You can’t go home again.
At least that’s how the old saying goes. What it may really mean is that home may have changed so much in your absence that when you return it’s not even the same place. That’s what Bryan Cranston’s newly-follicled Walter White — hair bursting through his scalp as if it’s been at least six months or more since his last chemo treatment — discovered when he returned to his Albuquerque home at some unspecified point in the future at the start of Breaking Bad’s final run, “Blood Money.”
His little bungalow was fenced off, full of graffiti, its pool filled not with water or pink teddy bears but with skateboarding punks. Using a crowbar to get inside, Walt entered what used to be his family’s sanctuary. Returning to a place you know well, only to see it irrevocably altered…it’s like excavating the Titanic. You recognize familiar sights, but you don’t recognize the context in which you’re seeing them. “Heisenberg” was now tattooed in spray-paint on his living room wall. But one thing Walt knew would still be there: the ricin capsule in a light socket. That’s what he returned to the scene of the crime to retrieve. But on whom is he planning to use it? It’s a poison that simulates the effects of a terrible illness, like a lethal flu, and sometimes isn’t even detected as a poison. My feeling is that he’s planning to use it on himself. But time will tell.
The beginning of “Blood Money” was, in essence, a metaphor for Breaking Bad itself. It’s a show that creator Vince Gilligan conceived from the start as being entirely about change, about the gradual moral decay of a high school chemistry teacher until Mr. Chips has become Scarface. Breaking Bad has kept us in a kind of perpetual limbo. Even if we rooted for Walt for much of the series’ run, eventually most of us turned against him. We truly cannot go home again to the buoyant “Yeah science, Mr. White!” days of Season 1 without knowing what is to come, what compromises will be made, what betrayals endured. We’re just like Walt breaking into his own home, seeing what a dark place it has become, forcing ourselves to think about the circumstances that led to this. “Blood Money” once again showed Breaking Bad’s incredible capacity for change. There was no meth cook, no shootout, no train robbery, no dead kid, no golden-toothed dealer, no artful playing of “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Just the most stressful things of all: Walt’s determination to live a normal life, Jesse’s desire to “break good,” and the fact that Hank’s newfound realization will make both of those goals impossible.
Gilligan treated us to a long, slow Antonioni-style tracking shot into Walt’s bathroom door, on the other side of which we knew his fate had just been sealed. Yep, after the “flash forward” we returned to the present: that party at the White family home, during which Hank picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass while sitting on the toilet — because who doesn’t read Walt Whitman on the throne? — and saw Gale Boetticher’s inscription to W.W., exactly like the inscription to W.W. he’d left in his notebook so long ago. His brother-in-law is Heisenberg. In that moment, Hank’s world changed forever. Evil had penetrated his family, not from without but from within. And he revealed to himself that he’s the myopic, insulated DEA agent we always knew he was. All the little banalities in which he’d taken pleasure — seeing Walt and Skyler play with the baby, firing up the poolside grill, hearing Marie make plans to go bowling — were now forever tainted.
Walt’s desire for a normal life was over before it had even begun. Hank backed off to think through all the evidence against Heisenberg in light of his revelation about Walt, couched in his typical big-baby demeanor about “not feeling well.” The next day the past continued to haunt Walt when Lydia came to the car wash appalled that the new manufacturers of meth in Walt’s absence were only capable of producing a product with 68% purity. He told her to scram, followed by an even more vehement Skyler telling her to do the same. Something tells me that isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of her.
Jesse, as he is known to do, had fallen into a deep depression over the death of Drew Sharp, the kid who their associate had killed during the train robbery. He had become an accomplice to the murder of a child. He had become the very thing he hated most. And it was time to atone. He just didn’t know how. He ended up spending his days lying face-down on a glass table pondering his crime, or if he were unlucky enough, having to endure listening to Skinny Pete and Badger talk Star Trek while staring off in a comatose silence.
