Cousins, Critically: 2013 In Film and Music

Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series was explained in part 1 of the series. J.T. Moore would like to thank all those involved in the cumulative effort of Cousins, Critically, and all those who have taken time to read the exhaustive posts. It’s been a great year for television, film, music, and groundbreaking familial blogging, and Cousins, Critically proves it.

J.T. and M. Liam Moore Discuss The Year in Film and Music

J.T. Moore: This might sound weird coming from someone who runs an amateur blog about television, but movies are probably my favorite form of storytelling. In 2013. I saw maybe 5 or 10 movies that were released this year. Does that make me qualified to talk about the year in cinema? Yes, because the majority of those 10 movies were so damn good.

Gravity swept the nation, and for good reason. The film is an astounding achievement in technical filmmaking, and is an outright experience. As long as I’m talking about experience movies, I have to mention All Is Lost. A.O. Scott equated All is Lost to “an action movie in the most profound and exalted sense of the term,” which is the best way to put it. The amazing Robert Redford maybe speaks three times throughout the film’s entire 90 minute running time, and yet it remains captivating all the way through. But in 2013, I saw 2 movies that elevated themselves above all other movies in 2013.

My second favorite movie of 2013 is Spring Breakers. I’m of the mind that Harmony Korine’s movie about four neon bikini-clad girls who let loose on Spring Break is a modern masterpiece. Or maybe a contemporary classic. Whatever you want to call it, Spring Breakers is a fantastic movie for the here and now. It might seem like Spring Breakers is some sort of perverse, morally depraved film made so creepy guys on the internet (not us) can see their favorite former Disney star in scantily clad clothing go crazy. It kind of is, but the film also functions as a brilliantly twisted social satire of our society’s obsession with things and how far we will go to get them (the film sums this up in James Franco’s glorious “Look at all my sheeyit” monologue). In twenty years, this movie will probably not be as good as I think it is now, but in the moment, Spring Breakers is smart, dark, profoundly unsettling, and will definitely make you think.

What’s that? You want a long-lasting, all-time classic that will make you think for the rest of your life? Look no further than 12 Years a Slave, my “favorite” movie of the year. I say “favorite” because it’s kind of hard to “like” this movie. 12 Years, which is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from the north who gets kidnaped and sold into slavery, is much easier to think about than to “like.” The film is a brutal, unflinching look into Northup’s titular 12 years, and is so utterly different from any other American telling of slavery. There is no peace, restraint, or happiness in 12 Years, just sadness, regret and thought. In my short time on this earth, I have never experienced a more thought-provoking piece of art. Why haven’t we seen anything like it before? And how is one film able to embody the terrible and dispiriting struggle of one community? I will probably grapple with these questions for the rest of my life as a film-lover, and for good reason. 12 Years a Slave pushes the boundaries of what a film can be and can say, and is the best movie I’ve seen all year (and possibly decade).

What about you, M. Liam? Did you see any movies of note this year? If not what about music?

M. Liam Moore: I went to three movies this year, not counting holdovers from 2012 I saw at the Riverview. They are Gravity, The Hunger Bone and a horror film so nondescript I couldn’t even cull its title from a Google-provided list of the genre’s 2013 offerings. But on the basis of your description alone, J.T., I’m willing to crown Spring Breakers the Film of the Year. It’s a comfort to know I’m not the only one driven to mine the subtleties that yield a finer critical appreciation of these timeless, frolicking romps. I can’t wait to see if it stands up to my personal favorite, Bring It On, a turn-of-the-century look into the subculture of competitive cheerleading that featured pillow-fighting and, yes, a bikini car wash. There were moments I felt like I was sitting in the director’s chair.

I liked Gravity, and I’m glad I saw in the theater. Still, I’ve grown a little weary of watching George Clooney play the most interesting man on the planet 20 years before he was in Dos Equis commercials, and Sandra Bullock play the sheepish, smart, pretty-in-a-homely-sort-of-way heroine who struggles to overcome her self-doubt. It works in Gravity, of course, because the filmmaking is so innovative and breathtaking that the story is almost secondary to the experience.

I thought 2013 was a great year for pop music. Some of my favorite established artists – The National, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire – released new material, none of which disappointed. The Twin Cities hosted a slew of concerts I was excited to see, and I discovered all sorts of new sounds. Or sounds new to me, anyway; I’m always a little late to the party when it comes to music. What got your feet tapping in 2013, J.T.?

JTM: My favorite album of the year was Kanye West’s Yeezus. In my mind, the album has to be one of the most audacious popular rap albums ever produced. Of course, I am biased since I worship the altar of Ye, and think that Yeezus is his fourth perfect album. Even if he deemed us a flyover state on the Yeezus tour, I keep coming back to the album and every time I am completely taken aback. The beats and sounds on the album blare abrasively, and the lyrics are nasty and often times downright sickening, so Yeezus just shouldn’t work, but it ultimately takes control of you and doesn’t let go.

Admittedly, Yeezus most likely isn’t the foot-tapping type music you were looking for, because it’s its own type of thing. “Black Skinhead” might come closest to a radio hit, as it is the most rousing and energetic song on an album devoid of positive feeling or pleasant sounds. But it’s those unpleasant sounds that I find the most interesting. “Blood On The Leaves” is a very, very dark journey into Yeezus‘s nadir of dark descent, and “I Hold My Liquor” is a depressing, churning and almost profound experience, even if it finds the album’s truly awful explicitness at its peak.

I know I’m doing a terrible job pitching this album, and probably no one else besides myself enjoys listening to Kanye West writhe in his own musical nausea. This is because I’m interested in what Yeezus actually means to Ye himself. Is it performance art? Was he purging himself of all negative feeling before his impending fatherhood (maybe a technique you should try)? Or is the man at a point in his life where he actually thinks he is a god? All of this introspection, speculation, and stimulation comes from listening to a short 40 some minute trip called Yeezus, and that’s why it’s my favorite album of 2013.

M. Liam, I’ve noticed that one of your favorite albums of the year, Reflektor, has seemed to have been lost in the conversation in 2013. As we wrap things up, do you care to put up a defense for it?

MLM: The best defense is a good offense, J.T. The question, for me, isn’t whether Reflektor is a worthy album, but whether Reflektor is Arcade Fire’s best album yet. I think it might be. More than any of the band’s previous offerings, Reflektor distances Arcade Fire – in a sonic way, for sure – from its previous work. (Do you like rock ‘n’ roll music? Does James Murphy? Does it matter?) Reflektor also makes clear this isn’t a band that finds inspiration in success or comfort. The songwriting maintains an edgy sense of urgency, gnawing away at the album’s playful vibe. And that’s no accident. Contrast is Arcade Fire’s calling card. Previous albums transform loss into joy, extract triumph from hopelessness, find identity in suburban sprawl. Reflektor looks back – on colonization, on globalization, on the Greeks! – and celebrates the life, spirit and identity that survive in an increasingly sterile global cutlure. And best of all, it’s got a great beat that you can dance to.

