always heard good things.”

“Did he really like Pulp Fiction that much? Always thought people were trying a little too hard with that one. I mean, I get it, but it’s also like, chill out.”

For one man, the list felt especially true.

“Dammit John, you never could finish anything, could you?” his brother said.

“He’s a  visionary!” yelled Han Jandis, he of the moderately successful Tumblr on his aunt’s side. (He later tweeted about the entire experience from a firm first person perspective.)

Soon, a silence came, and most had begun to think of other matters entirely.

But as the son stepped down from the podium and into the grass, the monitors seized upon themselves, stuck upon a single frame.

“Please retweet, please retweet,” each 50-inch plasma said, icons flashing and colors feuding.

Never again, never again.

What Julian Knew

Darkness, I guess.

Darkness, I guess.

I died a million deaths today. Never before have I felt so comfortable in saying that, felt so comfortable in the brush of a million questions and even more memories now revised. It’s funny how quickly all of your worst fears can consume you, how quickly any sense of sameness can disappear.

It is in this way I learned for certain that things can never be the way they were.

“You can’t repeat the past, dear Gatsby.”

“Why of course you can,” your mind’s Jay insists.

But if the future dictates, even the past, that which you thought was cemented firmly behind, can dissipate into something unrecognizable. And so it does, and so it does.

I realize I’m speaking in generalities and overtures, so I’ll just cut to it – today I became lost, lost in a way I’d never quite expected. Not in the physical sense, of course, only in the vague emotional sense that I can’t and won’t describe, but that which you may know very well.

Perhaps one becomes lost, one takes up a hobby. Maybe I should learn woodworking, or how to fly homemade kites. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just learn to find comfort in space. Infinite, stretching space.

Yes, today was not a good day. Maybe tomorrow will be different, but I can’t see it now. I can’t see much at all. Tomorrow I’ll awake and still rest my head in Cantebury, Kansas. That’s what I know.

Yours,

Julian Kower

It Is Unknown

Photo by Connor Huchton

Photo by Connor Huchton

In 2017, Raymond Green began a slow and irrevocable descent towards blindness. He was the greatest filmmaker of our generation, and everyone was quite upset when they read the news on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr.

It is unknown what Raymond Green does now. After a few public statements and awards appearances littered with great reverence and wry jokes, Ray departed into some unknown ether within the sprawl of Los Angeles. His friends occasionally spoke of his good health and continued happiness in various public forums, but little else was written or said.

I doubt his happiness, against my own better nature.

Frankly, I wonder how he stands things now. Here’s a guy who lived his life thorough a lens and traversed from each perfectly constructed image to the next. And now he’ll never see anything again. Nothing. Not one of those perfect images, and nothing in between. So what does Raymond Green do now?

Perhaps he writes.

Portrait of An Artist

Photo by Connor Huchton

The room screamed with noise and status. Men in dark suits and women in bright dresses walked in circles and spoke of someplace else.

Don Larchmann, former mayor and businessman and current money launderer, commented smugly to his strained date that this room contained nothing but bullshit and whispers. The real people, he confidently revealed, weren’t here, and if they were, they wouldn’t say a word.

Don may have been right, but his comment missed the point. His gaze ignored the man who stared, the man who did not circle. This was the man whose eyes fell not on the nondescript paintings or who was who and what was what. This man focused entirely on the white spaces between the carefully overpriced specks of genius. So stark, those white spaces.

All had soon departed, but the walls and the man who watched them remained. The paintings now lay in the corner, stacked with little respect or heed for their integrity. They appeared far more at ease within the apex of this rough jostling than they ever had glued to the rectangular room’s white walls. Near the top of the unceremonious stack, the edge of a stylized self-portait peered out, a raised eyebrow and jutting nose revealed upon the muse’s face.

The muse stood next to his own visage and glanced down, arms folded and eyes drawn to the blankness surrounding him once more. And there he remained until sunrise.

The Failure of the Modern Anti-Hero in Wrestling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last week on WWE’s Monday Night Raw this wrestler Sheamus (guess what country he’s from?) stole a Ferrari from Alberto Del Rio. He took it on a joyride. And when he brought it back, it was downright totaled. It was intended as revenge for the assault by Alberto Del Rio and he was intended to be cheered for it.

I mean, why else would would the good guy announcer try to pass this off as just a joyride? Sheamus is the hero. Del Rio is the villain. By simple character math, we were supposed to cheer the act.

But somewhere between conception and execution? It missed. Why? Because they forgot about one of the major keys to making a quality anti-hero. Put it simply, the villain has to be worse in the audiences eyes.

Let me take you back to the days of Stone Cold Steve Austin. He got away with a lot worse, and we cheered for him. Why? He was the one who faced the monsters. Between The Undertaker and the proxies of Vince McMahon? Stone Cold could do what he wanted. Why? He was the better man. He was the more admirable man. We liked his fearlessness.

And a part of the reason why CM Punk bogged down during the middle of his title run was the fact that he was up against an ineffectual sympathetic villain in John Laurinitas. He was so goofy and that made him likeable, it softened the edges of the Punker. Whereas a guy like John Cena, while also putatively a good guy, is the sort of guy that is booked to be such a sickeningly sweet jock hero that makes CM Punk fresh and interesting.

I appreciate that the WWE is still attempting to keep the shades of gray that made their last big run of the late 90′s and today. But the thing of it is? They’ve moved back from a TV-14 rated program to a TV-PG one. A little more clarity of the morality of the good and the bad guys is a need. PG wrestling works. You all need to do a YouTube search for something called Chikara Pro. So long as it’s good, right?

But bringing it back to Sheamus? Sure. He was assaulted by a car hood. But this isn’t 1920′s Chicago, and the hero isn’t supposed to bring a gun to a knife fight. The hero can be a bit of a bully, a bit of a jerk, and may have a smug smile that some of the more smart assed fans would wish their demise. But there is one thing that must always occur if you want conflict to be successful.

The good guy must be better.

“Retired Numbers” – Unrelenting Layers

Books on Tape, a one man project formed by Todd Drootin in 1999, made a name in the early part of the 2000s through a self described “beatpunk” sound spanning four albums. The group’s frantic approach to sampling became its signature sound. After a series of tours, Drootin put the band to rest in 2006 due to a foreboding indifference with music. Last year, while digging through old boxes, Drootin re-discovered a series of unreleased Books on Tape songs which make up “Retired Numbers”, the groups’ first release in six years.

“Retired Numbers” consists of six songs, though the album can be seen as one large tapestry with several movements. The opening song and lead single “Super Dr.” offers an immediate introduction to Books on Tape’s unrelenting, layered approach. “Have You Seen This Man?” picks up off the opening song and features an interplay between guitar/synth/vocal riff, a scrambled noise, and an acoustic guitar sample. The album never lets up from this frenetic pacing.

