The Look Back: The Wire’s “Middle Ground”

wire-middleground

In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Nine years ago today the nominations for the 57th Primetime Emmy Awards were announced. 2005 was a simpler time; Everybody Loves Raymond led the pack with 10 nominations, Angela Lansbury received her 18th nomination, and Desperate Housewives became the second series ever to earn 3 nominations in a lead acting category (the other series? Golden Girls, of course). But not every nomination announced was as standard as expected. A small HBO drama well into its third year earned its first Emmy nomination ever in the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category. The series was The Wire, and the episode was “Middle Ground.”

For some reason, “Middle Ground” was The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination ever. (The show would only come to earn one more nomination, for its series finale “–30–” again in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.) How is it that the most talked about series of its time took 3 years to earn an Emmy nomination? Well, because the voters who decide the Emmy nominations are a group of asinine dumbfucks. Regardless, “Middle Ground” has good reason for being The Wire‘s first Emmy nomination. It’s a brilliant hour of storytelling (as most episodes of The Wire are) and stands out from every other episode of The Wires 5 year run. This is because “Middle Ground” is something all other episodes of The Wire are not: a stand-alone episode of television.

What makes “Middle Ground” a stand-alone episode is that all of the major stories of Season 3 start to come to a head. McNulty and co. have successfully sold the Barksdale crew tapped phones and are thisclose to catching Stringer Bell. Bunny has given a presentation revealing the existence of Hamsterdam and Rawls and Mayor Royce are scrambling in how to explain it before the story breaks. Cutty is nearing his redemptive end. And there’s Stinger and Avon, whose relationship is the heart of this episode. All of these stories are reaching their ends because “Middle Ground” is the penultimate episode of The Wire‘s 3rd season, but there’s something about the narrative propulsion that brings a unique energy to the episode.

Take “Middle Ground”‘s opening scene, for example, which is one of the greatest scenes in television history.

The scene is impeccably shot by episode director Joe Chappelle, whose blocking of the scene hearkens back to Sergio Leone westerns. But the scene works as well as it does not because of its incredible visual style, but because of the palpable energy that stems from a simple conversation between two characters, Omar and Brother Mouzone. (I’d love to show every Breaking Bad fan who thinks Gus Fring is the best television villain ever Brother Mouzone, who puts Fring to shame.) Every line crackles, and when watching the scene it feels like it’s the most thrilling thing you’ll ever see, even though it’s just two men talking to each other. Immediately, “Middle Ground” finds energy and propulsion by simply trusting its characters, which is something that carries on throughout the entire episode.

Another benchmark sequence in “Middle Ground” is the collection of scenes where Bunny shows off his precinct to Carcetti. The scenes are made up of, again, two men talking to each other, this time about the simplicities of daily life in Baltimore. Bunny’s precinct has turned into a “normal” neighborhood, something its residents haven’t been used to, and the sequence relishes in the beauty that comes from this newfound normalcy. One scene that particularly comes to mind is when Bunny and Carcetti attend a community meeting.

It’s a short scene that just features people talking, but the scene strikes a deeply emotional chord. It’s a meditation on human connection. The collection of these scenes between Bunny and Carcetti feel like if Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy was set in Baltimore, but that feeling comes to a crushing end once Carcetti reaches Hamsterdam. The close up of Carcetti’s face realizing what Hamsterdam is is a shattering moment in a series full of them, but that devastation could not be achieved without the beauty of the scenes that preceded it.

And speaking of devastation: Stringer and Avon. As mentioned before, Stringer and Avon’s relationship is the heart of “Middle Ground.” It’s been crumbling slowly, but in “Middle Ground” it reaches its breaking point. The last scene the two men share together is another hallmark one, as it is just Stringer and Avon reminiscing about where they’ve come from and where they stand now.

The scene is, again, filled with incredible dialogue, every line more loaded as the next. There’s “We ain’t gotta dream no more, man” the episode’s epigraph, and the ending line of “Us, motherfucker.” It’s one of the most rich and textured scenes of television I’ve ever seen in my life, and it’s only made possible by The Wire trusting its characters and believing in the small moments they’re able to produce.

And it’s made even more devastating by Stringer’s death. The act of killing off Stringer Bell is an incredibly shocking, ambitious, and devastating one (I’d also love to show every Game of Thrones fan who thinks that the show’s killing off of characters are the most ambitious in television history what The Wire did in 2004), but the most crushing thing about it is that it’s just a small moment in The Wire‘s gigantic universe. Sure, Stringer’s death causes serious complications for the Major Crimes Unit, but after the season finale The Wire just moves on.

