… or: How I learned to stop bingeing and love the wait

Let’s say I was given a choice: either I give up all the movies in my collection or I say goodbye to all the box sets I’ve got. Which do I let go of? The Criterion disks I’ve amassed since I first discovered the Collection would make this a difficult choice, but in the end I think I would want to hang on to the series I’ve got. The thought of not having constant and (nearly) instant access to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, as well as some of the later additions such as Treme or Hannibal is arguably worse than suddenly being bereft of the many, many films filling the shelves of the many, many Billy bookcases that we have accrued.

How do you measure, measure a reactionary fantasy? Continue reading

All fun and games, until someone loses his head

I understand that the following might get me defenestrated, decapitated, poisoned, disembowelled and/or otherwise treated harshly – but I think that Game of Thrones is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great series with a cast that well night perfect, characters that are engaging, production values that are amazing, complex storylines that are riveting and setpieces that are stunning. It’s head (not Ned’s, obviously) and shoulders above a lot of TV. Nevertheless, on a list of favourite series it wouldn’t make it into my Top 5: I’d take The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad and The Wire over it any day, to name just a few.

Thing is, for all its strengths the series is pretty much entirely about itself. It has little to say about our world. I’m not denying the series all relevance, but for all the cruelty and political intrigue of the world it depicts it is still escapism. Does it need to be anything more? Most emphatically not – but it makes the superlative praise the series gets ring somewhat hollow.

Hmm... My shoelaces are untied.

My impression is that because the series is brutal, because it kills our darlings, people implicitly see it as something more than escapist entertainment. “This is what the world is really like – cruel, amoral and swift to kick you in the privates, steal your silver and stab you in the spleen!” Except I doubt that most of its fans live in a world in any real sense that is like Westeros. Does Game of Thrones have anything much to say about power, responsibility, pragmatism and honour in a world of shifting alliances and uncertain motives? It probably does, although not all that much beyond what makes an intriguing story. Then again, it doesn’t need to – but its fans sometimes behave as if the series is completely new and does things that haven’t been tried before.

What puzzles me most is how Game of Thrones is almost universally hailed, yet HBO’s earlier series Rome barely made it to the end of season 2. In so many ways, Rome is an amazingly close precursor to the sprawling Westerosiad. Sex and violence? Check. Political intrigue? Check. Exotic locales? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check. Ciarán Hinds, Indira Varma, Tobias Menzies? Check, check and check again. (We’re still waiting for Ray Stevenson to make it to Westeros and for Kevin McKidd to be saved from his Seattle day job by a crazed, bomb-wielding, suicidal plane crash-cum-zombie apocalypse.) In terms of format, tone, characters, visual identity and, obviously, Nipple Count (and no, that’s not a character on the X-rated Sesame Street spin-off), the two series are very similar. Certainly, there are no ice zombies and dragons in Rome, but is that what makes Game of Thrones a success whereas the earlier series floundered? When people praise the series’ complexity, its characters and the world it evokes, are they actually saying that dragons, ice wights and boobs are cool? Or was the world not yet ready for a series of this kind when Rome was first aired?

Two.

There’s something about about the way the internet has embraced Game of Thrones that recalls self-perpetuating feedback loops. People don’t just get excited about the latest episode, they get excited about the latest round of YouTube videos depicting fan reactions. Watch total strangers scream at their TVs as Prince Fringfrang of House Shmoodle gets his arms torn clean off! Controversial scenes? Check out the clickbait: Why women like The Walking Dead better than Game of Thrones! (Not a joke, that one…). There’s something performative to the fan hype, as if people think they’ll become more interesting if they’ve got a video of themselves shrieking at Ned Stark’s decapitation or if they’ve got a blog post about what people on the internet say about-

Okay, gotcha. I’m feeding on, and into, the hype machine as much as everyone else. And who am I to tell the internet that it’s overrating its latest darling, especially if I then go and wax gastronomical about Hannibal after posting my own clickbait? So, to close this meandering post: if any fans of Game of Thrones are still reading this, I’m not telling you to stop enjoying the show or talk about it. But if you get bored waiting nine months for season 5, do check out Rome, especially season 1. You might enjoy it. And you won’t have to worry about book readers spoiling next episode… just pesky historians. Just don’t enter “does caesar” into the Google search window, lest the auto-complete function ruins it for you.

