Take a moment, and you can find a lot in common between the Game of Thrones’ mythical Westeros and the TV series Fargo's equally mythical Minnesota. Both are lands of wide open vistas, where the specter of approaching winter is everywhere.
Both are lands of murder and mayhem. Both are places where notions of honor and masculinity drive people to do horrible things, where once meek chaps become twisted into devils. Both deal with violence against women — and basically everyone else. Minnesota's has its apple pie. Westeros has its lemoncakes.
In Fargo, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton, You know Him from Movies) wanders the wastes like a Midwest Mephistopheles, leaving devastation with a few choice words. He’s a tempter, a trickster god who gets his kicks from spotting a person’s weaknesses — their insecurity, their jealousy, their greed, their cowardice, their guilt — and pokes at those points like a bullying big brother until he just won’t stop hitting himself.
In other words, swap shotgun for a broadsword, and he slips right into the role of Hand of the King of Westeros, whispering poisonous words toward whatever poor soul is warming the Iron Throne. So too, you could see a parallel between the beaten-down, insecure Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman, Bilbo of Bag End) and poor Theon Greyjoy. Both disrespected by their families, both lashing out in, stupid, stupid ways, both in way over their head.
In both series, injustice marches forward: Just as the noble head of Ned Stark is sliced from his noble body in the first season on Game of Thrones, the smart, decent-hearted sheriff in Fargo who might as well be Andy Griffith is cut down by double barrels in its first episode. Violence falls upon on the just and the unjust.
But the differences in the two show, well, that, as they say, makes all the difference.
For starters, Fargo has genuine heroes. Sure there are heroes that talk in ya betchas and doncha knows and uff dahs. Up against a bearded, smirking Lucifer, these heroes may seem way wildly outmatched. They're underdogs. All the best heroes are.
You have a competent policewoman, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman, Pretty Much Just this TV Show) struggling to solve a case under the nose of her lazy, unqualified supervisor, who just doesn’t want to make waves. Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks’ Kid) hardly starts as a hero. The officer is a bit fumbling, he’s scared away when Malvo decides to bare his fangs. But as the season progresses you can see him slowly finding his courage, slowly gathering the will to confront evil.
TV is already drenched in violence, nihilism, and anti-heroism. That’s what makes genuine heroism — good versus evil, instead of just evil versus evil — so refreshing.
You could make an argument that there are heroes, too, in Game of Thrones. But Game of Thrones takes pleasure in undercutting heroism wherever it can. The Starks are seen more as naive than noble. Ned Stark doesn't even get to go out with his sense of honor intact. He chooses dishonor over death and gets death thrown in for no extra charge.
Sansa Stark risks her life to show kindness and maybe you get a drunk thank-you and a kitschy heirloom as your reward. But that doesn't exactly take Daddy's head off the pike. Even the gift is corrupted. Sansa is just another pawn in yet another scheme, obliviously smuggling a murder weapon around her neck into a wedding.
Then we have Arya, a cute little girl who has decided now to serve the god of death. The little girl shoves a blade slowly, intentionally, through a thug’s throat. And we cheer, because it’s that kind of show.
Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf, manages to be mostly decent, despite indecent heritage. But here’s where the odd karma of Westeros comes into play. Every good act Tyrion does is followed by swift punishment. He saves the city, and gets a scar across his face, and a demotion in return. And now he’s tossed in a dungeon, seemingly entirely by coincidence, for a murder he obviously didn’t commit.
I suppose you could find good in mother of dragons Daenerys*, but her campaign of abolition comes in the form of fire and blood. And her actual leadership ability — to rule, instead of just rolling across the eastern continent of Essos like the Golden Horde — is untested. That’s our best hope, really, for Westeros. A world that ends in fire instead of ice.
For a while you could even point to Jaime Lannister, the anti-hero with a heart of gold. Turns out, we were wrong. It’s his hand that’s gold. His heart is a heart of a rapist.
Villains do far better in this world. A disgusting old monster like Frey manages to become old and decrepit despite a penchant for betrayal and lechery. Justice, after three seasons, comes to Joffrey, boy king of junior high sadism. But it comes, in part, through poison from a slithering snake, Littlefinger, another sadistic schemer whose wild Pinky and the Brain style plans never** seem to backfire.
Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones, of course is that cynicism. It feels gritty and grimy and in your face. It sneers at classic narrative. Yet I find the pathetic scrambling of Lester Nygaard far more interesting than all the cackling and finger-steepling going on at King’s Landing.
The best TV reflects on the human soul, and for most of us, pure cruelty or lust for power isn’t our prime motivator. Sometimes we’re good. Sometimes we’re evil. But far more often, we’re weak. That, people often forget, was the truly interesting revelation of iconic anti-hero show Breaking Bad, and it’s a revelation that Fargo is doing a much better job of exploring.
In Westeros, however, the sheer number of pure sadists, for whom torture isn’t just a job, it’s a calling, is problematic. Westeros has its revelry, of course, its wine, women and song. But the wine is poisoned, the women are beaten, raped and brutalized, and the song the wedding band plays is just the musical cue for the massacre to begin. Westeros is black set against black: Dark cruel people set against a dark cruel world.
But in Fargo’s Minnesota the evil dropped into a world of niceness. In fact, as this AV Club Crosstalk explains, that “Minnesota Nice” becomes a sort of barrier for the heroes to overcome. Unlike Game of Thrones, no one walks into the local diner in Bemidji and sees, oh, geez, there sure is a lot of raping going on right now. Instead, people mostly just order coffee. As gross as the violence can be in Fargo, it’s the exception.
The famous ending of the gruesome serial killer flick Se7en has Morgan Freeman saying, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote 'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for'...I agree with the second part."
Yet Fargo seems to argue for both parts: Yes, the world is full of greed and murder and cruelty, but it has a lot of other things too. It has small towns with warm coffee and kind people that smile at you. Game of Thrones argues against both parts. The world is not a fine place. And increasingly, it’s not worth fighting for.
Maybe that’s true. But if TV has to communicate one message, I’d prefer it be the former.
*Helpful mnemonic for spelling Daenerys: “Dragons Always Eat Near Eagle Roosts, You Said”
**(So far, goes the perpetual disclaimer)
As always, I’m late to the party. I just discovered Veep this weekend. Back in 2012, I did take a peek at the pilot, but maybe I was just in a bad mood or incapable of laughing that day, whatever, I didn’t think it was funny. BUT it is funny — very darkly and satirically funny. Push through to the second episode and you’ll want more spitfire fictional vice president Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and more jokes about how unimportant the vice presidency really is. For fans of The West Wing, this is the anti-Aaron Sorkin. Watch now.
— LAURA JOHNSON
The best Sci-fi (as opposed to Syfy), both comedic and dramatic, takes a basic high-concept premise — What if we could jump inside of dreams? What if dogs could be made smarter? — and follows it through to surprising, unexpected conclusions.
So in the Adult Swim animated comedy I’m rewatching, Rick and Morty, the idea of a love potion of course goes terribly wrong, and of course, leads the entire world to go lust-crazed after teenager Morty. But Rick and Morty takes that idea three, four, seven steps further until nearly the entire world has been transformed into praying mantis creatures, then worse, and then the entire universe has to be scrapped. That seems to happen surprisingly often in Rick and Morty.
