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.
Spokane’s own Cami Bradley is performing on America’s Got Talent again tonight. This time, after advancing from the quarterfinals, she’s up against some acrobats, comedians, an opera singer and a rapper. Online voting is open from 7:55 pm to 3 am tonight.
For those of you who know nothing about America’s Got Talent, you could ordinarily earn a “good job” for that. But now it’s time for the basics so you can fully understand what is happening here.
This is the eighth season of the NBC talent show, which follows in the footsteps of performer-competition reality TV pioneers like American Idol. But the competitors feature a whole variety show of talents, from dancers to magicians to huge musical ensembles. Singing is still popular — and successful. Five of the seven previous winners were singers of some type.
Each season begins with a whole bunch of talented hopefuls auditioning in different cities and then performing for the judges in Las Vegas. Those selected in Vegas (and sometimes a few others) go on to the televised live shows, when voting begins.
This season’s live shows started with 60 acts in the quarterfinals. For five weeks, sets of 12 acts competed for the judges’ votes (and public votes, which are used as tie-breakers). Bradley was one of 22 acts to advance to the semifinals, which begin tonight.
The show wraps up in September. The winner ultimately gets $1 million and typically headlines a national tour.
I’ve been regularly watching TV for less than decade.
But in that time, I’ve seen fingers broken, kneecaps shot, a hand shot, an earlobe sliced with a knife, a cheek held against a red-hot oven element, needles driven up finger tips, bamboo driven under fingernails, skin shocked with a lamp cord and covered in corrosive chemicals, veins injected with painful drugs, heads shoved under water and in a barrel of motor oil.
I’ve seen a man tased repeatedly until his heart stops. I’ve seen a woman dunked in a bathtub with electrical equipment. I’ve seen people beaten with fists, whips, chains and a phonebook.
A hardening resin is poured down one man’s throat on one show, while on another the hero takes a wet towel and threatens to shove it down someone’s esophagus to rip out of his stomach lining. I’ve seen a single scene were an unarmed man was beaten, choked, twisted with a plier, slashed with a knife and burned with a blowtorch. (That’s by a “good guy.”) I’ve seen people subjected to belt sanders, defibrillation paddles and sensory deprivation chambers. I’ve seen a whole lot of waterboarding.
I’ve a barrel heated up so the rats inside dig through the chest cavity, I’ve seen a finger being meticulously skinned. In the last week alone, I’ve seen a gleeful woman spattered with blood as she drills into a man's thigh, and – if the scene hadn’t cut away at the last moment (for, you know, decency) would have nearly seen a castration.
That’s just a selection from a few TV shows — Lost, 24, Game of Thrones, Alias, Prison Break, Scandal and the Shield. I’ve never watched The Sopranos or Homeland — both shows which, presumably, feature a quite a bit of torture. (I’m also only four episodes into Downton Abbey, so if the Dowager Countess ends up using sharper implements than her wit to protect the estate, I haven’t yet seen it.)
As the United States debated the ethics and effectiveness of torture (or “enhanced interrogation,” if your kids are around) over the past decade, it’s been a crucial debate. So it’s unsurprising out television shows have chosen to draw from that debate, and it’s unsurprising that activists have condemned (or praised) the cavalier way that TV gets its torture on.
But today, I’m not going to retread the ground of what torture does to our country, or our national security, or our soul.
Today, I’m upset about what it’s done to our television shows.
I can choose not to see Saw or Hostel, but if a torture scene is the part of a larger narrative I’ve invested a 100 hours in, they’re harder to avoid. They can be violent, they’re stomach turning, they’re genuinely gross.
And worse, with very rare exceptions, these moments of torture are the weakest on the show.
I think of graphic violence the same way I think of a dirty joke told in mixed company — the dirtier it is, the funnier it has to be to justify. In the case of stomach-rending (sometimes literally) violence it should be extremely compelling, illuminating, or tense — it should drive the plot forward, or reveal interesting aspects of depths of character.
