Brooklyn premiered at Sundance, right at the beginning of 2015, to a strong reception that guaranteed it a major distribution deal (one of the biggest to ever come out of the festival). I cite this not as a proxy for its quality, but to wonder: could anyone have predicted how suddenly relevant the film would become between then and now? It released wide in late November, at the end of a long, eventful year that would bring a surge in immigration (see: the news), followed by all the political clippings that entails. Additionally, this is the first entry I’ll tackle with a real standing in the Oscar conversation (I really did have it at this spot, and was halfway through writing this post when it was announced as a PGA nominee), and the timeliness won’t hurt its chances. Of course, this is all digression with no bearing on the movie itself, but it may be what led me – and hopefully others who’d otherwise overlook it – to truly linger on the film’s message after the final reel, and what makes its emotional core all the more enthralling.
There’s a good chance you’re among those who intend to see this film but are still patiently waiting for the chance, so fair warning: read no further than this sentence to remain unspoiled. For Brooklyn is that rare low-key parable whose simplicity belies its stature, managing to be a sweeping, invigorating epic absent any of the typical interventions common to awarded dramas. The film’s focus is not to tackle a social issue, nor to examine a controversial persona, nor to publicly unearth some historical secret. It may still accomplish all of those things depending on your mileage, but its mere goal is bringing to life a story worth telling and a place in time worth reliving. Based on a novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, the center is Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young girl moving from Ireland to New York in the post-war years, hoping to find and build a new life as she leaves behind the family she loves. New York’s 1950s-era immigrant chapter is gorgeously recreated (only four days of the American scenes were shot on location), with all its grounding imperfections in the familiarly-recounted settings of yore. From Eilis’s shabby boarding house to the bustling schools, diners, shops and Irish churches that become fixtures of her world, everything is more than picturesque; it feels vividly lived-in.
Dimly lit roads and buses form the transitive tissue of her every day, but are kindled warmer when they become the space for courtship from a lively Italian boy (Emory Cohen) who begins accompanying her on the way home from class. This eventually leads to a memorable day for the two at Coney Island, yet their standard evening commutes through the city, filled with inconsequential conversation, are no less absorbing and cinematic. And, along with the production, that is of course due largely to Brooklyn’s stunningly natural cast, every member so convincingly at home in its world, from Eilis’s shopkeeper bosses to the boarding house owner to the baffling accounting teachers of her night-school. There’s no need for any of them to lean on artificial inflections for the sake of dating the period, nor do they require beats of spectacle or turns of phrase to stay in our minds. They all simply are, their sincerity and reality second-nature. It’s such modern sensibility that further elevates John Crowley’s filmmaking, infusing the classic with the new, and imprinting the young, flawed, progressive setting with a nudging touch of the city and community that it will eventually become.
Then we cross the midpoint, and, with its single dramatic development, the film sets into motion a second half that feels almost like an entire second film – not in terms of overstaying its welcome (the epic breezes along), but in how both halves are founded with equal depth. Circumstances bring Eilis back to Ireland to deal with family affairs, and the return to her hometown (this time shot mostly on location), to our amazement, becomes as realized a recreation as New York. And that shatters us, as we see Eilis captivated by the notion that, if she so chose, she could willingly undo all she made for herself in America and come home to rebuild again. Viewed at a distance, this is probably the most expected direction for the film to take, but it is no less involving and no less devastating the more the prospect becomes lushly potent, anchored on a wonderful seaside getaway set opposite Eilis’s date at Coney Island.
We can feel the tearing struggle brewing within Eilis, even as she keeps it silently contained and, crushingly, allows her life in America to fade into memory. It can justifiably be said that this is a plot with no true antagonist, nor even any party forcing Eilis to choose one side over the other, and so it is Eilis herself, arguably, who stands as the only character threatening to break morality and create her own conflict. That’s beautiful. That’s incredible. It’s a masterful narrative triumph and a towering ode to classic storytelling in a classic tale, the kind that has become a rarity in this day and age. Brooklyn is a film about home, and in its course becomes a welcome homecoming for the golden days of cinema in all their grand tradition.
Director: John Crowley; Writer: Nick Hornby; Director of Photography: Yves Bélanger; Editor: Jake Roberts; Composer: Michael Brook
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jane Brennan, Julie Waters, Jim Broadbent, Jessica Paré
Country: Ireland, United Kingdom, Canada co-production
Is it wrong to vote for Dope as the most purely entertaining movie I saw last year? Possibly. Here’s the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a black male high school senior who’s intelligent, talented, prolific, and miraculously clean of any taint from the crime-ridden neighborhood he grew up in. Partly because, by virtue of him and his only friends being geeks who’re into “white shit” (like skateboards, TV on the Radio, and Donald Glover), the dealers would rather beat him up and steal his bike than sell him dope. On the bright side, he has straight-As, high SAT scores, and an upcoming interview with a Harvard alumnus. So his principal naturally tells him that he doesn’t have a shot at getting into Harvard, that he needs to quit writing creative college applications that stand out from the crowd, and that his profile should highlight growing up poor and never knowing his father. Malcom frowns and quietly accepts the indictment, clearly – and deservedly – more tired of the cliché than we are.
Then he wakes up one day and innocently finds a gun and a bag of dope in his backpack at school (of course), followed by a threatening phone call from a drug dealer demanding he hand everything over or get his punk ass beaten up (of course), which pulls him deep into a spiral of – well, you know how it goes. Or the way it usually goes in movies. Except that when this happens to a white kid, it’s a comedy, and when it happens to a black kid, it’s a tragedy. Meaning that it’s going to screw up Malcolm’s alumni interview (scheduled later that day), his chances of getting into a good college, and the rest of his life. If only he could be a white kid right now, huh? It’s the unspoken use of that enraging fictional truth (all the more poignant for being real life-reflective) that really draws us in, and brings the overriding threat to Malcolm and his friends up to a whole new level.
The message would be horrifying – it should be horrifying – but damn it, director Rick Famuyiwa (an entirely new name to me, I’m ashamed to admit) makes it all so electrifying. The script seems to cackle as it pulls out one clever beat after the other; I already feel bad about spoiling the Donald Glover joke, but don’t worry – that’s the distant tip of the stack, and I won’t go into any more details of one of the year’s most outrageous plots. There are conversational sidebars peppered through both main and incidental characters, with topics ranging from Obama, Legend of Zelda, the “N”-word, Coachella – all knowingly Tarantino-esqueTM, yet with their own sly, edgier groove. Going round the table, the editing’s slick, the track selections are a nerd-shaming dream, the score has my personal vote for best original song, and the geek-inspired fashions that permeate the film are startlingly hip. The relatively-untested Shameik Moore (his first feature film role) leads the energy with a soft, exacting performance, complemented well by Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, and a hilarious guest role from Blake Anderson. They’ll keep you invested in wanting to see something good come out of this for everybody, only to break your heart whenever a chillingly stereotypical plot turn rears its head.
It’s in strangely similar spirit to 2014’s Dear White People, teasing you with elements that should cause instinctive discomfort, yet baiting you to forget them and enjoy every minute of its rock-solid, superbly written programming – which makes the set-up punches to your guilt nerve all the more effective. But while Dope may not immediately feel as angry, direct, on point, or aggressive as Dear White People was, I’m willing to bet my possibly-ignorant ass that it’s just as subversive (and important) a takedown of the tired double-standard, if not moreso. That the subtext happens to be layered in through the humor, music, and occasional gratuity we associate with more exploitative films speaks all the better to its applaudable daring. And, yes, it makes for a damn fine piece of entertainment. Again: that song.
Writer and Director: Rick Famuyiwa; Director of Photography: Rachel Morrison; Editor: Lee Haugen; Music: Germaine Franco
Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Blake Anderson
Country: United States
Oddly, this may be the movie on the list that I found the hardest watch. Not for the explicit sex between the 15-year-old main character and her mother’s boyfriend (there’s much juicier stuff coming down the line, rest assured), which director Marielle Heller treats with smartly offhanded regard. What gets me is how closely this hits the mark on one of the secrets of growing up: that no matter how you do things, or what you aim for, you’ll do something wrong.
Titular girl Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley) lives with her recently-divorced mother (Kristen Wiig). Perhaps under the spell of depression, mom has fallen back into the bohemian lifestyle, having friends over every day to smoke pot and party with. Minnie doesn’t hate her for it; but the spell doesn’t seem to lift, not even after her mother finds a new boyfriend in Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Soon both Minnie and her younger sister grasp how rudderless and messy their lives are going to be. Much has been said (in film and otherwise) of teenage turbulence, and the strange pressure to make the choices you’re supposed to make, without really knowing what they are or why. But Minnie has no role models to take after: her mother, whether or not she’s sober, seems reluctant to show the affection she used to. Her comically-rigid father (Christopher Meloni) can’t see past his own neuroses. Her best friend and confidant, Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), brags about promiscuity, then breaks down together with Minnie when faced with blowing boys they’ve just met. And – as stated above – she’s secretly having sex with Monroe, throwing any chance of responsible guidance from him out the window. So she takes charge of herself, guidance be damned, and it’s in Powley’s unflinching exuberance to make something of her life that the film earns its presentation as a comedy (at least in part). She makes choices that we know will lead nowhere good, and yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to cheer on her boldness, then neither can we bring ourselves to judge her – or even come up with choices we’d know in our hearts to be better.
But in the midst of her cheerily self-inflicted chaos, Minnie finds something special: a penchant for drawing, inspired by an unseen female cartoonist she adores (the film is based on a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, which, though recently back in print, I haven’t read). It’s not the kind of thing that Kimmie, her mom’s stoner friends, or even the tamer kids in class would find cool, but it pulsates her, and she privately keeps at what will show as genuine talent. This is used by the film as a device to mix animation with live action, with Minnie’s drawings taking life as moving cartoon cut-outs. Refreshingly, the script never undercuts this as escapism; it is simply worldview, not fantasy. Though it quickly leads the film’s visual style, the vivid color and lanky energy bringing flavor to the (intentionally) drab, dry footage of an increasingly dull reality, Heller is careful to keep it in reserve.
The cartoons are neither idealized nor flattering of their subjects, which often includes Minnie herself. All the more, then, does this provide her a positive grapple with her headspace, from body-image issues to her brazen libido. Under her skin, she knows all these are secondary to what really bothers her: the feeling that, despite so much of her carefree life spent mixing with all variety of people – and lovers – she can’t shake the awful, desperate sense that she’s lonely. Not everyone grew up in luckier circumstances than Minnie, but I’m guessing many who get to watch this film did (myself included). Does it really matter, though? It’s almost natural to feel adolescently rudderless, never sure what you’re supposed to grow into, or even what you want to grow into. There are harsh lessons that Minnie learns, borne of her choices; lessons that no one, not even a regular household, could have prepared her for, and by the end of things, we know she’s found a painful solace, held together by force of will, that will keep her whole.
This is the first feature film directed by Marielle Heller, and that floors me. A rough parallel can be drawn to 2009’s Fish Tank, a similarly-astounding, independently produced sophomore effort from Andrea Arnold that shares superficial plot elements. It’s a favorite of mine, and one of the great films of the past decade, but I might carefully admit that Heller’s achievement here is more impressive (I’ll leave an outright judgment between the films themselves for another day). The broad tonal spectrum is tightly woven, the stylistic turns are tacitly restrained, and the cast brims with unmistakable depth that we can’t break away from. Rarely do we see a director this assured on her or his first outing, and I’ll follow her next project even if it ends up as challenging a watch to me as this one was.