It was a perfectly surreal conversational tangent. First Skinny Pete, after talking about how he’d mack on Yeoman Rand, said he thought the Federation’s transporters, the sparkly tech that causes you to be dematerialized at the atomic level in order to be beamed to another location, don’t work at all the way Starfleet claims they do. Showing a remarkable affinity for entanglement theory the same way he was revealed to be a piano prodigy last year, Skinny Pete suggested that every time someone beams on Star Trek, they aren’t transported, but rather are killed…with a copy of them, complete with their memories but not the same person, rematerializing at the other end. That means there could be 147 different Kirks throughout the course of the series. Badger dug that idea and said that he had written a spec script for The Original Series, even if The Original Series has been off the air for 44 years. In it he staged a pie-eating contest between Spock and Chekov. Tulaberry pies. Skinny Pete objected, saying that tulaberries were from the Gamma Quadrant, which wouldn’t be explored until Voyager. (Actually, Skinny Pete is wrong. The Gamma Quadrant was explored on Deep Space Nine. Voyager explored the Delta Quadrant. Unlike Skinny Pete, I haven’t been high while watching most of Trek.) Chekov would have a deal with Scotty, where Scotty would keep beaming the pie out of his stomach so it’d appear like he could keep eating forever, until finally he starts coughing up blood because Scotty had beamed his guts out into space.
All of this Trek talk took up a remarkable amount of time in “Blood Money,” and, aside from being awesome on its own terms, you gotta think there’s something going on here on a bigger thematic level. Is this some kind of foreshadowing? Some intricate symbolism? Not to mention that, after Paul on Mad Men, this is now at least the second character on an AMC show who’s written a Star Trek spec script.
None of this was going to fill the void in Jesse’s soul. But there was one thing he could do: get rid of the blood money. He showed up to Saul’s law firm with two bags filled with $2.5 million each. One was to go to the parents of Drew Sharp, whose disappearance had become a state-wide media obsession. The other would go to Katie Ehrmentraut, Mike’s granddaughter, since it seemed pretty clear that Mike must be dead. He was giving it all away. He had broken good. If this show is about how a man can discover his capacity for monstrosity, in Jesse it’s also about how someone can recognize the toll of their actions and try to repent. Of course, Saul wasn’t having it. “You’re still two miracles away from sainthood,” he said to Jesse, after closing his barn door at the advice of his masseuse. I mean, he could give this money away…but not to those people, around whom criminal investigations are currently proceeding! The only thing Saul could do was call Walt. He said he’d handle it. But after he hung up we saw Walt was back in a clinic, receiving chemo from an IV.
It had been some time since Walt and Jesse had seen one another when Walt stopped by for his pep talk. “This is your money,” he said to his former student. “Come on! You’ve earned it.” But Jesse wasn’t having it. Even Walt had called it blood money when he gave it to him. Nothing was going to ease Jesse’s pain, even Walt’s insistence that “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you.”
That last comment picked at another thematic strain Breaking Bad’s been developing for awhile: that, along with a man’s growing awareness of his capacity to do anything can develop his ability to blissfully forget or ignore the consequences of what he has done. It’s the theme of one of the greatest of all Westerns, 1959’s Ride Lonesome, directed by Budd Boetticher (the namesake for Walt’s rival meth cook Gale Boetticher, according to Vince Gilligan). In that film, bounty hunter Randolph Scott has been pursuing outlaw Lee Van Cleef with furious vengeance. Except that at the end, when they have their final showdown, Van Cleef confesses that, until Scott reminded him, he had totally forgotten the crime for which he was being pursued. That crime was the murder of Scott’s wife, and he’d blocked it from his memory, maybe out of necessity but more likely out of indifference. He had forgotten taking that woman’s life. “A man can do that,” Scott said in reply. A man can forget all too easily the terrible things he has done. Walt certainly can. Remember his chilling whistle last year after he’d just talked about the fallout from killing Drew Sharp? Jesse is asserting the idea that remembering a crime and feeling the guilt of it is, in its own way, a moral act.
When Walt threw up in his toilet at his house later, he noticed that Leaves of Grass, the book Gale had given him, was missing. He searched everywhere, but it was gone. Someone must have taken it. So in his bathrobe and underwear he went outside to his driveway, where terrible, terrible things usually happen. Thinking back to when he and Hank had placed the tracking device on Gus Fring’s car, he went over to his own vehicle and felt around the undercarriage…and there, right there, was a tracking device of his own. Hank must be on to him.
It’s a mark of how truly satisfying Breaking Bad is that they decided not to delay our big Walt-Hank showdown. Not that this will be the only Walt-Hank showdown to come, of course. Walt showed up to check in on Hank, who had missed a week of work because of his “illness.” They exchanged some small talk, and then, just as he was turning to leave, Walt decided to go for it. He told Hank he’d discovered the tracker on his car. Hank calmly, but decisively, lowered the garage door and trapped his quarry. He finally had Heisenberg. Except that this was his brother-in-law and he still didn’t know what to do to avoid destroying his family. He punched Walt and slammed him against the wall, immediately accusing him of killing those 10 former employees of Mike who had all been murdered so they couldn’t testify against Heisenberg or expose his operation. When you wade so far into a river of blood, you have to cover yourself with even more blood before you can get out again.
