Monday, September 22, 2014

Walter White

Breaking Bad's meth chef Walter White's drug of choice was much more addictive than his signature blue crystal. He got his first whiff of it when he met the psychopath Tuco Salamanca in the drug lord's barrio headquarters to get paid for the meth Tuco had stolen and to avenge Jesse. The fulminated mercury that nearly levelled Tuco's building was a "crystallization" of Walt's delusion that his brain would win the day over the world's brawn. He would finally get he recognition he deserved. After he and Jesse escaped from Tuco's clutches and he launched the infamous fugue state canard, he was hooked. Every close call, every fabrication, every probing heart-to-heart with the conniving Gustavo Fring and, of course, Heisenberg's eventual destruction of the great man all fed his delusion that he was unstoppable, invincible, imperial. In the final season, Walt's narcissism was in full bloom and he grew more and more incautious, testing the limits of his luck with the railroad heist, or, perhaps, tempting fate with the giant magnet scheme. But why? Walt's greatest frustration was that he was all power and no glory. He could not tell the world how great he was. They would never know how he had outwitted the devil himself, built an empire that spanned the globe, cheated death time after time. "I'm the one who knocks," he told Skyler, showing a bit of the bristling arrogance that lay just below the surface and daring not to reveal more. He ached to be known and celebrated for the mastermind that he was. Early in Walt's descent into the pits, he showed his infant daughter stacks of money -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- he had crammed between the insulation in the walls of his home. "See what your daddy has done for you," he cooed. Pitiful, heartbreaking and chilling. When Walt (Bryan Cranston) came back from New Hampshire to set things aright, he'd taken on the bearing of the fiends he'd been supplying -- gaunt, wasted, depleted. Poetic justice? Perhaps. Say my name? You goddamn right.

The Drop

Belgian director Michael R. Roskam's terrific crime puzzler The Drop stars Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini and Noomi Rapace in the screen adaptation of a bleak Dennis Lehane story titled "Animal Rescue." Hardy and Gandolfini, in his last performance before his death last summer, are cousins (Bob and Marv, respectively) who run a Brooklyn bar owned by Chechen mobsters and which serves as one of several "drops" for the mob. After the bar is hit by masked robbers, the Chechen gangsters order the two to get the money back or else. Message received. One afternoon, Bob, a deceptively simple chap, finds a battered pit bull pup in the trash can of a neighbor Nadia (Rapace), who's had her own abusive encounters. She convinces the perplexed Bob to take the dog and promises to coach him in pet care. It's the closest that the eternally dour screenwriter Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) gets to meet-cute. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that Nadia's past is her present and it's tailing her. Roskams' washed out palette, the wintry sidewalks, cluttered interiors and the ominous presence of Roskam's fellow Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts as lunatic stalker Deeds signal that none of this will end well. Dark and thoroughly entertaining.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mike Ehrmantraut

With Gus Fring's demise at the end of Season Four, the series needed a new foil for Walter White's increasingly reckless Heisenberg. Fring enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was the man. Strong but sympathetic, taciturn but trusted, Mike was a solid Omega to Walt's rising Alpha. Unlike Walt, Mike was not a deep thinker but that's not to say he was dim. He was dutiful and disciplined, the epitome of efficiency. He was an assassin, after all, a job that required resourcefulness and cunning. And, luckily for a series that was getting close to being oppressively dour whenever Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) wasn't on-screen, Ehrmantraut was funny ... really, really funny.  Who knew? His best scenes, in my view, were with the perpetually harried Madrigal inside woman Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), whom he really, really wanted to shoot in the head. (I'm glad he didn't because that character was a treasure.) A bit of a sentimentalist, Mike's doting grandfather became a surrogate father to Jesse as Walt's monomania pulled him further and further away from his protege and deeper and deeper into his own obsession. Mike's disappearance at the end of Season Five left Jesse, once again, adrift and lonely. And, once again, we felt his pain.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Gale Boetticher

Breaking Bad's guileless geek Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was Season Three's most interesting featured player for me. An avowed libertarian vegan and Walt Whitman enthusiast, Gale was recruited by Gus Fring to build a master lab in which he would learn to cook master meth from master chef Walter White. And eventually, we came to realize, Gus would dispose of Walter, permanently, and promote Gale. Gale's character, though he only appeared in a couple of episodes, was so richly constructed and embroidered that I wondered if he was creator Vince Gilligan's alter ego. From his Birkenstocks to his throw rugs to his infra-red kitchen thermometer to hs Pillsbury Dough Boy giggle to his love of musical esoterica, Gale was one strange dude. But he added his own beautiful counterpoint to Walt and Gus's strident fugue. I loved his character, as I think many viewers did. Perhaps mostly because of the effect he had on Walt. Walter White wanted a friend, someone who didn't threaten him, who understood his passion for the "chemistry," who he did not resent. Gale was the closest thing to a friend that Walter had. Gale's gifting Walter with an inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass suggests that he may have been a little smitten by Walt and that made Walt's betrayal even more painful to watch and Gale's execution by his rival so shocking. And yet it was also quite fitting for a series where no one ever gets what they want.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gus Fring