From Community creator Dan Harmon and from another guy who’s somehow crazier than Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty offers a sort of darker, more booze-soaked twist on the Doc and Marty relationship from Back to the Future. They happened to put together one of the best first seasons of any animated show — or any comedy, period. It’s been a surprise hit, thanks to — in spite of? — Adult Swim-type stunts like putting an entire episode (split up into 15-second segments) on Instagram before it airs.
Many shows undercut their sweetness by dipping into sardonic, but Rick and Morty is almost entirely sardonic, until it undercuts that with unexpected sweetness. To get a sense of that tone, see this clip where Morty’s suffering horrible paralysis and seizures, a consequence of his latest terrifying misadventure with Rick. But Rick is so excited and self-absorbed, that all he can see is the prospect of all kinds of wonderful things, in the future, Morty. And so click right now, Morty! Watch the entire series, 100 times, Morty, at rickandmortyadventures.com, Morty!— DANIEL WALTERS
Mostly I’ve been making everyone else watch these songs/videos from Expo ’74, because they’re amazing and stuck in my head.
OK, moving on. I stumbled across this via Twitter earlier today, and it’s mesmerizing: deep-sea video from the Okeanos Explorer, livestreamed by the NOAA. Remotely operated cameras rove the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico on a three-week expedition, and you can follow along in real time as they inspect coral and various creatures. The audio narration helps explain what you’re seeing at any given time, but it’s not essential. So you should probably just keep this on all day at work for the moments when you could use a little more wonder in your afternoon.
— LISA WAANANEN
Corrections officials have long used solitary confinement, as a "prison within a prison," to isolate and punish problem inmates. Intended to keep prisoners from hurting fellow inmates or corrections staff, the practice has come under renewed scrutiny recently as research has suggested long-term isolation can cause permanent psychological harm and new behavioral problems. In Frontline's April 22 documentary, Solitary Nation, viewers take a graphic tour through a single solitary unit, watching as inmates flood their toilets, pass contraband between cells and slash open veins in violent acts of desperate self-mutilation. It's a disturbing window into prison power dynamics and the thin line between punishment and torture. Prison State, part two of the show’s exploration of mass incarceration, airs tomorrow night.
— JACOB JONES
There are a lot of people who take videogame participation and creation, and thus critique, very seriously. And these people have some incredibly insightful perspectives on this medium of entertainment and creativity that’s exponentially growing each year. In the past year as I’ve exposed myself to the world of gaming more and more (I’m very much still an amateur) these deeper looks into the psychology and technology of video games have become a fascinating subject.
Specifically, I’ve been drawn to watching the PBS Game/Show YouTube channel. It’s hosted and created by former Wall Street Journal culture reporter Jamin Warren, who’s also the founder of KillScreen, a video game site and magazine that covers the “intersection between games, play and other seats of culture from art to music to design.”
In each weekly episode, Warren seeks to answer an open-ended question about gaming, often referring back to some pretty complex scientific and/or sociological theories. Sometimes Warren delves deep into the psychology of games — the future of storytelling, the lack of gay characters in games, racism and videogame stereotypes — while other times the topic strays toward opinions, with episodes like “What are the Worst Video Games Ever?!?”
The show is smart and thoughtful, and can be entertaining and educational for the curious, casual players and super gamers alike.
— CHEY SCOTT
Remember when The Newsroom, Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama about a cable news network, mentioned the Inlander? Or at least sorta mentioned us? Well, that show is still slogging along and is still full of the sort of fast-talking, deep-meaning dialogue that makes some love it and others explicitly not love it.
And the awesomely hilarious Amy Schumer gives us this gem on last night's episode of her Comedy Central show Inside Amy Schumer.
If you've seen even five minutes of The Newsroom, you should enjoy this.
This week SyFy announced it ordered a new zombie TV show called Z Nation — and it’s going to be filmed here in Spokane. Big Fish NW Talent is looking for hundreds of Spokane-area extras for the 13 episodes, and they’re casting for a “variety of sizes, shapes & colors.” Those who are interested should register with them here.
Z Nation is from the same production company that introduced the world to Sharknado, so expect a different tone than, say, The Walking Dead. SyFy describes it as a “unique new journey into the long-established zombie genre” that offers hope instead of “existential despair.”
“Z Nation will take viewers where no zombie has gone before,” showrunner Karl Schaefer said in the show announcement.
The show begins three years after a zombie virus swept the nation, with a team of heroes attempting to transport the only known virus survivor across the country to develop a vaccine from his blood. They’re traveling from New York to California, with Spokane presumably standing in for the “three thousand miles of rusted-out post-apocalyptic America” they must traverse.
Z Nation is expected to debut this fall.
In the age of improv-driven dialogue, so many dramas and comedies strike a tone by being loose and casual. We have hundreds of shows that feel natural and comfortable, like sweatpants and an old, ratty T-shirt.
But Hannibal, by contrast, is a tailored three-piece suit with a double Windsor knot. Not a wrinkle in sight, not a thread out of place. Absolutely everything, from its perfectly played banquet scenes, to its bloody tableaus, to the crisp carefully-phrased dialogue of the cannibal antagonist, is coordinated, starched and pressed.
It’s a show that recalls Se7en, if uncouth manners and untucked shirts were among the seven deadly sins.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter was a caged monster. Here, he is too, but Lecter himself provides the cage. He’s cautious. It’s not like he’s driven by a fear of being caught — it’s just that getting caught would just be a so guache.
But all that cold precision can be wearying. To me, the show was icky but impressive — like a circus freak that can contort his limbs in disturbing ways — more than engaging or entertaining. I’m not alone, either. Time magazine critic James Poniewozik kicked off an interesting TV critic discussion recently by tweeting: “I keep trying to make myself like rather than just admire Hannibal, so at this point I think I just need you to tell me what's wrong with me.”
In that first season, I felt the same way. Credit that dislike, a little bit, to my natural repulsion to gore and horror. Not only do I not enjoy the notion of movies like Saw, I’m a little frightened and judgmental that there are people out there who do.
But more so, I think, it was that so little of the show’s escalating despair, grime and tension was cut by victory or relief: Evil was strong. It consumed, in every sense of the word.
Good, meanwhile, remained Oblivious or Weak.
That weakness was embodied by FBI special investigator Will Graham (Hugh Dancy.) He has an empathy disorder that manifests — as they tend to do on shows like this — as a superpower of sorts. He’s able to put himself in the blood-soaked shoes of the most twisted serial killers. He imagines — in a visceral, visual way — them killing their victims, with every eye-gougingly gory detail and feels the pleasure they feel in doing so. It takes a lot out of him. It takes everything out of him.
The story of Season 1 is the story of Graham’s march toward madness, with hallucination seeping into reality bleeding down toward nightmare. Dancy played Graham with the bleary haze of someone who hadn’t slept in five days and hasn’t eaten in twenty. You fear an errant autumn leaf will lazily drift down from the sky and knock him out cold.
And as the season progressed, he gets even worse. He begins losing track of time, in the most literal ways: His consciousness begins to skip forward, a la the protagonist from Jess Walter’s award-winning novel, The Zero. Even his drawings of clocks are skewed, with the numbers sloughed off to one side, out of frame.
And frankly, it was difficult to watch. The madness ate away at the show. Insanity, odd as it sounds, needs to be grounded in some sense of reality for the viewer to connect with it, and it increasingly wasn’t on Hannibal. Our hero looked like he could barely breathe — and, no wonder, the show’s atmosphere felt suffocating. It was intentional. It was well-done. But it wasn’t much fun.
