Breaking Bad finale: perfect end to a perfect show

October 1, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV

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(Warning: it would be a dick move for me not to mention that there are potential MINOR SPOILERS ahead)

Last night I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad, episode 62, the aptly titled “Felina” — an anagram for finale and representing the three chemical elements Fe (Iron = “blood”), Li (Lithium = “meth”) and Na (Sodium = “tears”). See? Even the title is genius.

While Felina is probably not the best episode of the series (that title could go to “Ozymandius” or one of the other season 5 episodes), it is the best ending of any TV series I have ever seen — no hyperbole. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that’s as perfect as any that has ever been on television. Just about every loose end was tied up with the right amount of neatness and open-endedness. It flowed nicely, in pace and in tone, with the rest of the series, without trying too hard to be drastic or different so it could “go out with a bang”. There was nothing outrageous or jarring about it at all. A show like Lost overstayed its welcome and trapped itself with too many unanswerable loose ends, whereas every little thing that happened in Breaking Bad was planned well in advance and with an explanation or resolution in mind. The difference is startling. It’s a weighty affirmation of what can happen when a TV series has a finite life and brilliant writers who know precisely where they want the show to go and how things will turn out.

Having been through some horrible series finales in recent years (Lost, Gossip Girl, Dexter), my expectations for Felina were kept in check. I avoided all commentary and predictions and didn’t think much about it myself, wanting to go in with a clean slate and the mentality of just going along with the ride. The only things I expected to happen were that Jesse would live and Walt would die, though I wasn’t really sure about either.

The introductory scene with Walt in the snow-covered car set the pace for the rest of the episode. With so many loose ends to tie up, I had expected it to burst out of the gate and sprint all the way to the finish, but instead show creator Vince Gilligan let his audience know that the show was going to finish on its own terms. I had expected the show to start winding things up with about six episodes to go because it felt like there was so much that still had to happen, but it remained steadfast in its conviction and continued to progress at its finely tuned, intentional speed, picking up at times but cooling down at others while maintaining the tension all the way through. Then I thought it had to start winding up with five episodes left, then four, then three, then two. When we hit the final episode I decided there was going to be no way all the loose ends would be tied up and resigned myself to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

breaking bad finale car 650

But somehow, like magic, the loose ends were dealt with, one by one: his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (in a brilliant, clever scene), Lydia (that chamomile-plus-soy-milk-drinking bitch), Skyler (plus, in a way, Hank) and Flynn (the epic scene with Skyler was the whole crux of the episode, or even the entire show, IMO), the crazy Nazis (including Todd, hands down the creepiest character in the whole show), and finally, Jesse. The only question outstanding was whether Huell was still waiting in that motel room!

huell

The amazing thing about Felina was that there was really nothing hugely surprising, and yet you couldn’t say that anything in it was expected. All the flash forwards from earlier episodes — the ones that sparked a cascade of speculation online — were catered for, and none of the resolutions felt forced or contrived. There were of course some implausible things in the episode (and these will no doubt be discussed at length online), and some people might think the ending was too neat for a show like this, but it was the satisfying conclusion that the audience — and Walter White — deserved.

Vince Gilligan said the idea of the show was to turn Mr Chips in Scarface — and he essentially achieved that several episodes out from the finale. The last couple of episodes were really about Heisenberg’s redemption — despite all the horrible things he had done, he had to be the antihero we rooted for until the end. There was no turning back for Walter White, but he wasn’t simply going to limp off into the sunset with a whimper (like Dexter). He’s the one who knocks, and we better damn remember it.

I intend to watch it again soon, but right now there is nothing I would change about how Breaking Bad finished up.

If the first six episodes of season five were good enough to win it the Best Series Emmy (I was surprised this was the first time the show won it), then it should be a foregone conclusion that the last six episodes would win next year’s award too, as well acting gongs for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and either Aaron Paul or Dean Norris. That said, it could be difficult given that the show would have lost a lot of momentum by this time next year. (I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it turned out to be a good idea to split the final season in two because, let’s face it, it was really like two separate seasons.)

How will Breaking Bad be remembered? As the greatest TV show ever? That’s what a lot of people are saying, which is astounding considering it just ended and these kinds of superlatives usually start in retrospect years down the track. Season five received 99/100 on Metacritic, the highest rating ever, and it makes you wonder which douchebag it was that prevented it from getting full marks. Has there ever been a show that is so cinematic, so beautifully shot, so dramatically epic, so wonderfully written, so amazingly performed and so perfectly ended? I can’t think of another.

