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PorgyandBess
The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

ensemble
Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930’s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

deathscene

Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

SPORTING-LIFE

Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

widowslament

Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

stiffmomentscreenshot
A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski as the Countess, had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

SusannaCherubino
Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

Peter-Mattei
Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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cover

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.

Hill_Street_Blues_Cast
The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

Sarah_Jessica_Parker_in_Sex_and_the_City-_The_Movie_Wallpaper_11_800
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

theherotreatedunjustly
Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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Nearclosure
With Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman standing aside, Bryan Cranston as Mr White advising Aaron Paul as Jesse to find a new identity — near closure

Dear friends and readers,

When I began watching and then writing about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad I did not intend to write seriously about it, but gradually I came to see the it comprises an unusual set of quality TV films worth study and evaluative commentary. They mirror central deeply disquieting and central aspects of US life, the whole plot-design actuated by the cancer epidemic (from our ubiquitous “chemistry, yo Mr White!”) and the horrendous price of a pretense at effective chemical medicine:

Skylerpressuring
Anna Gunn as Skyer desperate and believing Walt could be saved, pressuring him into going for the out-of-range expensive chemotherapy and operation.

Skyler
At film’s end: she sits, chain-smokes, drinks coffee, listens to others in a corner of a trailer-home

As film art they are brilliant. The genre finally American gothic: the mini-series has the recipe except for the supernatural: the double self, death, labyrinthine haunted places, the past never goes away, even sexuality in the form of homo-eroticism unacknowledged, and at the end a house in ruin. Less known but common characteristics: exploration of science, doctors (as in Frankenstein). Kafkaesque, majorly says Jesse of his experiences.

So now, as I’ve done for the Palliser, Poldark and Downton Abbey mini-series, as well as many Jane Austen and Andrew Davies’ films, I offer a handy list in one place for people who are interested easily to reach my summaries and commentary. I’ll keep it to this blog (and not attempt to put it on a new website when I finally make it) as after all I discover I did not write as many here as for these previous series:

1) Cancer and Anatomies of Violence: Season 1:1-3

2) Cancer and Money: Season 1:4-6

3) Parallels distract common sense from seeing who is the villain here: Season 1:17

4) It’s the reverse of what’s claimed: Season 2:1-4

5) A Crime Adventure Story: Season 2:5-7 to Finale

6) A Crime Adventure Story (Cont’d): Season 2:8-10

7) American Gothic: Season 2:11-13

landcape2 (2)
Their first lab

8) Sensational Screenplay into a film: Season 3:1-4

9) Rather poorer stuff: Season 3:5-7

10) Stasis (includes Fly and Kafkaesque): Season 3:8-10

11) A Killing Way of Life: Season 3:11-13; 4:1-4

12) I change my mind about Skyler: Season 4:5-13 & Reprise 1:1-7

13) Walt and the Emmys: Season 5:1-8 & Reprise Season 2:5-13

14) The Dark Tragic End: Season 6:1-8

FromTheFly
From The Fly

I’ve two books to recommend, and transcripts of what was said in each episode. As I discover new essays or materials (reviews welcome) on-line that are good, I’ll add them here:

David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry

Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

The Breaking Bad episodes scripts — simply the dialogue taken down (not the screenplay, not shooting scipts as they have no stage directions, no description of production design, no designation for shots)

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Bagofchemicals
One of the many landscapes and bags of chemicals from the series

Ellen

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The.Trip.to.Italy
On their way to Pompeii (2014)

somewhereinWestRiding
Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

Landscape (1)
I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

Landscape (2)
Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

John Atkinson Grimshaw - An Autumn Idyll
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

overthetomb

Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

before-sunrise
Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

Yorkshire
Yorkshire being photographed

The-Trip-To-Italy
Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

Cartoon
Eating your way through

WakingLife
Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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HankRemembering5
As Hank (Dean Norris) looks over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sees Gale Boetticler’s signature, suddenly he conjures up a half-forgotten memory-image of

Gotme
Walt (Bryan Cranston) looking insinuatingly, fiercely at him, teasing “You’ve got me” (with his hands comically up)

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose —Sung by Janis Joplin

Dear readers and friends,

I’d like to emphasize that I realized the one character I had not done an extended sketch of in my blogs on this remarkable mini-series was Walter White and had decided I would focus on my remarks on the fifth season by surveying the development of White’s character — before I knew that Bryan Cranston had won Emmys for portraying Walter White as the best actor in a TV drama series a remarkable number of 4 times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Oscars and Emmys are not just awarded to an actor for a great performance, but because the voting audience feels deeply compelled by the character, and by the story he is caught up in. Walter White, the shat-upon invisibly caged man, a few paychecks or gov’t action away from bankruptcy is today’s American male. When we survey the ordinariness of violent men of our society at home and abroad, we should remember Walter White — and his Javier, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). If Walt seems an unlikely Jean Valjean (too upper middle, he gives no free bread away, not an underdog socially), let me allow Jesse to have that role as inflected by a modern take on that ultimate lost boy, Peter Pan. Skylar as Wendy? well, she did scold Peter frequently.

