Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 4 – Part 2

31 Jul

Season 4

This is part two of a look at Breaking Bad, Season 4 – part 1 can be found here.

Gus completely owns episode 10, in which he takes Mike and Jesse down to Mexico.  Jesse shows how far he’s come when he impresses the arrogant Mexican cooks with his formula, and the big scene everybody remembers is Gus poisoning all the top brass of the cartel with tequila.  Gus bided his time and played the long game for his revenge for his partner’s death, but it certainly seemed to be sweet.  The chaotic scene in which everyone is dying from poison, outside of its plot relevance, is another brilliantly filmed set piece, of which there are so many on Breaking Bad.

I remember having more sympathy for Gus during my first viewing than I did in this rewatch.  Gus has his reasons, and there’s certainly moments when you feel good for him, such as when he has his long awaited revenge on the Don.  At the end of the day though, Gus is a villain.  He’s a great villain, and he’s hardly evil, but he’s far more bloodthirsty and calculating than Walter White.  This may explain why he’s successful, along with his lack of ego.  He doesn’t equivocate or think twice before deicing to kill; it’s not a major decision that needs to be hemmed and hawed over.  He doesn’t need a rationale.  He’s willing to and about to kill Hank, a DEA agent, before the events of the last couple of episodes.

Walt tries to convince Gus that he is steering away Hank from finding out about his meth empire however he can, and Gus has him place a tracker on his own car, to try to fool Hank.  When Walt can’t do any more to slow down the tenacious Hank, Gus, unfairly in my mind takes it out on Walt, and threatens to kill Hank (I’m not sure what Walt is actually supposed to do here to continue to prevent Hank from investigating).

Skyler is focused on both laundering money through the car wash and fixing up a situation that resulted from her cooking the books for Ted.  There are two particularly excellent scenes that come up from this plotline.  First, there’s Skyler appearing to be a ditzy mistress of Ted’s who knows nothing about accounting, convincing the IRS to drop criminal charges as long as Ted pays the IRS the money their due in time.  Second, there’s the scene in which Saul has his goons convince Ted to send Skyler’s check to the IRS, making sure that Ted keeps Huell happy, which offers some great tragicomedy.

This is all leads us to the huge big epic final episodes. In episode 11, Gus has Walt driven out to the desert, tells him he’s fired, and that he’s only not being killed because Jesse won’t allow it, but that Gus thinks he can change Jesse’s mind soon, and that Hank will die, and if Walt attempts to prevent it, Walt’s family will die.  Walt is back at full helplessness mode; end times seem near.  He tries to arrange with Saul to hire Saul’s witness-protection-on-crack-disappearing guy, but it turns out Skyler has used the money he needs to have Ted pay off the IRS, a case of poor timing if ever there was, and masterful plotting by the writers.  Walt’s hysterical laughter in the crawl space once he finds out that the money is gone is the most abject display of his desperation yet, and he starts off the next episode sitting outside his house by a pool, playing with his gun, and waiting for death to come.

Walt executes his master plan, poisoning Jesse’s girlfriend’s kid, convincing Jesse that it was Gus who is responsible, and getting Jesse to distract Gus.  Walt’s first plan to blow up Gus’s car doesn’t work when Gus senses something amiss (I’m still not sure how, and I’d love an explanation, this has always been something that didn’t quite work for me, but adds to a Gus-as-superhero mythos).  Next, Walt recruits Tio, and that plan is a success, leading to the memorable explosion, zombie Gus fixing his tie, and Walt’s declaration that, “I won.”

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is no longer about regular people the way the first couple of seasons are.  Everything is on a larger scale, and Walt is no longer a regular guy trying to sell meth to pay for his medical costs, and bumbling around doing so.  The season is a 13-episode long battle between Gus and Walt, both of whom are superheroes rather than regular people in the comic book world of Breaking Bad.  When Gus walks through a storm of bullets, and doesn’t get shot, Mike rationalizes that the gunmen don’t actually want to kill Gus, but the implication to me is that Gus is simply some kind of superhero.  Mike is as well – see the cold open where he pops out of the truck to take out several cartel men by himself.  Breaking Bad, if it ever did, no longer takes place in the real world, but in a type of comic book universe.

I say this not as an insult; the fourth season is a suburb season of television, but rather to simply describe the change in the show.  What makes it work so well is slightly different from the earlier seasons; there are fewer of the moments where we can directly relate to Walt and his family.  Still, the acting is top notch, the characters are all extremely well-built, and the tension and suspense packed into nearly every episode is second to no other television show.