I find three qualities define “Retired Numbers” – first, as described above, its pacing (if I were on Twitter, I’d say something like this album is the Jeremy Lin of beatpunk sampled music). Secondly, the incorporation of sound in all forms which add depth to each song. Thirdly, storytelling. BoT switches sonic storylines at will, at times within a few seconds into an idea. BoT unapologetically combines these three aspects. It’s difficult to describe specific songs in a usual manner. The final song, “Safety First”, begins with guitar chords, and slowly incorporates drums, a vocal track, and a synth line before morphing into a separate song 50 seconds in. That’s how it is.

Books on Tape retired in 2006. Six years is an eternity in anything, much less music where new genres and movements seem to pop up on a daily basis. Perhaps the most significant theme of the album is that the songs were recorded in the early half of the 2000s and they do not sound out of place today. May all our past ideas be this relevant.

Download Books on Tape’s latest album “Retired Numbers” or past albums on iTunes. Like the Facebook page and of course, follow the Twitter.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 53 & 54

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode 7- Say My Name

“Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace.”- Mike Ehrmentraut

So how does everybody win, according to Walter White? By driving out to Mike and Declan’s deal without the methylamine and essentially strong-arming him into accepting 35% of Walt’s new business and giving up his own product. Walt does this (accompanied by Dave Porter’s Heisenberg theme) by trumping up the purity of his product, comparing Declan’s to a “tepid, off-brand generic cola,” to the “Classic Coke” of the Blue Sky. He tells Declan that he knows about their attempts to “ape his product at every turn,” and how he’s giving them the opportunity to sell it themselves, making more money off 35% of his product than they would have off of 100% of their own. Since Mike is retiring, Declan and his crew could step right and handle distribution (always Walt’s weak point) seamlessly. Why eliminate the competition when you can just become the competition? Declan, intrigued, asks just who exactly Walt is, and when he responds that they already “he’s the man who killed Gus Fring,” a look of shock comes over their faces. Mike confirms it with a sly nod, and Walt asks Declan to say his name. “You’re Heisenberg, ” a spooked Declan replies. “You’re goddamn right,” Walt snarls. Recognition is everything to him now.

After the opening credits, the three return to Vamonos Pest, where Mike gives Walt some parting words. First, that the legacy costs for Gus’ remaining employees will come out of the $5 million severance pay he just received. Second, that Walt needs to get the bug out of Hank’s office as soon as possible. He leaves, and when Walt asks if a “thank you” is in order, he scoffs, and Walt leaves. After Mike warns Jesse to get out as quickly as he can, the action shifts over to the laundromat, where Walt hid the methylamine. Skyler and Jesse share a strangely symbiotic look as Walt barks orders and tells Skyler not to worry about it. “Vamonos,” Jesse says as Skyler inspects the logo on the side of their truck. “I wish,” she replies.

Later, when Jesse comes to talk to Walt about his severance pay, Walt begins showering him with praise, telling him that he’s “every bit as good as me” and that soon, he’ll have a cook all to his own. When Jesse reiterates that he still wants out, Walt switches to teacher mode, telling Jesse that being “the best” at something is worth holding on to, and that he shouldn’t squander his potential. When he still refuses to budge, Walt starts berating him. He’s manipulated Jesse so much that, even to Jesse himself, the strings are showing. You can see it on his face. And when Walt starts saying that what happened to Drew Sharp was a tragedy, just like everyone they’ve killed in their partnership. If there is a hell (“I don’t know if you’re into that”), they’re already going. But Walt’s “not going to lie down until he gets there”. Jesse asks, again, just how many more people have to die. How much is enough? He’s done. He wants his money. “But isn’t it filthy blood money?” Walt retorts, and Jesse has had enough. “Whatever, man,” he says, reiterating that he’s done. Walt doesn’t believe him, telling him that if he leaves, he gets nothing. He hears no response. So ends the White/Pinkman partnership, possibly for the final time. Soon after, we see Walt getting ready for a cook with his new partner: Todd, who, despite not having any idea what he’s doing, declines his share of the profit until he gets it right. He’s the perfect student, and Walt is willing to teach, but it doesn’t seem like he really cares about it anymore. The allure of the freedom of being your own boss, what Walt has been striving for this entire time, is starting to lose some of its luster.

Most of the rest of this episode is dedicated to Mike, and his attempts to disappear into the New Mexican desert. First, we see Not Saul the Lawyer (his name is Dan) leaving money in safety deposit boxes for the families of the Nine (what I’m now calling Gus’ men in prison). In a remote location outside town, Mike listens in on Hank and Gomez talking about the warrant to search his apartment coming in, and, with even more weary resignation than usual, he dumps his computer and a veritable arsenal into a nearby hole (a well, maybe?), stashes a “go bag” full of passports and emergency money in the secret compartment of his trunk, leaves his car at an airport parking lot, hails a cab and heads home to face the music. When Hank and company come knocking, they don’t find a thing. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Mike is like a ghost. Hank’s superior acknowledge as much, and he forbids the ABQ office from ordering any more searches on Mr. Ehrmentraut. When Gomez comes in to console him, Hank comes up with one last-ditch effort to bag Mike: start tailing Dan, the lawyer. He represents every one of the Nine but not Mike. If anyone knows how they’re all being paid, it’s him. Sure enough, the next time Dan the Lawyer arrives to deposit some cash, Gomez arrives with a shit-eating grin on his face.

This all dovetails nicely back into Walt’s storyline nicely when he arrives at Hank’s office, ready to sob his eyes out again and remove the bug from the office. Before he can, however, Gomez arrives with the news that Dan the Lawyer is willing to give them Mike, and we finally see that look of mute terror that so categorized Walt in the first two seasons of this show, back when he was struggling everyday just to survive in his new career. Soon after, we see Mike at the park with Kaylee, his granddaughter, when Dan the Lawyer calls him and offers to meet him at the park to discuss “something that’s come up.” Immediately afterwards, Walt calls him to tell him that the DEA has “some lawyer” and that they’re coming for him. Mike snaps into action, and as he starts to say something to Kaylee, squad cars begin pulling up. After agonizing over leaving his granddaughter without explanation (again, much like Lydia was afraid of Mike forcing her to do to her daughter), he runs. He calls Saul afterwards and asks him to retrieve the go-bag he stashed at the airport. Saul refuses, as it’s extremely likely that the DEA is tailing him as well. Jesse volunteers, but Mike isn’t having it. He won’t risk Jesse’s freedom in exchange for his own. That leaves Walt, who goes to the airport and finds the bag, with what appears to be, funnily enough, a .38 snub inside.

They meet (at a beautiful grove near a river), and Walt demands the names of the Nine men before he hands the bag over. Mike refuses, telling Walt to get out of town while he can. Mike takes the bag and turns to leave before, once again, Walt demands a thank you. Mike tells him that he doesn’t owe him anything, and proceeds to lose his shit, telling Walter off for ruining the good thing that they had with Gus. “If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now,” Mike says, and you can see the very pride he was referring to spring up in the form of Heisenberg. Mike turns to leave again, satisfied with finally giving Walt the reaming he so richly deserved. Walt turns to leave as well, tail between his legs.

