Goodbye to Santa Fe

This portrait of my daughter and me is entitled Dynasty:

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You can do this when you live in Santa Fe. The iron throne was at the 200-year-old mall down the street from my favorite bar, near where I work. George R.R. Martin owns a movie theater in the neighborhood. (The Jean Cocteau. I love that theater. I will always remember watching Memento there with my dad in 2000.)

Martin was my neighbor. A few days before my family moved to Mexico, I saw him walking to the park. His Song of Ice and Fire books will always be bigger and better than the Game of Thrones TV show. If you are writing about the show on the internet without reading the source material, then you are an incurious hack and an anti-expert. The story is all gods.

Santa Fe, to me, is mind-blowing artwork, an annual January flood of evil politicians and suck-up lobbyists, breakfast burritos at El Chile Torreado, insanely good beer, the Cathedral, The Plaza, George R.R. Martin, and this blog.

This is my last post. There may a Flip Side in San Pancho in the future, but I have other things I want to write right now. It’s been fun, and thanks to everyone who’s been reading. Counting hits got addictive.

I miss Santa Fe, but we wanted to move.

Good luck Mr. Martin. And thank you for signing my shirt. I wear it often.

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The Underwood Ethos

Frank Underwood loves his life. We know Kevin Spacey is playing a man thrilled with each day by the way he sings out his window into the DC night at the end of a “House of Cards” episode. The killing and manipulation—especially the manipulation—are skills in a sport, and Underwood is an all star in his prime.

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Spacey gave an interview on “This Week,” the ABC Sunday-morning political show, where he said “our storylines aren’t that crazy” relative to real-life Washington DC. The most far-fetched parts, he said, depict Congress working hard to pass legislation.

“Some people feel that 99 percent of the show is accurate, and that the 1 percent that isn’t is that you could never get an education bill passed like that,” Spacey said.

That’s exactly right. “House of Cards” is a great show, but its deepest message portrays our government’s greatest failing: This conniving killer is better than what we actually have.

In October last year, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got caught on a hot microphone talking politics with Rand Paul, his fellow Kentucky senator and a big star in politics.

“I just did CNN,” Paul said. “I just go over and over again: ‘We’re willing to compromise, we’re willing to negotiate.’ I don’t think they’ve poll tested ‘We won’t negotiate.’ I think it’s awful for them to say that over and over again.”

“Yeah, I do too,” McConnell answered.

They’re reading lines they aren’t smart enough to write for themselves. Frank Underwood is always acting—yet another layer to Spacey’s performance—but he’s at least a master of improv.

In the new season, Frank negotiates entitlement reform. Retirement ages are raised under a Democratic president. Sick deals are slung, and Frank’s motives for backing the radical legislation are utterly villainous.

But utter villainy is better than our real-life Congress. They are less than nothing. Lower than evil. They poll test stalling messages. They don’t pass shit, on purpose, because they’re preening hacks who like easy work. They get to be rich TV celebs despite how ugly they are, and they don’t have to do anything but attend parties with donors and lie the same tired lies into cameras.

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seriously

Immigration reform is dead. Speaker of the House John Boehner wasn’t working his connections to make it happen. He wasn’t making deals or threats or even, I’d bet, phone calls. He was drafting his statement for the press. And here’s what he came up with: “Listen, there’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. It’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”

Right. Months (years!) go by without you getting anything done, and then you meekly blame the president. Frank Underwood would slap your face.

I’m not quite done with Season 2, but I love it. Frank is this embodiment of a particular aspect of society—soullessness in politics—who transcends what he represents. He doesn’t want children, yet he cares about his family’s past and his own legacy. He loves his wife. He loves his life.

Daniel Plainview, the oil baron anti-protagonist of “There Will Be Blood,” personified capitalism’s single-minded lust for profits. He also cared for his son and, for a while, longed to reconnect with a long-lost brother. Great characters can stand for something terrible and still be dynamic.

The president in “House of Cards” is a tool. This may not mirror our present Oval Office occupier, but we’ve seen tool presidents before in America. The most recent example exemplifies, again, how this TV character Frank Underwood is better than his real-life counterpart.

“Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?” Dick Cheney famously asked George W. Bush about Saddam Hussein over lunch one day. It was a dare, and it worked.

Cheney manipulated the president into giving what he wanted, but what he wanted was war. That’s not how you get the stone building that stands for centuries.

Writer Neil Gaiman and Actor Benedict Cumberbatch

Neil Gaiman’s book “Neverwhere” got banned in New Mexico. But that’s not important right now.

Gaiman’s “American Gods”—a novel ranked No. 10 on this list of the best science-fiction and fantasy books ever—was to be turned into an HBO show. The website Patheos.com (“Hosting the Conversation on Faith”), reported over summer “It’s Official: AMERICAN GODS to run six seasons on HBO.”71uz03MbHBL._SL1051_

But then today, this devastation:

Neil Gaiman has just confirmed on his AMA Reddit with Amanda Palmer that while his book American Gods is still in development as a TV show, it is no longer with HBO. This is sure to lead to fervent speculation about what network will eventually pick it up! What do you think? Should it be AMC now that they’re down Breaking Bad? Netflix? Let the debate begin!