The plotting of the fourth season is immaculate – setting up Skyler to have to pay off the IRS so that Walt wouldn’t have the money to make his family disappear is well-timed and properly set up so that it doesn’t feel forced or like a cheap cop out that disappearing is no longer an option.  Nearly every decision characters make on the show I believe, because it’s been set up either through specific events that have transpired, and by motivations we know the characters have.  When Gus succumbs to Walt’s plan, it’s preying on the weakness we know Gus possesses, his desire for revenge.  I’ve heard complaints that Gus would never keep Walt alive after the events of the third season, and while that’s a reasonable argument, I think the show does a very solid job of setting up why he wouldn’t kill Walt; he needs a chemist, and he can’t afford to not have the superlab running at just about all times, which was alluded to over the course of the third season.

Walt is trapped for much of the season, and he fights tooth and nail for a way out for him and his family, and finally he finds it, which leads to the natural fifth season question of, you win, then what next.  His entire fourth season was defined by Gus Fring, who is now out of the picture, and he’s on top, a position that seemed exceedingly unlikely until the moment it happened.

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End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 4 – Part 1

29 Jul

Season 4

A sense of helplessness and desperation pervades Breaking Bad’s fourth season.  Walter has temporarily staved off his, and Jesse’s, death, thanks to having Jesse shoot Gale, but he knows his days are numbered once Gus finds a new chemist, and he’s absolutely terrified.  Sure, he made some peace with living with seemingly terminal cancer before, but the ticking clock of cancer has nothing on the ticking clock of Gustavo Fring.  After making it through contemplative bottle episode The Fly and the end of the third season, Walt’s deep will to live and survive is renewed, and his terror is ongoing and present during the fourth season even when not at the fore.

Re-watching the season quickly was a significantly different experience than watching weekly; some parts really slowed down, and the end game, which I had remembered as lasting about four episodes only really lasted two.  It’s basically impossible to sustain the constantly abject hopelessness that the fourth season begins with for 13 episodes, fortunately for the viewer, so the tone comes out most continually in the first two and last two episodes of the season, but it’s felt throughout, and everything Walt says and does in the entire season is best viewed through this prism of outright desperation.

In case it wasn’t obvious that Gus was a man who means business and that Walt needed to be terrified of him, Gus slits his associate Victor’s throat in front of Walt in a first episode scene which occurs right where the third season left off.  It’s possible that this is punishment for Victor getting seen at the scene of the murder, but it has the added effect of showing Walt how serious he is; if he killed Victor only for this purpose then Gus is even more bloodthirsty and cutthroat than I realized.

Walt’s trying to figure out an approach to survival, and all he can think of at first are the obvious ones – killing Gus directly or getting Mike to help him out.  He buys a gun, and is foiled trying to go Gus’s house to simply walk in and shoot him.  After suggesting a plan to Mike to help get Walt in a room with Gus, Mike beats him up right in the bar where they’re meeting.  It’s a great scene, and Walt is foolish for making suggestions that he should know Mike is never going to accept.  However, I think Walt is hardly crazy.  Walt sees his own death as something that could be coming any day, any week, and he’s going to go down swinging.  While this approach shows off some Walt’s lesser qualities, it always displays one of his best; his tenacity.  One method fails; find another.  Get beat up in the process if that’s what it takes.

The immediate danger recedes after the second episode in what a way all immediate danger has to; one can only be on the absolute edge of anticipation for so long.  The feeling rather, then, settles into a dull numbness which lasts through the middle of the season, occasionally heightening after particularly frightening moments to let Walt and the audience know that he should be, and is, scared out of his mind.  The much-talked-about “I am the danger” scene is one of these moments.

A couple of incidents throughout the season show off Walt’s single biggest weakness, his ego.  What’s the point of being the best darn meth cook in the southwest if nobody knows it, and you can’t even show off your winnings.  Walt drunkenly muses that Gale’s probably not Heisenberg to Hank at a dinner party and he buys his son an expensive car, which he blows up, when his wife smartly makes him return it.  He can’t get the concept of behaving modestly in his head; someone needs to know what a great job he’s doing.  Jesse wants to be Walt’s ally, but Walt constantly mangles their relationship due to his ego and his poor social skills.  It’s extremely frustrating to watch him drive Jesse away over and over when if he would choose his words and expressions more carefully he could make his point without a fight.

Jesse begins his seasonal downward spiral in the first half of the season, the weight of shooting someone heavy on his conscience.  It’s a moral undertaking that Jesse is unequipped to bear; he doesn’t have Walt’s facility for easy rationalization.  Gus, using his talent, as we’re reminded he possesses, of reading people, sees a spark in Jesse.  Jesse’s far more malleable than Walt; with strong mentorship, Jesse has qualities that would make him a valuable asset, and might imbue with him a sense of loyalty towards whoever the mentor was.  Of course, none of this would have mattered a whit to Gus, who wanted Jesse dead, just a couple of weeks ago, if a relationship with Jesse didn’t also allow Gus to finally put the meddlesome Walt out of the picture.

