Saturday, April 12, 2014

what's wrong with the pacers

Alright, the NBA season is winding down and you want know whats going on with the seeming collapse of the Indiana Pacers.  Lets dive in and take a look at the number of things that can be pointed to as problems.
The issues for the Pacers may have begun as far back as the beginning of the season when they got off to the hottest start in the league.  During the first two months the Pacers lost only four games.  As impressive as that is, there may have been some things going on then that have contributed to their collapse.  The first is minutes management by the coaching staff. Largely as a result of the first two months of the season the Pacers starters have more minutes logged in games won by over twenty points than any other players in the entire league.  Yes, you can make the argument that logging those minutes earlier in the season should be easier, but those minutes take their toll no matter when they are played.  Also, they are totally unnecessary.  And now you see the Pacers just playing poorly and without energy, not executing crisply on defense and not doing basic things on offense like setting hard screens because they don't have the energy to hustle to spots and be physical with opposing players.  Think simply of the opposite of the Spurs where no player on THE ENTIRE TEAM  is averaging over thirty minutes per game.  It can't be a coincidence that they are playing their best ball at the end of the year as other teams sputter.
The other issue from the beginning of the season was simply success.  This is a young core of players that were thrust into the roles of superstars and elite players at their positions and guys ready for huge raises as their contracts end.  Paul George spent the first half of the season being anointed the best two way player in the league and superstar of a championship caliber team(Yes, I was one of those people doing that).  He simply hasn't handled it well.  On the court we have seen him devolve into an iso-ball player with a poor shot selection (but more on that later).  Off the court George has been even more of a disaster as the TMZ cameras and drama have been something that he has handled poorly in the media while clearly letting effect his focus on the basketball court.  The next guy I picked on at the beginning of this paragraph was Roy Hibbert.  Defensively, Hibbert is still a beast, but offensively he just spends most of his time on the block calling for the ball and not playing within the offensive scheme.  And then when he doesn't get it, he tends to not rotate to the opposite block or set screens.  He often just shrugs and whines like he's Dwyane Wade in transition defense and his teammates are refs.  And then there is Lance Stephenson.  I think Lance is awesome.  The rage he plays with is both terrifying and hilarious to watch.  Early in the season Lance seemed like he was on a mission to get the Most Improved Player Award renamed after him.  And playing that well with his contract coming to an end meant there was an endless amount of talk about how rich he would become over the summer.  But what do you know, in classic Lance fashion all the hype and praise went to his head.  The ferocity in his game turned into reckless insanity.  The ability to run the second unit turned into a lack of trust in his teammates.  The highlights that made him fun turned into showing off for potential suitors.  Sometimes getting off to the best start in franchise history is tough to handle.
Since the all-star break things have just gone wrong.  So what is happening now that all these past contributions caused?  Mostly all of the problems are on offense.  Offensively the Pacers have fallen off of a cliff.  While the Pacers have never been an elite offensive team, since the all-star break they have scored fewer points than any team in the league besides the 76ers (we'll say any team in the league period since the 76ers don't count as an NBA team).  Some of this is due to simple regression.  Paul George's shooting numbers we so great during the 2013 part of the season that if he had sustained that all year he would have been alongside Kevin Durant as the best offensive player in the world.  That's right, alongside, not even just behind.  I mentioned Stephenson's improvement earlier.  While it was certainly possible to see the two of them stay great, there was almost no way that level of play could be sustained.  Sometimes regression happens.  But this is not just regression.  Stephenson is playing in a way that clearly shows he is more concerned with free agency than with helping his team win.  George on the other hand is just playing poorly.  His shot selection has been worse than usual.  He is not getting to the rim and when he has he has been worse than Ricky Rubio (aka worst in the league) finishing there.  He is shooting less threes also.  All of this tends to lead to more midrange shots.  And while George is a good midrange shooter, that shot is the least efficient one on the court.  A lot of this could be cured if George just took one step back when he doesn't have the ball.  He has started lurking just inside the three point line which not only changes his efficiency but also puts him one step closer to defenders trying to close out on him when he gets the ball.  The Pacers may have the best defense in the league, but when your offense is just not executing and coaches aren't correcting simple mistakes like telling players to move one step in any direction, it is just hard to win games.  
Then there are the new players who have been added.  I'll hit this quick.  Danny Granger was traded to the 76ers for Evan Turner.  Granger wasn't exactly filling up the stat sheet, but his teammates love him.  Taking that away and adding Turner whom the Pacers seem to be apathetic towards at best and is also playing poorly has just hurt.  And then there is Andrew Bynum.  After the end of his tenure in LA when he tried to break J.J. Berea in half, his year spent bowling in Philadelphia with a hairdo that defies logic (this is worth googling I promise), his time refusing to practice in Cleveland, the thirty seconds he spent in Chicago, and his stint in Indiana while the Pacers have fallen apart, it may be safe to say that Andrew Bynum is THE WORST TEAMMATE IN THE HISTORY OF SPORTS!!!!!!
