Category Archives: Thoughts/Random

Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 3)

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 2)

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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)

Last and Baddest: decomposing the Breaking Bad ending (Part 1)

(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

American Outlaws

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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”.

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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.

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(continued next post)

The Prostitution Institution demystified: an open response to “Paying for It”

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.

swiped from joeshusterawards.files.wordpress.com

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.

Underage Practice

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.

Harry Potter and the Disagreeable Analysis

So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this guy.

I’ve enjoyed the last few Harry Potter movies a lot, and both parts of The Deathly Hallows comprise a pretty powerful send-off to the biggest (and most insanely profitable) franchise of all time. But though they follow the plot quite closely, they nevertheless strongly diverge from the books, as many of the films since The Prisoner of the Azkaban have been wont to do.

There’s one small change that stood out to me since the first trailer for Deathly Hallows was released. The most minor of alterations to the text, from one of the most perfectly executed sequences of the film.

It’s the last line said by Ron in the clip below…

“You have no family.”

For all the divergences he’s made, writer Steve Kloves (who penned every film except the fifth – quite an achievement, given it’s meant working with directors of differing styles) understands Harry Potter. He understands exactly what the message of the saga is – or should be – where the story draws its power from, and what, ultimately, is the real magic of the tale.

At least, that’s what I think, and I’m sure many will disagree.

That line – a minor, natural addition to text lifted nearly verbatim from the book – clarifies what the scene should be trying to achieve, and puts me in mind of what I love most about the series, what my favorite book of the series has always been, and who my favorite Harry Potter character is.

My favorite book first. It’s the fourth: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

what a stupid cover

what a stupid cover

 

This is one of the books that, much like the first, is hard not to love. The tournament-structure of the plot is effortlessly engaging, the romantic undertones are brought to the forefront for the first time, and the epic scope expands an already-large magical world into something even richer. And of course, it marks a major turning point in the saga.

That’s all on the surface. Going deeper, Rowling’s prose is at its absolute best, mixing the sinister suspense of Agatha Christie (especially in the first chapter) with Dickensian humanism and Dahl-ish imagination – all three of which have been there since the first book but not quite integrated at this level. Lots of people (who frankly don’t know any better) scoff at Rowling’s prose for lack of inventiveness, when it has never tried to be anything more than it is, and here the brilliance of her casual, involving approach shows best. Goblet of Fire also achieved a perfect balance of light and dark elements, whereas all other Potter books to follow struggled and, ultimately, stumbled.

And while a lot of people like to call the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) the first of the “serious” and “mature” installments, pointing to how it fearlessly took on ideas of racism, dystopia, and propaganda…I honestly though it did so pretty ham-handedly. Which probably would have been fine for a children’s book…if not for Goblet having already integrated such weighty themes in a far subtler – and more successful – manner.

But the real reason Goblet succeeds – and why it resonates so well when you read it – is that it perfectly encapsulates what (at least for the first four books) Harry Potter was really all about.

“Uh, yeah. Love, right?”

Well, sure. Which sounds lame.

Except that more specifically, Harry Potter is about family.

Obvious enough, but it’s easily forgotten in the midst of romances, Horcruxes, prophecies, and the war on Voldemort. Still, there’s no mistaking it as what the series should be centered on, even as it drifted away from that with the close of the fourth book.

The saga begins with the death of Harry’s parents, and Harry left an orphan, thrusting him into the classic Dickensian setup from Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby. He is forced to live with his only relations, the Dursleys of Privet Drive, who subject him to a cold, harsh upbringing. The Dursleys are not immediately sadistic people, or they wouldn’t endlessly pamper their own natural-born son. Rather, they are cruel to Harry because they don’t consider him family.

swiped from petitboudin76.deviantart.com

When Harry gets his letter from Hogwarts, it’s not the idea of him becoming a wizard, of learning magic and wielding a wand and having special powers that excites him. The misery of his childhood was never rooted – as would have been typical of prepubescent tales – in isolation or inadequacy. He is simply happy to leave the Dursleys…and more than happy to follow his first new father figure, Hagrid, who brings him a birthday cake, buys him ice cream, defends him, gives him presents… someone who can at long last take him away from these people, for any life must be better than living in a home that rejected him from the start.

At Hogwarts, Dumbledore tells Harry that the most important magic of all is love. Though it takes him a while to understand it, Harry has known this all along. Love is what he was denied for those eleven years he spent with the Dursleys, and what he’s entered the magical world hoping to find. Yes, Hogwarts can represent the “limitless potential for children to grow and develop new talents and see new sights and yada yada yada…” but that’s not really what matters to Harry, is it? It never was. Harry’s actual education at Hogwarts is never the focus (except when certain lessons introduce plot points that tie into the storyarc). Magic is merely an encompassing metaphor for the brighter, warmer life that awaits Harry, a life where he can finally find family and happiness and love.

Back to Goblet of Fire. It memorably begins with a clever parallel and inversion of the first chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, setting up the return of Harry’s nemesis, the big bad Voldemort. The inversion is a powerful one that establishes their similarities and difference; Harry’s real family was killed by Voldemort, leaving him with an adopted family that rejected him. Voldemort, on the other hand, was denied by his real father, and so later hunted his real family down and killed them. That’s all you need to know about both of them, and all that drives the dark conflict surfacing as the book unfolds.

Yet throughout the first act of Goblet of Fire, as Harry joins his friends Ron, Hermione, and the entire Weasley family to see the Quidditch World Cup, what becomes clear is that Harry – at this stage – has already overcome that conflict…because he already has found a family. The mere thought of spending the rest of a gloomy, Dursley-controlled summer with them instead casts all worries (even the return of Voldemort) from his mind.