Mike begins to mentor Jesse, without Jesse exactly realizing what’s going on, until Gus sets up a situation in which Jesse will either be killed, or come out triumphant with new confidence and purpose.  Walt confronts Jesse about the situation, suspecting far more presciently than he could have possibly known, that Gus staged the attack to pump up Jesse’s confidence and begin to drive Walt and Jesse apart.  However, Walt’s brilliant intuition is rendered useless due to the ham-handed way he discusses it, turning Jesse more against him than ever before.

Walt thinks of one more brilliant way to eliminate Gus.  He creates ricin, puts it in a cigarette, and convinces Jesse to look for an opportunity to put it in Gus’s food or drink whenever he has the chance.  Jesse’s reluctance and inability to do so quickly enough spurs Walt’s anger and frustration and drives the two apart.  Walt’s manner of complaining to Jesse is another example of Walt’s poor people skills.  It’s understandable why Walt is so frustrated; he thinks every opportunity Jesse misses increases the likelihood of Walt’s own impending death.  But he has trouble conveying this fear in a constructive way.

We enter what I call the Gus portion of the season, which lasts from approximately episodes 7 through 11.  For this brief span, Breaking Bad almost portrays Gus as the protagonist.  We learn some of Gus’s past, when his partner was killed by the Don and Hector “Tio” Salamanca, and his desire for revenge that has lasted decades; he returns to Tio’s nursing home to taunt Tio when his nephews die (side note: I think it’s ever so slightly cheap to allude to Gus’s mysterious past as the reason the Don doesn’t kill him and never come back to it – it’s not important enough to be a terrible omission but it’s worth mentioning).  We learn Gus’s weakness, which is his desire for revenge against Tio and the cartel.

Come back soon for part 2 of the Season 4 breakdown.

End of Season Report – Breaking Bad, Season 3

8 Jul

It's a cookbook!

The pivotal moment in the third season comes about halfway through when Walt makes his most serious attempt, at least until the current season, to quit the meth business.  Rewatching the season, he came even closer to leaving than I remembered. Looking back from the fourth and fifth seasons, his time in the super lab seems so inevitable, but it really wasn’t.  By the later seasons Walt has made peace with being the bad guy to some extent.  But in season three that’s still problematic for him.  He’s still out largely to make money for his family, even if that motive has comingled with his enjoyment of doing something that he’s good at and his ego-fueled refusal to know when to leave enough enough.  He takes concentrated stock of his life.  He didn’t imagine losing his family and isn’t happy about it.  Maybe he’s gone too far, he thinks, and maybe it’s time to put his family first. His marriage is looking to be in pretty awful shape with the revelation that Skyler fucked Ted, but Walt isn’t ready to give it up.

Jesse, who, unlike Walt, sees himself as the bad guy now, in the wake of Jane’s death, unsuccessfully tried to talk Walt into making more meth, and when that failed announced that he was planning to go forward with a solo venture.  That succeeded in making Walt furious. What right did Jesse have to make his product, Walt thought, but it wasn’t enough to make him reconsider.  Rather, getting Walt back to cooking took the deft convincing of chicken restaurant owner and drug kingpin Gustavo Fring.  In his persuasive oratory, Gus gives one of the most famous speeches of the series, and rightfully so, when he explains to Walt that “A man provides.” Gus is a studied master in the art of dealing with people, and in this speech he plays upon all of the personality aspects likely to convince Walt.  He speaks to Walt’s ego, and his desire to be the provider.  He gives Walt an out for being the villain.  All that matters is that he’s making money for his family, because that’s what a man does.  Who cares what other people think of him?  Who even cares what his family thinks of him now – he got in the business to leave something behind when he’s gone, and he needs to do it, whether they appreciate it or not.  After the speech, Walt is in, and he’s now all in.

Season three, like several Breaking Bad seasons, takes a while to get going.  The cousins are mysterious but are more responsible for a couple of the great vignettes that Breaking Bad is so good at putting together than for any actual plot.  They’re hardly characters themselves; their primary value is in how they affect the other characters, which doesn’t come until later in the season.

I’d like to put an end to the idea that Walt doesn’t care about Jesse, which I’ve heard so many times in the past couple of years in the wake of Walt becoming more hard-headed and full of himself.  I’m hardly calling Walt an altruistic saint, but what he does in the second to last episode of season three, he does at least partly because he cares for Jesse.  It’s easy to forget that Gus and Mike wanted to kill Jesse, and Walt basically tells them that he won’t work for them if they do.  He puts his ass on the line for Jesse.  Walt kills those two drug dealers because otherwise Jesse would have, and he shelters Jesse when Gus wants him dead.  Walt may ask a lot from Jesse to kill Gale, but it’s hardly unearned.

Famous bottle episode Fly, the tenth episode, marks the second major transition in the season.  The episode itself slows everything down for forty minutes.  It’s a look back before the final three episodes move forward at breakneck speeds.  The episode itself builds; the first few minutes are paced in such a way that you feel like Jesse, thinking who the hell cares about this stupid fly, but then, like Jesse, as Walt goes forward, you get involved.  Walt, and the show, use this moment to take stock and reflect on how far we’ve come in three seasons and what mistakes were made and how the original plan didn’t turn out exactly like it was supposed to.  By the time that Walt admits it’s not really about the fly anyway, as was pretty obvious from the beginning, it no longer really matters.