But torture rarely does. Instead, torture scenes are usually dramatically inert.
Consider how, in a perfectly symbolic way, most of them have the poor tortured soul literally tied to a chair. He’s not going anyway. Often, that’s the purpose the scene serves in the narrative: To stall the story, to kill time.
On 24 — a show often trapped by its real-time format — a torture scene gave a character something to do for an episode, without necessarily bringing Jack Bauer closer to the bomb/virus/weapon/season finale. On Game of Thrones, repeated torture scenes kept Theon employed as a regular cast member until he could appear up in the later seasons based on later books.
Hence the formula: The threatening monologue from the torturer, the reveal of torture implements, pleading or defiance from the victim, a whirring or a blade or a crackle of electricity or a swing of a fist, a bloodcurling scream —cut to commercial.
Occasionally the writers like to show off their sadistic creativity — here’s my awesome idea for inflicting pain upon the human body. But believe me, I’ve walked through a Torture in the Middle Ages exhibit in a museum in Russia — modern TV writers can’t hope to match history. It’s been done.
Sometimes, of course, torture is supposed to act as a critique against it. It’s supposed to show the tough choices of the War on Terror or the War Against The Criminal Element. It’s supposed to show the degradation it inflicts, not just upon the tortured, but the torturer.
But this rarely happens.
Most of the time, torture is practically shrugged off as a bad-boy quirk, like wearing leather jackets or drinking from a flask or using the B-word. “Oh, you!” The show says, “Did you cut off the victim’s toes again, you silly goose!”
On 24, Jack Bauer’s a loose cannon, but dammit Chief, he gets results. On Scandal, Huck has clearly been mentally altered by torturing and being tortured — but his colleagues basically continue to treat him like a big ol’ teddy bear with a lingering waterboarding habit instead of an actual monster. (The Shield was a thankful exception — its greatest feat was showing how truly poisonous Vic Mackey was to everyone around him.)
Other times, torture feels like sadism for sadism's sake, the succession of the weekly “And now, back to your regularly scheduled Theon Greyjoy mutilation session!” torture scenes on Game of Thrones so far only tell us two things: 1) This guy’s pretty evil. 2) Sucks to be Theon.
Game of Thrones already had (at least!) two psychopaths before the latest torturer was introduced. So far, this new guy doesn’t add much.
But here’s the biggest problem: It’s not hard to make someone feel pain. Anyone who’s ever slammed their fingers in a car door knows that great amounts of agony can be inflicted extremely easily. When the Manly Man just grits away all the pain, it doesn’t seem realistic, and when the torturer gives up a secret location of a bomb, it doesn’t feel earned. (Absurdly, the torture victim rarely ever lies which is my go-to plan if I’m ever tortured.)
It’s absurd to treat torture like a Vulcan Mind-Meld, something that if you do it just right will automatically get the truth.
Great drama works by playing different powers against each other. Whether we’re talking the kings of Game of Thrones or the hicks of Justified, factions play their hands, and other factions counter. They may rely on wit or alliances or a quick draw or massive armies or jury-rigged weapons or a box full of rattlesnakes — but there’s almost always a way to counter. A brute threatens a dwarf? The dwarf uses his clever words and his family reputation to talk his way out. A rich man threatens to use the law to crush a poor man? The poor man breaks into the rich man’s home and threatens to kills his family.
Dutch talking a confession out of a suspect on The Shield was always so much more interesting than Mackey beating him out of it.
When a man’s tied to a chair being burned or cut or shocked, there’s rarely an interesting interplay — there’s too much power imbalance. Instead, they just scream, and we grimace and yawn.
American television sitcoms, at least the good ones, are great in their dependability. You know what you’ll get. You’ll know why you want it and when you want it. They become like a favorite piece of furniture in our living rooms — the armchair you can curl up in when you know nothing else will feel quite right.