Having your meth and smoking it

Is there such a thing as too satisfying? There’s definitely such a thing as too neat, and I’m afraid that’s what I take away from the final episode of Breaking Bad. I enjoyed it, definitely – but coming as it does after “Granite State”, the penultimate episode, it feels too much like the series was tied up with a bow. It’s an enjoyable finale, but it is also a safe finale, and that I find a little disappointing.

Now, “Granite State” (especially in combination with the episode that precedes it, “Ozymandias”), that would have been a more courageous finale, and a more frustrating one. Not The Sopranos, “Made In America” level frustrating, but close. It’s a deeply moralistic episode, but one that is very much in line with the series as a whole. Walter White may have wanted to be Heisenberg, criminal mastermind and all-round badass, taking care of his family and, well, taking care of his enemies at the same time. In practice, though, he was petty, vindictive, scared yet oblivious of – or, worse, indifferent to – what he was doing to his family and the people around him. He used others, he rationalised horrific acts, because he could always pretend to himself that he was doing it for his children.

Family man

“Ozymandias” and “Granite State” stripped all of this away and revealed what Walt had become: powerless and unable to save his brother-in-law, yet venomously evil towards Jesse for turning against him. Bit by bit, Walt either watched everything he cared about crumble or actively contributed to its destruction. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, he had left behind that road at this point and was safely in hell – which turned out to be a remote, tiny cabin in New Hampshire. Walter White’s hell was being stuck in a small room by himself, with only himself as company, his ill-gotten gains less useful than the month-old newspapers from which he cut articles about the exploits of the great, mythical Heisenberg.

“Granite State” was anything but easy to watch, revealing not only what Walt had achieved to himself but also that some of the things we enjoyed watching most had led him there. It was often as much fun for Walt to don the black pork pie hat and become Heisenberg as it was for us to watch him, but the episode no longer allowed us to indulge in the fantasy of there being two Walters: the one whose actions we despise, and the one we root for. Both of these were the same man, understandably acting out against the shit hand fate had dealt him, but relinquishing all responsibility for his actions in doing so. He didn’t kill Jane, and she was bad for Jesse anyway. He didn’t cause those planes to crash. Gale had to die because otherwise Mike would have killed Walt. Gus had to die because it was either him or Walt. That kid had to die because- The “Ozymandias”/”Granite State” double bill cut through the bullshit and said, “No, Walt. You got yourself here. Live with it.”

And then came the last five minutes of “Granite State” and the segue into “Felina”, which was largely Walter being badass, Walter finding some form of redemption, Walter shooting a dozen evil neo-Nazi fucks to bits. Some viewers theorised that most of the episode was Walt’s dream, and while this strikes me as an overreading there’s a kernel of truth in it: “Felina” does play like wish fulfillment. Not entirely – we don’t get a tearful, loving reunion between Walter Jr. and his father (most likely over breakfast, though with real bacon this time round), but we get the closest the series can credibly get to a making-up scene between Skyler and Walt. Our protagonist/anti-hero still dies, but he doesn’t die of cancer, going out in a blaze of glory instead – and saving Jesse to boot. It’s all very neat and it leaves you feeling considerably better than “Granite State” does, but it does feel like something of a missed chance.

Breaking Bad has always played with the ambivalence of Walter White. Is he heroic or an anti-hero? Is he the series’ protagonist or its bad guy? Are we rooting for him or are we watching him lose all sympathy as he’s got more and more blood on his hands? It’s the tension between those two that drove the series much of the time. “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” came down heavily on the side of consigning Walt to a hell of his own making, which I consider more in line with the series’ thematic thrust, but “Felina” pulls him out of that hell to give him the kind of ending he wants. Breaking Bad largely drops this tension, splitting up those two sides into separate episodes. (It’s like the series’ equivalent of that Star Trek episode where a transporter accident results in two Kirks: one gentle but weak, the other strong, ruthless and even more of a dick than Classic Kirk.) Ending on the episode that is Walt’s version of who he wants to be feels a bit like a cop out, even if it also gives us a scene where he finally admits, to himself as much as to Skyler, that he did it all for himself, that what drove the actions of Walter White wasn’t his family so much as his ego.

Have a drink, Walter

Looking back at the series, including its ending, I definitely consider Breaking Bad one of the best series I’ve seen. The writing, acting and directing are up there with the best of HBO. Even with my reservations about the final episode, I enjoyed the series, including its ending. It’s just… too neat. Too much what Walt, and we, might want, rather than what the series itself calls for. Breaking Bad most definitely decided at the very end that it wanted to have it both ways: it leaned more towards what feels good than what is fitting.

