One thing about being laid up with a bad back is you get to watch television, which under normal circumstances I don’t watch, simply because every device with a interactive screen is in use most of the time I’m home. My son prefers Nick Jr., specifically Blue’s Clues, Yo Gabba Gabba (anyone seen this? It makes Teletubbies look like the MacNeil-Lehrer hour) and an old Garfield DVD from the mid-eighties (his critique: “I like that guy.” Guy’s funny.” He’s succinct; it’s what I like about him). My daughters fight over iCarly or The Witches of Waverly Place (hint: iCarly’s WAY better) and my wife uses the computer under the auspices of completing her graduate degree but really to check out purses, houses on Sibcy-Cline, and Facebook (just kidding baby–it’s comedy! We’re so proud of you and all of your hard work!). iPods are used in tandem with the televisions. You can’t watch TV on the Nintendo DS.
We have a lot of screens in our house. Rarely are they used for baseball, football, or Anthony Bourdain.
No biggie. I like to read. Reading’s good for you, right?
But because I’ve been worthless–barely ambulatory, even–I’ve been in the house when no one else is in the house. Hence: Breaking Bad season finale.
A good deal of digital ink (bits? bytes?) have been spent talking about the episode, but there’s a couple of things I want to discuss:
1. Bryan Cranston’s physical acting is extraordinary. Watch his stumbling, stuttering retreat from his house after retrieving enough money to bribe Saul’s secretary for Saul’s cell phone number. This is a man still not used to moving like a criminal. It’s a scream. If you remember Malcolm in the Middle, specifically the roller-rink episode, where he showed real grace, you realize just how burrowed-in Cranston is in Walter White’s character. In fact, I can’t really think of another television performance to compare it to (Dennis Franz’s hump-backed shrug in NYPD Blue, perhaps? Jon Hamm’s simmering stillness? Neither are called upon to do as much as Cranston). Maybe Michael C. Hall in Dexter… It reminds me of the level of performance Nick Nolte showed in Affliction or Sean Penn in Milk. I think it’s that good.
2. Gus’s Death: Lots of stuff swirling about this scene: Too much? Grotesque? Inadvertently comical? I say yes and no. Grotesque but not comical, I guess. But more importantly, no one has really dwelled on the two or three seconds before the reveal, when the door flies off the hinges and smoke rolls into nursing room corridor, followed by Gus, erect, shoulders back, adjusting his FUCKING TIE. Awesome. And if I may use this as an excuse to contextualize, I would say that this instance relates not only to the American Western Mythology of the showdown that BB loves, as well as the Biblical ideas tied up in Lazurus, Vengeance, and good old-fashioned Old Testament retribution, but to a lot of Dramatic Tropes inherent in Greek Myth and Drama. What is Gus if not Agamemnon–winning the Trojan War only to return home to a wife who has cuckolded him and a bath that ends in him getting axed in the skull by his wife’s lover. The expression on Gus’s face is grotesque, yes, but it’s more: it’s Fallen Pride. He seems to be wondering how such a careful, smart, strong, ruthless, untouchable man could be destroyed by two COMPLETE AND UTTER IDIOTS. Hubris is a bitch.
3. Sometimes I think Vince Gilligan’s need to constantly subvert audience expectations, to resist the predictable, becomes predictable. I guess I’m saying that I wished the neighbor lady bit it. It’s possible that this says more about me. Still, Gilligan’s said that when faced with a situation where there is a predictable solution, he tends to go the opposite way, and for the most part that’s enriched the possibilities of story and left enough loose threads to tie up later, which is a pleasure of the series for me. In the same way that we revisited Marie’s kleptomania and pathological lying (a subplot I thought the writer’s had abandoned), I feel like there’s a lot of story to tell. Anna Gunn did a lot this season with very little payoff (Skylar spent the last three episode locked in Hank’s house) and I look forward to seeing her ambivalence (and steel-spined resolve) played out. Breaking Bad does a better job with dramatic payoffs, thematic teases, and intentionally unanswered questions than Lost, and I was a real fan of the Lost finale…
4. Lily of the Valley: As far as I concerned, Hank meant to kill the little kid. I think Saul was in on it. An eagle-eyed commenter on EW.com mentioned that the documents Saul’s secretary was shredding were school schedules. It’s entirely (and scarily) possible that they managed to poison the kid’s lunch (I teach and wish security was tighter. Mostly, it’s not). Regardless, the kid probably won’t finger Walt, and Walt doesn’t seem to give a rip either way. Compare that to his reaction of the plane at the beginning of season three.
I truly believe we are living at a point in time when television has eclipsed stage and film as the predominant showcase for art and artists. There’s a lot of crap, but there always will be. If you take the top five shows–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Louie, Dexter, Game of Thrones, say–you still have ten or twelve other series that deserve mention (How I Met Your Mother, Homeland, American Horror Story, The Good Wife, Fringe, True Blood (kind of), Modern Family, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Nurse Jackie, etc.), which really hasn’t happened, ever. In addition, I think the cream of the television crop is better than the best film being released, with a few exceptions. I used to think that film was art and television was furniture, and while it’s entirely possible that my attitude has changed only because I have three kids and can’t get to the cinema, it seems like something more.
Walking Dead starts on Sunday. Can’t wait.