The 65th Primetime Emmys Ask the Question: “Why Do You Care?”

“What the fuck???”

After I finished watching the (DVR-ed) telecast of the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards last night, I was struck with one very distinct and predominant thought: “That was a very interesting episode of Breaking Bad.” It’s kind of amazing how “Granite State,” an episode that had to follow the juggernaut that is “Ozymandias” somehow managed to outshine television’s biggest night of the year. The Emmys were bad this year. Very, very bad.

It’s not just the results that were bad. The actual telecast, which usually manages to be better than The Oscars, Golden Globes, and Grammys was terrible in every way possible. The jokes were not funny, the musical numbers unnecessary and uninspired, and the whole thing felt like it was in a funeral home, where one long three-plus hour eulogy was being given. It shouldn’t be this hard to make an actually entertaining awards show, but somehow it still is. And, oh, those results.

After the first awards were given out, it seemed like the results were actually going to be interesting. Merritt Wever deservedly won the first statue of night, and gave the second best speech of the ceremony. Tony Hale also deservedly won, and it actually seemed like things were going to change. Modern Family‘s stranglehold on the Emmys was going to be over, and it would be the best night ever. But then, the predictable happened. Julia Louis-Dreyfus won the second year in a row for her role in Veep, which is pretty great, but also pretty boring. Other than her awesome speech (with Tony Hale) it seemed like the night would just get more boring and more pointless. And it did.

Some of the big winners of the night included Jim Parsons (who is doing solid work, but come on!), Laura Linney(?), David Fincher (his win over Michelle MacLaren was predictable, but still devastating), and Claire Danes (who is giving the best performance on television). But it wasn’t all boring, because there was a point when the results became just crazy. Bobby Cannavale somehow managed to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in Boardwalk Empire, beating the likes of Jonathan Banks, Aaron Paul, Mandy Patinkin, and Peter Dinklage. Why did that happen? No one really knows. On top of Cannavale’s win was Jeff Daniels for his lead role in The Newsroom. It’s obvious that Daniels won because he’s been portraying Aaron Sorkin’s wet dream vision of what Hollywood would like to see Republicans act like. But still, he beat Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston, Damian Lewis and Kevin Spacey. Jeff Daniels did. For The Newsroom. Just think about that for a bit…

But the night wasn’t all bad. Anna Gunn finally got her Emmy, having the final say over the vitriolic, disgusting Breaking Bad fanbase. Stephen Colbert somehow managed to beat The Daily Show‘s ten year winning streak. Henry Bromell was recognized for his fantastic Homeland script, “Q&A.” But that’s about it. Three things I was legitimately happy about. THREE THINGS in the entire Emmys.

The telecast seemed like it would never be over, but it finally was. It wasn’t rewarding, though. All of the momentum built up (supporting actor/actress wins, 30 Rock winning writing) culminated in Modern Family winning their fourth consecutive Outstanding Comedy award. It seems like the Academy are the only ones who still find Modern Family funny/still watch Modern Family. The voters showed that change really isn’t possible, and the bad guys always win. And then another bad man won, when Breaking Bad won their first(!) Outstanding Drama award. BB showed us that all you really need is hype to win, and the show was hyped, hyped, hyped!  But, I wasn’t really happy that it won. This may seem surprising, because I am one part of a two-headed beast which has spilled over 10,000 digital words over Breaking Bad, but as I have said before, Season 5A was not Breaking Bad‘s finest. I would’ve been happier seeing the award go to Game of Thrones or Mad Men, but it’s fine. It’s the Emmys!

And the Emmys are stupid. The voters showed us that they really don’t care about quality, and that voting seems to be just a random clusterfuck of madness. Laura Dern didn’t win for what may have been the finest performance of the year, drama or comedy. Louis C.K. only won one out of nine awards. Top of the Lake, one of the year’s best works of art in any medium only managed to win a Cinematography award. But then again, we sometimes fail to realize who these voters are. They’ve never given Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, or television’s greatest show of all time The Wire (among many, many others) any recognition, because that’s just what they do.

So why do we care? It’s just the Emmys, and year after year we see how stupid they are. There’s no point in tuning in and the end it isn’t satisfying at all. It’s a sickness, a plague, something worse than Walter White’s soul. But we keep watching. Not because it’s interesting, or because it’s good, but for unknown reasons. The only thing I really know is that “Granite State” was a really interesting episode of Breaking Bad.