As I watched the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad in tandem with Season 2:1-13 (last week I watched the fourth season in tandem with the first to give myself perspective), I realized how cruel, harmful psychologically as well as practically, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had become. How different he was from the Walter White of the second season, where with Jesse he stood without weapons in a junk yard and shuddered, revulsed before the psychopathic bully-distributor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) proceeding to beat to death his own body guard. In the first 8 episodes of the fifth season, now a mass murderer Walt hires a team to men to murder Mike’s team in prison after and commits a series of sickening manipulations of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hide that he, Walt, engineered the near death by poisoning of Jesse’s near-adopted son, Brock (with Andrea, Emily Rios, Brock forms Jesse’s “instant family”). With Jesse, Walt stages a search for and finds (!) ricinn poison in a rhomba vaccuum cleaner. Walt then allows Jesse to weep with guilt over his near-murder of Walt (his “one friend”) when he thought it was Walt who poisoned Brock (it was).

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Jesse’s grief over all the deaths they’ve caused, with Walt’s comforting arms and hands on Jesse’s shoulders …” Walt will later need Jesse to believe that he, Walt, didn’t kill Mike, that Mike is still not dead ….

Worst of all by insinuating the danger of Jesse’s companionship with Andrea (to Andrea and Brock), Walt persuades Jesse to break off his relationship with Andrea. I was most struck by how when later Jesse mentions to Walt that he is no longer living with Andrea and Brock, Walt seems not to hear, and registers this new arrangement as unimportant. Walt deprived Jesse of a girl he was genuinely compatible with, who understood him (Jane) as perhaps Andrea cannot. He wants Jesse for himself (like a devil taking over someone) and become enraged when Jesse wants out of the business because he, Jesse, is now revulsed.

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Andrea (Emily Rios) coming in with her boy, Brock, bringing food for supper

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Andrea smiling an invitation at Walt in which Jesse joins in — they don’t have too many guests

What does Walt care for Jesse’s now profoundly lonely purposeless existence? He risks Jesse’s life by refusing to stop siphoning in meth from their great train robbery when Mike says to stop and Jesse miraculously (perils of Pauline here) escapes horrific death from a racing train by laying within the two tracks. In Season 2 he was led by Jesse who organized distribution. He deprives Jesse of the 5 million Jesse is owed to attempt to force Jesse to continue in this murdering-drug creation-selling business. With friends like these, who needs enemies as they say). He ceaselessly lies. Jesse realizes Mike must be dead since no one is coming after Walt’s team for murdering them, and Walt says Mike is not dead and he “needs Jesse to believe that.” Jesse says nothing but maybe he needs himself to believe that or not contradict it.

Walt’s come a long way. Tellingly as Walt genuinely becomes an evil man, Vince Gilligan in his commentary in the DVD features at long last concedes a nuanced development, a slow-moving justification over a period of intense pressure and need, and says more than once that Walt was “a badly damaged man” when we first saw Walt in the first season. That what he has slowly become is the result of shedding that bullied deeply frustrated existence once in the first season he was told he had inoperable cancer and statistically had probably no more than 2 years at most to live. That his manhood had been undermined badly and the twisted self coming out was intent on revenge and proving himself. Gilligan did not go so far as openly in his words to connect this to our society’s norms, inequalities, obsession with money, but we are invited to. The series in second season had also shown us how little choice of a self-respecting career Jesse has had, and how dismissed Walt is as a high school chemistry teacher. The fifth season shows the viewer how gutted is the 1st, 4th and 8th amendment: the gov’t agencies need not even get a grand jury indictment: they freeze all the assets of suspected people, thus bankrupting them and their families, break in for evidence without a warrant (unless the person asserts him or herself with a hired lawyer). The DEA and others agencies have easy access to surveillance. The medical treatment which is so expensive is also available as records for any agency to explore.

Re-watching the second season alongside the 5th, I noted how what might be called Walt’s second self, Heisenberg as Walt’s Mr Hyde, comes forth at moments where his pride as a male is especially seared. At the party Skylar throws for what seems to me Walt’s first improvement from the crushingly expensive chemotherapy treatments, when Hank basks in the admiration of over Walt’s son, Junior (RJMitte), drinking beer with him in this ever-so-masculine way, Walt suddenly tops this by insisting Junior really keep up with them, ending by making the boy puke in sickness. Spite without sufficient target continues to peer out of his eyes as he continues subject to the will of others. Another character he is reminiscent of in season 5 is Macbeth with his growing will to power and linking himself up with (he thinks as an equal) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). No lie is beyond him now — and he’s good at using truth for his own purposes as when he tells the disquieted Marie (Betsy Brandt) that Skylar tried to kill herself out of guilt over Skylar’s affair with Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins)