But then the season finale hit: Graham begins to realize exactly what sort of monster Lecter is, right about the time Lecter frames him for murder.
So in Season 2, we open with a dramatically different status quo. Now, the tie has been loosened. The sleeves have been rolled up, and there’s a drop of blood splashed on the lapel. Hannibal’s deft fingers are curled into fists, and it’s ready to throw down.
That’s because Will Graham is in prison.
Shows that put their lead in prison often struggle with the new settings. Sons of Anarchy put anti-hero Clay Morrow behind bars, when he really should have been killed a season ago, wasting time in a long-expired plotline. Justified’s weakest plotline in this often-weak season has been Ava Crowder’s stint in prison.
By limiting where the character can go, the shows usually limit the character’s agency. But Hannibal defies the trend. Graham now has more agency than ever.
It’s a winking role reversal of the movie that has long since embedded itself into the American canon: For now, Lecter is the hero investigator. Graham is the caged dangerous animal. He’s the one pacing about his cell. He’s the one being experimented on by the skeevy Dr. Frederick Chilton. And he’s the one pulling strings, manipulating others into position with a few choice words.
For the first time, he’s clear-eyed, full-hearted. He’s through the worst of the mental illness. He’s been broken down, and rebuilt. Yes, he still has those creepy hallucinations, but they provide light instead of darkness. They help him understand what’s really going on. Now, it’s a battle between equals. You believe Graham stands a chance of taking down the cannibal psychologist.
The paradox — free a character by limiting him — makes sense when you look at it dramatically: Were Graham free and trusted, it would not be difficult for him to defeat Lecter. To keep Lecter a free man, Graham needed to remain ignorant about Lecter’s true nature (which would increasingly defy credibility for a genius like Graham) or he needed a serious handicap.
Imprisonment is that handicap.
In a sense it adds to the horror: You know who the monster is, and you know he’s still out there. But who’s going to believe you? You’re the guy in the jumpsuit, the guy in a jail cell, the guy accused of murder. He’s the respected psychologist with impeccable taste in music, art and fashion — and a damn good cook.
But where Graham was up to his neck in the slough of despondency last season, he seems mostly free of despair this season. (Dreams of death by electric chair aside.) He can breathe. He’s buoyed by the epiphany that, while he may be crazy, he’s also crazy right. He begins to understand how much of his mental breakdown was actively catalyzed by Lecter. He makes his skeptical colleagues into his allies. He turns one of his tormenters into an unwitting tool.
Naturally, his increased confidence and willingness to manipulate comes at a price: Set on Lecter’s trail by Graham, one of Graham’s allies stupidly stumbles into Lecter’s lair without backup, violating the most basic principles of Don’t Go In There 101, and paying for it with her life.
It’s a dynamic more fascinating, and frankly fun-to-watch, than all that brooding and angst of last season. And at the same time, Lecter’s become more interesting to watch as well. With his nemesis/patient/friend kept under lock and key, Lecter is willing to take more risks. His dark playful side is free to roam — he turns another serial killer into a part of the killer’s own morbid art installation. And, in last week’s episode, the series reaches its peak with a bold, philosophically fascinating moment where, instead of playing a cruel god by taking life, Lecter plays a cruel god by giving it.
In a few moments in the first season, Lecter lets a smirk — smug, knowing, wryly sinister — play across his lips. This season, the smirk is nearly constant.
But this time, Graham is smirking back. And Hannibal is better for it.
Parks and Rec is amazing. You know that already. And if you’re keeping up on the latest season, you’ve met a new character who’s making the show even better. Craig is a transplant from Eagleton who suffers from caring too much. The hilarious manic enthusiasm of that character is similar to the persona of the actor, Billy Eichner, on his Funny or Die show “Billy on the Street,” which means if you like Craig, you’ve got to try Billy on the Street. Part game show, part pure weirdness, the show follows Eichner has he rushes up to strangers on the streets of New York and asks them a question — like “Who’s hotter, Britney Spears or Meryl Streep?” — to win a dollar or asks if they recognize a celebrity he’s dragging alongside him. If they don’t (or if they answer incorrectly), he’ll call them a moron and charge away to find his next victim. But with his joy and excitement, the whole thing is good-natured and strangely addictive. Start with “It’s Spock! Do you care?” or Lightning Round with Rashida Jones.
— HEIDI GROOVER
Just marathoned all of Hannibal, the creepy, kooky, all-together-ooky horror show from Clarkston High School graduate Bryan Fuller. Everybody, of course, knows the story of Hannibal Lecter, the sophisticated cannibal from Silence of The Lambs. But this show, set long, long before Silence, features Mr. Cannibal free, and largely unsuspected of being a mass murder.
It takes a certain degree of guts to attempt to compete with Anthony Hopkins’ performance that won an Academy Award, but Mads Mikkelsen does it by flattening camp and flamboyance down into subtlety. His menace comes from the slightest of smirks or a raised eyebrow.
It’s a show I didn’t really enjoy watching — it’s too gross and disturbing — but I can’t deny its quality: The show treats the vilest of gore with the same care for presentation and plating as a 12-course feast at a Michelin star restaurant. The result is an experience constantly threading between surreal dream and waking nightmare.
— DANIEL WALTERS
In honor of the 86th Academy Awards from last month, Kate Arthur over at Buzzfeed ranked all 85 best picture winners from years past and I realized that even though I thought I’d seen movies, I really hadn’t seen any movies. Thus began my quest to watch as many best picture and best picture nominated films as possible because, well, I feel like that’s a thing I can’t go the rest of my life without doing.
My first priorities were this year’s nominated films, which I thought were all pretty good, but my favorite so far has been All About Eve, best picture winner from 1950 and the movie Arthur had ranked in the number one spot. The thing about all these movies is sometimes they just don’t age well. The movie that won in 1947 (The Gentleman’s Agreement, which was interesting and one of the movies I feel like journalists should see but still not amazing) just doesn’t hold up in 2014. It’s unrelated and at this point the plots seem to contrived and sometimes just boring.
That wasn’t the case at all with All About Eve because I feel like we all can relate to wanting to do whatever it takes to make something of ourselves and accomplish our goals. Of course, Eve took it overboard at times but that only added to the film’s greatness. Also the movie is insightful in ways you couldn’t even imagine considering it’s more than half-a-century old. Just-out-of-her-prime actress Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis) says: “Funny business, a woman's career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster — you forget you need them again when you go back to being a woman.” Which is definitely still a thing these days. I don’t know why it took me 21+ years to watch it, but I don’t suggest you make the same mistake because it’s really that good.
— CLARKE HUMPHREY
Recently, I have watched and waited patiently for the original Starz pirate politics drama, Black Sails, to find its sea-legs. Envisioned as a prequel to the famous story of Treasure Island, the show follows a sprawling collection of scurvy scoundrels and cutthroat prostitutes throughout their various schemes and conflicts at the pirate trading hub of New Providence Island.
An oft-scowling Capt. Flint heads an interchangeable cast of appropriately dirty ruffians and low-lifes. But while the production and acting seem solid, the story often wallows in soap-opera motives. They don’t skimp on gore when crews finally get around to pirating, but the show usually seems more interested in getting in its weekly dose of nudity.