Handling Stringer’s death in this way brings perspective and gravity to the episode and series as a whole in a way that is, in the macro, uncommon for The Wire. The series has been lauded continuously for its tactfulness in understanding why institutions fail us, and its sweeping weightiness when exhausting the subject. But for my money, The Wire is not recognized enough for its smaller moments and perspective. The most striking thing about the series is how it’s able to craft a gigantic and complex universe while still being able to deliver small and intimate character moments that feel just as weighty as its big picture ideas. This is readily apparent in “Middle Ground,” as the episode is built on small and unique character moments which bring perspective, and is ultimately why the episode works on its own. It’s what I love about The Wire, and it’s why “Middle Ground” is the series’ best episode.

The Top 10 Television Shows of 2013

Rectify

Rectify

This is a bad list. Its badness isn’t necessarily the list’s own fault, but it is still pretty bad. For example, sitcoms and half hour shows in general are poorly represented. There is only one of them, and even if its episodes were 30 minutes, it is practically a half hour drama program. I wanted to illustrate how great television was in 2013, but really all this list does is show how great hour-long programs were. Also, none of the shows that appear on this list aired on broadcast television. There are many, many great shows that air on CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC, but there just wasn’t enough room, and because of this, the list implies that cable television is the best kind of television. But all of this is simply because this list is just a list.

Lists have always been designed to make people angry and cause uproar. Their very foundation is so contrived and so stupid, and in the end they hold no meaning whatsoever. But for some reason they are just so fun to make, so here it goes.

The ten shows that make up  this list truly represent the greatness of television in 2013, but there are at least 10 more shows that could do the same. Any one of the 10 shows (and some of the next 10) could make the bid for “the best show of 2013.” This really speaks to how great of a time it is for television. It seems that in 2013 in particular each and every week a new, great show popped up and became the best show on TV. So don’t say that the golden age is ending because Mad Men and Breaking Bad are over, because right now television is ready to prove that will always be golden.

10. Orphan Black

Orphan-Black-BBC

With Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany rocketed from actress with a cool sounding name to actress giving the best performance on television. In Orphan Black‘s first season, Maslany proved herself a star, giving the performance of a lifetime. Playing not just six, but seven different characters who eventually become acquainted with each other as clones, Maslany bested the Cranstons, Hamms, and Danes of the televerse in 2013’s best performance. But it’s not just Maslany’s sublime starring role that makes Orphan Black so great. The series’ whip-smart writing and twisty and speedy pace helped Orphan Black position itself as one of the best new shows of 2013. At its best Orphan Black was fast, funny, thrilling, and all around fantastic, and it helped that it remained remarkably consistent throughout all 10 episodes.

9. Les Revenants (The Returned)

les-revenants

When any type of art tries to cover the subject of death it’s bound to be tricky, and when it’s bad it’s really badLes Revenants, however, showed how good death can be portrayed when it’s executed right. Even if most of Les Revenant‘s main characters are the living dead who have returned to life, they aren’t the flesh-eating kind who have no brains. And even if the living characters freak out about their family/friends/acquaintances who have returned to life, they don’t respond with guns or katanas. Yes, it’s the thinking that connects these characters and what makes their journeys so compelling. (And being impeccably scored by Mogwai doesn’t hurt either.) Les Revenants doesn’t dwell in death, but rather flourishes in it. There is thought, reaction, connection, and experience through death, contrary to what its genre might suggest. The best thing about Les Revenants is that it never manages to get caught up in its concept, or the abundance of questions it doesn’t answer. Les Revenants was supernatural, moody, and even beautiful at times, and managed to reprioritize not only how we think about death, but how we watch television.

8. Orange is the New Black

oitnb

At first, Orange is the New Black seemed like a mistake. In 2013 Netflix had been 0-3 for original programming (in terms of qualitative success) leading up to Orange‘s release date, and it’s not like the world needed what looked like an inessential perspective of prison told from an upperclass white woman’s point of view. But it eventually turned out that Orange is the New Black was one of the most surprisingly great series of 2013. As the series expanded its point of view and told stories that had nothing to do with Piper Kerman (the show’s main character) Orange is the New Black proved that it was one of the most powerful shows on television. Whether it was the story of Tricia, the tragically fated addict, or Sophia, who seems to be television’s first real and complex transsexual character, Orange is the New Black made it clear that it had stories worth telling. Even if by episode 7 you had no idea what the track star’s name was, you knew that her story was affecting and important television, and that Orange is the New Black had multitudes more to tell.