The last two episodes are riveting and in and of themselves worth the slow build of the season.  I challenge someone who hasn’t seen them before to find a chance to take a breath during either Half Measure or Full Measure.  It’s remarkable how quick the suspense is ratcheted up after the comedown of Fly.  The clock is ticking for Walt and Jesse after the events of Half Measure, where Walt kills two drug dealers to spare Jesse from doing it himself. The last episode is basically a race to figure out how in the world Jesse and Walt are going to make it through the next forty minutes of TV with their lives, considering Gus Fring is a much more serious enemy than any they’ve ever faced before.

Season three marks a transition between seasons two and four.  The show becomes less about little personal moments and more about broad strokes that are intricately plotted.  The scale is much bigger.  Walt and Jesse are no longer working out of a trailer, but instead are supplying meth to the entire southwest.  Some of the small, everyday moments from the earlier seasons are lost.  Walt is no longer a regular person with a small hobby, and his family is no longer a regular family.  After my rewatching, I have more understanding of people who choose the second season as their favorite than I did the first time I watched through. However, with the loss of the small comes the gain of the big.  Subtlety goes out the window but Breaking Bad also plays well on a much more epic scale.    Breaking Bad continually breaks out twists and turns that are never obvious but don’t feel forced either.  Character motivations are extremely well-handled; the decisions made by all the major characters which lead to the various predicaments make sense within the context of the show.  Gus and Mike come into play and both are hugely welcome additions to the show.  This is the big time now.  Walt and Jesse are no longer dealing with chump change and highly unstable drug dealers like Tuco.  Walt may make mistakes, but they’re because of his greater personal flaws, rather than because of his bumbling I-can’t-believe-I’m-dealing-with-violence-I’m-just-a-chemistry-teacher attitude.

I wouldn’t leave off a Breaking Bad review without a shout out to the sheer cinematic qualities of the show.  The technique is brilliant; there are beautiful set pieces.  Even scenes that seem irrelevant to the plot are beautifully filmed vignettes in their own right that tell their own micro story with style.  No show films better montages than Breaking Bad, and I’ll leave with the montage of Jesse’s friendly hooker friend Wendy, set incongruously to The Association’s “Windy.”

 

Re-watch: Season 2 of Breaking Bad

12 Apr

Jesse and Walt taking a break

Warning:  This post is about Season 2 of Breaking Bad.  I will not be revealing specific spoilers from later seasons but I will allude to them generally, so watch out if you’re not up to date.

I re-watched Season 2 of Breaking Bad recently with a friend watching it for the first time, and I appreciated it a lot more than I remembered appreciating it the first time through.  There were a couple of plotlines I had forgotten about completely, and a couple that occupied less or more time than I had thought.

In particular, I forgot what a different show Breaking Bad is in Season 2 than it becomes in Season 3 and especially in seasons 4 and 5.  Breaking Bad Season 2 is the show as its most human; the characters are still regular people, and not superheros with special meth-peddling, empire-building, abilities.  Season 4 of Breaking Bad was one of my favorite seasons of TV in a long time, and I’m really looking forward to watching the next couple of seasons all the way through a second time, but only after watching Season 2 again did I realize the starkness of the differences.

Season 4 has suburb pace and direction, and it’s a brilliantly plotted and stylized suspense movie with deep characters and themes, but the characters pop out of the real world as super characters who have special abilities regular people don’t.  Season 2 has at least some of all these characteristics of course, because it’s the same show at heart, but it’s much less densely plotted, and it’s much more about dealing with our characters as regular people.  Notable super characters Mike and Gus are not yet really present, and this is before the full transition to Heisenberg; Walt is still a science teacher and only a part-time druglord.  Walt still lives a more or less ordinary suburban nuclear home life.  Walt is uncertain; he lies constantly but he rarely acts on the reserves of power and ego that he builds up in the later seasons.  Only once, when he comes onto Skyler from behind when she’s in the kitchen, and Walt Jr is about to come home, does it really feel like he’s acting out his power fantasies and attempting to rise above the rules that apply to regular humans.  Other than that, even though he loves the way his can dominate the meth market in a way he could never the law-abiding science world, he’s much more committed to evasion than exercising his power.  He absolutely hates the idea of laundering his money through his son’s charity site in a way that doesn’t let them know the money is coming from him, but he eventually accedes.  Saul, while helping him and Jessie, who, he correctly notes, are terrible at dealing drugs, also acts as a cheap therapist occasionally where Walt, unafraid of being caught, can vent his frustrations before going back and lying in the real world.  Walt’s biggest god moment in the season is actually a moment of inactivity, when he lets Jesse’s blackmailing and methhead girlfriend Jane, choke on her own vomit and die.  It’s a stepping stone in the timeline of Walt’s comfort level with violence and his own power, but it signifies where Walt is at at the moment; the extent of his power is doing nothing.