The reviews I’ve read against Reflektor boil down to it being too long (a criticism lobbed at every double album) or too pretentious (a criticism lobbed at every Arcade Fire album). Minus the bonus track, Reflektor is shorter than The Suburbs. Sure, it’s pretentious, but do I really have to combat that charge in a series whose title includes a thoughtful pause? I don’t find it terribly overblown or preachy. Perhaps best of all, it captures some of the buoyancy Arcade Fire delivers to live audiences better than any band I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of concerts, Vampire Weekend’s brisk, jaunty show at the Orpheum this summer was the best one I saw all year, and their Modern Vampires of the City is undoubtedly their best work to date. Unlike Arcade Fire, this is a group that has taken a trademark sound – the world rhythms and neoclassical instrumentation, the hijacked hip-hop lyrics, the echoes of Buddy Holly and Paul Simon – and refined it, matured along with it. Modern Vampires is more contemplative and a little less ironic than the band’s previous albums. Bathed in a variety textures and sounds, it gets more rewarding with every listen.

I’m always late to the party when it comes to music, so my top 5 includes a lot of artists I already knew: The National’s Trouble Will Find Me is a hauntingly beautiful album that continues the band’s arty descent into Sad Dad Rock. Yeezus is egomaniacal brilliance, and for an album everyone sums up as “abrasive,” I found it surprisingly easy on the ears (albeit if you ignore some of the lyrics). Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is the kind of music I imagine Raylan Givens would play on his hi-fi.

And just for kicks, here’s in list format M. Liam Moore’s Top 5 Albums of the Year

1. ReflektorArcade Fire

2. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend

3. Trouble Will Find Me, The National

4. Yeezus, Kanye West

5. Muchacho, Phosphorescent

And J.T. Moore’s Top 5 Songs of the Year

1. “Night Still Comes”, Neko Case

2. “I Should Live in Salt”, The National

3. “Blood on the Leaves”, Kanye West

4. “Step”, Vampire Weekend

5. “Get Lucky”, Daft Punk

Brendan Stermer Presents 2 Great Alternatives to 2013’s Musical Offerings

While far too many R&B “innovators” spent 2013 sulking in a cold soup of tired electronics and Drake-wave moodiness, Laura Mvula’s unclassifiable debut, Sing to the Moon, immediately set her aside from the crowd. The sound of the album is lush, organic, and fully-formed- but any honest description of Mvula’s unique style would contain far more hyphens than I’m willing to type. A graduate of the Birmingham Conservatoir, Mvula is a church choir director with a keen ear for jaw-dropping vocal arrangement that shines through at the most unexpected times. One moment impossibly tender, the next downright intimidating, Mvula’s mesmerizing vocal style sounds neither mainstream nor completely unfamiliar. “When the lights go out and you’re on your own/How you’re gonna make it through to the morning sun?” she questions on the album’s title track. Mvula, on the other hand, is rarely ‘on her own’ throughout the album’s 50-minute run-time, often accompanied by countless layers of “oohs” and “aahs” that weave through the spaces in sweeping orchestral arrangements. Even after months of near-weekly listening, Sing to the Moon still feels like the most captivating and imaginative record of the year.

Danny Brown is carrying around a ton of heavy mental baggage, and he does not hesitate to share even the most harrowing details. Throughout the first half of Old, the 31-year-old rapper teeters on the brink of insanity as he recollects horrors from his Detroit upbringing and confesses to deep insecurities about reckless lifestyle choices. Then, just as he vows to clean up his act, “Side B” tosses listeners head-first into a wacko, drug-infused clusterfuck of XXX-era proportions. This disorienting change of pace gives Old an element of riveting complexity, which defines the remaining tracks. What begins as an honest and thoughtful reflection transforms quickly into a whirlwind of graphic sex and drug abuse. Who is the real Danny Brown–the insightful and intelligent storyteller, or the rattlebrained drug fiend? Old is a fascinating documentation of Brown’s unfiltered, mid-life self-exploration. While Brown remains uncomfortably indecisive, the music that results is decisively unforgettable.

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Cousins, Critically: 2013 In Television

Cousins, Critically started as a vehicle for M. Liam Moore and myself to rewatch Breaking Bad and “dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner.” After a while we realized that Cousins, Critically didn’t just have to be about Breaking Bad, and decided to bring in another cousin, which resulted in the best post to ever appear on this blog. With different voices on Aweful Writing, the content became decidedly better, and Cousins, Critically became a qualitative success (page views be damned!). So, in the spirit of the feature’s peak, Aweful Writing presents Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series. In part 1 of a 2 part series, a host of critical cousins has assembled to discuss their favorite television of 2013. Stay tuned for part 2!

J.T. and M. Liam Moore Discuss At Length Their Thoughts on Television In 2013

J.T. Moore: I’m thrilled to be creating a best (and worst) of list through Cousins, Critically. The series of posts that we have done in 2013 would top my list of favorite blogs in 2013, but I guess I’m biased. Then again, best of lists are kind of stupid in general. To say that one work of art is better than the other and rank them against each other is entirely subjective. But what’s more fun than a best of list?

To say that television in 2013 was great would be a massive understatement. There are 2 different posts and counting running at Aweful Writing on my favorites of the year that just have to do with TV, so I’d say that the medium had a good year.

One of the most remarkable things about television in 2013 is the number of fantastic new shows that came from what seemed like nowhere. Once you found you favorite show of 2013, the next week there would be a new one that you loved even more! A specific channel that had a particularly great year in 2013 is the Sundance Channel. They were for 3 for 3 in terms of outstanding new shows with Top of the Lake, Rectify, and Les Revenants (known in the states as The Returned). Instead of lingering on about how great these three shows were (as they all place within my Top 10 for the year) I’d like to talk about what this means for Sundance.

With these three premieres, Sundance experienced what might be one of the greatest calendar years for any network ever. In truth, 2 of the 3 series are foreign imports (Top of the Lake is from the UK, and Les Revenants is from France, obviously), but the selection of them is what matters most. These three shows gave Sundance an incredible year and one that is comparable to AMC’s humble beginnings with the premieres of Mad Men and Breaking Bad. However, I’d hope that Sundance doesn’t go down the dark path that AMC has taken, filled with Small Town Securitys and Low Winter Suns, and that the channel’s programing only gets better. But it’s hard to imagine a better year for the channel than 2013.

How about you, M. Liam? What was some of you favorite television of 2013?

M. Liam Moore: Funny you should mention new series, J.T. Like you, I devoted myself to a new show in 2013, one I began watching at the recommendation of my most trusted TV critic. That show was The Bridge (known in the States as The Bridge), and the critic who touted it as TV’s best new show was … well, there’s nothing to be gained in naming names. Let’s just say that despite an interesting premise, this Scandinavian import stunk like lutefisk.

