Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 2

Spoiler Warning: Perhaps this should go without saying, but this post is going to contain spoilers from the second season of Breaking Bad.

I want to say that season 2 of Breaking Bad is not quite as captivating as the first season was - but it's still a very good show, with incredible production values all across the board. When Tuco first came on the scene at the end of the first season, I was kind of hoping he wouldn't last too long. I don't know, maybe I didn't like Heisenberg having to answer to someone. I suppose I won't be satisfied until he really is the ruthless drug lord Hank and his gang of narcs think they're looking for. But ever since Tuco's been gone, I've actually been kinda missing him. He was a lunatic, but he was an entertaining lunatic.

The other thing about this season is that whereas in the first season Walter White was introduced as something of a tragic, sympathetic figure, his continuing journey into the chemical underground (especially in light of his cancer going into remission) is making him into a less and less likable character. For example, after his elaborate "fugue state" stunt, there's a scene where he discusses with Walter, Jr. (I'm sorry, Flynn, lol) what he wants to do to the person who put up an embarrassing flyer at the school where he works. He says it with a completely straight face, and at first you're thinking, this guy's deadly serious! (Especially just after telling Jesse to "deal with" the junkies who robbed one of their dealers). Only gradually does it become apparent that Walter is only joking with his son. (Yet, in the back of your mind, you're left with some doubt, because you're thinking, "I could totally see him doing that).

And then there's the way he handles the situation with Gretchen, the wife of the guy who was supposed to pay for his cancer treatments. It's fascinating to watch (Bryan Cranston can do a fantastic evil glare when he needs to), but it doesn't speak well to the likability of his character. Also, the way he continues to lie to his wife and family - I mean, it's understandable (becoming a drug lord is not something you can really cop to), but the more he insists on lying to and psychologically manipulating Skyler, the more uncomfortable it is to watch, as their bond deterioriates. (One of my favorite scenes in the first season was when Walt finally went to her and said, "we need to talk" - about his cancer. I guess I'm like Glenn from The Walking Dead - I don't like lies). And even though Skyler herself can be a bitch sometimes, it really chips away at the viewer's sympathy for Walter.

That having been said, there's something there that keeps you watching, and I don't think it's simply the thrill of witnessing a train wreck in progress. I've always been intrigued by the concept of what makes a villain. People aren't - generally - evil. Some of them are just assholes, but I'm talking about the real villains - the megalomaniacs and criminal masterminds. It's true that there is something seductive about the dark side. But it's very difficult to portray that effectively.  Even the Star Wars films kinda rely too heavily on the cliché that power is desirable. But here in Breaking Bad, we're seeing something change in Walter White. His brush with the dark side is changing him into a different person. It's not really a likable or sympathetic person - not like in the beginning of the series, when we could forgive him turning to a life of crime to make the best of a desperate situation.

But here was this meek person. A scientific genius, no doubt. But what does he have to show for it? His friends on the leading edge of the technological landscape have long since cut him out of their fame and fortune (I wonder about the details of how this happened, and if it wasn't in some way the fault of Walt's own masochistic pride, or maybe just the shame of a hinted tryst with Gretchen - but since we don't know all the gritty details, we have to kind of just take it at face value). And then cancer comes along to beat him down even more. Yet, when he exerts his power as crimelord - sometimes even the power over life and death - you can almost see in his eyes what it does to him. It's ugly, perhaps, but I don't doubt that it feels great. Come to think of it, it might not be all that different from a chemical high.

Contrast, for example, Walt and Skyler's earlier embarrassing marital difficulties, with his downright rapacious treatment of her in bed the night after he killed somebody and escaped a dire fate by the skin of his teeth. It's almost instinctual - evolutionary. By giving Walter a chance to exert his masculinity (e.g., raping and pillaging), it's giving him some kind of fundamental satisfaction he's probably never felt before. Even if the result is far from pretty, it's hard not to understand the appeal of this transformation. Especially with his death looming like a shadow over his immediate future, and little left to lose. Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.

On the Jesse front, sadly, he's becoming a bit of a pathetic character (but, then again, I guess that is his character, isn't it?), losing his house and all. He had a good moment in Peekaboo, when confronted with the truly pathetic reality of those junkies who lived only to get high. But then, he kinda screwed that up by the end of the season. Jane was cute and all, but I kinda felt like she was there just to give Jesse something to do (I didn't really buy her ditching her high-and-mighty act all of a sudden to go out with Jesse, but then I guess she wasn't any better than him in the end, after all). That is, until that thing that happened towards the end that really pushed the plot along.

On that note, the whole drug deal vs. baby birth thing was so obviously manufactured for drama, yet that didn't actually make it any less tense. It's one of those terrible what-if scenarios. I caught myself wondering what would be the best course of action. Clearly, making that drug deal was of critical importance for Walter's expanding empire, but this is your own child's birth, for chrissake. If you miss it, you'll remember that (and your wife surely will, too) for the rest of your life. And of all things to miss it for. "Oh, that's right, I wasn't there when my daughter was born because I was out dealing drugs." For a moment, I wasn't sure what Walter would decide to do, then I thought to myself - this is Walter White, of course he's going to make the drug deal!

Interestingly, I mentioned in season 1 that Walter White is uniquely advantaged in terms of cooking meth, but working with this new "pollos" guy demonstrates his severe limitations (and lack of experience) in the distribution side of things. Which is the expertise Jesse was supposed to provide in their partnership, except that he's turning out to be a bit of a bumbling doofus (especially while spiraling into addiction). The season finale was actually kind of anti-climactic - I thought the whole pink bear in the swimming pool thing that the show had been hinting at all season long would amount to something a little more significant to the plot (in terms of consequences and not causes, I mean). But I'm glad that Skyler finally confronted Walt about his lies - that's been a long time coming.