Netflix! That book’s about a big, quiet loner who gets out of prison and becomes body man for Odin. They travel the country recruiting old gods to join a final battle in a war against new American gods including media, freeways, and drugs. It gets huge. Imagine this as a TV show:

White foxes padded up the hill in company with red-haired men in green jackets. There was a bull-headed minotaur walking beside an iron-fingered dactyl. A pig, a monkey and a sharp-toothed ghoul clambered up the hillside in company with a blue-skinned man holding a flaming bow, a bear with flowers twined into its fur, and a man in golden chain mail holding his sword of eyes.

. . . A sniper at the top of the hill took careful aim at a white fox, and fired. There was an explosion…

It’s a cool book, and it would make an amazing show. I vote Vin Diesel as Shadow. Come on Netflix.

It was Alamogordo High School, 200 miles south of Santa Fe, where a parent complained about a scene with an under-blouse feel-up and swearing. “Neverwhere” was pulled from shelves. Teachers were to stop teaching it.

That one’s about a normal guy who gets stuck in a magical world beneath London’s streets. He tries to help a girl solve a murder mystery as they’re hunted by two sadistic immortal assassins.

“Neverwhere” was this month returned to the Alamagordo sophomores: the district now states the book is “educationally suitable, balanced and age-appropriate” and the novel will return to classrooms and the library.

Everyone should celebrate the controversy by reading it. That’s how you slap back at selfish piety. Or, at least, check out this radio-play version of the story. It’s really fun and well-made, with great acting and clever sound effects. Benedict Cumberbatch is the voice of the Angel Islington, so he can cross that one off his list.

Cumberbatch gets to be the voice of Smaug in “The Hobbit” movies. Or so they say. It feels like we’re never gonna see this god-damn dragon. You think he’ll show up for the last five minutes of the new (middle chapter) “Hobbit” movie that comes out next month, as a tease to the next $18-per-ticket installment? Because I do! Why did this have to be nine hours long? It’s supposed to be about a hobbit and a group of dwarfs defeating a dragon. It’s pretty basic. The cartoon was 71 minutes.

What was I . . . ? Benedict Cumberbatch has a killer resume. He gets big parts. Serious biopic about a controversial present-day icon? Check: “The Fifth Estate.” Supervillain in a summer blockbuster? Check: Khan. As Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock” he’s neurotic and funny and haunted and uniquely brilliant. That show is awesome, addictive entertainment.

He gets to be in “12 Years a Slave,” the best movie since “There Will Be Blood.” We established a few days ago here that “12 Years a Slave” is acting’s pinnacle, destined to win Oscars for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, and to have multiple nominations in every category.

Cumberbatch plays Ford, and he probably won’t get an Oscar nomination because it’s one of the movie’s least-flashy roles. But it’s a complicated part, and Cumberbatch nails the nuance. Ford was a kinder owner but he sent Solomon to Epps. To hell. He preached gospel over a slave bawling because she’d lost her children forever. He cut Solomon down from the noose, but not until Solomon had hanged there—toes tapping the mud—for who knows how long. Is Ford a good person in a bad world, or a bad person who’s worse for not knowing it? Both, and neither. It’s a hard note to nail.

Cumberbatch should play a Bond bad guy next, or a talkative Quentin Tarantino hero. Then go to Netflix to play Shadow in “American Gods,” if Vin Diesel turns it down.

Cumberbatch is Sherlock on the right. On the left is Watson, played by Martin Freeman. They're the two main characters if you count the dragon it still seems like we're never gonna see.

Sherlock and Watson (Martin Freeman). They’re also in “The Hobbit” together.

Spoiler Alert: The End of “Breaking Bad”

Jesse strangling Todd with his chains was the perfect ending for that particular plot thread. Todd survived the machine-gun assault so he could die in more righteous fashion, at the hands of the show’s good(ish) guy. Certainly Jesse was the character we rooted for hardest, right? He raced away from Walt at the end, laughing and crying at the same time. Yes.

I’m so glad “Breaking Bad” is over. A story well told, beginning to middle to end. Was the last episode the show’s greatest? Maybe. Or “Fly,” maybe, or when Walt watched Jane die. “Face Off.” The third-to-last episode, “Ozymandias,” gave us Hank’s death, and Walt’s family knifing him and calling the police, and that heartbreaking phone call for everyone to listen in on. That might be the best episode, too.

It was nice watching Walt watch his son there after the final conversation with Skyler. You didn’t want them talking, or I didn’t, but it was good he got to see him. Hopefully Skyler stops smoking.

“The Shield’s” ending was my favorite, but here’s the difference. “The Shield” has this insane catharsis directly referencing all the evil that’s occurred in seasons previous. Vic Mackey says out loud all the terrible stuff he’s done. Then there’s the very last shot of the show—Vic dashing away with a gun and a grin. Still alive, it’s worth noting.