But he doesn’t. Just after he disappears off screen, he marches back into it, purposefully. At the same time, Mike opens his go bag to find his gun isn’t there. He turns to get out of the car, and Walt appears, shooting him through the window with the snub nose. Mike hits the gas, and slams his car into the bush line at the river’s edge. Walt runs up to the crash, only to find that Mike is gone, and for a moment, the flash-forward from the first episode snaps into focus. Walt ran because he knew Mike was coming after him, and he came back to settle the score. But then, after a few seconds of frantic confusion, Walt notices footprints leading from the crash, and a bloody handprint on the rocks. He follows through the underbrush to discover Mike sitting on a rock at the river’s edge, with a pistol of his own half-heartedly pulled out of his jacket. He can’t even grip it when Walt grabs it and takes it away. This is the end of Mike Ehrmentraut. Sitting there together, watching the sun set, Walt realizes that Lydia also has the names he wants. He can get them from her. He stutters out an apology, to which Mike responds with this episode’s quote. For once, Walt listens, and we cut to a wide shot of the two of them watching the river. Mike collapses, and the episode ends. This season, for the most part, has taken us out of Walt’s head a bit and given us a glimpse into how everyone around him views the Great Heisenberg. This season, we’ve seen Skyler truly come to understand what her husband is, just as we’ve seen Jesse come to understand. The look they shared at the carwash was a look acknowledging this understanding. For the first time all season, we get to see Walt again. The same Walter White we saw in the first season, and in “Fly,” the Walter White of lucid self-awareness. The Walter White who realizes that he just killed a man for nothing more than a casual insult. How much is enough? It seems as if, for the first time in a long time, it’s Walter who is asking that question.

Season 5, Episode 8- Gliding Over All

“Tagging trees is a hell of a lot better than chasing monsters.”- Hank Schrader

In a perfect world, the eighth episode of the last season of Breaking Bad would be the exact point where everything starts to pick up in anticipation of the explosive finale. This is not a perfect world. Because of this, this final season has been split into two parts, with the second eight episodes airing in 2013. This episode serves as a mid-season finale, but in many respects, it acts a series finale. A lot of things come to an end.

When everything comes to an end, it’s common for people’s lives to “flash before their eyes.” This show handles this idea by having Walt relive some of the more harrowing moments from this show’s past. I say this because the very first shot of the episode focuses on a fly, buzzing around the Vamonos Pest offices. The background comes into focus, and there’s Walt, face to face with one of his old contaminants. “It’s all contaminated” he had said then, in one of his moments of lucidity. I thought, at the end of episode 7, that Walt’s most recent bout of lucidity would be fleeting at best, and the first scene of this episode did very little to dissuade me of that notion. Todd arrive at VP, telling Walter than he had Old Joe crush Mike’s car (tying up that potential loose end nicely). As they prepare to dissolve Mike’s body, Jesse arrives (without seeing the corpse), asking Walt what their next move is. “I’m the only vote left,” Walt states, matter of factly. “And I’ll handle it,” he says, closing the garage door on Jesse.

On the plot front, a large amount whips by without much emphasis. First, we see Hank in a position of power with Dennis the laundromat manager. He’s got nine guys (ten with Dan the Lawyer). He can take his time getting what he wants from them. Then we see Walt meet with Lydia, who gives him the names on the condition that he go into business with her in the Czech Republic (where his product with “blow them away”). She wants to remain useful, maintaining that Walt is liable to view her as a loose end as well. He scoffs, wondering if she thinks that he’s just going to kill her there and then, in the middle of a restaurant. After she sells him on expanding his business overseas (something she says Gus Fring had agreed to, which is a scene I would very much like to see), she writes down the ten names, they shake hands, and she leaves. Afterwards, Walt picks up his hat, revealing the ricin capsule underneath. Lydia saw right through him. He’s the only vote in the business anymore, and he’s tired of loose ends.

After the cold open, however, my initial fears are turned right around, as most of the rest of the episode is framed around Walt reliving moments from his past. First, there’s the familiar shower scene that emphasizes his surgical scar. Then, there’s a painting identical to the one in Walt’s hospital room after his “fugue state” following Tuco’s death. It’s a painting of a sailor leaving his family on shore while he goes out to what he needs to do. It’s the painting that convinced him to resume cooking meth, and he sees it in a hotel room while meeting with Todd’s uncle about taking out the ten men on Mike’s list. While he spaces out, musing about the likelihood of two identical paintings (“where do they come from?”) Todd’s uncle tells him that the logistics of taking out ten men at the same time can’t be done, to which Walt responds that it can, and the only question is who is capable of it. Sure enough, the next scene is an elaborate montage showing the brutal prison deaths of all ten men, starting with Dan the Lawyer getting shanked at a payphone and ending with Dennis the Manager being doused with bleach and set on fire while in solitary confinement, all of interspersed with Walt setting the time to the watch Jesse gave him and Hank being informed during a photo shoot. Powerful, brutal stuff, if a bit on the kitschy side.

What isn’t kitschy is the scene immediately afterward, where Walt bounces baby Holly on his knee while a news report about the men whose deaths he orders plays in the background. In the living room of the man whom it affects the most. Speaking of Hank, he arrives home just as Walter is getting to leave, and offers his brother in law a drink. They sit down, and Hank starts talking about a summer job he had during high school. He’d go into the forest and mark trees for lumberjack crews to take down in his wake. He says that despite the tedium of it, he should have enjoyed it more, since “tagging trees is a hell of a lot better than chasing monsters.” Heisenberg is his Moby Dick, except in this analogy Moby Dick has left a veritable trail of broken bodies and decimated lives in his wake, and shows no signs of stopping. It’s eating Hank alive. Finding Heisenberg was what he held on to as his life collapsed around him, but now it’s the thing that going to drag him down again. If Walt is understands any of this, he doesn’t show it, as he simply responds that he used to love to go camping.

Immediately afterwards, we get what may prove to be the last cooking montage this show ever gives us, and they saved the best for last. Set to the 1969 hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells, it depicts a long period of cooking for Walt and Todd, interspersed with scenes of Lydia overseeing shipments to the Czech Republic and Skyler and Saul laundering money. It culminates in one of the most effective shots of the entire series, as a helicopter camera pans over a suburban area of the ABQ, with Vamonos Pests’ signature tarps popping up on every street. The smooth, reliable and unbelievably successful enterprise Walt always wanted has finally arrived. Afterwards, Skyler approaches Walt as he sits in their backyard, staring at the pool (another old trope this show is revisiting). She asks him to take a drive with her to a storage facility, and when they arrive, she shows him a literal mountain of money. “This is what you’ve been working for,” she tells him, revealing that what they see in front of them was too much for her to count, and certainly too much for her to launder. She has “no earthly idea” how much money it is, pleading with him to allow her her life back. “How big does this pile have to be?” Skyler asks, and it is at this point that I came to a realization. This is it. This is the zenith of Walt’s career. The pinnacle. There’s no where else to go but down from here.