The Office has been my armchair for the last eight years. It’s not always been perfect — in fact it’s been quite imperfect over the last two seasons — but it’s the television show I’ve watched more than anything else. I’ve seen all 200-plus episodes more than once. I’ve had more than one dream that featured a character from The Office. Is this the clinical definition of obsession? Quite possibly.
But again, this show is somehow comforting to me. It’s a glass of warm milk, if you will. I often write late into the night a lot and when I wrap up, I can never get right to sleep. A couple years ago, I took to watching an episode — usually whatever reruns TBS had placed On Demand — before going to bed. It has become a ritual of sorts. And when the series comes to an end tonight after nine seasons, in the words of Michael Scott, it’s going to “hurt like a motherf*****.”
I watch The Office because it makes the mundane in our lives outrageous, unlike the Everybody Loves Raymond or Two and a Half Mens of the world, which manage to make the outrageous mundane. There is no reason why a show that, at least in its first few seasons, took place almost exclusively within the depressing confines of a fluorescent-lit office, should have survived this long.
In the beginning, The Office was very much realistic. Cubicle warriors working in any field could relate with the banal yet hilarious conflicts and controversies that arose at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. The characters have, over the years, engaged in bouts of hatred, love, acceptance and apathy — and if you’ve worked in an office you know how this goes. Small things become huge things because the unfortunate reality (a reality you’d rather not acknowledge) is that you spend more time with these coworkers than you do with your spouse or kids.
At Dunder Mifflin we’ve seen Dwight hate Andy and love Angela while adoring Michael and designating Jim as his mortal enemy. Then, over the years, those relationships flip-flopped and rotated, sometimes not with the sort of comedic promise producers would have hoped for, but in a way we could allow ourselves to believe would happen at our own place of employment.
Seinfeld featured a few of the best characters in the history of television, but their egomaniacal hijinks weren’t the sort of scenarios in which you could imagine yourself entangled. Sure, there is likely no boss out there with the sort of need-to-be-loved that Steve Carell laid out in The Office, but if you talk about how your boss is a “little bit of a Michael Scott,” people know what you mean because they’ve had a boss like that at some point. Everything about the work environment on this show was amplified (we’re not going to believe that someone like Kevin Malone could ever survive in a full time job for more than a week), but it never took us too far away from what could possibly happen under the fluorescent lights of our own offices.
We’ve all seen inappropriate email forwards (but probably not of your boss on vacation with his boss), we’ve all known of clandestine romances (but probably not ones that end in dead cats), we’ve all been to a coworker’s home for an awkward social engagement (but probably not one that required the police to intervene) and we’ve all had our eye on a Jim or a Pam at some point (but you probably didn’t marry him or her).
This isn’t a popular opinion, but the American version of The Office executed this relatable-ness more effectively than its British forefather. Ricky Gervais is a god, but his take on the boss was more vaudevillian than what we Americans could relate to. That version was hilarious and legendary in its own right, but it’s the American version that’s going to live on forever.
I’ll keep watching The Office as the years go by. Probably late at night, and probably episodes I’ve seen a dozen times. I’ll watch it because I feel like I’ve been sitting at one of those desks in Scranton all those years.
With the release of the upcoming fourth season of Arrested Development quickly approaching, diehards have found themselves desperately searching for the latest news and developments.
Arrested Development was funny — comedic genius — when it was cancelled seven years ago. Could it possibly come back and match its glory?
After watching the official trailer, it’s safe to say that this isn’t going to disappoint.
Let me expand.
First off, it takes all but 10 seconds for the trailer to feature its first inside joke. Those familiar with the show (and the horrific cornballer) will find humor as Michael burns his hand on a hot door handle.
Second, we have George Michael. That’s all I really need to say. Despite the fame Michael Cera has managed to achieve in his post-AD days, he looks just as… helpless as he did during the show’s original run. He’s rocking a short-sleeve button-up shirt just like the good ol’ days. Ah, the nostalgia.