I believe Breaking Bad is a show where all the stars aligned at the right time and everything just fell into place. AMC was brave enough (ans smart enough) to pick up a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Bryan Cranston fell into the role of a lifetime. Aaron Paul, who was supposed to be killed off in the first couple of episodes, became arguably the second most important character on the show and established himself as one of the best young actors of this generation. The supporting roles were cast perfectly — especially Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut). And from every interview I’ve seen or read, the cast and crew all loved each other and the chemistry (no pun intended) onscreen was undeniable.

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It’s a strange comparison to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. My favourite comedy of all-time, Seinfeld, is another one of those shows where things kind of just fell into place. Even when things go wrong they are somehow right. The cast always refer to season three’s “Parking Garage” episode when they realised they had something special going on. The premise was that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer couldn’t find their car in a parking garage and spend the entire episode looking for it. The episode concludes when they finally locate it, but when Kramer tries to start the car it stalls, ending things on a perfect note and providing possibly the biggest laugh of the entire episode. The thing is, the car stalling was never part of the script — it actually happened. (Oh, and let’s not forget, Cranston’s previous role of a lifetime was as dentist and infamous re-gifter Tim “schtickle of fluoride” Whatley on Seinfeld).

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

This kind of good fortune can be found in Felina too. I was watching the post-episode chat show Talking Bad, and guests talked about the brilliance of a tiny reflection of Anna Gunn’s face (she has her back to the camera) in her epic scene with Bryan Cranston. When I watched it I thought it was intentional too, but as it turned out Vince Gilligan (who directed the final episode) had no idea until his editor pointed it out to him. Similarly, the scene when Walt took off his watch and placed it on top of the payphone has been dissected by fans, most of whom point out that the watch was a gift from Jesse and it represented Walt finally letting him go. But as Vince Gilligan explained in Talking Bad, that scene was added purely for continuity purposes because Walt was not wearing the watch in the flash forward scene from earlier in the season. The show is so good that even the unintentional things are being interpreted as intentional brilliance.

Now that the show is finally over a lot of cable subscriptions will be cancelled, TVs will be thrown out and illegal internet downloads will drop dramatically. TV without Breaking Bad is frightening because it’s likely everything we watch for a while will seem bland and lacking in awesomeness by comparison. Nonetheless, we should be grateful that we were able to experience something so close to perfection at all. Thank you Vince Gilligan. Thank you Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest of the cast. Thank you Breaking Bad. Life (in front of the TV, anyway) will go on, but it won’t be the same without you.

PS: I’ll finish up with Grantland’s wicked in memoriam tribute to the show. It contains spoilers from the final episode — you’ve been warned.

Book Review: ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ by EL James

January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Fifty Shades Freed

Fifty Shades Freed is the perfect title to the third and final book of EL James’s 50 Shades Trilogy. After struggling with to get through this book for months, I can finally say, “I have been freed!” Freed from one of the worst pieces of crap I have ever read.

You may ask why I would read something I find so horrible — and trust me, I have asked myself that question several times — but the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually an excellent lesson in bad writing and how to avoid it. I may not be a good writer, but I sure know terrible writing when I see it. This is not to say James is necessarily a bad writer. As Anne Lamont wrote in Bird by Bird, almost all writers start off with shitty first drafts. All of Fifty Shades is, essentially, is a shitty first draft. It could have been pared back,  fixed up and improved significantly with two or three (most probably more) rewrites, but instead, we were given the product in practically raw form. And it’s ghastly.

I had tried to defend the first two books of the series to some degree, but I simply cannot think of one redeeming feature about this one. The first entry, Fifty Shades of Grey, was at least fresh and had some interesting dynamics as our protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is courted by the enigmatic, impossibly handsome and super rich Christian Grey. The second book has the couple reconciling after a brief break up and then has them “getting to know each other” a little better, before ending with a really bizarre epilogue that foreshadowed the rise of a nasty villain in the final book.

Well, this so-called villain turned out to be completely pathetic and incapable of generating any tension whatsoever. He/she was a completely different person to the character that James had described and depicted in the first book and a half. It just made no sense at all. Even when this villain made a final appearance for the “climax” it was still incredibly lame, and again, made no sense at all. I can’t say too much without giving away the “twists”, but whole thing made less sense than Mulholland Drive multiplied by Primer.

To insult readers further, instead of explaining why a certain part of the story didn’t make sense in the aftermath of the climax, James added an “author’s note” at the end and inserted an additional conversation to fudge the plot back into coherence. Unfortunately she needed another dozen authors notes to explain all the other stuff that remained inexplicable.

Enough with the villain, who is, to be fair, only a tiny part of the book. The majority of Fifty Shades Freed is still devoted to the unbearably saccharine relationship between Ana and Christian. I tried my best but I just couldn’t find anything real about their relationship, their emotions or their personalities.

