American Dreams

So it was a full-blown Hollywood ending for BB. Social media seemed thoroughly satisfied (which is the main thing, obv :-/), presumably because most comes were uppanced and though we were denied actual snogging at sunset this was still the Disney-est denouement we could have expected, if not quite Fantasia. And in many respects it was very satisfying, with none of that draining all-those-years-of-devotion-for-THIS? emotion after the Sopranos’ ambiguously-executed demise.

And then there was more Elliot Schwartz, which made me smile. The fact that I went to acting classes with Adam Godley in Nineteen-Seventies suburban North London is, like, toadally my personal #BreakingBadClaimtoFame.

But enough about me, what about Jesse? I was discussing the final episode a couple of days ago with a friend who said ‘Well, of course he’s going to find Brock and uh, they’ll move to Alaska—somehow—and Jesse’ll probably work in WalMart and then he’ll bump into Saul in a fried chicken outlet, and…’.

It’s touching how much my friend had invested in fictional Jesse Pinkman’s post-traumatic-stress-disorder-free future, though surely a) Brock had already been killed off-camera by Todd after he’d despatched Andrea? and, b) Jesse would be grazing a trough of Class A’s before you could say ‘What Does He Have To Live For?’

Oh, and my friend thought it was lovely that Marie and Skyler were on speakers again. My friend would probably have had Skyler, Holly and Flynn all moving into Marie’s house after Hank’s funeral, the better to have more weirdly insular family-only meals together. But Marie also has her kleptomania to fall back on and will almost certainly become addicted to internet dating men who live in trailers, while Skyler is going to become agoraphobic, with pen-pals on Death Row. Yeah, though my friend clearly felt the need to provide everybody with a post-credits happy BB ending, I didn’t.

I hadn’t ever thought about the cultural specifics of story endings until I wrote my first novel. The novel didn’t find a publisher in America because (apparently; I quote a British publisher) ‘it has far too morally ambiguous an ending for US tastes.’ Of course this was possibly the polite way of saying ‘it’s crap’ — however it was snapped up in draft form by the Italian publisher, Editione Piemme, which subsequently got me thinking about Europe’s comfort with morally ambiguous endings in general and, specifically (given my previous incarnation as a broadsheet telly critic), that trick(s)y Sopranos’ final ep.

Plenty of Americans were annoyed about the *controversial* cut-to-black and impose-your-own-ending, though European viewers seemed more comfortable with it (at the time I conducted an entirely unofficial low-tech survey which basically involved asking a few mates who were fans of the show). But perhaps it was inevitable that an All-Italian-American tale shot through with moral ambiguity should end up provoking more questions than providing answers?

Even among the shifting sands of the New Mexico desert we were, however, going to be on firmer ground with BB. At the end, the Baddies paid the inevitable price for simply Being Bad, and the only *good guys* still standing were the White children and (childlike) Marie. It was, too, about as robust a defence of the American Way — and a constitutionally ordained Way of Death-by-Gunfire — that any red-blooded American from, say bankrupt Detroit, could wish for. In terms of classic American Storytelling, it effortlessly holds its own with Casablanca, The Catcher, Chinatown, The Corrections… and that’s just a few of the C’s.

And had your country just crumpled to its knees while an economic gun was held to its metaphorical temple and you wanted to feel safer/happier/more resolved about your messy world, then this final brutal slice of BB escapism was probably the most reassuringly comforting fairytale an American could ask for. Ironically.

That Walt should die from the bullet he took while saving Jesse was absolutely morally and ethically correct; if, however, pure and unadulterated moral correctness is slightly too-sweet for your taste, then maybe that’s because, like me, you can take a lot of chilli with your chicken? However, even if BB’s final episode was Breaking Bland in comparison to the rest of the story arc, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it.

Night-night, sleep-tight, farewell and RIP, BB. You were a brilliant bloody Bad Dream.