At the end of Season Three of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman shot meth geek Gale in the face to save Walter White from being killed by Gus Fring's henchmen Mike and Victor. At the start of Season Four, Fring slit Victor's throat with Gale's boxcutter in front of Jesse and Walt, trumping their move and showing both of them what a grown-up sociopath looks like. While gripping Victor's bleeding, convulsing body, Fring trained his eyes on Jesse as if to say, "Who's the man?" In my estimation, Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) was the man that Walt would eventually become -- deliberate, remorseless and calculating.  After Fring was obliterated, Walt seemed to adopt a few of the great man's fastidious affectations. An interesting narrative move. Did Gus's spirit take up residence in Walt's body? Series creator Vince Gilligan made an exception with this terrific character of Gustavo Fring by offering insight into Fring's war with the Mexican cartel and the murder of his "Chicken Brother," Max. While watching Max's blood pour into Don Eladio's pool, we begin to realize that Fring's entire operation, the enormous investment of time and treasure into manufacturing and distributing crystal has all been about his friend. And in that way, Gus was not like Walt, at all. Gus was never about empire-building; he was about revenge. And unlike the food he served at Los Pollos Hermanos, that meal was served ice cold.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Skyler White

Breaking Bad's Skyler White was no Lady Macbeth ... and that's no dig. Her ruthlessness was born not out of greed or ambition but something much more complex --  an insatiable desire to cheat fate, avoid the inevitable. Over the course of the series, Skyler (Anna Gunn) went from hausfrau to money laundering mogul who knew that any misstep would mean her world would come crashing down around her ears. Yes, she was a bitch -- solid gold. But, it seems to me, she came about it honestly. A very telling moment in a series full of them came when we're shown in flashback Walt and Skyler looking at their Negra Arroyo Lane home while Skyler is great with their first child, Walter Jr. She's talking sensibly about affordability and Walt is complaining that the house is inadequate, too small for what their life will become. More, more, more, he seems to say. As we know, Walt never delivered, swapping what would have been a multi-million dollar bonanza with Gray Matter for a few thousand dollars to pay the mortgage on their "inadequate" starter home. Pride goeth before destruction. Skyler, trading tchotckes on eBay to help with expenses, knows how tenuous and uncertain life can be. She gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy, after all. And, she knows her brilliant though underachieving high school chemistry teacher husband who moonlights at a carwash is offering less, less, less. That is until he becomes a meth cook and loads the entire family into a van on the road to hell. So, we can forgive her if she, as tightly wound as she had to be to keep her family together, was a nag and a scold and a closet smoker and adulteress. Carpe diem.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jesse Pinkman

What a grand creation is Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman. Stuttering syncopation, juvenile bravado and arrested emotion wrapped in B-boy swagger. How I loved listening to this guy talk.  All frenzy and ellipses. Pinkman would offer rapid-fire delivery that merged hip-hop and Valley Boy and then stop, leaving one word dangling ... alone. It was  like jazz riffing. As with the other major characters on this remarkable show, Pinkman was a neurotic enigma. And we were left to wonder, or not, how he came to be who he was. Why was he so viscerally homophobic? Was it street hustle or overcompensation? Why did he break bad so early? One thing was clear to me -- Jesse had two, true loves in the series. Both he lost to drugs -- Jane and Walter. Yeah, he cared deeply for Andrea and Brock Cantillo, but by the time he met the young mother and her son he had already been transformed into the "Bad Guy." His attachment to them was not about love but about redemption. But Jesse LOVED Jane Margolis. She cut through all of his residual Cap'n Cook BS and found the kid who loved to draw and imagined that he was special, in some way. She affirmed him and, yes, hurt him, and he loved her deeply. Walt he loved despite the manipulation and condescension. He loved Walt because Mr. White wanted him to be better, to try harder, to apply himself dammit. And when Walt hurt Jesse, turned on him, or let him down, the wound went deep. Pinkman's most powerful scene, at least to me, was delivered in Season Three from the hospital bed, as he was recovering from Hank Schrader's beat down. His denunciation of Walt's million dollar offer was his moment to hurt Mr. White in the way that he, Jesse, had been hurt so many times in his life -- by rejection. "You don't give a SHIT about me," Jesse spat, his face horribly swollen. It was a masterful performance by Aaron Paul, who truly deserved every accolade he's received for his work in this series.