And it needs to be said: it’s one of the rare films directed and written by a woman, based on source material by a woman, and starring a largely female cast. That (aside from it being one of this year’s best films) it is also very easily the best comic book movie of the past few years (and acknowledged by critics as such), in a period when said medium has Hollywood in its pocket, in the same year that Fun Home dominated the Tony awards…that’s a spectacular triumph for all parties involved.
Writer and Director: Marielle Heller; Director of Photography: Brandon Trost; Editor: Marie-Héléne Dozo and Koen Timmerman; Music: Nate Heller
Starring: Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, Madeleine Waters, Christopher Meloni
Country: United States
Director: James Ponsoldt; Writer: Donald Margulies; Director of Photography: Jakob Ihre; Editor: Darrin Navarro; Composer: Danny Elfman
Starring: Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg
Country: United States
At age 46, author David Foster Wallace committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished 3rd novel as the capper to one of the most highly-regarded bodies of modern literature. The End of the Tour sets us 12 years beforehand, when Wallace reached an unexpected high from the success of his 2nd novel, Infinite Jest. Here, the author (played by a marvelous Jason Segel) is interviewed on the last leg of his book tour by then-Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, in a certain-to-be-underrated performance). The publisher wants the inside story on Wallace, and to Lipsky’s surprise, the genial writer may just give it, albeit slowly. On the surface, this is a simple reenactment of real-life conversations (the full account was published by Lipsky as the memoir Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself in 2010) between two enthusiasts of literature and pop culture; a perfect tonic for both fans of subdued cinema, in the vein of My Dinner with Andre, or, on the flipside, followers of the modern podcast. It could’ve been 2 hours of film without conflict, and that would’ve been fine for book and art lovers.
Except there’s something else Lipsky wants even more than he wants the story. He wants to learn what it is that separates a giant like Wallace from the countless other all-too-forgettable struggling novelists out there (himself included). He’d never ask it aloud, but wants the answer to the worst query in journalism: where does Wallace get his ideas? At each sit-down, Lipsky casually brings up an observation about the author, masked as minutiae, but knowingly sensitive enough to prod him for a revelation. Each time, Wallace does the unprecedented; he actually answers with a sincere, open-wound secret, but it never seems to be what Lipsky expects, taking them further and further away from the discourse – and the image of Wallace – he has in mind. If that makes the film sound like a thriller, it isn’t; Margulies’ script remains simmeringly casual throughout, drawing the two leads closer but never losing their apprehensiveness. Also of credit to this are the performances themselves, under Ponsoldt’s assured direction, with neither role unbalancing the other.
Eisenberg brings one of his most carefully-measured efforts to the table, slipping the right temper of unease and frustration in between the infectious thrill of getting to bond with an idol. That thrill soon builds – maybe too quickly – into an undeserved confidence, as it so often does between men. Then other parties enter the picture, and the unease threatens a bit too unevenly in Wallace’s direction. By the time things come to a head, there is a tragic strain to the casual familiarity we saw the two develop. Ironically, it may be in the fallout that Lipsky gains the answer closest to the one he’s looking for.
As to Segel’s performance? More than a convincing approximation of the author, he breathes effortlessly as the unfairly-complex figure that Lipsky cannot seem to unravel, a mix of delicate sincerity, sophisticated patience and childlike reservation. Molding his Wallace role in line with the eccentric artists of the biopic genre (see this year’s Love & Mercy, which, if I get around to it, I’ll have on my “other” list) would’ve not only been easy, but potentially award-drawing. He digs instead to the author’s realness, and every revelation not only rings true to himself, but feels right to us.
“It’s two people in a room. If you’re going to do […] entertainment that doesn’t have just two people talking, you’re missing the whole essence of what’s human.” Anyone passionate about storytelling, regardless of which influences are drawn, can lose themselves in the beat of two people who simply talk to each other about things that matter to them. Lipsky didn’t get what he wanted, but Wallace left him with something invaluable – including enough enigma to keep him (and us) questioning.
(Let’s hope I actually see this through. Partly as an exercise, I’ll be writing up my Top 10 films of the year, posting 1 a day from January 1st to January 10th. Based on my timezone, the Producers Guild of America nominations for the 10 best films of 2015 should be released around January 6th, while the Directors Guild of America will announce their feature film nominees January 13th, which should make the timing fun for me.
I required all films in this list to meet only 2 basic criteria: a) those I personally saw over the year 2015 (The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and The Big Short are notable awards season releases that I held off on seeing, and won’t magically be included if I end up seeing them over the next few days), and b) those that are dated as 2015 releases by their US distribution date. For the uninitiated, the 2nd criteria is to allow for inclusion of films (especially those produced outside of the US) that, while screened or under very limited release in 2014, were largely inaccessible to most viewers before 2015. There are a number of films I’m excited for that I would’ve loved to consider for this list, like Viva, Dheepan, and Sunset Song, but the cutoff has to come somewhere.
Oh, and while I’d call any of the films that made my Top 10 immediate recommendations for anyone (yes, I’m sparing you the inclusion of Irrational Man), this is still purely a favorites list, and not a ranking of quality, with my preferences being as personal as they get.
So onto the first entry. See heading of this post)
Writer and director: Myroslav Slaboshpitskiy; Director of photography: Valentyn Vasyanovych; Editor: Valentyn Vasyanovych
Starring: Grigoriy Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Rosa Babiy.
I’ll try to keep spoilers for the movies on this list to a minimum, but this first entry could already push me to detail a few critical scenes. A simple description of The Tribe wouldn’t do justice to how well I believe it works under its experimental face, as the “hook” – 120-minutes with no dialogue, no soundtrack, and no subtitles, or any discernible text to guide you through the plot – folds seamlessly into the narrative from well within the first act.
Set at a boarding school for deaf-mutes, all characters in the film communicate through sign language, with no source allowed to us for literal interpretation (unless you know how to sign. Director Slaboshpytskiy didn’t). Wide shots are used for almost the entire running time, with faces often obscured, leaving us with no clear expressions to read from the characters. Oh, and it shifts genre gears, going from juvenile angst to crime to romance (or at least passionate lust). And if you’re the socially conscious type, you may distract yourself with the need to know whether or not the movie is tackling something topical.
The key is none of these turn out to be hurdles, and all contribute to the engagement. We follow a newly arrived student at said-boarding school, who, after a few days of being pushed around, decides to fit in by accepting an initiation into the resident mafia. Soon he proves his thuggish worth, and joins them out on nights of street theft and pimping out their fellow schoolgirls to truckers. But even as the plot lends itself to violence (there’s an impressively choreographed schoolyard brawl shortly into the film, kept spartanly bloodless) and sex, it’s the mute conversations that never fail to steal your attention. The camera’s distant perspective (shot mostly in unbroken takes from steady vantages) proves no less personal than close-ups in a speaking film, as it allows latitude to an almost-feral depiction of sign, with fierce, kinetic gestures from the vigorous cast. You’ll stop trying to guess at what the exchanges mean, and simply trust in their body language, even as they turn towards the unsettling.
Later in the film, the protagonist convinces one of the mafia girls (and not-too-hidden object of his desire) to have intercourse with him. As he bends in to kiss her she shoves his face away, denying any more than casual sex. They proceed to screw, and again, we are spared of any vocal cues (no, not even the usual emphatic moans). Yet what begins as something dispassionately animal slowly, strangely gains a sheen of tenderness through their physical rhythm, both sides opening to their nakedness and urge, until it’s no surprise to see them consummate what was at first denied. Later still, we follow the girl to a different kind of scene altogether, and watch as she bares herself just as nakedly to another party, but to a far more gruesome purpose. If you can view this scene without turning away, more power to you. Otherwise, you may need to cover your ears, as well, as this is the one instance where Slaboshpytskiy breaks his rule and allows the girl to audibly wail for minutes that will feel longer than they are. It doesn’t matter that he keeps it bloodless; the gravity is more than delivered.
If there is a societal message here (apparently under debate, according to press releases), it’s arguably secondary. The setting and medium uncover truths of primeval violence and base instinct, festering in the many marginalized communities that may be overlooked or left neglected throughout the world, regardless of age or class. Or maybe even in those we simply choose to call sanitized, knowing there’s more animal to them than we pretend. Perhaps it’s prevalent in the deaf community, or perhaps it is not, but there’s enough reason to believe it can manifest anywhere. And it feels more potent in The Tribe than in any film I’ve seen this year.
(Concluding part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. This covers the finale in detail and contains major spoilers for the ending. The themes discussed here are introduced in the previous posts, which recap the series prior to its conclusion)
Grief – “Granite State”
Dwelling in a New Hampshire mountain cabin (one of the few places he can stay as he waits for the now-public heat on Heisenberg to die down) is a long way from an ideal life. It’s also the furthest thing from home Walter can imagine, darkly cramped and rigidly cold in contrast to the dry open New Mexico desert, adding to its apocalyptic tone. Fitting, as he’s fallen all the way to the bottom, the traces of fight and hope fading into quiet desolation while the cancer chips away at what remains. It’s punishment, after all, and maybe the ending he was meant for.
He says as much to Ed, the man he’s paying a small fortune to make supply runs and keep him hidden. “One of these days when you come up here, I’ll be dead”, he guesses. It’s more and more likely his demise will see him alone and forgotten, washed under the snow like a bad memory.
Left to a similar fate is Jesse. In the hands of the Aryans, he finds that Jack isn’t exactly keeping up his part of the bargain. They’ve long finished interrogating him, as the disfiguring scars on his face attest, but – at Todd’s insistence – rather than put him out of his misery, they’ve forced him to cook the Heisenberg formula, to make even more millions on top of what they took. Chained to a lab and made to sleep in a pit, this is Jesse’s adulthood nightmare literalized: being forever shackled to the meth trade, deemed useless at anything else, with nothing but that to call home.
Walt, on the other hand, sits hundreds of miles away from any meth lab. Ready to surrender, he orders one last drink in a bar where he expects the law to eventually find him, waiting for the end. It’s during the grief stage that the prospect of death is most unbearable, leaving the mind to its grimmest ideas: that his family will never love him again. That he’s left them penniless. That this was all for nothing. And maybe the ideas that bother him even more – that the world will move on, the perfect meth of Heisenberg becoming a ghostly footnote, if that.
In this stage, though, a final alchemy is taking place, catalyzed by it being the first time the chiral sides of our main protagonist have been truly confronted. Walter White and Heisenberg. Good guy and bad guy. Scientist and supernatural legend. The victim doomed by disease, and the mastermind it birthed. Now that both have loved and both have dearly lost, the once-dueling personas find themselves sharing the same headspace, stripped down to their naked cores to see each other as they are.
And all it takes is a spark to ignite the magic: by the slimmest of chances, Walter catches a TV interview featuring none other than his oldest colleagues, Gretchen and Elliot of Grey Matter, billionaires rolling in attention for their philanthropy. And when the topic of Walter White and Heisenberg comes up, as it must for the thread to complete, enough is said to join the personas into an ultimate synthesis.
He is no longer Heisenberg, nor is he Walter White. But he carries the finest elements of both men as he breaks into climactic action, gliding into the night to raise the baddest level of hell.
