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Posts tagged ‘Breaking Bad’

On Dexter and how not to end a show

DexterIt’s been interesting comparing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter. The first has been an object lesson in how to finish a television show (or novel, or film or anything, really): understand the fundamental dynamic or contradiction that drives the story, home in on it, isolate it, push it to breaking point and see what happens. The second has been a meaningless pile of blah, in which the writers seem to have decided to abandon the central dramatic tension and head off on a pointless and emotionally dishonest tangent.

At one level it’s not fair to compare the two, of course: after all, Breaking Bad is clearly one of the great television shows. But there is something sort of extraordinary about the total mess of Dexter’s final season, not least since it’s always been clear the endpoint of the show has been the moment when Dexter’s secret life can no longer be kept secret, and even an amateur can see what the results of that will be. How can he protect Deb from what she’s done to help him? Is he prepared to kill Vince or Batista to stop the truth about his secret life being uncovered? How can he protect Harrison from the truth? Can he find a way to live a different life?

And instead we got a season that not only didn’t do this story, but made things worse by introducing characters we’ve never seen before and expecting us to care about them, expecting us to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, rewriting the back-story and then, even once they’d made the fundamental mistake of deciding not to do the one story that needed telling, crafting a season so cack-handed and muddled it didn’t even work on its own terms.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the show itself. Dexter was always a funny mix of elements: the schlocky Ryan Murphy Nip/Tuck aesthetic, the obvious contrivance of so much of the plotting, Michael C. Hall’s carefully controlled movement between opacity and tics of fury (I’ve always thought one of the interesting things about Dexter is that he is, in many ways, the same character as David in Six Feet Under), none of which ever quite meshed. To an extent this was unavoidable, since the show could only work as entertainment if it carefully avoided examining the tension at its centre (if you don’t believe me, try to imagine the show without Dexter’s voiceover, and think about how terrifying it would be watching the creepy serial killer playing with Cody and Astor on the couch. or check out Allan Cubitt’s excellent new drama, The Fall, which chillingly captures the evolution of a serial killer, and the toxic way that infects his family life).

But even within those constraints the final season is inexplicably awful. Why, for instance, were we expected to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, which made no sense the first time around, and less the second? (It’s interesting to contrast the Hannah plot with the season about Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a series I still think is one of the show’s best, largely because the story at the heart of it, about a group of men raping and killing women, felt real in a way little else in Dexter ever has, and Lumen’s combination of anger and pain meshed so well with Dexter’s own). Why introduce the idea of Dexter having a protege (especially since he already has a son in Harrison), and then abandon it so casually? Why give us the romantic triangles of Deb/Quinn/Elway and Quinn/Deb/Jamie and then forget about the first halfway through? Why did they think we’d care about Saxon, or his relationship with Vogel, when they’d given us almost no reason to care about Vogel? And despite the way they kept harping on it, why was Argentina, which was always Hannah’s fantasy, supposed to make any emotional sense for Dexter?

It was a mess that collided with spectacularly awful results in the blahness of the final episode, which failed to even offer some kind of emotional resolution (you can say a lot of things about the end of Lost, but even if they accept the story won’t make sense they do pay out the audience’s emotional investment in the characters). In the interests of avoiding spoilers (although why you’d care I don’t know) I won’t go into detail about what happened, or didn’t, but it was, frankly, one of the worst television finales I’ve ever seen.

Except – and again I’m going to be careful about what I say – there was one image that was very clever and deserves praise, and that was the one that blurred the iconography of the wedding and the funeral, which was clever and powerful and had a fascinating narrative and symbolic logic to it. I won’t say more, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one I mean.

And on the subject of Breaking Bad here are a couple of thoughts about Walt’s character and the use of violence as dramatic release from a few years back.

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Face Off: Breaking Bad and the liberating power of violence

As I’m sure many of you did, I spent yesterday evening watching the season finale of Breaking Bad. As season finales go it was one of the great ones, not least because it managed the often difficult trick of concluding a long and suspenseful narrative arc without either seeming too neat and convenient or fumbling the ball at the last moment. But it also contains one of the most gruesome – and the most exhilarating – scenes I’ve seen on television in a long while.

What follows is going to be at least technically spoiler-free, since I’m not going to describe the scene, but if you’d like to go into the episode completely free of information you should look away. But basically it’s a moment of sudden and surprising violence involving one of the central characters.