The comparison of 2nd and 5th brought out aspects of Jesse, Walt’s real son by now: when Jesse so swiftly sheds Andrea, we see he had learned early on not to take seriously enough emotional bonds. It’s significant how often Jesse is seen alone. In the feature to the 5th season Gilligan also begins to speak more openly of his conception of Jesse: he is the lost boy, and young man we do not know what to do with. When in the 2nd season Jesse’s parents throw him out of his aunt’s house, his motorbike is stolen from him, and he ends up covered in urine, he rescues himself through turning to the the skills Mr White alone is willing to teach him. We see inherent in him too a will to ruthless power, an enjoyment of building an empire over others, of bullying others. We see eventually that he draws a line at murder, especially identifying with young boys, and gentle people, that he suffers enormously from the hidden injuries of class, allowing White to take advantage of him. Syklar despises Jesse upon laying eyes upon him: he’s clearly not college material, not “suit” destined; he’s not someone she’d invite to her house. Marie would be more shocked at seeing Jesse at Skylar’s dinner table than any other thing she’s seen thus far. He learns to care for Mike, the mass killer, because Mike treats him with respect and does not manipulate him emotionally. Tells him the truth about “Walter” and advises him to get out of the business. “Take care of yourself, kid.” Aaron Paul has been nominated several times, and was touchingly openly ecstatic by his win — his character recognized.

Skylar: In season 2 he tried and failed to bugger Skylar after he succeeds in turning Hank off his and Jesse’s tracks. She is telling Walt that he is not to take out his anger and hurt on her:

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Anna Gunn as Skylar indignant with green cream on her face:

Now he smoothly takes over Skylar’s body from behind without (pun intended) a hitch.

Skylar’s obdurate obnoxiousness is now newly contextualized as fear for her children. Another aspect of her character that emerges is her stupidity. She really does not seem to understand she and her children are safe from Walt, if not from his enemies. He has invested his ego and identity in himself as her protector-husband and cannot bear to lose her as an object. At one point in Season 2 Walt says “I am not Vito Corleone;” in Season 5 his behavior reminds me of Al Pacino’s towards Diane Keaton as Corleone’s wife in Godfather II. When he grows angry at her for succeeding in removing “my” children from my house to Hank and Marie’s, he loses a central part of this masculine myth he is now successfully enacting. Skylar now recognizes what she held to as family certainties as so much cant and Marie’s nattering drives her into frantic “shut up, shut up, shut up Maries.”

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Having won an Emmy for best supporting actress, Gunn may feel vindicated now.

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Hank is as hard and suspicious in interrogating someone (here Mike) as ever, but more controlled, more thoughtful

Last but never least (if Hank has anything to say about this), the development of Hank by the fifth season is a study in the American macho male very sympathetically seen. by the 5th season He no longer is simply the dense insulting bully of the 2nd season, who enjoys grilling and cowing those street people he can drag into his office (as he did Jesse in the second season): he enacted a parallel to Tuco when he beat Jesse senseless, landing Jesse in hospital; his rage not much different from Gus’s only he uses fists, not a knife. In Season 2 we see him enact his first physical revulsion to his own shooting down of the psychopathic killer Tuco; upon discovering the inscription in Gale Boetticher’s present of Leaves of Grass to Walt, seeing the same handwriting, recognizing “the other W.W.” a phrase he saw in the papers found in Gale’s apartment when he also saw Gus’s fingerprints, he realizes that Walt is the powerful drug manufacturer, agent, and murderer, he has been seeking these past months. He sways, the ground beneath him seems to move. He has been humanized over the several seasons by having him come near to death: we’ve seen his courage in bringing back his leg power. He is too much forgiven, and the immediate murderous rage he projects in the first episode of the sixth or finale season (I’ve watched) it shows the shallowness of his emotional attachments; how quickly they may be changed. His sudden use of the word “monster” and definition of Walt as a “monster” also serves the programs’ refusal explicitly to recognize in Walter everyman and how much he has been driven to do what he does. Hank’s is a black and white world, and he enacts the ferocity of our egregiously inhumane punitive justice system.

If we are not going to be shown the two men readjusting their understanding of one another in terms of their years together, an intriguing question we can ask of Walt and Hank’s long relationship is, Did Walt want to be found out? So careful as he has been all along: in season 2 when he pretends to amnesia, he remembers a cardboard box of money with a gun he had left in a bedroom, and manages to escape the hospital, race home in a car, hide it behind the kitchen sink, and take himself back. He devises elaborate schemes to destroy evidence. At some level is this the final confrontation he wanted, with the man who so casually mocked him for years?