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Cousins, Critically: The Podcast – Breaking Bad Season 5 Part 1

CC LOGO

It’s time for the second installment of Cousins, Critically: The Podcast!

Cousins, Critically: The Podcast is the podcast version of a column known as “Cousins, Critically.” J.T. and M. Liam got together (in person!) to discuss what they thought of Part 1 of Breaking Bad’s 5th season, and this time it’s structured.

From 0:00 to 2:32 we give an intro to what we talk about
From 2:33 to 14:24 we give a recap of the season
From 14:25 to 18:07 we talk about what we liked
From 18:08 to 21:50 J.T. takes a chemistry quiz
From 21:51 to 33:17 we talk about what we didn’t like
From 33:18 to 36:14 M. Liam takes a chemistry quiz
and From 36:15 to the end we give our predictions to what the end of the show will be.

Be aware that parts of the Podcast (and definitely the last segment) includes some general spoilers for Part 2 of Season 5.

Again, the podcast is not on iTunes so please make sure to download the mp3 file directly from Soundcloud to listen to the whole 40 minutes (or whichever parts you choose) later. It’s fun, we promise!

Singing the Praises of Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren

Bryan Cranston and Michelle MacLaren

FULL SPOILERS FOR ALL OF BREAKING BAD FOLLOW

It’s a very sad time for Breaking Bad. It’s not because there are only three (!) episodes left to air, or that nothing will never be the same again, but it’s because last night’s episode (titled “To’hajiilee”) was the last Breaking Bad episode to be directed by Michelle MacLaren.

MacLaren’s name might not be a main staple of Breaking Bad like Vince Gilligan or Bryan Cranston are, but she is just as important as those two. Directing many of the series’ finest episodes and moments, MacLaren has been responsible for much of the greatness that Breaking Bad is known for. She definitely ranks among Breaking Bad‘s best directors (the only two who come close are Rian Johnson and Gilligan himself), and she could make the bid for the greatest working director in television.

It’s MacLaren’s range as a director that makes her such a gifted artist. Her work conveys every emotion present in Breaking Bad, be it depravity, devastation, insanity, dread, or even glee. MacLaren can make a smaller staged scene work wonderfully, but her expertise really excel when the ante is upped. Shootouts, mass murders, car chases, MacLaren can really do it all, and do it excellently.

In some of the episodes she’s directed, MacLaren has really nailed Jesse’s most emotional moments. He’s a character who has been through arguably the most throughout the show’s run, and he has the moments to prove it. Take the time he sat in front of his mega-speakers, in “Thirty-Eight Snub.” The way MacLaren has our point of view move away from Jesse really illuminates who he has become. We don’t know him anymore, and his behavior proves it. Another moment that MacLaren stages similarly, is Jesse’s monologue from his hospital bed, in “One Minute.” MacLaren again changes our perspective of Jesse, this time zooming in on him in one of his most broken and emotionally depraved moments. Now, much of the credit is due to Aaron Paul’s wonderful performance, and Thomas Schnauz’s great writing, but the way in which MacLaren executes it really makes the scene.

MacLaren’s talent also lies in the craziness that is Breaking Bad. Her tense and taut direction of the show’s most thrilling moments are what she gets the most attention for, and it is for good reason. In the opening minutes of “Shotgun,” Walter White is in his most frayed state of mind, and MacLaren conveys this sense of feeling incredibly. Shooting from the front of his Aztec’s point of view, the viewer truly experiences what Walt is going through, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic. There really is no calm moment in the scene, a decision MacLaren made right to really embody the moment’s state of mind. This scene was almost mirrored in “To’hajiilee” and it was just as excellent (if not better) as the episode whipped into its crazy-intense gear.

Car chases aren’t the only crazy things Breaking Bad and MacLaren do well; gunfights, shootouts, and murders are among the show’s best moments. When watching the notorious, eponymous scene in “Salud,” the viewer can barely believe what is happening before their eyes. MacLaren shoots the action up close and from afar, for the viewer to see what is really happening. By doing this, the action works incredibly well, and the very fact that mass murder has occurred flies by.