Acceptance – “Felina Has Found Me”
Walter White’s manufacturing of crystal meth at near-absolute purity is, many critics believe, a metaphor of Breaking Bad’s own creative process. Distilling modern archetypes of serialized drama down to the intrinsic nature of the theatre to unveil one of the most potently engaging works we’ve had the pleasure to consume. This is no more evident than in the final chapter, an ending so raw in purpose it’s almost unrecognizable as a chapter of the series it bookmarks.
There are few of the trappings we know. The lighting, even in the desert shots, is thoroughly cold and morose; familiar sets like the White house are either absent or grossly altered; the characters are long removed from their typical appearance and demeanor. It serves to emphasize that, unlike with most televised dramas, the Bad world is definitively dropping the curtain. It is not a fictive universe designed to continue (even in our own minds). There is no status quo left unchanged, no never-ending cycle to perpetuate. Dialogue is coarse and sparse in this last hour because all has already been said. Music is mostly diegetic (there are only about five minutes of external cues, from either Dave Porter or existing tracks) as befits a funeral march, and even the sendoff cue is one we wouldn’t have suspected.
Since this is Walter’s story, there really is no proper ending for him than the only indisputable one: death. It shuts the door on any what-ifs and wherefores. But we’re left to consider the characters he’s touched on his way out; on the surface, their own finales are ambiguous, and so we defer to the rules of story, discerning each resolution by the final state they’re left in.
Walt’s goodbye to Gretchen and Elliot ends with a partnership that will extend past his own trip to the grave. He makes their Grey Matter empire a mere extension of his own, as they are coerced into cleansing Heisenberg’s money of its stain and getting what’s left of it to his family. Using them, he’d deem, in the same way they used him, almost as if it were a grand plan from the start, designed to his benefit and come to its apex.
It’s enough, and it satisfies him. There is little need to gloat on it (though he does for just a bit, in his way). He doesn’t even need to bring up the article that many viewers expected he’d bring up: the conflict that dissolved their original partnership. To the frustration of a few fans, it’s left a mystery, but maybe that’s because we knew enough all along. Maybe Walt was too damned proud of himself, even way back in his youth. Maybe he did break up with Gretchen – his first known relationship – out of little more than paranoia and spite. Maybe the trigger that set him down his vengeful path was no more complex than Walt being…well, the Walt we’ve since come to know.
Just ask Skyler, who knows that Walt better than anyone. He sneaks into her new house in what might be the series’ most powerfully-acted scene, where husband and wife exchange not so much goodbyes as final words in the five minutes she’ll tolerate.
“You look terrible”, she whispers blithely.
“But I feel good”, he replies.
He promises her that none of the evil he empowered will threaten her again, but admits at last why he kept it in motion in the first place. Not for the good of the family. “I did it for me. I was good at it. I was alive.”
On his way out, Skyler allows him to visit baby Holly’s crib. He strokes her head longingly, and then exits to watch, hidden from view, as his son steps off his school bus and comes home to greet his mother. This is his family’s ending: to heal the wound he’s left and once again become whole, more than it has been in a long time.
As Walter tends to his last affairs, we see him as never before: in calm, collected control. He has come quite a way since the Pilot, when he could barely keep circumstances from spiraling into confusion. The struggle reconciles with his acceptance of fate, and through that, destiny ceases to beat against him and steers to his hand. Every item on his list is accomplished with nary a hitch…save one.
Having heard that the Heisenberg meth is somehow back on the streets, Walt believes that Jesse and Jack have partnered to brew his product. So he engineers the bloodiest and most punishing end for them he can imagine, and sets it as his final destination…until he actually sees with his own eyes what Jesse has become.
There are plenty of explanations for why Walt chooses to shield Jesse from the onslaught he’s prepared, the unexpected step in a flawless plan. But they mostly defer to this being something that both Walt and Heisenberg (and, by transference, their now-seamless fusion) want to happen. He is finally struck by just how much – and how long – Jesse has suffered on his account, how deep into the mire of the game he has fallen in no small part by Walt’s own machinations.
Walt’s newfound acceptance extends to all of that, and so he gives Jesse what he has most desperately needed: a way out. Out of his prison. Out of the game. Out of the blackness, and into a chance at redemption. Even a way out from under the shadow of Walter White, as he offers Jesse a gun, a clear shot, and even absolution of the murder.
But Jesse sees the bloody hole in Walt’s side – a stray bullet from the onslaught he set off. He drops the gun and denies Walt of an immediate death, deciding that his freedom will begin with no longer following his mentor’s orders. Giving Walt a parting nod – not so much a pardon or even a goodbye, but an acknowledgement that their mutual misery is done – he gets into a car and breaks through the gates of the massacred Aryan compound, wailing in ecstasy.
Jesse’s ending is the most complete of anyone’s – he is free. As he comes roaring out of the most inescapable depths of the game, we needn’t be concerned with what happens to him next; he will find his way out, as he never before thought he would.
Walt watches his protégé leave, and then readies himself for his own ending – now more prepared than he has ever been. Clutching the fatal wound in his side, he stumbles through the compound and finds the meth lab that the Aryans had Jesse brew his product in. Seeing the configuration just as he originally designed it. Pressure set at the level he’d always specified. The tools and ingredients he requisitioned from his and Jesse’s very first cook. And he smiles, basking in how far it’s all come since that first cook, how much was set in motion by his hand and how much it brought to what had been such a plain existence.
He’ll never be redeemed, but has accomplished the good he once desired. He’s met a miserable demise, as the cancer long dictated he would, but has celebrated the most glorious form of living. He’ll leave life unloved, but can die the most romantic of deaths – in the embracing, equipment-laden arms of his one true passion, as presented in the masterful, final unfurling shot. He has broken free of the learn’d astronomer’s drudged world of castrated theory, and relished a shining year in the mystical footsteps of the gods.
As he strokes a kettle in the lab the same way he stroked his baby girl, his final breath leaves him, and, gliding out, brings his perfect silence. Punishment and consolation, negation and completion. The most classical of stories are those which capture that complex breadth of human essence in the purest and simplest of ways, and that’s what Breaking Bad achieves like no other work of its kind.
(Second part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. From here expect major spoilers on the final season, prior to the series finale. For a recap of the themes introduced in prior seasons, see the previous post; for the finale, see the next and concluding post)
Through the course of the series, you can say that the arc of Walter White has been two-fold. There’s the obvious spiral from good to unquestionably bad, but also the subtler side of him moving from classical science to acknowledging the artistic soul. Yet both sides can be distilled into one pure and potent encompass: the break from rational into the irrational, the release of logic and acceptance of an inexplicable – and almost romantic – power.
When asked the specifics of the phrase “Breaking Bad”, creator Gilligan describes it as “to raise hell”. This alludes not only to Walt’s moral decay, but his uprooting from passive order into fiery action. A change of his own design, hence the name “Heisenberg”. As Walt breaks bad, his chemistry expertise evolves from chalkboard theory into an almost magical weapon, bewildering all who witness it, fully realized in the flawless crystal meth he cooks.
As his product spreads throughout the country, Walt becomes increasingly protective of it – even against those he trusts. When Jesse at one point demonstrates that he can cook the meth formula entirely on his own, Walt turns furious, forbidding that he ever do so again.
But why be so ambitious? What’s he doing this all for, really? Jesse asks him one day, as an opportunity comes for them to cash out of the twisted game with a big enough retirement package. Walt scoffs at the notion, and Jesse raises the question: is he in this for the meth, or the money?
“Neither”, says Walt. “I’m in the empire business.”
He relays a story: decades ago, over an unexplained disagreement with his partners, Walt opted out and sold his stake in a technology firm called Grey Matter – the first thing he ever built. Today it’s over a hundred thousand times richer. With his old colleagues still cashing in on what he considers his hard work, his genius.
Back in the early stages of his cancer, those same colleagues – now the married Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz – offered Walt recompense: full payment for his treatment and even his old position back. Had Walt taken it, there would have been no need for Heisenberg, no need to cook, no need for the pain and suffering he both felt and caused. Not only did he reject it, but he has never looked back, never regretted turning them down. It’s the first real instance of him snapping at the easy way out and taking the more reckless – and to him, more gratifying – path.
Perhaps this, the monument of Heisenberg, is the way to set things right, the universe providing his motivation and means. A way to be glorified, even perversely, and wipe the stain of that lasting insult. To touch the life of kings, and let no one stand in his way. Not his wife, Skyler. Not Jesse. Not business partners like Gus Fring, or the DEA, or the Mexican cartel. No matter how brutally he may have to strike back at them.
The Great Silence
That cycle of recklessness reaches its peak when, faced with ten imprisoned associates who might give him up to the law, Walt does not even consider buying their silence. He silences them permanently; hiring a man named Jack, the deadliest killer this side of the Aryan brotherhood, to perform a mass execution. It’s Heisenberg at his most chaotic and irredeemable – and brings him the crown he so long desired.
Except that this is a story, and Walt’s at the finish line. His crystal meth trade has expanded into a business grand enough to make hundreds of millions a year. A business he fully controls, at the cost of his soul. The success is real, his transformation complete. The arc of Walter White is over.
And then it comes back: the cancer that started it all, flaring out of remission. Reminding us that, for the story to end, Walt has to die.
Killing Walter White can’t be easy. The Bad creative team gives the devil his due, breaking it into stages as Walt – and those around him – brace for the impact.
Denial – end of “Gliding Over All” to “Rabid Dog”
If there’s one person Walt has most impressively lied to, it’s himself. Every moral question that’s raised, he casts aside with a universal cleanser: this will benefit his family.
So Skyler wakes him to the facts. She shows him the physically massive pile of money that his “empire” has produced. It’s too much to launder. Too much to spend. Too much for his children to even know about without having to learn where it came from.
That, and there doesn’t seem to be anything left to fight for. Jesse has called it quits. Every danger to him – and his secret – is gone. Even the DEA’s fresh out of leads.
Walt takes it as a chance to leave the business and put Heisenberg away. Maybe it’s the cancer, too: the horseman of death, warning him that if he wants the end to come easily, he’ll need to set his affairs in order. Make what amends he can. To rest in peace, going quietly into that good night, and have a happy ending.
And he’s gravely wrong, because peace is for the just. Death has something far, far more terrible in store for the evil Walter White, rearing its head with a second horseman: Hank.
Having all but given up on the untraceable Heisenberg, a defeated Hank decides to keep the troubling case out of mind. He and his wife enjoy a ritual lunch with the Whites, shooting the breeze with Walt about beer and chemistry. And it’s on this day that he finds the unlikeliest of clues in their house: a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with a very telling inscription. Vague, but just enough to spark the epiphany…and bring home the horror of who Heisenberg really is.
Viewers questioned why Hank couldn’t put together Heisenberg’s identity when the man himself was in plain sight. Something tells me every time a clue tempted him in Walt’s direction, he’d subconsciously push it away, nobly prioritizing justice for his family – and downtrodden brother – over justice to the law.
As the second horseman, Hank must now step up as the counter-force to evil, but the other layer to his role is the sin of Walt’s deceit. The lies of Heisenberg haven’t just perpetuated his reign; they’ve toyed with his loved ones, taking advantage of the filial affection Skyler, his son, Hank, and even Hank’s wife had extended to him for so long.