It has been said again and again that what makes readers love novels is when the characters in them are beloved, respected, taken into our imagined selves as we go through life and perform compensatory functions. The slow development of the single parallel story line (Walter and Jesse no matter if sometimes they are circling one another at a distance) and the brilliance of the many intimate scenes are central to the series also winning for the best TV drama series twice. In this fifth season I found myself intensely shaken by action-adventure episodes well done, e.g., the train episode; the remarkable prologues continued to make their effect. To their credit the film-makers defy the nonsense about spoilers in this and the next season. The opening of this season shows us Walt as drawn, pale, thin, looking ill, with a full head of hair again, and beard; he seems to be living alone in New Hampshire (far from Albuquerque) and buys himself a machine gun and rounds and rounds of ammunition. A worn fugitive getting a meal at Denny’s is at least one aspect or phase of his coming future.

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Ellen

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“Bag’s in the River” (1:3): Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns home to Skylar (Anna Gunn) after being out all night disposing of what’s left of two bodies put in a bag, thrown in a river

Dear friends and readers,

Having gotten for myself two books filled with detailed analyses, commentaries, summaries, lists of bullet points of and from Breaking Bad: David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (it takes the mini-series through Seasons 1-4), and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz (Seasons 1-5, complete series), I was prompted to re-watch the episodes of the first season (all 7) alternatively with what I had left of Season 4 (5-13, or 8 episodes). The new perspectives provided by the books and the early phase of the series (with its ironic foreshadowings only seen on a re-watch from the perspective of at least 3 seasons later) has made me change my mind about Skylar as well as come to a better understanding of this famed HBO macho soap opera.

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“Face Off” (5:13): Skylar asks, “Was this you?” and by way of reply, Walt replies: “I won”

I had thought of Skylar as a woman who was basically indifferent to her husband as an individual apart from her, non-loving or without real respect for him, an unethical bully (she withholds sex from him to pressure him into buying super-expensive chemotherapy treatments) who deserts to save herself when cornered (in Season 1 she rejects her sister, Marie [Betsy Brandt], is jeeringly spiteful (her boasted-of affair with Ted Benecke [Christopher Cousins]), but even if it is possible to extend this list of qualities I find alienating, I was wrong to sum her up as hateful, enacting, as the actress who plays Jesse Pinkman’s mother seems to, so much relational wrong to those around her. Rather she is a figure of pathos, pathetic in the older meaning of the world.

In the long view of four years, we can see that nothing she ever did made the slightest change in the ultimate fate of herself and the characters she holds dear. From about half-way through Season 4 the naivete we see in Season 1 (as when she threatens to expose Pinkman [Aaron Paul] for smoking pot to her “brother-in-law, a DEA man!” [Dean Norris]), her belief in some controlling morality in people, some rules somewhere which she can trust to as long as she seems to be moral herself and obey the law, and most of all her essential powerlessness leads to a set of behaviors and stances parallel to those we see in the first and second season. She thinks she can give Benecke money to pay his taxes and he will pay them (thus protecting her as his bookkeeper from scrutiny by the IRS); she believes buying and operating a car wash will control the money situation she finds herself in (she and Walt have far more than they can account for). Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster lawyer is not simply laughing at her; he realizes her instincts as formed by her society make for decisions against her interests (such as, back to Season 1, her childlike worship of the oncologist). 

Most of all, she has not all along begun to understand what other human beings (Giancarlo Esposito as Gus is not alone in his monstrousness) are capable of, including Walt — who in the fourth season wins over Gus by poisoning Jesse’s beloved semi-adopted son, Brock and persuading Jesse it was Gus who did this, thus winning Jesse back to work with him (not hard as Jesse does know how much frightening evil Gus and his henchmen can do) and tell him where is Gus’s weak point as Jesse has come close to Gus several times, and then lived in close proximity to Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks, Gus’s hired thug-killer): Jesse finally thinks of Hector Salamanca, the nearly paralyzed dying Hispanic man who early in Gus’s career humiliated Gus and murdered a close associate and who all these years later Gus enjoys tormenting by telling of how he kills now this male relative and now that.

Skylar erects what Anna Gunn kept calling “all her boundaries” to shut this world and Hank’s and Marie’s out. In Season 1 when amid the teachers she hears the janitor blamed for stolen equipment to make meths, she nods in agreement and allows herself to be diverted by Walt. Walt might worry whether she’ll realize it’s his lab. He need not have. She does not put that kind of two-and-two together. (Nor does Hank. They trust their friends to be what they seem.)  In Season 3, she learned she might need to protect her family against its protector: Walt, who has told her, he is the danger. In Season 4, Benecke turns out to be a petty cheat; baby in carrier, she goes to a central point in a four state area to see where she can flee and finds there is no where she belongs, can exist but where she has found herself at 40. All she has are Walt, Walt Jr, Holly, Marie and Hank.  She returns home. Skylar does not seeth, but she writhes to no avail. I pity and feel for her.