But, it may finally have some new wind in the sails. This Saturday marks the finale of the first season and the hunt is on for a treasure beyond imagination. Let's get on with it.
Also, the NY Times’ David Carr on the modern problem of too much good TV.
— JACOB JONES
It seems like everyone’s been talking about Twin Peaks lately. It came up with rumors of a revival, and then it’s come up more recently with comparisons to True Detective. (Even James Franco wrote about it.) And though the comparisons may be less compelling now than early in the season when it looked like True Detective might veer farther into the unworldly, the shows do have one element in common: atmosphere. So much of Twin Peaks is just weird, especially with the subtlety we now expect from TV dramas, but the sense of suspicion and dread in the northwoods is pervasive and effective. The residents of Twin Peaks say there’s something dark in the woods, but we’re already feeling it.
Twin Peaks is bizarre, creepy, uneven and ultimately unfinished or overfinished, depending on your perspective, but I can’t even fathom what it would have been like watching it back in the ’90s when TV shows just happened without a full response, investigation and dissection on Internet. (And, to be honest, my household got interested pre-True Detective through online discussion of the excellent animated show Gravity Falls.) The point is: If you haven’t seen it, or you haven’t seen it for a long time, you can watch the whole thing — all two, weird seasons of it — right now for free on Hulu.
— LISA WAANANEN
One great thing about HBO: It has the power to let main titles languish, unfold at luxurious length. No hurry. Stay awhile. Bask in our storytelling.
And sometimes, those main titles, those opening credits, tell you absolutely everything you need to know about the type of show that follows them.
Before you read further, I want you to watch this intro video, even if you’ve seen it before. Watch it several times. Listen to the music. Concentrate on the images.
If you haven’t seen True Detective, know that the plot is nothing special: Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are two mismatched detectives investigating a grisly crime. One detective — curmudgeonly, hypocritical Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) — is a type you’ve seen a thousand times before, though perhaps never played with so vividly and unsympathetically. And the other detective is a type we haven’t really seen before — a wiry, observant philosopher-king, prone to unspooling arcane and trippy monologues on the nature of life, the universe, everything.
Together, they investigate a grisly series of murders, as the show flashes back and forth from 1995 to 2012. Some on the internet have gone all Carrie Mathison searching for clues to solve the case.
But the case is beside the point. In fact, when the show starts concerning itself with plot — whodunnit? — that’s when it gets the weakest, ambition sagging into just another run-of-the-mill episode of CSI: Humid Trailer Park.
When its lens is satisfied to just explore the cracks and crags of these two leads, to navigate their environment — their physical, moral, existential environments — that’s when it becomes one of the best shows on television.
Watch those opening credits again. You don’t see much gore or violence or detective work, because the show isn’t about any of those things. Instead you see atmosphere.
True Detective is so soaked in atmosphere it drips with it like a sweat-sopped Sunday dress shirt.
You see decay and loneliness and dread. You can see it in the shot of Marty’s eyes, looking worried, even terrified, into the distance. You can hear that dread in the low voice and creeping music and dark lyrics in the opening credits’ song, Far from Any Road by The Handsome Family.
Hidden in the branches, of a poisoned creosote. Boiling sun. Fingers ran with blood. Looming shadows. Silver moon. Rattlesnakes unfold. Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones.
It’s ostensibly about a murder, like the central plot of True Detective. But it’s not about the actual act of the killing described: It’s the abandoned corpse, left to rot.
This is a song about a murder, yes. But it’s not about the act. It’s about the corpse. It’s about the passing of time, undiscovered as the body recedes into sand, and the bones are torn apart by wild creatures.
In this song, this is a desert of sand and heat and cacti and hissing snakes. It’s not exactly the marshy muck or oil-stained factories or the backwater backwoods of True Detective. Instead, the main titles give us what the show’s creator calls the “exhausted frontier.”
The oil-stained refinery. The church with peeling paint . The late night truck stop. The childless swing-set.
But the result is the same: These are empty, decaying places. They are, as the song is titled, “Far From Any Road.“
Most shows could illustrate loneliness with an abandoned landscape containing a solitary man. But here, in these credits, solitary men contain the abandoned landscapes. It’s internal devastation, wrought by a man’s mind instead of his circumstances.
A lot has been written about True Detective’s lack of developed female characters. It’s underscored by the main titles, where the woman are all largely reduced to bare flesh or unobtainable fantasy objects.
It’s a fair criticism, but the flat-secondary characters heighten the feeling of isolation the two leads feel. That’s especially true toward the end. Marty and Rust have nearly nothing but contempt left for each other. The eye rolls and muttered insults were just the beginning.
The credits set you up to be in the lonely shoes of Rust and Marty: He busted his lip, busted your taillight with your skull. You screwed his wife, but he’s only thing in your miserable husk of a life you have left. This isn’t an alliance of choice — it’s an alliance of what feel like the last two true detectives on the face of the earth.
There’s a tone of True Detective, painted all over the opening credits, that many critics have dubbed “existential dread.”
It’s a feeling almost captured by True Detective’s stylistic brothers: In the movie Se7en, the dread comes from the sense of pervasive evil — the world is a sick and sinful place, with a monster at the bottom of every box.
On NBC’s Hannibal, dread comes from the monsters, yes. But it also comes from the dread that, by fighting these monsters, by grappling with who they really are, they risk infecting you with their disease. It’s an expansion on Se7en’s final gut-punch punchline. On Hannibal, evil eats you up from the inside — if it doesn’t eat you up from the outside first.
True Detective has both: There are monsters so twisted that it sends a hardened cop like Marty retching. And there are hints of darkness growing, like, well, a poison creosote, in both Rust and Marty.
But the greatest source of dread on True Detective, I think, isn’t about evil it all. It’s the dread that comes with beholding one’s own wasted life, seeing all your hopes and ambitions withered, dried-up like a sun-bleached tobacco plant. Dried up like the bones in “Far From Any Road.”
Whether because of some damn fool accident or just because you’re a damn fool, you’ve blown apart everything that was good and beautiful and hopeful in your life.
It’s despair from regret, despair form self-immolation. Fire plays prominently in the main titles, licking across Marty’s face and Rust’s bare chest.
There’s some debate about whether Rust Cohle’s musings are profound, or a little like the sort of babble a philosophy major prattles on about at 3 am while sprawled across a beanbag chair. Like poetry, the difference between great philosophy and sophomore dreck is a thin one.
But I think it doesn’t matter. It matters because of what it tells you about Cohle. Rust’s flat-circular monologues and Marty’s drunk-on-masculinity fists do the same thing: Two ways of lashing out at despair. Nihilism and pugilism.
It’s why both have trouble resisting that fifth glass of whiskey. It’s why one repeatedly cheats on his beautiful wife; it’s why the other throws himself recklessly into biker-gang chaos on a hunch.
The main title sequence doesn’t “solve” True Detective. It’s not full of little clues that eagle-eyed Internet detectives can plug into their theory matrices. But it goes a phenomenal way to immediately proclaim and complement the show’s tone.
Here are a few other shows with great title sequences:
True Blood has a great title sequence, but one that promises a different sort of show, one centered around the intersection of sex and heat and religion fervor more than the pulpy vampire show actually delivers. Here, like Dexter, the greatness of the title is quickly undercut by the content of the show.