Another great MacLaren directed action scene is the parking lot shootout. I think it’s safe to say that there will probably (emphasis of probably!) never be a better scene on Breaking Bad than this one. In “One Minute” MacLaren is able to make even the simplest things seem like the most tense things in the world. A digital clock changing minutes, random people walking through a parking lot, Hank’s bloodied hand reaching for a stray bullet… They’re all the most important things in our lives when watching that scene, all thanks to MacLaren. She can even make an offscreen shootout (in “Buried”) terribly tense!

Action scenes aren’t always the most tense scenes that MacLaren has directed. In “Buried,” Marie finally finds out that Skyler has been in on Walt’s criminal life, and it is gut-wrenchingly intense. From the beginning of the scene, the camera cautiously “walks in” on the two mid-discussion. The two speak in silence and in sadness, and the way the scene is staged, this sense of emotion is conveyed devastatingly. From the beginning, the conversation is shot so closely and personally, it is like we are almost there with the two sisters. This sense of closeness continues on, and makes the end result even more devastating than it already is. MacLaren stages and shoots the slap, argument, and fight over the baby so well, it makes the viewer feel like we don’t even want to be watching, but in the good way, of course.

As I mentioned above, MacLaren’s last episode was “To’hajiilee,” and boy, was that a way to go out. There were so many perfectly staged and shot moments I could write another post dedicated to the episode alone. What should be noted is the last twenty minutes (obviously). Those last twenty minutes were some of the finest twenty minutes the show has ever produced! There was a car chase except with much more emotional depth and fraught tension! There was an incredible gunfight! But the most notable thing about the episode, is the lead up to that explosive shootout.

What’s interesting is that there was silence. Silence, is something that Breaking Bad excels at, more than any other television show. The silence was totally unpredictable coming from MacLaren, but as usual, she knocked it out of the park. Instead of serving as necessary lead up to the gut-punch that followed, the moment was incredibly emotionally satisfying. It was beautifully shot, fabulously staged, and had so much to it. MacLaren made the silence the most important aspect of an already vitally important episode.

But, Breaking Bad isn’t all murder, mayhem, and melancholly. The show can be fun, especially in it’s wonderful montages. And it just happens that MacLaren has directed the show’s best montage. In the (unembeddable) montage from “Gliding Over All,” MacLaren radically changes what we about know Breaking Bad. The montage, set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” glides through months and months of time, an unprecedented move in the universe of Breaking Bad. But, MacLaren’s direction of the montage makes it seem like a regular Breaking Bad montage, and even a necessary Breaking Bad montage. Everything about the montage is so fundamentally wrong, and goes against everything Breaking Bad stands for, but it turns out that it’s the best montage the show has ever produced. And it just so happens that MacLaren is nominated for an Emmy for her work in this episode, and there would be no greater send-off gift.

MacLaren might not seem like the key to Breaking Bad‘s greatness, but she really is. The scripts are almost always great, and the acting is often the best on television, but what makes Breaking Bad works is it’s execution. And boy, is MacLaren a great executor. Earlier I said that Michelle MacLaren could make a bid for the greatest working director on television, but I think that bid could be extended to any medium.

Here are some other highlights of MacLaren’s work on Breaking Bad:

  • “4 Days Out” was the first episode I really loved, and it just happens to be MacLaren’s first directed episode on Breaking Bad. Coincidence? I think not.
  • “I.F.T.” Enough Said…
  • The montage in “Shotgun” detailing Mike and Jesse’s car ride.
  • The montage of the prison killings may be sick, but it works incredibly well.
  • Skyler and Hank’s confrontation in the diner in “Buried” was again, almost too much to handle.
  • The shot of Kuby and Huell lying on the bed of money in “Buried”!
  • THAT SHOOTOUT IN THE DESERT IN THE END OF “To’hajiilee”!!!

Cousins, Critically: Breaking Bad Season 4

Cousins, Critically

Again, I am joined by my cousin and frequent contributor to Aweful Writing, M. Liam Moore. We have been rewatching Breaking Bad in anticipation of its final season’s return. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” We have written about season 1, 2, and podcasted about 3.

