Monday, September 30, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 16 - Felina

After a final stretch of episodes that ran at breakneck speed and left everyone (and everything) in his wake in ruins, Walter White's coda, Felina, was a largely quiet hour (plus) of storytelling that wrapped a neat bow around a tale famously described as turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.

The Breaking Bad finale used three threads to tie the story together:

  • Walt breaks into Elliot and Gretchen's home and gets them to agree to fund a multi-million dollar trust fund for Flynn using the remaining $9 million plus from his ill-gotten gains;
  • Walt visits Skylar at her humble apartment and gives her the lottery ticket that has the coordinates to Hank and Steve's burial site, encouraging her to use it as a bargaining chip to get the prosecution against her dropped; and
  • A final showdown with Uncle Jack and his evil band of neo-Nazis where a deus ex machina (gun) kills them all save Todd, who meets his fate at Jesse's hands. 

Having secured his son's financial future, (possibly) extricated his estranged wife from the threat of incarceration and liberated his former partner from hellish servitude, Walt, fatally wounded by a stray bullet, spends his final moments in the place of his triumph and downfall - a meth lab he examines approvingly before collapsing in death. 

As series finales go, Felina was satisfying if a bit anti-climactic, but perhaps that was to be expected. Having piled up bodies over the course of five seasons, Vince Gilligan could have gone for the apocalyptic ending where everyone ended up dead, but instead, chose to highlight Walt's duality and humanity. "Walter White" salvaged what little he could for his family - having dragged them into penury, notoriety and an unimaginable future living with the knowledge of his sins, he used his wits and intelligence to at least ensure they would not live with the continued pressure of poverty and prosecution. He also reclaimed a modicum of his dignity and that for his fallen brother-in-law by allowing for a decent burial. Small change perhaps, but better than part-time taxi dispatching and an unmarked grave in the desert. "Heisenberg" comes up with a clever scheme to turn a 6:1 disadvantage into a shooting gallery that vanquishes all of his foes. That he slips Lydia ricin, causing her to die a slow and painful death, just closes one last loop. 

And perhaps it was that all that time of solitude gave Walt to "think on things" as his fixer suggested he do - to finally give up the ghost of claiming he cooked meth to provide for his family and instead admit he did it because he liked it, he was good at it and it validated his genius. That he saw in his action a need for a karmic comeuppance, so, with a weapon in hand and an opportunity to exact vengeance on Jesse, Walt does the opposite - handing Jesse the gun and offering him the chance to take his revenge on him. We will never know whether Jesse, seeing the expanding pool of blood coming from Walt's abdomen, would have otherwise pulled the trigger, but regardless, in a moral universe, Walt's death was preordained, there would be no happy ending, for him, or anyone else in his world. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shoot The Hostage

With less than two days before the government shuts down and two weeks before the country breaches the debt ceiling, official Washington is consumed with the latest government-by-cliffhanger storyline that has been de rigueur since Republicans took over the House of Representatives after the 2010 election. Now, the "negotiation" is over the Affordable Care Act, with Republicans initially demanding its repeal (never mind that it was duly enacted, blessed by the Supreme Court and "affirmed" in the 2012 election) and now asking for its delay in exchange for, depending on who you talk to, anything from a mere 2 month extension to government funding to ensuring the full faith and credit of the United States government. 

The media, as is their wont, give credence to this absurdity by describing these events through the classic "Washington is broken" lens, where "both sides do it," and can't come to agreement. Never mind the weird coincidence that these hostage taking events only happen when a Democrat occupies the White House or that debt increases occur with far more regularity under Republican Presidents than Democratic ones, I have a simple suggestion for the President - let the Republicans shoot the hostage. Stop being the adult in the room. Send the following two bills to Congress, announce that you will no longer negotiate with those who would rather burn our economy to the ground than make economic progress, get in Marine One and leave town until the bills are signed:

1. Pass an omnibus piece of legislation funding the government for all of Fiscal Year 2014 at current budget levels (a concession in and of itself, as it would solidify the so-called "sequester" level funding).

2. Pass a one-line extension of the debt ceiling to an amount that will cover government borrowing through the remainder of the President's term in office.

If the shutdown occurs, the debt ceiling breached, the President should be prepared to be on television, often and as much as necessary, to remind people where the blame should be placed. The only way to stop hostage takers is to stop negotiating. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 14 - Ozymandias

When something gets destroyed, there was invariably an inflection point when the first crack appeared. Sure, hitting an iceberg caused the Titanic to sink, but a flaw in its construction exacerbated the problem and a lack of life boats caused hundreds to needlessly perish. And so it was that in Ozymandias, the human WMD that Walter White has become finally detonated, but not before we were reminded of a time when he was a meek science teacher who had to practice his lines before telling the whitest of lies.