Look, this has been going on way too long to be nothing.  We are way beyond the small sample size argument.  The Pacers have problems that a real and could lead to an early exit from the playoffs.  But their problems are fixable.  Also, there is evidence that says we shouldn't worry too much.  Fivethirtyeight did a piece Friday in preparation for the Heat-Pacers game about late season swoons effecting teams in the top seeds of a conference.  I encourage you to read it.  If you don't have time the cliff notes are that there doesn't seem to be much effect.  Teams with late season swoons often still make deep runs.  So who knows, maybe nothing is wrong.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Breaking Bad Granite State Recap

tv:  Last weeks episode of Breaking Bad was all about consequences.  It was the consequences of Walt's actions over the last five seasons played out in action.  Hank was shot.  His money was stolen.  He and Skylar had their final confrontation that cut the family to shreds with a knife.  Jesse was forced to live out his life in some sort of meth cooking hostage purgatory.  It was all of what was coming to pass for Walt and those around him as a result of all his horrible acts played out in the worst possible ways.  In Granite State, we were given a different kind of consequence.  We were given emotional consequence.  Gone was the horrifying gut wrenching fights and shootings and kidnappings and in their place were nothing but the faces of those beaten down characters left to stare down the wreckage and wonder how they would go on.
The episode begins with our introduction to the vacuum cleaning company.  While he may not be in any imminent danger, Saul is there to get out of town before it is too late.  This is a wonderful end for Saul who had been saying since the end of season four that it was time to run.  And now he has the right idea.  Just go.  But before he leaves he has to spend a couple of days with his former client.  Walt is still scheming and plotting to kill Jack and Todd and the rest of their family, still clearly in denial of the end of his criminal enterprises.  And even as Saul pleads with him to just give up and leave he refuses.  He even thinks at one point Saul should come with him!  But with a cough that weakens him to his knees he relents and lets Saul go to his Cinnabon future in Nebraska.
The episode picks up with Marie and Skylar facing their own aftermaths.  Marie is being driven home by a DEA detail.  The plot of the scene is centered around the fact that Jack stole Jesse's confession DVD from Marie's house in order to see if the DEA knows about them but the real point is the scene in the car.  It is just silence with the camera as tight on Marie's face as possible.  And as she stares out the windshield all the is on her face is devastation; over the sadness of what happened to her husband and the devastation over the irreparable damage that was done to her's and her sisters family.  Meanwhile Skylar is lost, staring into space as Lawyers are trying to get her to tell them something about the whereabouts of her husband.  That Skylar is telling them the truth when she says she doesn't know anything seems to be an impossibility to those questioning her.  And the blankness on her face as she listens to those around her, distant while she wonders how this became her life, replaying the wreckage, and accepting her fate, having to say over and over to those who will never believe her that she knows nothing about where Walt went should officially end all of the Skylar hate out there as she oozes sympathy and sadness.
From there we jump to our first moments with Mr. Lambert.  When the door opens on the truck and our vacuum cleaner, played with brilliant restraint by Robert Forester, welcomes Walt to his home he covers  his eyes to the blinding reflection off the snow.  I must admit that I live in a place that gets lots of snow during the winter and even I felt the need to shade my eyes after having adjusted to the stark heat of the New Mexico Desert.  Walt is told that he is not allowed to leave his new home for fear of being recognized.  But as soon as he is left to his own devices he dons the black hat and walks up to the road.  With a brutal cough he stares down the road and decides tomorrow would be better.  When the vacuum cleaner returns a month later Walt is frail, sick, and losing his sight.  And as he finds his new glasses with his beard and head of hair we seem him become the Mr. Lambert we have seen.  He is brought his chemo by a man who he pays fifty thousand dollars to do so.  And then he seems to get it.  He realizes that this is fate: a sick man that will die alone.  And in a moment of desperation pays ten extra thousand dollars to have him stay for an hour.  Desperation is no longer a plan to fight enemies.  It is a plea to not be miserable.  Walt's final blow to his hope is when he asks if his money will be taken back to his family when he dies.  The answer is blunt no from the man who is feeding him his treatment and playing cards with him because he was payed to act like a friend.
There is not enough that can be said about Bryan Cranston in the scenes in Vermont.  While the superlatives are running out for how great he has been throughout Breaking Bad, watching him transform over the course of those scenes from the man we knew to a broken and ruined and sick man were just beautiful.  And while there has been plenty said of Cranston's brilliance as Walt, I feel like with so little time left to talk about it, finding standout moments to mention should be relished and talked about.  He is and will forever be on the Mount Rushmore of TV actors.
Once Walt settled in for a slow and sad end to his story, Jesse was turned to.  And of course his moment was maybe the worst.  Jesse was still fighting, trying to find an escape from Jack and Todd.  What he gets for his trouble is a batch of meth good enough that he is expected to stay a captive as long as there is material to use for cooking along with his punishment for an attempted escape.  That punishment was to was Andrea get unceremoniously killed.  There was no sound of the gun, no close up, no tears, and only same charm from Todd there always is.  The loudest thing in that scene was Jesse's head banging against the car door window.  And while it may not have been as bloody or internet-rage-inducing as something like the Red Wedding, it was at least as swift and brutal if not more so.  Just a quiet puff of red from the distance.
The episode ends with Walt taking what we think will be his final step towards contrition before he dies.  When he wakes up to find out he has become so frail his wedding ring won't even stay on his finger anymore he packs the only box he has left with money to send back to his family and finally leaves the reservation.  He doesn't care, he's dying.  He smartly addresses it to Lewis, Flynn's bff and calls to let Flynn know that it is coming.  Instead of the thanks Walt was expecting for the money and the hope from his son that he was OK, all he gets is "You're an asshole!" and "Go to hell!"  After a brief fight for the idea that what he is doing is right, Walt gives up.  And in a season full of phone calls he makes a last one.  He calls the DEA to turn himself in.  While waiting for his escort back to Alberquerque he decides to have a drink and watch some TV.  Big mistake.  Walt comes across an interview with his former Grey Matter partners about their association with him.  They explain that Walt contributed very little to the company besides its name, which we know is a lie from that arc back in the first season where Walt is pushed out of the company despite the fact that his research was the basis for their work.  They also talk about the fact that his blue meth is still being made.  This may have been the saddest moment of a very sad episode.  We have known for a while now that Walt would leave then eventually go back.  I always assumed that is would be because Walt gained some knowledge of a catastrophe that he had to go back to deal with.  But as we watched his face twist and tighten with hatred over what he was watching, we realize that it is something far worse and sad than that.  He is being driven back by the same thing that forced him to begin cooking meth in the first place.  After doing great work in his field, then chemistry and now drug manufacturing, he is now being forced to sit around and watch people belittle his talent and take credit for his work.  And that resentment towards those doing it and the ego to prove them wrong drives him back home.  Not the need to save Jesse or settle a score with Todd and Jack, but his ego and insecurities.  Maybe he is still the same pathetic guy he was in the beginning.  And in that moment we see what was said on TV.  We watched Walter White die.  And Now only Heisenberg is left to head back home to meet his own end.