J.T. Moore: In last week’s installment of Cousins, Critically (in podcast form, no less) I stated that Season 3 was my favorite season of Breaking Bad to date. But, Before this rewatch, I was always of the state of mind that Season 4 was the best season of Breaking Bad. It turns out, that I wasn’t far off, because season 4 is a real close second. I love pretty much everything about season 4, starting from Gus’ silent beginning in “Box Cutter,” to his loud finish in “Face Off.” Yes, there’s something in every episode of season 4 that I could mention, because it’s just that great.

But the reason why it’s not the best season of Breaking Bad (but still an incredible one, nonetheless) is what makes it different from every other season: a lot of surface level fun. I don’t mean to use the term “surface level” to disparage this season, because I think that it works in its own great ways. The entire season is an incredibly tense, perfectly plotted out, breakneck paced cat and mouse chase between Gus and Walt (Vince Gilligan prefers to equate it to a chess game). It’s just so fun to watch the two try to one-up each other, think ahead of the other, or even try to kill the other. It’s a thrilling story to watch unravel in 13 episodes, and as a whole it’s a great season of television.

What’s interesting though, is that for the reasons I listed above, distinguished critics and devoted fans alike have discredited season 4. It’s not like the season is all surface level fun; there are some on the series’ best character moments and even more reinforcement to already incredibly defined characters. It’s just a very odd feeling when some of your favorite television critics throw one of your favorite seasons of television ever under the bus. M. Liam, what do you think of season 4? Is it as good as I am saying it is, or am I just overrating it?

M. Liam Moore: I wonder which network Vince tunes in to watch chess matches. One that also televises poker games, maybe?

Breaking Bad begins to frustrate me in Season 3. (No, I didn’t exactly articulate that opinion in our podcast last week. Yes, that pretty much sums up my performance as a whole.) And like poker on TV, Season 4 is a snooze fest.

Let me first offer the usual caveats. That Season 4 disappoints is, in part, a credit to the promise the series already has shown and the prestige associated with the brand. It’s also a result of problems inherent to any TV “rewatch.” Season 4 has its warts, sure, but it would undoubtedly hold my interest from week to week.

The foundational arc of this series is one character’s transformation from sensible-if-cautious high school chemistry teacher to daredevil drug kingpin. It’s a show about Walt taking control. But does that mean every other character has to give up control? Walt’s change is paramount to the story. But why do the characters who inhabit his world lack that same ability to change?

What’s worse, some of the characters seem not only to stop growing, but to regress. Jesse becomes a zombie, then finds a new “teacher” to please – haven’t we seen this before? Skyler does Walt’s financial laundry (care to consider the social symbolism there?). Marie goes back to stealing. And Hank’s character just lies there “like third base.”

I think of all the story time and emotional investment that went into crafting and realizing these characters. There’s nothing new they can do, nothing new we can learn about them? Why do we stop unpeeling the onion now, J.T.?

JTM: Saying the characters “lack the ability to change” might be attributed to the aforementioned surface level fun that is ever apparent in season 4, but I think it’s something entirely different: transformation.Transformation is an incredibly important and integral theme to season 4 and Breaking Bad as a series. These characters are always changing, even if the change isn’t plainly laid out for us like breakfast is for Walter Jr. The characters will change, for better of for worse, but being Breaking Bad it will probably be for worse. And being Breaking Bad it will also probably be a hard time getting to the transformed state for each of the characters, and the change might just be subtle enough to make you (and plenty other viewers) think otherwise.

Each character is put in a position that is often times hard to watch in order to highlight just how much they have changed. Being bedridden sucks for Hank, but it gets him engaged in the Fring case, which shows us how smart of a cop this guy really is. Often portrayed as the bright and supportive wife, Marie starts to crack, and we get to see the strain that her marriage and she herself are really undergoing. Jesse was once just a dumb kid, but now he is a shell of what he once was, and emotionally destroyed. Skyler is a victim and active participant of her husband’s engulfing crime lifestyle, which only makes her a more complex character. And this transformation for all of these characters is because of that husband, Walter White.