But in a mostly comical sequence of the Weasleys extracting Harry from Privet Drive, we’re given one brief, surprising beat of gravity…

“Well…’bye then,” Harry said to the Dursleys.

They didn’t say anything at all. Harry moved toward the fire, but just as he reached the edge of the hearth, Mr. Weasley put out a hand and held him back. He was looking at the Dursleys in amazement.

“Harry said goodbye to you,” he said. “Didn’t you hear him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harry muttered to Mr. Weasley. “Honestly, I don’t care.”

Mr. Weasley isn’t quite Harry’s surrogate father – there are plenty angling for that role – but he shows a touching degree of filial concern at how emotionally distant the Dursleys are to their nephew. He adamantly keeps Harry from coming with him until Uncle Vernon gives a proper goodbye, and it’s the first sign of anyone actually trying to encourage a reconciliation between Harry and his relatives. Harry doesn’t care – but Mr. Weasley knows the value of family. For him, Harry should care.

The Weasleys are given more focus in this book than in any of the others: Mrs. Weasley frets and worries over Harry as one of her own; we see the older brothers Bill and Charlie for the first time; Fred and George tie into one of the key mysteries; and Ron, for all intents Harry’s brother, brings conflict into the Harry-Ron-Hermione trio, as we explore his jealousy of Harry and his feelings for Hermione. Ron has always been my favorite of the trio, the everyman who actually remains an everyman, and who probably never fully gets over his insecurities, inadequacies, and immaturities – as none of us really do. Despite being the only full-blooded wizard of the three, Ron’s perpetual conflict is that he’s just too human, and Goblet delves into this most deeply.

And then there’s Percy. His immediate significance is introducing us to the pivotal Barty Crouch, but he also represents an interesting aberration in the Weasleys. While all of the Weasleys unquestionably care for each other and value how closely-knit their family is, Percy determinedly sets himself apart – to be expounded in later books, but here the seeds of it are planted in mostly innocent fashion, as his ambitious drive pushes him to adore and venerate figures of political power. None more so than Barty Crouch, his boss, whom Percy longs to be accepted by as a surrogate son. It’s bitterly ironic, given that he already has the perfect father in Mr. Weasley, and that Mr. Crouch can’t even remember his name…and that’s not to get into later details that make gravely clear what Crouch’s idea of fatherly affection is like.

Later, when Harry returns to Hogwarts and finds himself in the dangerous Triwizard Tournament, the community that protects him solidifies further. His godfather Sirius Black – at risk to his own life – keeps regular contact with Harry, guiding him every step of the way. Hagrid, the first of his father figures (and keeper of keys, who opened the door for Harry into the world of magic) gives his sincere, heartfelt support through the adversity, his faith in Harry never shaking. A new character, Mad-Eye Moody, raises Harry through the path of nature, steeling him for the physical ordeals to come. And Dumbledore – sensing the unseen threat – begins making his transition from a background grandfather to a more forefront fatherly position. By book’s end, Dumbledore is in full assertive force, and undoubtedly cares for Harry as a son. It is no surprise to learn, in Order of the Phoenix, that Dumbledore puts Harry’s happiness before the defeat of Voldemort.

Yet even with his friends all around him, Harry begins the tournament in a downtrodden, somber state…because he temporarily loses Ron. Ron was the first to genuinely welcome Harry into a magical community, to extend him the hand as friend and then brother under no one’s orders, and so when Ron turns against him – his envy reaching a breaking point – it weighs on Harry more than any of the challenges he has to face. Indeed, when Harry completes his First Task of the tournament, what he celebrates above all else is regaining Ron’s friendship and trust – carrying over into the Second Task as what he must defend.

The Triwizard Tournament offers a lot of lighter, imaginative diversions for the second act. Intentional or not, I like how the three tasks can represent three of the classical elements – the dragon for fire, the lake for water, and the grass-grown hedge-maze for earth – that together negate the Quidditch season, representing air (or perhaps the Quidditch World Cup can be counted as a similarly important event, rounding out the elements). The Yule Ball awakens the trio to romance – and throws Harry into his own brush with jealousy as he meets failure on that end. It’s well time for him to finally explore that dimension, though, even if he may be years away from taking it seriously and tying into the filial aspect of it. Goblet also naturally plays with mature underlying societal themes through the House-Elf Liberation Front and the outing of Hagrid as kin to the banished race of giants.

These issues of social equality, as well as the larger theme of international community the Triwizard Tournament is meant to foster, call to mind the broader aspects of family and unity. Most of all, it plays into the idea that family is not a matter of blood, but of choice. Dumbledore repeats ad nauseam that our choices are what define us – that the measure of a man is not what he is born as, but what he chooses to be, and though unspoken, he clearly considers family at the center of that choice.

It all comes into play for the final act. As Voldemort’s rise becomes inevitable, we are fully introduced – in the Pensieve scene and in a convenient piece of exposition from a returned Sirius Black – to his servants, the Death Eaters. And as the Dark Lord himself tells Harry during their twisted reunion at Goblet’s climax…

“Listen to me, reliving family history…” [Voldemort] said quietly, “why, I am growing quite sentimental…But look, Harry! My true family returns…”

Having been denied by his father, and having killed his natural relations,Voldemort has chosen a surrogate family of his own – a family that he bullies and punishes, but that he nonetheless remains strongly attached to, praising and rewarding those Death Eaters who serve him well. Indeed, he may be more loyal to them than they on the whole have been to him. It’s the path of nature, but it remains remarkably filial (and frankly not too removed from certain real-life households). No doubt that the Dark Lord considers some of these servants as family, and it is not at all beyond him to turn sentimental (in holding both grudges and affection, even if more on the former).