While The Bridge may not have worked, it did strive to push the envelope. Even if it came up short, the network, FX, deserves credit for giving airtime to such an ambitious show, and allowing the show (which has since been renewed? REALLY?) time to develop its characters, explore its setting and, inevitably, either sink or swim.

FX gets a lot of love from me this year. I understand that, as a white male aged 18 to 49, I am nestled right into the network’s audience-bosom. But just as it sounds like Sundance (which I no longer get – thanks, unborn child! – though I am four episodes into its bewitching Top of the Lake) is willing to go “all in” on shows that could hardly be considered safe, FX has been doing the same thing for years, albeit with a Y-chromosome litmus test.

I love ducking into FX’s comedies: The League, It’s Always Sunny and, of course, the sublime Louie. I rank Justified fourth best among shows I watched in 2013, and The Americans was the best new series I watched this year. A mash-up of Mad Men and Homeland that keeps Mags Bennett alive AND expands Keri Russell’s wardrobe beyond flannel and slip dresses? Yes, please! I’ve got it fifth in my rankings, although only the top four are firm.

This should be lots of fun, J.T. Thanks for inviting me to be a part of Cousins, Critically: The Best of Series! And kudos to you for not including The Killing amongst the litter strewn about AMC’s recent “dark path.” (You know I like to enforce the watch-it-before-you-trash-it rule.) Still, I have to imagine there were some shows on the network that made your Best Of list for 2013, right?

JTM: Yes, it’s true both Mad Men and Breaking Bad placed within my top 10. (Though I stayed strong and didn’t let Breaking Bad take the top spot.) Both series had an excellent 2013 putting in some of their best work ever. Even though the shows are the same age, in 2013 they found themselves in very, very different places. Mad Men (which I found myself the anomaly this year in loving it) seemed like it would be taking it slow for the year, but at episode six titled “For Immediate Release” the surprises started coming, and Mad Men continued to provide some of the most dramatically rich television of 2013. But if I’m saying Mad Men was surprising, then I don’t know what to call Breaking Bad. What’s most surprising is that I’m still able talk about it after were spilled thousands of digital pixels on it throughout the year. So I’ll just say this: one of the shows ended, and the other is getting ready for the end, and all the while they produced some of the best television I have ever seen. I hope this becomes a new rule for shows in their final years.

Another returning show that I loved at one point in time (but is nowhere near it’s final years; I wish it was!!!) that had an interesting 2013 is Homeland. I have to call Homeland interesting because I don’t know if it’s bad or not. I feels bad, hell it feels terrible, but that could be because I was ready to bail after season 2 ended. What was once one of the most thrilling, ingenious, and genuine shows on television has now become the show that I dread most on Sunday nights. The writers don’t have a handle on any of the characters, the plot has become repetitive and convoluted, and the show has even tried (and failed) to put in a few absurd twists here or there. This has resulted in the creation of a show that has no idea what it is anymore (A character study? A show about the CIA? Anything???) and something that is just sad to look at now. But Homeland has accomplished one thing which it deserves credit for: making me want to watch Homeland even less than I did before.

But I’m tired of negative criticism. M. Liam, what other shows that didn’t air on FX made you happy you were watching them?

MLM: I was happy watching AMC’s old reliables as well. Mad Men was what you folks in the industry refer to as a VIEWING EVENT in my house last year. I poured martinis, stacked appetizers and welcomed Roger Sterling into my living room. But let me be clear, J.T.: I smoked no blue meth in tracking Walter White’s decay. (Or was it transformation?)

Had you been suspicious of some drug use this fall, given my positivity toward the show, it would have been understandable after all the whining I did about Lydia, the Nazis, Skyler, YOUR T-SHIRT, etc. But I really did make my peace with Breaking Bad in 2013, and I got there by giving up on perfection and simply enjoying the show’s finale throes. So much happened – so many things we’d been anticipating for so long – and it was handled so deftly, from the writing to the directing to the acting. I had a blast.

Rank Breaking Bad third among shows I watched in 2013, two spots behind a show I haven’t given up on when it comes to perfection. The increasingly dark, crisply beautiful Mad Men was the best TV I watched last year. It offered whip-smart dialogue, fully realized characters and, of course, a totally righteous wardrobe collection. It’s not always subtle – the advertising-agency-as-whorehouse analogy is wearing thin – but what makes Mad Men so much more provocative than anything else on TV is that the show speaks to power and privilege, opportunity and success, capitalism and consumerism – without being didactic. And yes, there is CHANGE, that constant, driving force propelling Mad Men forward, and IDENTITY, the show’s ultimate ace in the hole. Don Draper is an anti-hero; Dick Whitman is his shot at redemption.

My second-favorite show of 2013 was HBO’s half-hour dramedy Girls. It’s a deep dive into the subculture of overeducated, underemployed 20-somethings from privileged backgrounds, drawn to the energy, opportunity and cachet that comes with a New York City address. I thought the show found its legs in 2013, ranging from funny to poignant, coming off emotive but not sappy, with characters at once self-absorbed (Marnie’s Kanye scene) and fiercely, tenderly devoted to each other (the Oasis bathtub scene). It surprised me, J.T., to see you didn’t have Lena Dunham and the gang in your top 10 for 2013. What gives, cuz? I thought we were a couple guys who liked Girls, no?

JTM: You’ll be happy to know that Girls places within my next 10 best series of 2013 list. I thought the show fell short in its second season, but still held my interest. Long story short I liked the short stories that Girls had to offer (“One Man’s Trash” and “It’s A Shame About Ray” were standouts to me) rather than the long story that forced itself in by the end of the season (this is explained more in the next 10). But nevertheless, Lena Dunham has amazing and thought-provoking stories to tell, and even in an off season the show was some very enjoyable television.

M. Liam, if you’ve got nothing more to say on the state of television in 2013, then why don’t we open it up to the trenches of our other critical cousins who have plenty to say about the year in television?

Andy Stermer Exudes Life and Love for House of Cards

When Kevin Spacey talks, I listen. As congressman Frank Underwood in the Netflix original series House of Cards, Spacey talks a lot, sometimes even taking time out of his busy day as a dirty-dealing, revenge-seeking House Majority Whip to speak directly to me. Being a newcomer to the world of high-level television, I suppose it’s possible that I’m swept off my feet too easily, viewing these frequent destructions of the fourth wall as personal acknowledgements instead of trite storytelling devices. In any case, the web of dark political intrigue Spacey weaves with a cadre of well-developed cohorts is at least as addicting as it is over-dramatic. As the feisty young journalist Zoe Barnes, Kate Mara proves as intriguingly salacious as sister Rooney in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but without the weird hair and piercings. Robin Wright is smashing as Claire Underwood, Frank’s cool, calculated wife whose clever power-grabbing schemes at times rival his own. But best of all is Spacey himself, whose southern drawl and psychopathic lack of remorse carry the show even through its more tired moments. In the end, J.T.’s damning accusation of “good, not great” may be rather appropriate for House of Cards. But the rich blend of raw humanity and fantastic malice it’s characters exhibit gives their political adventures a breath of life that’s worth checking out, even if only as a stop gap between (re-watching) seasons of Breaking Bad.

