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in my opinion, best day of the week

Archive for July, 2013

Walter White is not a badass.

Posted by finedaysunday on July 28, 2013

Walt 1

Breaking Bad is coming back. At long last, the story of Walter White is coming to an end. I could not be more excited and neither could you. Unless, of course, you haven’t watched the show yet. Let me be clear about this right up front: I make frequent, wholehearted recommendations to watch Breaking Bad on a fairly regular basis in my day-to-day life (as of approximately one year ago, when I began watching). Whenever people drop a casually cynical “TV just sucks nowadays”, this show is my go-to counter-argument. It’s a laser-focused, filler-free character study concerned entirely with its own artful and carefully crafted depiction of one man’s slow yet steady self-destrucion. It’s also one of the most important shows of the last decade. If you’ve been following some of the other stuff I’ve written around here, you know that I’m a sucker for moral ambiguity. Well, that’s kind of Breaking Bad‘s entire thing, so naturally I ate it up.

All right, enough gushing. I am probably going to spoil quite a bit about Breaking Bad in the following entry. To that end, I’d advise you to stop reading now if you’re not up-to-date or if you just don’t care (note: you should care). Still with me? Last chance.

Okay, let’s do this. You probably saw the title of this entry up top. At some point in the show’s run, during Walt’s rise to power, there’s been this viewpoint gaining a lot of traction that Walt has somehow morphed from meek and mousy into a stone-cold badass. I have never agreed with that stance, at least not entirely. Oh, Walt has certainly changed, no doubt about it. He’s been very deliberately pushing every last boundary in the little world he’s built for himself, all the while desperately trying to convince everyone around him (including himself) that he has no choice but to continue for the sake of his family. But has he learned anything in the past year of his life? Is he half as good at lying to others as he is to himself? Has he separated himself entirely from that meek yet slow-simmering cauldron he was when we first met him? I submit “no” to all of the above. And he is certainly no more of a badass now than he was the day he began cooking meth.

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Walter White is many things, but first let’s talk about what he is not. There are two instances that I frequently see being singled out as examples of supposed badassery. The first comes when his wife Skyler implores him to abandon his criminal life and come clean to the authorities. Walt is having none of it, and dives headlong into a heated and largely inaccurate speech about how untouchable and indispensable he is in the meth business. In an effort to convince his now-terrified wife that he is not in danger, Walt goes too far, inadvertently revealing just how much of a part he played in murdering the only character in the show that didn’t have it coming. He immediately appears to be ashamed of himself, realizing he didn’t mean to say it so badly when he just wanted to appear intimidating. Even Walt’s not impressed by his own faux-macho posturing.

That’s the clearest example of how Breaking Bad, on numerous occasions, will juxtapose Walt’s proclamations of being in control of his life with how little control he actually has. The second alleged badass moment comes when Walt is at the height of his power, drunk with overconfidence and self-satisfaction:

This scene serves as the culmination of Walt’s power fantasy. He sees himself the same way a Hollywood crime thriller movie would idealize the drug kingpin lifestyle, and he puts on a show hoping to project that very image. That’s really the crux of this whole scenario. Walt may have been able to convince himself that he’s a badass, but he’s not convincing those around him, and he certainly isn’t convincing us. That’s part of what makes him so pathetic. It’s not a recent development, either. As early as the first season, Walt has this false image of how drug dealers do business, adopting a shady alter-ego complete with a pork pie hat and sunglasses. Somewhat understandable, as the only frame of reference a squeaky clean guy like him could possibly have for criminal life are movies and television. Right away, both his partner and his enemy chastise him for wanting to do deals in cliched deserted areas with no witnesses instead of, say, at the mall. Walt eventually admits he has a lot to learn, but the foundation for his little fantasy world has already been set. For all his talk about wanting to remain cautious and professional, Walt is very resolutely neither, and everyone around him knows it.

So, if not badass, then what is Walter White exactly? He is weak, impotent, egotistical, hypocritical, arrogant, selfish, greedy, prideful, stubborn, volatile, self-sabotaging, paranoid, manipulative, deceitful, cowardly, and pessimistic. He has cripplingly low self-esteem. He takes incredibly dangerous risks. He possesses a defeatist attitude, readily taking the easy routes and always jumping to the worst possible conclusions. He has a dangerously fine-tuned self-preservation instinct that trumps all else. He refuses numerous golden opportunities for help from those closest to him, and he has thoroughly earned everything he has coming to him. None of those qualities strike me as being particularly positive or ideal.

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Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but the word “badass” has become overused to the point of redundancy, especially on the internet, where words like “epic” have already been distorted beyond usefulness. On a show like Breaking Bad, where there are no moral absolutes or one-dimensional characters, a word like “badass” seems awfully reductive.