Hank Schrader

Fans of Breaking Bad know DEA agent Hank Schrader, brother-in-law of Walter White aka drug lord Heisenberg. Recent reports attributing the high rate of suicide among men under 50 to their feelings of isolation reminded me of Hank and that character's obsessiveness, insecurities and anxiety. Hank was a lumbering mess of blustering impropriety whose apparent lack of an off-switch hid his nagging lack of confidence. He was an insightful investigator who refused to dig into his own dysfunction. Series creator Vince Gilligan never explained why Hank (or any other major character for that matter) was the way he was. Hank was Hank -- a fine drug enforcement agent who in Season Three was crippled less by the unsuccessful hit by the Salamanca cousins than his own brutalizing rage and self-pity. His wife, Marie, was his occasional confidante but he kept his most important and crucial demon battles to himself -- even after he discovered Walt's big secret. Keeping up appearances, as he told fellow DEA agent Steve Gomez, was of utmost importance. Living that code nearly killed him. Such a rich and remarkable character.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Marie Schrader

Vince Gilligan wasn't much interested in examining the emotional and psychological pathology woven throughout  Breaking Bad.  In fact, Gilligan wasn't much interested in explaining much of anything in the world he created, aside from Walt's cancer, and even then little screen time was given to the man's illness and treatment, lending early credence to Walt's final season confession that his meth cook exploits were all about him.  And, of course, as with much of what was presented in this brilliant show, the lack of exposition was deliberate and, to me, intriguing. Once Walt's cancer was arrested and he was off to the races with Jesse and Gus and the rest, the damaged psyches of the show's other characters were thrown into greater relief. Walt's sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt) was such a bundle of repression and rage that her venomous meltdown after husband Hank's shooting was, at least to me, the character's most revelatory moment. It was clear to me that Marie was blistered by her resentment of her husband, his work, her work, her sister, and all of life, really. Oh, if she could only get that townhouse in Georgetown. Not a single moment was spent explaining this spiteful woman, in an effort to get us to understand her. She was who she was -- a bewildered, isolated, kleptomaniac out to piss off the world that had dealt her a handful of nothing.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Walter Jr.

I never really warmed up to Breaking Bad's Walter Jr. aka Flynn (R.J. Mitte) though friends of mine say he was everything from the moral core of the otherwise sick White household to the innocent victim of his parents' disabling dysfunction. I didn't agree with these characterizations because I always felt those calls were too easy and conventional for a series that was anything but. I've been re-watching the series lately and I have a better idea of where I am with Walter Jr. now, and it actually has more to do with all of the other players in the drama than with him. Like other minor characters (and I mean minor as in age and not necessarily importance) on television, Walter Jr. was not an active player; he responded to what the loony adults around him did, often with irritation and opprobrium. That's not to say he was unimportant,  just that he was not an agent and so it was difficult for me to emotionally invest in him. I never really knew what he wanted from life except a "car" and a "six pack of beer." His only friend, Louis, was a cipher, without context or connections. The only time we saw Walter Jr. with other friends, they were trying to get an adult to cop beer for them. Their interaction was brief and unproductive and we never saw the friends again. In short, Walter Jr. was a device. He was a tool (and in this case I mean both in attitude and in application). Maybe the audience was to take his cerebral palsy as the reason for his ill-temper and snarkiness.  I had a tough time buying it. I thought the kid was a prick and probably would have been even if he did not have those challenges. I did buy that he was the reason his parents were so indulgent, and used him as a chip to control one another and their in-laws. It actually may be a common occurrence that people use their children to threaten one another in this way. If so, I think that is terribly sad. But, in the case of Breaking Bad, because Walter Jr. was someone to be indulged and protected, I don't think Skyler and Walt Sr. ever felt like his parents, this was probably more true of Walter than of Skyler. The dynamic between Walter Jr. and Uncle Hank is revelatory, and contributed to Walt Sr.'s rashness and monomaniacal drive to outsmart his DEA agent brother-in-law.  I also thought the bonding that developed between Walter Sr. and his meth cook partner and surrogate son, Jesse Pinkman, was compensation for the disconnection he felt with his own son, who seemed to prefer another "dad" to him.


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