L. James M. Delves Deep into One of the Year’s Best: Top of the Lake

First off, the cinematography in Top of the Lake is incredible. This is immediately apparent in the haunting opening sequence in which, after stunning shots of New Zealand landscape, a 12-year-old girl is found attempting to drown herself. We soon find out that the girl, Tui, is pregnant and that there are a number of shady goings-on in the picturesque town of Lake Top.

Another striking feature of the show is the acting, and for the most part this holds up throughout the series. The lead role, Detective Robin Griffin, is fantastic and played so perfectly by Elisabeth Moss (who you might recognize from Mad Men). In a world of sleezeballs she is one of the only ones trying to make a positive difference. I hear that Anna Paquin was originally offered the role, which could possibly have ruined the whole show. As it is, the casting, acting and directing are all superb. I thought for a while that I wasn’t sold on the character GJ, the faux-guru leader of a group of women looking for answers. Maybe it’s her air of supremacy (“she’s on another plane” says one of her followers) or her dickishness. In any case, she grew on me.

Despite the show’s disturbing content, it really draws you in. The writing is solid and the plot takes you on some nice turns. Also, since it is a miniseries, each episode is packed with development and minimizes the fluff that you might find with your usual drama. The only issues I might have are with the climactic pacing of the last couple episodes, and occasional moments of awkward dialogue.

The music and sound design are great as well. The soundtrack at times can evoke desolate, open spaces, and at other times a claustrophobic intensity… and there’s some normal junk too.

All in all, if you are wanting a looker and a thinker, take a swim in Top of the Lake. Zing!

L. James M.’s other recommendations for 2013 shows from BBC and the Brits

The Fall – another excellent crime drama… starring Gillian Anderson of The X-Files! Who gets more and more beautiful with age! I watched it on Netflix, along with Top of the Lake.

The Wrong Mans – goofy comedy about a couple of dudes who get in way over their heads. On Hulu.

Misfits – wildly inappropriate sci-fi comedy about hooligans on community service who acquire superhuman abilities from an electrical storm. Actually this started in 2009 but they just had their final season this month! I watched this on Hulu+.

Also I hear Orphan Black is good, and Black Mirror looks amazing (though this began in 2011). If the titles tell us anything, they should be inspirational and uplifting.

And on the American front I have to add, in response to J.T.’s remarks regarding AMC’s crappy new shows, at least The Walking Dead had a great first half of season 4 this year.

Molly Moore Is Disappointed by How I Met Your Mother

This scene sucked.

How I Met Your Mother used to be great. I really enjoyed most of the past seasons, but recently it has gone downhill. Season 9 I believe, has hit rock bottom and has been quite a disappointment thus far. All episodes that have aired this season and that will continue to air take place within a 55 hour time period of Robin and Barney’s wedding. I guess the writers really had nothing to write about. Sure, it is nice of them to tie up loose ends and all but at the same time it would be nice to see how life works out for Ted and his future wife, as we have seen Ted fail time after time with relationships. “Bedtime Stories” an episode this season was all in rhyme, in order to get Marvin to fall asleep on a long bus ride that he and Marshall were taking to Long Island. It was creative and all, but it also was incredibly annoying to watch and listen to. (The lack of metre didn’t help either.) Speaking of Marshall, it would be nice to see more of him in current times at the wedding with the rest of the crew, rather than in a car cross-country road trippin’ from Minnesota to New York. I guess we can only hope that the remainder of the season will improve in 2014.

Tony Moore Presents The Legend of Korra

Some of you might be thinking to yourself “What the hell is Legend of Korra?” I am here to answer that very question.  LoK is the second incarnation of the Avatar television show, the first incarnation being The Last Airbender, NOT to be confused with the absolute travesty of a film remake produced by M. Night Shyamalan a few years ago. A little background for those who do not know anything about the show, there are four nations: the Air Nomads, the Water Tribe, the Earth Kingdom, and the Fire Nation, each able to control their respective elements (known as bending). In The Last Airbender we are introduced to Aang, the titular character is the last of his kind, but also the Avatar, a powerful individual who is capable of harnessing power over all four elements. He was frozen in ice for one hundred years and missed the Fire Nation declaring war against everybody and Fire Lord Ozai attempting to take control of the entire world. Over the course of The Last Airbender’s three seasons, we follow Aang and his companions as they help him learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements so he can prevent the end of the world as they know it.

The Last Airbender series was phenomenal. It aired on Nickelodeon so it had the fun, kid-friendly atmosphere but it also got deep into issues of spirituality, moral conduct, and an ever changing world. Along with content that appeals to a variety of age groups, we get displays of bending that are extremely fun to watch. The Last Airbender had all kinds of awesome fight scenes but The Legend of Korra takes the visuals to a whole new level. The first season of The Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the events of the first series. Korra is the new Avatar, reborn after Avatar Aang passed away. While The Last Airbender took a good deal of time emphasizing the learning process Aang must go through to learn how to use each element, The Legend of Korra starts out with a nearly fully realized Avatar, able to bend Water (her natural element), Fire, and Earth. Season one of LoK focuses on Korra’s lack of spirituality, a necessity for learning Airbending. We also have the AMAZING addition of Pro Bending, a three-on-three, fast-paced, action-packed spectacle. After that description, I’ll need to throw on this link so you all can see what I mean:

So while The Last Airbender established what bending is, The Legend of Korra displays what you can do with it.

At long last we have come to my review of the second season of The Legend of Korra, airing from September through November of this year. This season has the most adult themes running through its veins than any of the other seasons of Avatar. This time we’re dealing with a civil war, brother fighting against brother, and a whole mess of evil spirits that have come to disrupt the land of the living. This latter theme opens up all kinds of possibilities for the animators and they certainly had fun with it. One of my favorite episodes of the season is one that spans two episodes that tells the story of how the first Avatar came to be, titled “Beginnings, Part 1 and 2”. Studio Mir animated both of these episodes, as well as certain episodes from The Last Airbender and all of LoK first season. I don’t expect all of you to take another nine minutes to watch another clip, but at least open it up and click on certain parts of the video so you can see some of the beautiful imagery produced by these amazing animators:

The writing isn’t always stellar for this show, but the good writing far outweighs the bad so it doesn’t take too much away from the season overall. And don’t take that the wrong way because you can still get very invested in the characters and the story in season two gets surprisingly heavy for a show on a children’s network. I know a cartoon can be a tough sell in this sea of Breaking Bads and Mad Mens but if you are looking for a show that has action, comedy, and real-world situations thrown into a beautiful fantasy world, look no further than The Legend of Korra.

Cousins, Critically: The Final Season of Breaking Bad

Goodbye.