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An early still of Jesse as he walks into his parents’ dining room to set the table

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Jesse’s parents want to know from the valued son whether he is getting out of his teacher what success requires

A second watch showed me how angry Jesse is — else how does he get involved? A rage and a fury. Why else does he continually spit out his words in slightly broken half fury? Rejected by parents, who prefer the hypocritical cold son, ambitious, a liar. He is offered this shit-ass job disguised as a bird selling junk on the street.  We see immediately how clever he is, how quickly perceptive his judgments, but he is utterly uneducated: all school is for is to get a job wearing a suit. As he hardens, he keeps his heart partly because he has been so hurt. He has artistic ability Jane appreciates, and she reads his yearning to be a hero through the cartoons he draws.  But hero in the US is defined by Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus — and Hank (Dean Norris). Jane (Krysten Ritter) did begin to offer him another vision (the trip to Georgia O’Keefe paintings is part of this), but she was sickened by her culture too, desperate to escape its pressures and demands that she be guarded, cool. A kind of Hansel and Gretel with heroin as the witch. You see this kind of thing only by re-watching. Many people learn to lie low: I suspect that will be the final lesson of Jesse’s career with Walt.

Hank emerges more interestingly too — once you know how he emerges later as the half-lamed man, a sleuth. To this Sam Spade has come down. He begins as a coarse, crude, loud-mouth condescending macho type, so sure of himself, mocking his brother-in-law as not manly, but his pity for his shoplifting wife and feeling for the disabled nephew, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) shows he has camaradarie impulses. Fatherly, kindly to those he does not “other.”  Maybe only he or his type of person could love and support the dense yet intuitively alert Marie.  Murdering people point-blank even when they are trying to kill him (in the Second Season) leaves him emotionally shattered (as it will Jesse in the third Season).

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In the pillow interrogation where Skylar wants all of them to help her force Walt to go for treatment, after Marie breaks ranks to say chemotherapy is miserable and maybe Walt should spend his last months differently, Hank says Walt should do what he wants …

At the baby shower, though, once he spots the expensive diamond and ivory baby tiara Marie has supposedly bought for the coming baby, he needs a stronger drink to endure staying there and pretending all is fine in his house. And in the first season there are many ironies surrounding his talk, showing how little he gets about the meth trade when he thinks he understands so much.

I missed the mood or kind of gothic this story is: horror is one word for it, as all sorts of body taboos are sliced off: from the opening blood, the color red, from raspberry to bright scarlet, to blue and venal streams across the TV screen’s firmament. Ghastly comedy in season 1, ghastly terror in season 4: in one of the features for Episodes 4:11-13, Vince Gilligan explains how the crew spent months talking about how they could make Gus’s death adequate to the evil of his life and then planning and executing the bomb scene and destruction of half Gus’s face (face off) and part of his body. The moment is all the more electric as at first we startled to see him escape apparently unscathed, and fix his tie: a key to his character is he is a black man determined to enact an upper class, super-polite ceremonial lifestyle, the benevolent philanthropist the powerful in his society turn to. But the nurses running over shudder, cover their faces, and we get a barely watchable (I kept averting my eyes) series of close-ups, which I reproduce only one of:

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The series does not rely on these horrible shocking moments; they are part of sequences of agonized high anxiety (to allude to Mel Brooks, appropriately parodic) which punctuate story arcs and character development. Intriguing suggestive life-histories are given most of the tertiary characters whose names we learn; we can fill out their pasts. The strength of the series is character exploration in scenes of virtuoso acting, but I hadn’t noticed how much change the characters seem to undergo at the same time as in their beginning (Season 1) is their end (Season 4 foreshadows what is to be). So while the mood of Season 1 replicates at moments that of the Three Stooges (which Jesse watches on TV), or clowns; the two chief males form the love-hate, teacher-pupil, chemist-assistant team they keep up throughout several permutations, with Jesse sometimes taking the lead, doing what Walt can’t, seeing what Walt doesn’t, by its end Walt does show an insidious delight in enacting all that is forbidden, anticipating his later manipulative ruthlessness while Jesse remains on just this side of decency. Walt contemplates suicide in Season 4, diverted by suddenly seeing seeds on he side of the pool he can use to poison Brock

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but Jesse feels emotional hurt from betrayed ties (in Season 1, his family, later Jane, and now Andrea [Emily Rios] and Brock) that he will not cast aside. In season 4 Walt refuses to work unless Jesse is with him, Jesse refuses to cooperate in the business of meth at all if Gus has Walt killed.

The last two thirds of season 4 (for episodes 1-4 see A Killing Way of Life) are highly theatrical stagings of suspense. I couldn’t stop watching them — got caught up in the intensity of it all and began to long to see Gus as a figure of ultimate evil done away with. By the end I was shaking from the whole experience, with its final twists and turns moving from engineering the near death of a child to persuading an old man to blow himself up suicidally in order to take Gus out too. There is a weird parodic feel here — because in a soap opera you have just these twists and turns. I haven’t got so caught up in anything since watching Lagaan a few years ago where I so rooted for the Indians against the Brits — only here more so. I had wanted to watch some earlier episodes but could not get myself to stop until I saw Gus die. And it was horrific — the make up of him as this ghastly skeleton. When Walt returns to the Meth lab and manages to kill the murderous bullying bodyguard who has handcuffed Jesse to a pipe (Jesse is often in the role of the vulnerable Pauline heroine), and they set fire to, destoying the lab, it is like destroying the vampire’s lair. It was where they were enslaved and watched by a surveillance camera. Here action adventure high violence was meaningful.

