Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 15

. . . which is the one about Gus.  (WARNING:  I've tried to keep this spoiler free, but really - you need to watch through Season 4 and soon!)

Gustavo (Gus) Fring operates a chain of 14 chicken restaurants in the Southwest, including the ABQ area.  From his interactions with his employees, he seems to be a good manager - he comes across as fair to his employees and quite meticulous in just how he wants things to be, but willing to explain his reasons for why he wants things just so.  He gets out from behind the counter to mix with his customers and always seems genuinely concerned that the customer has a pleasant experience at Los Pollos Hermanos, thereby ensuring repeat business.

He's also a ruthless meth kingpin.

Huh-what??  It's true.  "The Chicken Brothers" restaurants are a front for a major drug operation - but that doesn't mean the chicken isn't tasty!

Gus is a Chilean national with a past obscured by deep, deep shadows.  He's managed to keep a very low profile in ABQ and is considered a pillar of the community, giving generously to civic organizations and charities.  He even stuffs a few bucks into Walt's "Cancer Fund" jar at the DEA office, where he also helps sponsor an annual "Fun Run," just like a prominent local businessman ought to.  He has carefully cultivated a Zen-quiet persona, but underneath the calm exterior is glacial ice.  Nothing gets in the way of Gus' plans, which include getting a firm grip on the meth trade throughout the Southwest, Mexican cartels be damned.   (It turns out having a fleet of trucks to carry those "special spices" for commercial-sized batches of chicken is very handy for also ferrying mass quantities of super-pure meth [and the occasional dissolved-to-sludge body] from place to place.)  Let me repeat:  nothing gets in the way of Gus' plans.  Nothing.

Walt is a loose cannon in comparison.  He's a brilliant chemist, true, but he has this nagging habit of creating havoc everywhere he goes, and not in a cute, kittenish way.  At first, Gus' main concern is Walt's partnership with Jesse, but life being strange, it turns out that Jesse just might be more reliable than Walt.  Loose cannons are unpredictable and Walt has his own plans.

Gus has spent twenty years quietly building his empire, never hesitating to root out obstacles.  Walt's been in the business for about a year and has made some major screw-ups.  Gus knows the business, but Walt knows the chemistry.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 14

. . . which is the one about Jesse.

When we first meet Jesse, he's tumbling out of a second-story window just ahead of the DEA agents who are smashing through down his door.  A naked woman is briefly framed in the open window - seems that Jesse wasn't just napping up there.  Walt is on a ride-along with his badass brother-in-law Hank, so he sees this.  It turns out that Jesse had been in one of Walt's chemistry classes and thus the premise of Breaking Bad is set in motion as Walt decides to make Jesse an offer.  After all, "you know the business and I know the chemistry."

Jesse might start out as a "pathetic junkie" who makes trash meth, but he grows so far beyond that.  We get glimpses of his home life - Jesse was raised in a very nice suburb where his parents and younger brother still live.  It's a life of music lessons and Space Camp.  One aspect of Breaking Bad that has always appealed to me is its willingness to look squarely at the effects an addict has on those around him - Jesse's parents love him but are simply worn out from the unending lies, late night phone calls, and desperate empty promises.  Also, they have a young son to consider, so they've made one of the toughest decision a parent can make.  Jesse's made his choices and now he has to live with them.  And he's decided to be "the bad guy," although I've had several moments in watching Jesse when I just want to take him home and make him soup.  (I'd lock up the silver first.  I'm not deeply stupid.)

Strange things happen once Jesse and Walt team up.  While Jesse understands the rough edges and violent deal-making that occur in the meth world, he often defers to Walt, almost always calling him "Mr. White" as if Walt was his adviser on a science fair project.  (This is so prevalent that it's worth noticing when Jesse calls him by his first name.  The name "Walt" in Jesse's mouth is usually spit out like a scornful curse.)  Jesse's got brains and he's hungry for someone to notice his skills and worth.  This makes him easy to manipulate - which Walt does, over and over and over.