Walt is less confident here in these early seasons.  He lies but he doesn’t really know how to do it yet, and he still cares whether Skyler believes it.  I forgot how quickly into the show Skyler didn’t quite trust Walt; it was the first great lie, the fugue state that Walt fakes after being kidnapped by Tuco in the second episode, that sets off her radar.  She very soon doesn’t buy the fugue state explanation, and the second cell phone gnaws and gnaws at her until it finally returns in the last episode when Walt, doped up before surgery, alludes to his having multiple phones.

I’ve said for years that the second episode of the second season was what really hooked me on the show (not that the earlier episodes weren’t excellent, but this was the confirmation to me that this show was really on to something).  It’s still brilliant,though the non-Walt and Jesse parts aren’t quite as good as the Walt and Jesse parts alone with Tuco and Tio, and his bell, in the desert.  Excellent segments I forgot about included Jesse’s attempt to “take care” of the methhead couple who robbed Skinny Pete, which is just a fantastic piece of film-making.  Breaking Bad also, as always, has the best montage sequences in television, managing to convey quickly ideas and plots which take days and weeks in stylistically elegant and informative ways, such as showing Badger, Skinny Pete, and Combo selling the blue meth and expanding their territory.

I can’t talk about this brilliant season of television without mentioning the one ploy that doesn’t work at all, the plane crash.  I’ve never met anyone who disagrees, and I don’t really want to waste time talking about the single bad part in an otherwise great season.  Still, it’s a shame it happens at the very end.  My theory, and I forget whether I’ve read anything that confirms, or at least informs this view, is that by the time the writers got to the end of the season, they realized that the plane crash didn’t work the way they had intended, but since they had committed themselves by having those occasional flash forwards from the first scene of the season, they felt like they had no choice, and could only minimize it’s relevancy.

Jesse gets a lot more real meat this season than he did in the first season, and we see how human and vulnerable he is.  Also, an underrated aspect of Walt that I think is not properly appreciated is on display.  Walt, for all his bluster, actually does care for Jesse.  He may have a strange way of doing it, and it may be locked up into his own selfish reasons, but he puts himself on the line several times for Jesse, including making sure Tuco doesn’t kill him early on.  When he asks Jesse to go to rehab, sure, it’s better for business, but I think he’s not wrong that it’s better for Jesse too.  I’m not sure if I’m in the majority or minority here, but I think Jesse running away with Jane would have been a drug-addled disaster.  I’m not sure if in the long run staying with Walt will be better for his health, but I don’t think the Jane option at that point would have been brilliant either.

If there’s a grand narrative to just the meth sales aspect of Breaking Bad, it’s the constant back and forth between Jesse and Walt trying to sell it themselves, and then failing for some reason, and then distributing through someone else, and having that not work for some reason, and repeat, as their production operations get bigger and bigger. This season, after Tuco’s death, is them really trying to do it themselves on a decent -sized scale the first time.

I couldn’t end this write up without another salute to the entrance of lawyer Saul Goodman. I didn’t initially realize he would be a frequently recurring character, but he was a fantastic addition to the show, giving Walter a reality check quickly, and adding some much-needed humor to a show that could easily be dragged down by overbearing seriousness and tension.  Humor is a sometimes underrated element of Breaking Bad; the show can be laugh out loud frequently funny, often by way of Saul or Jesse, and that helps the writers keep their feet to the pedal of the dramatic aspect of the show without it being overwhelming.

Lastly, I’ve always adored the passion and concern Walt exudes when telling his son and wife that their house has rot in the tenth episode of the season, “Over”.  I might be the only one, but I quote those lines over and over.

The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame: Jim Beaver

13 Mar

Jim Beaver

(The Zeljko Ivanek Hall of Fame is where we turn the spotlight on a television actor or actress, and it is named after their patron saint, Zeljko Ivanek)

Today we’re celebrating the television work of Jim Beaver, a character actor who has only become more prolific with age, first acting in the late ’70s, working more frequently in the late ’80s, and whose biggest roles have come largely in the last 10 years.

Beaver’s first work came in the late ’70s, appearing in tiny roles in TV movies Desperado and something called Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders starring Jane Seymour, as well as an uncredited appearance as “diner” in an episode of Dallas.  After another uncredited appearance in a TV movie called Girls of the White Orchard as “pedestrian,” he next appeared in a Jake and the Fatman episode in 1987.  He spent the end of the ’80s and 1990 making individual appearances in Matlock, Guns of Paradise, CBS Summer Playhouse, The Young Riders, Father Dowling Mysteries, and Midnight Caller, and TV movies Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake, Mothers, Daughters, and Lovers (that’s one title), Follow Your Heart, El Diablo, The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson (featuring a young Andre Braugher as Jackie Robinson), and Gunsmoke: To The Last Man.