Again, I am joined by my cousin and frequent contributor to Aweful Writing, M. Liam Moore. This post will be our last on the fantastic series known as Breaking Bad. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” We have written about seasons 1, 2, and 4, and podcasted about 3 and 5

J.T. Moore: The Final Season” of Breaking Bad is one for the record books. This isn’t because it’s ridiculously good, but it’s because it held nothing back. These last eight episodes ran like one, 300 MPH kick to the throat. It was fast, it was fun to watch, it started to hurt, it turned devastating, and it was like nothing we’d ever felt before. They almost killed us.

Where Breaking Bad pandered in its “Fifth Season” when trying to make eight episodes into a compelling, cohesive narrative, the “Final Season” knew exactly what it was doing and where it was going. Each episode was intensely calculated, knowing where to make the viewer think it would end, and pushing miles past that. Every scene made up a breathtakingly high-speed and amazing story, even when some episodes slowed down. When episodes like “Rabid Dog” took a step back and took a moment to stew in its characters, it measured up to the insanely great standard Breaking Bad set for itself in its last eight episodes.

But even though these eight episodes are truly fantastic, they don’t make up the best season of Breaking Bad, or even the best show of 2013. The season was closely calculated to perfection, and the series finale tied literally everything up perfectly, but it was just perfectly fine. It’s not like it was bad or anything, but the show’s last two “seasons” were constructed in a way where it was necessary for them to fulfill the plot. As I alluded to in Season 5’s podcast, I wasn’t too crazy about both of the seasons’ flashforwards (being Mr. Lambert and his machine gun, and Mr. Lambert retrieving his ricin). In its prime, Breaking Bad was never a show about fulfilling plot, but a show about a character’s story. The Final Season just happened to end the character’s story earlier than the show’s plot was wrapped up.

M. Liam, should I be allowed to use so many superlatives on top of finding “Felina” disappointing, or should I be put in some sort of crazy superfan facility?

M. Liam Moore: We should chain you up to a dog trolley and make you watch all six seasons over and over again until you come to your senses – that’s what we should do, J.T.

The final season left me completely satisfied, which is odd for a show that seemed at times to be hell-bent on disturbing its viewers, or at least making them uncomfortable. It tied everything up neatly plot-wise (not a minute of wasted air time!), it meted out an acceptable amount of justice and – most gratifying from my perspective – it allowed the characters to simmer in their own juices a little bit, to reflect on where they’ve been and what they’ve become. Walt’s character has made a grand transformation over the course of six seasons, and so has the show itself, evolving, as you’ve pointed out, into an action-packed thriller built solidly on the foundation of characters it took the time to develop early on. And just as we glimpsed flashes of the “old Walt” in The Final Season, I think we similarly glimpsed flashes of that old, quiet Breaking Bad, so intensely focused on character and ideas.

But yes, it was a wild ride too! I think the enduring image from this season, for me, will be Jesse, wild-eyed and free, screaming as he crashes through the Nazi compound’s gate, making his escape not just from the Nazis, of course, but from Walt as well.

And how about those Nazis? In previous seasons, I found myself frustrated that there was so little contrast to illuminate Walt’s “bad-ness.” Every character around him of consequence was either impotent or, like Walt, bad. How do you know something is dark if there is no light? Bring in something darker – like Nazis, I guess. This gets a little cartoonish – much like the zombie cartel twins did in previous seasons, I suppose – but it works to cast Walt’s crusade in a sympathetic light. I’m curious, J.T., does Walt achieve redemption in your eyes? And what can a show with so little good tell us about morality, good versus evil, right versus wrong?

JTM: What irked me about this final season (besides those nazis) was how it hinted at redemption but never fully got there. Walter White is a terrible human being, and one of the worst persons ever to grace our television sets, so why should he be given the opportunity to even ponder the thought of redemption? Every time I think about the finale, a read it in a different way. Was Walt redeemed? Probably not, but he did get the last say. Instead of dying in strife and desperation (like if he were to die in “Ozymandias” or in a slightly altered “Granite State”), Walt got to die in his happy place, having solved all his problems that had solutions. But one could argue that Walter White had died long ago, and The Great Heisenberg perished with his money, so was that Walt who died, or just a sad and empty bag of bones?

It’s not like Walt was totally redeemed though. Instead of living the happy life, making snow angels in New Hampshire with his wife and kids, Walt died alone, with his tarnished legacy living long after him. So, I dunno, I guess he got what he deserved. But still, he died in happiness, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to shake that. I guess that’s the consequences of having the writers live with this character for so long. Instead of viewing Walt from a morally weighted outsider’s perspective, the writers (and even some viewers) eventually entered his headspace (probably around the beginning season 5) and fully embraced him as their hero.

As for morality, that’s a pretty loaded question. Do we as viewers have the right to judge where these characters should end up? I’d say yes, but the argument could be made otherwise. Because I’m unable to see past Walt’s slightly redemptive end, I don’ think I have the in-depth, philosophical answer we’re looking for. So do you, M. Liam, think Breaking Bad says anything about morality? Obviously throughout the entire series there is a moral focus, but what does “Felina” in particular have say as an ending point?

MLM:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Walt may not gain happiness in the end, but he does gain serenity. After seeking to control everything in his world at all costs for so long, Walt becomes at peace with his fate as a consequence of the decisions he’s made. This acceptance is hastened, no doubt, by his deteriorating health. Combined, they make him more sympathetic – like a death-row inmate reflecting on his crimes. I’m OK with that character growth. “I liked it,” as Walt might say.

It echoes nicely the unforgettable scene in which Jesse rejects Wynn Duffy his AA group leader for making peace with his mistakes, for forgiving himself or, as Jesse sees it, for excusing the bad things he’d done in his past in order to carry on in the present. Jesse is, as you’ve pointed out, never really comfortable in the gray area between right and wrong. But that’s where Breaking Bad lives (unless you’re a Nazi or a Mexican druglord, of course). All of us, Jesse learns, make moral compromises – and excuses – in order to advance our own interests, no matter what side of the law we occupy. If right and wrong are malleable things, then where do we draw the line? Is Marie’s thievery, as a coping mechanism for an unfulfilling home life, more excusable than Walt cooking meth in the face of a terminal illness? If Hank cuts corners to get ahead at the DEA, is that more excusable than Skyler using drug money to start her own car wash? It’s telling that Walt re-engages in his quest after seeing Gretchen and Elliott tout their “good works” on TV. It’s pride, yes, but in his jaundiced eyes, those two are just as tainted as the rest of us.

“Felina” also serves to strip Walt’s motives bare. He’s forced to admit his decision to “break bad” was less about providing for his family than about his own ego. There was no better scene (or episode), for my money, than the one in which Walter Jr. hugs his father poolside. (Perhaps I’m going soft in my impending fatherhood.) It captures the disconnect between Walt’s stated motives and what his family, in fact, really wants out of Walt – honesty, love, emotional availability. But what Junior gets are more manly platitudes from his clueless, almost indignant father.