Here and there images evoked the real world of America inside its border and out. At one point in a desert Mike throws Walt on the ground to kneel before Gus with a black bag over his head; he has been badly beaten up: it is the image of torture we see done to Arab prisoners by US interrogators. 

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Gus is saying if Walt interferes with Gus’s killing Hank, “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter” — this is precisely what Frankenstein’s monster does to Frankenstein’s family after Frankenstein destroys the bride the monster had asked for

There are memorable slow quiet moments. After Walt miscalculates and allows his hot-blooded temper to get the better of him because he finds Jesse is lying to him, and has seen Gus up close but not tried to administer a powerful poison (ricin) and rushes to Jesse’s house to accuse him, and they have this brutal fierce fight where Jesse gets the better of the older man, Walt collapses in his flat. It has been Walter Jr’s birthday and Walt missed it. Skylar had insisted on returning the super-expensive glamorous speed car Walt had bought for his son, what Walt Jr really wanted, and gotten him the sensible relatively inexpensive compact hybrid, and little as Walt Jr is thrilled, he drives it to his father’s flat to be congratulated. Walt is in a shattered confused state, and breaks down in front of Walt Jr, weeping: “I made a mistake.”

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The son physically helps the father to bed, much moved by his father’s reality with him. He hears his father address him as “Jesse” and say “I’m sorry.” He sleeps on the couch not far from his father. That morning, Walt awakes and tries to erase the image he had left; he attempts dignity, tells his son that his grandfather died of Huntington’s disease; we see him coughing — a foreshadowing of death to come.  

Mike and Jesse also manage their unarticulated moments of mutual shared danger, mutual help and respect — and Jesse is distraught when he must leave the internally bleeding and shot-up Mike behind in Mexico: he will die unless someone gives him blood, staunches the bleeding, tends to his wound; the minimal sophisticatedly-equipped hospital staff paid by Gus are just ignoring Mike to save Gus. They tell Jesse it’s Gus who pays them.

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There is peculiar comedy mixed with anguish: Jesse hugging Andrea and bothering the hospital staff with his attempts to wait with Andrea and her mother inside the operation when as not-family the insurance company decrees he should not be there (so they say). Each time Jesse has to say that Brock was poisoned to someone, he breaks down: here he’s telling Walt in the hospital waiting room.

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Hank pressures Walt to take him to Hermanos to see the fried chicken operation Gus runs as Hank’s study of evidence from the murdered Gale Boetticher’s (Dale Costabile) flat leads Hank to suspect Gus is the linchpin leader of a meth gang. Walt is terrified at the coming consequences. As they drive up and Hank instructs Walt to set up a bug on Gus’s car, Walt sees Mike drive up and sit alongside them. Mike winks.

What I enjoyed most was to see parallels in Season 1, similar scenes. I had not noticed the Prologues were already used in atemporally symbolic ways. We see a very young Walt explaining a chemical formula to his then girlfriend, a very young Gretchen, later Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) who married the man who made a fortune from Walt’s discovery. The punning titles for the episodes, many ironic, begin immediately. Also to see Marie and Skylar in characteristic alike sister formations: sometimes talking in the kitchen, sometimes hugging, and then again Marie refusing to admit she shoplifts:

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A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal (Season 1:7): Skylar tries to stare the truth out of Marie

I wonder what they will think up for a fifth season. They have killed off a number of major characters. Will they have more of the same yet worse: yet more diabolical people in the Meth trade; I read that Jesse will become enslaved to Todd, a new Meth associate. I hope the next season brings genuine new content and insight as Downton Abbey manages to each year. I suspect this must be done by working further on the fates and personalities of the closely-knit central characters. I know that Hank will die — something foreshadowed in the second season when Marie declared him indestructible.

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End Times: (Season 4:12): Hank suggesting his need to have Walt drive him to the laundry (where the Meth lab is a dungeon below)

 I hope Jesse will end up with Andrea but somehow doubt it.

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Saul Goodman delivering weekly money to Andrea until Goodman persuades Jesse to go in himself

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The two books:

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Marie towards bitter end: facing death

Breaking Bad and Philosophy reminds me of an undergraduate text I had for a Philosophy course. Heidegger is applied; superman theory (the will to power — an insightful one about the psychological trajectory Walt follows); authenticity is explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about the very bad chances aggressive treatment has and comes near to saying, don’t fall for it. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing; hurtling towards death picks up how dark this mini-series really is. There’s a long essay in the Unofficial Companion about the uses of houses, what kinds and space in the series which in its limits really explains what symbolism is intended. Even if an official connection is denied, the Companion could not have been done without the cooperation and input from the film-makers. Just the right quotations are cited as central to each episodes; tidbits of information and connections set up; photographs of the actors, some of shooting during rehearsal; background information on content in the show or about the production design.