7. Rectify

rectify2

By all counts Rectify was the best new series of 2013. It’s impossible to watch Rectify and not be taken aback by the show and everything it embodied. Rectify is practically 100% different from everything else on television. It’s an intimate look into one man’s new life after spending 19 years on death row, and it manages to find beauty in everything. It’s the little things that count in Rectify. In “Plato’s Cave” Daniel Holden, the show’s main character, spends a substantial part of the episode in a Walmart, mesmerized by everything around him. In “Drip, Drip”, Daniel finds a random man and ends up wrestling him in front of a statue of a crossbred goat-woman. Even if it is the slowest moving and most bizarre show on television, everything about Rectify is meditative, entrancing, and rewarding. Aden Young is magnetic as the series’ leading man, and supporting performances from Abigail Spencer and Adelaide Clemens round out one of the best acted shows of 2013. There is beauty and resonance everywhere in life, and Rectify makes that simple fact known.

6. Mad Men

mad-men

It pains me very much to have Mad Men stand so low on this list. The sixth season of this veteran AMC Drama was dismissed by fans and Emmy voters alike, which may be the worst crime any television viewer committed in 2013. Mad Men wasn’t boring, repetitive, or unnecessary in 2013, because it turns it was absolutely essential to what the show is becoming now. The entire arc of season 6 didn’t really click until the last episodes of the season, but once it finished its run, Mad Men clocked in with one of the most fully realized seasons of television since when The Wire was on TV. Somehow Matt Weiner managed to bring more depth, profundity, and grandeur to one of the best shows of the 2000’s, and really showed what we’ll be missing come 2016.

5. Justified

justified

In 2013, Justified flew by at what seemed like the pace of a speeding bullet, and the most entertaining show on television became even more entertaining. After a slight misstep in 2012 (due to following the impeccable season 2), Justified managed to successfully reboot its format by introducing an intriguing season long mystery. And it worked spectacularly! The mystery managed to stay interesting throughout the entire season, even more supporting characters were added and fleshed out, and the show continued on as slick as ever. And even in its own reinvention, Justified still remained to be what it once was. None of the charm, thrill, emotional affection, or simple fun was lost in the process, as Justified somehow managed to accomplish what seemed impossible: make itself even better than what it already was.

4. Breaking Bad

breaking bad

If Justified flew by at what seemed like the pace of a speeding bullet, then the final episodes of Breaking Bad flew by at the speed of a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. (Sorry.) But seriously, to say that those last eight episodes were fast paced would be the year’s biggest understatement. In its final days, Breaking Bad delivered some of its strongest individual episodes anyone had ever seen, which make up one of the strongest final seasons of all time. The episodes weren’t just mechanically fast, but they were thrilling, affecting, and often times emotionally defeating. The writing was smart, the direction awe-inspiring, and the performances better than ever. There were intense standoffs and interrogations, hypnotic dream-like sequences, heartfelt character moments, breathtaking action sequences, and above all, desolate beauty. Even if I wasn’t too happy about its endingBreaking Bad left us with one of the most incredible runs of episodes ever, and a great final arc to one of the best dramas of all time.

3. Game of Thrones

game of thrones

Throughout the entire run of Game of Thrones‘ third season, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss demonstrated how great their trademark sustained storytelling could be. By ditching the 1 book per season rule that was established in the first two seasons, Game of Thrones got to relish in the details, and elevated from the best fantasy show on television to the best drama on television period. Each episode wasn’t as sporadic as previous ones were, even though the season covered about as much ground as every other series on TV did combined. There were also significant improvements from book to screen (which is quite remarkable considering A Storm of Swords is the best book of the series to date), the most notable being the development of Margarey Tyrell as an actual character. Game of Thrones has always been (and will always be) a thrill to watch, and with season 3 it showed that it could be truly astounding television.

2. Top of The Lake

TOP OF THE LAKE

Top of the Lake didn’t really feel like a television show, but rather a 6 hour movie. Nothing that aired in 2013 was more atmospheric or more engrossing than Top of the Lake. (And that’s not just because it was visually stunning.) Top of the Lake was structured around one upsetting case of a pregnant and missing 12-year-old in a small New Zealand town. Heading the investigation was Robin, a former native of the town (played rivetingly by Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss), and as she reacquainted herself with the town, Robin and viewers realized why she left the godforsaken place. In the end, Top of the Lake was bold, disturbing, saddening, yet completely absorbing, and left us with some of the best television we’ll never see again.