And now we come to it.  The final episode of this great show is airing Sunday.  Predictions are flying everywhere about who will live and who will die.  I am willing to admit that I have no clue.  But there are two things we know that have to play into our expectations.  The first is our villains.  While Gus Fring may have been the best and most interesting villain on the show, no one has been as ruthless as Todd and Jack.  Between them and Lydia, whose concerns about Skylar should not be taken lightly after the nine man hit she put out in the Madrigal episode to keep herself out of jail, we know that these are people ready and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they're the last ones standing.  The second is that Vince Gilligan has spent the season setting us up for this by showing us eight of the most emotionally difficult hours of television we've ever seen.  The question of who dies and who lives may not even be important since based on what we've seen we know that it is just going to be awful to watch.  So sit back, relax and brace yourselves for the end of one of the best shows ever made.  Oh, and call your therapist.  You will probably need them.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Breaking Bad Ozymandias Recap

tv:  Staring out into the New Mexico dessert, empty and desolate, we see a stationary RV fade into view.  And inside is the beginning of the long journey we are now at the end of.  The bubbling beaker, the science experiment that started it all and the two men who conduct that experiment.  Walt explaining in detail the science behind what they are doing.  As they step outside for a break, one of them, Walter White, walks away to make a phone call.  We see him practicing his lines.  Working out the first lie.  At that time he needed to practice.  Over the course of that phone call, through the lies he tells, we see the most tender version of the White family we have seen through the entire show.  As they discuss pizza and Ebay and work and the name of their new daughter with love.  It was the very first lie.  After Walt hangs up the phone, that scene fades away, back into the dessert.  And so did everything from it.  The science is now gone.  Any love that may have been there is gone.  The nerves are gone.  And all that remains is what Heisenberg has left in his wake.
Breaking Bad is in itself a science experiment.  The meticulous detailed nature with which Vince Gilligan has told his story is like watching science unfold.  You are presented with something that can happen.  Then you see logical steps that are required for it to unfold.  That could be said of both episodes and of the series as a whole.  No stone is left unturned and everything is there for a reason.  But as the plain dessert returns and the new scene fades into view, we see something very horrifying.  What if science was tossed away?  What if the experiment was governed by the man Walter White became after that phone call; a man driven by insecurity and ego, a man who believed he could make the experiment yield the results he wanted to simply because he said so.  Chances are the results of that experiment would not produce the results one sought.
The results of the Breaking Bad experiment were played out to the most terrifying ends in Ozymandias.  Our new scene that faded into view was a familiar one.  It was the end of the shootout that ended last weeks episode, To'hajiilee.  From there the episode plays out as our worst fears coming true.  Hank is wounded and staring his fate down bravely as a gun is pointed at his head with Gomie lying dead next to him.  Walt continues to fight for Hank's life, offering up even his 80 million that is buried under their feet.  But finally Hank gives Walt the harsh truth he was needing:  "You're the smartest guy I know.  How can you not see he made up his mind ten minutes ago?"  Hank seems to realize that Walt can't just make things work out the way he wants because he says so.  And as Hank falls to the ground with the life having left him, Walt seems to do the same.  Lying there it appears that all of his power, all of Heisenberg is leaving him and he is going to be left there to suffer in a pathetic state similar to the one we met him in five years ago when he found out about his cancer as a broke teacher.  But as Todd and his family are taking their money and doing their cleanup work, Walt seems drag back to life as Heisenberg fights his way back into his being.  And as the pain leaves, the hate re-appears forcing him to commit yet another unthinkable act.
He turns Jesse in.  Seeing him under the car Walt gives him up.  He wants the job he paid for to be done.  But Todd decides it would be better to find out what Jesse told Hank.  Jesse clearly knows his fate.  The fear that sets is on Aaron Paul's face is heart breaking as his character gets offered up to the most viscous of men.  But before they leave Walt decides he has one more favor to return to Jesse.  And in one of the show's greatest callbacks he tells Jesse in gruesome detail about how he watched Jane die.  One good spit in the face deserves another I guess.
As if all of this weren't enough emotional terror to put a viewer through in one hour, after those opening fifteen minutes (fifteen minutes!) it only got worse.  And this is the point at which I have to stop describing every scene as if there is subtext.  The horror is just played out for all of us to suffer through.  Marie goes to the car wash to tell Skylar that Walt has been captured and to force her to tell Flynn (I'm pretty sure he is never going by Walt Jr. ever again.).  The pain and disbelief that burst out of R.J. Mitte was spectacular.  Throughout the series he has not always been given a lot to do.  But this season he has, and he delivered at every turn, showing real versatility.