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Walt’s hat when first put on — it looks dark blue, not quite black as yet

The Companion, however, is not critical in any larger reflective sense; Breaking Bad and Philosophy only gingerly and then in the most general terms mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts (still the essays do bring up materialism, violence, mindless ambition). Neither book talks of racism:  Gus and the doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned in the mini-series; that most of the lesser crooks we meet are hispanic is never mentioned. These things probably work to deny racism in the US. The only overt political essays I’ve found thus far is are attacks on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers in both volumes to say see how women hate women to have or seek power, so the essays function as misogyny sine why women blame other women is not gone into beyond implying women want other women to submit. The Companion especially uses Foucault’s logic of scandal and badness the way the film-makers do in the feature: simply parrot without further context how evil it is to sell meths, how destructive the drug. Stories and characters in both volumes are authorized by assumed feelings of moralized indignation; scandal fosters what it is supposed to suppress (and this series could foster violence and apparently reinforces misogyny among some viewers), and its existence is never (or barely) explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condemning moralistic way from the first chapter on — the writers never once take into account, what was the man to do: just die or go into terrific debt?  Was he to let Emilio and Crazy 8 kill him and Jesse? They say in passing how we root for Walt, describe the acts or episodes ably, but not a word of larger justifying explanation. In that sense the Philosophical book, jejeune as it sometimes is, is better; one cannot have socialism, but existential is the acceptable justifier — or Foucault. Still however unexplained or wrongly framed, BB does reflect US life more than any TV program I’ve seen. 

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Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) listening to one another

Dear friends and readers,

I did not write a separate blog on Season 3:5-7 as I thought the first two were poor, with Episode 7 returning to the strength of the series: in-depth psychology, slow movement in which not much happens outwardly until a final deadly encounter. These next three combine familial melodrama, medical film fiction, black comedy, and seething danger. The story line is detailed at wikipedia were all of the latter type.

What interests me is its use of stasis, where the viewer is invited to pay close attention so that the slightest story detail adds to the psychological pressures resulting from what’s going on. “I see you” (8) carries on the dramaturgy of what we’ve seen before, but its content, an hour long dramatization of a a family group waiting for news of the survival or death of a much-valued person in a hospital environment, is riveting as all the episodes dwelling on fatal sickness and modern medicine have been.

Resusciating
A failed resuscitation

Betsy Brandt as Marie angry and terrified that Hank (Dean Norris), the central rock of her existence will die, and then that he’ll be crippled for life has particularly half-mad scenes — a fork in the cafeteria is filthy, constituting the ever-present iatropic dangers of the place. Why was his gun taken from him?If he had had his gun, all would have been well …

Fierce

Hanknowwatchful
Hank newly on his guard

Mike, the lawyer’s killer-helper (Jonathan Banks whose role has expanded greatly in the last few episodes) easily kills off one of the bizarre-cousin murderers with an injection. Skylar (Anna Gunn) now is willing to admit she knows all about Walt’s activities, who his phone calls are to (Jesse) and willing to use the oodles of money Walt has made to hire a super-expensive therapist outside the Medical Network to which Hank and Marie belong. It is assumed that the only way to get adequate care when you are seriously hit, any cure is to spend gross amounts on doctors who won’t take insurance and of course get away with this because they can and do cure you by really taking care of you instead of pretending to: this Network would provide physical therapy thrice a week in a month and for a short while.

“Kafkaesque” (9) was weaker as it again simply shows the deterioration or weakening of all the characters in conventionally moral ways, but it did have a memorable indeed inspired witty interchange. Jesse is telling the facilitator (Jere Burns) of his anti-drug-addiction group about what his work in a laundromat is like: Jesse elaborates from the “boss is a douchbag,” he never sees his “superboss,” “nobody knows what’s going on:”

Confessing

Jesse: It’s like rigid one day bleeds into the next, been working a lot … totally corporate … all kinds of red tape my boss is a dick, the owner superdick [I'm] not worthy whatever to meet him. I guess everybody’s scared of the dude. Place is filled with dead eyes …

groupleader

Group Leader: Sounds kind of kafaesque

Jesse: Yeah totally kafaesque majorly

Jesse has no idea what the word refers to, only that it’s famous, literary; perhaps it means making no sense. We do learn that Jesse is siphoning off Meths and with his friends selling it separately. They begin to use the word indiscriminately for what they are doing. Well, in a way the story has become Kafkaesque — minus Kafka’s political totalitarian context.

Again the third of the trio soars: “Fly” (10): It is in effect an inset 2 character play. Aaron Paul has before shown himself capable of the virtuoso outpouring of intense emotion and cogitation and does it several times in all three episodes; Cranston’s soliloquy in “Fly” is quieter but goes on as long and is as effective.