It kills finales (“X-Files,” “Seinfeld”) when they try to be about everything that’s already happened. It means they’re caught up in the show itself much more than telling a story. “The Shield,” brilliantly, managed to make the rehash an important element within the actual story and all its dramatic reckoning.

(“The Wire” finale, for me, was all about Marlo taking that corner. It was no big event.)

“Breaking Bad” didn’t rehash. It turned in the final chapter. Walt used his scientific know-how (classic) to make exactly the weapon he needed to kill a dozen armed Nazis. He improvised on-the-spot (classic) to save Jesse. The poison was for Liddia. I didn’t see that coming, but loved it. Why leave her out? Poisoning is also classic Walt.

Instead of lying to Skyler, he told her he liked being Heisenberg because he was good at it. Being bad made him feel alive. And she got it. She nodded and looked up at him and it wasn’t hate in her eyes. They’re family.

The last shot of Walt is him dead in a lab. Through all the events of this show the cops never came close. Even Hank, when he finally figured it out at the end, couldn’t get official law enforcement involved. When the red and blue flashing lights finally found Walt, it happened because he had no reason to run. They never took him alive.

You want a big theme for “Breaking Bad”? Wanna know what it’s really about? The last episode tells us in its send-off for the beloved druggie duo of Badger and Skinny Pete. They’ve just helped Walt threaten death on old business partners. . . .

Badger: “You know, I don’t exactly know how to feel about all this.”

Skinny Pete: “For real, yo. The whole thing felt kinda shady. You know, like, morality-wise?”

Walt holds up a bundle of cash for each of them. “How do you feel now?” he asks. They’re over it immediately, because money makes breaking bad feel fine.

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“Breaking Bad”: Heisenberg’s Bloody Requiem

A chemistry teacher has become bigger than Scarface, attaining the rarefied infamy his dark soul craved. Alone and dying, hated by the people he loves, Walter White burns with pride-fueled rage. The last chapter sees Heisenberg returning from wilderness exile to paint the Land of Enchantment red by the Nazi blood of his enemies. In the universe of “Breaking Bad,” Walt has become mythological. And he’s out for revenge.

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SPOILER ALERT For Walt to kill Gus Fring with a bomb tied to their mutual enemy was a master’s move in a life-size game of Last Gangster Standing.

The bomb went off at a nursing home (two seasons ago). It killed Gus and Gus’s bodyguard, Tyrus, who looked and moved like a Treadstone assassin in the “Bourne” movies. We watched the blast from the hallway. The door blew off. The camera held. Out walked Gus. The camera curled around to show us his whole face. Half of it was blasted off, down to the skull. He straightened his tie and fell down dead.

Yes! I love that scene. “Breaking Bad” dabbles in pulpy surrealism, becoming comic-book crazy when it wants to. Punches land huge on this show. Walt practiced quick drawing a revolver. There’s been bike-lock strangulation and poisoned burritos. He led a historically lucrative train robbery, and killed 10 men in prison at the same time. “Breaking Bad” once crashed two airplanes together.

The last episode of “The Sopranos” was shitty because it went for high art, doing something strange and dense. “Don’t Stop Believing” plays loudly over Tony sitting in a restaurant booth being boring with his family. There may be a killer in the background, but you have to watch the scene 10 times to even start forming an opinion. Nothing is happening, and then the show just stops. People thought their cable broke.

The Flip Side’s editorial stance has long been “There is power in ambiguity.” “The Master.” “Cloud Atlas.” But I’m finding I prefer the unambiguous goal of “Breaking Bad” to blow our minds with crazy events, staging one wild scene after another as the stakes raise to barely bearable heights. This is definitely art, but the primary goal is satisfying an audience. That’s why Todd can’t possibly survive—it’d be too esoteric, like a message about the unfairness of life.

One hour left. A prediction: There will be no ambiguity; there will be blood.

Walt went deep into hiding with worsening cancer and a barrel of $11 million cash. Months have passed. He’s dropped weight, grown a beard, experienced shattering loneliness, and armed himself with a huge machine gun and a caplet of poison. “I’m going to kill Jack and his entire crew,” he vowed before he disappeared. Jack and his crew are a gang of cop-killing Nazis.

Walt’s become famous for his criminal empire in Albuquerque. He is an ultimate outlaw, Billy The Kid with an even better nickname. “Heisenberg” is spray-painted on the walls of his trashed abandoned house, where no one else can live because it’s notorious and thus cursed. “You are the target of a nation-wide manhunt,” he’s told as he tours the snowy New Hampshire cabin where he’s forced to hide out. “Your face is all over TV.”

This is subconscious victory. He’s ego-maniacal—”Say my name,” he once demanded of a rival in the desert—and he’s dying. Heading into Sunday’s final episode, Walt has been told by his son to drop dead when he sits at a bar and happens to see, on television, his old business partners getting grilled by Charlie Rose about their history. They say Walt had nothing to do with the founding of their billion-dollar company. It rips open an old wound. It hits his pride. Gretchen, a lost love, tells Rose that Heisenberg may be out there but the sweet, kind Walt they knew is gone.