We get a brief respite from the pain, grief and terror of the White's to see Jesse beaten, getting chained to the ceiling as he stares with tear filled eyes at picture of Andrea and Brock as Todd walks and says "Lets cook", as pleasant as ever.  But we quickly return to the White's who are now back at home.  Skylar and Flynn come home to find Walt packing for an imminent departure.  But as the truth of why he is not in jail as they had been told by Marie becomes revealed and things quickly boil over.
The shot was so simple and beautiful.  Would she go for the knife or the phone?  And Skylar went for the knife.  And then I actually had to get up and leave.  I was literally shaking!  And I couldn't stop!  I have to say it only helped a little.  Just the noise of that fight was enough to keep me at my wit's ends.  But then Flynn saved his mom, along with my emotional state.  And just as we thought all possible awful acts had been exhausted Walt kidnaps his own daughter!
Then comes the phone call.  Walt calls Skylar.  When he is told by a very generous pause that the police are listening in, he begins his final lie.  And with all the bile of Heisenberg at his worst he rips Skylar apart, and in the process exonerates her.  It was a gut wrenching scene that ended one of the most gut wrenching episodes of television ever.  Watching Bryan Cranston thunder away so abusively was just horrifying.  Watching him do it with the pauses to correct his lies mid-sentence and the tears running down his face was otherworldly.  And then just like that, after leaving Holly behind for her mother, Walt leaves.  We all knew the trip to New Hampshire was coming but what a relief it was to get there the end of that hour.
As I said earlier, Breaking Bad plays out like the science experiments cooked up in that beat up RV.  But unlike those, in which the outcome is the spectacular blue that prints green, the shows experiment didn't end so well.  Let me reiterate after that understatement that I almost had a nervous breakdown during a scene that is described as the most horrifying five words possible:  HUSBAND AND WIFE KNIFE FIGHT!!!  And that was because the shows main character didn't treat the lives of his fellow characters or the plot of his life with the same respect he treated a cook of meth.  And in this episode we saw the outcome.  And it was carried out mercilessly in one brutal hour(the most brutal hour).  The results of Walt's life as Vince Gilligan's little science experiment?  Well, I'll let Percy Shelley tell you:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Breaking Bad To'hajiilee Recap

tv:  And here we are.  Its time to set aside the meanings beneath the surface, push away from our minds the significance of camera angles, and let go all the thoughts of what will be.  Its time to just relish in the fifth episode of this part of season five: To'hajiilee.  This was a significant episode four two reasons.  One was that it marked the passing of the halfway point of the final eight episodes, thus making viewers believe that we would begin to careen off a cliff towards the end of the series.  The second reason was that this was Michelle Maclaren's, the best of Breaking Bad's fantastic directors, final episode.  This recap may read as a love letter to Maclaren, but I'm OK with that.  This was certainly her masterpiece.
The first half of the episode was an actually lighter version of Breaking Bad.  With the teaser being almost cute.  Despite the tension of the other side of the phone call that ended last weeks episode, where Walt puts a hit on Jesse using Todd and his Nazi family to carry it out, the lasting image of scene will be Todd and Lydia sitting at the table as Sherrie played on the radio.  Not since last seeing the Lannisters have I been lightened by a scene about a crush between such terrible people.  And it really was the radio that made it.  Usually those are moments for love songs to swell in the soundtrack.  But just having it play in the background actually on the radio almost took you out of the setting they were actually in, until you realized that they were flirting by talking about meth.
From there the episode continued its slower pace.  We got to see Hank and Jesse and Gomez continuing their investigation of Walt.  Their quest: to find his money.  And what better way to do that than question Huell.  The fun in watching Hank not even hide the fact that he is just outright lying to him was great.  He knew this wasn't Heisenberg, no subtlety was needed.  And Huell responded perfectly in turn, giving Hank everything he needed to keep looking for Walt's money without a thought of questioning the good police officer.  It has been said in recent episodes that some of Hank's lying might be blurring some lines.  But this was not about good and bad.  This was just about getting another hilarious moment with Huell amid all the darkness in these characters lives.
We got one more fun moment.  Watching Skylar and Flynn at the car wash as she was training him and letting him work was delightful.  Not only was Flynn's interaction with Saul priceless as he stared at "the guy on the billboard" like he was a rock star, but watching he and Skylar interact may be the first time since, well I don't know when, that we got to witness the White's as a loving family where there were no secrets being kept or ulterior motives on display.
And then the phone call came.  The engine roared.  And the trademark tension of Maclaren's episodes kicked into full gear.  With Walt racing towards his trap in the desert to save his money, the noise of his engine was almost deafening.  In an episode with no music and only light conversation it was enough to jar you into remembering what show you were really watching.  And as hearts raced almost as fast as Walt's car while blowing red lights as he tried to save his empire, there couldn't have been another second of that scene that was bearable.  And then he arrived.
He turned off the car.  And we were enveloped by the desert.  And we were back into silence with nothing but the sound of Walt's dusty footsteps as he surveyed the setting of his imminent demise.  Suddenly I missed the sound of that car engine.  Anything would have been better than nothing.  If screaming would have helped I would have.  But then things just would have gone silent again when I ran out of breath.
Hiding behind a rock watching his enemies arrive, Walt calls Todd to tell him where to go to find Jesse.  And then he stops as both of his weaknesses have been exploited.  His greed got him into this mess and his family is going to keep him there as he sees Hank get out of the car and call off the hit.  As Walt sighs realizing his defeat, the camera pulls in, giving us a look at the face we have grown to fear now just allowing itself to sadly face defeat(Bryan Cranston got the role of Walt because of an episode of the X-Files that Vince Gilligan wrote.  He played an anti-Semite who would die if he didn't keep heading west.  Gilligan said it was Cranston's ability to make such a despicable man sympathetic that got him the role of Walt.  And in that moment I understood.  I have called Walt the devil as much as anyone, but in that moment I felt bad for him.  Like, I wanted to cry feeling bad.).  Walt then gives himself up, quietly walking to Hank with his hands in the air.  He says nothing.  Just gets up and walks.