The unsparing and unapologetically wrenching way that Breaking Bad is careening toward its end will probably be studied by television producers for years to come. While I sometimes found the first “half” of Season 5 meandering, all too often, I find myself gasping for air at the jaw dropping risks that are being taken as the show winds down. Last night was a reckoning no one was spared – not gruff but affable Hank Schrader, ignominiously gunned down mid-sentence by Uncle Jack or trusty sidekick Steve Gomez, already dead when the action picks up; both tossed in a pit conveniently left empty by the removal of $80 million in drug money.

Arguably, a swift death may have been preferable because all who come into Walt’s path are destroyed. The other supporting characters do not fare well either – Flynn is finally clued into Walt’s nefarious deeds and is left to protect Skylar during a squirm-inducing scene of domestic violence, his image of his father forever destroyed. Marie, so assertive with Skylar when she thought Hank had his man, is left to learn that Hank will never return home. Skylar must absorb a barrage of venom from Walt as a way to minimize her role in his misdeeds even as her hatred toward him caused her to slash him with a knife. Even young Holly becomes a pawn, spirited away by Walt in a moment of frenzy only to be left in a firehouse with a note pinned to her onesie.

But if Walt attempted to exercise one last gasp of humanity in protecting Skylar from the risk of prosecution as an accessory to his crimes and realizing Holly could not go on the lam with him, he was far less forgiving toward Jesse, who he cruelly left to the whim of Uncle Jack and his not-so-merry band of neo-Nazis. If that was not enough, Walt poured salt in the wound by finally revealing to Jesse that he could have saved Jane, but chose not to. Ironically, it was Todd that saved Jesse – first, seeing the utility in learning what Jesse told Hank and Steve, and then finding him a useful servant to improve the purity of his meth.

That Jesse has suffered this fate is in part his own doing; had he not tossed his millions out the window, the cops never would have been on to him, Hank never would have intervened, Walt would not have suggested Jesse leave town, Jesse would not have flipped on Walt, which never would have put him on the wrong side of the gun fight. So much of where we are at this point is predicated on a massive game of “What If” that goes all the back to Walt’s decision to “cook” out in the barren desert landscape. Jesse has been frustrated that decisions have not had consequences (“If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean, what’s the point?”) but if Ozymandias showed just how permanent those consequences can be – for the living, and the dead.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tweeters On The Bus

One of the first of what will be many postmortems on the 2012 election was just published by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Written by CNN reporter Peter Hamby, Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus? Searching For a Better Way to Cover a Campaign could have just as easily been called A Bunch of People Who Got Paid A Lot of Money and Did Not Do Their Job Well, for in its 95 pages is the story of journalists portrayed as self-absorbed narcissists who injected themselves into the political narrative and did little else but tweet out snarky comments about a candidate (Mitt Romney) who did everything in his power to avoid interacting with them. Meanwhile, a group of highly compensated political consultants spent endless hours obsessing over 140 character snippets of ephemera that they nursed into deep seated grudges instead of cultivating the people who might have provided them with better coverage. Good times. 

Broadly, Hamby argues that the advent of Twitter and its ubiquity resulted in a poorer quality of journalism during the 2012 Presidential campaign, as reporters went for the sugar rush of a "scooplet" over the more satisfying (but harder to do) political analysis that would have better informed the citizenry. Thus, minutiae about badly constructed press risers or candidate Romney's dinner order became grist for the daily mill instead of a more sober and serious analysis of what the man might do were he elected President. Encouraging this process over substance ethos were, according to Hamby, editors constantly goading this new generation of younger reporters into multi-tasking their day - tweeting, blogging, posting video and appearing on TV to provide color while leaning on canned information (what little they received) from each campaign. 

Hamby uses 1972's The Boys on the Bus, a chronicle of the Nixon-McGovern race, as point of reference. That campaign occurred at a time when a small cabal of "bigfoot" journalists drove the narrative about Presidential politics but also had relationships with candidates and their senior staff such that reporters could get valuable information about the internal dynamics of the campaign. And while that access may have provided for more insider-y information, it was unclear to me by the end of Hamby's piece whether things were better in the old days when the entire narrative of a Presidential race was determined by 3 old white men who happened to be more experienced at journalism than their peers than it is today. 

