This week, Sean Witzke watched the sun go down on the third season of Breaking Bad, while Tucker started to grasp that he probably isn't going to be able to keep up with Hell's Kitchen.
Breaking Bad - "Full Measure"
In Vince Gilligan fashion, after the nasty cliffhanger of last week we're treated to an ominous opening fakeout - empty shot of Walt's house. Of course it's a flashback and the "oh god what happened" moment is Walt and Skylar looking at the home. Walt calls it a "starter home" not realizing that the bottom is about to fall out right after his kid is born.
This series has many visual callbacks to No Country for Old Men, we get another one, of wide horizon expanding before us and SUV headlights pulling into the frame. Then we're back in their own imagery - Walt putting the Heisenberg hat on, the cracked Aztec windshield, over the shoulder shot catching the sun on Gus' glasses. It's nice that a show like this can entertain having iconography in the first place.
Mike the PI, this is his episode to shine. He's a fixer and while Walt calls Gus a pragmatist, it's really Mike that is. Mike is down for whatever, but he's not out for mayhem. He's not world-weary either. He's just tired. He's smart, scary capable, and seems to like he likes Walt a little more than he should. But last episode he made it clear that he knows where his money is made, and that he works for Gus first and everyone else last. Him looming over Saul in wide shot, flatly telling him to tell him where Jesse is, thats the banal terror of Breaking Bad right there. This is big, scary, dramatic shit, but ultimately the criminals aren't even the kind of criminals that would warrant being on the Wire. Breaking Bad is every day, people who understand they have to do this for a living. Mike, he wouldn't be the kind of gravitas-filled monster this same actor plays on other shows. He'd be Mike, who likes the people he works with but won't hesitate to shoot them in the arm for fucking up. Even the sheer badass, Omar-style assault he puts on (the balloons? so smart) is low scale and slow. Its badass because its set to Ill Communication-era Beasties funk, but also because he's just doing his job, in between cleaning up after Walt and driving his kid to school. "Saul, don't make me beat you until your legs don't work" and "I'd trust the hole in the desert I'd leave you in" is takeaway dialog like this show has always done its best to leave out of every character but Walt and Jesse's mouths.
Gus telling Gail about Walt's illness, it's actually Gus telling Gail that he's going to kill Walt as soon as Gail is sure he can replace him. He calls this a desire for "continuity". This scene is brilliant because it takes the loaded conversations Gus and Walt have been having and turn them to another purpose - when Gus talks there are layers and layers of meaning, and when Walt speaks to him its like ancient samurai having tea. Gus talking to another character without that level of conversation is such a domination, it's beyond intimidating. You don't fuck with Gus, and never has it been more clear than in this episode.
Saul's brief two scenes are great - the second one, of him telling Walt and Jesse how badly they've fucked him and themselves, in the back room of a laser tag. "That goes double for you hip hop". The scene also shows that Saul is far more loyal than anyone would guess - he threw Mike off the trail when he could have just handed him Jesse.
In the Lazer Tag Walt goes from telling Jesse he's not a murderer to this episode outright telling Jesse to murder Gail. Walt cares about Jesse, but as with his relationships with everyone else, he loves him as long as he can help him. He talks to Jesse with stipulations and rules - saying "I saved your life, are you gonna save mine?". Jesse just wants to end it, have Walt turn states evidence and run. But Walt says no, find where Gail lives and I'll do it. Walt goes out on his way to kill Gail, the silent asshole picks up Walt, because there is "a chemical leak in his lab".
Mike says to Walt, "as soon as you figure out what this is, the sooner we can all go home", clearly not talking about a chemical leak. Walt loses it, starts pleading for his life, offering to cook for free (!?!), and eventually offering up Jesse. It was a neck-snapper of a twist, something I never thought I'd see Walt do. Even though it does keep in with the series theme of humbling its protagonists by their own actions - Walt is one of the most proud characters on television. He doesn't believe in charity, he took everything to accept help from anyone for two straight seasons. Walt flipping on Jesse was something that couldn't happen, but here it was and in character. Of course it was another fakeout and the final moments are of Walt telling Jesse that if he kills Gail, they get to live, buying himself time and putting Mike in the worst possible situation. Walt doesn't think that maybe he's getting Jesse killed along with Gail, or that this plan only benefits him, or that Jesse has so much blood on his hands he's not going to be able to take another body at this point. Walt only cares about Walt, and while the series is likely going to give Walt exactly what he wants - which is to win. The Hat coming back on, even briefly, thats signifiying bad news, thats the worst possible thing that could happen. Walt got in too deep and then pissed off the wrong people, and even when he gets out of this situation, probably exactly the way he planned, its only going to put his family and Jesse in a worse position than they were when he was out. The opening flashback sends one thing home - that Walt's expectations never match the outcome, and that he's clearly not prepared for the awful things that could happen. He's willing to deal with them, he's willing to go hard when he has to, but Walt doesn't understand the consequences of his actions and thinks he does. Thats never going to be a benefit, and the hints at him losing control all throughout the season are only going to make him a danger to everything and everyone he touches.