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Waltever He Wants…

So it came to pass rather sooner than I’d expected (see previous post), however Flynn/Walt Jr’s ‘killing’ of his father turned out to be spiritual and emotional rather than merely physical. This, crucially, was also the point (rammed home by the Schwartz’s TV appearance) where Walt finally — d’oh! recognised how far he had actually travelled and who/what it was he has become. The final episode will now hinge on whether he decides to search for some vestige of (hum it…) The Hero Inside Himself (this would be a disaster and will not happen for the simple reason that there is no Hero Inside Heisenberg…) or drive over as many bridges as he can find en route from New Hampshire to New Mexico whilst wielding a giant Acme petrol can and a Zippo in search of psycho-Todd and his Uncle Jack (pop down Ladbrokes with your fiver right now). Incidentally, Jesse Plemons as Todd is so astoundingly good at being monumentally bad that, post-Andrea, I fear slightly for his safety in real life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I found everything about this penultimate episode compelling… in a penultimate episode kind of way. That is to say penultimate episodes — not least the penultimate episodes of shows that have run for five seasons—have a lot of work to do, and not much of that work is *fun*. In some respects they’re like first eps, busily setting stuff up for the anticipated denouement, and yet they have to clean up a lot of plot to give that last ep the space simply to breathe, to be; to show, not tell. (We are not, I think it’s fair to say, looking for a Colombo-style ending to Breaking Bad. We don’t want a control-freaky monologue—we want to have to think a little bit for ourselves. We’ll probably want a lack of dialogue rather than a surfeit—and I suspect we’ll get it. We’ll be Breathing Bad). So I loved ‘Granite State’ as a penultimate episode because the in-house clean-up-job deployed the services of ‘the vacuum cleaner salesman’ who really was a vacuum salesman. Genius! As indeed was Robert Forster; only a very confident show at the peak of its powers can bring in an entirely compelling new character, have him play a scene as shimmeringly brilliant as the 10,000-dollar-one-hour-card-game with Walt and then casually dispense with his services.

Anyway… that poor bastard, Jesse. It seemed unnecessarily cruel to ‘reward’ Jesse’s moral/ethical volte-face with the destruction of the very thing that made him realise he was capable of a moral/ethical volte-face in the first place, but there we have it: cook Meth and your darlings will be killed; cook Meth with Walter White and your darlings will be be brutally executed right in front of you. Life’s a Bitch.

In fact, Andrea’s death was the only scene I found uncomfortable. And I don’t mean for the obvious reason—Andrea being shot in the back of the head on her own front porch—but because it seemed to miss a BB-beat or two. I don’t think Andrea would have opened the door to Todd—she was sweet but she was also Street—and I don’t think she would have hovered around on the verandah squinting into the darkness. It all felt a little too Panto-From-Hell for BB; a little bit ‘Freddie Krueger’s Behind You!’ However, this is a minor quibble about an episode that was just as good as any episode following the peerless ‘Ozymandias’ could reasonably expect to be.

And now, with nothing left to lose except his life, Walter White is Wile E. Coyote gone feral.  (TBC)

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Bring it, Bitch! Some thoughts about BReaking BAd…

So. All week (on and off, in between what passes for A Life in Random-on-Sea) I’ve been wondering whether Walt told Jesse about watching Jane die because:

a) He is, percentage-wise, now as purely evil as his own product and therefore pretty much out of touch with his inner Whitman?

b) He actually wants his ‘son’ Jesse to do the decent Mythological thing and kill him before the cancer does?

c) The ep’s writer, Moira Walley-Beckett, knew that watching Bryan Cranston deliver those lines to Jesse would become BBs very own Darth-Vader-confesses-to-Luke-Skywalker—with go-faster stripes in a fetching shade of ice-blue. Thus, Walt is not only Jesse’s abusive ‘father’, he’s the kind of Dad who’d allow his son’s girlfriend to die in front of him… and yet this happened all the way back in Season Two, when we didn’t yet know Walt was The Terminator and redemption for all parties seemed just as likely as not. (Interestingly, viewers may still have been rooting for Mr White at this point but in the original script Walt was going to be more actively involved in Jane’s death, however when broadcaster AMC rejected that idea, Vince Gilligan recognised that this would indeed have taken Walt ‘too far, too fast’).

There are few TV dramas episodes that linger much longer in the memory than a day or two (in my ten years as a full-time national newspaper TV critic there were probably half a dozen), and even fewer that have you pacing the room, days after the event, furiously muttering out loud while trying to tie up the loose ends… alone (was that just me?), however last week’s ‘Ozymandias’ was a slice of drama that I know will stay with me forever.

Director Rian Johnson has form: he also directed my favourite Season 3 BB ep, The Fly, and he not only teased out all those magnificently nuanced (in Cranston’s case, malevolent) performances from what remained of the cast but skilfully balanced numerous plot points which could so easily have amounted to a series of diminishing returns. At this key stage in the story arc, how easy it would have been to stack up the kills in Grand Theft Auto-style, leaving viewers viscerally bludgeoned yet still emotionally disengaged to the point where we would shrug a ‘whatever’ at the rising body-count. To maintain the plausibility of so many wham-bam moments while driving the plot and still managing to keep us caring deeply about the outcome is storytelling at its very finest. And the fact that little ‘Holly’ stole the whole show with those desperate heartfelt ‘Mama’s (entirely of her own volition; her real-life mum was, of course, standing right behind Cranston) simply proves that, like the rest of the cast and the ep’s director, the baby was in the eye of the BB hurricane-zone.