The face-off doesn’t wait. “All along, it was you”, Hank growls, hissing Walt’s crimes at him like curse words. Except that Walt actually holds to his denial. Telling Hank there’s no purpose to the case, now that he’s given up the game.
True enough; in terms of evidence and witness, Hank doesn’t have much to go on. He also knows now how devious Walt is, and that he’ll have to come up with an unpredictable strategy to catch the kingpin red-handed.
Leading him to round up the third – and unlikeliest – horseman: Jesse.
As of late, Jesse’s been a shadow of himself. Freedom from the business isn’t the alluring goal it used to be. He doesn’t have Jane. He’s turned his back on lovers and friends, restless in anyone’s company. Worst of all is the weight he’s carrying from working with Mr. White: the crimes, the murders, the betrayals.
Since Jane’s death, he’s declared himself “the bad guy”, believing the meth trade was all there was for him, and that money would soothe any pain. But Mr. White’s dragged him through far more than he ever bargained, and the retirement package he’s encashed isn’t making him feel any better. What bothers him the most isn’t guilt; it’s the nagging idea that it isn’t over, that Mr. White might have plans for him yet.
Walt does – but it’s a plan Jesse can agree with: knowing Hank might try pressing Jesse about Heisenberg, Walt suggests he buy a new identity – and a new life – in Alaska. Jesse’s aware this is tilted to Walt’s benefit, but with little else left for him, he acquiesces. Troubled as he is, Jesse has no intention of rolling over for Hank.
Until right before he leaves. In one of the most electrifying sequences in the series (note-perfect acting, lighting, scenery, and a brilliant cue from composer Dave Porter), Jesse puts together – for the first time – the full extent of his teacher’s sadistic betrayal, and just how unforgivably the man has used him.
It sends him into a determined rage; grabbing a gas can, he charges for the White house intending to set it aflame. Birthed in a fit of passion, it’s not the smartest idea, and we already know beforehand that it won’t work. What matters is the message; that Jesse’s turnaround is the lever of reckoning, and he’s about to set Walt’s world on fire.
His rage is halted by a very resourceful Hank; having tracked Jesse down, he quickly talks sense into him. Reasoning that their desire to get at Walt is now mutual, Hank proposes that Jesse instead confront his mentor with a wiretap handy. A good play, except that the thought of meeting Walt again face-to-face puts Jesse on edge, his fear of the man now practically instinctual. Representing the sin of manipulation, Jesse’s role in the endgame isn’t just to exact revenge, but to show the damage that his mentor’s careless abuse has brought to those around him, even the ones he professes to love.
If Jesse had worn the police wire and followed Hank’s plan, they could have wrapped the case then and there and spared everyone – including Walt – the terror to come. Unfortunately, that’s not how morality plays work; the mental torture Walt’s dealt must exact its part of the toll. When Jesse can’t bring himself to face the devil on his own terms, he goads Hank towards a sneakier route.
“I’m coming for you”, Jesse tells his old partner over the phone. “I’m going to get you where you really live.”
The threat startles Walter in a way that none of Hank’s accusations could. And as he finally rises from the false peace, it’s Walt himself who calls in the fourth horseman: Jack.
Anger – “To’hajilee”
Across Breaking Bad’s rich cast, Jack is unique. Decently mannered and thoroughly amoral, he’s the last major character introduced, halfway through the final season, and has the least amount of screen time. That he plays such a large role in the endgame is unusual, yet he grows into one of the show’s scariest villains (no easy feat) by representing the darkest of Walter White’s sins.
While Gus Fring embodies the business of the meth trade and Walt embodies the chemistry, Jack embodies the violence. We’ve seen many instances of gruesome retribution in the game, whether from Walt himself or one of his enemies. Jack quietly tops them all in record time, pulling off a mass execution order – and later laying waste to a rival dealer – with ease. The bloodletting in Bad is never overused, but has hung over every deal Walt and Jesse have made, reminding us of how crime costs the body and soul. Jack is the culmination of that – and of Walt’s own indulgence of it.
Like every other violent player, Jack’s taken an interest in the crystal blue product and the money it can raise. When Walter contracts him for one last hit, the only named price is for Walt to teach Jack’s nephew, Todd, how to brew the meth himself. Walt balks, but agrees to one cook – thinking Todd won’t learn enough from it, anyway.
Walter has stayed adamantly clean of the game since his “retirement”, enjoying the peace, the pretense of a happy ending. When Hank found him out, he refused to do any harm and simply covered his tracks – burying in the desert the massive pile of meth money that was too big to launder. When Jesse flew off the handle, Walt struggled to keep the demon at bay, believing he could talk his old partner into reason.
But Jesse makes good on his threat. Sending Walt a photo message, Jesse claims to have found the buried money and says he’ll burn every last stack unless Walt comes to face him. And just like that, Heisenberg snaps out of his reverie into blistering fury. Driving off to the burial site without a backwards glance, he pours out venom over the phone at Jesse – and calls Jack, telling him to meet him and bring backup.
It turns out, of course, to be a clever ruse on Hank’s part, and when Walt makes it to the burial site, he realizes he’s been had – and that Jesse and Hank are working together, the permutation that in his anger he hadn’t dared consider. With that he turns pale, having no intention of making Hank, or any part of the family he’s sacrificed for, a casualty to the game.
It’s significant that, when Hank holds him at gunpoint and orders his surrender, Walt doesn’t lash out; instead, he appears almost relieved. Far removed from the composure he wore only minutes ago, when he thought his hard-won wealth would be lost to a raving junkie. And as Hank slaps on the cuffs, promising that the law will find and seize every last buried dollar of his, one can imagine a different peace crossing Heisenberg’s mind: that the world will know exactly how much his product – and his genius – is worth.
Think of that as the second alternate ending to the series, much like his earlier retirement…and similarly too good to last.
Cue Jack’s Aryan crew closing in fast on the burial site – and even with a shocked Walt barking at them to stand down, the same thought of the profitable meth formula sees them pull out the heavy artillery. Every last piece of Walter’s dangerous game has come together in a melancholic picture, and it takes just one itchy trigger finger to bring hellfire ripping through the air and a front row seat to the most terrible judgment unfolding.
Bargaining – “Ozymandias”
As a wounded Hank lies struggling on the ground, Jack raises his pistol and aims for the killshot. No way is he letting a DEA agent live, not with a meth operation in the cards.
So Walter pleads, frantically and pathetically, for Hank to be spared. As Jack shrugs him off, Walt makes the biggest pitch in his arsenal: to give Jack all of the money that he buried in the ground.
It’s the first instance of Walt’s bargaining – not just for Hank, but for himself. Allowing his brother to die will see the end of what good he has fought so hard to cling onto, the last chance for the happy ending he and his family can have.
A bemused Jack puts the question to Hank, if he should accept the money and let him go. To which Hank shoots back: “You can go fuck yourself.”
With the click of a barrel, Hank is fulfilled. Unshakably moral to the end, he achieves what he once admired Walt for many moons ago – choosing to die like a man.
It’s full minutes later when Jack helps a devastated Walt to his feet. In a show of respect, he extends a parting consolation: he’ll be taking the money anyway, having his men find it and dig it out, but will leave Walt a seventh of the original share – as well as his life. So long as they agree to go their separate ways and never seek payback. As his demeanor slowly changes – and Heisenberg propping up his spine – Walt murmurs one more thing he’ll need to make them square: “Pinkman.”
Jack has his men pull Jesse out of his hiding place, but rather than kill him then and there, his nephew Todd suggests they first bring him back with them and find out what he might have told the feds. Delighted at the prospect of Jesse being interrogated in an Aryan compound, Walt agrees, so long as they promise to finish him when they’re done. A second instance of bargaining: having been dealt a bitter blow, he’ll at least see the rat suffer for leading Hank to his death.
So as a coup de grace, before a screaming Jesse is dragged away by Jack’s men, Walt looks him straight in the eye and drops passively, “I watched Jane die.”
Jesse stares in disbelief as Walt continues, “I was there. And I watched her die. I watched her overdose and choke to death. I could have saved her. But I didn’t.”
The momentous confession closes one of the longest running arcs of both characters. Jane’s death made Jesse commit to his self-destructive trajectory, but it was also Walter’s most crucial turn. He not only let a young girl perish (to remove the wedge she drove between him and Jesse), he flat-out pretended it never happened. Weeks later, he’d still refuse the label of villain, allowing Jesse to shoulder the blame.
Now Walt’s finally owning the sin, absolving Jesse just as the door is shut on his freedom. Jesse’s too stricken to reply, but he’ll have a lot of time to think this one over – and how his guilt-driven descent may have all been for nothing.
For Walt, the satisfaction is short-lived, as he has to wearily trudge his way back home…and face his family. They’ve gotten wind of Hank confronting him in the desert. Skyler demands to know what happened, where Hank is now. Walt evades the question and urges her and his son to start packing bags – they need to run. But the lies are fragile as ever now, and sensing what the answer to her question is, a visibly tenuous Skyler draws a kitchen knife.
She’s at the end of her rope – unsure anymore of what in her life is real or reliable, if she belongs in hell or has a chance at heaven. All she knows is that if harm has come to Hank, she’ll stop at nothing to protect the rest of the family from the man who’s wrought it.
The same thought dawns on Walt – that he and he alone has brought the danger home, paying the full cost for only a seventh of the prize. Or, if the prize was his family’s security, then for none of it – not if they’re unwilling to accept it.
Shattered, Walter makes a final desperate bargain: he grabs his baby daughter, Holly, from her crib, taking her away with him before a hysterical Skyler can stop him. The one member of his family who can’t reject him, whom he can raise and give the world to if he buys them new lives far from home.
It’s a nice fantasy; it might even be doable. But it isn’t right, and the last vestige of Walt’s humanity can still see that. As he owned the monstrosity of letting Jane die, he decides to stop bargaining and accept that from here on, touching his wife and children will only bring them harm.
Over a phone call he knows is tapped by the police, he delivers to Skyler the one thing she wanted all this time: her freedom from him. Wiping her hands of any blood and owning every last evil deed he committed, using the acting proficiency he’d long mastered through falsities and deceit. Remembering, perhaps, a phone call to her from long ago when he made a similar lie to cover up his first cook. And after anonymously leaving baby Holly with her home address in the hands of the authorities, Walt grabs his bags and takes exodus of the life he’d long destroyed.
(concluded next post)
(First part of an essay on the major thematic arcs of Breaking Bad, mapping them into the series conclusion. This post is light on spoilers regarding the actual final season; they are tackled in the next post)
A station wagon sits disengaged, tires sunk deep on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road, as the outside air breathes fierce and cakes frost on its windows. We’re in a quiet, claustrophobic corner of New Hampshire that’s served as hideaway – and slice of hell – for the man in the driver’s seat: Walter White, America’s most wanted criminal.
The car’s not his: having just broken into it, this is his first time in six months behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s taken what fight he has left to pull himself out of his frozen exile, determined to drive back home to New Mexico for one last, purposeful mission.
Purpose won’t start a stolen car, though. He searches the glove compartment, finds only a screwdriver, tries to key the ignition with it and regrets the idea. He sighs, exuding mist, leans back in his seat and wishes aloud: “Just get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”
And as if guided, his hand reaches up to the sun mirror and pulls down the visor flap…to find the car keys there, waiting for him.
