Aristotle in Albuquerque

Ending well.
In full, satisfying color!

My one complaint with the otherwise spectacular second season of Breaking bad has been its insistence on prefacing each episode with cryptic, desaturated images of the Whites’ suburban residence, littered with the wreckage of some unforeseeable disaster and crawling with figures in haz-mat suits: i.e., the much-maligned Gratuitous Flash Forward.  Last night we finally learned that — unlike with, say, the overwrought chronological acrobatics of Damages — the mystery behind the pre-title sequences plays an almost co(s)mically accidental part in what will surely be Walter White’s main logistical hurdle for the first part of the recently greenlit third season.

What would have made the flash-forward device (in its usual, “x hours/days/months earlier” formula) particularly unsuited to Breaking bad is also what constitutes the show’s greatest narrative strength.  Its principal appeal, that is, lies in creator Vince Gilligan’s use of the techniques of classical, Aristotelian tragedy.  The structure of great tragedies, in ancient Greece as well as Shakespeare, is such that their protagonists’ fate is always a product of their own free will.  White and Pinkman have each had opportunities to change their ways, but they have both repeatedly chosen to plod unceasingly toward their own unhappy endings.

Misdirection 101.
Misdirection 101.

So, deliberately misleading images of a pair of body bags from some undetermined time in the future were never necessary for us to suspect that White and Pinkman were already well along their dual roads to Hell.  Had the outcome of last night’s season closer not genuinely surprised me, I would be using this space to bemoan the superfluousness of that particular image.  But, I should have had a little more faith in Gilligan’s vision: he has been an exceptionally savvy storyteller for a full two seasons now.

A couple details from last night’s finale merit special mention.  First is the climactic collapse of Walter’s fragile economy of lies, prompted by the innocent, anesthetized slur of two simple words.  Before Walt goes into surgery, he responds to a question from Skylar with another question — “Which one?” — and suddenly all the scaffolding he has erected around his secret labors finally falls out from beneath him.  The second detail is the truly inspired monologue that closes out the episode’s final minutes: “Life Guard 4-6, cleared direct Albuquerque.  Climb and maintain 1-7000.  Juliet Mike 2-1, turn left heading 1-1-5.  Way Fair 5-1-5, traffic 3 o’clock.  King Air, turn left heading 0-8-5.  Sierra Alpha, Alpha contact Albuquerque Center 1-3-4.6…”  If there is an opposite of expository dialogue, this is it.

Breaking bad‘s casting has also been visionary: the cameos this season have rivaled Tim and Eric‘s, which is no easy feat for a dramatic serial.  We’ve been treated to appearances by Dr. Schweiber from Freaks and geeks (reprising his justifiably typecast bedside manner) and Giancarlo Esposito (most notably from the final season of Homicide) as the American Southwest’s unassuming meth mastermind.  And of course, who could forget Bob Odenkirk as TV lawyer Saul Goodman?  A stroke of pure, unqualified casting genius.  Season three can’t get here soon enough.

— J.C. Freñán

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And now, the pain and the pleasure of diegetic time

I’ve been crowing panegyrics for Breaking bad since its debut, so I’ll understand if my unrelenting praise is getting tedious.  But seriously — no exaggeration — it is the best show on television.

Touching, right?

My lower middle class roots have predisposed me to get inordinately invested in such unlikely plot developments as Making One’s Fortune By Selling Exceptionally Pure Crystal Meth.  But at the same time, my liberal arts education has also inclined me to appreciate somewhat more mundane conflicts, like the increasingly elaborate fictions Walter White has to sell to his increasingly unsympathetic wife.  The highlight of last night’s installment, however, had to be Jesse Pinkman’s extended game of peekaboo with his tragically wily customers’ near-autistic child.  The episode’s editor graciously intercut between Pinkman’s disastrous performance of hardness and the palpable discomfort of Walt’s flimsy lies, but nevertheless, that interminable scene in the meth addicts’ den of iniquity reminded me a lot of Jim Jarmusch circa Strangers in paradise.  I kept expecting the story to advance, to cut reassuringly to some narrative plateau further along in diegetic time, but alas, diegetic time was not to be compromised quite so easily.  Gilligan and crew left us to suffer along with Pinkman through a full day and night of tragicomedic mishaps.  “Peekaboo” wasn’t fun or even enjoyable watching, exactly — and neither were the previous two episodes — but it was both rich in terms of narrative development and ballsy in terms of televisual convention.  This is the one show (post-Six feet under) that I wish would never end.

— J.C. Freñán

Mexico and the televisual war on drugs

This month’s triumphant return of Breaking bad — hands down the smartest, funniest, most poignant show on television at the moment — has me wondering whether we aren’t currently experiencing a sort of hangover from the media’s intoxication with all things Latin in the 90s. To wit: when the Botwins trade Agrestic for Ren Mar in the fourth season of Weeds, the previously unproblematic Mexican origin of Nancy’s product suddenly becomes an abiding concern. What troubles Nancy isn’t so much the product itself as the other kinds of commodities being smuggled into the States along with it: namely, underage Central American sex workers. Likewise, the successful production of crystal meth in Breaking bad is represented as being potentially dangerous, but ultimately a matter of how well one understands chemistry. The problem with meth, then, is not on the supply-side: the source of Walt White’s woes is the infrastructure involved in distributing an illegal drug in New Mexico.  Latino gangs, that is.