I just wonder - although Skyler still doesn't know what it is Walter's trying to hide, to what extent will the revelation that he's lying (including about the funding for his cancer treatment) wake Hank up to the realization that Walter is involved in the drug trade? I think it's been great so far, because even though for us, who have seen what Walter's been up to, his actions are obvious, and it almost makes Hank seem blockheaded for not realizing it, but it makes sense to me, because for him, the idea of Walter being this drug lord is so far-fetched that even when the evidence points squarely in his direction (like with the stolen lab equipment from the school), the thought just doesn't even seriously cross his mind. I bet it's going to be fun when he finally figures it out.

Well, at the end of the season, Walter's cancer is not only in remission, but following his surgery, his future's looking pretty bright. (Aside from the familial schism, of course). I'll be surprised if the cancer doesn't make a return appearance before the end of the series, but for now, I think it would be interesting if the show explores some of the fallout from Walter's decisions, now that his life is no longer in immediate jeopardy. After getting his hands dirty, it seems as though it was all for naught. But he's gotta actually live with the knowledge of what he's done now. He's no longer a tragic figure doomed by cancer, resorting to cooking meth in order to make ends meet, and provide for his family after he's gone; now he's just a drug dealer losing his family to an elaborate web of lies. I wonder if this series isn't going to end with Walter White dying by some means other than cancer - maybe even some form of suicide.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 1

I tried to write up more of a proper review at first, but I stalled out before getting it polished, and didn't want to wait around writing various drafts before I moved forward with watching the series. So I'm gonna do more of a "highlights looking back" thing instead. Although, I'll be recycling things I wrote previously, so this all should be from the perspective of having seen only the first season. That having been said, there will be spoilers up to and including the season 1 finale, so be warned.

Basically, I decided to watch Breaking Bad for two reasons. First, I heard lots of great things about it (including from some people who are close to me and whose opinions on TV I respect), and the whole Vince Gilligan connection with The X-Files had me intrigued (plus I was kinda craving some really good television after the disappointment that was the X-Files revival).

So, normally I'm not squeamish about fictionalized depictions of the world of hard drugs (see Blow, Christiane F., etc.), but I have to admit that a show about meth hits a little closer to home these days for me, on account of living in a city with a really bad drug problem. In the same week that I started watching Breaking Bad, local cops busted a meth lab not a few blocks from where I live. I swear to god.

But damn, this show is good. The acting is top notch - Bryan Cranston is fantastic. I've heard less good things about Aaron Paul (and he was pretty dreadful in that one episode of The X-Files he appeared in), but he nails his character in this series, yo. The other actors are similarly good. The writing and production are all fantastic. And the premise is just brilliant.

Making a sympathetic character out of a drug lord is a tough sell, but they've hit it out of the ballpark with this series. This isn't some slimy criminal pushing drugs, it's a respected science teacher and loving family man who turns to crime only after life punches him in the nuts by giving him cancer. This man has a legitimate right to lash out against the cruel world that has condemned him to an unceremonious death, and you can't help forgiving him for disregarding the normal rules that keep us all locked into our lives of civility, when life is being in no way civil to him.

The first three episodes of this series are flawless. I've seen a lot of horror movies, but never before have I witnessed such a believable depiction of the moral conflict of an otherwise good man driven to murder (and the subtle but critical difference between cold-blooded murder and self-defense). I had a dream once in which I killed somebody, and even though I got away with it, it destroyed my soul because I knew that from that point forward, I could never again convincingly tell myself that "I am a good person". Also, on the subject of horror, that acid bathtub scene trumped any of the special effects I've seen in any episode of The X-Files. (Kudos to the shout out in the title to the episode "Cancer Man"!).

The middle episodes of the season were a little lighter, starting from the point where the initial obstacle is resolved, and Walter White tries to distance himself from the meth trade for a few episodes. It was interesting to get a little more background on Jesse Pinkman - to show that he has promise, if he would just apply himself, and that he takes pride in what he does, even if that's selling drugs. It makes him a better match for Walter White's no-nonsense, goal-oriented approach, although these two characters are fantastic foils for each other. I think maybe the reason the middle episodes weren't as engaging was because we got less interaction between the two.

On that note, this series was a lot funnier than I was expecting, although in a very straight-faced sort of way (which is just the kind of humor I like). Like when Walter bluffs his way through a game of poker because, unbeknownst to all but the audience, Hank's boast about one of the casualties of Walter's criminal indiscretions is all he needs to keep his face deadly serious. And at this point Walter is still a pretty sympathetic character - we've been introduced to the school janitor only long enough to formulate a positive impression of him, and you sense that Walter may be upset about his unknowing sacrifice. But at the same time, you don't see Walter stepping up and preventing him from taking the fall, either...

I'd have to say that the highlight of the season, however, was when Walter White (after dubbing himself Heisenberg) uses his little trick with fulminated mercury ("a little tweak of chemistry") to bring the local drug lord to his knees - like some kind of sorcerer. This is one of the brilliant things about the premise. Despite being a novice drug dealer, Walter's knowledge of chemistry (something few drug lords would have any reason to have) gives him an instant advantage, so that he can just waltz in and outclass every thug on the streets.

In conclusion, this season was so good, I wanted to go back and watch it again almost as much as I wanted to plow forward and find out what happens next. Will Walter White be able to manage his home life while keeping his growing criminal enterprise a secret from his own family? Will he continue to be able to navigate the pitfalls of the drug trade, and what other exciting tricks of chemistry will he rely on in the process? Does he stand any chance in fighting his cancer, or is his fate inevitable? Will his brother-in-law the DEA agent ultimately become something of an arch-nemesis - the friendly rival turned bitter enemy? I don't know, but I'm sure it will be thrilling to find out.