This is how Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, chose to open the final chapter of his novelistic series: with fate taking the reins.
I’m thrilled that this last season has brought Breaking Bad the mass viewership it deserves, and the word of mouth it needs to live on as one of the most dissected and scrutinized television shows out there. Whether people decide it’s the best or anywhere near is irrelevant – it’s left enough of a legacy to be preserved and acknowledged as the very different beast that it was.
Once Upon a Time in the West
There are a number of reasons Bad stands apart from the shows it superficially resembles (like The Shield, The Sopranos, or hell, Weeds, which oddly enough was what Vince Gilligan most worried it would come off as aping) and so much to discuss on the creative front (the tobacco filters, the meth lab designs, the lighting of the cooking scenes, the minimalist music cues, and certainly the acting) that I’ll get into the majority of them in a follow-up post. For now, though, I’ll focus on the very notable thing that has made it special, and that has guided the way it began, the way each chapter unfolded, and the devastating way it ended, which for all the praise is proving divisive in the best way. The Bad finale is brutally memorable, yet just oblique enough to inspire argument, introspection, and varying degrees of anger on how satisfying it really is – all adding to the show’s longevity.
Because Breaking Bad has always accepted – and striven to make good on – what it is: a story.
Let’s return to that opening scene of the final chapter, then dial back even further to hold it up against the very first chapter. The Pilot episode begins in media res and also finds Walter White behind the wheel of a vehicle, but he’s driving a beat-up old bounder, careening through the badlands of New Mexico on an aimless run from approaching sirens. In the driver’s seat, he’s stripped down to his briefs wearing nothing else but a full-face respirator. Crashing the RV, he stumbles out into the blazing sun, and after pulling off the respirator (and putting on a shirt), we get a shot of him from behind to see a pistol holstered in his jockstrap.
This is Walter White – maybe the world’s most talented chemist, maybe even its greatest mind, caught with his pants off in the worst of situations. Nothing new for him – his career has been a series of bad decisions, reducing him from highly respected researcher to high school chemistry teacher. He barely makes ends meet, while his son (named after him) has cerebral palsy and his loving wife, Skyler, has another baby on the way. His brother-in-law, Hank, often gets all the attention from an exciting job as a drug-buster.
And only three weeks ago, he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
With no money for treatment and nothing to leave his family, a desperate Walt visits one of his old students, Jesse Pinkman, who flunked chemistry, but graduated from trading weed to cooking crystal meth. To Jesse’s surprise, Walt offers to partner up with him. With his chemical genius, Walt declares, they can change the meth trade forever and yield the purest product ever seen. Potent enough to demand top dollar – and incur the envy of the most vicious players in the American southwest.
When asked why he’d even consider such a dangerous idea, Walt says with a smile: “I am awake.”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Since the drawing board, Gilligan’s concept was concise. “You get the good guy and turn him into the bad guy”, he sums up. Or, to use the more referential phrase that’s oft-repeated, you turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”. By anchoring the conceit on two very considered – and very, very different – fictional characters, this is above all else a fiction. In real life, there are no good guys or bad guys, certainly none that society as a whole may agree on. But the power of a storyteller is to construct a world where good and evil are manifest and where consequences spring from both; where good bestows a semblance of peace and evil must be punished.
That’s what Breaking Bad embraces. It’s a labored point by now, but bears repeating because Bad doesn’t dabble in the mold of ambiguous antihero that we see in The Sopranos or The Shield, nor does it build a stage grounded in realism like The Wire or The Newsroom (all fantastic in their own right, certainly – just taking a different, less classical track). We can relate to and sympathize with Gilligan’s rendition of evil – appropriate, as that’s what makes it so dangerous – but at the end of the day, evil is evil, and all evil in the Bad world is damned. “I want to believe there’s a heaven”, says Gilligan, quoting his girlfriend’s philosophy, “but I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
Walt is still the good guy when he contracts cancer (there are hints, sure, of a reckless ego, a venomous temper and a lethal self-preservation instinct, but nothing concrete, nothing that deserves punishment. Yet) And this might be a fictional world, but practical science is a main theme, hence Walt’s doctor confirming that, yes, the cancer is terminal, and best-case scenario he delays it for a couple of years. But we know that death is coming for him; the same guiding force that will lead him to car keys left carelessly behind a visor flap has, right from the outset, carved the ending to this story.
Breaking Bad loves establishing the inevitable. The best storyteller knows there is no true crime in a predictable plot; what matters is how well you tell it. That’s why Bad baits us frequently with flash-forwards (as in the aforementioned Pilot), showing the ending ahead of time so we won’t question the destination and can absorb the ride. That’s why the cliffhangers (of which there are few) do not lead to sudden twist resolutions – they lead to exactly what you’d expect, whether it’s the murder of a “problem dog” or a gunman’s last stand under a shower of bullets. That’s why the best moments are not the shocking ones, but those telegraphed for an hour or more before they occur, like the explosive Mexican standoff at the end of the fourth season (complete with a gunslinger’s death-march preceding it).
We know the good guy will turn into the bad guy – and we know that it will end in his demise – but just watching the transformative process is enough to involve us by the guts and balls. The steps are predictive science, but the artful swagger burns them into memory.
“You’re a goddamn artist.”
Jesse’s breathless when he sees the first batch of crystal meth that Walt cooks up, shards massive in size and stainless as the sky. His view of the boring uptight teacher who used to give him a hard time has been turned upside down, especially after Walt shrugs off, “It’s just basic chemistry.”
Even as he taunts Walt over his nebbish transition into the drug trade, Jesse will live from then on in awe of this man and the power he represents. Being practically ostracized from his family, meth isn’t just how Jesse makes his living – it’s what makes his life worthwhile, the one thing that grants him a shred of respect from his junkie friends and the kings of the street. But when crotchety old Mr. White calls him on his moronic chili-powder-infused recipe and shows him how it’s done, the game is changed. Suddenly he has a reason to stop slacking and start applying himself, determined to meet his teacher’s standard. He steps up his salesmanship, too, as Mr. White pushes him to spread their product into more and more dangerous territory – all to grab as much market share as possible.
That often puts Jesse in harm’s way, like when a junior cartel don rips off his stash and leaves him in the hospital. But with every setback, Mr. White is there to pull him back to his feet, both encouraging and demanding, and with a clear level of trust. When Walt passes Jesse a respirator in the middle of a cook and tells him to finish the job, goading, “You can do it”, it’s an affirmation he rarely gets.
Still, though he might not be very independent, Jesse isn’t (completely) stupid. As the risk piles up he wonders more and more if maybe, just maybe, there’s a different kind of life out there for him. One that won’t drag him deeper into the cesspool each day, that doesn’t have Mr. White stringing him along at every juncture.
A sliver of a chance arrives when he meets Jane, a sassy painter with a sharp angle on living. After Mr. White’s endless litanies on the science of meth-cooking and market share, Jane’s words on Georgia O’Keeffe come to Jesse as fresh air. “Should I just smoke this one cigarette? Should we just watch one sunset? Or live just one day?” she asks, challenging Jesse’s insistence that O’Keeffe had unhealthy fixations on her subjects. “It’s new every time. Sometimes you get fixated on something, and you might not even get why. You open yourself up and go with the flow wherever the universe takes you.”
Jane’s sense of carpe diem shakes Jesse awake, and he decides – at last – to claim his share of the money from Mr. White and start anew. Much to Walt’s anger, certainly, but Jesse fends him off, asserting his freedom. Thrilled, he and Jane elect to celebrate: one last shot of heroin, Jane’s drug of choice, for a final careless night in each other’s arms, before cleaning up their act the next morning and leaving their old lives behind.
Only for Jesse to wake up and find that Jane has overdosed – rolling over in her sleep and choking to death.
It takes Jesse a while to climb back from that. Weeks in a rehab clinic. Several therapy sessions. Coming to grips with blame and grief and the black mess his life is – one he now understands he can’t escape. A Narcotics Anonymous group teaches the concept of self-acceptance over self-loathing, and so he confronts the devil by releasing it. Meeting back up with Mr. White, who has helped him through this terse period, Jesse declares his acceptance with unsettling resolve: “I’m the bad guy.”
The Naked Spur
Hank Schrader is a lot of things. Crass. Abrasive. Fond of expletives and racial slurs, even if mostly in jest. But as one of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most effective agents, he’s a man who stands for justice, making him the unlikely moral center of Breaking Bad. He works round-the-clock on meth lab shakedowns and investigations, not for the thrill of it (though he does enjoy himself), but because he’s well aware of how damaging the crystal trade is. He’ll work his own time when a lead bugs him and manpower comes up short, even when he has to do so from a sick bed. Most meaningful to us, though, is how he looks out for his brother-in-law, Walt.
Hank knows that Walt hasn’t had the easiest life, and while he may poke fun at his brainiac qualities, he considers his brother-in-law a good man who deserves more than what he’s been given. He scolds Walt’s son when he goes to Hank for advice he should be getting from his dad. He calls to apologize when he accidentally raises Skyler’s ire, giving his buddy a heads up. He even trusts Walt enough to help him out on real police work. When Walter contracts cancer, Hank genuinely reassures him that whatever happens, he will take care of Walt’s family.
The truly revealing moment comes when Skyler asks him to talk a resistant Walt into getting chemotherapy. While initially submissive to Sky’s request, Hank hears advice from his wife (and Skyler’s sister) Marie, and resigns to let Walt make his own decision. “Maybe Walt wants to die like a man, all right?” he blurts out, the admiration clear.
It isn’t a light statement, not even for someone as free with words as Hank. Death can be a very real thing to a DEA agent – which Hank experiences firsthand in several near-brushes with the Mexican cartel. Facing mortality is as tough as it gets, and after surviving a gruesome bombing, a shell-shocked Hank is counseled by his grateful brother-in-law. “I have spent my whole life scared”, Walt shares sagely, “But ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. That fear… that’s the real enemy.” Turning to look Hank in the eye, he closes, “You kick that bastard as hard as you can right in the teeth.”
Interesting how many similarities Hank and Walt actually have, even on the brainy side, as Hank is an extremely capable detective who knows his share of meth-related chemistry and has a knack at putting leads together. But it takes everything he has to handle the trickiest case of his career: the rise of Heisenberg, a mystery man pushing the world’s most dangerous drug.
My Darling Clementine
Sharing a table with New Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpin, Walter White plays his card. “Are you familiar with my product?” he asks. “It is the purest, most chemically sound product on the market anywhere.”
Walter can speak with confidence because he knows the man, Gustavo Fring, is indeed familiar with it. By this point, everyone in the game is. Difficult as it’s been to push his way into a pool dominated by professionals like Gus, Walt has experienced firsthand how much power his crystal clear meth affords him, how much respect and fear it commands. Cartel dealers have sold out of it in droves and called for more. The Drug Enforcement Agency – led by his own unsuspecting brother-in-law, Hank – dubs it “Blue Sky”, and works overtime to crack down on it. As far as accomplishments go, Walt couldn’t be prouder. He’s even fashioned a nom de guerre that’s spread to every corner of the drug world: Heisenberg.
Through a deal with Gus, Walt finally manages to score a considerable amount of cash – quite close to the exact sum he’d hoped to leave his family. It’s also enough for his cancer, which he beats successfully into remission.