1. Enlightened

Enlightened 550x366

The best kind of television is the kind that makes you feel something. And in 2013, no show was more emotionally affecting than Enlightened. The experience of watching Enlightened had always been different from most television throughout its 2 year run, and in 2013 it might have been the most powerful viewing experience of the year. Enlightened told the story of Amy Jellicoe (played magnificently by Laura Dern), a woman who saw herself as an “agent of change.” Amy had far-reaching aspirations (season 2 centered around the takedown of an entire corporation), but it didn’t matter if she achieved them or not, because it was the trying that really mattered in the end. In 2013, everyone who watched Enlightened had the pleasure of seeing of seeing Amy and others try to make a difference in their lives, and understand the essence of change. Enlightened could be funny, tragic, poignant, and inspirational in any given episode, and demonstrated how brilliantly constructed a half hour of television could be.

In just 4 hours, Enlightened told the best story of 2013. Each of the 8 episodes deemed themselves as necessary viewing, ranging from universe expanding perspectives (“Higher Power”, “The Ghost is Seen”) to brutal and honest conversations (“All I Ever Wanted”, “Agent of Change”). But in the end, HBO cancelled Enlightened. Even if it is gone now, Enlightened will always stay with those who watched it. There was no story more moving than Amy Jellicoe’s, no examination of humanity more beautiful than Enlightened‘s, and no more profound viewing experience than this 8 episode 2nd season. I won’t ever forget Enlightened, and chances are if you watched you won’t forget it either. Enlightened was the best show of 2013.

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.

2013 Emmy Nominations: Emmy Voters Remind Us That They Can Be Cool, That They Are Still the Worst

The 2013 Emmy Nominations were announced today, at 5:35 AM PDT, and nothing has really changed. Yes, the Emmy voters showed us that they are the same old guys who are able to nominate awesome and deserving things (like Adam Driver for Girls), and still be idiots at the same time (House of LiesEpisodes and Modern Family aren’t going anywhere!). However, it wasn’t all the same old, same old, as a new player emerged and dominated in most of the fields.

Emmy voters really liked House of Cards. Like really liked it. Despite it being a traditional and fairly boring “cable” drama, it earned 9 nominations, making history by becoming the first program to not air on actual TV, but still score top nominations (such as Best Drama, Actor, Actress, Writing, and Directing). Netflix really lucked out with HOC, but unfortunately the same didn’t happen on the Comedy side. Surprise, Netflix’s rebooted fourth season of Arrested Development only scored 1 major nomination (Jason Bateman for Actor) and 2 others (Editing* and Original Score). This fact probably won’t bother Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, because he’ll probably tell the voters they’re resisting change. Regardless, Netflix’s newfound dominance within the Emmys is a major thing, and will hopefully pave the way for Orange is the New Black, which will win all the Emmys in 2014.

*Seriously?!?!? The Emmy voters choose to honor the editing of AD‘s fourth season? What was once the best thing about the show in its original run became one of the worst aspects of the new season, in the overstuffed and overlong episodes.

Despite HOC‘s dominance, there are still great things happening in the Drama side of nominations. Breaking Bad earned 13 nominations (some include Best Drama, Actor, two Supporting Actors, Supporting Actress, Directing, and two writing noms!) and it seems like this is the best year yet for the scuzzy, southwestern, anti-hero-centered drama. Despite its dominance (two writing nominations!!!) BB seems like the show that will never win Best Drama, and that’s okay because its fifth season wouldn’t be my choice for best drama. (Despite being Breaking Bad, the fifth season seemed like a step down from its outstanding fourth season, but in reality, it was still really great television.) Even though I may seem down on BB, this is the year for Anna Gunn to win, and I know I’m going to love her acceptance speech. Same goes for Jonathan Banks.

Accompanying Breaking Bad is Game of Thrones. GOT earned 16 deserving nominations for its best season yet, which is the most of any drama this year. Among the most deserved are Best Drama (obviously), Emilia Clarke for Best Supporting Actress (you truly cannot say no to Daenerys ‘Dracarys’ Targaryen in this scene), Best Writing for “The Rains of Castamere”, and Best Casting (seriously, I don’t know how they do it). Don’t get too excited, the Emmy voters managed to screw up somewhere GOT related, and this year it was Directing. Season 3 of GOT, seemed like it was the best directed show on TV (The Red Wedding, the previously mentioned Daenerys scene), but a nomination is nowhere to be found. Despite this, 2013 seems like the year for GOT to win it all, so here’s hoping it does.

Now, things aren’t all that great in the Drama field of nominations. Voters still found the need to nominate Downton Abbey which has been rapidly declining since the end of season 1. Downton scored 12 nominations, which is still far too many for this import drama. There is really nothing good I can say about this. Instead of submitting the heart-wrenching episode 5, the fairly forgettable episode 4 was submitted and scored writing and directing nominations.