I’m a huge fan of the Mad Men title sequence — especially after learning that you can sing “Mad Men, Mad Men, Mad Men, Mad Men” along with the music — but in latter seasons the show diverted into subtler, more complicated meanings than a man’s precarious position and his relationship in the advertising industry. And we still have yet to truly see the fall of Don Draper the sequence seems to predict.
A short-lived, pretty-good-in-its-first-season action show features a heroic theme from Battlestar Galactica composer Bear McCreary that recalls old action serials and movies like Indiana Jones, both references that set up the series nicely. It’s hummable, a rare feat for a TV score. The globe-trotting action-hero images have a hand-drawn, splotched ink feel, and work as a homage for a series inspired by a comic book.
Chuck’s a show about a nerds and spies — but they’re cool nerds and dorky spies. Drawing from Cake’s “Short Skirt and Long Jacket,” and sending the Buy More Nerd Herd silhouette through light-hearted feats of derring-do, told viewers Chuck was going to be fun, action-packed, and a little silly at times.
This is a controversial one.
A jazzy haze of black and white images, Homeland includes speeches from world leaders like Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and George H.W. Bush, words in a foreign language, inverted black-and-white images, and iconic audio clips from the show itself: A plane crashed into the World Trade Center… you’re the smartest and the dumbest f—-in’ person I’ve ever known…
But it works because Homeland at its very best is about dual sources of haze: The haze of mental illness of CIA officer Carrie Mathison and the haze inherent to spycraft.
And in perhaps the best moment of the series, the trumpets of the title sequence begin to actually invade the show’s score itself toward the end of the first season. Carrie shrieks out warning, yelling about the truth, because but nobody believes her. Because she’s crazy and all that jazz is drowning out her words.
The Wire begins with an almost impossibly narrow lens — essentially one case bathed in just-shy-of-impenetrable cops and gang jargon — but then pulls back on the zoom with each successive season. The unions. The politicians. The schools. The media.
Using a different cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In the Hole” for each season, The Wire shifts the focus.
The default of Community is a fairly bland sitcom credit intro. But for especially unusual episodes the credits themselves change with the theme: Halloweeny for Halloween episode, a Christmasy stop motion musical twist for a Christmas episode, Sergio Leone style for a paintball western episode, and Lord of the Ringsy for a Dungeons and Dragons episode.
Appropriate for the most ambitious, ever-changing sitcom on television.
GAME OF THRONES
In possibly the best title sequence on television, the camera flies over the map of Westeros, zooming in on individual cities that seem to be constructed with a series of whirring gears. Fitting, because on Game of Thrones geography determines fortunes, and the cogs of power are always turning, lifting one city above another and grinding up any who get in the way.
It’s also a show where a few mournful strings can set off a massacre — as the driving music in the background hints at.
The best part: the credits actually change as new cities are introduced and old ones are destroyed.
Last night, millions of people turned on NBC to watch The Sound of Music Live! on NBC. In Spokane, people were watching in particular to see local star Sophia Caruso as one of the von Trapp children.
If you missed it on TV, you can now watch the whole thing online at whatever time fits your schedule. Here’s a clip:
The show starred pop singer Carrie Underwood as Maria, and was considered a gamble for NBC since live Broadway-style musicals on TV are expensive and kind of old-fashioned. But viewers were eager to watch, with NBC’s highest rating since the 2009 series finale of ER.
Critics, though, were not all that impressed. The general consensus was that Underwood, while plucky and perfectly capable of carrying the tunes, didn’t really do so well with the acting. And didn’t have any chemistry with Stephen Moyer, who played Captain von Trapp. And looked not much older than the children, except for the frumpy dresses she constantly had to wear. (The actual Von Trapp family revealed they would have preferred Anne Hathaway.) In contrast, reviewers pointed to the amazing Audra McDonald singing “Climb Every Mountain,” and the skillful acting and stylish outfits of Laura Benanti as Baroness Elsa Schraeder. (The kids didn't get much mention from critics.)
This smart analysis about the science of anticipation helps explain why the show had such an uphill battle — people really just wanted to watch Julie Andrews in beloved Sound of Music movie they’ve watched over and over:
“On the plus side, you could tell Carrie Underwood and her costars were giving it their all; on the negative, the furniture on the grand veranda of Captain Von Trapp’s villa looked like a cheap patio set from Walmart, which was a major advertiser during the broadcast.
Perhaps intentionally, perhaps by clever accident, the producers dodged the biggest calamity, which would have been to somehow ruin the original by coming too close and yet not close enough. After all, it would have taken more effort than the Von Trapps climbing over the Alps to outdo the Julie Andrews classic.”
Tonight, as thousands of Breaking Bad fans will tell you, the one who knocks is Walter White.
It’s probably the most famous speech in the entire five-season run of Breaking Bad, inspiring countless gifs and tumblr photos, podcast titles, T-shirt designs, literary parodies and a Samuel L. Jackson reenactment.
In the midst of an argument with his wife over whether he’s put his family in danger, Walt pulls off his undershirt, revealing a T-shirt dark red like congealed blood. And then his voice changes, drops lower and colder, as he lays into his wife’s reasoning.
“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decide to stop going into work? A business, big enough to be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up, disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.”
And then, as if dropping the mic, he walks into the bathroom, slams the door, and starts taking a shower.
It’s understandable why the speech is beloved by the type of fan who sees Breaking Bad as a show about badass lines and sweet-ass shootouts.
But it’s easy to forget that when Walt gives that speech it’s a complete and utter lie. It’s impotent bluster. It’s a powerless toddler, writhing on the linoleum, kicking his feet, screaming and crying that he’s a big boy and you’ll be sorry. It’s an embodiment of the same sort of pride and masculine sensitivity that will eventually destroy everything Walt has built and cares for. After all, he gives that speech in an episode titled, appropriately, “Cornered.”
After all, in that very same room he delivered that speech, madmen with axes had sat on his bed, waiting for him as he obliviously hummed “Horse with No Name” in the shower. But for the grace of Gus, Walt would long ago have been hacked into pieces.
Walt is a prisoner, working under constant video surveillance. He’s got multiple crosshairs trained on him, following his every move. He’s pissed off his boss — the sort of boss who runs a box cutter across the throat as a severance package. And his boss, in turn, is caught in the middle of a feud with the Mexican cartel.
Rewind a few seconds and see that it is Skyler, not Walt, who has the stronger arguments.
She’d been listening, on repeat, to a voicemail from the One Who Knocks, “I just wanted to say I was thinking about you, and the kids. And I love you.” It had clearly been sent while Walt was in danger.
“If we’re in danger, we go to the police,” Skyler insists as Walt scoffs. “If it’s the only real choice we have. If it’s either that or you getting shot when you open your front door — you’re not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head. That’s what we tell them. That’s the truth. A school teacher? Cancer? Desperate for money? Roped into working for — unable to even quit?! You told me that yourself, Walt. Jesus, what was I even thinking? Walt, please, let’s both of us, stop trying to justify this thing and admit you’re in danger.”
Skyler’s assessment is absolutely accurate.
The One Who Knocks is not a description of who Walt is. It’s who he wants to be. It’s purely aspirational. Throughout most of the Season 4 he’s just as pathetic. He bluffs and yells, but nothing he do can really change his situation. Toward the end, as he lays helpless in the crawlspace, cackling at the absurdity of it all, as the phone rings with a warning, as the camera slowly shakily zooms out, as the composition shows Walt trapped in his own grave, there’s a percussive pounding, deep and slow, on the soundtrack.
