16 November 2014

Blood, Meth and Tears: Musings of Another Breaking Bad Addict in Withdrawal

It all started in the desert of To'hajiilee, where Commissioner Gordon stood in his pants, frantically toting a firearm in manner that seemed to scream, “amateur in over his head.” I’d seen the iconic image a few times, and it had always piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until it formed the basis of a mandatory anti-money laundering CPD seminar that Breaking Bad queue-jumped the dozens of other shows competing for my limited telly time and took over my life for a goggle-eyed month. A coinciding iTunes sale of the series’ six “deluxe” box sets helped.

The brainchild of noted X-Files staff writer Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad is a drama that defies categorisation. By turns thrilling, comic, and cripplingly sad, the series takes a mild-mannered, middle-aged chemistry teacher and turns him “into Scarface.” What’s so remarkable is that it does it plausibly, perhaps even inexorably, and without ever turning the viewer against him fully. Indeed, I found myself championing him for almost four of the show’s six years, and still sympathising with him intermittently thereafter.

Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in the series’ pilot (which, in of itself, rivals most feature films in terms of its quality, if not length), Walter White makes the poor decision to “break bad” in an attempt to provide for his pregnant and up-to-her-eyeballs-in-debt wife and teenage son. Exploiting his Drug Enforcement Administration (“DEA”)-employed brother-in-law’s expert knowledge of the drug trade and a compromised former pupil’s connections, Walt starts to cook the purest methamphetamine that Albuquerque has ever seen. And, right under the nose of his brother-in-law, his reluctant partner in crime starts to pedal it.

Breaking Bad’s lofty reputation is built largely upon its nuts and bolts; the endless schemes and bellyaches that kept me glued to four or five shows at a time stretching out long into the night. The show’s first season is a compelling, semi-soap opera that tells of a liar trying to pull the wool over his loved ones’ eyes as he struggles to make meth pay for medicine. The longer Season 2 is a beautiful and thrilling concept piece that begins to drive the show into the nail-biting, hard-hitting sphere of 24, culminating in a set piece so massive in every sense that the viewer struggles to see how the writers could ever up the ante - but up it they do. Indeed, year three is probably the show’s finest, and undoubtedly its edgiest. The introduction of the Mexican cartel and Gus’s super-lab give it a sense of sheer scale that it had previously lacked; scale that is mirrored in the incredible, game-changing character developments that revivify the series’ most important relationships. 

Season 4 is billed as Walt’s thirteen-part game of chess with the cold and clinical Gus (played by the Oscar-worthy Giancarlo Esposito), and it’s exactly that - if queens are pipebombs and pawns are children. What’s commercially billed as ‘Season 5’, but technically is only its first half, is the most show’s most thrilling year by far - it’s Breaking Bad’s version of Revenge of Sith; the end of Walter White and the rise of Heisenberg. The eight-episode 2012 run, the so-called ‘Final Season’, is Vader cooking in the lava, excruciatingly drawn-out and examined from every possible angle.

Beyond its procedural / plot-driven aspects, I really admire what Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently would call, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” Huge, life or death moments turn on a quirk of coincidence or a forgotten thread - an incriminating book in a bathroom, a bereaved father’s momentary inattention, or even the lust-fuelled cooking of a tax swindler’s books. I’d say that the storytelling is chemical in its reactions, were it not so hard to predict.

What earns Breaking Bad its place in the highest echelons of television drama though is the beating black metaphor that is its heart. As the shadow on Walt’s lung grows, so does his “Heisenberg” alter ego. As the cancer eats away at Walt the teacher, Walt the husband, Walt the father, the kindness and altruism that was once the catalyst for his questionable actions is lost to egotism, fear and odium. Haunted by the business decisions of his past, Walt begins to see his product as less of a means to an end, and more of end in itself. Even his friendship with Jesse, arguably the only good thing borne of his life of crime, is ultimately lost to spite. In the end, it becomes so plain that even Heisenberg can see it for himself: “I did it for me,” he admits to a broken shell of a wife, and it’s the first true thing that he’s said to her since his diagnosis.