We watch two actors, Aaron Paul as Jesse and Byran Cranston as Walt in a basement room filled with technological equipment interact in terms of their now long relationship, memories and pressures right now. They have become the underpaid employees of the terrifyingly ruthless killer Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), all the more scary because of his mild exterior and how everyone outside the drug dealers turns to him as a benign philanthropist, ceaselessly polite.

Polite

He is making hugely more than they and is a dangerous man; they work long hours cleaning and cooking, and the strain of all that has happened becomes too much.

As Marie focuses on a fork, so Walt takes umbrage at a fly as a contaminant and much of the action the hour is taken up as the two men try to kill the fly. Walt makes a home-made fly swatter; Jesse to please Walt buys a whole load of fly papers and sprays. What keeps us watching through is their relationship. Jesse begins to show concern for Walt as half-mad from lack of sleep, losing all perspective, and makes him sleep by loading a cup of coffee with sleeping pills. In turn, Walt shows real affection for Jesse: “come down from there, Jesse, you’ll hurt yourself”; tells of how he wish he had died when Skylar gave birth to her baby daughter, before his drug-dealing emerged; and half-drugged, holds on to a ladder while Jesse swats away, telling Jesse half-cryingly he is sorry that Jane died, very sorry.

theladder
The lab is shot in sharp dark blue light at night, contrasting to the bright reds and oranges of the day outfits

We fear he will confess; while Jesse thinks it was nobody’s fault he accepts it, just, if with intense grief. All the while they are intermittently like clowns (as they were in earlier episodes).

It ends in the dawn when they have killed the fly finally, cooked the meths and Walt tells Jesse he is aware Jesse is embezzling (so to speak) meths and if Jesse is caught, he, Walt, cannot protect Jesse. Jesse says he needs no protection. Walt drives off, Jesse standing there. The inset piece is self-contained too.

Small moments: although Skylar shows herself more willing to cooperate with Walt, be a wife to him, her bullying instincts come to the fore in episode 8 when her boss-lover, Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins) shows up at the door of her house, ostensibly looking to help her but actually asking for emotional support and comfort. He should have known better.

HardasNails
The mini-series suggests men expect “good” women to be hard as nails (that’s what they respect)

When he persists in asking why her behavior is suddenly distant and hard, she bursts out, Will you force me to do this now? Not stupid, he retreats. So the characters are consistent within their narrative development.

Watching the “inside breaking bad” features and listening to the costume and light design people, I was aware of how much money was spent (Eaton says in her book she hasn’t got the budget of a Breaking Bad or Madman). There were shorts of Cranston and Paul and others taking questions. I was touched by Paul turning round to thank the audience for watching. He was himself not supposed to last beyond the first season and he is not a handsome male lead type so this role could mean much for his career.

And it continues to be a bleak mirror of American life. I write about these episodes also because they trouble me in a directly personal way I want to be open about. In the series of scenes where Marie is told about the apparently minimal physical therapy her medical network offers Hank, there is a direct parallel to what Walt would have been offered to cure or slow down or palliate this cancer from an HMO. Marie and Hank are given choices within their network, but the essential treatment is the same. As a nurse she asserts Hank must have immediate therapy and several days a week for hours. To get real help she needs to “go outside,” and we again have this super-expensive doctor proposed and now Skylar offers Walt’s money.

My question is this: is this what many Americans believe? That if they pay huge sums to famous supposedly tremendously great doctors and care, they can recover or get over some crippling. It makes me think of how Jim would not come to the phone when an investment banker I knew (Trollope society man) proposed a name to us of a probably very expensive well-known doctor in Boston — outside our HMO. I wanted to go, to try at least the initial visit, but Jim would not hear of it. This Boston doctor was said to consider the operation Jim accepted from a doctor trained in the Mayo clinic (removing the esophagus) criminal. The Boston man might instead pour fantastic amounts of chemo and radiation at Jim. I have heard of people having adverse killing reactions to this sort of thing (raging leukemia, having to have limbs cut off), but also living. I am ever remorseful we did not do this at least try. It would have been costly to start with – I’ve no idea what chemo and radiation would cost out of pocket.

Do people in general believe this myth? Is it a myth? Another friend I have clearly does – and paid huge sums, subjected her beloved to a12 hour operation that almost killed but is said to have removed a super-early stage cancer. The “ordinary” doctors talked of watchful waiting because of his bad health and because it was dangerous and they could cut it out in a few months.

Is this sort of belief why it is so difficult to get people to join into communities of care in a socialized set up? But surely those who don’t want to belong to these are not better off belonging to nothing – which is the alternative to the Affordable Care Act and networked insurance, HMOs and the rest.

So I think would Jim be still here? Would his life have been prolonged? In the mini-series we are still told statistically Walt has two years to live — his cancer is now in remission but might come back.

HankandmariesHands
Hank and Marie’s clasped hands

Ellen

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