Sure enough, the very next scene is another in the succession of greatest hits this episode has turned into: Walt getting another scan at the cancer center. His zenith followed by a reminder of his nadir: the cancer that ate away at him and forced him into this life that he now seems to be tired of. As he washes up in the center’s bathroom, he comes across another reminder of his crash; the bent and broken paper towel dispenser from “4 Days Out,” another reminder of the path he’s taken to the top, and how much more alive he felt while doing it than he does now.

Soon after, Walt shows up at Jesse’s, telling him that he was “in the neighborhood.” They start to talk, and Jesse reveals that Saul told him what Walt did (presumably that he killed Mike). Walt, unperturbed, tells him that he had no other choice, and when Jesse asks why exactly he’s there, Walt launches into a full on reverie about their old RV. Once an awkward pause sets in, we realize why Walt is there. He misses what he and Jesse had, the daily struggle to survive that was the crux of the first four seasons of the show. As he leaves, he tells Jesse that he “left something” for him: two bags. After Walt leaves, Jesse cautiously opens them, thinking what I’m sure most of the audience was thinking: that it would be Mike’s head, or Brock’s, or Andrea’s inside, one last torturous gasp to remember Heisenberg by. But when he opens them, it’s simply money. Jesse’s share. Probably $5 million or more. Jesse collapses against his living room wall and removes the pistol he had hidden in his waistline. The next scene takes place in the White home, where Walt approaches Skyler and tells her that he’s out. He gives her a relieved little smile and walks away.

Three months pass. A shot lingers on the White family hose, slowly dripping like it did in the apocalyptic flash-forwards from season two. The entire White clan is having a nice, almost peaceful family get together as Walt Jr walks Holly around in her stroller. The storm has passed. Walt has gotten away free and clear. He’s truly out, ready to live the rest of his life with his family. He seems to have finally come to terms with who he is. Skyler even seems to like being in the same room with him again. If I didn’t know already that there were eight more episode left for 2013, I might have even been fooled into thinking this was the final scene of the series.

But it’s not the end. We saw Walt in that diner on his 52nd birthday when this season began, bearded and despondent and buying an M-60 at a Dennys. And when Hank excuses himself to go to the bathroom, he begins searching for something to read. He find a magazine and tosses it aside. Then he finds a small green book. It’s Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and on the title page, there’s an inscription. “To my other favorite W.W. It’s been an honour working with you. Fondly, G.B.” As Hank sits, perplexed, we’re treated to a flashback of sorts, from Season 4′s “Bullet Points.” It’s that tense little scene where Hank muses on who exactly the “W.W.” in Gale’s notebook refers to. “Willy Wonka? Woodrow Wilson? Walter White?” Walt laughs and raises his hands in mock surrender. “You got me,” he chuckles. Returning to present, we see the realization dawning on Hank. It’s only fitting that something this random and silly be what finally does Walt in. It’s a testament to his hubris that he would keep this little memento around, just as it’s fitting that Hank, after months removed from the case, would remember such a small detail. I’ve been talking about how this season has shown us how Walt, Skyler and Jesse have come to realizations about just what Walt is. Now Hank knows what he is, too. It’s a long fall to that Dennys, popping pills and buying automatic weapons. And it’s coming. The end is in sight.

GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing. 

Walt Whitman- “Gliding Over All”

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 51-52

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode Five: Dead Freight

“No one other than us can ever know that this robbery went down. Nobody. You got it?”- Jesse Pinkman

One of the most enduring things this show has done is to start off certain episodes with enigmatic, surreal or just downright perplexing cold opens. Season 2 was built around these non-sequitur teaser sequences, but each year has it’s fair share of them. This episode, the fifth episode in the final season, trumped anything the show has done to this point, and it did it by being as blank and meaningless as possible. The cold open in question features a young boy riding a dirtbike across the Desert of Opportunity. Apparently he’s looking for something. Sure enough, we find out that that something is a tarantula (he even brought a glass jar for it to live in). After he scoops up his new friend, he gets back on his bike and takes off into the desert. A train whistles in the distance. Well, that was illuminating, wasn’t it?

We pick up the episode proper with Walt launching his plan to figure out just who exactly has been bugging their methylamine shipments. He starts this off by paying a visit to the newly appointed ASAC Schrader in his office, where the former immediately begins crying and whining about how Skyler doesn’t love him anymore, while the latter jut as quickly recuses himself in an effort to escape what is surely one of the most awkward situations imaginable. As soon as Hank leaves, Walt springs into action, bugging his computer and leaving the microphone behind a loving photo of Hank and Marie. The next phase of the master plan involves taking Lydia to some sort of underground structure in an undisclosed location and, after subjecting her to some Ehrmentraut brand Bad Cop, Worse Cop, forces her to call up Hank and ask him if he bugged the barrels. To her credit, Lydia manages to question Hank without Hank questioning her, and, after Walt’s bugs pick up on the fact that it was the DEA office in Houston who was responsible, she does her best to convince Walt and Jesse not to kill her (“everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their heads.”) Eventually, her promises of “an ocean” of Methylamine intrigues Walt to the point where he promises (on his children, apparently) that Mike won’t kill her.

Her “ocean?” a Madrigal chemical transport train from Long Beach that, after stopping in Flagstaff, passes through a three mile “dead zone,” where cell signals and automated signals cannot escape. Mike isn’t on board, for a multitude of reasons, least of which because they would have to kill the men on the train. While he and Walter argue over the logistics of the potential heist later at Jesse’s (in the second installment of “Two Angry Bald Guys Argue”), Jesse comes up with the brilliant idea of replacing the methylamine they take with water. We cut to Walt in full Heisenberg gear staking out a covered bridge inside the dead zone, with Mike and Jesse at his side. With the assistance of the Vamonos Pest boys, including Todd, (whom they explain the plan to while hammering home one simple tenet: no witnesses), they bury two giant tanks in the ground below the bridge: one for the methylamine they’re going to steal, and one for the water they’ll use to replace it. After a brief interlude at home, where Walter intimidates his son into going back to Hank’s and intimidates his wife for no reason at all, we’re back to the dead zone, and the plan is sprung.