However, life is never static and by the end of Season Four, Jesse is his own man.   He may be a broken and angry man, but he's not a cats-paw any longer.  He's demonstrated his loyalty, his intelligence, and most of all, his usefulness.  Season Five will show if Walt notices.

By the way - mark your calendars!  AMC has made it official - the first part of Season 5 will begin airing on July 15!  Watch the "behind the scenes" video here!

And this is simply one of the best videos about Breaking Bad I've seen.  The music is the Bandini Remix of Ennio Morricone's theme song from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Watch it.  Then tell your friends.  Narvinek deserves to be widely known for this level of artistry.  SPOILER ALERT:  If you haven't seen through the end of Season 4, you might want to hold off of this.  You've been warned.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 13

 . . . which is the one that gets skipped.

No, it's not because I have an aversion to the number 13, although that would make a good story.  Rather, this is more of an Edna St. Vincent Millay moment.  What?  You don't know who I'm talking about?  Well, she was a American poet who was quite popular during the 1920s and is credited with writing some of the most beautiful sonnets ever.  She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 for "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" which is a lyrical poem about a self-sacrificing mother.  Good stuff.

Her poem "First Fig" includes the lines that I have in mind today.  You've probably heard them at some point or another:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But oh, my foes, and oh, my friends --
It gives a lovely light!

I'll leave it to the literary critics to debate the finer points of the meaning of those lines.  For me, it means that I've been running a little too hot for a little too long.  While that's to be expected while co-writing a book (which is in the "sending drafts to the publisher" stage), holding down a full-time job, and trying to keep the house clean enough to keep the Board of Health at bay, a smart woman knows when to call a halt.  If I don't take the occasional pause, I'll turn into the human equivalent of a Roman candle.  Spectacular, but brief.  So I'll be back next week with thoughts on Breaking Bad for Walter White Wednesday 14.

In the meantime, avoid Dark Shadows.  I saw it so you don't have to - I'm not even linking to that.  And really - Burton and Depp have some fun here and there, but there's no reason to lay down good money for their entertainment when films should be the other way around.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 12

Which is the one about meth.

The premise of Breaking Bad involves a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher receiving a cancer diagnosis and deciding to manufacture methamphetamine as a way to provide for his family when he's gone.  The show is going into its fifth season and much has happened since that single sentence set the ball rolling back in Season 1. The "good man driven to bad acts" theme has been used before - viewers like seeing how a person reacts to desperation, I suppose.  But why methampetmaine (hereinafter, just called "meth")?  I mean, couldn't Walt just stick up liquor stores?  And how bad is meth anyway?


Meth is strange among drugs in that it is synthetic.  Most drugs - as is true of most medicines in general - are derived from natural components.  (Aspirin, for example, has its start in willow bark.  Click here for an interesting read on that - including the fact that both Aspirin and Heroin were trademarks that were given up as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.)  Meth is a weird one.  It was first synthesized from ephedrine in Japan at the end of the 1800s.  The term comes from the chemical structure of the resulting compound:  methyl alpha-methylphenlethylamine.  There is some speculation that meth occurs naturally in two varieties of Acacia trees, but that research has not been replicated, so as of today, meth is strictly a synthetic drug, meaning you have to have a lab to produce it.  OK - right up Walter White's alley.

As it true with all street drugs, meth varies wildly in quality - remember that in Season 1, Jesse's "signature" in his trash meth is the addition of chili powder.  Walt insists on "clean room" quality and his goal is to produce the purest meth ever seen.  He's a good chemist - an extraordinary one, in fact - and he does just that.  This is a skill that brings him to the attention of any number of (drug) business-minded folk and the danger escalates.

To Walt, it's all about the chemistry.  He doesn't use the product and doesn't have any desire to.  Walt is a scientist in the pure sense of the word.  Great, but that "pure sense of the word" ignores the fact that his product wreaks destruction on those who consume it.  I think of Walt in the desert and I'm reminded of the fact that the Trinity Test was also located out in the great sands of New Mexico.  Solving equations and formulas is just terrific, but it may be wise to occasionally ask, "Hey, why do those guys with the big guns want the answers so badly?  They don't look like they care that much about chemistry."