Ana loves Christian so much and Christian loves Ana so so much. They can’t live without each other despite their respective flaws. Christian is so unbelievably beautiful and domineering and rich and a sex god. Ana can’t believe how lucky she is. Women can’t stop making passes at her man and she can’t stop rolling her eyes at them. James keeps telling us the same things over and over, rubbing it in our faces and shoving it down our throats — for 1,500+ pages.

But having them constantly and repeatedly tell each other how much love is in the air doesn’t make us feel that love. In fact, the more times they said it (almost every second page, really) the less convinced I became. To James’s credit, she does tone down the pointless email conversations and the inner goddess/subconscious gymnastics that irked me so much in the first two books, but to be honest I still had to regularly break out the speed reading I learned in high school (which had not been utilized for fiction in more than a decade) just so I could get through the worst sections.

As for the sex — there wasn’t a whole lot, and what was left behind lacked the passion of the earlier entries in the series. If Fifty Shades of Grey was all hot and heavy between two horny teenagers, then Fifty Shades Freed is like an old couple who have been married for 60 years and lost their libidos long ago.

Without arguably the best part of the novels working its magic, Fifty Shades Freed was more or less a fantasy diary that simply went on and on aimlessly and kept rehashing the same things. I don’t remember ever reading something so repetitive and tedious. There probably was an attempt at plotting, but it sure didn’t feel like it. The efforts at creating tension were horrendous — SPOILER ALERT — with the car chase and kidnapping the most laughable examples.

To top things off, at the very end of the book there is a retelling of the first encounter between Christian and Ana — but this time, from Christian’s perspective (I believe it was attempting to mirror what Stephenie Meyer tried to do with Twilight until it was leaked online and she scrapped it). If there was ever any charm to this Christian fellow, James’s misguided attempt at his male voice pretty much destroyed it. Instead of remaining this enigmatic, tortured soul with a heart of gold, Christian Grey turned out to be, as feared, an obnoxious prick with only one thing on his mind.

Good for James and the millions she has raked in, but personally, I’m just glad it’s all over.

0.5/5

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II (2012)

November 19, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

The world must really be coming to an end soon because — I can’t believe I am saying this– Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II is GOOD.

How the Hogwarts is this possible? I have followed the films from the very beginning and read 2 of the 4 books (the first and third), primarily out of curiosity, and all they have done is bewilder because, let’s face it, they’re crap.

But inexplicably, this final film somehow manages to be by far the best of the lot and is a rewarding conclusion to an otherwise lackluster series.

The love story between Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) picks up from the end of the last film, where Bella was finally turned into a bloodsucker after dying during childbirth. For the first part of the film, we get to see the world in her new red eyes as she learns to deal with her newfound powers and desires. Oh, and there’s of course also her freakish hybrid baby daughter, Renesme (what the hell?) who is growing up so quick she belongs at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

But things aren’t all roses in Bella’s world. There’s finding a way to tell her father (Billy Burke) without really telling him anything. And there’s the Volturi, led by Michael Sheen and Stewart’s bandmate from The Runaways, Dakota Fanning, the vampire’s version of the Vatican, who are also evil and abuse kids. The Volturi (I’m assuming its plural for the “Voltura”) say baby vampires can’t be controlled and must be destroyed, but they aren’t the best listeners. Blah blah blah; get ready for an epic battle.

It’s actually the same formula that the Twilight films have followed since the second film, where the majority of the running time is spent waiting and training for some all out vampire fight. The big difference this time is that the dreaded and embarrassing love triangle between the lovebirds and Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is finally broken, so we no longer have to be subjected to that cruel and unusual punishment.

There is also a whole heap of new characters from all over the world.  They may be forgettable, horrible and unoriginal stereotypes — but at least they each have awesome powers that will make you feel like you’re watching an episode of Heroes (back when it was still a good show).

You’d think they would have figured it out by now, but unfortunately, the special effects did not improve. The werewolves still look kinda weird, though nothing could compare to whatever they did with the baby, who was the most terrifying thing I’ve seen since Pennywise from Stephen King’s It. Was it really that hard to find a real baby for the role?

Despite all its problems, for the first time ever, the storytelling in Twilight is efficient (it’s a “compact” 116 minutes when recent trends suggested it could have been 146), the performances even and the action exciting. Granted, the are still moments of cringe that will make even the strongest bellies prone to violent bouts of projectile vomiting, but having put up with it for the first 4 films already I had become surprisingly immune. I trust there are others in the same boat.