Using Saul’s guy Kuby to stop and distract the train (by having him pretend to be a truck driver who’s ride has conveniently broken down on the tracks), they buy enough time for Jesse and Todd to set up the switch. In one of the longest and tensest scenes the show has done thus far, everything is going well, despite the variable presented by a friendly samaritan who happens upon the scene and offers to push Kuby’s truck out of the way and give him a ride back into town. Mike, acting as the lookout, orders Walt to withdraw, which of course Walt doesn’t do until he’s gotten his full 1,000 gallons from the tanker. Despite Walter’s procrastination, Jesse and Todd manage to escape, the former by hiding under the train while it passes, the latter making a daring leap from the moving train, a leap I was certain was going to kill him and provide yet another consequence of Walt’s hubris in a season dedicated to it. Thankfully, almost shockingly, neither Jesse nor Todd is hurt, and the heist has gone off nearly flawlessly. They’re back in business, and no one was seriously hurt. A truly victim-less crime.

They celebrate, Jesse calls the train a bitch, and Walt shuts off the motors providing the water pump. But the sound doesn’t go away. There’s still a motor on somewhere. They look around, and notice the strange little boy from the cold open sitting there on his dirtbike. A witness. After a few awkward seconds, he waves, and Todd waves back. Just some guys doing work on a train; a happy, coincidental meeting in the desert. A few more seconds pass, and Todd pulls out his pistol. No witnesses. He shoots the kid in the head. Jesse loses his shit. There are no victories in this business. There are no victimless crimes. Lesser shows might have given us at least a commercial break to process the catharsis that was the train robbery. Not Breaking BadWe get barely even a minute before a child is murdered, barely even a minute before another of Walt’s victories destroys someone’s innocence. As Walt himself said in the last episode: “nothing stops this train.”

Season 5, Episode Six: Buyout

“My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left. All I have. And you want to take it away from me.”- Walter White

In a muted, soundless cold open, Mike, Walt, Jesse, and Walt begin the process of covering their tracks from the heist. First they remove the pumping equipment and set it aside in the Vamonos Pest warehouse. Then they uncover the dirtbike, and begin reducing it to it’s components so they can melt it down in a barrel. The looks on their faces let us know that soon afterwards, they will be doing the same to the body of Drew Sharp (the boy). The last time Walt and friends melted a body in a plastic barrel was after Gus killed Victor, and it served as a form of black comedy to lighten what was one of the darkest hours in the show’s history. This time, there is no such levity. There is nothing worse than this, than melting down a boy’s body simply because he was in the wrong place and the wrong time, denying his family from ever knowing the truth much in the same way Lydia was afraid that her daughter would think she had been abandoned. Todd goes back to the dirt-filled dump truck and digs around. We see Drew Sharp’s hand poking out. Mercifully, we cut to afterwards, where Jesse is smoking a cigarette next to the methylamine container. Todd approaches, and starts making small talk about how “shit happens, huh?” Jesse punches him and walks away.

The next scene takes place inside the warehouse, where Todd tries to rationalize what he did by dropping all the old platitudes. “It was him or us” and “I had to save the team,” and all other manner of Heisenberg-isms that we’ve come to be less and less convinced by over the seasons. Walt asks him to step outside, and Todd tries to state his value to the operation (with a seeming throwaway line about his uncle’s “connections in prison”). After he leaves, Walt, Mike and Jesse decide that the only way to proceed is to keep him “on the payroll” (Walt’s really taken to the idea of being a boss, hasn’t he?).

The next morning, we catch up with Mike, by way of the DEA agent tailing him. Gomez arrives, sees Mike make a dead drop under a trash can, and elects to find out what it is after Mike up and leaves. It’s a handwritten note, from Mike to his friends at the DEA, with a gentlemanly suggestion of what he thinks they should do. How nice of him. Later, in his kitchen, Mike hears Gomey’s report to Hank about their encounter. The latter responds that “even pros make mistakes,” and that they just need to keep the pressure up. Mike smirks, and then Mike sighs, looking more weary than ever (which is saying something indeed). He doesn’t have the heart for this anymore. Jesse, meanwhile, has his crisis of confidence when, during one of their cooks, he sees a news report about Drew Sharp’s disappearance and nearly breaks down. Walt assures him that they have to keep going, that the future will hold “plenty of time for soul-searching.” He offers to finish the cook, telling Jesse that he’s had trouble sleeping, too. After Walt thinks he’s gone, he comes back downstairs to hear his supposed friend and mentor casually whistling away as he goes back to work. It’s taken awhile (almost too long for some fans’ taste), but Jesse is finally starting to see just what his partner is.

It is with both these scenes in mind that Walt stumbles upon his two partners in conference at the Vamonos Pest warehouse, where they tell him that they’re out, both of them. They’ll be taking their shares of the methylamine to a guy Mike knows in Arizona for $5 each. When Walt scoffs that they’ll be selling to his competitors for “pennies on the dollar,” they both retort that this is the only way. The next scene, where Mike and Jesse meet with Declan, Mike’s contact, shows them that selling two-thirds of the methylamine won’t cut it. Declan wants the “blue stuff” off the market entirely, and isn’t willing to scrounge up $10 million when the real source of his opposition is still in business.

A short time later, Walt gets a call from Jesse, whom he invites over to his house to talk. In the episode’s centerpiece, Jesse fills him in on the situation, and attempts to convince him that enough is enough. They’ve made enough money. He tries desperately to reach the Walter White he once knew, the man who sat in a junkyard and counted out the $737,000 he needed to secure his family’s future. But that man isn’t here. Perhaps he never was. There is only Heisenberg, who talks about Declan’s deal as “selling out,” and how, in the past, he made a similar choice with Gray Matter, his and his friend Elliot’s business (been a LONG time since either of those names have come up). He talks about how, for “personal reasons” (hint: Gretchen) he took a $5,000 buyout from Gray Matter. He talks about how, now, the company is worth 2.16 billion dollars (he looks it up every week). He “sold (his) kids’ birthright for a few months’ rent.” He’s not in the meth business of the money business. He’s in the empire business. After Jesse wonders whether a meth empire is really something worth being proud of, Skyler walks in, and what was one of the most revealing character scenes in the history of the show turns into one of the most surreal as Walt invites Jesse to dinner, demonstrating to his partner just how powerful he has become in his own home. Jesse nobly, almost painfully, tries to compliment Skyler at every turn, and after she asks Walter if he told his partner about her affair, Jesse shrinks back and takes an awkward drink, almost like a kid trying to get his parents to talk to each other again. It’s a wonderfully dark comedic moment, further cementing Aaron Paul as the heart of the show, always put in these horrible situations by Walt and always reacting in the most endearingly dopey way possible.