I was hoping to be happy for Hank when he got his moment, when he finally won.  But it was just so hard.  I started thinking about how far outside the law he had gone to capture Walt.  I saw the smiles on Jesse's and Gomez's faces.  I watched as Hank was given the honor of reading Walt his rights.  And proud of Hank as you could be, there was no way it could be that simple.  And then the final stroke fell as Hank called Marie.  Their conversation about Hank's victory and how things would get better could be seen as heavy-handed by some, but it was necessary.  And also the final blow that let us all know that things were not actually going to get better.
I don't think it is quite fair to try and rehash the brutal intensity of the gun fight in the desert that capped off what has been a western of a season.  So let's take a moment to talk about Maclaren.  She has been responsible for some the show's best and most tense moments.  She directed One Minute, giving us the shootout in the parking lot between Hank and the twins.  She directed a personal favorite, Madrigal in season five, which gave me two of my favorite moments of the entire series.  Watching the introduction that told the story of the death of Her Schueler was one of the most spellbinding mini-stories I have ever seen on television.  That was also the episode where we met Lydia, and Laura Frazier pleaded not for her life but for her child to find her dead body so that she knew her mom wasn't a deadbeat that left.  Maclaren's other 2012 credit was for the mid-season finale Gliding Over All, featuring prison murders and the immortal Crystal Blue Persuasion montage and the Hank on the toilet learning about Walt moment.  This year she already directed the second episode which featured the fight between Marie and Skylar, a scene that was both so intense and frightening that I almost had to walk away.
And now that we see what moments she has already provided for the show it is no wonder that Maclaren was given this as her final episode.  And what a more fitting way for her to walk out than with that ending.  As the bullets flew, leaving us no idea of who lived or died, just with our hearts racing and our lungs reaching for breath, the master of the most intense show on television's most intense moments walked away.  I have no doubt that Rian Johnson will be more than capable of picking up the rest of that scene in the next episode and taking us further towards whatever Mr. Lambert has in store in his return to Albuquerque.  But watching To'hajiilee was the perfect beginning of the end as we didn't careen off that cliff I alluded to earlier.  Instead Maclaren hung us off that cliff and then just let a tidal wave hit it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Breaking Bad: Rabid Dog

tv:  After the freak out inducing end of last weeks episode of Breaking Bad, we all wanted to know what was going to become of Jesse's gasoline rampage.  This weeks episode, Rabid Dog, did not disappoint.  Starting right where we left off last week Walt pulled up to his house to see the car that Jesse left askew in his driveway.  Gun in hand, Walt enters his gasoline soaked house.  Silence.  And as the droning music rises with a beat slower than the beat of the racing hearts watching the scene we get three words:  "Jesse, show yourself!"  But no one is revealed to Walt.
The episode then begins with Walt, with no success, trying to pay a cleaning crew to get the gas out of his carpets.  The money isn't the problem, the gas just won't come out.  And the scheme begins.  We watch Walt's actions as he douses various belongings, his clothes and his car in gas.  The trap has been set.  Skylar returns from a shopping trip with her husband ready to begin his lies.  But unlike last week when Walt produced his greatest lie on tape for his brother-in-law, no one was buying it.  Flynn immediately attributes his gas pump malfunction story to his cancer and the fact that Walt, with all his pride, didn't want to admit that he passed out again (another lie).  Skylar goes right along with Walt's story.  They decide to relocate to a hotel because of the gas and for Walt, of course, because of the one who put it there.
Once at the hotel, under the ruse of going for ice, Walt holds a meeting with Saul.  With Jesse still out there and his whereabouts unknown, Saul suggests that Jesse be dealt with like Old Yeller.  And Walt reacts with by saying that that would never be an option, a reaction Old Yeller's owners surely had before facing their situation truthfully.  But Walt doesn't yet see it that way.  He is going to hold on to those lies he tells himself, as well as the ones he told everyone else, for as long as he can.  And when he returns to his room he is forced to hold on them as tight as he can.  His ice story doesn't fly.  Skylar, drunk and in bed, stares down the husband that just last season terrorized her in this very scenario by screaming at her to tell him her plan to stop him, and tells him she knows all his lies.
It was amazing to see this seen play out.  In seasons past Walter would have terrorized his wife.  Or come up with a plan or simply stated something so bold and crazy that Skylar would have realized she doesn't need two hands to count people who knock on doors.  But now, with Jesse missing, he simply shrinks under her accusations.  And finally, just shrugs and lies to himself.  He talks himself into believing that Jesse stopped because of their friendship.  He talks about how Jesse is a good kid who is just emotional.  And he is the only one buying what he is selling now.
And in one final act of defiance Skylar suggests that Walt kill Jesse.  Because if he were being honest, why not?  He's done it before for worse reasons than someone threatening to burn his house down.  But Walt will just not hear this.  Meanwhile, all anyone (both in the show and out of it) wants to know is where's Jesse?