Walt goes through his own decay and transformation, and as we mentioned earlier, he has a tendency to take others down with him. He is responsible in one way or another for every characters’ strife and eventual change. But Walt’s journey is arguably the hardest to watch. Walt was once a capable meth cook and business associate, but when put under the pressure of Gus Fring, he’s incredibly weak. Initially in the business for the money, Walt now finds himself (and his family) at risk, and completely in over his head. Walt is really never on top this season, and it’s really hard to see the once badass Heisenberg jerked around by his employer. This strain forces him to change, and it’s definitely not for the better, but it’s fascinating television.

All of this occurs in season 4 because it’s the season is where Vince Gilligan becomes David Chase. Chase (the creator of The Sopranos) was famously upset with his viewers’ attitudes towards Tony and his crimes, so he forced the viewers (who were watching just to see who would get whacked next) to really see how horrible of a man Tony really was. We’ve discussed how sickening the Breaking Bad fanbase can be, and it’s obvious that Gilligan felt the same. So he put Walt in a corner which resulted in some (divisively) great television.

If you don’t like the show’s central characters in season 4, what do you think of the villains? Gus Fring and Mike are great, right? Right???

MLM: Where you see subtlety, J.T., I see self-indulgence. Yes, Walt’s transformation is brilliantly conceived, gripping TV, but it’s coming at the expense of the lushness and profundity of the series as a whole. And it doesn’t have to be that way, as series like David Chase’s have demonstrated.

Let’s talk transformation. Walt does things in Season 4 we never could have imagined him doing when this show began – things that would have seemed way out of character. That is, indeed, a transformation unprecedented, to my knowledge, on the small screen. It’s a real feather in the cap of Vince and the gang.

On the other hand, I have a hard time identifying anything Jesse, Skyler, Hank or Marie does in Season 4 that would have seemed terribly out of character when this show began. Skyler is an active participant in her husband’s life of crime, yes. And it’s true she’s carved out a little area of autonomy in her affair with Ted, though its resolution is done very little justice by the writing staff. (Tripping on the rug? Come on.) It’s also true she gets Walt to spend their money in ways he wouldn’t on his own (typical wife, I suppose). But she’s never shown any ability to challenge Walt when it comes to the overall direction the family is taking – and she still doesn’t.

Jesse, meanwhile, can cook meth but still can’t act for himself. We’ve always known Hank is long on police skills but short on emotional availability. Transformation is a major theme in Season 4, but not for these characters. Skyler, Jesse and Hank (almost literally) are left paralyzed in the wake of Walt’s transformation. No one of consequence in Walt’s life is granted agency to challenge – or reject – the protagonist’s course of action.

What’s worse, the storytelling suffers as a result. You brought up the Sopranos. I haven’t watched that show as closely as I’m watching Breaking Bad, but I remember thinking among its strengths was an ability to stray away from the lead and still produce great episodes. The supporting characters enjoyed arcs much more interesting and enriching than those in Breaking Bad, arcs that granted them much more ability to act – rather than merely react to the protagonist. Adrianna snitched to the FBI. Paulie and Christopher jockeyed for Tony’s affections. Even Tony’s relationships with his antagonists were so much more nuanced, from Johnny Sack to Tony’s own Uncle Junior.

Mike and Gus, conversely, are mere variations of who Walt might become. Mike is Walt without the ambition, greed and smart mouth. Gus is the businesslike drug lord Walt idolizes. That’s a nifty twist, sure, but it also limits the scope of the show’s thematic interest. Like Ted Beneke, with whom Skyler has an affair, the characters afforded the ability to challenge Walt’s transformation are motivated by control, money, legacy, power. They offer a different shade of Walt, but very little contrast.

Also missing in this season, J.T., are the vignettes – the storytelling and thematic ideas that would emerge from episode to episode in prior seasons. You said yourself that we’ve crossed the bridge from family drama to blockbuster thriller. Does a TV series have to be one or the other – action-packed fun or character-driven drama? Isn’t that a false choice?

JTM: It’s not the TV series which chooses to be whatever type of show it is, it’s the viewer. While I may see this season as a more action oriented one, it definitely can be read as the character driven and moral drama that Breaking Bad really is. Now to say that the season is only one specific thing rather than another thing is a pretty stupid thing to say, so maybe the best way to characterize season 4 is to say that it is primarily a blockbuster thriller-esque season of television. But it’s obviously more than that.

The character driven, moral stories bleed through season four’s action packed exterior, as they do throughout the rest of Breaking Bad’s run. However, in the case of this season, they are more self-contained and standalone stories rather than the episode to episode stories we have seen before.