P.S.: For further reading on a series finale that aired more than half a year ago (!), I can very much recommend the AV Club’s review, as well as Alan Sepinwall’s original review and his revisit of “Felina”.

We’re all going crazy, buck-jumping and Breaking Bad!

Wow. Just wow. Breaking Bad season 4 (yes, as always we’re a year or so behind the US) has done the series proud. Is it better than the previous seasons? I admit, there were moments when I felt the plot was spinning its wheels somewhat – we had scenes that were variations on earlier scenes without adding anything new, usually telling us something about Walter White’s personality that we already knew – and the season didn’t always maintain its well honed balance of plot, theme and characterisation, but when it worked (and it often did), boy, did it work… and off the top of my head, and before my first coffee of the day, I could mention scenes and whole episodes that were stronger than anything that had gone before.

He won.

And “Face Off”, the final episode of the season? I would put it up there with the most tension-building denouements I’ve seen or read in any medium. The way Vince Gilligan and his team have put together the individual building blocks to arrive at this ending for one of their most memorable characters, and the way it all comes together in Tio Salamanca’s muffled bell-ringing. As I’ve said: wow.

At the same time, Walter White – who I once thought to be a man trying to do as best he could in an impossible situation – has become one of the greatest villains in any visual medium. It’s difficult to read his tone of voice when he says “I won” at the end of the episode (it’s been described as smug and triumphant, but to me Walt’s shaking voice sounded not a little scared by what he’d become), but Bryan Cranston is pretty much perfect in his depiction of the character. Almost every episode of this season could serve as a master-class for budding actors, and a depressing one too – very few people will reaching the dizzying heights of Cranston’s performance and the character he has brought to life.

Just coming off the high of Breaking Bad‘s penultimate season, it’s difficult to segue neatly into the other season we’ve just finished watching, namely season 1 of Treme. I started watching David Simon’s latest with unrealistic, unfair expectations: The Wire is still the best thing I’ve seen on TV in many ways, and since Treme shares some of the earlier series’ main actors (Wendell “Bunk” Pierce, Clarke “Cool Lester Smooth” Peters) it’s even more difficult to shake these expectations. During Treme‘s first 4-5 episodes I kept repeating the mantra, “It’s not The Wire, it’s not The Wire“, which is true but not entirely fair: some of the themes are the same, but Simon and his cast and crew go for a different feel here. The series is much more meandering; it has a few plots threaded throughout the series, but character always comes before plot in this series.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when it all clicked – there were probably different moments for different characters – but by the end of the season, as the last episode of S1 transitioned into the flashback of all the characters preparing for Katrina, it definitely had. The writers and actors of Treme are impressively astute at balancing the depressing realities of post-Katrina New Orleans, at least for these particular characters, and the flashes of hope and humanity. I’ve never understood the people accusing Simon of cynicism (being a pessimist doesn’t make you a cynic!), and his deep sense of empathy has never been stronger than in Treme.

Except perhaps with Sonny, the Dutch louse – but given time even he could turn out to be human. Simon has a history of doing that… and I’ll gladly give him time to do so.

You’re (not) a good man, Walter White

When we left everyone’s favourite chemistry teacher/meth manufacturer at the end of Breaking Bad‘s second season, he was a figure of monstrous, murderous self-pity and passivity. This continues well into season 3 (sometimes to hilarious effect). Colour me surprised (in a nice meth blue, mayhaps) when, as the third season’s penultimate episode comes to a car crash of an end, I couldn’t help sitting there and thinking, “Damn… That. Was. Badass.” Breaking Bad does a lot to make Walt first a more hateful, irredeemable figure, and it then pulls him back to the brink of redemption, even heroism.

And then he turns around and pushes the person he became a murderer to save, his Jiminy Cricket – he pushes him over the edge. Blam.