As we are to learn from one servant in particular, that feeling can be mutual…

“The Dark Lord and I”, said Moody, and he looked completely insane now, towering over Harry, leering down at him, “have much in common. Both of us, for instance, had very disappointing fathers….very disappointing indeed. Both of us suffered the indignity, Harry, of being named after those fathers. And both of us had the pleasure…the very great pleasure…of killing our fathers to ensure the continued rise of the Dark Order!”

This leads into the big revelation that Mad-Eye Moody, one of Harry’s surrogate fathers for most of the book, is actually the disguised son of Barty Crouch – and one of Voldemort’s most devious servants. It’s a nice play on the Man With Two Faces from Sorcerer’s Stone (as his concealing potion literally allows him a hidden face), but moreso it brings down the theme of choosing family – and choosing fathers – as the most crucial instigator of the entire plot. More than any belief in Death Eater ideals, the true reason Crouch’s son sided with Voldemort is because of the bitter rejection he felt from his own cold, callous father (again, Percy Weasley has chosen the absolute wrong person). And so he opted to oppose him, going so far as to feel genuine affection for the Dark Lord.

Most interestingly, Voldemort understands this power of family, of how merely offering acceptance to those denied can sway them to your ideals, no matter what they may previously believe. Dumbledore knows this too, and knows that Voldemort is but a word away from calling the banished giants to his side…

“Extend them the hand of friendship, now, before it is too late,” said Dumbledore, “or Voldemort will persuade them, as he did before, that he alone among wizards will give them their rights and their freedom!”


Smart man, that Voldemort. He knows how it works. The end of Goblet is definitely his shining moment, and a poisonous turning point in Harry’s life. He nearly completes his victory by killing Harry as well, who escapes by the slimmest of chances – a rare magical event caused by the shared nature of their wands, the predominant symbol of their inverted relationship. It might be too convenient a plot device, but as a pure once-in-a-lifetime miraculous moment, it works (unfortunately they had to unnecessarily bring it back into play in the final book, robbing it of a lot of its power and further questioning its technicalities).

It allows us to see, through an unexplained kind of energy, the first true meeting between a grown-up Harry and his dead parents, bringing things full circle. And that is appropriate enough, for it marks a period to the notion that, in his darkest hour, Harry’s family is there for him.

Even as events are about to take a dark turn, Harry needn’t worry about Voldemort. He has already overcome the challenge that the Dark Lord posed to him. He carries his parents in spirit. He has found the brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers in life that he was denied for eleven years. He’s already won.

And this takes me to the one moment of the series that I’ll never forget, and the most affecting piece that J.K. Rowling has ever written. It comes after Harry’s battle with Voldemort, while he recovers in the Hogwarts hospital wing, the aforementioned foster family standing guard all around him, never leaving his side through the night.

In one spontaneous, un-telegraphed moment, this happens…

Mrs. Weasley set the potion down on the bedside cabinet, bent down, and put her arms around Harry. He had no memory of ever being hugged like this, as though by a mother. The full weight of everything he had seen that night seemed to fall in upon him as Mrs. Weasley held him to her.

We are soberly reminded that Harry has never experienced a mother’s embrace. I’ve mentioned that his candidates for father figure are many, but there is no doubt that his mother is Mrs. Weasley, my favorite character in the series (long before her cheered “moment” at the end of the seventh book), who aches every minute to give him that particular love he has never known. Though not explicitly mentioned, it is through the deep affection she gives him that Harry comes to fully understand the power of his own mother’s sacrifice, the power that saved him from Voldemort.

Voldemort may be back – but Harry has already succeeded in his true life’s conflict.

Well…so I like to think. And it’s probably that, more than anything, that leads to my disconnect with the last three books of the series, where things seem to change from Great Expectations to Rocky IV (and that sound you just heard was all of my goodwill evaporating. But I honestly like Rocky IV). As weird as it sounds…I started to enjoy the books less when they became overly focused on Harry gearing up to take on Voldemort.

Now, I hardly thought this would be the case, but there’s a genuine lack of heart to the books whenever they seem to focus on the secret war on Voldemort – a war that frankly often feels unsatisfying, given how much of it is merely relayed to us, the major events occurring off-screen. In theory that’s the perfect path to take, because then the books can still focus on Harry’s personal story.

The problem is that said personal story becomes so firmly rooted in the outside war anyway, and that’s the biggest frustration a lot of readers had with Order of the Phoenix (the book following Goblet), where the long middle act simply made them anxious to reach the book’s conclusion and get to the important stuff.

Phoenix tries to fit in crucial elements into the middle act that seem fair enough to care about, but it doesn’t help that for one, they all feel inconsequential from the start, and second, they don’t lead to any rewarding payoff. The anti-Harry Potter propaganda of the Ministry is diverting and fulfills the book’s “social commentary” quota (in a fairly loud and, towards the end, somewhat obnoxious way, as opposed to the subtler inklings of Goblet), but feels flaccid, since we know it’ll be moot once Voldemort actually gets off his ass and does stuff (and that is indeed how it is resolved, no twist to it whatsoever). The secret club formed by Harry’s friends to learn dueling magic is interesting but, after a promising start, goes nowhere, has no payoff, and only slightly develops Harry. The one part of the story that matters to Harry on a personal level is the pursuit of his crush, Cho Chang, but it’s quickly passed off as a protracted joke.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the elements I mention above, but they’re all we get. Themes of family, identity, and choice are briefly touched upon, but in ways we’ve seen before and without a connecting thread. If the point is that we’re done with that stage of the story and meant to focus on the war instead, then the war could have been implemented better and Harry’s place in it more properly defined.