I will say, however, the one point when I was genuinely impressed by Walt came during the final two episodes of the fourth season. His careful machinations were awe-inspiring as he worked to rid himself of his biggest threat, not so much in a way resembling a typical badass but in a manner that struck me as the surest sign yet of his manipulative, sociopathic nature. Remember watching Alien for the second time, when you already knew what Ash’s deal was, and it lent his every scene an extra chilling quality? A repeat viewing of these two episodes has precisely the same effect, terrifying in just how completely that knowledge changes the tone.

All I knew from outside sources before diving into Breaking Bad was that the protagonist is supposedly this awful, evil human being. Upon first watching, and seeing this hunched and sniveling old man that I instead just felt sorry for, I remember keeping an eye out for the heel turn, the point of no return when he would suddenly become someone to root against. This singular moment never comes. Walt’s transformation is gradual and virtually silent, as he keeps taking progressively bigger risks and makes increasingly flimsy justifications for his actions. That hesitant “this is wrong” look in his eyes slowly disappears. He stops weighing the pros and cons of murder. Before long we begin to hope for his destruction simply because it would be a kindness, a relief to see him put out of his misery. He’s a car wreck you can’t look away from. To my amazement, he is now such a thoroughly unsympathetic monster of a person while still possessing nearly all of the traits that defined him at the show’s outset. I don’t know how it happened, but Breaking Bad manages to accomplish through Walter White what almost no other character arc in recent memory has.

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Brief tangent: Did you ever notice how if this were any other show (say, a procedural cop show), Hank would be the gruff protagonist and Walt would be the recurring villain constantly eluding capture? Hank even goes through an arc that fits your typical flawed hero, going from puffed up and overconfident to dangerously obsessive, then to the lowest he’s ever been, and ever since then he’s been diligently building himself up into exactly the sort of man he needs to be to bring down the bad guy. His character’s progression mirrors Walt’s exactly, and makes him the perfect foil for his brother-in-law, exactly the “endgame” final boss that, quite honestly, we should have seen coming since the beginning.

And so here we are, with Walt standing right on the precipice with nowhere else to go but down. Finally, the game is up and it’s entirely his own doing, just like Mike told him it would be. As the fifth season opens, we see a brief glimpse of what becomes of Walt in the future (and only now do we have some context for how he reaches that point). Something awful has clearly happened, but beyond the scruff, has anything changed in him? Has he taken away some small lesson from his experiences? And then we see him refuse a hostess’ offer to pick up the tab for his meal, and we realize: Classic Walter White, always unable to accept a handout. He hasn’t learned a damn thing, and now he’s about to do something incredibly stupid.

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I recall some part of me wanting the series to end on a sobering note, a reminder that, though we may root for Walt’s demise, somewhere deep down inside there is still that sad sack of a family man who just wanted to do right by his wife and children, someone who may see even the merest hint of redemption. Is that still remotely within the realm of possibility? We’ll find out soon enough.

“To W.W., my star, my perfect silence.”

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Pulling a Fleury

Posted by finedaysunday on July 21, 2013

Now that my body has decided it would be best not to expel the lining of my stomach, we can get things back on schedule around here. By personal request, I’ve added an “About Me” section up top. Hopefully it makes up for the absence of any content last Sunday. And now, on to this week’s topic.

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Not bad, right? When I first saw that, I was pretty stoked for the kid. “Good for him”, I remember thinking. Context matters in this situation, so here’s what happened that led up to this moment: With just over a minute remaining on the clock, the Oilers had a potentially game-tying goal disallowed by the officials, due to what was ruled to be goaltender interference. Controversy and outrage ensued as the fans began littering the ice in protest. The game was delayed for several minutes as tensions and emotions in the building were winding high.

Nail Yakupov’s eleventh hour goal and subsequent celebration were an exhalation, a jubilant relief that his team did not allow the earlier no-goal to deflate their hopes. The Oilers headed into overtime with renewed energy, and ultimately won. This was in January 2013, very early into the lockout-shortened season, and was only the second goal of then-rookie Yakupov’s career.

But not everyone was so enamoured by his over-the-top celebration, that he opted not to instead bow his head solemnly to the hockey gods… Okay, that’s not fair or true at all. The criticism was that he should have celebrated in a more team-oriented manner instead of making a spectacle of things. Immediately, Yakupov became targeted by heated accusations of selfishness.

And that is where I disagree.

Like I said earlier, context is everything. Consider the spectacle that the game had already become by that point in the eyes of the Oilers and their fans. They felt legitimately robbed by the earlier call, and were in danger of letting the game slip away at quite literally the last minute. Yakupov’s goal turned the tide dramatically, and the atmosphere became one of triumph that the Oilers rode all the way to a victory. This was the biggest goal of his career up to that point, and the celebration was in perfect proportion to its magnitude. Obviously he was never going to celebrate every single goal in such an exuberant manner. I thought it was entirely appropriate, and entertaining to see a 19-year-old kid with this much skill and unbridled enthusiasm for the game.