After all the stops and starts, the victory tastes sweet, the smile on his face awash with satisfaction. Except it’s all been achieved through criminal means – either by his hand or insistent demands on Jesse – and the first real cost hits hard when his wife, Skyler, uncovers his double life.
Though not a chemistry genius, Skyler is quite intelligent, and has long suspected that Walt’s been keeping a secret from her. She also loves him deeply and, given his cancer, never pushed him to reveal it. Even when his frequent absence pointed to an affair. But the truth comes to light, and it’s worse than she could have imagined. Her husband, god forgive him, was now a dangerous man.
Leaving him and preventing him from seeing their children (from whom she keeps Walt’s secret, preferring they not know), Skyler forces Walt to reconsider his actions. He’d done all this for family, but was he now a danger to them? Maybe Jesse’s suffering proves Skyler’s point: there’s no happy ending for anyone in the game. “I am not a criminal”, Walt tells Gus at their next meeting, announcing his withdrawal from the business. A statement in direct opposition to Jesse’s own self-acceptance.
Walt actually makes good on it…until a determined Gus presents a gift: a massive, house-sized, state-of-the-art superlab, organized and calibrated to Walt’s specifications. The ultimate site for methamphetamine production, if he accepts it. Walt’s speechless, the Heisenberg fire rising within, ecstatic that his product demands an operation this grand. Envisioning, perhaps, how much grander it could still be. When thoughts of Skyler and his family pull him back to earth, Gus shares with Walter his own wisdom: “A man provides. Even when he’s not appreciated or respected or even loved.”
But as Walter accepts the gift, the change in demeanor is hard to ignore, the joy too real to stem from simply wanting to provide.
Alongside the lab, Gus provides Walt with a new assistant: a cheery, passionate chemist named Gale. As the lone speck of brightness in Gus’s bleak operation, Gale helps Walt further separate the element of criminality from their work. “I love the lab”, Gale admits. “It’s all still magic.” He recites the Whitman poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, which speaks to the beauty in nature that is absent from a rigid world of rules and requisites. “It is”, Walt concurs, his tone swelling. “It is magic.” Hard to imagine the practical-minded Walter attaching an irrational description to his field of choice – the kind of musing we’d probably have heard from Jane, before she passed.
During a later moment of delirium, Walt again strays from reason to entertain another Jane-like thought. He recalls to Jesse that, just a few hours prior to her death, he met a man at a bar, and learned only afterwards that this man was Jane’s father. “The universe is random”, he opines. “It’s not inevitable. That’s what science teaches us, but what is this saying? What is it telling us when on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him?”
Up to then, Walt had needed a reason to keep cooking. For family. For security. For just reward after everything he’d been through. Something to frame his choices as, above all, logical. But following Gale’s words, he listens to the inner voice that awakened when he first brewed chemical perfection in crystal form. The voice that, so close to the end, has made him prouder of himself than he’s ever been.
The overlooked Breaking Bad scene marks Walt’s first acceptance of a stronger force at work, defying logic and science and reason. One not unrelated to the force that brings him back to the meth lab, time and again.
For a Few Dollars More
There’s peace again in the White house. Relenting to his claim of having their best interests at heart, Skyler allows Walt back into her life – and the children back into his. Things won’t return to normal, but she can pretend they will.
Then at dinner one night, Hank talks about a case at work: a methamphetamine chemist found dead at home, shot through the eye. For some reason, hearing this leaves Walt rattled. Skyler urgently demands what he knows, and if the same danger from that murder will arrive on their doorstep. It sends her husband into a seething rage.
“I am not in danger”, he snarls. “I am the danger.”
In addition to chemical mastery, Walt’s rise is steered in large part by another significant skill, the one Gilligan considers his true talent: his ability to lie. It’s delightfully meta that Walt becomes both actor and storyteller as the series progresses, keeping the secrets of his double career from family and his DEA brother-in-law, coming up with every plausible excuse to throw off suspicion. Fugue states caused by cancer. Weekend treatments at Navajo medicine lodges. Projecting the innocent, pathetic version of Walter White that all are familiar with, far removed from a life of excitement. Even after Skyler discovers what he’s been up to, he manages to keep the worst of it – the murders and near-deaths – from her knowledge.
He even deceives Jesse, now the closest to a genuine friend he has. Walt is the clear architect of their mutual descent into hell, but every time Jesse comes around to that, the teacher plants shreds of doubt in his mind, convincing his student to stick with him. Stay loyal. Join him on the long way down, accepting their lot as “the bad guys”.
At the opposite end, Walt has built the fiction of Heisenberg; portraying a natural criminal so confident and ruthless that his actions become underworld legend. From his first cook, men have tried to seize a share of his profitable product, often with murderous intent. The first of them fell to a basic chemistry trick: phosphine gas instead of meth, Walt’s own lethal bait-and-switch. One could overlook how easily the kill came. Chalk it up, perhaps, to cancer kicking his self-preservation into overdrive.
Since then, more of the underworld has infringed on his territory: the Mexican cartel, rival gangs, even his own business partner, Gus Fring, whom Walt can feel tightening his leash. Each time he’s backed into a corner, seemingly helpless, he resorts to the fullest of measures to claw his way out. Each time, it seems to come easier to him, even as the methods grow dramatic. Synthesized toxins. Mercury tweaked to combust. Makeshift bombs planted on vehicles. Soon enough, the advice on mortality he shared with Hank becomes mantra. When faced with death, kick that bastard right back in the teeth.
(continued next post)
The following is a review and response to Paying for It: a true-to-life cartoonist memoir by Chester Brown of his personal experience with paid intercourse, discussions on the legalization and decriminalization of prostitution, and a sincere philosophical search for the meaning of romantic love.
Reading Paying for It was definitely one of the more thought-provoking experiences I’ve had this year. It’s barely been twelve hours since I put the book down and I’ve mentally gone over Chester Brown’s arguments dozens of times. That’s because the material he leaves us to think on is, at least for me, engaging and often affecting stuff. And I like to think it won’t just be me, because the actual memoir part of the book – the true-life story of how Brown grew out of “romantic love” and started seeing prostitutes – is as open and honest a memoir as can be. It’s not in itself an argument for the lifestyle he chose, even though there are more than a few scenes of him debating it. It’s a sincere, candid account of what happened, how it happened and why, and though he obscures real-life details on brothel addresses and personal details of the many call girls, his honesty on the experience, especially the emotional aspect, is nothing if not commendable.
It may be odd to consider emotions in Paying for It, as Brown, an immensely skilled cartoonist, opts to draw his characters this time round with stagnant, expressionless faces. The most we ever see to indicate facial emotion is a few tears from his last girlfriend; we do not even see her lip curl into a frown, nor do we ever see anyone in the book smile. This is not at all typical practice for Brown (read any of his other works, including the Louis Riel book he mentions in the memoir, to witness his mastery at portraying expression). This is a conscious choice, but still, emotion is there. Brown’s arguments with his friends over his new lifestyle grow heated, dipping into sarcasm and accusation. Brown himself never shies away from telling us about the pleasure of his incalls, the repulsion and subsequent guilt he’d feel when rejecting certain call girls, and the heavy emptiness that at times would catch up to him. And the one ongoing thread the story has is Brown’s honest confusion and frustration over romantic love; he gives the full details of how his notions on it and its significance changed, and shows the experiences that led him to rethink his initial opposition of romance and forge a new way of viewing the romantic ideal.
That’s what makes the memoir so digestible. Even if you disagree with him – or simply find him uptight and preachy – during his arguments on prostitution, he bares all to his audience, and so there is no mystery to how and why he feels so strongly on the topic.
As a result, I imagine that Brown’s memoir, taken alone, won’t change anyone’s mind on the subject of legalizing prostitution. Yes, he is sincere and often sympathetic, but he makes no pretense of his reasons being deeper or more important than anyone’s. If you believe in chastity, there’s nothing here that argues against it. If you fear that most prostitutes are mistreated, then Brown knowingly provides limited assurance on that, taking counter-examples only from his personal experience and even disclosing moments that suggest some of his callgirls – including ones he enjoyed multiple times – came from shady backgrounds.
And boy, I can imagine that, if not for the hype and acclaim this book’s received, owed in no small part to the deserved reputation Brown’s built for himself, lots of women are going to read this with the red flag of misogyny going up from time to time. Yes, Brown is shown to have healthy relationships with women – both callgirls and female friends – but he’s liberal when it comes to sex, and while he never treats callgirls as less than human, his attitude towards many of them is based foremost on the sexual service they can give. He gets fewer and fewer qualms over rejecting girls he finds unattractive (by pretty high standards). And it’s only those who satisfy him that he ends up having real conversations with; at one point, he makes an incall to a girl who is both interested and knowledgeable of a book he’s reading, yet he only thinks of how the sex with her comes up short. Each chapter of the book, outside of the first and last, is named after a callgirl he visits, and while some he sees until circumstances prevent otherwise, others he moves through pretty quickly, the shortest chapter taking a mere three panels.
For guys, as much as the book can challenge you, it’ll still be easy to laugh off some of the more flippant scenes. I’m sure it’ll be much harder for women, especially those not used to looking at sex so liberally, and I can’t blame them for that. Nor can I at all blame Chester Brown for presenting everything in stark detail. Again, the importance of the memoir is that Brown has candidly told us how he came to be invested in the long-standing debate on prostitution, leading the reader to rethink his own investment on the issue.
And once you have decided to rethink your investment – or simply even your interest – in it, then you can delve past the memoir and into the last hundred pages of Paying for It, which contain the numerous appendices and notes holding the actual refined arguments that Brown has prepared. Yes, the annotations make it clear that Brown is aiming for this to be a political book after all, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Once more, this is a tell-all, and I think the divorce of his arguments from the actual memoir is a smart, practical way of allowing the reader maximum enjoyment from this experience. There is no need to slog through too many arguments to enjoy the story, and when you do feel like reading his arguments, he’s arranged them in a format as digestible as the memoir, complete with citations and easy-to-follow page references. Brown is honest enough to include not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of others, and so it is clear that though he is mostly set in his views, he expects and understands heavy opposition on certain points.
Decriminalization versus Legalization
For the record, I’m all for prostitution becoming legitimate. I’ve held that stance for a long time, and my beliefs essentially echo what Brown’s appendices have compiled, so I won’t get into it here – it boils down to tolerance, personal freedom, and minimizing black market-related violence by pushing forward a legitimate market in its stead.
Where I depart from Brown is in the finer points of how it should be legitimized, and one discussion he emphasizes is whether prostitution should be legislated or merely decriminalized. Brown is heavily on the side of decriminalization, and believes that legalizing and therefore regulating prostitution invades freedom, hinders expression, and potentially encourages the black markets to remain active since not all prostitutes will want to be registered. He asks how it makes sense to regulate prostitution when other personal pursuits, like his cartooning and artistry, remain private endeavors. He suggests that unless the rights of another are infringed in a practice, the government should have no part in it. A specific case he brings up on the downsides of legalization is the situation in Nevada, wherein regulated prostitution prevents prostitutes from traveling freely outside brothels unless accompanied by law enforcement, with all additional expenses borne by them.
He has valid points, and certainly if a practice is regulated unfairly, then it would be much better to have no regulation at all (mere decriminalization). However, if we are to assume there is the possibility of fair, helpful regulation by the government for the best interests of those being licensed, then I think there are several pitfalls to non-regulation that Brown doesn’t address.