So, where are we headed? As with all great stories—as, indeed, with life—I fear the end arriving as much as I accept its inevitability and am therefore braced for it. It seems too obvious for it to be Jesse who takes down Walt; too unsatisfying for it to be Skyler, too unlikely for it to be Marie. It would be deeply wrong (for us, if not Walt) for Mistah White to take his own life, or for it to be taken by random-person-with-gun (or even Saul).

For my money there’s now only one character who has both the emotional strength and the boiling rage to end Walter White’s life in suitably epic and tragic style—by both literally and figuratively breaking his father’s heart.

Yup, it’s got to be Walt Jr… (TBC)

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Ads, infinitum…

A confession: instead of flesh and blood, arterial doo-dahs and pumpy-bits, I have a cold dead heart made of steel and carbon, redundant phone chargers and scart leads. And the reason I know this (other than that full-body MRI scan, obviously) is because I am entirely unmoved by the John Lewis ad.

Sorry about that.

I know it’s making full-grown proper people (presumably constructed of appropriately bleedy bits and squidgy emotions) break down in snivelling heaps. And of course I ‘get it’; I love that little boy, the ad is beautifully shot and brilliantly edited and I know it’s for Christmas and therefore one must suspend one’s disbelief from the apex of Canary Wharf, but… I can’t suspend my disbelief. I no more believe in a child who wakes up on Christmas morning and whose first thought is his mum and dad than I believe in Father Christmas. (No, strike that — I sort of do believe a little bit in Santa because I sat on his actual knee in Hamleys in 1969 and he was real). Is there a single real British child (of what—seven?) who has ever done anything other than wake up at some ungodly pre-dawn hour on Christmas Day and within slightly less than a heartbeat started ripping open their presents? If there is, I would love to meet that child. I’d like to interview that child — and its parents. Hell, I’d like to adopt that child.

But almost worse than all of this desperate sentimentality (and I don’t have a problem with desperate sentimentality — ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ gets me every single time) is that final (give-us-your) money-shot. Perhaps I could be persuaded that out there, somewhere, there really is a small British child of infinite unselfishness and generosity (with a John Lewis Partnership card?), however I remain to be convinced that at 5.30-ish am on December 25th it is ever as bright as midday. Go on, see for yourself: as that darling little boy hovers in the doorway clutching his implausible gift, mum and dad wake up, blinking and bleary— and no wonder, given there is a fat load of full-blown daylight going on outside their bedroom window. Oh, hang on a mo (and thank you to a reader for pointing this out), according to the clock it’s actually 8am. In which case, I can only assume the John Lewis family lives on 34th St.

And while I’m at it… you know those ads for Iceland in which the divine Stacey Soloman (I do properly love her) is excitedly heading home to Dagenham for Christmas? Well, that’s just a heart-warming bit of structured ad-reality, isn’t it? Let’s face it, Stacey is far more likely to be excitedly heading home to Dagenham for Chanukah.

Actually, I’m feeling deep and profound humbuggery about all the current crop of Christmas ads. It’s mid-November, we’ve just done half-term, Hallowe’en and fireworks and I am not even remotely ready to embrace the season of dementoid consumerism, which (to my mind) should only really kick-off when advent calendars have started being deployed. Also, there is something a little bit desperate about the scale of these ads, which, in the face of a proper recession, strike me as being even more insanely lavish than usual. Those by Waitrose and Sainsburys make me feel particularly nauseous: the monumental scale of the almost audibly-groaning tables covered in obscene amounts of roasted/glazed/sugar-dusted ‘festive’ whatever feels so categorically wrong right now that it genuinely leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This is a similar theme to the one explored by India Knight in her excellent column in yesterday’s Sunday Times. But it’s worth reiterating: if I had just been made redundant and faced a belt-tightening Christmas, far from being guilt-tripped into attempting to create a Christmas that only truly exists in the minds-eyes of the men and women of Charlotte St (and OK, maybe the Ecclestone family), I’d want to be made to feel OK about the fact that I just bloody well couldn’t. Look, I’m not an idiot —it goes without saying this isn’t traditionally the job of the advertising industry… but it could be. Instead of ads that metaphorically ram unattainable amounts of more-bloody-stuff down our sore throats, perhaps the cleverest brains in Charlotte St could think of ways to fulfil their remit without actually making us gag.

Which observation brings me full circle. Maybe I’m even starting to warm to the idea of a Christmas advertisement that is predominantly about feeling things rather than buying stuff. Perhaps I am in fact less heart-of-a-Bakugan than solar-plexus-of-a-toasted-marshmallow? Whatever. Of course John Lewis wants to flog us lots and lots of Christmas presents but given they’ve chosen to do so in a different (even if entirely implausible) way to the Waitroses and Sainsburys, I probably won’t love them any less than I already do (and having been a store card holder for 1000 years, I have a lot of John Lewis love).

