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Posts tagged ‘The Wire’

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?


The shame of snip and share

Offscreen Film Festival 2008 @ Brussels. Photo: Jeffrey De Keyser.

Offscreen Film Festival 2008 @ Brussels. Photo: Jeffrey De Keyser.

When I started this blog I was worried it would distract me from what I rather stuffily thought of as my “real” writing. I don’t feel that way anymore. Indeed this odd little online creation isn’t just very definitely part of my real writing, it’s also often the bit I enjoy the most.

The thing I didn’t understand back then was that the real problem with blogging isn’t that it’s time-consuming, it’s that it’s completely tyrannical. Don’t post for a day and you feel bad about it, don’t post for a week and you start to feel like you’re letting everybody (including yourself) down. Half the time I feel like I’ve woken up to find myself playing the part of Seymour in an online version of Little Shop of Horrors.

Which is, of course, a roundabout way of apologizing for the fact the site’s been a bit neglected lately. It’s not intentional, just that between work and the fairly appalling schedule I’m on with my novel I’ve been struggling to find the time to post. I think – I hope – things have turned the corner a bit, and I’ll be getting some stuff up this week, but I’m not going to go making any big promises.

To which end I’m going to do something I generally avoid, which is offer a few links in place of content. I’ve got nothing against linking per se, but it always seems a bit like cheating, the sort of thing you do when you’re too busy to write something original. Which I am, of course, but if I keep typing fast enough perhaps I can distract you from that*.

So, without further ado. The most recent issue of The New Yorker has a fascinating interview with Ursula Le Guin, focussed in large part on her 1969 classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, and her feelings about its then-radical take on gender politics, and the manner in which they simultaneously reflect the more conventional attitudes of its times. They’re interesting questions, not least because they recur in the context of Le Guin’s revisionist re-entry into the world of Earthsea in Tehanu (and to a lesser extent, The Other Wind), a book which attempted to unpick the patriarchal underpinnings of one of fantasy’s most remarkable – and enduring – creations.

Meanwhile, over at Sight and Sound, you can read the single best piece of writing about television I’ve read this year, as Kent Jones probes the allure of The Wire. As I’ve said here before, despite my admiration for its many very real achievements, The Wire is a show I often find frustrating. Given the critical consensus that it is one of, if not “the greatest television show ever made”, that often leaves me feeling like a naysayer, but Jones very elegantly teases out many of what I’d see as the show’s weaknesses, while simultaneously illuminating the things which make it so remarkable.

In a completely different vein, at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Ruse uses an exploration of the scientific and philosophical antecedents to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis to examine what has always seemed to me to be one of the more oddly neglected aspects of the climate change debate, which is the manner in which it encapsulates a more fundamental argument about the nature of science itself. And, at The Guardian, Lovelock himself gives one of his trademark doomsayer interviews to celebrate his 90th birthday.

And finally, ever wondered about the link between heroic drinking and great writing? Well at Intelligent Life Tom Shone has some answers (and they may not be the ones you want to hear).

* The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed I’ve been using Delicious to post links in the right-hand column for a while now. Sadly they’re not that obvious (and I’m less diligent than I might be in keeping them up to date) but when I finally get my redesign off the ground I’ll be expanding that functionality.

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The Guardian does The Wire

thewireseason4I’ve just discovered Steve Busfield at The Guardian has begun a week-by-week, season-by-season blog covering every episode of The Wire. It’s up to the final of Season One at the moment, but if you want to read them in sequence, or you’re afraid of spoilers, you might want to start at the beginning.

It’s interesting, in a way, to observe the afterlife of The Wire. Despite famously failing to rate during its initial run on television (a claim I always find a little hard to square with the rather obviously inflating budgets of successive seasons) it has gone on to enjoy cult status on DVD and via download, a process which has only added to its rather cliquey, elite appeal (it should come as no surprise that after being bounced around the graveyard shift by the repulsive Channel 9, the ABC has recently announced it will repeat the series from Season One later this year).

For my part I’ve always felt slightly conflicted about the show. For all that I admire its ambition, the sheer richness of the characters and the unflinching nature of its social observation (Season Four, which concentrates on the school system and the children within it is almost physically distressing), I’m troubled by the self-consciousness of that same ambition, the unreconstructed gender politics and the oddly conventional visual style.

But all that said, it’s a show which holds within it moments of brilliance. Who could forget Ziggy finally coming unstuck in Season Two, or Poot and Bodie disposing of Wallace on Stringer and Avon’s orders in Season One? Or the transformation of Prez? Or Bodie and Poot and their girlfriends running into Herc and Carver and their girlfriends outside the cinema? Or McNulty and Bunk’s wonderful “motherf**cker” crime scene reconstruction? Or Omar? Or Bubbles? Or indeed the chillingly hilarious cold open to Season Four, in which Snoop drops into Walmart to buy a nailgun:

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And I suppose while I’m here I can’t pass up the chance to give the motherf**cker scene one more airing:

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