No Skylar, no Hank, no Marie, no Walt Jr. This is an episode about Walt and Jesse, and the people they work with - Mike, Saul, Gail, and Gus.
This season - this was a stunning 13 episodes, wasn't it? A good show transitioning to a great show, possibly seeing the failures of Mad Men's 3rd season and crafting a show that consistently surprised and never pulled its punches. Always stepping up from the previous episode, always propelling forward without getting bogged down in continuity-laden garbage, all the subplots actually mattered and weren't just filler, no day player bullshit, no overt messages while the show had real thematic heft. It was just good at being a character based show, and never plateaued the way most shows do. After the the previous season finale's choice to go with something internally violent rather than cathartically violent, this season they managed to do both. There isn't more to say than this is a show that can manage that, and thats why it's worth caring about.
Hell's Kitchen - "13 Chefs Compete"
By the time you get to the last quarter of a Hell's Kitchen season, you're supposed to have picked one of the competitors as a favorite. The choice isn't really up to you. It's determined by how well the editors have done their job, and in the case of Hell's Kitchen, that job is to present the other contestants in a way that makes them completely unlikeable. There's a lot of different ways that they can do this, almost all of which are shared amongst the hundreds of shows that utilize this format. This particular episode was one that did the trick where your attention is focused on the failings of two people--Jason from the men's team, Fran from the women's--while frantically cutting to the two of them making indignant excuses for their failures. It's pretty standard stuff: you show the person screwing things up repeatedly, and then you show them complaining about being called on it. If it's done properly, the audience reaches the end of the episode disliking the contestant, to the point where they are consistently repelled by any argument for the contestants competence.
In Fran's case, this method neatly dovetailed with another standard trick. Earlier in the episode, Fran accidently scalded her hand after oversalting the water, but she then concealed this from the team. As the show progressed, she began to screw up her specific task, which was to cook the meat. After running out of excuses for her failings--none of which were related to her hand--she began to complain about the burn incessently. Easily manipulating a team member into notifying Ramsay, Fran was able to flip her personal screw-up into a personal quality. She was a fuck-up, okay, but she was a determined one, a supertough fuck-up--hell, did you see that hand? It's kind of red! That's some inner strength that lady is packing! Of course, the entire sequence was one that showcased her various deceptions, portraying them in a way that implies that the viewer is seeing things that the other contestants aren't privy to--but that's the trick. You're supposed to reach the end of the episode and be completely disgusted with Fran's craven attempt to manipulate the people around her, and you're supposed to be angry that nobody-else-is-calling-her-on-it, because that makes the conclusion of the episode--where Fran is saved from ejection--totally unsatisfying. Seeing Fran caught out for her manipulation and technical incompetence then becomes the motivating force for watching the next episode. And if the trick is pulled off again, and it will be, an entire season turns out like this: each week, one gets a little satisfaction as irritating people are put in their place, until one reaches the end, where the most non-irritating people become, by default, the hero. (Does that mean Fran will go home next week? No. But you can be guaranteed that, if Fran doesn't step up to the plate, the next episode will produce more footage of another contestant behaving in an irritating fashion. And then, as they did this week when they chose to eject Jamie, the producers will get rid of whichever cast member is proving useless in the production of irritation/entertainment fodder.)
Martin can correct me if I'm wrong, but this is pretty much how all these competition shows work. Sometimes a show will luck out with a couple of "bad guys" who are actually good enough at the menial "tasks" that they can force the show to keep them until the end, but for the most part, these shows are geared around a weekly installment of irritation/vindication. The show starts, you don't know anybody, it introduces some people for you to dislike, and then it spends the next 13 or so weeks punishing those people for you, and then, at the very end of the season, it asks you to pretend to care about the two people that are left behind. Hell's Kitchen has the occasional blips where this format doesn't work, where a specific contestant has such unusual personal circumstances that they don't properly fit as "assholes" and thereby force the producers to institute some kind of special resolution (twice before, two honestly likable amateurs were hired by Gordon Ramsay after their mid-season ejection--they weren't qualified enough to believably win, but they weren't the sort of people the audience would happily watch lose).
That's pretty much it, I think. I was going to conclude this boring fucking recap by making some kind of proclamation why I'm not going to keep writing about this show, and I was thinking I could tie that into another thing about how I think, sometimes, you do have to just fucking stop being a politically correct bitch and just admit that you really are better than certain things, like shitty boring predictable reality shows on the Fox network, but I don't really feel like it anymore. It's tempting to pretend that I'm not going to watch Hell's Kitchen because I'm going to do something better with my time, like get in heated debates with strangers about the oil spill, or write extensively about the time I picked up an ugly middle aged woman in a Waffle House and gave her a foot massage, but I'm probably just going to try to get into video games again. Maybe I'll eat some pussy for a couple more hours a night. Hell's Kitchen can suck my dick.
-Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2010