Flash forward 40 years and the fracturing of "media" resulted in a younger, more technologically savvy scrum of reporters covering both President Obama and Governor Romney. Unfortunately, there are few heroes in Hamby's reporting. Instead, we are let inside the Romney "bubble," where little happens, even less quality reporting is done and no effort is made by (most) of the journalistic pack or the Romney communications team, to address the "toxic" (author's word) relationship between the two. Reporters come off as a Romper Room gone amok tethered to their smart phones and multi-tasking the roles of producer, editor and reporter for news outlets whose need for content is every more consuming. The Romney communications shop is portrayed as a nest of paranoids who obsessively collect snarky tweets by the very people they are keeping at an arm's length. On the other side, Obama's team operated with a cold efficiency devoid of any emotion and a thinly veiled disdain for those whose lives they attempted to accommodate through good WiFi connections, sumptuous filing center buffets and "spots" that coincided with nightly newscasts. 

The Romney campaign's post-mortem is an odd blend of denial and deflection. Romney's team claimed their bad coverage was due to the inexperience of the traveling press, but instead of trying to use that inexperience to their advantage, Boston spent its time trolling these reporters' Twitter feeds. And when the Romney team was not reading tweets as tea leaves, they were alienating journalists by barring access to their candidate and berating members of the press for having the temerity to ask questions along rope lines. On the rare occasion when the Romney team attempted to improve relations, things blew up in their face. After the September jobs numbers were released, reporters on his plane were told he would speak to them, but only if it was not on camera. The TV reporters demurred but the print media pushed back and the Romney team simply walked away. 

One of the more experienced reporters who covered Romney, Phil Rucker of The Washington Post, provided one of the juiciest quotes in Hamby's piece, noting that the Romney campaign had "opportunities to manipulate the press that weren't taken." (emphasis mine). Putting aside the idea that the media can be manipulated to serve a campaign's needs, if true, this makes the finger pointing all the more curious. I'm not sure how you can complain about poor coverage when you did not make even a rudimentary effort to give reporters access to your candidate, who went weeks without talking to his traveling press corps. Romney's camp conceded that when it was not stiff-arming the press corps traveling with their candidate (which itself begs the question why the experience level of those reporters mattered) it sought out the friendly confines of places like FOX News to move its message instead of engaging a less reflexively supportive group of reporters. But political operators cannot have it both ways - you cannot admit to avoiding difficult questions and then complain about negative coverage. The same is true of the use of social media - the campaigns created their own YouTube channels and Twitter feeds to "go over the head" of the media but whined about the use of same by the media. Huh? 

The media come off no better as they acknowledge the circus element of their own work while attempting to retain ironic distance from their responsibility for feeding into the worst instincts of modern journalism. Mark Halperin and John Harris penned a book in 2006 referring to the D.C. media as "The Freak Show," yet the former is now best known for writing a gossipy insider's account of the 2008 election (Game Change) and the latter is editor-in-chief of perhaps the worst offender when it comes to morphing the inside-D.C. game into a half-assed version of US Weekly (Politico). 

The doth-protest-too-much of media bigwigs is acute. People like Harris and Chuck Todd, NBC's chief political correspondent, are quoted at length bemoaning the incentive structure of process journalism even as they are uniquely positioned to deter much of this lowest-common-denominator reporting from the perches they occupy. Instead, they fall victim to the same "who's up/who's down" news cycle drivel that not only misinforms, but shows little interest in the nuance that is inherently part of any complicated policy discussion. Todd laments that the President does not "respect" the press corps and "treats it like crap" but where is his accountability in all of this? In reporting on salacious rumors of bogus birth certificates and providing oxygen to the most venomous personal smears that crossed the line into outright bigotry and racism? Is it any surprise that the President might not respect a person like Chuck Todd or, for that matter, all of the Politico crew who traffics almost exclusively in generating "click throughs" by accentuating the most banal aspects of political discourse? For a mea culpa, Hamby quotes Sam Youngman of Reuters, who conceded he was one of the "worst offenders" when it came to tweeting during the campaign and that it "trivialized the coverage to a great deal." Now you tell us? 