So just how bad is meth?  It's listed as a Schedule II drug of the Controlled Substances Act in the U.S., meaning it has limited medicinal uses (meth is sometimes used for the treatment of narcolepsy and considering its stimulant effects, that makes a certain amount of sense).  Since meth can be whipped up at home using trash recipes found on the Internet (seriously, anything that includes brake fluid and/or lye as ingredients should never be introduced into the human body), states have tried various strategies to make getting the raw ingredients harder, which is why Sudafed and other cold medicines containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is kept behind the counter in most drugstores.  Most cooks don't have Walt's skill or quality standards, but that really doesn't give Walt an out here.

Meth is a highly addictive drug and overcoming the addiction (which is often accompanied by mental depression, another factor in treating the addict) is notoriously difficult.  Use of the drug often leads to "meth mouth," which is advanced tooth decay due to a combination of factors, including aggressive teeth grinding, poor oral hygiene (most tweakers don't floss; imagine that), and consumption of a lot of sugary soft drinks and junk food.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say the ingestion of brake fluid, lye and other such substances often found in meth just might have a touch to do with it, too.  Addiction leads to any number of bad decisions - "Peekaboo" gives us a peek at that aspect of the drug trade.

On top of all this is the debris left behind by the manufacture of meth, which is so long-lastingly toxic that hazmat suits are often required to conduct a safe clean up of the property.  Remember Jesse's basement?

Walt wants his legacy to be the purest meth on the planet.  He can do his best to make it clean, but what Walt is doing is not victimless and it's not an academic exercise in formula application.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


With the May 4 release of The Avengers, the summer blockbuster season is officially underway.  Preliminary reports indicate that Avengers hasn't just broken the records for opening weekend receipts, it well-nigh shattered it.  The final Harry Potter film had held that record and early reports have Avengers topping the boy wizard by approximately $40 million.

Of course, box office receipts are no indication of quality.  Plenty of movies (Transformers, anybody?) make money by the boatload but aren't very good examples of storytelling.  Michael Bay can make things go "boom," but I've never been impressed with his stories or characters.  My second "of course" is that things that go "boom" can be a lot of fun and sometimes you just want to munch popcorn and detach.  In that case, go rent John Carter, which really wasn't that bad.

Avengers has been years in the making.  Literally.  Both Iron Man films, Hulk, and Thor all were leading up to this - a team picture.  Audiences got used to a teaser for the next film appearing in the credits and to seeing Clark Gregg's Phil Coulson pop up here and there to help tie things together.  Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury - casting planned to the point of having the Nick Fury of the Avenger Ultimates world be drawn as Jackson.  Joss Whedon was tapped to write the screenplay* as well as direct and geekdom held its collective breath.  This was it.  Whedon was either going to rocket to glory (and sort of vicariously taking all of us who believed in him with him to the A list) or this was Not Going to Work.  It was not a sure thing.  Superhero movies can be tricky.  Large ensemble casts even more so.

It works.  It works!!  IT WORKS!!!  I felt a bit like Victor Frankenstein shouting to the heavens when the monster took its first breath.  It really IS alive!  (OK, it's not a perfect metaphor.  Work with me here.)

I don't say this purely as a fan of Whedon.  Most people know that I had my problems with Dollhouse which I found to be deeply, deeply flawed.  And Buffy has some plot holes and misfires.  Hey, you try doing seven seasons of hour-long television without the occasional misstep.  Everything that made me adore Whedon's work in the first place - it's in Avengers.  The dialogue is snappy, the visual puns are there, the characters snark and quibble and fight - and still get the job done.  Women are not weak, fragile things that must be saved (thank you for getting Black Widow right!) and the men are not surprised by women acting as equals.  Characters are drawn, not quick-sketched, and there's enough screen time to care about all of them (I, for one, was never really a Hawkeye fan.  Now I am).  Characters are fundamentally changed and yes, there's loss.  And hope.  And glory.  And at the end, not everything is okay because the world can't change that much and everything be okay.