That was the push. Saddened Walt changes in his eyes into furious Heisenberg (like when he watched Jane choke and chose to let her die). He was gonna turn himself in, but fuck that. “Live Free or Die.” They killed his brother, stole his money, and worst of all cooked his blue meth. HOW DARE THEY! He’s “the devil,” by far the killing game’s best player. He wants revenge and he’s got nothing to lose.

Dead-eyed maniac Todd and the Nazis are waiting. So’s Jesse, angrier than ever.

The ending to the great New Mexico fiction of my lifetime is finally here, and anything goes. It’s been a blast. Cue madness.

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“Breaking Bad” Breaks Up Walt and Jesse. Also: Todd

The birds Jesse saw when he looked up with that gun to his head . . . spoiler alert . . . that was the part of the last “Breaking Bad” episode (titled “Ozymandias”) that hit hardest for me. Walt and Skyler’s knife fight was excruciating, especially when Walter Jr. jumped onto his dad’s back. Watching Walt fight sobs as he played a psychopath on the phone was heartbreaking—and one of those occasional “Breaking Bad” moments where you remember Bryan Cranston’s acting belongs in rarefied, transcendent company.

But those birds. Were they eagles? Jesse and Walt. They’d flown together.

walt-and-jesseWalt had been Jesse’s boring high school chemistry teacher. Their relationship would grow endearing despite the violence. Sweet, even. The flashback at the beginning of “Ozymandias” had Jesse bitching about Walt’s nitpicking; Walt rolling his eyes at what a dumbass Jesse can be. (Walt: “Yeah, like you’re an idiot.” Jesse: “Dick.”) The chemistry between these characters (and actors) has been beyond special. They’ve fought with cunning desperation to keep each other alive. When Jesse killed Gale he gave away his soul to save Walt’s life. And before this final season, my favorite “Breaking Bad” scene, even above the death of Gus Fring, was Walter’s Aztec appearing out of darkness to plow those two corner dealers as Jesse was preparing to gunfight them, outnumbered. And then Blam! and “Run.” It was Heisenberg embracing extreme measures. It was to save Jesse’s life.

bricking-badSacred “Breaking Bad” lore says writers initially intended to kill off Jesse Pinkman early. The actor, Aaron Paul, was so good with Cranston they kept him alive. Paul grew into the role and won Emmys. He had to do so much. A favorite Jesse Pinkman scene saw him in Mexico, cussing out a cartel meth cook in front of vicious killers. He’d been rendered suicidal junkie over killing Gale to save Walt from Fring. “Bitch” was Jesse’s catchphrase. He called Walt “Mr. White.” My-First-Science-Set

Walt betrayed him so many times. The final betrayal was handing Jesse to the Nazis to torture and kill. “Found him.” Hank’s death was the last ladder rung down into hell. Walt’s family life was incinerated. Jesse could die too.

Eagles. Jesse looked so beat-down and afraid as he looked up at those eagles.

We saw another animal at the end of “Ozymandias.” When the episode ended, Walt rode away in a minivan with someone who can wipe away identities. After the van left the shot, a dog scampered across the road. End credits. They’d been eagles together, soaring. Now it’s just Walt, a lone dog on the street.

The-Legend-of-HeisenbergWe know he comes back with a machine gun and poison. A prediction: The next two hours of “Breaking Bad” will be an ultimate postmodern spaghetti Southwestern, with the hard violent dark New Mexico edge of Santa Fean novelist Cormac McCarthy (“No Country For Old Men,” “Blood Meridian”).

This is better than the movies. I hope Jesse, somehow, finds Walt and kills him.

He bragged about Jane dying. He fought his wife and kidnapped their daughter. Hank’s dead. C’mon, man. Walt’s gotta go down.

. . .

Quick thought on Todd

Todd should be getting a share of that $70 million in cash they just dug up in the desert, so it doesn’t really make sense for him to keep cooking meth. He seems to be doing this because he has a thing for Lydia, the corporate side of their drug operation. They shared a creepy scene with close talking and her lipstick smeared on a mug.

The part of “Ozymandias” when Todd pulls Jesse out of the ground to chain up in a meth lab plays like raw horror.

Todd is so nice, his face always so calm. On “Friday Night Lights” that same actor played lovable sensitive nice guy Landry. Todd is similar, except for not hesitating to pull a gun and shoot a kid. At the beginning of the To’hajiilee shootout, there’s a moment of Todd shooting a pistol from behind a car door. He is comically disinterested. This adorable nice guy feels nothing over killing, which makes him the opposite of Jesse, who can be so brash and rude yet feels killing’s consequences deeply.

He’s the most compelling supporting weirdo since Bob Benson on “Mad Men.” After Todd shot the kid, he sat in his car looking at a spider in a glass jar:

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Two more episodes. Jesse’s got bad guys to beat.