Thirdly, he appears as though George Michael and Maeby finally have a thing. This is no longer a forbidden love à la Romeo and Juliet or Le Cousins Dangereux. Remember, gang, the series finale unveiled that they are NOT cousins. It’s totally cool for us to root for them now.
Next, we have “Final Countdown” playing in the background during the second half of the video. Not because we are now in the homestretch for the premiere of the season, but as a reference to GOB’s hilarious magic — I mean illusions.
Lastly, the stair car is back. Are they hoping for some people to hop on the Arrested Development bandwagon? How strategic.
The viral appeal, of course, is that it’s a forecast covering Valentine’s Day, even though the funny part was actually about the following weekend. A number of other reports mistakenly identified the news anchor as KREM’s Katie Boer. They’re both brunette women who deal with the weather so, you know, totally understandable even though Danielle’s name is actually on the screen for half the video clip.
We reached out to Grant to see if she wants to comment about the clip. And, it’s worth noting that this sort of thing makes every one of us at The Inlander very relieved to be print journalists.
Also, KREM has a history of having fun with their own bloopers. Here are a few good ones:
To really understand Community, don’t turn to its most popular episodes, like paintball action-homage “Modern Warfare” or the diverging-timelines hilarity of “Remedial Chaos Theory.”
Watch “Intermediate Documentary Redux.” In this third-season episode, the Greendale Community College Dean Pelton wants to update a dated TV advertisement for the college. But over the course of weeks, the scope of the commercial grows, the budget spirals out-of-control, and the dean becomes a tyrannical auteur, unhinged from reality, obsessed with a vision that can never truly be realized. Eventually, he drives away everyone who believed in him.
That, of course, is a the story of Community. Read through the AV Club’s second-seasonpost-mortem with Community creator, writer, showrunner and, by many accounts, unhinged tyrant Dan Harmon. See the parallels. See the obsession and the passion that goes into creating what could have been just a half-hour of laffs. See the seeds of perfectionism leading to self-destruction.
Harmon was fired from his own show last spring. Granted, there are plenty of signs he should have been. The show never excelled in the ratings. The show regularly went over budget. It burned through talented writers. Harmon clashed visibly with the network brass. He managed to somehow be seen as a big of a jerkas Chevy Chase. When he broke up with his girlfriend, he shared his very raw feelings with the entire internet via Tumblr. Tumblr!
In cop-show terms: He was a loose cannon, but dammit, he gotresults.
It’s easy to explain Community’s awesomeness in terms of genre parodies: There was the zombie episode, the video game episode, the space episode, the musical episode, and mafia, Law and Order, and Christmas claymation parodies. “Intermediate Documentary Redux” was, after all a parody of theHearts of Darkness documentary about the troubled Apocalypse Now production.
But in the best of these, ambition, not parody, is the driving force. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of a showrunner cracking a whip, calling for yet another rewrite, demanding stronger character beats. My favorite episode focuses on a game of Dungeons and Dragons, something NBC was skeptical about.Yet, it also happens to be one of the most tightly scripted half-hours I’ve ever seen. Every moment counts — drives the plot forward, establishes emotional character beats, establishes stakes, or delivers a set piece. It had clearly gone through countless drafts from multiple writers in that pursuit of perfection.
Harmon isn’t necessarily a comedic genius. But here’s one of life’s little awesome secrets: Even if you’re not the most talented, you can brute-force brilliance through obsession and ambition.
To be clear, he wasn’t responsible for all the best parts ofCommunity. That would be taking too much away from the other writers on staff, and from the producers and network executives that reined in his worst impulses. Harmon wasn’t the only staffer to leave Community after Season Three.But judging from early reviews, there’s a hollowness to tonight’s premiere.Something’s missing.
That could be because the new showrunners are less like Harmon and Dean Pelton, and more like the trustees reviewing Dean Pelton’s salvaged, just serviceable final product at the end of“Intermediate Documentary Redux.”
“It's good,” the trustee says. “You know what, better than good. Good enough.”