Of course, Hamby's focus on how reporters focused on the "process" of the campaign at the expense of substance would be a valid critique were the media not guilty of the same offense writ large when it comes to matters of the day. One need look no further than the consistently awful reporting being done about Syria to see how the national media is consumed with the "horse race" aspects - how a vote in Congress would "help" or "hurt" the President (as if those poor Syrians getting gassed care about these things), whether Secretary Kerry's "off hand" remark about Syria giving up its chemical weapons was a gaffe that "saved the day" (as opposed to focusing on - hey look, Syria is going to (1) acknowledge its stockpile and (2) get rid of it!) and on and on. Further, as political operatives noted, journalists are more than happy to re-package "one-sided information" and report it as news. Indeed, Harris seems to concede as much. He noted, "modern audiences expect and follow news in real-time, not on a leisurely print newspaper schedule of a generation ago." But hiding behind new technologies does not absolve journalists from eschewing "truthiness" in favor of hard reporting. The idea that somehow the "media" does any better of a job at reporting on the daily "fights" in Washington and that its failures are strictly related to being inside a campaign bubble is laughable. 

I also found Hamby's thesis inherently contradictory. On the one hand, he bemoans the lowest-common-denominator tendencies that he claims Twitter enables, but on the other, (rightly) notes that the "hive" quickly corrected erroneous reporting far more quickly than the past model of burying that type of information on page A20. Similarly, those pesky "kids" criticized by the Romney folks as inexperienced and in over their heads were also savvy enough to hang out outside a Romney fundraiser in Florida where Romney suggested shuttering the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development and eliminating the mortgage deduction on second homes. In other words, some pretty major news was reported simply by lingering outside an event that the Romney advance team didn't realize could be heard outside its gates. 

So which is it? Was the media pack a bunch of petulant children or gritty gumshoes? I was particularly struck by a comment made by AP reporter Liz Sidoti, who bemoaned the fact that Twitter encourages a certain amount of "groupthink" among reporters, wherein I wanted to yell THEN DO YOUR JOB BETTER - get out of the bubble, don't rely on daily "tip sheets," the ruminations of your colleagues, or stories being pushed by partisan flacks, .. you know, REPORT. Or more specifically, why can't we agree that Twitter, like other forms of technology, is inherently agnostic, a tool that can be used for good or bad, enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the aim of its users. 

Hamby's conclusion that Twitter is "here to stay" also struck me as curious. How can a technology that barely made a ripple in 2008 but reached ubiquity in 2012 be presumed to be permanent. One need only look at the social media landscape to  know that what is fashionable one day (Myspace, AOL, etc.) is roadkill the next. As Hamby himself points out, "what political junkies were talking about on Twitter … was mostly irrelevant to the American populace." So how is it that a platform that only 13% of Americans use, and of those, only 3% "regularly or sometimes tweet or re-tweet news …" is having much of an impact on political discourse? When an established journalist like Dan Balz notes that "most people are not on Twitter" and that what is said there is "not necessarily reflective of public opinion …" why on Earth is a 95 page "discussion paper" endorsed by Harvard University so obsessed with it? 

You can read Hamby's study and judge for yourself:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 13 - To’Hajiilee

Of the many joys I derive from Breaking Bad, the writers’ unwillingness to go for the happy ending is among my favorites. In the show, as in real life, decisions have consequences, genies cannot be put back into bottles and once plans are put in motion, there is no pop music montage or Hollywood ending that makes the bad things go away. And so it was that in the final ten pulse-pounding minutes of To’Hajiilee a stark, frozen in time scene morphed into a Sergio Leone Western featuring two outmanned DEA agents and a nest of neo-Nazi vipers with assault rifles, shotguns and pistols.

If there is an Achilles heel common to all characters on Breaking Bad, it is their failure to leave well enough alone. Of course, the deeper the hole gets dug, the less good options become. Once you’ve clipped chemistry equipment from the school lab and bought the Winnebago, you might as well cook the meth. If a rival dealer knows your identity, killing him makes sense. Having an affair with your boss may allow you to cuckold your husband, but when you know your paramour is a shady businessman, don’t be surprised when you have to pay off his income tax debt just when your husband wants to use that money to go into the Saul Goodman Witness Protection Program.

And so, as Breaking Bad careens toward a conclusion, Walt discovers that Jesse isn’t so dumb after all, that Hank simply will. not. give. up. and that having a reputation as a merciless killer will cause a weaker link to crack. It was not just that Jesse knew Walt’s weak spot (the money he curiously called his childrens’ “birthright”) but that in goading Walt into giving up the location of his buried treasure, also got a full confession out of him. Huell may be a bodyguard one level removed from Heisenberg, but he’s not the first small time con Agent Schrader has conned into flipping on a higher up. Walt thought he knew a way to go to Jesse, but without knowing Hank beat him to the punch, Andrea’s voice mail is harmlessly deleted.