When Harry’s place in it is defined…well, I’m not a fan at all of the whole prophecy thing. Maybe that’s personal taste, but – aside from it being a pretty unimaginative answer to a mystery hinted since Sorcerer’s Stone – I think I’ve outlined above that there are more than enough connections between Harry and Voldemort that already exist. We don’t need another tangential one that pales next to all the others (and as expected, by Deathly Hallows it serves little point, save for how the unnecessarily complicated wording sort of hints at another plot element, though I still can’t make any grammatical sense of it).

Now Half-Blood Prince, the book that follows, does try to more firmly shift things back to a personal perspective, though mostly goes for lighthearted, shallow drama. I can’t too heavily fault this, and the frank immaturity of the relationship that develops between Harry and Ginny. I do wish that, in this return to personal stories, the family themes could have been played on better and with more depth. And yes, I’m personally saddened to see nothing done in this book (or the next) with the Harry/Mrs. Weasley relationship, when it could have been the perfect time to touch on it given who Harry ends up with (not to mention potential parallels with the Malfoy family). And say what you will about the film adaptation of this book, but one thing I have to thank Kloves and Yates for is how they inject gravitas into the friendships and romances that are core to Prince, making the Harry/Ginny and Ron/Hermione plots more heartfelt and genuine. They need to be for the filial themes to have proper weight.

I’ll address one last peeve of mine that Prince solidifies and carries into the finale: Voldemort’s characterization. Delving into his backstory is an obvious but effective way of making the middle act more urgent and crucial…in theory. It starts off well, showing Voldemort’s ancestry and promising to construct his journey on that filial ground…and then starts to waste all of the potential laid down in Goblet, “shallowing” his character.

Again, Dumbledore frequently makes the point that it is our choices that define us, that it matters not who we are born as but what we choose to be. Again, as portrayed in Goblet, Voldemort clearly values and understands the strength of family ties, even surrogate ties, and even if we are to take Dumbledore’s word that he cannot understand the raw magical power of love (which frankly, given the evidence, I feel is misjudgment; he merely underestimates it, just as Harry for a long time underestimated it) then he still certainly uses the power of empathy. Again, Voldemort and Harry are inversions of the same card; both suffered the same denial of love and rejection, reacting to it in ways different yet at times eerily similar.

You would think the key of tracing Voldemort’s personal history in Prince is finding those crucial moments that made him who he is, that led him to choose the darker path and the darker family. This is not the case. The histories showcase his atrocities and deviousness, but fail to actually explore him. And even worse, one of the first histories presents the child Voldemort from before his time at Hogwarts as already malicious and cruel, before he even learns that his father denied him…it seems to argue the case that he was, simply, an evil boy, rotten to the core right from the start, and that being the only explanation we need to understand his later actions. Dumbledore oversimplifies him not just as someone who chooses not to feel love, but as someone incapable of feeling love.

If that’s the case, then what happened to the principle of choice – not nature – being the true measure of who you are, if Voldemort’s nature locked him onto this road from the beginning? Gone is the potential for exploring the more human side of Voldemort from those early books.

I won’t get into the Deathly Hallows book, since I simply don’t care much for it at all; in a nutshell, it carried on with most of the missed opportunities and shallower elements pushed forth by Phoenix and Prince, layered with some of the most overwrought and inconsistent prose I’ve ever read and stuffed in between a ton more unnecessary plot devices that continually filter out what little true magic remained from the first few books (if you hadn’t noticed, I kind of hate the final book. I know it has a few good scenes, but I couldn’t care less for it on the whole).

 

I’m a firm believer that the worst form of literary criticism is declaring how you would have written something, and passing it off as how it should have been written. So let me make clear that here I end the criticism, and stoop to the level of fan fiction (I do not deny it, and in it there’s no shame) just to suggest how things could have gone if the series had sought to maintain that powerful, sentimental, filial magic that so strongly tied together the overarching themes, characters, and motivations of the earlier books. The logical place to have taken Harry following Goblet is testing his choice of family. He has his family there to protect him, he has long won that conflict, and now that Voldemort has returned he is in place to grasp just how much they matter, and how central they have been to his choices.

Therefore, the personal journey of either Phoenix or Prince should have been a form of temptation towards rejecting that family. I felt for a while that the purpose of Harry over-focusing on how to defeat Voldemort was to set him up for a choice between either a proactive war effort, or simply lying low and being satisfied with those who care for him, as he well should be (this was not the case in the actual book; in fact, Harry’s concern for a family member actually leads to said member’s death), thus driving home the point of what really matters to him. Following that conflict, I was hoping for more of Harry realizing and accepting the Weasleys (especially Mrs. Weasley) as true surrogate parents, and maybe seeing what developments (or conflict) would arise with Ron as a result.

Perhaps most unusually, I was hoping for some kind of real resolution to his relationship with the Dursleys, so unsatisfyingly glossed over in Hallows. An attempt at reconciliation is driven not just by Mr. Weasley in Goblet, but by the device of their magical protection revealed by Dumbledore in Phoenix, yet nothing is done with either. I wouldn’t say a true reconciliation would have been the best thing, but there should have been something accomplished with these characters who have indirectly shaped Harry’s choices for life, especially as they are in every book.

Or who knows, maybe the last three books are thematically sound, and just should have been done better. But I doubt it. My opinion, of course.

And clearly I’ve been thinking about Harry Potter way too much.

Description of Heaven – Angels in America

There are few pieces of filmmaking I have revisited as often as Angels in America. I did so again yesterday…and while I love every scene, it is hard not to especially enjoy this one.

Jeffrey Wright plays the role of night nurse Norman Ariaga (“Belize” to his friends) – which he originated on the stage. Al Pacino plays Roy Cohn, a real-life political figure (famous from the McCarthy hearings) who has contracted AIDs.