He got his first multi-episode role on soap Santa Barbara as the wonderfully named character, “Andy the Rapist.”  He got his biggest role yet in two season odd couple cop drama Reasonable Doubts, which starred Marlee Matlin as a civil liberties-friendly District Attorney and Mark Harmon as an old-school cop.  Beaver appeared as Harmon’s friend and partner Detective Earl Gaddis in 14 episodes.  He showed up in another Gunsmoke movie, an episode of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and TV movie Children of the Dark before appearing again as a regular in two season ABC sitcom Thunder Alley.  Thunder Alley starred Ed Asner as a retired race car driver, and included in the cast a young Haley Joel Osment.  Beaver played Asner’s mentally challenged mechanic, Leland DuParte.

Beaver danced around TV for the rest of the ’90s, appearing in single episodes of Home Improvement, High Incident, Bone Chillers, NYPD Blue, Moloney, Murder One, Spy Game, Total Security, The Adventures of A.R.K. (I have no idea what some of these are), Melrose Place, Pensacola: Wings of Gold, The X-Files, and TV movies Divided by Hate and Mr. Murder (starring the great Stephen Baldwin).  He also appears as bar owner Happy Doug in seven episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun and in four episodes of long-running soap The Young and the Restless.

He recurred in one season David Krumholtz and Jon Cryer starrer The Trouble with Normal in 2000.  From 1996-2004, he appeared in 26 episodes of soap Days of Our Lives as Father Tim Jansen, the local pastor.  Next, there was more journeying around the world of TV appearing in single episodes of That ’70s Show, The Division, Star Trek: Enterprise, The West Wing, Philly, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Six Feet Under, Tremors, The Lyon’s Den (Rob Lowe’s ill-fated post The West Wing show), Monk, and Crossing Jordan.

Whitney Ellsworth

Beaver landed the biggest role of his career in 2004, as he was cast in David Milch’s Western masterpiece Deadwood as grizzled prospector Whitney Ellsworth.  Ellsworth was the rare truly honest man in Deadwood, and unlike a couple of the other honest characters, was liked by just about everyone in town.  He’s initially trusted to manage Alma Garrett’s gold claim, and works hard to manage her successful gold operation, fighting off various concerns who want to buy it.

Episodes of The Unit and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation were next, followed by the start of his second biggest role, appearing as a heavily recurring character in Supernatural.  At 54 appearances over the course of Supernatural’s nine seasons, Beaver has shown up in more episodes of the show than anyone except the two leads, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles.  He plays Bobby Singer, a blue collar demon hunter and old family friend of main characters Sam and Dean’s family.  Over the course of the show, Singer shows the boys countless tricks of the trade for dealing with the supernatural, and becomes a father figure to Sam and Dean.

Beaver was busy elsewhere while appearing on Supernatural.  He was in five episodes of the one season Taye Diggs led Daybreak, and in eight of one season David Milch far out HBO drama John From Cincinnati as Vietnam Joe, a pot grower who helps Mexican illegals cross the US border.  He was in three episodes of Big Love and one of Criminal Minds.  He was a main cast member in 2008-09 CBS 13 episode horror/thriller murder mystery miniseries Harper’s Island, playing the sheriff of the titular island, Charlie Mills.  The gimmick of the series, which sounds kind of zany and possibly worth further investigation, is that at least one character, and as many as five, are killed every episode.

Shelby Parlow

Next were single episodes of Psych, Law & Order: LA, The Mentalist, Lie to Me, and Love Bites.  Then, he appeared in two episodes of Breaking Bad, as gun dealer Lawson, selling Walter White guns in episodes Thirty-Eight Snub and fifth season premiere Live Free or Die.  He was in an episode of Dexter’s most recent seventh season, playing Dexter love interest Hannah McKay’s lousy dad, Clint.  He’s also played an important recurring role in Justified as now Harlan County Sheriff Shelby Parlow, appearing in almost every episode this season.  Keep up the good work, Jim Beaver.

Ranking the Shows That I Watch – 2012 edition: 3-1

25 Feb

We’re finally here at the end the ranking of shows I watched in 2012 – to see what qualifies, check out the intro here – 3, 2, and 1 are below.