It sounds a hell of a lot like knocking.
But Mr. White went into that crawlspace as Walt, and came out as “Heisenberg.” It’s as if, in those manic panicked moments in the crawlspace, he signed a deal with the devil, trading the tattered remains of his soul to finally truly become the One Who Knocks. He crosses even more moral boundaries, does even more horrible things. Manipulates. Poisons a child. Blows up a bomb in a nursing home.
It works. Through science and subterfuge, Walt topples the man who toppled the cartel. “It’s over. We’re safe,” Walt tells Skyler. “I won.”
At the start of the next season, he flicks a couple of switches, and suddenly he’s Carrie at Prom — paperclips slide, shelves topple, computers fly through the air, and the laptop evidence against him is magnetically erased. The very rules of physics bow before Heisenberg.
How do they even know that worked? Mike growls on the drive home.
“Because I say so,” Walt replies, voice drenched in arrogance and confidence. He’s Scarface through way of The Secret. The power of positive thinking erases all obstacles in his way. Seven episodes later and all he has to do is tell a couple of swastika-tattooed thugs to “figure it out” and 10 lives are snuffed out. That swagger continues through the next episode, where instead of hiding from his DEA agent brother when he suspects he knows, he confronts him, telling him to “tread lightly.”
But like all deals with the devil, it comes with a time limit. There’s a time the devil comes to collect. Walt loses his one-who-knocks mojo.
All his money and all his scheming and silver-tongued pleading are no match for a couple of white supremacists with semi-automatic guns. They shrug off his threats and his negotiations and his bribes. Breaking Bad seems to have answered the age-old philosophical debate of “Who would Win a Fight? Cavemen or Astronaut?” resoundingly in favor of the Neanderthals with the bigger clubs. Brute beats brain.
Walt knocks as hard as ever, even rings the doorbell a couple times, but nobody answers. No matter what he says, he’s rejected, ignored, or disparaged by absolutely everyone he knows. His wife wards him off, slashing at him with a kitchen knife. Walt’s son drops his crutches to wrestle his father to the ground. Baby Holly coos for her mother instead of her father.
Walt’s powers are even worthless with the sniveling lawyer Saul Goodman. “You remember what I told you,” Walt says, in his One Who Knocks voice. “It’s not over until I say…” and then he collapses into a fit of cancer-ridden coughing. Goodman exits for his own spinoff, and Walt doesn’t bother to follow.
And as he hides in a snow-covered cabin 2,200 miles away, with only Mr. Magorium and a $10,000-an-hour card dealer to keep him company, the danger he dismissed descends upon away from Albuquerque. Three separate home invasions of the sort Skyler feared pack the penultimate episode.
It’s no coincidence that it’s Nazi nephew Todd who’s the one who knocks on Andrea’s door.
Skyler’s nightmare plays out before Jesse’s eyes. Andrea, a total innocent, opens the door and she’s shot.
Knocking, however, is a courtesy. These thugs don’t feel bound by such politeness. They bash down the Schrader residence door off its hinges and take what they desire. They enter the White residence without appearing to open a door at all. As a breeze blows through the open window in the baby’s room, masked men cover Skyler’s mouth, threatening her, making her swear not to talk.
At any time, of course, Walt could have ratted out the Nazis. He knows where they live. He could have summoned a platoon of police officers to dismantle the entire operation. But that would have meant admitting that Skyler was right, that his family was in danger, that he had lost the power to protect them. That would have meant spending the last few months of his life behind bars.
And so, of course, it was wounded pride, not his love for his family, that catalyzed tonight’s return to Albuquerque.
It’s very possible that this final episode will allow Walt to ascend to the badass days of yore, that it will be one long hail of 50 cal bullets and ricin-dusted dishes. But I hope it’s not. I hope that Walt finally realizes who he is and who he isn’t. That he fully reckons with what he’s done. And that he’ll hear one last knock upon his door.
Do not ask for whom the door knocks, Walt. It knocks for thee.
READ OUR OTHER BREAKING BAD COVERAGE
Breaking Bad is the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Yet that greatness didn’t come from the absence of mistakes. Far from it. Breaking Bad had plenty of problems. The secret was: It fixed them. Showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writers have this incredible, alchemical talent to take their mistakes, their errors and the show’s weakest points and spin them into gold.
A man controls. A man is feared. A man is respected — as a husband, as a father, as a genius, as a king, as a monster. A man makes money and cooks meth and deals death and builds empires. A man sells his soul to please his ego. A man knocks, and demands that doors open.
For the first few episodes, I scoffed at how fast Walter decided, ‘Hey, I got cancer, might as well make meth.’ But by Season Two, I understood: Even before the cancer, Heisenberg — his simmering, unpredictable anger — had lurked inside Walter. And as the show progresses, the two sides, the milquetoast and the madman, begin bleeding together.
Many shows have achieved greatness by following TV's rules and creating beautiful narratives within those rules. But Breaking Bad doesn't succumb to the whims of necessity. After Season Two ended, TV rules dictate that Walt would go straight back to cooking meth. Because that's the premise. Instead, it spent the first half of that season exploring the soul-sapping pain of a collapsing marriage.
And it did so ruthlessly.
Most great television series, then, have long stretches — even entire years — of imperfection. The Wire was mired by a bum couple of plotlines, The Shield, by wheel-spinning in the middle, Mad Men, by too many dream sequences and strange character choices. And Lost? Well, Lost had a little thing called “the Final Season of Lost.”
Breaking Bad is the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Yet that greatness didn’t come from the absence of mistakes. Far from it. Breaking Bad had plenty of problems. The secret was: It fixed them.
Showrunner Vince Gilligan and his writers have this incredible, alchemical talent to take their mistakes, their errors and the show’s weakest points and spin them into gold.
With the last two episodes of Breaking Bad ready to blow minds and break hearts, join me in examining the the show’s biggest missteps, and how the writers, in their mysterious ways, worked them all out for good.
Spoilers (such as Spoiler: You Really Should Be Watching This Show) follow.
1) Marie’s Adventures in Shoplifting
Bike lock strangling aside, the first season of Breaking Bad felt like an entirely different show. It was more satirical, more about middle-age suburban angst than the death of a soul. Before veering toward the moral darkness of The Sopranos and The Shield, Breaking Bad smelled more like Weeds.
That first season’s worst moment was a go-nowhere story where Skyler, the wife of meth-cooking science teacher Walter White, confronts her sister Marie over a shoplifted tiara Marie had given for Holly’s baby shower and Marie denies everything. Both women got ugly characterization. Skyler was shrill, nagging, shrewish. Marie’s characterization was mainly, well, purple: ditzy, naïve, oblivious, stubborn.
The point of it all seemed to be to communicate the dull message that “Everyone Breaks a Little Bad, Sometimes.” It fell into a trap so many other shows have, feeling the need to dole out miniature side-stories to each of the cast members.
But in doing so it produced a dull story that made two of the show’s two main female characters look like an idiot and a wet-blanket. Those characterizations would continue to drive the interpretations of some of the show’s less sophisticated fans for years.
How Breaking Bad Redeemed It
It could have been easy for Breaking Bad to pull a “Friday Night Lights Season 2” and just forget the embarrassing shoplifting plotline ever happened. Instead, it brought it back in Season 4, where her theft problem resurfaced in a more sophisticated version. This time she was not acting out of suburban malaise, but of a struggle for caring for her angry bed-bound husband. It was about wishing she was in a grander life, where she wasn't tied down to a husband constantly needling her over the difference between rocks and minerals.