Pacino’s performance is unforgettable, thanks in no small part to his getting some fantastic scenes…and yet it’s Wright who steals it.

Tell me you can watch that without getting chills.

Masterful writing. Masterful pacing. Acting, cinematography…everything about this scene is perfect. Not to mention its seemingly foreboding, yet spiritually hopeful prophecy.

(the woman who appears at the end is Ethel Rosenberg, a communist spy whom Cohn had executed during the hearings)

Angels in America dominated the 2004 Emmy awards, taking home all four Acting awards for TV Movie or Mini-Series (Pacino and Wright took the honors alongside Meryl Streep and Mary Louise Parker). The play on which it was based (which I have never seen and which I somehow must get around to seeing, though I’ve read endlessly about it) won the Tony Award for Best Play and a little thing called the Pulitzer Prize. Wright also took home the Tony for Best Featured Actor.

There are few things I like more than this, few things that made such a strong impression on me on simultaneous levels of craft appreciation, emotion, aesthetics, and yes, entertainment. If you haven’t experienced Angels in America…you just need to.

Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo (Part 3)

Been a while, but this post will finally clean up the Dark Horse run. Take note that Book 25: Fox Hunt will be released in July.

Book 16: The Shrouded Moon

Gen fans take note – he’s actually in more of this book than Usagi for once, and the banter and camaraderie between them is some of the best we’ve gotten. Kitsune gets thrown into the mix too, and we finally learn her own tragic backstory.  Like Grasscutter II, this volume isn’t as terribly deep as the others, but it’s dependably entertaining; “Showdown” has Usagi and Gen hustling two rival mob bosses before meeting an intimidating new ronin, “The Shrouded Moon” pits them and Kitsune against a superstitious criminal, and “Three Seasons” presents three slice-of-life stories where Usagi helps folk of differing social class – and where he gets to beat up a bunch of gangsters with fish. “Escape!” also deals with the aftermath of Grasscutter II on the Neko Ninja’s side, with an intense action sequence that sets up a new status quo for Chizu.

Bottomline: Outside of Kitsune’s past, these are lighter stories that nonetheless entertain. Another good starting point.

Book 17: Duel at Kitanoji

Remember what I said about long-building plotlines? Well, here one of them (the Koji story from six books ago, in Seasons) gets its due, and the payoff’s pretty damn good. After a few brief detours in “Vendetta” (probably one of Sakai’s weaker stories overall, because it won’t have a proper ending until Book 20) and “Images from a Winter’s Day” (a different take on the tale of a missing son), Usagi finally makes his way to Kitanoji…and pays witness to a final duel between two of the greatest swordsmen in the land. Sakai’s gift for crafting engaging characters in such limited space is impeccable, as we (and Usagi) come to care for both contenders before they square off, in spite of their arrogances. Usagi even voices out our own thoughts on how wasteful the duel is, and yet Sakai makes clear its importance to the code of bushido, and how it leads to a natural acceptance of fate.

Heavy stuff aside, those who’ve read the earlier books will thrill as key characters from Usagi’s past finally return to the forefront – none of whom are more important than his “nephew” Jotaro, and the book ends with Usagi temporarily taking the young student under his wing.

The action scenes are suspenseful and satisfying, especially in “Koji” (the episode that reintroduces the character) and in “Crows”. As to the outcome of the titular duel…readers have mixed feelings on it, but it does what it needs to, moving the story onward.

Bottomline: It’s best to read Seasons before you read this one, as I’ve already said, and proper introductions to Katsuichi and Jotaro (perhaps in Samurai or Circles) help, too…but to be perfectly honest, there’s still no harm in going ahead with this book. Sakai tells you everything you need to know about the characters and shows them in suitable action.

Book 18: Travels with Jotaro

The next two volumes bring a new dynamic, as Usagi pairs up with Jotaro for a long stretch on the road. It’s a welcome change, and many consider these two books as their favorites. Though we already know all there is to know about Jotaro, his exuberance and innocence constantly entertains, especially when he meets the regular members of the supporting cast. Gen is absent, but “Out of the Shadows” features Chizu in an unsuspecting thriller, while “Sumi-E” deals with the return of Sasuké the Demon Queller in another rumble with mythological monsters. Even old enemies are revisited, as “Tamago” brings back a forgotten set of villains in a cruel twist of an ending.

Speaking of mythological monsters, this volume also features the first appearance of the Tengu, a supernatural swordsmaster Usagi met as a child. The “Usagi and the Tengu” flashback clearly holds big clues to unraveling the secrets of sensei Katsuichi, and Sakai plays a maddening trick by hinting that Usagi himself knows more than he’s letting on.

Bottomline: Though some would say it’s essential to read Circles first, I’d disagree, and say this is as great a starting point as any. The little bomb that was dropped in Circles comes through just as effectively when it’s brought up at the end of this book.

Book 19: Fathers and Sons

Concluding Usagi and Jotaro’s journeys together, there’s a sense of bittersweet at just how close the two have become, and how easily Jotaro could change his uncle’s outlook on life. Usagi helplessly skirts these weighty topics, even as characters like Tomoe (finally returning here for a brief interlude, but we’ll see a lot more of her soon enough) and Sasuké press him to acknowledge the connection they share. What becomes clear is that Usagi does have a family waiting for him, yet he constantly foregoes the chance to settle down with them because of how seriously he takes his pilgrimage. In conjunction, Sakai reminds us of the difficulties of ronin and their injured status with “Pride of the Samurai” (featuring a pretty famous guest star that almost took me out of the story). Sakai also makes sure that Jotaro gets a number of child characters to play off of, including Gorogoro (of the Lone Goat and Kid assassins) and Kitsune’s new apprentice. Additionally, there’s “Bells”, a somber flashback story starring Katsuichi that answers a dangling question from Book 17.