House of Cards, Netflix's just-released original series, is cheesy, corny, and pulpy. And that’s its biggest strength.
Kevin Spacey’s majority whip Frank Underwood is practically a cartoon. And that’s its second biggest strength.
Spacey plays Underwood as a meld of Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton and Lucifer, Prince of Darkness. Consider House of Cards a political reboot of the canceled 666 Park Avenue, the devil whispering in ears, signing away souls, pulling strings to command his puppets to his will.
His monologues come out silky and loquacious, wrapped in vivid metaphor and overwritten prose. Take a parody of a slick-talking southern attorney and exaggerate it three times, and you have some sense for Spacey’s performance.
And yet… it’s captivating.
The best part of his portrayal is the cheesiest: Spacey, and Spacey alone, has the power to break the fourth wall, turn to the audience, and tell us all his plan. Sometimes it’s just a wink or a raised eyebrow, other times it’s a full-blown soliloquy about his manipulation. The device, borrowed from theater, is odd enough on television (or whatever Netflix is) to stand out. It’s going for Shakespeare, it’s ends up more Bond villain.
But there’s a place for Bond movies.
You can nitpick House of Cards all you want. No, a leaked draft of an education bill wouldn’t be a gangbuster above-the-fold story on inauguration day. No, journalists don’t walk up to sources and explicitly offer the entire sum of their integrity to politicians they’ve met for the first time. The show is essentially set in a fantasy world, sure as Middle Earth or the forest moon of Endor, where politics, punditry, unions, charities and the human condition have very few similarities to our own.
But realism shouldn’t always be used to define great art. Rather, “great art” shouldn’t always be used to define great art. There’s a place for foie gras and there’s a place for Taco Bell Beef Baja Chalupas. Great fast food can be delicious too.
House of Cards is not Mad Men or the Sopranos, and it shouldn’t be judged by their metric. It’s a closer fit with Prison Break, Con Air, 24, or Revenge. It’s a crackling good yarn — which is a different, but not necessarily lesser, standard for “great art.”
It doesn’t mean that House of Cards is immune to criticism: Most of the surrounding characters are nearly as vibrant as Spacey’s, and some of the other plots drag down the show’s momentum. Underwood is begging to be brought low, for his elaborate plans to backfire, but for at least the first half of the first season of House of Cards, everything just falls into place. Entertaining shows need conflict and suspense, and, as addictive as House of Cards is, there’s not yet enough of either.
But don’t dismiss the show for its silliness. Praise it for precisely that reason.
Once in a rare while I'm invited to be a guest on a podcast based off
my sole qualification of watching a considerable amount of television.
Last Sunday, I was invited to join TV bloggers Jason Griffin and Melissa Lowery on the TV Times Three podcast to chat about Alphas, The Killing, Drop Dead Diva, Once Upon a Time, Once Upon a Time, Bunheads, Last Resort, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Scandal, and Downton Abbey.
We try to answer the important questions, questions like:
Why do so many have TV superheroes have such super-lame superpowers?
Are AMC network executives trying to tank their own network, Producer's style?
Wait, there was really a show called Drop Dead Diva? And people are sad that it's gone?
Will Once Upon A Time turn to increasingly odd fairy-tale characters, like the Keebler elves, the zany gargoyles from Hercules, or Disney princess Zooey Deschanel?
Is Channing Tatum a fine actor?
What's 30 Rock's secret for staying so funny after all those years? Is it some kind of cream?
Is there a dangerous acting-ability gap on Last Resort?
Is cheating on your spouse romantic as long as you're the President of the United States and your wife is sort of frigid?
Check it all out here.
Sharon, I am sure that the friends of Dr Mengele thought he was proper and…
Bruce Jessen is prosecutable under US and international law, whether he is an honest, nice…
Yeah, a really nice guy who creates and believes in torture all while bilking the…
Jacob Jones, I don't know if you received permission to take a photo of the…