3.  Game of Thrones

The seven houses

I kind of knew what Game of Thrones was before the show aired, but only the vaguest basics.  My friend had been touting it for years, but I kept putting it off and putting it off, and though I was excited for the show, I didn’t get around to reading the books before the show aired.  By the seventh episode, I was so obsessed with the show that I started the first book and finished them all that summer.  I would have read five more books pretty quickly if only they were available.  This is of course the TV show, and not the books, but with Game of Thrones, they’re somewhat intertwined; George R.R. Martin is involved with the show, writing an episode each year, and because the story is so complex, and is unfinished, there’s a limit to the amount the show can deviate from the books, as opposed to shows like The Walking Dead or Dexter.  While I haven’t agreed with all the changes from the books, some have been very smart, including the added screen time for Tywin Lannister, an important character in the book who does most of his work outside the main storylines, and particularly his pairing with Arya Stark.  The show, like the book, is a thought-provoking fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy. Instead of a stark (no pun intended) Lord of the Rings-like contrast of good versus evil, Game of Thrones is about shades of gray.  Who the heroes and antagonists are isn’t always clear, and with the exception of a couple of truly psychopathic characters, the antagonists also have believable motivations.  While at first I was disappointed by the fact that dragons actually existed in the world of Game of Thrones, I’ve now come to terms with it and have begun to appreciate George R.R. Martin’s very selective use of magic and traditional fantasy elements.  Rather than water down the book by having magic appear everywhere, its uses are uncommon and important.  Each episode is chock full of ruminations on the nature of power and justice and the right to rule, all tied up with well-crafted characters and psychological intrigue.  Characters are constantly playing each other, important characters die, and when big moments come they seem both surprising but not out of nowhere at the same time.  All of these factors make for extremely gripping television; I haven’t found someone yet who started Game of Thrones and didn’t really like it.

2.  Mad Men

Mad Men

For some reason, between the third and the fourth season of Mad Men, I had convinced myself that Mad Men was solid enough but that maybe it wasn’t so great.  Then, the fourth season came out, and I realized the show was fantastic and I was crazy to have ever thought that.  I did not make that mistake again in the long wait between the fourth and fifth seasons, and was rewarded with another excellent set of episodes.  I haven’t seen the other seasons again since finishing, but the fifth season might have been the best ever.  There was no one obvious best episode of the season like there was with the fourth season’s “The Suitcase” but that spoke to the strength of the season as there were several stand outs, including “Far Away Places,” “The Other Woman,” and “Commissions and Fees.”  Roger on LSD was a real treat and Roger has over the past couple of seasons become my favorite characters (I tend to love sharp tongued nihilists (see Jaime in Game of Thrones)).  I was extremely skeptical about Megan as a character from her relatively small role in the fourth season, but the dynamic between Megan and Don was one of the more interesting plotlines of the season.  Although new character Dawn was underused, other new character Michael  Ginsberg was a real winner, challenging Don in ways that Peggy never did.  We’ve seen Don challenged at his job by his own lack of interest, but we’ve never seen him challenged before now because he’s losing his touch generationally, a point driven home by the first ever use of a Beatles song, Tomorrow Never Knows, in a TV show, which famously cost a quarter million dollars but was fantastic. My minor qualm with this season was that I don’t see the point of including Betty plots that showcase how awful Betty is; to me Betty a couple of seasons ago became a cartoonish villain, and kind of let Don off the hook for all his cheating because she was so irritating.  I would have just cut Betty largely out of the show.  Still, every other character from Don to Megan to Roger to Peggy to Pete to Lane to Joan (Christina Hendricks work is masterful in “The Other Woman”) are firing on all cylinders.  I look forward to watching it again some day, and I can’t wait for the new season.

1.  Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

I’ll be honest.  I didn’t like the first half of season five as much as I did season four, and I seriously considered moving Breaking Bad down. It was essentially a tie, and I let Breaking Bad keep its place, much like Supreme Court decisions are upheld with a tie.  However, while it’s absolutely worth saying that I didn’t like this half season as much as the last, it’s still phenomenal TV.  Even minor decisions I disagree with are imbued with serious thought and care, and I appreciate that.  The brilliant filming technique was on display in episodes like “Dead Freight”, a heist episode which was far more action movie than I’d like Breaking Bad to be, but was still enjoyable due to the skillful cinematography.  If season 4 turned recurring character Gus into a break out main character, season 5 did the same for Mike.  Jonathan Banks perfected Mike’s blend of an incredible level of competence, been-there-seen-that skepticism and eternal calm.  Walt was interesting too, figuring out how to proceed as the winner, rather than under the gun, and though he certainly became in some ways more evil, I actually didn’t entirely hate him, compared to many other viewers.  No show keeps as many possible scenarios going forward, all of which are plausible, leading to the best form of unpredictability. Breaking Bad does as good a job as any show on tv of leaving lots of different strands in the air, only a few of which actually need to be answered to avoid the feeling of pulling a Lost (leaving important questions unanswered) (ie. the ricin cigarette; not coming back to that again would be unacceptable).  Little scenes which may not be entirely central to the plot work as brilliant vignettes in and of themselves, such as the opening to “Madrical” in which a German executive kills himself with a defibrilator is a fantastically nifty bit of filmmaking.  Like any show, of course, I have minor qualms; I thought the resolution to the situation at the end of “Dead Freight” was a bit of a cop out, and new character Lydia has some issues.  Still, this is compelling TV at its best every week, with wonderful characters and beautiful scenes, and though I’m often scared to watch what will happen in each episode, once it finishes I often want to go back and watch again.