Walt, not knowing how much evidence Hank had on him, played it cool. He didn’t outright deny it other than say it’d be tough to prove in court. He did say that his cancer had returned and he’d be dead in six months no matter what. Hank was beyond furious, but it was obvious that he didn’t have enough for a case just yet and that he probably wouldn’t proceed because it would destroy the fabric of his life too. But it’s fascinating to see how personal Hank made it right away, accusing Walt of being the one who’d arranged for that phone call that made it seem like Marie had been in a terrible accident way back in Season 2 — which, of course, he was. The scene ended with Walt subtly threatening Hank, that if he pursued this any further he could destroy all he holds dear too.
What a fantastic premiere. Gilligan & Co. showed right off the bat that they are not going to pull any punches this season. They’re not going to delay the forward momentum at all of one of the small screen’s all-time greatest character studies.
What did you think of “Blood Money”?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
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S2E1: When one door closes, another always opens up. Right after the Giants finished off the Pats in a sensational Super Bowl for the ages, another epic battle was underway on NBC with the season premiere of The Voice. At the end of the night, the tally has Christina Aguilera slightly leading the pack with two team members and the rest each trail behind with one. It is a refreshing change from shows like American Idol to only see the cream of the crop with one potential superstar after another. No William Hung types here. Last night marked the beginning of the blind auditions with Adam consistently gloating and trying to utilize last year’s win, Blake coughing insults under his breath and Cee-Lo making sexual references to contestants (which actually worked). Feels like Thanksgiving dinner at the Rothman household, except Carson Daily makes an appearance. Let the singing begin!
“I’m already irritated because I know Adam is going to say over and over again ‘I won last year.’” – Blake
Oh, Blake. How right you were. But Mr. Shelton spoke too soon, because he took the early lead by grabbing the first singer in RaeLynn, a 17-year-old blonde country vixen who warmed up to Blake by singing his wife Miranda Lambert’s “Hell on Heels.” Adam jumped on RaeLynn first (that came out wrong) but never stood a chance. Competition was amped right from the start as Blake and Adam went back and forth with low blows, especially coming from the Maroon 5 frontman. “Why would you just want to be a country star? ... you’re more than that,” Adam barked. Come on man, you are more than that, and I don’t even like country music.
Blake was the center of attention again, realizing he was a “dumbass” (his words not mine) for being the last to buzz in for our next contestant Jesse Campbell, a single father who admitted to sleeping in his car with his daughter before getting back on his feet. He was the first to get all four judges on his side. He had Cee-Lo yelling “Yes!” and Christina raising her arms in the air during his performance of “A Song For You.” Cee-Lo tried to use his smooth dialect and choice words like “brother” but Christina was having none of it. The best line of the night came next as Cee-Lo said, “Everybody is the same color with the lights off,” alluding to his obvious playing of the race card. Jesse picked the “Fighter” herself: Christina, who said she would bring it for this touching story.
“Christina Aguilera is one of the best singers on earth, but I can assure you that she is not one of the best coaches.” – Adam
Damn, Adam. The claws came out early and often but this did come on the heels of Christina calling Adam a used car salesman. The next contestant chosen was tattooed rocker Juliet Simms, who sounded like a young Joan Jett. Even though she wasn’t high on my list, her unique sound caught the eye of Cee, Adam and Christina. The coaches said her voice had a unique “dirt” to it but I think this was the first time of many more to come, where our Fantastic Four let the contest get the best of them. You could just see the itchy trigger finger on both Cee and Adam waiting for the other to buzz in first. Cee-Lo followed the little tiff between Adam and Christina by simply telling Juliet that she turned him on with her performance. She quickly chose him, nuff said.
Chris Mann was another contestant and story you absolutely have to root for unless you have no soul. Mann braved the judges and national TV even though his mother is battling pancreatic cancer. He was also the most unique performer of the night busting out an opera “Because We Believe”. Has The Voice gone Italian? Well, it has now with this rendition and it rocked. This boy has pipes and Adam literally mouthed “Wow!” during the performance. Christina even went as far as to say Mann epitomized a competition with a namesake like The Voice. Pipes picked pipes as he chose to go with Christina, her second of the night.