TV and Movies and “Breaking Bad” Again

An “Entourage” movie was to begin filming in May, according to reports, but was postponed because cast members including The Guy Who Plays Vince, The Guy Who Plays Ari, and The Guy Who Plays Turtle want more money.

“Entourage” was about a handsome movie star named Vincent Chase (think Leo or Gosling) living in Hollywood with his three best friends. It was also about his psychotic, brilliant agent. The show was great for a while in the middle of its eight-season run, when compelling movie-star stuff was happening. Vincent Chase was working deals to star in an “Aquaman” movie directed by James Cameron, who appeared as himself. He was also trying to make a movie about Pablo Escobar called “Medellin.” The behind-the-scenes stuff was fantastic; my single favorite episode was a fake documentary about the filming of “Medellin.” Their young director loses his mind. It wound up bombing spectacularly.

Sadly, like other classic HBO shows including “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under,” “Entourage” kept going after it ran out of good story. By the end, the show thought its audience cared if Vince and his little buddy E found love. We did not. Maybe it’s a good thing “Deadwood” ended before it was done.

“Entourage” has totally colored the way I think about movies. An example: Bradley Cooper recently was announced to have bought the film rights to “American Sniper,” an autobiography by the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Multiple news outlets described it as a “passion project” for Cooper. He even got Steven Spielberg to sign on as director. I heard this and thought of “Medellin.” Maybe Bradley does movies like “Hangover 3” because it gives him power within the movie biz to make projects like “American Sniper.” Very Vincent Chase.

Spielberg has since been replaced by Clint Eastwood. The sniper, Chris Kyle, was tragically killed this year by a veteran Marine with, at least, PTSD. Because real life is crazier than fiction.

Peter Berg once appeared in a story arch in “Entourage,” directing Vincent Chase in the action flick “Smoke Jumpers.” Berg was portrayed as angry and a little nuts. It turns out, again, that real life is crazier than fiction.

In an interview with superstar sports-and-pop-culture writer Bill Simmons, who runs ESPN’s Grantland.com, Berg speaks of cussing out “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan from a Laker game. Gilligan wrote the original script for “Hancock,” the film Berg directed starring Will Smith as a drunk superhero.

“You wanna hear about my Vince Gilligan fight?” Berg asks Simmons. “Sure,” Simmons says, even though he actually wants to talk about his own comparisons and rankings for things. He doesn’t follow up any of Berg’s great stories with questions. Simmons was much better as “The Boston Sports Guy,” before he moved to Hollywood.

“Hancock” was originally called “Tonight He Comes,” Berg says, “It was about a superhero alcoholic who could not make love because if he . . . climaxed he would kill a woman with the power of his climax. It was this really dark, twisted script. . . ” written by “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan.

“I had heard Vince had this TV show he wanted to go and do, and I was like ‘Whatever, you gotta go and finish this script.’ . . . He finished the script and said ‘OK, that’s it, I’m outta here. I’m gonna go do this TV show.’ I called Vince, and I was like ‘What the hell? You can’t run out on us!’ I was at a Laker game, actually, so I was talking kinda loud, and I was, you know, a bit intense. I was younger and more immature than I am today. And I was raging on at Vince, and probably dropping a few F-bombs at him. There was a long pause and he kind of accused me of being drunk. He was like ‘Pete, are you drunk?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not drunk. How can you leave us to go do your television show, it’s this stupid idea.’ I basically said ‘Fine, F you,’ and I hung up.”

This story demonstrates an important theme in modern pop culture. Gilligan has a dark script about an alcoholic superhero. It gets watered down by movie makers into a generic, forgettable, PG-13 Will Smith vehicle. Gilligan leaves to make “Breaking Bad,” but not before getting cussed out from the front row of a Laker game by a big-shot Hollywood director. Without interference from demanding producers and stars, Gilligan creates a TV show that is more compelling on every level, including action-wise, than the films coming out of Hollywood.

I keep coming back to “Breaking Bad” on this blog because I just love it. I’ve never seen anything like it. The ending of last week’s episode was brilliant in the way it built suspense, held it, and then unleashed a hail of bullets. We watched Hank slap cuffs on Walt and read the Great Heisenberg his Miranda rights! He’s got him, and he’s so proud, and now he’s probably dead.

The show ended with two sides—lawmen and Nazis—blasting at each other in the desert. I don’t see how this next episode doesn’t open with Hank’s death. He and Gomey are too outnumbered. Hank’s phone call to his wife made it seem as though he is doomed. Then again, Vince Gilligan knows that phone call made it seem like Hank is doomed, and he doesn’t do predictable.

Ack! The wait is killing me. Real life is crazier than fiction, except for “Breaking Bad.”

A painting by Thom Ross, who sells out of Due West Gallery in Santa Fe, is hanging in Hank's house. Ross paints a lot of tough, old-school lawmen.

A painting by Thom Ross, who sells out of Due West Gallery in Santa Fe, is hanging in Hank’s house. Ross paints a lot of tough, old-school lawmen.