As a vampire, Kristen Stewart gets to do a little more than heavy breathing and looking anxious this time, at last displaying a little of the range she’s capable of. Taylor Lautner remains relatively strong, although Robert Pattinson still has that “this is all so stupid” look plastered across his face for most of the movie. Michael Sheen makes the most of a ridiculous role that would probably would have completely failed if it went to a lesser actor, and actresses like Dakota Fanning and Maggie Grace seemed happy to just be part of the fun.

If you’ve followed the saga from the beginning as I have, you might find Breaking Dawn Part II to be a grand finale that delivers. There are pretty vampires and buffed werewolves, very good guys and extremely bad guys, wry humour and decapitations; and there’s love — a whole lotta love. Unlike the previous films in the franchise, there is not a dull moment in this one, as director Bill Condon (who captained Breaking Dawn Part I) appears to have finally figured out how to make things work. Better late than never, I suppose.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: By the way, there is a really — and I mean REALLY — cheap shot in this film. I won’t spoil it by saying what and when, but it’s quite typical of author Stephenie Meyer and the entire series. Let’s just say there were a lot of audible groans, and none louder than mine.

Series Finales: Lost and 24

June 1, 2010 in Entertainment, Shows

Well, I finally finished watching the series finales of two of my favourite shows of all time, 24 and Lost. Here are some thoughts.

24

“Dammit!”

I started watching 24 from the beginning while the show was in its fourth season (2005) and have watched every episode religiously.  To me, it’s one of the most addictive TV shows of all time.  It’s the only non-comedy show that I can watch episode after episode all day long without wanting a break.

Season 8 is the final season for the series, and while it doesn’t have the freshness of the earlier seasons, this one was by far the most explosive (well, at least since the third season when we found out the President was the baddie!) and the most strenuous for Jack (with the exception of that time when he died for a while).  In the 24 hour time frame, Jack was stabbed (twice), shot, tortured, beat up, lost the woman he loved, committed treason (technically) and almost single-handedly started WWIII.  Not bad for a day’s work.

I would rank Season 8 up there as one of the better seasons of the show, probably somewhere around the middle.  It’s probably a good time to end the series, given there are only so many national security threats writers can come up with.  There have always been minor variations on the plots but honestly it’s pretty much all the same.

As for the ending, there was no big battle scene where Jack saves the day, but it does finish on a more subdued note that went for the emotional angle.  At the same time, it opened up the potential for a full length feature film.  I’m not so sure how well that would work though.  The previous experiment, 24: Redemption, was not totally horrible but there just wasn’t enough time to give justice to the plot or the characters.  Unless the film is effectively an immediate continuation of Season 8 then I think it would be extremely difficult for them to pull off.

That said, I’ll still watch it if it is ever made!

Lost

The most apt title for a series ever.  I started watching Lost from the very beginning in 2004 and have endured every single episode up to the bitter end.  It’s been one of those shows that blew me away at the start with all its intrigue, compelling characters, mysterious setting and hidden dangers.

However, as the show dragged on, it also became one of the most frustrating shows of all time, as questions were answered with more questions and flashbacks became flash forwards then flash sideways (WTF?).  All I ever wanted was some answers, and thanks to my stubbornness and stupidity I stuck with it, hoping that in the end all would be revealed.

How naieve I was.

The sixth and final season of Lost brought back an excitement I hadn’t experienced since perhaps Season 2, back when the storyline was not so convoluted that I had trouble remembering what the heck had happened before, in the future, and in all the different parallel worlds they existed in.  This was the final season, and we were finally going to receive some answers to questions that have lingered for 6 years.  Or so I thought.

Alarm bells started ringing when halfway through Season 6, we were still getting more questions than answers.  That’s not hard when you’re not getting any answers at all.  I started to fear that the rumours were true — that the writers, despite saying they knew how it would end, were simply winging it this entire time.  Or perhaps they were telling the truth in that they knew they would end it with a big fat question mark and leaving audiences more confused and “lost” than ever.

If that was their intention, then they certain succeeded.  The lengthy finale I suppose was satisfying on an emotional level.  We got to see most of the characters over the years come together in one cheesy, quasi-religious reunion full of hugs and kisses.  Yay.

But what I really wanted, just a couple of freaking answers, never came.  The only thing that became apparent was that the flash sideways in Season 6 were a kind of purgatory, a limbo world where each of the characters went after they died, whenever and wherever that may be.  But what about all the other million unanswered questions from the previous 5 seasons?  What the heck was the island in the end?  What the heck was the Dharma Initiative?  What the heck is the smoke monster thingy?  What the heck is the light?  Where did all these people come from and what the heck are they doing?  Why did I watch this show?

I’m lost.

 
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