I said in the first installment of these rambling back-and-forths that I thought gender was key to any critical viewing of Breaking Bad. I’m curious, J.T., since we’re both men now (happy birthday, BT-dubs), what you think of that claim now that it’s all said and done. Also, you’ve told me Vince Gilligan has expressed disdain for anything political in TV series. I’m wondering, especially in light of the final season, if you think the creator has since modified his views?

JTM: For my money, Breaking Bad, was always, and will always be a man’s show. This doesn’t mean that it’s a show built for male viewers (though the bros do love it) but that its core will always be relating to manhood. Even until the very last minutes of the show’s run, it was the most masculine thing on TV. “My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself,” Hank said as he accepted his death sentence. When Walt visited his old pals Gretchen and Elliot, he flexed his power and brooding masculinity, and without Gilligan’s finessed direction of the scene, it would have just seemed masturbatory. Walt and Jesse’s last moment together was a sturdy nod, seeming to connote that “It’s been fun, dude” feeling in the simple, man to man setting. Gus Fring described the narrative’s core best in his “a man provides” speech in season 3.

But like you said in our first post, there’s so much more to the show than its “fist-pumping, engine-revving, loogie-hocking” surface. There will always be the profound silence that the show is built on, or the deep and focused character moments that we love so much. Even in “Felina” there is that tremendous scene between Walt and Skyler that you already mentioned, or the extremely beautiful sequence of Jesse building his box that he described in season 3. And this is why we love the show. It can be so many things at the same time, and we constantly have to step back and think on it.

Yet the politics of the show still seem peculiar. I’ve always thought that the show is an argument for raising teachers’ salaries, rather than affordable health care. Walt’s problems come from the fact that isn’t making enough money, even though he’s a Ph.D certified genius. This stems into the Libertarian, survival of the fittest situation that we described before, and that stays true until the end. Walt has to take care of things himself, without any help from anyone. The government is out to get him, and even worse, they cornered his innocent wife into a new and terrible life.

This is all really nothing new to Breaking Bad. Gilligan’s statements that I brought up before were made after everything was said and done, so I think he’ll still remain by them (or at least remain coy). M. Liam, do you think that the final season takes us to any interesting or new places in the context of gender, politics, narrative, or really anything else? Do those places change anything about the show now that it’s over?

MLM: J.T, if “Cousins, Critically” empowers you to deliver the term “masturbatory” in a semi-respectable setting, then as far as I’m concerned, this whole experiment has been a triumph. Page views be damned.

At the risk of … spouting? … a masturbatory rant myself, I will say the search for allegory in Breaking Bad, particularly as a meditation on America’s spirit of rugged individualism and its social costs, has been a rewarding way to approach the show. The final season is littered with references to libertarian ideology. “Who washes a rental car?” is classic ownership-society rhetoric, and when Jesse pulled Reagan’s biography, Dutch, off Hank’s shelf — well, I’m not sure there’s any mistaking the symbolism there.

Whether the show espouses or critiques the Gipper’s worldview is a tougher nut to crack, and it goes to your question of whether the final season takes us to any new places, J.T. At the start of the series, I was convinced Breaking Bad was subversively anti-capitalist, with a little Occupy populism mixed in. (Remember the scene where Walt torches the rich guy’s car?) It’s a credit to the thoughtfulness of the writers and complexity of the show that, while watching the final season cast Walt in a more sympathetic light, I began to suspect I may have been wrong about everything.

When Walt asks Ed what he will do with Walt’s millions upon inevitably finding him dead in New Hampshire (State motto: “Live Free or Die”), Ed’s answer, in short, is that Walt should know better at this point than to trust anyone but himself. Except the Nazis and Mexican drug lords, everyone in Breaking Bad‘s world is good — until being bad suits his or her interest more. Even when characters do good — charitable donations by Gray Matter and Gus Fring are obvious examples here — it out of self-interest, self-preservation or other nefarious motives. In a world like this, maybe we are better off on our own. And certainly it’s better to recognize the truth than to end up like Jesse.

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!

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.


Cousins, Critically: Breaking Bad Season 2

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 on August 11. We hope to dissect each season in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.” The piece on season 1 can be found here.

J.T. Moore: Season 2 of Breaking Bad is an incredibly interesting season of television. Where season 1 laid the groundwork and foundation for understanding the show, season 2 operates with full force, working to cement its place within the all-time TV greats. Season 2 works in a different way than season 1 did, because it tells its story while considering an essential emotional theme within the show’s framework: fear. Don’t get me wrong, M. Liam, I’m aware that season 1 took fear into account in season 1, but in season 2, it is embraced wholeheartedly.

Right from the start, in “Seven Thirty-Seven”‘s opening shots of confounding images, there is a provocation of fear. It is clear that something bad has happened, but what exactly is it? Have Tuco or other criminals gotten to Walter and his family? Was there a deadly accident at Walt’s home? What’s important is that we don’t know, because it’s the unknown that provokes an incredibly intense type of fear.

While there is some partial closure in “Grilled,” the season’s second episode, where Tuco meets his end in an incredibly thrilling fashion, fear for Walter and Jesse persists throughout the season and is not resolved. There is a certain sense of fear for Walter, and the chance that he will be found out by his family. We also fear for who Walter is becoming, and we don’t want to see him fall as hard as he does. We fear for how Jesse is treated by Walter, and what will become of this ill-mannered kid. So in the end, fear is not only something operating within the show’s own framework, but is something essential for the viewer. Fear drives many of these characters to do what they do, but it is also important when watching, whether its the audience’s fear for the characters’ fate (in episodes like “Grilled,” “Peekaboo,” or “4 Days Out”) or the fear of the internal emotions of characters (like what Walter experiences in “Phoenix” and where Jesse is in “ABQ”).

Coincidentally, the episodes I listed are season 2’s best episodes, and some rank among the best within the show’s entire run. This brings home the fact that fear works wonders for the show. Because season 2 embraces fear and a new emotional type of storytelling, the show feels different. Season 1 was much more plot driven (which is entirely necessary to lay the groundwork) and season 2 becomes more about emotion. Now, the season’s structure may make the case for a more plot driven type of storytelling, but I believe that this new sense of emotional storytelling is incredibly more important. M. Liam, what are your thoughts on season 2? Do you think there is a new type of emotional storytelling, or am I just overanalyzing?

M. Liam Moore: Are we not supposed to do that – to overanalyze – on Aweful Writing? Criticism, pshaw. What’s not to like? “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” Enough said. Shoot, we might even land a gig at one of the daily newspapers in town.

Season 2 gives us four fully realized, beautifully complicated Breaking Bad characters. It’s a credit to the acting, but also to the storytelling, which, I agree, diverts in style from Season 1. After a furious start, the pace becomes more contemplative. Storylines expand to lend supporting characters greater depth. Episodes begin in medias res with foreboding plot clues and frightful imagery.

Scary stuff, indeed. Fear affects Hank’s character most obviously this season, as he struggles with the paralyzing post-traumatic stress of his brief deployment to police the Mexican cartel. In a scene that illuminates the reversing fortunes of these two men, it’s Walt who delivers the FDR pep talk to Hank. “I have spent my whole life scared,” Walt says. “Ever since my diagnosis I sleep fine. Fear is the worst of it. That’s the real enemy.”