Jesse kicks the door down and we get a replay of the end of last weeks episode.  But we quickly get the answer as fast as all the others have been coming this season.  Hank walks in and talks Jesse off the ledge.  He answers to Jesse's plea that Mr. White has to pay for what he has done.  And off they go to the one place in the world Jesse never thought he'd be crashing.  Not the Enterprise where pie eating contests occur regularly, but Hank's home.  Marie returns home to find her husband has packed a bag so that she doesn't have to deal with their new house guest.  But after witnessing Marie's most recent therapy session, where we watch her talk out in code her feelings about Walt, we know she isn't going anywhere if the person in her guest room can help hurt Walt.  It must be noted (I am probably going to gush over the cast every week.  That's not what I'm noting) how amazing Betsy Brandt was in that scene.  Watching jitter and sniffle on the edge of a knife balancing her anger and confusion and sadness and fear while discussing googling untraceable poisons was breathtaking.  Possibly even the best therapy session since Tony Soprano stopped going to see Dr. Melfi.
There was a real fun to watching Jesse wake up from his nap at Hank's house.  With the scene shot in very wide and long and deep sets and camera angles, there was an almost surreal sense to the mundanity Jesse had just awoke in the middle of that bordered on hilarious.  But just as his coffee is being delivered to him (in a DEA mug!  Cymbal crash!) the real world comes right back to him.  He sees the camera being set up.  And as the scene at Hank's house between he and Jesse and Gomez plays out, the truth pours out from Jesse.  He explains that he has no evidence of Walt's crimes.  And then he gives his own confession.  And based on the discussion that follows, it stuck closer to the true events than Walt's did.  And just to mirror the reactions of the two people Walt was stuck with all episode, we see Hank and Gomez agree that they believe Jesse.  People are believing him.  And before Jesse and his two new DEA agent friends decide to put there plan in motion to take down Walt, Jesse gives them the final truth:  "Mr. White, he's the Devil."
Once the final scene begins we are thrust back into the intensity we hadn't felt since Walt stormed his own home gun in hand at the beginning of the episode.  And as a wired Jesse approached his meeting with Walt, that swell and that bass returned.  And so did all the racing hearts.  And just like in the beginning, the conflict didn't happen.  Only this time, Jesse walked away with a threat and a plan to "get Mr. White where it will hurt most," and not the sad sack of lies we saw Walt concoct earlier.
This was an episode all about doubles.  The lies of Walt and the truths of Jesse.  Those new people who believe Jesse and those who have been with Walt longest who see right through him now.  The two confessions.  The thrilling beginning and end that both end with a phone call and a plan.  We see Walt's reaction to Jesse's threat of a plan.  He gets on the phone to call Todd and have his white supremacist family kill Jesse.  But even this felt like one last lie this time from Walt to us the viewer.  Because it has to be Walt that kills Jesse, it can't be anybody else.  Jesse never tells us his plan, but I believe he has one, and that its a good one.  He certainly at this point doesn't seem like a rabid dog anymore, no longer just looking to lash out in irrational rage.  He now looks like a dog looking to bite his abusive owner, and nobody else.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Breaking Bad: Confessions Recap

tv:  Fear is an interesting thing.  It is said that how we deal with it defines us.  But is what often meant by that is that how we deal with it is what separates strong people from weak people.  While there may be truth in the latter statement, it is more a combination of the two that is the most accurate.  How we deal with our fears is what both defines us and separates us.  But this has nothing to do with strength.  It is simply to be taken at face value.  Individually, our reactions to facing something that frightens us is a defining part of what separates us and defines a part of who we are.  And often our fears are different, making our reactions different.  If you fear fire, do you run towards the burning building or keep a safe distance?  If you fear an alien invasion, do you bust out the tin foil and go to work?
In the third episode of Breaking Bad's final season, Confessions, the fear of all of the characters was brought into focus.  The episode began with Todd retelling the story of the train heist in dead freight with both a fear and admiration for Walt, the mastermind behind what he called the biggest heist ever.  He also took care to leave Walt a voicemail about the shoot out in Phoenix and the change of management.  He just thought Walt would want to know, because well, you know.  Or not just, you know, but because Todd is still in firm belief that if his former boss doesn't know all the details there will be hell to pay, despite the fact that Walt is trying to live in a world where the word former still applies.  And just before the periodic table comes into view we see the very methlamine from the train heist, no doubt fatefully, heading back to Albuquerque.
Post teaser the episode picks up right where we left off last week.  Hank is getting his golden opportunity to swim instead of sink in his investigation of his brother-in law by interviewing Jesse.  Hank has totally reversed his feelings about Jesse.  Or at least he has gone from hating him to just not caring what happens to him.  His focus is on Walt.  He tells Jesse he has no interest in him and is just after the man known as Heisenberg.  At the sound of that name Jesse can't help but react.  And thus the dance begins as they trade knowing glances over the monster they both are dealing with.  Hank just wants him to be brought to justice.  Jesse just wants out of that cell.  He knows that even prison can't keep him safe from Walt's wrath.  But before any progress can be made Saul comes to Jesse's rescue and firmly reminds him that because of what Walt has become and what his rage can bring people, this is about as bad a situation can be.
Walt meanwhile is trying to deal with his sister-in-law.  After a pulse pounding attempt to take the kids out of his house in last weeks episode, Marie tries a more subtle approach.  But Walt is wise to the true meaning of computer problems and decides to keep his son at home.  He does so trough the guilt Junior feels over leaving his dad after being told that Walt's cancer has returned.  But evil as the Joker himself, Walt fits his story to his new situation.  I don't know if we will ever know what the truth is about his cancer.  I don't know if I need to.  Its use as just another tool in his manipulative box is more effective at this point.