(A quick aside: for all its brilliance, The wire only really alluded to the port of Baltimore as a choice position within a larger, international system of contraband circulation during its second season.  The geographical — not to mention material — origin of West Baltimore’s drugs was left un-interrogated. Again, it was the confluence of human trafficking and drug trafficking that prompted the Baltimore PD’s scrutiny of the docks.)

So what Jenji Kohan and Vince Gilligan discover when they unveil their respective commodity-fetishes is not a system of social relations structured around the rational exploitation of productive forces, so much as a series of unproductive corpses. Behind these, a different kind of fetish: the well-worn stereotype of the Mexican bandido.  When Weeds begins asking itself where Nancy’s grass comes from, Guillermo transforms from wise-cracking machista to sociopath in under half a season.  Similarly, when Walt wants to start wholesaling his meth, he has to deal with Breaking bad‘s resident vato loco, Tuco.

Qué camisa, ¿no?
¿Memo Herdez el grande?

What’s so interesting about this stereotype, though, is that it’s not the exclusive prerogative of xenophobes north of the border. Here’s just one particularly uncanny quote from Ignacio Altamirano’s late 19th century novel El Zarco, which remains a classic of high school curricula in Mexico to this day: “The lowland bandits were cruel, above all. Horrible and superfluous though a cruelty might be, they would commit it, out of instinct, out of brutality, out of the sheer desire to augment the people’s terror and delight in it… [Their] character was extraordinary and exceptional, an explosion of vice, cruelty and infamy the likes of which had never before been seen in Mexico.”

This comparison, restricted though it may be to the level of homology, suggests that the figure of the narco/bandido poses something more than a strictly racial threat, something more than a threat to the national (b)order.  I suspect this threat, when coupled to the ego-reducing effects of illegal intoxicants, is rather that of irrationality, in both economic and psychological senses: that is, the unproductive (intoxicated or assassinated) body.

I’ll close these preliminary observations with a challenge: I think it’s time — high time, even — that American television unequivocally cross the US-Mexico border.  Rather than being transfixed by the grotesque figure of a Pablo Escobar (as in Vincent Chase’s dismally over-acted vision of “Medellín,”), rather than seeking morbid titillation in the flayed corpse of an American FBI agent (a la Weeds), I think the (liberal, educated, premium-cable watching) American public is ready for a more thoughtful analysis of the political economy that actually sustains international drug trafficking.  If you’re reading, HBO, TubaTV has a teleplay for you.

– J.C. Freñán

TV pet peeve #1: “6 months earlier…”

I can’t figure out if I should direct my ire at scriptwriters or editors for a pox that is infecting contemporary television narrative: the Totally Gratuitous Flash-Forward.  (I do think we can safely blame J.J. Abrams for popularizing chronological monkey business like this.)  An episode begins with a visually or narratively provocative scene, the viewer is presumably overwhelmed by the totally banal question “How did we get here?” and suddenly we cut to a title screen that re-directs us some hours/days/weeks earlier in the story.  The following is a running list of programs that have resorted to this lamest of storytelling devices.

Battlestar Galactica: season 1, episode 4 (no time elapse specified); season 2, episode 12 (“48 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 14 (“48 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 15 (“94 hours ago”); season 3, episode 3 (“1 hour earlier”).  BSG is the worst offender, by far.

Breaking bad: pilot (“2 weeks earlier”); season 1, episode 2 (“12 hours earlier”). I’m otherwise enamored of this show, so it was disappointing to get two consecutive flash-forwards like this.  Season 2 plays with this device a little in the pre-credits sequences, but for the most part it’s not over the top or obnoxious.

Capadocia: pilot (“16 horas antes”).  (Was I really all that surprised?  No.  Not really.)

Damages: pilot (“Six months earlier”).  They built the whole goddamn show on this device.  WEAK.

Dollhouse: season 1, episode 9 (“12 hours earlier”).

Hustle: season 1, episode 3 (“1 week earlier”); season 3, episode 3 (“2 months earlier”); season 3, episode 4 (“a week earlier”).

Prison break: season 2, episode 3 (“12 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 15 (“six hours earlier”).  (Must be Michael Scofield’s brain tumor keeping him from telling time properly.)

Shame should also be directed at the directors of Michael Clayton (“4 days earlier”) and The illusionist for resorting to the flash-forward.  What is this, your seventh-grade Creative Writing class?

*ANY* fucking story becomes provocative when you cut a slice out the middle and show it first. Writers, editors: if you can’t figure out how to make a story compelling without dangling a little taste of what’s to come at the beginning, you’re in the wrong line of work.  The flash-forward is NEVER A GOOD IDEA.

– J.C. Freñán