It all comes to a head in the two-part “Hokashi”, and the book’s emotional ending is preluded by a deliciously classic American convention. Two teams of warriors – one clearly good and the other clearly evil – face-off in heated battle, and as obvious a set-up as it may be, it’s something we haven’t seen in Usagi Yojimbo, entertainingly changing things up for a moment.

Bottomline: If possible, I’d highly recommend reading Travels with Jotaro before this one, even though these stories are just as effective at showing their relationship.

Book 20: Glimpses of Death

The many diversions have been great, but here we finally return to the traditional Usagi Yojimbo format of solo stories. And to no one’s surprise, they’re pretty damn good. “Contraband” kicks it off with what seems a standard tale at first, made memorable by an unexpectedly powerful ending; “When Rabbits Fly” plays with the constraints of the time-period, as Usagi meets (you guessed it) a Da Vinci stand-in; “Samurai for Hire” is one of the funniest stories Sakai has ever done (and it doesn’t even have Gen in it), with Usagi humorously pushed to his limits by a fussy old woman; and “After the Rat” revisits both Kitsune and Inspector Ishida in a brief fair-play mystery. While Gen doesn’t cross paths with Usagi in this volume, we do see him run into his rival Stray Dog, and the two find themselves on the trail of a dangerous bounty. Finally, Sakai brings his open ended “Vendetta” story from Book 17 to a close in a predictable but workable ending, one that stands fair on its own even if it doesn’t make the original story any better.

All in all, in spite of the grim title (and I have to wonder why they’ve thrice used “Death” in the book titles anyway), this volume has just the right amounts of emotional depth and lighthearted entertainment – probably weighing more on the latter, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bottomline: A traditional set of stories makes this one of the purest starting points we’ve had in a while. The chapters that shift away from Usagi – especially the one with Gen and Stray Dog – might be a little confusing without prior reading, though.

Book 21: The Mother of Mountains

It’s time for another epic, and here Sakai goes the same route he did with Grasscutter II: a narrative that’s straightforward rather than scattered. Tomoe returns for the biggest role she’s had in the series thus far; she’s the undisputed lead character of this story, as we begin delving into her past, her parentage, and the grueling rivalry she shared with her damaged cousin Noriko. Noriko and her band number among the most heinous characters the series has introduced, giving weight to the threat they pose to the Geishu lands, though the true conflict never shifts away from the bitter enmity between the cousins.

Usagi and Tomoe find themselves imprisoned and abused as Noriko brings them to her mercy, and as you’d expect, these moments continue to hint at something unspoken between them. But also in the spotlight is Motokazu, making real the promised potential Sakai laid for him in Grasscutter, and giving us another set of eyes in Lord Noriyuki’s court. Things end perhaps a little too cleanly here – especially compared to previous epics, as we even get a “back to normal” moment to cap things off – but the great final chapter sinisterly sets up a looming threat.

Bottomline: Though this book tells you everything you need to know to enjoy it, being familiar with Tomoe from the earlier books will help. Not the most important of the epics, but still a pretty good adventure yarn.

Book 22: Tomoe’s Story

The first three stories here were actually published waaaaay back in the Fantagraphics days as the Usagi Yojimbo Color Specials (Sakai actually had to redraw the first chapter because he’d lost the original pages), but they happen to fit into the timeline quite nicely. “Tomoe’s Story” fills out her past and references the difficulties faced by women in feudal courts, while “The Doors” allows Sakai to stretch his artistic skill by drawing a multitude of iconic Japanese monsters. “Fox Fire”, on the other hand, continues to tease at what’s going on between Tomoe and Usagi with a sitcom-meets-the-supernatural episode. This is carried on in “The Thief and the Lotus Scroll”, as Tomoe meets Kitsune…and isn’t pleased with Usagi’s connection to her (imagine what’ll happen when she meets Chizu).

“The Ghost in the Well” presents a crafty retelling of a real Japanese legend, and some hints of Lord Hikiji’s renewed ambitions – but most importantly it plants a pretty devastating plot-seed that threatens to painfully shake things up. It’s made all the more hurtful by the final chapter, “Chanoyu”, which I already talked up in my original post as one of the best – if not the best – stories in the series, as Usagi and Tomoe say farewell…and given the circumstances Sakai has introduced, I have to wonder if this may indeed be final.

Bottomline: Essential for the Tomoe fans, these stories are driven by her and Usagi’s connection and show a major, if less-explored, part of the ronin’s personality. It helps to be more familiar with Tomoe before you read this one, but even if you’re not, the book will get you up to speed in time for the final gut-punch – a testament to how well Sakai plans these collections.

Book 23: Bridge of Tears

Not quite a traditional short story collection, as most of the tales here comprise a full narrative arc. The Koroshi Assassins decide to finish off Usagi once and for all, bringing in the deadliest killer they know. As their plot unfolds without the ronin’s knowledge, he comes across a town in need of protection…and meets a perplexing new female companion. I’m not sure I understand the relationship Usagi shares with Ayako in this book (driven by his unresolved feelings towards Tomoe, maybe?), and the ending to their story isn’t particularly satisfying, especially in how Usagi deals with the killer.

Better on the whole are the two stories that stand apart: “Rain and Thunder” sees Gen and Stray Dog corner Inazuma and engage her in a furious duel. “Fever Dream” presents what could either be mere hallucination…or a dark premonition of the future involving Usagi and Jei.