I can’t praise enough the performances of the entire cast, from Bryan Cranston all the way down to Charles Baker and Matt L Jones, better known as Skinny Pete and Badger, but a few warrant extra special mention, chief amongst them the series’ lead. The Malcolm in the Middle and Dark Knight trilogy alumnus is so damned credible that it hurts; I wouldn’t have thought that anyone could have taken what was essentially my dad (and they do look uncannily alike), a dedicated teacher with a real love for his subject, if not for his pupils, and slowly twist him into a crime lord. Anna Gunn is every bit as good as his wife Skyler, and her job was almost as tough. Mrs Heisenberg had to be ultra-tough yet vulnerable, principled but compromised, and she’s exactly that throughout. Unlike Walt, who loses viewer sympathy as the story nears its end, the viewer never stops caring about her.

Aaron Paul’s role is similarly multifaceted. Initially pegged as a self-interested junkie and no more, the writers were quick to dig beneath Jesse Pinkman’s tired, “Yo, Mr White!” exterior and explore his troubled upbringing, eventually developing him into almost Heisenberg’s mirror opposite - a man who wants more than just instant gratification, money and status. Jesse and Walt are bound in completely different directions; Breaking Bad is where they briefly coincide. And if there’s a crumb of hope in its ending, it’s that Jesse will, somehow, make good.

Perhaps the series’ true breakout star though is RJ Mitte, without whom it would be all too easy for viewers to lose sight of Walt’s purpose. Walt Junior, or “Flynn”, perfectly and poignantly captures a loving teenage son faced with the prospect of losing his father, and all the hope and desperation that goes along with it. What makes him a particularly effective character is that he’s not whiter than white, if you’ll pardon the pun - he’s still a teenager trying to buy booze underage and impress his peers. But always there with him is a sadness; one that I don’t think that even Walt’s qualified success in the series finale, “Felina”, will ever remove.

Finally, there is one performer who really surprised me; one who, from the pilot, I saw as playing a bit of a cliché. Dean Norris’s Hank starts off as a crass caricature of the rough and tumble American cop stereotype - he’s all guns and donuts, with the odd lewd, manly gag thrown in. As events unfold though, he becomes nothing short of a bloody hero - and despite many stumbling blocks along the way too, both mental and physical. Again, much like Cranston, his journey is painfully believable. In the end you feel like he’s your brother-in-law - and you want him to win.

But nobody wins with meth; nobody wins by breaking bad, not in the long haul. Whether you’re cooking crystal or your boss’s books, whether you’re a bent lawyer or just a hired heavy, in the end you’ll lose. And that’s Vince Gilligan’s point. It ain’t bad karma, it’s science: A leads to B leads to C. And never before has it been expressed so engagingly, so dynamically... so chemically. And never will it be so again.

All six deluxe edition Breaking Bad box sets are available from iTunes in 1080p HD for £12.99 - £23.99 each. The first episode is often available for free (much in the same way that the first shot of heroin is often given away for free). 

08 November 2014

Time for a Name, iReckon...

This post is to mark the fact that the blog finally has a name - one that it’s taken me three years to settle on.

Having toyed with nerdy nomenclature ranging from the arcane ("7L" - my first year comp form group, and also the production code for what I reckon is Doctor Who’s most underrated serial) to the more obvious ("Bad Wolv."), and even the overwrought ("There Are Four Lights!"), I’ve decided to go with a title that reflects both the nature and form of my many musings, as well as my love affair with Apple products (which has admittedly faltered a wee bit since the rolling out of iOS 8), and that also happens to be a phrase that I generally blurt out with supreme confidence a least a dozen times a day, albeit with a more traditional capitalisation and an unfashionable space:

Let the reckoning commence...

The Cruellest of Angles, or the Worst of Cock-ups?

It’s a cruel irony that following the breaking story of WWE’s behind-the-scenes business manoeuvres is much more entertaining than watching most of its recent in-ring output. As evidenced by the Birmingham crowd’s reaction to his recent “apology”, the company’s chairman, Vince McMahon, now has more heel heat than he did at the height of even his feud with the beer-swilling “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Just about the only way that he could save face now would be to fold the evolving drama into a storyline, and have the immediate UK launch of the “over-the-top” WWE Network celebrated by him taking an on-screen beating from Blackpool’s own William Regal on this week’s Liverpool-based RAW.