For Marie’s character, the turning point came inside an elevator during Season 3, where her hyper-macho DEA Agent husband Hank wept into her shoulder. Their marriage, as tumultuous as it can be, becomes one of the driving factors of the show, a counterpoint to the toxic mess that becomes Walt and Skyler.
This final season, shockingly, is practically the Season of Marie. She’s had some of the most standout moments: slapping Skyler, trying to steal baby Holly, telling Walt to kill himself, and fantasizing about about deadly poisons.
It’s one of the things so many shows about Dark Men with Terrible Secrets don’t understand. Letting more characters in on the secret doesn’t destroy the show. It invigorates them. It gives characters like Skyler and Marie agency. This season, in fact, the shoplifting confrontation has been reversed: Marie lectures Skyler about morality, and Skyler stubbornly refuses to face facts.
Little remarked upon is how Marie has played one of the most pivotal roles in Walt’s downfall. It was Hank and Walt’s former protégé Jesse who separated Walt from his money, but it was Marie that separated him from the rest of his family, who finally gave a lie to his supposed motivation. In a conversation with her sister, Marie convinces Walt’s wife to turn against her husband and tell her son what happened.
And my guess? She deals the final blow, poisoning Walt with a vial of ricin she managed to lift from him with her sticky fingers.
2) Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ
There are two big problems with the midair plane crash that brings Season 2 of Breaking Bad to an explosive conclusion. The first is structural. Several episodes in the season had begun with vague, portentous flashforwards. The eye of a scorched teddy bear. A man in a hazmat suit. Two body bags. Flash-forwards create audience expectations. They encourage speculation. They create a promise, a sort of hype that few TV shows have managed to meet.
Did a meth lab explode in meth king’s Walter White’s residence? Were they attacked by the cartel? Did any major characters die? What hath Walt wrought? In fact, it had nothing to do with meth. It barely had to do with White’s actions.
The primary cause for the plane crash, granted, was one of the show’s most pivotal moments: Walt stares at a sleeping girl, Jesse’s girlfriend Jane, as she chokes to death on her own drug-induced vomit. He moves to help her and — then stops. He lets her choke, then die. It’s a turning point in Breaking Bad’s coming-of-monster story.
But getting from there to “mid-air plane crash” requires a Rube Goldbergian series of cause-and-effects. Jane’s dad, an air traffic controller is depressed over his daughter’s death and spaces out at the controls, allowing a commercial airliner to collide with a charter plane, killing 167 people.
You can nearly hear the writers straining to fill in the blanks to make action A lead to effect Z. The results are what Breaking Bad hardly ever is: Mechanical, linear, and artificial. This is a show about consequences — but generally roughly predictable consequences. This is not a show about wild coincidences, not a show about the butterfly effect, not a show about how we’re all connected, man, and not a show about how airplane parts falling from the sky are a tool of destiny. (That’s Lost or Donnie Darko, take your pick.)
If the intent was to make Walt directly responsible for those deaths, it did a poor job. If Walt had been married to Jane’s dad, and left because he wasn’t feeling emotionally fulfilled in the relationship, couldn’t that have also sent Jane’s dad into depressed spiral that left him inattentive at the control booth? Would Walt have been morally culpable for that too? Or is Jane’s dad morally culpable for the deaths by not realizing that he’s unfit to work at his job? Or are the pilots morally culpable for managing to crash together in mid-air because they followed misleading air traffic control directions?
Mid-air plane crashes are extremely rare. Consider how many terrible, tired, lazy, drunk, depressed, or attention-deficit air-traffic controllers there are in the world at any given time. Consider how many there are just in Russia. And none of them, in all likelihood, are in that dangerous state because a meth-making science teacher allowed the girlfriend of his partner to overdose.
How Breaking Bad Redeemed It
The crash gave rise to the beautiful scene, where Walt, in a gymnasium full of grieving high school students, explains that, statistically, the crash really wasn’t that bad if you looked at in context. Heck, it could have been much worse! The horrified student body looks on, seeing firsthand how Walt lies to himself, twisting reality, stretching words just to keep up his self-deception that he isn’t the villain.
Ultimately, it’s not important that we think Walt is morally culpable for the plane crash. It’s important that he does, at a subconscious level. We see him rapidly scrambling to justify his actions and downplay the impact. He’s immunizing his soul against guilt — a crucial step for the evil he commits in later seasons.
“We will move on, and we will get past this,” Walt tells the fully loaded gymnasium. “Because that is what human beings do. They survive.” And Walt does move on, and he does survive. For a time.
3) The Trouble With Cousins
Breaking Bad has cooked up some of television’s most memorable villains. They had vivid personality. Compare the pure uncut chaos of Tuco’s gleeful insanity with Gus’s stoic precision. Even Uncle Tio, barely able to move, had character, in his slobbering, seething way.
Ultimately, of course, all had to contend with Walt, the final villain, and his need to control and be recognized.
The Cousins, introduced crawling through the desert toward the Mexican diety of death in the first episode of Season 3, were the kin of Tuco and Tio. But the Cousins didn’t feel like characters so much as a natural disaster, moving inexorably forward, claiming lives because the cartel/plot told them to. They were silent, but where Tio communicated worlds of bitterness and spite entirely through sneering and spittle, the Cousins barely communicated anything beyond broad axe strokes. They were Michael Myers, if Halloween had been directed by the Coen Brothers. But where that sort of villain works brilliantly in a 90-minute movie, it doesn’t when stretched out over an entire TV season.
At their worst, they felt like video game bosses, right down to their generic title. (“Hank” VERSUS! “The Cousins” Double the Trouble, Double the Pain!)
How Breaking Bad redeemed it
Indeed, like a video game, there’s some indication the Breaking Bad writers had originally planned to make the Cousins an endgame boss to cap out the season. But here’s what sets apart Breaking Bad from other shows: It knows when something isn’t working.
Great TV writing is somewhat about planning. But more than that, it’s about improvisation, knowing when something’s working and something’s not, knowing when a character deserves more time or deserves less.
So in Episode 7 of Season 3 smashed that plotline in half with an SUV, ending it with an exploding bullet through its head. It allowed Gus, the series’ best antagonist, to gain prominence. It happened with the most suspenseful leadup to one of the greatest action sequences to be aired on TV. The cousins played the role of twin Angels of Death — but Hank had been divinely protected through sacrifice. He chose to do the right thing, give up his job for beating up an unarmed suspect. And for that, he was spared.
There are still few other characters I’m not quite satisfied with — Lydia and Todd’s quirky villainy feel like a better fit with Prison Break than Breaking Bad. But along with the cousins, they’ve played a crucial thematic role. As Breaking Bad as progressed, these weird evil characters have risen and multiplied around Walt, a vivid contrast to the innocent suburbia that defined his first 50 years.
Walt attracts supervillains like flies to manure, the show explains to us. He even creates them.
It’s very possible that without Walt’s tutelage, the sociopath Todd would have remained an exterminator instead of a terminator, that without Walt’s $69 million in startup seed money, the Nazis would have remained low-level white power criminal idiots, and without Walt’s product Lydia would have remained a megacorporation middle manager moonlighting in meth distribution. Even if Walt is killed in these last two episodes, he leaves the world in the darker and more twisted place.