Ironically, fear is the very weapon Walt is exploiting to expand his drug business into enemy turf. It’s fear of Jesse, “the blowfish,” who has developed a mean, if mistaken, reputation on the streets after an ATM machine crushed the head of an addict who stole money from him. Here, fear collides with another important theme developed in Season 2: Truth.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Truth, J.T., but also the season’s structure – and maybe how it compares to other seasons, not only of Breaking Bad, but other great TV shows as well. You are my guru, after all.

JTM: Truth is definitely something all of the characters grapple with on Breaking Bad. Marie and Hank do not want it to come out in terms of their shoplifting and fear, respectively. Skyler strives to find it in the beginning of the season, but by the end of “ABQ” she’s afraid of it, and what it will do to her family. Truth is something Jesse has an especially hard time with, and something he mainly avoids. He’s afraid that the truth about who he really is will not only incriminate him, but ruin his budding relationship with Jane. Jesse wants to see himself as this tough guy man on the street, but in reality he’s the caring soul we see in “Peekaboo.”

But Jesse isn’t the only one who has a hard time dealing the truth. Ever since the beginning of the series, Walt has had to distance himself from the true nature of his life. By doing this, he becomes the Master of Lies who is able to get himself out of every tough situation we see. Walt doesn’t only lie to his family and friends, but lies to himself. In “4 Days Out,” Walt convinces himself that something is horribly wrong with his health, and he takes part in a marathon meth cooking session. By the end of it, he makes $600,000 worth of meth, which is the high point of his career. But when he gets back, Walt finds out that nothing is wrong with him, and that remission has set in, so he’s actually getting better. By the end of the episode, Walt becomes wildly disillusioned by himself and doesn’t want to be the “guy in good health.” He’s unable to deal with the truth of his life, and at that point decay ironically sets in. So yeah, truth is a pretty big deal.

The structure of the season is also incredibly important. I’m not crazy about the intensely plotted out nature of this season, because I feel like it gets too caught up in the plot of it all. Thankfully, the series embraced its newfound emotional drive, but sometimes it has had to take the back seat in order for the plot to progress. The plane crash mystery seems to gnaw away at the season itself, and feels like something needs to be resolved, rather than progress organically. But I hope I don’t sound too down on it. It’s incredibly ambitious, and while some poor aspects may result from it (like Jane’s quick switch to heroin, or other spots of lacking momentum), it’s quite interesting to watch progress.

Two other great shows come to mind when thinking of this season. Lost‘s fourth season came off the heels of a truly great finale, which reengineered everything we thought we knew about the show. Instead of focusing on flashbacks of the characters, it switched gears and told stories through flashforwards. While we watched the characters we knew and loved live their lives in the future and off the island, the only thing we wanted to know was, “Why do they want to go back so badly?”

Game of Thrones‘ second season also built up something of a mystery. All of the characters seemed to be plotting towards something, but those who didn’t read the books really did know what it was. Not until the season’s ninth episode did we see the epic, sprawling and awesome battle of Blackwater Bay, which gave us one of the best episodes of television in 2012, “Blackwater.” It should be noted that both of the examples are from mythology heavy sci-fi and fantasy shows, which shows the extreme ambition of season 2.

MLM: I got the feeling this season’s plot was written to resemble a string of chemical reactions. Go figure, right? Otherwise innocuous elements are introduced and agitated, yielding explosive and unexpected results. What appear to be spontaneous or random occurrences in these flash forwards are, in fact, a series of reactions set off by Walt’s decision to cook meth. Those planes don’t crash otherwise. Hank doesn’t get into a shootout with Tuco otherwise, and he probably doesn’t get that fateful promotion to El Paso either. The unique narrative structure spotlights the far-reaching consequences of Walt’s single-minded crusade to provide for his family.

There are moments where Walt reflects on these disastrous consequences. Faced with death in the desert, surrounded by evidence of his crimes, Walt comes to Jesus: “I had this coming. I deserve it,” he says. You mentioned the cruel irony of learning he would not die of cancer anytime soon – a turn that prompts Walt to attack his own reflection in a towel dispenser. Later, in Episode 10, Walt becomes fixated on repairing the foundation of his house. We’ve got rot, he tells Junior, and there’s only one way to deal with it: “Just cut it out and start fresh.”

Of course, Walt is too proud – and greedy – to take his own advice. I’m curious, J.T., if these moments of remorse are enough to make you root for, care about or even empathize with our antihero? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of why, although I think Breaking Bad is brilliant, it’s a struggle to watch sometimes. In Episode 5, a smiling clerk at the radiologist’s office hands Walt a “HOPE” button with his six-page-long medical bill. Walt drops the button into the trash. There are times, for me, where this show just feels like a depressing allegory for everything that’s wrong with our society.

JTM: What’s genius about Breaking Bad is that people still watch it. It is indeed a struggle to watch all of these characters indulge in their own bad behavior, but this is what makes it so fascinating to watch. Having relatively known who Walt was before his cancer and drug life set in, makes it all the more incredible when he tells two competitors menacingly to stay out of his territory.

Walt becomes a new man when his own personal decay sets in, and that man is far from understandable. I care for him in a sense, because I want the “old Walt” to prevail. What I don’t want is for him to ruin his family life, which unsurprisingly happens in the 11th episode “Mandala” where Walt misses the birth of his own daughter.

Another definite decay point is in “Phoenix” where Walt does nothing to prevent the death of Jane. Now, this isn’t totally out of Walt’s ordinary, because he has let people be killed, and even killed someone himself before. I was able to not be incredibly disgusted with Walt at this point, because Bryan Cranston, Vince Gilligan and the rest of the writers let us know that deep down inside, there was still something left of Walt. When he witnesses Jane die, Walt sheds a tear, showing the viewer that he still feels something.

There are points when I am outright angry with Walt, and those mostly entail him interacting with Jesse. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched the series before, or maybe it’s because I enjoy some great grunge, but in the end I feel a lot for Jesse. It kills me to see Walt jerk him around again and again, because I just want what’s right for this kid. As the series progresses Walt and Jesse experience a growing relationship, one that seems to suggest Walt has paternal feelings towards Jesse. Jesse is a figure whose parents are jerks (who he once dubbed “greedy kleptomaniac douchebags”) so it seems natural for wanting him and Walt to have a more developed relationship. But whenever it seems like some growth is going to happen, Walt calls him a “dumb druggie idiot” or insults his way of life. Is it so hard for Walt and Jesse to get along?

But enough about men behaving badly. Something tells me that you have more to say about the societal allegory of it all. Being more well versed in the 24 hour news cycle than I am, is there anything in particular you’d like to take a stab at?