Hollywood is notorious for copying success, so my hope is that the Suits will see beyond the explosions to the characters and decide that strong women aren't scary.  Think of that - a slew of movies with strong female characters.  There's still a ways to go - I do not think Avengers passes the Bechdel Test and Black Widow isn't on as much merchandising as Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Cap.  (Then again, neither is Fury or Hawkeye, so there's that.)

Go see The Avengers.  It's a big-screen movie, so see it there - and be sure to stay through ALL of the credits.  All of them, you hear me?

*Whedon shares the writing credit with Zak Penn, who's no slouch in his own right. (I like Alphas, for instance and am looking forward to the second season.)  Apparently, though Whedon didn't think much of Penn's original script.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 11

Which is the one devoted to sweet Marie.

It's possible to have a good TV show with characters who remain static.  Not easy, but it's possible.  I'm thinking along the lines of older comedies such as I Love Lucy (oh, Lucy, will you ever get in Ricky's show?) and The Andy Griffith Show (oh, Barney, will your wacky vision of total control over Mayberry ever get past the calm folksy logic of Andy?).  What those shows have in common is a sort of nostalgia for a time that, quite frankly, never was.  In such a case, viewers not only can deal with non-changing characters, those characters bring comfort to viewers living in a world that is often topsy-turvy.  After all, it's nice to be able to tune out the insanity of contemporary life and count on Ethel and Floyd.

But that's comedy.  Gilligan can foolishly drop the coconuts on Skipper's head over and over, but the same schtick doesn't work so well in dramas.  For instance, Joe Friday from Dragnet would be in front of the Internal Affairs Board like that! for his pre-Miranda warning treatment of suspects.

A different Gilligan learned that lesson well.  Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad has never settled for stock characters.  The show does a great job of fleshing out secondary characters and even gives tertiary characters details and depth (think about Hugo the janitor from way back in Season 1).  As Breaking Bad's Walt puts it, "Chemistry is the study of change," so it's not surprising that a show devoted to such a concept would be populated with the main characters who change dramatically.

Which brings us to Marie.

Marie is, among other things, Hank Schrader's wife.  (I've written about Hank before - click here.)  She deserves some attention - and she'd be the first one to tell you so.  Marie likes stuff, especially purple stuff.  Purple is the color most closely associated with Marie - she often wears purple (see the picture at the top of this post) and much of her house is decorated in purple - it's used so often that she's blogged about it on the AMC site.  It's not actually her, of course, but you get the idea.  She and Hank live in a very nice house - much nicer in terms of material stuff than her sister Skyler and Walt.  (Then again, it's just the two of them.  They have no children and they both work; Hank for the DEA and Marie as a radiology technician.)  Marie also has a tendency to pry into other people's lives, give plenty of unwanted advice, and occasionally steal things.  She's exasperating, self-centered, and all that changes when Hank needs her.

This is the key to Marie.  (Hey, that rhymes!)  Marie is all those things - nosy, an attention-seeker, and a royal pain part of the time - but she also is fiercely loyal.  She genuinely cares for her nephew and thinks her newborn niece is just about the neatest thing ever.  She loves her sister and worries about her brother-in-law.  And when Hank's serious injuries cause him to fall into a deep depression, she squares her shoulders and she takes the weight.  She advocates for his care and gets him out of the hospital by proving that he's on the mend in a most unusual way.  (By the way - what is it with these sisters and manual stimulation of their men?  Think back to the pilot episode and Skyler's "birthday present" to Walt.  Marital hint, Sky honey.  Close the laptop.)  Marie connives to get Hank the best physical therapy possible and she (mostly) keeps her hurt feelings hidden from him when he shuts her out.  She's strong in the way that women often are - she doesn't come in with guns blazing, but by God, you want her type there after the guns stop firing.

Walt thinks he loves his family and is doing "all of this" to protect them.  In fact, Hank and Marie have the stronger marriage of the two.  They may be in a rough patch just now, but neither one is running away from it.  Walt actually needs to add Marie to his list of things to worry about.  While she may initially come across as a feather-headed Real Housewife of Albuquerque wannabe, she's got grit underneath.

Time - and Season 5 - will tell.