Knowing that these acts to separate his family makes a bold move against Hank.  He makes a confession tape.  But first the Whites and Schraders meet for dinner.  Walt and Skylar look talk there way out of there troubles one least time in a scene tailor made for Breaking Bad.  As the tension ratchets to a breaking point it ends up being only broken by comedy relief and an offer of fresh guacamole that few besides these four could resist.  Hell, its made at your table!  But through it all Marie gets in her mata-commentary when she asks if Walt will kill himself.  "All of this will just end if you die," she pleads.  And isn't that just the truth.
And then we see The Confession.  A jarring retelling of the plot of the entire series in an alternate reality that plays itself as threat to every fiber of Hank's credibility as a good guy, portraying him as the mastermind behind all of Walt's evil doings.  The only thing more frightening than the fact that I can actually imagine a show of what Walt confesses is the performance itself.  We have seen actors act within acting before, playing a person pretending to be something they are not.  And while I don't doubt the difficulty of that type of performance or the imagination it takes, there is always one defining characteristic.  You can always tell the character is acting.  What made Bryan Cranston's performance during his confession so jarring was that he seemed to decide not play it as if acting.  He played it as if this was the story that he had actually been telling for five years and the one his character's foundation was built upon.  And while I doubt there is anyone who will doubt Cranston's ability as actor, it was that decision that made the performance so jarring, terrifying, and sociopathic.
  Walt's confession is followed by a meeting in the dessert to to assess the damage of Jesse's being interviewed by Hank.  Once Walt has heard everything he decides to advise Jesse.  He puts on the fatherly hat and asks Jesse to call Saul's carpet cleaner and leave and start anew.  But instead of Jesse just accepting Walt's manipulation quietly he fires back.  Jesse asks him to just ask that this favor be done for Walt's own good.  And then throws the final dagger by showing that he knows that this meeting is in its chosen location so that if he refuses Walt will kill him "like he killed Mike".  And finally Heisenberg is speechless.
The episodes strongest symbol of fear happened in the following scene as Walt returned to his carwash.  He finds Skylar in their office clearly grappling with the morality of The Confession.  Hidden in shadows, Walt is allowed to embody his wife's fears about whether or not the right decision was made and the monster behind that decision.  The entire scene is shot from Skylar's height.  From her point of view she is looking up at the shadow and specter of evil looming over her.  When the discussion is shown from Walt's point of view he appears as a shadow hovering above her.  But always just a shadow.  The dark presence he as so totally become.
From there the episodes breath taking final sequence begins as Jesse prepares to get lost for good.  Sitting in Saul's office as he is reminded as the call is made for the vacuum cleaner to come and suck away the dirt and wipe clean the slate for Jesse's new life (I know, but those were just too easy.)  Saul tells Jesse there are no take backs, revisiting a familiar theme most commonly known through the titles of the third seasons final two episodes.  In this world you cannot go half measure.  You can only go to the full measure.  But as Jesse is getting to go, Saul's careful lifting of his weed lifts the vale off of something from his past.  He realizes now who stole the ricen cigarette and poisoned Brock.  And if there is one thing we know about Jesse it is that he loves kids.  And while Walt has been complicit in some terrible things that have happened to kids, Jesse now knows he actually did something to a kid, and one he cared about on a personal level.  And as the episode steamrolled towards its final scene we saw Jesse snap out of it, and when he did the wheels came off the bus as he literally through gasoline on the growing fire that is the journey towards the end of this series.  He knows there are no take backs.  And with his decision to go after Walt for what he did to Brock it seems he has no interest in them anymore.
Confessions may end up being remembered as the finest episode of this last half season.  It seems that Vince Gilligan and the writing staff are bent on confounding our expectations and blowing up every "how's it going to end?" by pushing the pace of these final episodes and allowing the characters act as there own agents of destruction.  But more importantly it will be one of, if not this seasons finest episodes because it showed the the best of what it had to offer.  Walt acted as a Beacon of terror and fear at the center of everything that unfolded and we got to watch the rest of the characters react around him each in their own turn.  And the finest cast on television showed that they were up to the task.  And in doing so they showed that there characters strength was not defined by how they dealt with that fear.  But in dealing with it differently, their fear was part of what did define a piece of them and was just one more part of the separation between these compelling individuals.  Their fear, however, was rooted in the same evil.

Friday, August 16, 2013

breaking bad returns: blood money

tv:  As the light bulb turned on in Hank's mind while he did his business in the White household, we the viewer were left with more of a concern for how things were going to for Walter and his newly ended meth business than any sort of epiphany like what we had just watched.  In the first part of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad we had watched Walt descend completely into his evil alter-ego Heisenberg.  The hard and fast science that had governed his every decision, much like the show he was a character on, was replaced by a sheer ruthlessness and ego now driven by the little more than the belief that things would work because he said so.  Murder was becoming an even more regular part of the business and so was the bold nature of the acts he used to keep it going, be it a train robbery or a mass prison murder or the expansion to sales in the Czech Republic.  And despite Skylar finally getting through to her husband after many ill fated attempts by simply asking how much is enough for him to walk away in front of a near mountain of cash, that terror and ego were what we feared would be Walt's undoing now that Hank seemed to finally know his secret.  And with Jesse having also quit the business and Mike having "left town" for good, it seemed an almost more doomed fate for televisions most terrifying meth dealer.