The End of “Breaking Bad” and “The Shield” (and “Lost”)

Here’s what Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman, told Rolling Stone about this final season of “Breaking Bad”:

No, all I know is, it’s the craziest eight hours of television anyone will ever see. It’s an intense, violent sprint to the finish line. The final eight shows get progressively better and progressively darker.

There’s this notion on TV of a “cliffhanger.” They happen at the end of a season. Some event will occur that’s so dramatic it makes the viewer desperate to know what’s next, only we have to wait months for the next season’s premiere.

“Grey’s Anatomy” ends its seasons with devastating crashes—an ambulance one year, a plane full of cast members another. My wife yells. When I was a kid, a season of “X-Files” ended with Mulder climbing into an underground tanker that subsequently exploded. It was all I thought about for much too long. My favorite cliffhanger ever was the season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that ended with Capt. Picard appearing as an assimilated cyborg on the Enterprise’s bridge screen. He told his crew, in horrifying robot voice, “I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service . . . us.” locutus

“Mr. Worf,” Commander Riker said, “fire.” Cue the booming horn section and “To Be Continued.” The show’s hero had been turned into a bad guy, and his first officer had ordered his death, and there wouldn’t be another new episode for a long, long time.

Chilling stuff.

We are five episodes into the eight final chapters of “Breaking Bad.” Every week we’re left with a soul-rousing cliffhanger. The premier saw Hank punch Walt in their garage, and ended with them faced off toe-to-toe. Then it was Hank going into that interrogation room with Jesse. Then it was Jesse, in a drug-crazed rage, dumping gasoline all over Walt’s house. The scene cut to closing credits as Jesse was growling and pouring the gas directly onto the camera. Like he meant to light us on fire.

And then there was this last Sunday’s episode. I’m writing this Monday night, and I’ve thought of little else over the last 20 hours. (What baby daughter?) To’hajiilee. Hank tricks Walt and busts him dead-to-rights. There’s a single tear as Walt realizes his partner and brother have teamed up to end him. Hank slaps on the cuffs. Walt calls Jesse coward. Jesse spits huge in Walt’s face. Hank’s touching phone call to Marie. Then the Nazis show up, a shootout ensues, and before we can tell if anyone’s been hit the show fades out with bullets flying.

Hello, cliff.

So Aaron Paul might be right. This really may be the craziest eight hours of television ever. I thought there was no way “Breaking Bad” could top Season 4, when Walt was warring against Gus Fring to see who could kill the other first. This last season has already surpassed that.

Which brings us to “The Shield.”

If you’re interested in how great TV shows end—maybe you’re still mad about series enders for “Lost” (I loved the end of “Lost”)* or “The Sopranos” (I’ll always hate it)—I think it’s important to consider “The Shield.” As we’ve covered here before, my personal opinion is that “The Wire” is the best TV show of all time. “The Shield,” though, had the best ending I’ve ever seen.** (“Best of all time” and “best I’ve ever seen”? Now I’m doing it. This is how it works when you write about TV these days.)

I doubt anyone who missed “The Shield” when it was new is going back to catch up. It’s a long show (seven seasons) and in the HD-TV age its gritty hand-held style is uncomfortable for our spoiled eyes to behold. So I’m just gonna tell you how “The Shield” ended.

In the first-ever episode, sociopath detective Vic Mackey welcomed a new member to his “strike team” of specialized gang cops. The new member, Mackey correctly deduced, had been planted by a politically minded police captain to dig up dirt on the strike team. And there was deep dirt to mine—the strike team was effective, but it was also dirty as hell.

Mackey killed the planted cop. That’s how the pilot episode of “The Shield” ended.

Now let’s fast-forward past a lot of crazy shit. There was a season built around an Armenian money train heist. There was the Forest Whitaker season I’ll remember forever and the Glenn Close season featuring hall-of-fame bad guy Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson crushed that performance), and endless betrayal and murder. RIP, Lem.

Michael Chiklis, as Mackey, owned this show as a shocking anti-hero and won some Emmys for his raw and brutal lead performance.

Mackey is heavy with all the evil he’s committed by the end of the show. He’s lost his family to witness protection. The strike team is ravaged, its members either dead or prison-bound. He cunningly manipulates his way into immunity from all his crimes; he just has to confess. The deal makes sense to department lawyers . . . until he starts talking into the tape recorder.

He confesses everything, saving the killing of the cop for last. Everyone is shocked. We are shocked watching it, despite already knowing what he’s done. It’s amazing.

His punishment is a boring desk job, a fate close to death for this gang-stomping street animal. They can’t arrest him, so they force him to work in an office for three years. His coworkers seethe with hatred as he lopes through the hallway in ill-fitting suits.  vlcsnap-72510-300x224

We watch Mackey sitting at his desk late one evening, hating life. Then he hears a siren outside. He reaches for a box under his desk. He opens the box, pulls out a gun, smiles, and steals off into the night. He disappears from the camera shot with that mischievous glint in his eyes, and the closing credits roll for the very last time.