And don’t get me started on M&S. Oh, OK… quite aside from the fact that hitching itself to the X-Factor sleigh proved to be A Bad Move, Cocaine-coza-wise, I fail to see how having Micha B singing about her ‘dreams coming true’ in a tight close-up in the final shot of the ad is anything other than a not-very-subliminal message to ‘vote Micha to win’. Next year, I suggest that, having obviously decided who he wants/needs to win in about September, Cowell hands the whole tackily gift-wrapped package over to Derren Brown, who, deploying his spooky Suggestability Factor, is guaranteed to Make It So.

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Tinker Tailor Downton Spy…

Exhausting evening last night, ricocheting from Tinker Tailor at the local cinema to Downton Abbey on the box… which wasn’t, with the benefit of hindsight, necessarily the right way round. While Downton probably makes a better dessert than it does a starter, Tinker Tailor deserved an evening to itself, the better to mull over why, despite performances and cinematography that couldn’t be improved upon, I appreciated it more than I loved it.

Maybe it’s simply that it’s hard to love a spy… unless they’re the Spy Who Loved Me. I can admire a spy, however — and I hugely admired Gary Oldman’s (un)Smiley, a master-class in utterly compelling, un-showy acting. (I’m not sure — sadly — that anybody has ever won a Best Actor Academy Award for stillness, despite the fact that nothing better demonstrates the screen-acting craft, but please correct me if you can think of an example).

Ultimately, I suppose, I was in awe of a film that allowed its audience the time to think, that made every pause and pursed lip and exhaled puff of smoke — never mind the (few, but entirely unsparing) gunshots — count. And of course it looked perfect, and I was exceptionally grateful that this wasn’t edited by a Tourettes sufferer, a la Bourne or recent Bonds. But admiration isn’t the same as love. For love you need intimacy and by its very nature ‘Tinker Tailor’ keeps us at arms length. The result is intellectually satisfying (I can’t recall the last time I went to the cinema and felt quite so un-dumbed and grown-up) but it is also as emotionally chilly as its Cold War setting. Mind you, last night I had a brief discussion about the film with a Twitter friend who also saw it yesterday and apparently she cried at the end. I very rarely cry at drama (I save it for documentaries instead), but I do recognise that getting an audience to cry at the end of a film is, for many filmmakers, probably a box-ticked, though frankly I doubt it was very high on Tinker Tailor’s director Tomas Alfredson’s To Do list.

On the other hand, if Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes can get us reaching for the Kleenex he’d probably consider it a job well-done. But before I go there… had Tinker Tailor needed an even bigger cast of Alpha acting talent, I’m sure room could have been found around the table for Downton’s ruling triumvirate of Bonneville, Carter and Coyle, all of whom would’ve deployed the requisite combinations of tweed, RP, stiff upper lips and small firearms as apparently effortlessly as did Tinker’s Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, et al.

But in the event I love the fact that it’s not a man who is the link between Tinker and Downton — it’s a woman; specifically Laura Carmichael, better known to prime-timers as Lady Edith. Ms Carmichael doesn’t have a huge amount to do in Tinker — she’s a gel, after all —  but she does it beautifully, making yearning, Moneypenny-ish eyes at Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite being a hottie in real life, Carmichael appears to be cornering the market in young, quivering-quietly-and-intensely-with-unrequited-whatever maiden-aunts-in-waiting. She’s already having a great career but by never having to rely on a Lady Mary/Sybil pout will, I predict, have a lengthy and glittering one.

Anyway, Downton returned last night with a 90-minute, post X-Factor Orgy of Exposition (well, it has been a year) and hooray for that. I have no truck with the inverted snobbery of the ‘oh-god-it’s-Upstairs-Downstairs-re-imagined-for-the-recession’ critical dismissals. In my opinion this is as good an unashamedly escapist popular/ist drama as we’re ever going to see on a Sunday night. It may — hell, it does — have a sentimental streak as wide as the WW1 trenches, it may pander shamelessly to our collective ‘we-know-our-places… you-lay-them-and-I’ll-sit’ class system — but it does it warmly, wittily and knowingly, and you can’t say fairer than that.

OK, I felt a little bit sorry for Spooks last night, trounced as it was in the ratings (4.6 million to Downton’s 9.3, for the record) — but not that sorry. Given the choice between a ‘Tinker Tailor Terrorist’ for the Tourette’s Generation v Titanic-Set-In-A-Castle, then My Heart Will Go (On) To Downton.

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