The scene was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One was how brilliantly orchestrated it was. Despite all the scheming and mind games part of the strength of this season of Breaking Bad has been the growing sense of chaos surrounding Walt, and the manner in which his actions have disrupted the operations not just of his family but Gus and the cartels in increasingly dangerous and unpredictable ways. Certainly it’s been difficult not to be aware of the steady escalation of the risk to Gus and his operations as the DEA (or at least Hank) gradually became aware of the possibility that Gus might not be quite what he seems to be.  Yet as the final episode revealed, the season has also been incredibly tightly plotted, not just in the narrow sense of Walt having a plan, but in the larger, narrative sense of tracing out arcs and story lines that converge in a manner that’s both inevitable and surprising (to borrow Cocteau’s formulation).

But what also struck me was the sheer delight of the moment I’m talking about. When it came I quite literally jumped in the air and cried out, not once but twice. And despite the absolute horror of what had happened my reaction wasn’t disgust, it was exultation.

It’s a reaction you only normally get in dramatic forms like film, television and theatre (although there’s a scene in Deborah Moggach’s novel, Tulip Fever, which tends to generate the same response). There are several such moments in The Sopranos (Tony picking the tooth out of the cuff of his pants while talking to AJ’s psychiatrist, Paulie’s mother’s friend catching Paulie in her house, Ralphie’s head falling out of his toupee), but there’s also the lawnmower scene in Mad Men and any number of such scenes on film (oddly the one that come to mind immediately is the moment the shark grabs Samuel L. Jackson in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, but there’s also the much-imitated scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indy shoots the swordsman by the plane).

What’s fascinating about all of them is that they’re moments in which the violence or grostesquerie comes as a surprise, and is often designed to elicit something like humour. Yet the sort of surprise they depend upon is often one that goes beyond the surprise that comes with the revelation of something unexpected: instead it’s the sort of surprise that subverts our expectations about the conventions of the genre. We don’t expect that shark to grab Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea because he’s in the middle of giving the big “we’ll fight them on the beaches” speech every action movie needs (and the fact Jackson is a big star and a major character). Likewise the lawnmower scene in Mad Men doesn’t just involve the eruption of violence in a show that’s largely about the workplace, it involves the maiming of a character we’ve been led to believe will be significant. And while the scenes in The Sopranos are less overtly subversive, they exist within the framework of a show which often used violence to remind us of the randomness and chaos of the world as a whole.

But they’re also fascinating because they’re not just about doing unexpected or unpredictable things. Just maiming people at random simply doesn’t work as storytelling, however subversive it might seem. Whether it’s the scene from last night’s Breaking Bad or the shark chomping on Samuel L. Jackson, such scenes tend to jolt our expectations and assumptions within the narrative as well, by revealing the plot is not quite (or not at all) what we’d been assuming.

It’s this part of the process that’s particularly tricky. The director of In Bruges, Martin McDonagh, is also a playwright, and the author of a series of remarkable (and remarkably violent) plays which depend at least in part upon eruptions of violence that are at once shocking and hilarious. Of these the second in his Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara, is particularly interesting. The plot centres on a gravedigger charged with clearing out an overcrowded graveyard, and involves a subplot about his murdered wife, although as becomes clear later on, none of this is really the point. Instead the point is the bones – and more particularly the skulls – the gravedigger keeps accumulating, and the question of what is to be done with them, a question that’s answered very graphically towards the end of the play when, in an explosion of violence, the gravedigger begins to smash the skulls to pieces with a mallet.

It’s an extraordinary scene, and an incredibly liberating and exhilarating one. The sheer anarchy and release of it is hard to describe. But part of what makes it so exhilarating is precisely that sense of release, of knowing, at some intuitive level, that whatever you may have assumed this moment was the point all along.

The scene in last night’s Breaking Bad shares this quality, because it’s also the moment you realise things have not been what you’d assumed. Yet by releasing the tension that’s built up over so many episodes in such an unexpected way, it transforms something that should be horrible into something that’s exciting and even grotesquely funny. Anthropologists talk about liminal moments, points in time when the assumptions that govern our interactions are suspended, and we enter a state of possibility, and change, and I suspect that beneath the gruesomeness there’s an element of that at play in these moments too, a sense in which the ordinary rules are suspended, and we glimpse something of the possibility of change and transformation that is embedded in the heart of all narrative. And, paradoxically, where our extremely sophisticated awareness of the cultural conventions of genre and narrative (because without that awareness the subversion couldn’t work) also makes it possible for us to encounter the most uncritical feelings of wonder and release that narrative depends upon.