I don’t know whether they planned that ending from the very beginning, or if they simply knew a cop killing would provide enough potential narrative destinations they could just figure out a resolution when the time came. It was such a great conclusion. We watch a murderer get a punishment he deserves. Then we see, in that final shot, the incorrigible personality who kept us spellbound all those seasons.

It was perfect closure. Justice giving way to a hit of devil. It’s a complicated thing to end a show about a bad guy. We know what Mackey and Walt have done, and we understand they deserve to pay. But we also like them. “The Shield” found sweet middle ground. Will “Breaking Bad”?

We know Walt survives this desert shootout. We have seen him in the future, armed with a huge machine gun and a caplet of poison. The show has referenced “Scarface” and “Heat,” each of which ends in a wild shootout showdown.

If Hank dies in the opening moments of the next episode, might Walt need the gun to exact revenge on the Nazis for killing his brother-in-law? What if the Nazis kidnap Jesse and force him to cook blue meth? Maybe Future Walt is gunning to save his partner.

Neither of those ideas feels right. They don’t fit. They wouldn’t be perfect. Not every show, though, can end like “The Shield.”

* There was no grand explanation for the island, just a strange story about immortal brothers—one in white, the other black—and one riveting hour of television after another. “Lost” was such an interesting, exciting show throughout its whole run. That finale may not have had a satisfying, unifying explanation, but it did have Jack superman punching Evil Locke, and dying as he watched the plane fly away. Beautiful.

It’s not the destination, people, it’s the journey.

Except on “Breaking Bad,” where it appears to be both.

** This will all be obsolete in five years when “Game of Thrones” ends with Tyrion flying into King’s Landing on Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons and wiping out his whole family.

“Breaking Bad” and the Internet

Santa Fean actress Anna Gunn of “Breaking Bad” wrote a thoughtful piece in the New York Times this weekend about online hatred for her character Skyler White. She recounts reading online comments from the show’s fans, including “Could somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?” Toward the end of the article, she says “I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypical female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.”

The internet is not me. It’s not you. It’s not us. It’s stupid.

This is THE VERY FIRST image that comes up when you Google search "Skyler White"

This is THE VERY FIRST image that comes up when you Google “Skyler White”

Gunn’s article, “I Have a Character Issue,” ran in the Times this past weekend. On the show itself . . .

(Spoiler alert.)

. . . Jesse just realized it was Walt who poisoned Brock. Crying eyes on fire, Jesse comes very close to killing funny, loyal lawyer Saul. Then he speeds to Walt’s empty house with a gas can and breaks in. The episode ends as he’s furiously splashing gas around. The obvious intention is to burn down Walt’s home.

This is why we watch “Breaking Bad.” Narrative insanity; the big, powerful moments this show keeps producing, and then topping, in a sprint over just five more episodes toward the definitive conclusion. “Breaking Bad” is a hard-core gangster saga of tragic death and betrayal, unfolding in the streets and deserts of Albuquerque. No offense to Gunn, who is phenomenal, but no one tunes in to see what happens to Skyler. She’s a supporting character in the truest sense. This show is about Walt and Jesse powering through cartel kingpins and an obsessed and justified police force. (Hank so badly wants revenge.)

The internet doesn’t speak for fans. I’ve watched most of the show twice, even write about it online, and I don’t hate Skyler. Almost every friend I have watches “Breaking Bad” and loves it. None of them goes online after an episode to vent hatred for the characters. We watch it because it’s fun and great.

Gunn writes “most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives.” It isn’t most people, though. It makes sense that she, personally, would be troubled by the comments online, but that isn’t a representative sample.

Internet comment boards and made-up Facebook pages are the property of idiots acting like junky drug fiends.

Grown-up teeny bopper Miley Cyrus gave this zany performance during the Video Music Awards last night. She was tongue-out air humping in a skin-toned bikini with a foam finger at her crotch. A Huffington Post headline this morning said “Mika EXPLODES Over Miley Cyrus Performance.” Mika Brzezinski co-hosts the MSNBC morning show called “Morning Joe.” The Huffington Post article lists things she said about Miley: “She is a mess,” “They should be ashamed,” “Disgusting,” “Disturbing,” blah, blah, and blah.

Behold The Cycle. Miley Cyrus gives an intentionally offensive performance. Morning news show host talks about being offended. Internet excitedly reports thus. People read it and make their own opinions, influenced consciously or not by what they just read.

THIS IS FUCKING STUPID.

The Video Music Awards are famous for offensive performances. It was the same thing when Britney Spears French kissed Madonna, or Kanye crashed Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. They’re doing it on purpose. Rock stars enjoy pissing people off.

Mika Brzezinski, though, watched Miley and knew it was her job to render an opinion. She hosts a morning news show in Washington D.C., surrounded by corruption corrupting communities country-wide, and her primary objective was Miley Cyrus complaining.

Mika and Joe. This picture is sexist, disgusting, and pathetic.

Mika and Joe. This picture is sexist, disgusting, and pathetic.