What Downton Abbey is to the Dramatic categories, Modern Family is to the comedy categories. After winning three consecutive Best Comedy Emmys (which compares it to the likes of The Dick Van Dyke ShowAll in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi), MF is back with only 12 nominations. This is a step down from past years, which is only a good sign, because no one wants Modern Family to be compared to the greatness of All in the Family. In fact, there is a rather hilarious (funnier than Modern Family, I promise!) slip that the show experienced this round of nominations. Last years winner, Eric Stonestreet (who I would’ve called one of the best performers on TV three years ago, but is now insufferable) was NOT nominated this year. Again, things can only get better.

While I like might to dwell some more about the negative things on the comedy side (House of LiesEpisodes, even more Modern Family rage) there is actually some really great stuff happening. As previously mentioned, Adam Driver was nominated for his performance on Girls! Laura Dern was nominated for Best Actress for Enlightened! Merrit Weaver was nominated again for Nurse Jackie! (the performance is good, the show… not so much.) Lena Dunham got a directing nomination for directing one of the best half hours of TV in the past decade (“On All Fours”)! Louis C.K. scored a whopping, 9 individual nominations (ranging from producing, directing, writing, editing, and acting)! Things are really, really great on the comedy side.

But best of all is the love for 30 Rock. 30 Rock earned 13 nominations for its beautiful swan song of a last season, which was a true triumph of TV in the past season. Among those are 2 writing nominations for “Hogcock!” and “Last Lunch” which combined create one of the best television finales of all time. In truth, because they are both nominated, votes will be split and Louie will win again, but that’s not a bad thing. Another deserving nomination that 30 Rock deservedly received was for Best Original Music and Lyrics for “The Rural Juror.” This song is truly an outstanding accomplishment in television, and will rightly win the Emmy. Because it is its last year, and has garnered many nominations, there is another comedy that actually stands a chance at dethroning Modern Family, so here’s hoping its 3o Rock.

The Comedy and Drama nominations aren’t all that are important. Yes, there is a lovely field of contenders in this year’s Miniseries/TV Movie categories. Among the top of them are Top of the Lake, and Behind the CandelabraCandelabra earned 15 nominations for Steven Soderbergh’s first foray in television. Top earned a bevy of nominations, and rightly so, though Holly Hunter was snubbed of a nomination for her wacky and confounding performance. Both nominees are equally deserving of their nominations, and I couldn’t be happier with the competition between the two.

Even if there are great things getting nominated, there are still less deserving nominees that exist. For instance there’s Jeff Daniels of The NewsroomVice being nominated for an award with the word “Outstanding” in front of it. There are also far to many snubs to count. The guest actress categories strike a particular chord with me. Parker Posey did not get nominated for her profoundly beautiful performance in Louie, but I guess the nominations of Melissa Leo and Molly Shannon for Enlightened  make up for it. The Americans was also shut out of most major categories, but voters proved they watched it by nominating Margo Martindale. In the guest actor categories Patrick Wilson was shut out for his performance in one of the best episodes of Girls ever. David Lynch and F. Murray Abraham were not nominated for their equally hilarious roles (especially Lynch) in Louie. However, Harry Hamlin managed to get nominated for his particularly great role in Mad Men. But, in return Mad Men (one of top shows of the year) earned no writing or directing nominations. The dramatic actress category is a particularly confusing one. Seven women were nominated, but none of them were Tatiana Maslany for Orphan Black (10 more times!), Keri Russell for The Americans, or former winner Juliana Margulies for The Good Wife! The only “reasonable” explanation for all of these snubs would be to blame it on House of Cards. Fuck House of Cards.

I could go on and on complaining about the snubs from the Emmys. I didn’t even mention Mike White, the New Girl shutout (I’m calling conspiracy!), or Rectify! But in the end, it just turns out that Emmy voters can be stupid. They like stupid things for stupid reasons and nominate them in stupid categories. That’s why fucking House of Cards has nine nominations and Rectify has zero. But it turns out Emmy voters can be cool to. Whether its nominating awesome performances (I can’t get over Adam Driver!), great writing (“The Rains of Castamere”) or great directing (Louis C.K. for “New Years Eve”), Emmy voters can sometimes get it right.

And in one particularly moving case, the Emmy voters got it on the nose. Henry Bromell passed away tragically from a heart attack at the age of 65 back in March. Before he died, he wrote one of the best episodes of the television season, Homeland‘s “Q&A.” Now the nominations are out, and guess who is nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series? This is a profound and moving sentiment by the Emmy voters, and in the end, they seem like they’re alright.