Ranking the Shows I Watch – 1: Breaking Bad

29 Nov

Note:  I know I haven’t put explicit spoiler alerts on these entries for the most part, but I’ll make the extra point that everyone should go out and watch Breaking Bad.  I’ve inserted a SPOILER ALERT for the biggest spoiler, but if you don’t want to know anything about the show, watch before reading any further.  And do watch.

Oh, where to start.  There are so many things I love about this show that I’ll have to limit myself to only talking about some of them.  First, I’d like to note that this show has improved every single season it’s been on the air.  I’ve talked with people who have only seen the first season and who aren’t that into it, but I encourage them to keep watching.  It isn’t that the first season isn’t good; on the contrary, it’s merely that the show keeps breaking its existing ceiling every single season.  Almost everyone I’ve pushed through into at least the middle of the second season has thanked me later.  There’s no better way to have someone remember a show in its offseason  fondly than to end with a bang and Breaking Bad always does that – each season builds to an epic last couple of episodes, leading up to a point which could be anticlimactic and easily disappoint, a la True Blood, but instead Breaking Bad rises to the occasion, giving us all time great television episodes.  In the most recent fourth season, however, that tag is hardly limited to the season finale.  Several of the episodes are instant classics, and the last five or so each left me thinking they were the best episodes yet.

Anyone reading this probably knows this already but Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth to provide for his family after he’s gone.  He partners up with an old student now selling meth on a low level, Jesse Pinkman.  The show becomes far more than this, but that’s where we start.

So much happens in a season of Breaking Bad that it sometimes seems as if the first episode and the last are from two entirely different seasons.  The fourth season was ultimately an epic battle between Walt and Gus, and what a war it was.  What was particularly brilliant is that for a few episodes in the middle of the season it seemed like Gus, rather than Walt was the main character and instead of being angry or confused I wanted more.  The show manages to invent back story which was clearly not intended when the show began and yet still doesn’t feel forced and some of the best Gus scenes of the fourth season revolve around this back story.

There are some conceits you have to buy to get on board with Breaking Bad.  It’s a show about broad strokes rather than details, and a show which is one step away from reality; it’s main characters are superheroes who are not exactly like regular people.  It’s not The Wire.  Some things happen in the show which aren’t “real” and that’s okay.  That’s not what’s most important.  What’s most important is that the level of reality and characters are consistent within the confines of the show, and they are.

Tension is the engine that drives Breaking Bad.  No show provides more tension over different periods of time; often there are three or four proverbial shoes waiting to drop at any given moment.  The single best example of that last year may be the ricin cigarette that sat in Jesse’s cigarette pack waiting to be used at any time, which hovers over the last few episodes of season 4.  My favorite small example of Breaking Bad tension is when Walt lights up the gas tank of a car in order to destroy it.  In most shows or movies, Walt would be running away immediately after he lit the fire, and the car would explode as he dived forward, barely missing the explosion.  In Breaking Bad however, the seconds tick by with Walt well out of the way until the car explodes.  Even just waiting for a car to explode, the tension is palpable.

The tension created by Breaking Bad doesn’t disappoint.  When Breaking Bad lays out a major plot element, it uses it.  What’s even more brilliant is that the vast majority of little plot strands the show has left dangling are in a wonderful place where Breaking Bad has built up a network of potential plots (Walt’s mother? Marie’s shoplifting? Ted’s death?) to call back on, but these strands wouldn’t feel unresolved if the show chose never to go back to them.

So many scenes in Breaking Bad are so perfectly executed that they could be wonderful vignettes even outside of the larger story.  For example, the scene in which Mike hides out in the truck and kills the cartel henchmen or the scene in which Mike and Walt talk at the bar and Mike knocks Walt out.  Both of these scenes are brilliant pieces of television even outside of their context.

I could write thousands of words about this show, and I just might at another time. but hopefully this has expressed my feelings about Breaking Bad sufficiently.

Why it’s this high:  It’s the best show currently on TV and it’s only gotten better.

Why it’s not higher: It is in fact, highest

SPOILER ALERT

Best episode of the most recent season:  It’s so hard to choose, but it’s hard not to say the finale – there were a couple of major moments which I debated whether I liked or not – namely, zombie Gus straightening his tie and the decision to straight out show the plant in Walt’s backyard.  Even while I still can’t decide whether I think those moments were good decisions, the episode still stands as an absolutely brilliant piece of television.  I watched it late at night, and I couldn’t sleep for hours after I watched it, and I mean that in the best way possible.  One of the most brilliant aspects of this episode is the way it allows you reevaluate scenes from previous episodes.  This episode takes the scene earlier in the season with Walt spinning his gun around on the table in his backyard, which at the time looked like a scene of pathetic desperation where Walt perhaps contemplated suicide, into a triumphant scene where the plan was hatched that would lead ultimately to Walt’s success against Gus.