It’s amazing how far Breaking Bad came in its second and third series. Its first season was well acted and cleverly written, but it didn’t indicate that the series would be one for the ages. Good, yes. Memorable, definitely. Up there with, say, The Sopranos? Nope. To be honest, looking back I still consider the series’ first year not just its weakest but also something of a liability. Its main antagonist, Tuco, is one of Breaking Bad‘s weakest characters, he’s over the top to the point of becoming a cartoon, although I can’t quite make up my mind whether that’s due to the actor, the writing, the direction or all three. There are plot strands that feel like they’ve walked in from a weaker series, and that are dropped (unless we’ll get back to them when we least expect it – a trick that Breaking Bad has a fondness for), such as Marie’s shoplifting. And there’s the biggest problem, as far as I’m concerned, that Walt kills a man in cold blood, much too early in his descent to a personal hell. In hindsight, much of season 1 feels like a rougher, more sketchy series with a handful of missteps without which the setup for later seasons would be stronger.

However, if season 2 made me forgive these missteps, season 3 practically made me forget that they were made by the same series. It ratchets up everything: the tension, the comedy (and for such a dark series it’s amazing how funny Breaking Bad can be – not least compared to actual comedies…), the personal stakes, even the action. While I think that the Sopranos comparison has become increasingly valid as the series goes on, Breaking Bad covers a wider range of styles and even genres, and it does this well. Without ever sacrificing the integrity of its characters, the series manages to take characters that should be as cartoony as Tuco and turns them into frightening antagonists. It presents us with what may be one of the most heartstoppingly tense action sequences ever put in a TV show. And, more than that, it uses the sequence to add depth to a character – definitely no mean feat in any genre or medium!

To my mind, Breaking Bad also manages to drop the occasional facile cynicism it affected in its early days in favour of a more rounded, more human range of tones. I’ve mentioned the comedy – and Saul Goodman is an amazing creation – but the way the series’ writers, directors and actors juggle this with Breaking Bad‘s increasing darkness and its genuine tragedy is quite breathtaking at times.

Okay, enough with the hyperbolic enthusiasm. Let’s just say that Walter White isn’t a good man, not by a long shot, and it’s likely he’ll never again be a good man… but boy, it is good – and getting better by the season – to follow his rise and fall.

The Good Man of Albuquerque

It took me a while to warm to Breaking Bad – and the main reason for this is that it took me more than a season to understand what the series is doing. I’m fairly late to the game, only just having started watching season 3, and one of the main reasons for this is that I’d heard so much hyperbolic praise for the series: “Best thing currently on TV!” I’d heard that sort of thing before – but it rarely held up in any way. Seriously, Dexter? Heroes? Entertaining TV, perhaps, at least initially, but neither of those series was anywhere close to the Pantheon of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and their HBO brethren.

So anyway, Breaking Bad. The premise intrigued me – it’s one of those stories that appeals to my pinko liberal, borderline socialist self: only in America…! Healthcare, shmealthcare, right? If the healthcare system barely deserves that name, cooking meth is a perfectly sane alternative, isn’t it? To my mind, Walter White was a fundamentally decent human being driven to doing something downright insane because of The System, Man, and everything followed from that. Crime, murder, secrets and lies, matrimonial crisis.

Thing is: Walter White is not a fundamentally decent human being. Yes, life has screwed him over – lung cancer when he doesn’t even smoke? – and he doesn’t deserve the hand he’s been dealt. Yes, for much of the first season he doesn’t have time to stop and think about what he’s doing; he’s reacting to the fallout of his first, fateful decision. But once we see Walter make decisions that don’t happen under intense pressure, and we realise: it isn’t cruel fate that makes him do what he does. It’s his own self-pity, self-centredness, and his downright monstrous sense of pride. In fact, in the way he rationalises his increasingly dubious actions, he is a brother in spirit to that greatest of all TV villains believing themselves to be anti-heroes: Tony Soprano.

Note: If you haven’t seen the series at least to the end of the second season, this video won’t make much sense to you – but it will spoil a fairly big plot point. In other words, do not watch unless you know what I’m talking about!

Having said all this, the series does take roughly an entire season to become great. Much of the first season doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be: comedy, drama, bit of both? Are the characters realistic, caricatures or something else altogether? I’m also somewhat doubtful whether the series creators were right to have Walt commit a major crime (no, I’m not talking about some piddly meth cooking) within a couple of episodes of its beginning. Season 1 was entertaining and showed more promise already than, say, the Dexters and Heroes of TV Land, but it’s only in the series’ sophomore season that Breaking Bad fully comes into its own. And now I’m hooked, more so than on any current-gen HBO series – the series is my blue meth.

And as far as poor, decent, selfish, evil, monstrous Walter White is concerned, I’m sorry, Walt, you can’t blame the US healthcare system at this point. I believe Novalis said it best: Character is fate.