While we don’t really see the complete narrative of Jesse’s fraught emotional journey, we do get to see very distinct points. In “Open House,” we see the devastating lows he experiences. Eventually, he explodes in “End Times” (an episode in which Aaron Paul won his second Emmy for) which is truly magnificent to watch. However, the most important point in this story (and what I would argue to be Paul’s strongest moment in the series) is in “Problem Dog” where he asks the important questions.

While it might not be the most cohesive way of telling the narrative, I think it’s an entirely effective way of doing so. Another important standalone story emerges in “Hermanos,” the only Gus-centric episode of the series. Gus was a fairly mystifying character throughout out the series, but once we saw what made him so mystifying everything about the character changed.

The last stand-alone moment I’ll point to occurs in “Cornered.” After hearing the infamous “I am the one who knocks” speech, Skyler is horrified by what Walt has said and become. So she takes Holly and ventures off to the four corners to have her fated decided by the unknown. Now this moment might be in and of itself a little schlocky, but being that it caps off Skyler’s story in the whole episode, it is an excellent ending point to an excellent story.

Four corners

So, where you, M. Liam, might see a more tersely told story in season four, I try to see the self-contained nature of it all. This series has shown us repeatedly that its means of interpretation are literally endless.

MLM: Tersely told? Season 4 is about twice as long as it needs to be! I mean, if there’s no going back across that bridge to the action-adventure genre, could we at least … speed … up … the pace … a little?

The glimpse into Gus’ past, for example, strikes me as an entirely unnecessary indulgence. (So does the scene at Four Corners Monument – for much the same reason – but I’ll just stick to Gus for brevity’s sake.) The back story – that Gus watched as the cartel murdered his partner – would suggest some sort of revenge motive is in play. But if that’s the case, why has Gus waited until the cartel has his back to the wall, demanding either Heisenberg’s life or his only remaining meth cook, to take his revenge? No, Gus is not the type of man to allow raw emotion to cloud his judgment. The flashback, then, does little to illuminate Gus’ character, only his connection to Hector Salamanca – a plot requirement that could have been satisfied in 30 seconds of dialogue. I may be reaching (because there is so little else to latch onto in this season, perhaps), but I sensed some suggestion Gus is gay. If developed, that would have been the type of character shading sorely lacking in this season – and in this show, so very preoccupied with manliness. Instead, the most you can say about Gus, beyond being Walt’s idol, is that he’s “mystifying.” In other words, he’s boring.

Yes, Jesse’s A.A. kiss-off is a really good scene, as is the scene where Walt scares the crap out of Skyler. It’s interesting, seeing them juxtaposed like that, to watch Walt, in his lowest moment, cling to the self-affirming attitude Jesse rejects. It’s hubris, yes, but also a willingness to “be OK” with the collateral damage of his decisions that separates Walt from Jesse, Skyler and the rest of the civilized world.

I’ve got to say, J.T., “Cousins, Critically” is a little more fun when we’re at odds! We could probably go back and forth on this season’s merits forever. Here’s my bottom line: I gleaned less out of a rewatch of Season 4 than I did previous seasons. There seemed fewer thematic ideas to mine, and I grew weary of watching the people in Walt’s world spin their wheels. A universe that once seemed lush with characters and as limitless as the New Mexico landscape now seems narrowly focused on one man’s epic rise and fall. There is no love, no sex, no hope. There is increasingly less humanity to contrast and illuminate our antihero’s decay.

JTM: I think you might be the only person I know who watches Breaking Bad in order to find love, hope, and humanity. While the show might have its little corners and spaces that provide some sort of positive feeling, it is overall as barren as the deserts of New Mexico. The show makes itself clear that it is a dark, disturbing, and sorrowful show… It’s name is Breaking Bad, after all!

You yourself said in our first “Cousins Critically” post that when we watch Breaking Bad we tend to “suck all the fun out of it by overanalyzing, deconstructing and contextualizing it episode by episode.” Maybe in this case, it’s best to not do this, and just let season 4 fly by before our eyes. While you may have your qualms about the depth, justice and direction of season four, I think it’s best to take it at face value. It is meant to be some for of entertainment, you know.