This volume also concludes with the 100th issue of Usagi Yojimbo’s third publication, given over to a celebration of guest artists roasting Stan Sakai. It’s not informative or indicative about the series at all, but comic aficionados will enjoy seeing Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragones, Jeff Smith, Guy Davis, and other industry legends paying tribute to Sakai’s prowess – while heartily poking fun at him.

Bottomline: I’d probably recommend against starting on this book – the stories are better read after you know  a bit more about Inazuma, Gen, and the Koroshi Guild, and of course you won’t see what the big deal about the 100th issue is if you haven’t grown to appreciate the series. Otherwise, there’s a decent arc of stories here, but nothing that stands out.

Book 24: Return of the Black Soul

As the title implies, this volume finally features the proper return of Usagi’s nemesis, Jei, who hasn’t seen prominence since Grasscutter (over a decade before this story was published). A two-part prologue allows us to fully witness the dark incident that gave “birth” to him, providing a lot of cryptic answers about his nature…and yet this book isn’t really about Jei. Readers expecting a decisive confrontation between Usagi and the black soul are bound to be disappointed; once you’re past that, though, this is actually a superb little epic that – while leaving Jei’s story up in the air – closes out another character’s story in memorable fashion.

Usagi gets caught up in the continuing hunt for Inazuma, and he isn’t the only one; assassins from all over the land are drawn to the bounty on her head. There’s an almost noir-ish quality to the unfolding narrative, as the mass of gathering hunters turns the game of cat and mouse into a struggle for survival.

Unlike the past few books, there’s very little humor to be found here, the dour tone persisting as the stakes build to a fatalistic climax. But for all its grimness, it culminates in a genuinely touching – and thoroughly humanistic – ending.

Bottomline: Hard to say how accessible this one is; the simplicity of the story makes it far from impenetrable, but having a proper introduction to Inazuma and Jei is best. Reading The Brink of Life and Death, or even just the first Grasscutter, will help greatly.

Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo (Part 2)

Last post covered the first seven volumes, published under Fantagraphics; now we move on to the Dark Horse run.

Book 8: Shades of Death

 "Death" will be in the titles of three of the books. Oy.As the first of the Dark Horse books, this is often recommended as an ideal starting point. It was actually my own personal entry point…but looking back, it’s definitely one of the weirder, offbeat volumes, and I might actually recommend against picking this one up first (at the very least, go with the next book, Daisho). The book’s not at all bad, but most of the stories here are strangely experimental ones that go against the grain of what you can expect.

First comes a team-up with none other than…the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  A lot of Usagi fans groaned over this (even though it was a natural fit; Sakai was well-associated with Turtles’ creators Eastman and Laird, and had written a few five-page Usagi-Leonardo team-ups as inconsequential “bonus” stories in the past), but it’s a pretty solid, if mostly shallow, action-oriented yarn. It’s fun to see Sakai use the Turtles in a setting where they can show off the ninja skills they should have, from tracking to stealth to deception, and fun to see some light interaction between them, Usagi, and Gen. The Neko Ninja also return to the forefront as the main adversaries, and Sakai nicely complicates things by bringing in Chizu, a female ninja chief (and sister of Shingen) who considers Usagi her ally. Their interaction here is minimal, but it sets up some interesting tension between the characters that will play out later on.

Other experimental stories are “Jizo”, which tells a complete, satisfying tale in 32 identical panels from the exact same perspective, and “The Lizard’s Tale”, which is so far the only “silent” Usagi story (completely devoid of dialogue and narration). There’s also a dark two-parter called “Shi”, best remembered for a Sin City-esque action sequence where Usagi faces four assassins in a storm, allowing Sakai to experiment with light and shadow. “Shi” also has a notable moment that shows a far more frightening side to Usagi’s personality after a battle pushes him to his limits. Finally, we get more flashbacks to young Usagi’s training with Katsuichi in a set of parable-like episodes.

Bottomline: A more untraditional set of Usagi stories; there’s no real harm in starting with this one, but I recommend another book for a better first taste. If you’re into artsier comics, the experimental nature at play should interest you, especially “Jizo”.

Book 9: Daisho

Now this is more of a traditional collection, and probably a better overall place to start than the previous book (a few small elements of Shades of Death do carry over, but nothing major). There’s more Japanese art and culture when Usagi meets a Buddhist monk who plays the shakuhachi flute and longs to hear the music of heaven. Usagi also crosses paths with another set of characters I didn’t expect to see returning – this time from the aforementioned short story from Circles, “The Duel”, in a sort of sequel that, while not as poignant as the original tale, gives a dark sense of resolution. An interesting pattern comes into play here; it’s usually those who immediately underestimate Usagi that easily lose to him, whereas those who recognize his skill are the ones who’ll give him a harder time.

In the middle of Daisho is a sort of mini-epic where Usagi, in the middle of saving a village, loses his swords, then goes into a frenzy as he teams up with Gen and a new bounty hunter to find the man who stole them from him. Like the unsettling moment in “Shi” that teased Usagi nearly losing control, the more furious side to his personality here is equally disconcerting, and something I wish we’d see more of in future stories (so far, it hasn’t popped up again). Stray Dog, the new bounty hunter, is another welcome addition to the cast and fitting rival to Gen, being just as crooked (and as noble) as Gen is.

Daisho closes out with another of my favorite Usagi stories, “Runaways”. Taking us back to his time in Mifune’s service, this follows Usagi in a classic tale of star-crossed romance, as – heartbroken over Mariko’s marriage to Kenichi – he nearly turns his back on duty after falling in love with another girl. It’s Stan Sakai at his most sentimental and bittersweet, with a wonderful gut-punch of an ending.

Bottomline: This averages out to what I consider one of the better Usagi books. I’m a softie, but it’s worth it for “Runaways” alone, and the other stories aren’t bad at all. “Daisho” also brings in Stray Dog, and the little reveal about him is a nice surprise. The final pages also bring back Jei, who’ll be keeping a low profile until his big role in Book 12.