(Diehard Breaking Bad fans might like to check out the first part of AV Club’s four part interview with the show’s show runner, Vince Gilligan)

A couple of thoughts about Breaking Bad

I’m currently one episode from the end of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, which has morphed from being one of the smartest shows on television into a thing of almost Dostoefskyan bleakness. Because many viewers here in Australia are only beginning to watch Seasons 3 and 4 I’m going to avoid any specifics about either season (there’s one vague, non-specific spoiler ahead for people who haven’t seen Season 3 yet), but I wanted to make a couple of observations about the show.

The first is how incredibly impressive the show is on a whole range of levels. Quite aside from amazing performances from its two leads (Aaron Paul’s depiction of Jesse’s disintegration is brilliantly observed) I’m consistently fascinated by its use of light, and by the way it employs the physical location in New Mexico. Season 4 makes increasing use of time-lapse montages, some of which are incredibly beautiful, but the show uses time, and scenery to give texture to the moral disintegration at its core in a whole series of fascinating ways.

This use of space and time is also very effective at underlining both the euphoria and the yuckiness of the drug culture at the show’s core. There’s a constant slight sense of displacement and irreality, which brilliantly mimics the distortions of time that come with speed and other mind-altering subjects.

More interesting to me though is the way the show is prepared to push against the conventions of television shows by presenting a character who is essentially beyond redemption. As anybody who’s seen the final episode of Season 3 will know, there is a moment there when Walt – and to a lesser extent Jessie – cross a line they cannot return from, and which makes Walt, in his own way, no different from Gus or the cartels.

This isn’t the sort of action that’s often explored on television, partly because it makes of extremely troubling viewing, partly because the ongoing nature of television largely precludes damaging or compromising central characters beyond repair. Yet the writers and producers have elected to go there, and the result is, if not easy viewing then certainly compelling and often challenging viewing.

But it also points to what I think is one of the really interesting things about the show in general and Walt in particular. As becomes more and more clear as the show goes on, the problem for Walt and Walt’s life isn’t cancer, or Jessie or Gus, but Walt himself. Walt’s anger, his resentment that the world has not given him what he believes is his due infects everything he does. But more potently, as becomes very clear in Season 4, he is not a man who consistently makes bad decision despite his intelligence, but because of his intelligence. Time and again he makes decisions convinced he has calculated the odds, that he has out-thought and outsmarted everybody around him, and time and again he is wrong.

This aspect of Walt’s personality is captured brilliantly in Bryan Cranston’s performance, which constantly refuses the sort of grandiosity that would normally be associated with the fall of a character like Walt: certainly we’re never allowed to believe there’s anything Shakespearean about Walt, instead we’re constantly reminded of what a crabbed, angry, unpleasant man he has become once his inner self is released. And while once again it doesn’t make for easy viewing, it’s disarmingly complex precisely because it refuses to romanticise Walt’s failings.

What’s also interesting is how rarely characters like Walt appear on screen. Or, to put it more precisely, how often characters like Walt are depicted so realistically on screen. Because in fact television is full of characters like Walt. Any David Simon show has half a dozen of them: angry, difficult, toxic A-type male characters, many of whom seem to be versions of Simon himself. Yet in Simon’s hands (and indeed most places) they present as loveable rogues, hopeless pussyhounds whose drinking and  contrariness and general impossibility only make them more admirable (and more irresistible to women).

So why don’t we see more characters like Walt on screen? Part of the answer is obviously that they’re not a lot of fun to be around. But I do wonder whether there isn’t another answer, something to do with the sort of A-type personality that fills television story rooms, and its general resistance to critiquing itself. Because let’s face it, The Wire’s Bunk and McNulty or Treme’s Creighton Bernette might be fun to watch, but would you actually want to know them in real life?

 

And the winners are . . .

bsgbloodscalesThe nominations for the 2009 Emmys have just been announced. Unsurprisingly (and deservedly) Mad Men has done exceptionally well, taking four of the five nominations for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, one of the Directing nominations, and a number of other, smaller nominations (including Outstanding Hairstyling – woo-hoo!) as well as a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.

The other standout drama of the year, Breaking Bad, does less well (how its amazing pilot didn’t get nominations for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing is beyond me) but does pick up a nomination for Outstanding Drama (along with the neglected but brilliant Big Love) and a couple of smaller nominations.

At the other end of the spectrum, Battlestar Galactica has been almost completely ignored once again, picking up only one major nomination, for Michael Rymer’s direction of ‘Daybreak Part 2’. The take-home message? That even when a science fiction show produces episodes of the calibre of ‘Revelations’, ‘The Oath’ or ‘Blood on the Scales’, all of which are, quite simply, some of the best television produced in the last ten years, it’s still not enough to find mainstream recognition.

Not, it must be said, that the literary world is much better.

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