She’s on TV, though, so it is her job to render opinions. The problem with the internet is any of us can suddenly feel like we’re on TV, with an audience. Brzezinski has a camera on her; she’s paid to play provocateur. She sees something she can hate and reacts on camera.

A job like that really plays to the ego. If everyone can get that same sensation, of being heard and considered by others, it gives off a whiff of power. You suddenly have a lot of amateurs spouting nonsense to an audience.

Mika Brzezinski giving her opinion is awful, but the wifi-enabled angry American loner is worse.

That’s who Anna Gunn is talking about when she bemoans Skyler-bashing. She’s talking about the Facebooking comment dispensers. Angry, demonic spiritual offspring of soulless TV opinion makers like Brzezinski. (It’s worse in sports. Check out NFL coverage on TV, radio, and the internet. Madness.)

So while I’m sorry Anna Gunn has endured online vitriol because her character keeps failing to corral Heisenberg’s gangster leanings, she should take solace in the fact that those morons spewing bullshit are not real fans of “Breaking Bad.” They can’t be, because they don’t appreciate her. They’re fans of themselves.

Also, a lot of people are great in person but really obnoxious on Facebook and Twitter. One of my best, favorite coworkers I ever had—a smart, funny, interesting family man—is insufferable online. I can’t be his Facebook friend, because the pictures and updates are too annoying. I might also posit that most online assholes aren’t all that bad as actual people. They just forget themselves.

Larry David

Larry David killed the black swan with a single mighty swing of his golf club. The bird was charging with rage in its eyes, and he reacted to the attack out of instinct. Problem is, that black swan was the beloved pet of course owner Mr. Takahashi. The black swan appears on Ocean View’s logo, a black-swanned shield, and on the napkins in the lavish dining house. The black swan roamed Ocean View with impunity, until Larry leveled the death blow.

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“The Black Swan” is my favorite Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. It appeared like an interlude during the Seinfeld reunion season a few years ago. “Let me explain something to you, moron,” Larry says, over fruit. “Swan killers leave. People who aren’t swan killers stay. Have a little lunch. Enjoy themselves. Socialize. Get to know the members. There’s nothing wrong. Get it?” He grips a butter knife in his fist like a threat.

Earlier, on the course, Larry confronted another golfer whose slow play was ruining the game. That confrontation ended thusly:

“Where’s your wife?”

“Fuck you, Norm!”

Norm had a heart attack right after that and died.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart once suggested that Barack Obama spends some of his time as president “bucket listing.” Last week it was reported Obama went golfing with Larry David. I am going to guess Obama made reference to the black swan. POTUS probably kept doing some small, annoying thing to piss Larry off.

Larry David was also in the news for this reason: According to Wealth-X’s research, revenues from Curb Your Enthusiasm plus the bounty of a fifth Seinfeld syndication deal earlier this year have David sitting at $900 million in net worth. As such, he is the “wealthiest comedian” ahead of Seinfeld ($800 million), Letterman ($390M), Cosby ($360M) and Sandler ($290M).

Nine hundred million. Well done. A comedian writer does not make $900 million without being funny.

David co-created Seinfeld with Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld will be funny forever because it went for laughs nonstop and succeeded so much more often than it failed. If I ever own my own ski hill, all the runs will be named after Seinfeld jokes: Sponge-worthy, Festivus, Master of Your Domain, Death Blow, Assman, Serenity Now, The Moops, Soup Nazi, Big Salad, etc.

There’s a great new HBO movie called “Clear History.” Larry David is the star, playing a guy exactly like himself. He’s a marketing whiz who gets so upset about the name his corporation is giving its new car (Howard) that he quits in protest, costing himself a billion-dollar fortune. He changes his name, moves to Martha’s Vineyard, and makes a nice, quiet life for himself.

He is surrounded by hilarious characters, including my favorite actor from Curb Your Enthusiasm, JB Smoove. (“Step out that asshole, Larry. Don’t ever close that mother fucker.”)

“Clear History” feels like the biggest-ever episode of Curb. It has great performances—especially from Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, and Liev Schreiber—but the best thing about it is watching Larry David’s character interact with a huge group of unfamous friends. He’s got a pretty ex he gets along with, poker buddies who like him, a best friend with a boat. He’s at peace.

Then, of course, hijinks ensue. People get offended and there’s a big explosion inspired by “The Fountainhead.”

We never know if there’ll be another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David doesn’t commit. I wonder if “Clear History” is him saying goodbye to this characterization of himself he’s cultivated on HBO over all these post-Seinfeld years. No one would be surprised, I bet, if he stops making TV, because he’s had such an amazing and successful run.

No one has been funnier. Nine hundred million dollars proves it.

Larry David is the funniest man alive, I think, because he has understood since Seinfeld that feelings get in the way. Those characters were not good people, and they were a riot. The best Curb Your Enthusiasms typically see him doing something terrible and covering it up without a hint of remorse. They buried the black swan under a thin layer of dead leaves. Of course it was gonna be discovered.

“Clear History” might be the most likable Larry David we’ve met, and he’s still a jerk. If this is his send-off, it’s perfect.

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