On Monday evening, as the launch of the WWE Network in the UK neared, I decided to sign up for the month’s free trial. I had planned to spend a month filling my boots with retro Attitude Era content, and perhaps even catch up on the last four months’ worth of pay-per-views. And, if impressed, I would have happily paid up my $9.99 per month thereafter - a price that, for what’s on offer, I wouldn’t have begrudged a dime of (and I do mean a dime - the price is set in US dollars). WWE would have won back a customer from a decade ago, and would have been one subscriber closer to breaking even on its mammoth outlay.

But I couldn’t sign up. Unbelievably, a one-line statement on WWE.com simply stated that the launch had been delayed indefinitely. I pressed the “MORE INFORMATION” button to find out the details, but it just took me to another page with the exact same statement on it, together with a whole host of vitriolic comments from other would-be subscribers. These promptly disappeared, replaced in short order with a nonsensical “WWE would like to thank our fans in the United Kingdom for bearing with us.” After this second delay, there was nobody in the UK that I could see “bearing with” WWE. Most were calling for blood – and rightly so. One half of the screen took away what the other half continued to promise (see below).

Indeed, the backlash was understandable as the UK launch had been hyped to the hilt - I’d received two e-mails from WWE about the launch just that weekend. More than that though, for the very first time, the UK’s WWE fans would have had access to the same product as their American counterparts, and for the same price. Sky’s decades-long chokehold would have finally been weakened, if not broken, as most of their customers would have flocked to the make-or-break, “over-the-top” streaming service that has almost ended the reign of pay-per-view stateside.

Some hopefuls clutched at straws, speculating about technical issues holding up the launch, but I didn’t buy that. The network had been rolled out in numerous countries at once in August, and without any technical hitches that were newsworthy.

This delay of the UK launch - the second in as many months, and this one without even a revised date to fixate on - made WWE look foolish at best, and has done irreparable harm to its reputation in the UK. As such, it’s hard to believe that the delay was of the company’s own making - it would have been damned stupid to enrage an entire nation’s worth of punters simply to try and broker a more lucrative, premium channel contract with Sky (as they did in Canada, with Rogers Communications’ ten-year deal).

I suspect, as many do, that upon their announcement to launch the WWE Network in the UK as an “over-the-top” service, Sky sought an interim injunction to prevent the launch. WWE hoped to negotiate their way out of the situation before the launch, but failed to do so, hence the embarrassing - and inflammatory - last-minute pull of the plug.

The only problem with this theory is that it suggests those running WWE are incredibly myopic. The network’s main selling point for most people is, obviously, that it includes all twelve annual pay-per-views within its $9.99 per month price. As no commitment is required, a viewer can effectively just buy an otherwise £14.95 pay-per-view for only a little more than a third of what it would cost them through Sky, and enjoy a month’s worth of the network’s on-demand content and original programming to boot. That clearly and foreseeably would have hurt Sky. Not as much as most people assume, I reckon, but it would have lost them pay-per-view buys, particularly in November, when Survivor Series would have been effectively given away with the free trial.

The outcome of this situation will be fascinating to see, not just from my potential Apple TV WWE Network subscriber / never-ever-gonna-get-Sky point of view, but also as someone who’s genuinely interested in the way that television / media consumption is changing. Not being privy to the terms of the WWE / Sky deal, who knows what, if any, distinction there is in there between satellite broadcasting and online streaming? This whole thing could turn on something so simple as a badly-drawn deal that neither side properly understood the implications of, and that didn’t fully reflect WWE’s future intent.

But if this is WWE stalling to try and sell out the UK for a fast buck now, just as it did Canada earlier this year, I don’t think that its fans will be quick to forgive, particularly given that what was advertised has not been delivered. After SummerSlam 1991, the late, great Warrior was reportedly fired by the WWF for merely threatening not to perform as advertised in the hope of forcing a better deal for himself. Thirteen years on, and WWE itself doesn’t deliver on what’s been advertised, and given its guilty silence, we can only speculate as to why.

One thing is for sure though: the times they are a’changin’, and the WWE Network is right at the heart of it all.