MLM: Poor Jane. How could you not shed a tear? If not for her, then for Jesse. Yes, Jane is a flimsy character – the Daddy Issues, the quick descent into heroin. But in a show mining the depths of what it means to be a man, who this woman is takes a back seat to what she represents. Jane is Jesse’s Daisy Buchanan, the bright green light at the end of the dock. She’s the hope Walt snuffs out.

In the moment of his decision to let Jane die, of course, Walt has no way of knowing he just shared a beer with her dad, an air-traffic controller who, overcome by his grief for Jane, will make a mistake (or was it?) that leads to a deadly plane crash over Albuquerque. Is Walt acting out of concern for Jesse’s well being here? Or is he playing God, reestablishing control over Jesse, who will be much easier to manipulate with Jane out of the picture? One thing is certain: Walt is ignoring his own chemistry lesson about the connectivity of everything and everyone. “Chemical bonds are what hold the physical world together, what hold us together.”

Breaking Bad is steeped in this very American tension between collective versus personal responsibility – a conflict central to our current political discourse. Are we better off if everyone goes it on his or her own, or do we have a basic responsibility to care for each other?

The show debuted at the height of debate around health care reform, and if Walt’s decision to “break bad” is justified, it’s because he lives in a society that considers health care (and college) a commodity available to those who can afford it. What we’re watching, then, is a sort of libertarian, survival-of-the-fittest fantasy. (Libertarianism, not coincidentally, holds a great appeal among white males.) Sure, people watch it, but I suspect a lot of fans look at Walt and, where I see a compelling narrative to support universal health care, they pull off their Ron Paul hoodies to expose one of those T-shirts I’ve seen you wearing, J.T., with the Heisenberg silhouette.

I realize I’m sucking the fun out of an entertaining TV show, but I can’t shake the disturbing notion that people root for this guy, they relate to this guy. The whole thing can be tough to stomach.

JTM: I wear the shirt because I love the show, not Heisenberg himself. What Vince Gilligan and his writers have done over the course of 62 (!) episodes just simply astounds me. I love the character study of it all and where the character has been taken, and not just the scheming, nasty character himself. But every day I wear the shirt, the vision becomes more and more construed in a weird manner. There is an increasing number of fans who love the badass, american male version of walt Walt, and hate his “bitch wife” and how she always ruins his plans. I don’t consider myself to be one of those fans, even if I continue to wear the shirt.

All of the political stuff is interesting, considering some of the comments Gilligan has made. More recently, he appeared on the new Sundance Channel series The Writers’ Room, where he said that he thinks politics are not to be mixed with television, and that he actively tries to keep it out of his work. But all of it is so readily apparent within Breaking Bad which ultimately shows how smart and layered a TV show and its viewers can be.

I may seem down on season 2, but it is really just one smart season of an incredibly intelligent series. I may look at it as one of the weaker seasons, but that’s like saying it’s one of the weaker seasons of the best of what television has to offer. The moral complexity, thematic storytelling, incredible character work… It’s all there, and it all works wonderfully.

Cousins, Critically: The Mississippi/Volga V Dance Festival

Today I am joined by two cousins to discuss The Mississippi/Volga V Dance Festival which we all attended at the Tek Box on July 19. The two cousins which will join me are Aweful Writing contributor, M. Liam Moore, and first time Aweful Writer/Dance enthusiast who will be known as simply, Someone Else. We hope to dissect the festival in a thoughtful and critical manner in what we call “Cousins, Critically.”

The End… Or The Beginning?

Someone Else: What we saw of The End seemed to be much the same as The Beginning. The Middle, of course, was where the development actually happened. When He, with his back turned against the audience, jived his whole body in not-so-syncopation, with Her voice on the microphone crooning about that big ol’ blue moon.

When Their bodies wound up entwined and They resolved to move forward separately, but going the same way, I felt small depth to their movement. The dancers were trained and their movement convicted but the noiseless repetitiveness did little for the first act.

The second act, what with its tumbling colorful bodies running circles around each other, was disparate. The same sweeping motions between the floor and standing, between positive and negative space around each other, gave structure to the dance and presented contact improve in the most live form I have seen to date. Musings, scratches and rolling vocals on the microphone paired with the electric guitar wails did not contradict the movement, but instead added sound to what appeared to be an anxious piece.

Committed to not let time pass before taking myself to the edge and back again. It seems I could learn a few things from J.T.’s sense of adventure.

J.T. Moore: Someone Else, what you call my sense of adventure, I call happenstance. I just randomly stumbled upon the Mississippi/Volga V Dance Festival in a City Pages listing on events for the weekend. The fact that I “stumbled” upon this event seems rightly so.

Yes there was lots of stumbling at the Volga, whether it was the movement of the performers, or the manner in which I behaved myself. Instead of acting like a polite and respectful audience member, I failed to contain my emotions about the performance, for better or for worse. There were points at which laughter seemed acceptable (ranging from sweeping to snoring), at which point I readily engaged, but there were moments of “seriousness” which I found delightful. I guess this is an important learning experience for me as an audience member, or just as a developing avant-garde european dance enthusiast.

In truth, where I may have mixed emotions about the performance, I loved the experience. Whether it was watching other audience members react to the performances, seeing a call and response thrust pit, or just reacting to it myself, I was quite delighted with what Volga had to offer. I may not know what The End means, or where The Beginning starts, but there is one thing I do know: european avant-garde dance festivals are weirdly awesome.

M. Liam Moore: How is an audience member expected to act during performances of avant-garde dance? When a studio-trained dancer gyrates like one of those floppy, inflatable tube men you see outside car dealerships (AirDancers?), does he expect viewers will quietly scratch their heads in wonderment? When a fellow dancer smothers him with her prone body and feigns sleep, are we to admire their lines and ponder the social statement?

No, laughter strikes me as entirely acceptable at performances like these. In fact, I’d say it’s exactly the kind of audience reaction sorely missing from the MissiVolgaV. When I hear “avant-garde,” I expect art that is unconventional, maybe even subversive – certainly not art tailored to a passive audience. So why were we all sitting there as though the substitute biology teacher had just popped an episode of “Nova” into the VCR?

Plenty of performers feed off audience reaction. Why wouldn’t avant-garde dancers be among them? I’m not sure this forgives J.T. for snickering through the performance as though someone had fluffed in church, or as though the underpants of one of the dancers were visible (!). But I do think a more engaged audience – a looser atmosphere – would have helped me stomach some of the show’s more solemn moments, which in the first piece, particularly, too often rubbed off as breathlessly delivered emotional abstractions.

As for that second piece, the delightfully improvised “Limericks” was by far the more visually stimulating, but I’ve got one nitpick. A limerick is a five-line, rhyming poem with a very specific meter. Limericks are humorous and sometimes bawdy in subject matter. “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is a nursery rhyme. “There once was a woman from Exeter / And all the men there craned their necks at ‘er / One day to be rude / She reclined in the nude /” … and the last line, let’s just say, rhymes with Exeter. That’s a limerick. And that’s a dance I’ll be back to see.