4) Walt’s Emmy-Worthy Ricin Performance
I may be the only one in the world with this particular problem with Breaking Bad. After all, the last few episodes of Season 4 are among the most compelling in the run.
The third-to-last episode ends with a chilling image. Walt knows he’s crossed a final line with Gus, the meth kingpin who employed him. As he searches his crawlspace to find the money to disappear him and his family to safety, he lets out a primal scream of anguish.
He laughs this long, unhinged laugh, like a hyena playing the Joker. And then he gets to planning. The plan, to get his partner Jesse back on his side to take down Gus, is complicated: it involves hiring a goon to pickpocket the vial of ricin Jesse carries in his pocket, infecting the son of Jesse’s girlfriend with a different poison, and then tricking Jesse into believe Gus was behind the poisoning. It works.
I was able to get over most of the objections. The plan is too elaborate and dependent on chance? Well, Walt’s desperate, tossing everything into a last-ditch gambit with nothing left to lose. It would have been tough to poison the kid? Well, Walt’s a teacher, shouldn’t be hard for him to sneak into a school and mess with the kid’s sack lunch. Gus shouldn’t have been able to stand up and straightening his tie after Walt’s bomb blew half his body off? Well, the man has a commitment to sartorial perfection and fine grooming.
Instead, my beef is with Walt’s performance, where he convinces Jesse that Gus was too blame.
It was too good.
Bryan Cranston is an amazing actor — a much better actor than Walt. He’s such an amazing actor that he can show Walt lying convincingly, while simultaneously hinting to observant audience members that he’s lying. He has a tell, this sickening self-righteous faux-outrage you can hear in the timbre of his voice. And in his eyes you can see the gears and cogs whirring, churning out new lies, devising new angles.
But there was none of that in Walt’s confrontation with Jesse. It’s all desperation and pleading. He’s begging for his life. This time, he truly does need Jesse to believe him.
“I did not do this,” Walt screams. He grabs Jesse’s hand, pulls the gun up against his forehead, “If you think I am capable of this then go ahead and put a bullet in my head and kill me right now.”
“I’ll do it,” Jesse seethes through gritted his teeth.
“Do it!” Walt yells.
There’s no deception in Cranston’s performance for a very good reason. Cranston wasn’t told about it. He hadn’t read the next script. The actor didn’t know he was lying. This may seem a comparatively minor nitpick, but the show is very much about the relationships between Walt and Jesse, and Walt and the truth. It was a cheat to the audience, furiously trying to guess if Walt was the culprit at home. And it was a cheat to Cranston, who was handicapped in his portrayal of the character’s mental state.
How Breaking Bad redeemed it
Breaking Bad’s central character arc is about the growth of a liar, about man becoming better at deceiving his adversaries, his allies, even himself. Walt’s spent so much time leveling up his bluff skill he’s become a grandmaster of deception. The meth chef has gradually learned to cook up a batch of pure uncut bullshit so deceptively it can pass for caviar.
The writers of Breaking Bad made Walt’s speech to Jesse integral to that transformation. When Walt records a fake confession, implicating Hank as the mastermind behind the criminal enterprise, he digs deep into that same skillset in his speech to Jesse. He cries big ol’ actor tears as Hank and Marie watch in horror. They know he’s good enough to be believed.
Yet others have been leveling up too. Jesse, Skyler, Hank, Marie, even his son Walt Jr., learn when he’s lying. Despite his skill, he’s lost the ability to talk himself out of anything.
Last week’s episode made the journey obvious, flashing back to his RV-and-mustache days to show Walt clumsily lying to his wife. The episode ended with Skyler surrounded by police, listening to Walt expertly deliver a cruel monologue over the phone either intended to protect his wife or damn her. Or both.
The truths and lies that make up Mr. White have become so tangled up together, so twisted and burnt and distorted, that it’s nearly impossible to sort out Walt’s words and intentions. Critics, fans, and commenters — even the episode’s writer — all had elaborate, sometimes contradictory interpretations as to what his monologue meant. Walt’s a little like Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a brilliant scientist who, through unchecked hubris, became a painful hybrid of man and monster, White and Heisenberg, lie and truth, all inseparable.
5) Gliding Over All These Crucial Character Arcs
Breaking Bad took nearly five seasons for Walter White to make the hideous transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” It only took a half an episode for Walter White to, outwardly at least, make the opposite journey.
There’s a brutal montage of prison stabbings — arguably the worst thing Walt’s ever orchestrated — there’s a swanky montage of cooking meth and raking in cash, there’s a scene where Walt sees all the wealth literally piled up, and then Walt suddenly announces he’s out.
And just like that, he announces he’s done. The kingpin is apparently just fine with trading his black hat for a beige sweater.
How did we go from a man clearly addicted to power more than money, who the previous episode lobbed cruel, desperate insults at his partner for leaving the meth business early, who proclaimed he was in the “empire business,” who recklessly pushed the cops back on his trail because he couldn’t stand to see another cook get the credit, to a man just willing to happily walk away from everything he built, to a guy fine with tossing his keys and his legacy over to a couple o’ two-bit amateurs?
That ain’t the Walter White we knew.
How did we go from a battered woman so terrified of her husband that she’s willing to walk fully clothed into the family pool, drowning herself with calculated catatonia, just to get her kids away from her monster of a husband, to a woman making cheery dinnertime conversation with her monstrous husband and her DEA brother-in-law?
That ain’t the Skyler White we knew.
The Breaking Bad team surely had the talent to show how Walt came to the decision to retire and to show how Skyler came to truly accept Walt back into their home. But whether because of AMC’s short season order or artistic decisions, we never see it. By far, it’s the biggest hole in Breaking Bad’s story.
How Breaking Bad Redeemed It
It allowed Breaking Bad to begin its ending in a much more interesting place. It’s one thing to see the forces of good, or the forces of karma, to topple an evil man in control of a sinister empire. A hundred TV shows, a thousand movies, and a million stories have done that. It’s another thing entirely to see him walk away from it all, and still pay the price.
But now, the series carries the subtext of Walt silently screaming to the universe, “I’m retired! I gave it up! That’s in the past! It’s not fair!”
Breaking Bad’s lesson isn’t just about evil. It’s about the inertia of evil. Walt’s meth operation, this “empire business,” is this fearsome locomotive he sneers that he built, he constructed the engine, he cooked the 99-percent-pure fuel, he greased the wheels, and he set it speeding to his destination. And then he had the naiveté to think he could just jump out of the conductor’s car at full speed, tumble to a stop, brush his hands, and be morally clear.
So that brings us to the brilliant tragedy at the series end, where Walt is parked on the tracks, screaming, furiously waving his arms at the approaching train to stop. But it won’t stop. The fuel is too pure, the speed is too great. And he isn’t driving any more. That’s Walt’s ultimate hubris. That’s what the smartest guy Hank ever met is too stupid to see: You can’t stop a million tons of steel and meth and money and blood and greed and petty middle-aged masculine pride simply by drawing a line in the sand.
I built you, Walt is yelling. I created you, Dr. Frankenstein insists at his creation as it tears him apart. The mighty Walter White looks upon his works, and despairs.
And then, despite all his promises that he’s retired and that he’s the danger and he’s the one that knocks and that he did this all for his family, it runs him over and crushes him and everything he’s ever loved.
Now that’s tragedy. Now that’s Breaking Bad.