Almost immediately, however, we’re plunged right back into the pathos from before, as Walter tells Jesse that his family, the thing he was doing this for, is essentially gone. He has nothing left but the business, the empire. And he will not abide Jesse and Mike trying to take it from him. After Jesse presumably leaves, Walt hustles over to the warehouse in an attempt to steal the methylamine, only to find Mike there waiting for him. Mike tells him that the deal is going down the following morning no matter what Walter does, and after an awkward night spent in the office together (not in that way, though I admit it would have been a surprising plot twist), Mike tells Walter that he has something to take care of before the deal, and ties Walter to a radiator. While Mike deals with his business (which turns out to be a meeting with Hank and Gomez where Saul threatens them with a restraining order), Walt sets about freeing himself. He does this by first attempting to grab a nearby coffee maker and use the glass to cut himself free. After he accidentally sends the coffee pot itself skittering across the room, he comes up with another idea, using his teeth to strip and separate the coffee maker’s power cable, using the current as a blowtorch of sorts to burn his way free.

Mike, after leaving the DEA office, learns from Saul that their little gamble has given him maybe 24 hours free to “pull the ripcord” and get out. So it’s more than understandable that when he gets back to Vamonos Pest and finds the methylamine gone, he puts his gun to Walter’s temple and starts counting to three. Walter, who wisely seems to have clued Jesse into his plan (Jesse manages, once again, to calm Mike down long enough to give Walt time to talk), tells him that, according to his new plan, “everybody wins.” Cue credits.

The End Knocks: A Breaking Bad E-Mail Exchange

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Digital Refrain contributors Alex Wong and Jesse Golomb exchange emails, dissecting the most recent episode of Breaking Bad.

Jesse: Tonight felt special, Alex. After queueing up episode one on my Netflix just six weeks ago, I watched my first live episode of Breaking Bad.

Well, sort of. I DVR’d it and watched the episode 45 minutes late. My NBA2K12 Knicks Association team had a elimination playoff game against the 2014 Celtics, and I just couldn’t miss it.

In case you were wondering: yes, Jeremy Lin is still on the Knicks in my alternative, less-depressing basketball universe, and no, it didn’t matter. I still got swept in the first round as the eight seed. Some things are simply past the point of salvation.

Like Walter White, for example.

That much has been pretty clear for awhile. But what hasn’t been clear is when exactly the nigh end is coming. One of the (many) many amazing things about Breaking Bad is just how safe and unscathed its protagonist has remained, even as he has dabbled in drug production and distribution, murder and serial murder, extortion and money laundering. From early on, I’ve been comparing this show to Dexter, another one of my favorite TV serials, and one I believe has not gotten nearly enough attention as it continues to glow through six seasons. That show has a criminal protagonist working under the nose of a family member in law enforcement. Finally, in last season’s finale (SPOILER ALERT), we were treated to the sight of Dexter’s dear old dectective sis catching him in the act. But whereas Dexter teased at that reveal for years, Breaking Bad has never even entertained it. I took a guess early on in my BB viewing (especially after catching a glimpse off the season five poster, where Walt seemed to be in a yellow jumpsuit) that one of the seasons would take place with Walter White behind bars. Yet despite all the battles and bruises accrued along the way, all the money won and morality lost, Walter White has barely a scratch on him. Never mind the fact that everyone around him is dead either in body or spirit; Heisenberg remains — at least for now — safe and sound from his somehow oblivious brother-in-law, as well as the King of his domain, The One Who Knocks.

It doesn’t seem like that’s going to be the case for much longer. And I don’t think any of us needed Walt’s 52nd birthday ‘party’ at the Denny’s in the season premiere to figure that out. The end is coming for Walter White, and it’s spelled out as clearly as the bacon on his breakfast plate.

The imagery was all over the place in this episode, so rampant that the final shot of a ticking clock seemed too obvious (sort of like last week’s Scarface viewing, even though I liked that little bit of meta-forshadowing — everyone dies in this movie! –  more than most). There was the clock ticking as Skyler sat, smoking a cigarette, waiting for Walt’s cancer to un-remiss. There was the fray on Walt’s Heisenberg hat, just waiting to unravel. There was Skyler’s pool stunt, which can only serve to make Hank (and Marie, and Walt Jr.) only more curious, only more prodding, only a bigger part of this grand scheme.

And oh how grand it’s been, and I’m not talking about the excellence of this series.

Like most viewers, I was thoroughly confused at the end of last week’s episode, when Walt tells Jesse that he believed Gus killed Victor because he ‘flew too close to the sun.’ Was Walt threatening Jesse? Was he implying Mike was next to go?

No. If anything, Walt was talking about himself — even if he didn’t realize it. For the entire series, Walt has done things and attempted to do things that no high school chemistry teacher — let alone any man — should think himself capable of. Not only has he been the center of this series, but he has been the center of this series’ universe. He is its god. The consequences of his actions are not only felt in the White household, where Skyler is so overcome by the chaos that the silence of the pool seems a welcome respite, but in Mexico, where the cartel is in shambles; in Texas, where several DEA agents lay dead; in Germany, where a multinational corporation is coming apart at the seems; and all over the world, where the scattered families of the victims of Wayfarer 515 grieve, unaware that a man in a hat could have saved one girl, and saved hundreds in the process.

Walt has flown too close to the sun for far too long. And as his hubris grows and his respect for logic and patience disappaites (“this train stops for nothing;” “I just know”), it’s about time he burnt up. Some have called these first few episodes, “meandering” and “procedural,” but I think — more than anything — the first four episodes of Breaking Bad’s last season have set our “hero” up for his fall. 

I’m already going long here, but a few more themes seem to popping up. These are more half-baked, but a few thoughts…

-There seems to be a switching of roles going on with Jesse and Walt. At the beginning of the series and throughout, Jesse was the impatient one, the one always wanting to push, push, push ahead, the one flying too close to the sun. Now, he is the one who preaches prudence, who is willing to give up his money to avert argument. Walt, on the otherhand, grows increasingly arrogant and ambitious.

-That final scene in the dark with Walt and Skyler was absolutely fantastic. Everything that’s been swirling under the surface with Skyler since the retirement home blew up came to a head. And I think anyone who thought last week’s car wash breakdown seemed sudden felt stupid. Skyler is trapped. Her husband is a murderer, and his ‘shit happens’ routine is BS. I think she bought his “I do this for my family routine for a while,” but after he announces his willingness to institutionalize his wife instead of quitting the business, I don’t think anyone — maybe even Walt included? — could believe that. I know that’s been an excuse of Walt’s for awhile, but I’m pretty sure tonight was the first time he made a conscious choice that he would harm his family instead of harming his business.

-I hate Marie. I hate that damn character. Sorry. For a show that has five principals, she has always been the weakest link and everytime she is on screen I wince. Sorry if I offended any Marie fans.

-I also have generally hated Skyler, and frankly, I haven’t been a big fan of Anna Gunn’s performance. She was absolutely spectacular in this episode. That’s what happens when a character becomes more than a shrew.

-Walt Jr. likes breakfast.

Ok, time to go to bed so I can read 25 episode recaps tomorrow morning. I’ll hit you back then.

Alex:

Sorry for the delayed response, taking a break from reading my daily “Sanchez-Teblow” Google news alert, equally great drama happening in Jets camp I tell you.