The final installment of Breaking Bad began by dealing with one of last summers most talked about mysteries.  Our teaser began by picking up with Mr. Lambert after he left the diner with his new car and the arsenal in the trunk.  The arrival at what appears to be the former home of the White's affirms the fact that Walt, now as Mr. Lambert, is heading back to his old stomping grounds after some time away to take care of some unfinished business.  The terrified nature of poor Carol and the condition of the home, complete with Heisenberg graffiti, gives us a ton of information about what happens between now and then.  Walt has been outed as the villain he has become and his family, whether geographically or spiritually, is gone.  But it is Walt's purpose for returning to the house that is the real moment.  After a years worth of speculation about what the use of the ricen would be, we come to find out that even after things have gotten so bad that Walt had to run, it is still unused.  And thus the questions of true endgame have been given to the viewer.  Why is Walt back?  If getting away wasn't enough, then what is the true end of his story?  And of course, who the hell is he going to give the ricen to?
From their the story immediately jumps back to the moment of Hank's epiphany.  As Hank stumbles his way to the car for a quick exit, Vince Gilligan and his writers telegraphed the next few moments.  Well, mostly.  Hank was clearly headed for a stroke or panic attack.  But this is Breaking Bad.  And so a panic attack immediately becomes a fatal car crash due to a heart attack in the minds of the viewers.  Knowing what was to come, the mercy shown to Hank with a quick "oh everything is fine" was much appreciated.
As Hank begins his investigation into his brother in law, Walt spends his time getting faced with two truths.  One of which he seems ready to accept and one he seems blind to.  While working as a car wash manager for a second time in the show he is greeted by Lydia, our favorite up tight Madrigal employee who has become one of the show's best characters, not to mention being one whom the conspiracy theories swirl around.  While Walt's ego allows himself to push through her plea and maintain that walking away from being a drug dealer and manufacturer is as easy all of our favorite just say no slogans, he certainly doesn't seem shocked that his past is in need of a an occasional revisit.  And while Lydia is gone for now, the drop in quality of meth is sure to be a source of contention going forward since just saying no isn't always enough to get the temptress of drugs to go away forever.  Walt then is forced to once again revisit his past by going to try to talk Jesse out of giving away his five million dollars worth of exit money.  In a brilliant as always scene between these two we see Walt working as a master manipulator, trying to win an argument by any means necessary after dismissing a previous evil deed as himself doing just that.  But as we see Jesse put the pieces of the past (what we saw in the last two episodes of last summer) we realize that he is on to Walt.  And as the camera lingers on him one moment too long at the end of the scene we get the sense that he still isn't buying what Walt is selling.
Walt then heads home for the night.  Jesse on the other hand decides to give his blood money away in a different manner.  But before that he runs into a a homeless person and offers him some of his money, about a thousand dollars.  The suspicion that action is met with seems so base and fundamental and yet is said with just a look that it hit home.  This man knows that Jesse didn't get that money for doing nothing and fears the catch that will come with his taking it and the blood that that money will soon leave on his hands.  Frustrated by this notion Jesse does the sensible thing and begins the quest of throwing his five million, one thousand dollars at a time, out his car window as if it was the morning paper.
Just as this is all going on Walt decides to go have himself some alone time in the same place that his new adversary did, the master bathroom(by the way, what guest uses the master bathroom, come on Hank.).  He even has the same reading taste as he reaches for that old Walt Whitman book that we all know makes for the best bathroom reading.  After not being able to find his book, Walt begins to put the pieces together himself.  This is where the only crazy theory from me will come into play (really, I promise!).  Walt runs outside to check his car and finds a tracking device.  I can't help but believe that this is a bit of a mislead for Walt.  He believes it is Hank who put it there and thus decides to confront him.  But we as viewers saw such a detailed version of Hank's departure from Walt's house that we know it could not have been Hank.  Lydia, however, was at the car wash in a much more sparsely shown scene.  I refer to this as Walt looking into the Palantir(sorry, no Tolkien history in this piece.   If you don't know what I am talking about you will have to look it up).  He is shown an actual truth, that someone is watching him and keeping tabs on him, but the specifics he draws from that conclusion are doomed to falsehood and lead to a catastrophic choice of actions.
Those actions are shown in the final scene.  A scene that was easily one of the shows finest ever.  Walt goes to see Hank.  Walt asks how he is doing after the panic attack and decides to just leave.  Here is where Breaking Bad shows its true merit.  Having gotten Hank's temperature in terms of his suspicion, the show could easily have ended on Walt walking down the driveway with that devilish smirk.  And in those four extra minutes, the ultimate epiphany, much like Hank's at reading the inscription in the Whitman book, happens for the viewer.  How could they possibly jam as much story as we all thought they had to cover into just eight episodes?  The answer became simple.   Have Walt turn on a dime and ask a question his continuingly uncontrollable ego couldn't resist and force us into a moment that should have taken three episodes to get to.  I am not going to relive the gory details of this years most memorable television moment.  But suffice to say there was nothing as intense as seeing not only two of televisions best (I know I keep saying that but this whole cast goes in that category.  Its just true.) thunder away at each other in a moment that we had all spent five years waiting for.  And yet when it came upon us we all had to tread carefully for fear of a spell that would drive us off the road like we had just read the words of Whitman.
And here we are.  After an episode told with the speed of a methlamine carrying train (there damn fast right?),  we now know how everything can be done in a short eight hours.  Jesse is out, Walt is outed, and Lydia is trying to drag them all back in.  And somewhere in all of that is the reason Mr. Lambert must make his triumphant return to ABQ.  I am imagining some sort of combination of the two movies watched by their respective characters last season.  Walt going in a blaze of glory after we say hello to the little friends in his trunk.  Hank finally getting a criminal worthy of his skill as a detective and out of brotherly love getting that hand hold at the airport.  But of course I am probably wrong.  Vince Gilligan is smarter than me.  And he maybe has not shown it more than in Blood Money.