Of course, Walt would not have found himself alone and cornered in the dusty environs of a desolate Indian reservation had he treated Jesse a little more like the son he claimed him to be and less like an annoying and doltish sidekick or did not have the arrogance to leave a Gale Boetticher inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass out in the open. And when that heart-skips-a-beat moment arrives when Walt lays down his gun and is handcuffed and put in the back of an SUV for transport, we all learn that once you call in neo-Nazis with dollar signs in their eyes, they don’t particularly care that you have had a change of heart.

The direction and cinematography as Uncle Jack’s convoy kicks up a cloud of dust towards a denouement we just begin to process is pitch perfect, the consequences for Hank and Gomez immediate and in all likelihood, fatal. A show whose body count has included everyone from the arch villain (Gus Fring) to an innocent child (Drew Sharp) would be untrue to itself if Hank and “Gomey” somehow survived the fusillade of bullets directed at them. And this is to Vince Gilligan’s everlasting credit. For Hank had his own chances to leave well enough alone, to accept that Walt was “retired” and heading for an early grave, to be ok with the idea that he solved the crime but the criminal got away, to not cleave his family in two, to permit his wife, her sister and his niece and nephew the opportunity to have a future unsullied by the taint of what Walt did. But in deciding to pursue someone whose inner core he could not truly know, Hank likely signed his own death warrant.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 12 - Rabid Dog

With precious few hours left until we learn Walter White’s fate, Rabid Dog reminded viewers of the complicated dynamics between fathers and sons, be they of the blood or surrogate variety. More broadly, it appears that Vince Gilligan has put the chess pieces in place for his final act. At the center of last night’s episode was Jesse Pinkman, who is now emotionally broken and seeking vengeance on Walt, yes, for the poisoning of poor innocent Brock, but also for the accumulated toll of dead bodies that were left in his wake. Jesse's sense of moral justice dates to his wrestling with the Kafka-esque (yo) nature of the life he had chosen but also to the universe's seeming lack of punishment against him for, among other things, killing Gale. 

Through all this, the one constant has been how others - men, primarily - have manipulated Jesse for their own gain. While we have yet to learn Jesse’s final fate, the yearning for acceptance and succor from an adult male role model is tragic in its own right. Having essentially been abandoned by his actual parents, Walt long held sway over Jesse, but the relationship was symbiotic; even as Gus tried to ingratiate himself into Jesse’s life in order to get Walt out of it, Jesse’s one edict was firm – you do not kill Mr. White. As Walt morphed ever deeper into his Heisenberg alter ego, Mike actually did look out for Jesse but in doing so, ran afoul of Walt and ended up down by the river with a bullet in his side. Jesse’s new father figure is Hank Schrader, who, like Walt before him, and even Gus, does not care one iota about Jesse’s well-being, but is instead simply using him as a pawn to get what he wants. That Jesse is now turning to the man who beat the ever-loving hell out of him a few short months ago (in show time) speaks to the depth of his hatred for Walt and his desire to gain revenge but if he does not help Hank put Walt away, he will be discarded, just as others did when he no longer served their purposes..  

An actual father-son relationship, the one between Walt and Flynn, played out poignantly against the backdrop of a pool at a luxury hotel. You see, Flynn has always provided Walt his unquestioned love, and Walt knows that if the truth gets out, it will be his son who is most devastated by the news. Flynn is the last one to believe his father’s lies, the last one incapable of seeing past the dizzying amount of bullshit and gross manipulation Walt uses, to less and less avail, with the rest of the world. That scene, shot so wonderfully, closed with a hug between father and son, one pregnant with emotion, for Flynn, fearing for his father's health, for Walt, the devastation that discovery of his secret will unleash on his son. 

Flynn is worried about his dad’s cancer and the weighty matters of buying a second car wash, but he is that fantasy world’s sole inhabitant, everyone else has now caught on to Walt’s game with his wife leading the charge to snuff out young Jesse and sever the final link that might connect Walt back to Heisenberg. And here, Walt's weakness for "family," that bright line that led him to have Saul tip off the DEA just before the Salamancas attempted to assassinate Hank, to icily reject Saul's recent suggestion that Hank be "sent on a trip to Belize," or to send Jesse on a similar one-way voyage, may end up being his undoing. In the calculus of half-measures versus full-measures, Walt has clearly miscalculated, for if he understood the jeopardy he is now in, he would realize he is no longer the danger or the one who knocks, but instead, the one waiting to be popped.