Loved this episode, loving this season.

The best imagery of the night the close-up shot of blood dripping down Walt’s head as he was shaving. Blood on his hands, bloodshed to come. The build-up is so great at this point I wonder when it’s all going to culminate.

It might be easy to say that things aren’t going to get really crazy until the last eight episodes next year — but you have to assume that after last night’s episode titled “Fifty-One”, a “Fifty-Two” episode is coming, and I’m really hoping they’ll give us an extended “flash forward” in the finale of the eight episodes this summer.

Without all the details in between, I want to see how we get to the diner scene sooner than later. Because that machine gun in the trunk means there’s still more story to tell a year from now.

I didn’t know how to interpret the last scene from the previous episode, but I like the way you’ve choose to read it. Breaking Bad has always built itself up as the season goes along. Consider all the elements that will have to contribute to the end game somehow aside from Skyler: Jesse finding out about Walt killing his girlfriend and poisoning the kid, Hank piecing it all together, Mike plotting some sort of long con on Walt and Jesse (it’s only a matter of time before he finds a way to eliminate them to take back the business), and Lydia.

I wasn’t so sure about Lydia’s first appearance several episodes ago, but everything about her last night — the mismatched shoes, planting a tracker on the container, and just her overall uneasiness about everything. Something must’ve happened in the past to make her this way. I hope they devote some time to telling that backstory, I trust that Vince Gilligan isn’t putting so much focus on a Madrigal executive for nothing, she will figure into the end game, and she’s as much of a wild card out there as anyone.

Other thoughts:

  • Still very little of Jesse through episode four, which means something is brewing. Something always is.
  • Walt Jr. without breakfast? A man with no country. Underrated line of the night, when he’s leaving Walt’s birthday party and Hank tells him to slow down when he’s driving. As he walks out he fires back: “Never”.
  • There’s never been much use for Marie as an ancillary character, more just there for exposition and to further the story along from a narrative perspective. Although, I felt the same about Hank in the early seasons, he was a joke, a Vic Mackey lite to me. But that might be the most impressive character development work of the whole series, now he’s smarter than everyone and always one step ahead, although that will probably be his downfall. Few have squared off against Heinsenberg and lived to tell their tale.

Last thought: Skyler smoking in that last scene when Walt comes home, possible foreshadowing? We know that ricin cigarette is still lurking.

Jesse:

Good stuff. A few things to wrap up.

I have a strong feeling Skyler’s not going to survive this season. I don’t know what her undoing is — I really love your Ricin cigarette idea, especially because I never really understood why Walt saved the damn thing in the first place (couldn’t he just make another?) — but the Denny’s scene in the premiere seemed telling, with Walt alone, looking longingly at his bacon, arranging it in the manner his wife had for so many years.

As for Jesse, I’ve read some suggestions that the watch he gave Walt either has a bomb planted in it or a tracker. It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Jesse seemed to go out of his way (not in the usual sense) to give that gift to Walt. And you’re right, Jesse simply has been too low-key for the last four episodes. Something has to give.

I don’t think Mike wants this business. Mike wants out. He understands how much shit can pile up, and let’s also remember that he was ready to fly the coop until his nest egg cracked. Mike’s goal, in my opinion: settle his debts, make some money, and get rid of Walt.

He is a cancer after all.

Respect the Chemistry: A Breaking Bad Recap- Episodes 49-50

Illustration by Mary Grace Ewald

Season 5, Episode 3- Hazard Pay

“He handles the business. And I handle him.”- Walter White

Running a business isn’t an easy thing to do. Never mind a business “big enough that it could be listed on the Fortune 500.” And yet, that’s just the predicament Walter, Jesse and Mike find themselves in, and it’s the crux of another entry in what is easily Breaking Bad‘s strongest season yet (which is saying something). Putting this business back together starts with Mike’s visit to Dennis, the former manager of the laundromat. Mike, posing as a paralegal, guarantees Dennis that he, and by extension, all the rest of the names on Lydia’s list will get all the money that’s owed to them. Which explains why Mike has decided to enter into business with Walt again.

A business which gets its start, fittingly, in Saul Goodman’s office, where Mike meets up with Jesse, Walt and a protesting Saul. The first major sequence is Saul taking his three clients on a tour of possible lab venues, including Danny’s Lazer Tag, which Walt and Jesse reject immediately (it’s fun to imagine what, exactly, Mike thinks this place is. So strange that barely a season ago, Jesse was hiding in this place while Mike was trying to kill him). Eventually, they check out a small warehouse belonging to a local extermination company (Vamonos Pest), and while there, Walt comes up with an idea. They’re going to hire this extermination company and use the cover provided by their bug bombing to conduct a quick, efficient cook. In the client’s homes. The only catch is that they’ll have to take their lab equipment with them, which is a small catch in the face of becoming almost completely untraceable.

With the help of Badger and Skinny Pete (who plays a wicked keyboard), they complete their cover, and almost immediately begin smooth production. Despite Mike’s warnings to never talk to Walt and Jesse unless spoken to (a move that draws a modicum of respect from Walt. Mike is nothing if not professional.), one of the exterminators, Todd (played by Friday Night Lights‘ Jesse Plemons) comes up to Walt and Jesse and lets them know that he disabled the nanny cam in the first house. Walt asks his name, obviously marking it down for future reference. A king always needs more pawns.

And what does Walt need pawns for? The upcoming power struggle with Mike, of course. After their first batch sells, the three new owners meet to divvy up their profit. Mike begins taking cuts from all three to cover the costs of operation. Drug mules, operation costs, Jesse’s cut for financing the setup (and also the mission they undertook to destroy Gus’ laptop). Through all these things, Walt is quiet, if visibly annoyed. But when Mike takes a slice to put towards his guys’ “hazard pay,” Walt loses it. He maintains that since buying the silence of these former members of the Fring Empire is a business decision, it should come solely out of Mike’s pay. Walt has no desire to adhere to any form of criminal honor or decency. He’s in the hole, sure, but it’s not like he isn’t making a profit from all this, a fact Jesse is all too eager to remind him of. They aren’t making as much as they did under Gus’ rule, but they’re the owners now. They get a bigger cut. Plus, they’re only cooking 1/4th as much as they did as Gus’ wage slaves. Jesse is content. Which isn’t where Walt wants him.

Earlier in the episode, after their first cook, Walt sneakily inquires about Brock and Andrea (whom he officially met at Jesse’s earlier). He suggests that if Jesse is unwilling to share the secrets of what he does for a living with Andrea, then their relationship is doomed to fail (which is true, except for the fact that he and Skyler have nothing that could be considered a working relationship). Jesse is visibly panicked, and after the money-splitting issue with Mike, Jesse informs his old mentor that he has broken things off with Andrea. Walt dismisses him. He never really cared anyway. He just wanted Jesse all too himself, because, as he tells Jesse, he now understands why Gus killed Victor. “He reached too close to the sun,” Walt says, referring to Victor’s attempt to cook the formula while they were under house arrest at the superlab.