Control by Corporate Entities
If prostitution falls out of the hands of the government, then it can easily fall into the hands of big business. People may be able to prostitute freely, but large capitalist institutions will arise to recruit “premium” prostitutes and market them efficiently. Brown himself makes clear that, to him, quality of the sexual service and attractiveness of the callgirl is a major factor, and I doubt anyone would disagree with that. A significant percentage of most countries’ population would gladly pay the premium, and so a big prostitution company would be appealing not only to customers, but to the prostitutes as well. They’d view recruitment by the company as the best way to receive premium payments for their service regularly.
But such a company can impose their own set of regulations that “legitimately” persecute and hinder the rights of their workers – who’d be contractually obligated to submit to it. The situation described by Brown in Nevada may be a result of government regulation, but it could – and definitely would – be just as easily adopted by businessmen of a prostitution company looking to control their assets. In the Philippines, one of the largest employers mistreats its rank and file workers by requiring them to wear uniforms and apply makeup that they themselves must purchase out of salaries already at minimum wage; it’s part of their contract and they have no way around it, and they’ll stick with the company because it could still be seen as the best or only option. Businesses prioritize profit and wealth, and become very protective of their assets to that regard. Given how extremely profitable prostitution would be, it’s easy to imagine how worrying related corporate practices could become.
If government regulation entered the picture, specific laws could be set against prostitution becoming too corporate-controlled, limiting contractual stipulations and protecting sex workers’ rights. Yes, this would in turn encourage a black market that could adopt the same unethical practices suggested above, but if legal, easily-accessible prostitution exists anyway, demand for the black market would go down. A lot of it again comes down to the tricky point of whether governments can be trusted to regulate fairly. It will depend on the country, but on average, I’d say you could trust governments over big business.
Effect on Coercive Trafficking
Then there’s sex trafficking, which Brown does address, but not to a satisfying degree. He points to research indicating that sex trafficking makes up only four percent of all human trafficking, and that most trafficking is to benefit illegal immigrants looking for work. I wouldn’t immediately contradict these figures, but any such account is subject to strong reporting bias. Not only are the real figures unrecorded, but any figures released by governments of developing countries involved in trafficking are questionable, as they may intend to control the perceptions of public performance. The concern, however, is not on what the real figures may be, but what effect the decriminalization of prostitution would have.
Decriminalization would logically make sex trafficking operations more difficult to uncover. Once they have brought sex-slaves into the country, they can institute call services with less fear of investigation. Coercive measures would then allow the operation to appear completely legitimate on the surface, the slaves forced to pretend they were brought in with consent. Slaves may have the right to report these operations to the government thanks to decriminalization, but coercion would prevent the opportunity. There’s also the factor of taking advantage of slaves’ impressionableness and lack of education, a very real concern with people taken from certain countries – including my own. Government regulation would make investigation into these matters easier, as all operations would be subjected to discerning how the sex workers were recruited.
Difficulties of Health-Monitoring
Brown feels strongly on the matter of regulation calling for regular check-ups to detect possible STDs in licensed prostitutes. He believes that a person’s health is his or her own business, and that’s a hard general point to argue against. Then again, going back to the point of big business, regular check-ups would probably become mandatory for workers anyway in large prostitution companies, as in other contractual institutions. Removing the “business problem”, though, would still leave the problem of ignorance and lack of education. This is a tricky subject, but decriminalization would allow anyone, including the young, the impoverished, and the uneducated to engage in unsafe sexual intercourse with multiple partners. My senior Economics thesis was on the relationship of Income Inequality to HIV Spread, and one of the transmissive mechanisms found significant was indeed risky sexual behavior, including the taking of multiple partners whether through prostitution or otherwise. Also a significant mechanism was the lack of social capital, which relates to the spread of necessary information through a culture, including basic education on sexual practice, and with HIV rates growing because of these mechanisms, it does sound logical for governments to do something about it.
Requiring regular check-ups would not prevent anyone from practicing prostitution, it would simply educate and inform all parties to a worker’s health – and the potential danger of STDs. But I admit, this is a tricky one, and while my gut tells me it would be better, especially in developing countries of information asymmetry, to require check-ups, it’s not entirely justifiable. After all, risky sexual behavior also includes unsafe homosexual intercourse, and I’d never ask the government to require regular check-ups on all homosexuals.
Practicing decriminalized prostitution without being properly informed on the consequences of liberal intercourse leads me to another issue: the underage sex-worker. In his memoir, Brown meets multiple callgirls whom he suspects to be underage, even though their given age is legal. His suspicions are incorrect in the case of one, but there is nothing at all to suggest this would always be the case. Suffice it to say, sometimes it can often be hard to tell whether a worker is underage or not, and with decriminalization, no investigation into the matter would be enforced, and underage prostitutes would logically become far more abundant. That leads to a whole other discussion on, among other things, the necessity of a “legal age” for prostitution, but I rest the point there; legalization and regulation would naturally lessen the underage practice, and decriminalization would naturally increase it.
The Sexual Double-Standard in the Modern World
The ideological point Brown makes is that applying legalization to prostitution would be a double standard. Why on prostitution as opposed to other occupations that involve individual expression, like cartooning? But Brown himself places a double standard in his appendices of sorts, talking about the intimacy and sacredness of sexual activity and how that should be reason for prostitutes being exempt from taxation and other such legislations.
Personally, I do believe that for now, in the current modernized side of the world, a firm double standard placed on sexual activity is justified. I just feel – in present society – that it’s a murkily-lined practice to get into. However it came to be, it remains that most people of developed (and even a number of undeveloped) nations view sex differently from any other activity. I’m not just talking about prudes who’d discourage pre-marital sex; even those who liberally engage in sex, whether for affection or the thrill of it, place a stronger gravitas on it than most other activities they engage in. It is the province of baser Id impulses (for lack of a better term) that we are less likely to restrain or control, even when we know better. Whether or not that is a product of societal development, such is the nature of the current world and many current societies. I imagine many will not be able to afford sex the same intellectual dissociation that Chester Brown does, and I just can’t imagine that suddenly making prostitution legitimate will remove our baser behavior towards it, that we will suddenly treat it with the same restraint and “maturity” (if you will) as other allowed activities. Maybe in the future we will, but right now, I don’t think we can.
And I talk about the “right now” because for many societies, the question of whether prostitution should be legalized or decriminalized should be a “right now” topic. It might not deserve to be at the top of every governmental agenda, but it deserves attention and discussion, both from those involved and those not. For good reason, the oldest profession isn’t going away.
I have been waiting for a miracle. Strange, perhaps, for a woman of my persuasion to indulge the hope of unexplainable occurrence. For a scientist to believe in supernatural phenomena. We look to nature by profession as something to dissect, comprehend, and – ultimately – turn to our purposes.
But, as Dr. Bergin would remind me, nature is rarely so submissive. Its term are fickle and obtuse, layers difficult to navigate. And fully comprehending it led me to embrace the unquantifiable.
My final undergrad paper was an experimental design for splicing culicidae sans plasmodium – engineering breeds of mosquito whose biochemistry rejected the protists that cause malaria. It was hailed as “uncanny” and “prodigious” and a number of other superlatives – superlatives I was used to and had heard attached to most of my academic work.
Then after graduation, I received a call from the government…and a meeting with the Director of the Middle State Research Center.
“We want to give your design a shot”, said the Director – an imposing, steely-eyed man named Tomalski. “It’s getting a lot of play. Even heard some buzzing up at federal. I’ve talked it over with the center’s owners, and they’ll work out the research grant for us…if we can get you to lead the project.”
He surveyed me from across the meeting desk, toying with a faint smile over broad features. But I wore my excitement plainly, no desire to hide it.
“I’d love it if you joined us at Middle State, Miss Drooker”, he continued. “You’ll have full access to our genetics lab – state of the art – for the culicidae experiments. This is the kind of breakthrough we’re looking for.”
I accepted, of course. I knew Middle State’s reputation…and found him a difficult personality to turn down.
On my first day at the Research Center, Tomalski showed me around the lab and familiarized me with most of the staff. The last person I met was Dr. Sandra Bergin.
“Sandra”, Tomalski introduced, as we came to her table, “this is Nola Drooker. The mosquito girl.”
Dr. Bergin looked up from the slide she was studying. I observed coiffed hair. Asymmetric specs. A bored expression. “Oh, right”, she said. “Our new little genius.”
Something tightened inside me. I had the feeling of being impressed upon. Her eyes scanned my cheeks, and I turned pink. Then she broke a grin.
“Relax, Nola. I’m not gonna bite you. Welcome to the lab.”
Director Tomalski laughed, while my lips kept thin. I knew of Dr. Bergin – one of the most distinguished in her field. Ten years my senior and a wall filled with bio-medical accolades. She radiated, it seemed, a subdued yet palpable energy. I was not comfortable in the presence of powerful figures.
Did she see me as a challenger? Fresh grad, school prodigy, up-and-comer out to prove herself? I tried to brush it aside and not let it bother me.
Yet every day I saw her afterwards, as I began my culicidae experiments in the lab, I’d feel uneasy around her. Every time she’d enter the room, my guard would come up by reflex, feeling threatened by as little as her poise and carriage.
“Anything wrong?” she asked me bluntly one day, and I was so startled to hear her voice right behind me that I sent a beaker clattering off the table.
“I – “ I whipped around to face her, exhaling in convulses. “I – am fine. Thank you. Did you need – ?”
“No, nothing”, she shrugged. “But boy, do you sound stressed.” Though her expression was bored, I noticed her dilation evoke concern.
“The research”, I muttered anxiously. “I’ve hit a stumbling block in reconciling my genotype-perpetuation forecast with the experimental data…it’s in the daily reports, you can read it yourself – “
“You need to relax, Nola”, she said, placing a hand on my shoulder – and I stifled a painful thrill. “Let loose a bit.”
Then she gestured for me to follow her. At first, I couldn’t budge…but curiosity took over, and allowed her to lead me to Greenhouse-3 in the east wing.
The greenhouse was home to a number of botanical projects, but she brought me to a far corner, hidden from immediate view…and directed my attention to a row of potted plants, tucked between canisters of orchidae. Recognizing what they were, my jaw dropped.
“Is that – ?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“A new strain. One I’ve been developing.” Dr. Bergin grinned. “In secret, though.”
Taking a polybag and cutter from her lab coat, she began clipping and packing stalks from the plant. I gaped at her.
“So, Nola – how about we sign off work an hour early? My apartment’s nearby. You can try this stuff out.”
I do not know what compelled me – but I nodded.
Half an hour later, we were in her apartment…and the oddity of the day’s events left my body in a blissful rush. Senses deadening with each intake, all tension slipping away, I allowed the familiar warmth to circulate. Except…
“My head isn’t buzzing”, I remarked.
“’Course not”, said Dr. Bergin with a smile, rolling her cigar stick between her fingers.
“This is my own little medical miracle. I’ve neutralized the hallucinogenic symptoms.”
“The concentration of cannabinol relative to THC. Took months to get right. Dozens of trials.”