Nevertheless, the criticism was still there, and Yakupov wasn’t afraid to own up to his actions. Immediately after the game, he openly claimed that he wasn’t trying to make it all about himself or disrespect the LA Kings, only that he was trying to show excitement for his team as best he knew how in that moment. Less than a week later, Yakupov scored another goal, this time an overtime game-winner. He responded by enthusiastically gesturing to his teammates to join him in celebration. So that’s another strike against those who accused him of being selfish, uncaring, and unwilling to listen to criticism.

I have more to say on this subject, tangentially related to Nail Yakupov and his critics. It’s a bit tougher to tackle, though, so I’ll save it for another day. For now, I’ll leave it at this: Leading up to the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, I read an article from an actual sports journalist (with actual journalist’s credentials and everything) stating that, should the Columbus Blue Jackets have the opportunity to select Yakupov first overall, they ought to pass on him and draft someone else instead. His reasoning? Yakupov is Russian, and according to him, they’d been burned by Russians in the past and should know better than to repeat that “mistake.” This was a sentiment shared by many at the time. This is a real thing that happened. See you next week.

“I’m thinking you weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling.”

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Grab Bag 2: Electric Boogaloo

Posted by finedaysunday on July 7, 2013

Thanks for sticking with me through last week’s entry, folks. Let’s dial it back for the time being with something a bit lighter. It’s back to the grab bag!

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Mike Modano spent over 20 years in the NHL, and is the league leader in both goals and points among American-born players. He spent virtually his entire career with one franchise (more on that later), after being drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1988, and remained the face of the franchise after its relocation to Dallas. He led the team to their only Stanley Cup championship in 1999. He was active in local charities, and is one of the biggest ambassadors for making the sport of hockey relevant in the South. He piled up more goodwill in the state of Texas than can be quantified, and he played his final home game as a Dallas Star towards the end of the 2009-2010 season.

I am not a Dallas Stars fan by any stretch, and this is still one of the most emotional hockey moments I’ve seen in recent years. No one could have scripted the way this game would turn out. After assisting on the Stars’ first goal, Modano deflected a second one into the net to force overtime. The game ultimately went to a shootout, and Modano capped off a storybook ending with a quick wrist shot to seal the deal. Incredible stuff.

This game was all his. I especially loved seeing the Anaheim Ducks on the other bench paying their respects. This was certainly the end of an era, and no, I don’t think signing a one year contract with the Detroit Red Wings the following off-season diminishes the effect of that night or Modano’s career at all. It was a deal meant to be a punctuation mark to cap off a Hall of Fame career for the Michigan native, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That said, it was nice to see him retire as a Dallas Star after the fact.

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So hey, how about the long overdue official announcement of Kingdom Hearts 3? It didn’t really hit me until that moment at E3 that I am definitely ready to dive into another mainline game in this series after a plethora of decent spinoffs. Is it weird to have nostalgia for a series that has only been around since the mid-2000’s? I have mostly good memories of the first two big entries, both simple, somewhat repetitive spectacles with a slightly inconsistent tone and camera control issues that are anything but slight. Man, that comes across as more negative than I’d like it to be. In my defense, the mark of a truly worthwhile game is one that you can enjoy in spite of its flaws, and Kingdom Hearts is certainly a case of the good outweighing the bad.

That being said, are we running out of Disney locales to draw inspiration from? The movie universes that have already been present in the first two games are starting to run the risk of being overused and rehashed, but there are still plenty of untapped worlds out there to sustain another full game. The dreamscape wilderness of Pocahontas? Kuzco’s palace? Chasing Ratigan’s blimp across the nighttime skies of London, supported by that terrific musical score? The entire Pixar universe? Make it happen, Square Enix.

KH

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My fellow Whedonites, we need to talk. It has been over ten years since Firefly was cancelled, and it’s beyond time to let it go. The show was mishandled right out of the gate, and never got anywhere close to the support it has today until long after it was gone. I’m one of you, guys and girls. If you asked me who my favourite character is, my answer would be some variation of “all of them”, a distinction only Scrubs has come close to matching. I love the setting, the writing, and the atmosphere. I love the theme song. I would wear Jayne’s hat and I would mean it.

That said, I am no longer able to work up any flavour of frothing outrage at the injustice that the show seemed to have everything working against it, and that it didn’t last beyond one season and a pretty damn good movie. I still go back and watch the show from time to time, but in the bigger scheme of things, I’ve moved on. An Arrested Development-style revival is not in the cards, thanks to something called a “budget.” The cast and crew have long since moved on to bigger and better things and, personally, I’d rather see Joss Whedon’s time and attention be given to new material, not the least of which would be the eventual sequel to The Avengers. I can’t be alone in that.

Mal

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This has been another Mail-it-in Sunday.

“Your water’s from a bottle, mine’s from a canteen.”

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