Walt’s insidious use of the truth to manipulate those around him continues when, after Skyler blows up on her at the carwash, Marie confronts him (of course Marie just assumes that Skyler being upset couldn’t possibly have anything to do with her.). While playing the cuckolded husband card, Walt tells Marie about Skyler’s affair with Ted, and how his accident is to blame for her recurrent breakdowns. Marie buys it immediately, since this is too juicy a lead for her not to sniff out (and also possibly something for her to hold over Skyler’s head in a few episodes).

The quote for this episode, from Walt to Saul, comes early in the episode, after Mike’s assertion that the business side was entirely his jurisdiction. Does that division of labor sound familiar? It’s similar to the one Jesse and Walt made late in Season 1, one that Walt almost immediately fractured when he marched into Tuco’s hideout with a bad full of fulminated Mercury and a new haircut. The difference now is that when Walt first became Heisenberg, he did so as a way of protecting himself from the criminal underbelly that he’s now all too acquainted with. At this point, it’s less about escaping the chafing bonds of middle-class servitude as it an all-encompassing desire for more. More money. More power. More freedom. If Walter White met the Buddha on the road, he wouldn’t kill him. He would dominate him and use him as slave labor. I think’s it time we stop calling Walt an anti-hero.

Season 5, Episode 4- Fifty-One

“Nobody stops this train.”- Walter White

Upon a re-watch, this episode’s cold open serves as some of the most welcome comic relief sequences in the show’s history. Walt and Junior go to pick up his Aztek from the shop, where the lead mechanic spends most of his screen time telling Walt just how reliable his old car is (“she’s got nine lives, this car”). After a passing reference to the “gunk” they cleaned out of the fender (the Rival Dealers’ blood, which Walt told them was from a deer), Walt sells the mechanic his car for $50. He’s done being dependable. It’s time for him to buy a car befitting his status as kingpin. Notice how this differs from Gus’ Volvo. Hiding in plain sight, Walter is not. It’s like he doesn’t even think about how the man in charge of the task force made to find him is his own brother in law. Regardless, after a pitiful look from Junior as they pull up in their respective rides, they return to the dealership, and Walt buys another Challenger for him. The exact same model. Let’s see Skyler take this one away. Walter is in such a dominant position in the relationship that he’s almost Big Brother to Skyler. He dictates her reality. “Life is good, Skyler,” he tells her, and you can almost see her soul leaving her body.

On the business side of things, Jesse pays a visit to Lydia’s plant after Hank’s investigation forces her to give up her “guy.” As Jesse removes the soon to be ignored barrel of methylamine, she notices a tracking device on the bottom. Mike figures out what her game is soon enough. By trying to make it seem as if the DEA is tracking her shipments, Lydia hopes to give herself a reason to escape her dealings with Mike. It’s a bold strategy, and one that bodes well for her character, if not her future (“she’s dead). Mike’s remarks that he and Jesse are being sexist in simply disregard her as being crazy is an interesting one, since that seems to have been this show’s go to move in dealing with its female characters (Hank himself jokes that Marie isn’t exactly the picture of mental health). I hope Lydia sticks around a little more, what with her mismatched shoes and all.

The centerpiece of this episode is Walt’s birthday celebration. It’s been a year since he was diagnosed, and it’s fun to pick out the contrasts between his 50th birthday party and his 51st. When Skyler threw him a surprise party in the Pilot, he was nervous and unabashedly against the entire affair. This year? This year he seems to expect it, and is visibly disappointed when his birthday bash turns out to be just Hank and Marie coming over for dinner (of course, Marie almost immediately told Hank about Skyler’s infidelity. Walt’s glare at her when he realizes is priceless). During Walt’s grand speech about how much he’s had to go through, Skyler begins inching closer and closer to the family pool. After Hank and Marie notice (Walt’s back was turned to the whole thing, of course), Skyler jumps in and attempts to drown herself. The shot of her below the water is the first time all season she’s looked happy. She can’t hear Walt. But then, in a jarring shot, he appears behind her below the water. One does not simply escape from Heisenberg.

One thing to notice is Hank’s reactions to all this. Before Walter Junior leaves (just in time, because Junior seeing just how desperate his mother is might be enough to sway him to her side. He’s not ignorant about his father. He just chooses to ignore it), Hank makes a quick joke about his nephew being “a millionaire.” He’s just been promoted to replace Merkert as ASAC of the the New Mexico office. He will no longer be in charge of the Fring investigation. Most reviewers have thought that he’ll find a way to continue it regardless. I think he’s going to find himself with ample opportunity to begin a new investigation. One into his brother in law. It has to be happening soon. There’s no way this show isn’t going to ignite that particular fire.

After Marie puts Skyler to bed, she and Hank corner Walt into letting Skyler get treatment, and offer to watch Junior and Holly for a few days. After they leave, he confronts Skyler, dropping the doting husband facade and practically chasing her around the bedroom. He calls her on all her attempts to get the kids away from the house, stating that there is nowhere safer for them to be. Gus Fring was the danger. “I thought you were the danger,” she retorts, and suddenly, Walt isn’t dealing with a comatose shell of a woman: Skyler has decided to fight back. Much like Walter himself did when he broke into the house in Season 3, Skyler has decided to stop being dominated in the War of the Whites. Unlike Walt, Skyler’s methods are much more patient. After Walt shoots down every one of her possible escape plans, she admits that she doesn’t have his “magic,” the magic that allows him to weasel his way out of everything. Skyler has no illusions of innocence, which is refreshing for her, considering nearly her entire run on this show has dealt with her rejecting just how bad things have gotten, either with Walt and with her own dealings with Ted. Walter has a new enemy to deal with (to go along with Hank, the enemy he doesn’t even regard as a threat), and this enemy is content simply with waiting. She says so herself. When Walt asks her what she could possibly be waiting for, she chillingly responds “for the cancer to come back.” Walt stops in his tracks. The show has been building to this for awhile, and as we saw in the flashforward that started this season, it’s a eventuality that the show hasn’t forgotten about. Walt was taking that pills in a Denny’s bathroom for a reason. Right now, he’s on top. He won. But the cancer that, a year ago, started all of this, is still lying in wait.

As he sits and listens to Jesse and Mike argue about what to do with Lydia, Walt has his trademark hat, which he recovered from the Aztek before selling it. When he found it then, he immediately put it on, in public. In front of his son. It’s not like anyone could do anything about it. But while he fiddles with the hat, he finds a loose strand. And as he lays down to sleep in the bed his wife is powerless to keep him out of, the watch Jesse got him for his birthday is ticking. Fifty. Fifty-one. Fifty-two. I don’t think he’s going to reach fifty-three. The clock is ticking, Walter.

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