“Please, please, for the love of God, pick me.” – Adam
You wanted him, you got him and this is my (very, very) early pick to possibly win it all. If not, someone “please, please for the love of god” sign this man to a record deal. Tony Lucca, a vet of the Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Christina back in the day, chose a tough song with Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble” and nailed it. Even Ray would be proud as he earned an “I Want You” from all four coaches. Christina was dead-on by saying that Tony had a silky tone to his voice, later followed by realizing it was her old friend from the Mouse Club. Then, backstage Aguilera let it slip that Britney Spears once had a crush on Lucca (I think he dodged a bullet there). But if he sang like this as a teen, I would have a crush on him too.
By the end of the night The Voice had whet all our appetites for tonight’s two-hour special, where we get to see our four superstars performing Prince classics. Usually, I am against back to back episodes to avoid a show from getting stale but The Voice is unique and had me excited to see who will be added to the teams. With opera added into the mix, the slots REALLY are up for grabs and the contestants better bring it!
What did you think of the season premier? Do you like who was chosen for the teams? Are the coaches getting a little too personal with the comments back and forth? Let us know with some comments below and find me on Twitter @TheRealRothman.
Once upon a time I was hanging out in Allston in Boston with my buddy Christopher Morrison, and Soul Coughing comes on. You remember them? “True Dreams of Wichita”? “Screenwriter’s Blues”? Anyhow we’re listening to them and Chris looks over at me and says “Those guys just took what they had and went all the way, didn’t they?” And that was around the time when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest had come out, and it was sitting on – well, probably on the floor somewhere considering what Chris and Curt and Josh’s apartment was like. Chris nods toward the book and says “That guy too. Just took his thing and went all the way. That’s it, isn’t it?” “What’s it?” I ask. And he looks at me with the patented Christopher Morrison super intense realization eyes and says “Art.”
Having a clear personal vision for a particular work of art, let alone a whole career, isn’t easy. You have to be yourself relentlessly. That’s not easy. Realizing that vision’s a whole different kind of hard. That requires discipline, courage, determination, and craft. Art is that space where vision meets communication via craft. Or at least that’s how I see it. If it’s just craft and communication, that’s artisan work. If it’s just personal vision then it’s narcissistic gobbledygook. A lot of artists move from one end of that spectrum to the other throughout their career.
Up to and including One from the Heart, Francis Ford Coppola had a vision for every movie he made, even if he had to find it as he made it. Coppola’s determination turned even a sordid, pulpy book about gangsters into art. So when he came to believe that Apocalypse Now would be a total financial disaster, one that could completely ruin him, he decided to make a romantic, popular film that would give him some much needed capital. That movie is One from the Heart. Instead Coppola got caught up in his vision for the movie and made an innovative and gorgeous box office flop that would bankrupt him completely, hampering his artistic decisions for the next decade.
Coppola’s idea was to take a spin on the musical and create something totally modern. He told the story of a couple, played by Frederic Forest and Teri Garr, who break up and have dalliances with Raul Julia and Natasha Kinski, respectively. Will they get back together? Watch the movie to see. The innovative part comes when songs written and sung by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle reveal the characters’ emotional subtext. For awhile there’s something wonderful about this approach. Waits and Gayle’s songs tell us everything the screen couple can’t say. Over the course of the movie, however, this approach has a kind of flattening effect, leveling all dramatic tension. Still, it’s Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle, so even when the songs don’t add texture they’re still pretty great.
What makes the movie a joy to watch regardless of the narrative weakness is the production design and cinematography. Coppola’s movies always look great. Great photography, great design. He takes pride in that. Maybe because One from the Heart was meant to be popular and romantic, and maybe because the dark locations of Apocalypse Now needed to be washed clean, Coppola had a replicate of Las Vegas built inside a sound stage. It’s beautiful. Somehow brighter and more confectionary than the actual Las Vegas strip, with even the recreated airport shining with dreamy neon. The set contributed to the ballooning budget that went up to 27 million from the proposed 12 million. That’s what sunk Coppola.
Far from making a blockbuster, Coppola had a hard time even finding distribution for his movie, and when it did come out, it was an absolute flop that set up a chain reaction. Coppola declared bankruptcy and lost everything he had except for one home and a vineyard up in Napa, California’s Wine Country.
Coppola himself is rumored to have said that the man who made The Godfather movies died in the jungle while shooting Apocalypse Now. If he did say that, it might be a bit of a hedge. One from the Heart isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s also clearly made by a man who had a vision and pushed it through to completion, come what may, just like he always did. It’s understandable that a man who went through what he went through would want to make a movie that didn’t have a lot of tension and looked real pretty, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. It means he’s changing.
What is he changing into? Let’s find out.
Next week: the movie that debuted every male 80s heartthrob who isn’t named Corey.