I continued ingesting it, amazed at the effect. The slowing of my mental faculties, but less the hallucinogenic hampering of the senses, was allowing me to perceive the neuro-electric signals from my receptors with startling clarity. I could breathe the stifling draftiness of Dr. Bergin’s apartment. Inhale her and my own odors of toil-induced sweat from the day’s work. Listen to the rhythmic pattern of her lips smacking together, from where she sat across me. Even register, if but faintly, my own heartbeat.
“Truly harmless cannabis. Impressive.”
“Too bad I can’t share it with the world.”
“Tomalski doesn’t know?”
“You kidding? He’d tell the owners in a heartbeat.”
We laughed briefly, carelessly. Then with a drawl, she commented, “You need to relax more, Nola. Get laid, maybe.”
I coughed. Were it not for the cannabis, I may have reacted more tellingly.
“You have a boyfriend?” she asked.
I chewed my lips, pushing silence. But she let the question hang so awkwardly it demanded a response.
“Not since high school.”
“Yeah? How come?”
My stomach stirred, the stimulant failing to hinder an unpleasant memory. A memory of my life in high school…and how little I’d enjoyed the relationships I’d had.
I remembered the men who’d made love to me. I remembered the heat of electric friction prickling from their bodies, friction in synch with chemical urges and euphoric combustions. It had felt romantic, at first…but soon I’d be bemused by the far-too-conscious rhythms, the repetitive impulses that grew to elicit little impulse of my own. To the point of reminding me of planar laminas on fulcrums, rocking out in forcibly continuous ignorance until they’d expended their kineticism.
“Really?” said Dr. Bergin, frowning at my description. “God, Nola, that sounds awful.”
She spoke no more of it, thankfully. Later she put me in a cab and had me sent home. I staggered to my bed and collapsed into fitful sleep.
Cannabinol has no addictive properties, no chemically-induced withdrawal symptom, yet something kept me returning to Dr. Bergin’s apartment, at least once every week, to share the substance. Perhaps it was as simple as my need of a constant break from the lab and all thoughts to do with the lab, a set period for dulling my mind and allowing my baser impulses to thrive.
During one of these sessions, I muttered, “My body is either telling me I’m hungry…or I’m lonely.”
“Here”, said Dr. Bergin, passing me a bag of potato chips. “And you can say ‘horny’ if you want, Nola.”
I opened the bag of chips, thinking only momentarily of the acrylamide and trans-fat acids that I usually took care to avoid, before devouring them and relishing the powdered flavor on my palate. A simple pleasure, but utterly delightful in the throes of sensation heightened tenfold.
“I’m not horny”, I felt the need to reply. “Though I have given thought to your suggestion.”
“Of, um, ‘getting laid’.”
“Have you”, and she grinned. “So, Nola, who’s the best looking guy at the lab?”
I had to mull over that for a minute more, before answering, “Strangely, it might be Director Tomalski.”
She laughed. I could not fault her.
“Kinda looks like George Clooney, doesn’t he?” she said, smiling darkly.
“Thinner eyebrows, though. And messier hair.”
“Then you appear to agree with me.”
“On looks, sure. But that didn’t stop me from turning him down.”
Even in subdued mental function, my eyes jolted in surprise.
“He hit on you?”
“A while back.”
“For how long?”
“Don’t remember. He stopped about a year ago.”
I rubbed my forehead, trying to clear my mind enough to process this.
“And what made him stop?”
She paused for a moment, puffed her stick, then exhaled deeply. “Finding out I had the bug.”
I expected a laugh, or a smile, or a frown – some accompaniment to her words.
She elicited no such qualifier. I took another puff, hoping it would dull me for the rest of the session.
As the months wore on, the stress of my work at the Center returned to the forefront. I’d exerted countless days in modeling my forecast, identifying the key traits necessary for new mosquito genera to thrive in the wild. Yet the results observed from actual field tests were inconclusive.
Splicing the mosquito, that was simple. But inserting it into the ecosystem, ensuring it would genetically spread its anti-malaria constitution through the species, even relative to a certain geography, was coming to dead-ends.
Frustrated, I slammed my fist on the table, ignoring the coworkers who glanced in my direction.
“Whoa, hey, Miss Drooker – you all right?”
Instinctively, my breath seized up, recalling Dr. Bergin asking me that months ago. It actually took me a split-second to register that it was a man’s voice, this time.
I turned to see Director Tomalski standing right before me.
“Oh, no – I’m fine, director”, I replied. “I just need…”
But he cut me off early. “You’ve been working hard for months. Take a break. How about lunch with me at the Carlton?”
With a smile, he reached a hand out towards my arm – and with small terror, I jerked back.
“No – no thank you, Director”, I said as I quickly turned back to my table, trying not to think of the way his brow had furrowed. “I’m – not quite finished here…”
I related this to Dr. Bergin later in the day, when we met at her apartment for our routine.
“No kidding”, she mused. “So he finally tried.”
“He…he really was, then? By inviting me to lunch?”
“Yeah”, she said wryly. “That’s usually how he does it.”
I shivered, glad I hadn’t taken the offer.
Dr. Bergin chose not to pursue the topic, and next asked, “The mosquitoes still giving you trouble, Nola?”
Normally I hated discussing my work outside of the office, referring those who’d ask to read my written reports. But this time I freely loosened my tongue and shared the frustrations of how, contrary to initial simulations, the natural ecosystem was adamant at rejecting my unnatural construct.
To this Dr. Bergin nodded, smiling at me.
“Nature”, she said, “often denies us our own inventiveness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.”
And raising a hand she gently ran her fingers through my hair.
“You’d think she’d support me”, I said loftily. “I’m trying to eliminate a virus from the world.”
“They can be part of how she works, though.”
“That doesn’t make them good.”
She considered me delicately, and for the first time since I’d known her, a vulnerability spread over her facial features.
“No”, she said, “it doesn’t.”
I returned home and, in spite of the cannabis in my system, felt uneasy. Strange sensations were rising to the surface of my body, miniscule sparks dancing across my epidermic layer.
I started thinking about Tomalski’s gesture. His hand reaching out to stroke my arm. Imagining what would have happened if I had allowed him to do so.
Imagining, in the safety of my mind’s eye, strong hands finding their way around a faceless woman’s body…imagining his contorted facsimiles brimming with intensity, his breath currents arcing over her back, the sweat issuing from his pores…
But soon my thoughts passed over him, and fell solely on the woman he was caressing. On her, I imagined…not myself. But Dr. Bergin.
I recalled the ungainly, unpleasant intercourse of my youth, the mechanical rocking of bodies in tiresome rhythm. But now I imagined in Tomalski and Dr. Bergin – especially in Dr. Bergin – something far fiercer. Something that felt not mechanical, but…chemical. Something combustive, reactive, electric. Passion igniting a thermodynamic charge of chaos unbridled, her sighs and convulsions and excretions building a haze of bodily ephemera that caused all ambient matter to fuse and fray.
It was lucky that I came to work early the next day to make up for a few monthly hours I was lacking, and to engineer a fresh start on my culicidae experiments.
Lucky that, as I tread silently towards my workplace, I passed near the office of Director Tomalski and heard raised voices through the half-open door. Familiar voices, which everyone else at the lab seemed to be ignoring.
Wishing I could still my heartbeat, I crept towards the door to listen.
“You’re an asshole.”
“Sandra, I just want you to – “
“What is this, David? Nursing your injured pride?”
“I’m not taking any pleasure from this.”
“How dreadfully guilty that makes me feel.”
“You went behind my back, Sandra.”
“You know why I’m growing it, Dave. You know why. I gave you the reason a year ago.”
“It’s not just the unauthorized use of Center resources that bothers me, Sandra.”
“Oh, it’s not? Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem…lately…is what you’ve been doing with it.”
Silence, for a long moment where my aortic strands felt suspended like tightropes.
“This is not about Nola.”
“And you should start calling her ‘Miss Drooker’ from now on.”
“Sandra…I know why you need the plant. I understand. But I cannot condone you using it to take advantage of – “
I heard a slap as clear as a thunderbolt. Then silence again.
“You always were a bastard.”
“Sandra…I don’t want to ask you to leave.”
“Then don’t ask. I’ll take care of it.”
“I think you’re making a mistake.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Well. Let’s hope other centers will be glad to have you.”
“Until they review my medical history.”
“There’s that, I guess.”
“Which you already thought of. Asshole.”
I jolted away as the door swung open, and Dr. Bergin rushed out – a hand over her face, too preoccupied to notice me. Saying nothing as she hurried out of sight.
I took to my desk, tried to busy myself with work, telling myself it was best to ignore what I’d heard…before the electro-chemical impulses that drive our biological purpose flooded my being, and soon I was hurrying to Greenhouse-3 – to where I somehow knew Dr. Bergin would be.
And she was. Entering the Greenhouse, rushing to the corner where her cannabis lay hidden, I saw here there, packing all of her plants into a bag.
“Sandra”, I called.
She turned to see me, her eyes tense and growing only tenser as I was registered, as I strode towards her in force, the electro-chemical impulses steeling my nerves and clarifying my mind and senses, as not even the cannabinol had ever clarified them before.
“Miss D-Nola. I – “
“I heard, Sandra. I heard everything.”
She froze. Looking almost frightened, daring not to speak.
“In the office. With Tomalski. I heard you two. I heard everything.”
Grimacing, she turned away. “I – I don’t think he’ll take anything against you, Nola”, she said, and her voice sounded hoarse with grief. “Even though he might try, and say you haven’t been producing results. Just – watch your step around him, and you should be…”
“Sandra. I’m not staying here without you.”
With those words, I allowed just the tiniest shiver to pass through me…and saw the same pass through her. I saw her set her bag down, saw her look back up again to face me, saw her remove her glasses, and felt myself pulled inexorably into her, and into my first true miracle.
We were in the middle of a garden teeming with life. I thought of the insects I could faintly hear, crawling and buzzing through the leaves, playing out full cycles of existence in spans of twenty-four hours; of the micro-spore accumulating on the surface of orchids, species born of chemical treatments to form vitalic elixirs; of the photosynthetic process turning consolidated energies into nectar and blossom and victuals…and I thought of the world beyond the Greenhouse, of ecosystems, of the interconnected biosphere, of amoebas existing and reproducing from the beginning of time into eternity, all things enraptured by the same fruitful, desire-driven dance.
And I thought of all this as I held Sandra to me, as I began to absorb her odors, her coffee skin, the temperature-induced sweat from the Greenhouse’s artificial atmosphere that layered her breastbone…
…as I saw, for the first time as we drew down her garments, the pitch-black lesions of disease and consequence that contaminated her. On her arm, her leg, her ribs. Yet I put these aside in my mind, knowing that they were mere natural elements of the world that was her, of the worlds that would be us, worlds of internal pressures and surges and chemical reactions surrounding skeletal structures and bloodstreams and lymph systems doomed to rupture and fail, worlds as nurturing and delicate and complex as the one we perceived all around us, as we screamed our defiance of nature’s boundaries and sang our bodies electric.
Sandra passed away a year ago. Watching her struggle was painful, as was keeping by her every day and night.
Not as painful as it is to deal with the struggle itself, as I now have to. Nature often finds ways to enforce her rules on us, even as we choose to follow our desires and deny her.
Or perhaps she merely challenges us to refine our inventiveness. And perhaps that is what I am waiting for – someone to discover a way to make what I shared with Sandra free and pure and just, as it should be. For all the world. To whelm the forces of nature, if not society entire.
And so, again, I am waiting for a miracle.