Book 10: The Brink of Life and Death

Perhaps acknowledging that Shades of Death might not be the best starting point, Dark Horse sets this book up as more of an ideal entrance, kicking it off with a few pages of text and illustrations that introduce us to Usagi’s world. Thing is, you don’t really need this kind of introduction, and even without it the book is as new-reader friendly as Usagi volumes get. Once again, there’s a little bit of everything: another cultural treatise (this time on Japanese fishermen), an evening in a haunted house, an intriguing assassination attempt, a clash between Chizu and the Komori Ninja, and a creepy little story that’ll drive you nuts wondering what the deal with Jei is. But at the definite heart of the book is “Noodles”, a sobering tale of social injustice featuring Kitsune and a disabled soba seller. Though it ends with the protagonists getting even, you probably won’t feel too good about what happens in this one. (*sniff*)

I’ve often felt that, outside of “Noodles”, the stories here don’t quite stand out as much as those in other books; looking back, though, I have to hand it to Sakai for delivering decent episodes while at the same time setting things up that will recur down the line. We meet three new characters – the outlawed Inazuma (a sort of replacement for the Blind Swordspig), the warrior-turned-priest Sanshobo, and Keiko, Jei’s “familiar” – who play major parts in the upcoming Grasscutter epic and beyond. Sakai also tries something different with the Koroshi League of Assassins, pitting Usagi against a more faceless and amorphous villain organization. Oh, and some sparks fly between Usagi and Chizu, developing a relationship that’s proven to be one of my all-time favorites.

Bottomline: Some pretty good offerings here that introduce a lot of foundational stuff for future books; Inazuma, Sanshobo, Keiko, and returning flames Chizu and Kitsune will continue to factor in further down.

Book 11: Seasons

Playing the long game in comics is tricky. Even with creator-owned works like Usagi Yojimbo, it’s difficult to juggle multiple sub-plots, keep readers intrigued, and make sure everything pays off. In many ways, Sakai’s long games are pretty dangerous, as he’s content to let some plot elements sit for years or even decades before delivering on them. This book introduces Koji – possibly the most skilled swordsman Usagi has dueled up to this point – and the Lord of the Owls; Koji’s story won’t be addressed until Book 17 (Duel at Kitanoji) and the Lord of the Owls, believe it or not, has only just now returned to the comic, specifically in Usagi’s March 2011 issue, almost fifteen years since his appearance here. It can be pretty damn tough to live up to whatever expectations might build over that time, and sure, sometimes I can say that it doesn’t seem to be worth the wait. But it shows just how far Sakai plans to go if he’s willing to let plots fester for years and years, taking his time to tell each one.

I even once joked on the Usagi forum that the books where Jei plays a major role have a funny pattern to them; his first major appearance was in Book 3, the next was in Book 6 (3×2), the next in Book 12 (6×2), and as it would turn out, the latest came right in time for Book 24 (12×2). Stan Sakai himself assured me that it was coincidence, and that we wouldn’t have to wait until Book 48 for the next big Jei story. Well, we’ll see.

Digression aside, I actually like this volume a lot, long-seeding plotlines and all. Koji’s introduction in “The Withered Field” is a pretty cool story that finds Usagi out of his league (which he rarely is). There’s some nice interaction with priest Sanshobo in “The Conspiracy of Eight”, who quickly becomes one of Usagi’s more dependable allies, and some episodes that finally bring back Tomoe (though one of them’s a flashback). We also see the return of Lord Hebi, Hikiji’s lieutenant from the early Fantagraphics books, and get a glimpse of a formidable new face of the Neko Ninja. But the best story in the set has to go to “The Patience of the Spider”, a story that doesn’t involve Usagi at all. It’s the tale of the disgraced General Ikeda, his hatred of the Geishu clan…and how, subtly but believably, he allowed his life – and his hate – to change for the better. Ikeda’s story is a rare example of a plot that, as much as it feels complete and resolved here, will still be used well in later books.

Bottomline: “The Patience of the Spider” and “The Conspiracy of Eight” make this the logical prerequisite to the buzzed-about Grasscutter, and “The Withered Field” makes it almost crucial to read before Duel at Kitanoji. Ultimately, this stands out to me as one of the best volumes in the series – good doses of action, mystery, the supernatural, and even a moving personal history.

Book 12: Grasscutter

Grasscutter marks a pretty important part of Usagi’s legacy; this is the story that won Stan Sakai a number of industry awards and brought his underappreciated series lots of attention. Kind of easy to see why, because it’s still the biggest, broadest, and probably most ambitious epic that Usagi Yojimbo has featured to date. Once again, Sakai clearly sets out to make this a big deal; it opens with four sequences recounting Japanese mythology and the dynasty of the gods extending to the Emperor. Sakai introduces Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (“The Grass-cutting sword”), a sacred blade of the royal family that was lost at sea, before fast-forwarding five hundred years to Usagi’s time period. Now a conspiracy plots to overthrow the Shogun and restore the Emperor by finding the lost Grasscutter…and Usagi, being the luckiest guy on Earth, unwittingly ends up with the sacred blade in his hands.

Like in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, almost every major player introduced thus far is brought back – even the long-absent Tomoe and Noriyuki (making a proper return this time) from the earliest books. Gen is now after Inazuma, Sanshobo receives an unexpected guest, and Jei steps out of the shadows to wage his unholy crusade. In the middle of all this, Usagi finds himself in a whirlwind of trouble thanks to the Grasscutter sword, culminating in his long-awaited showdown with Jei.

In spite of all the hype, though…I have to confess that I was a little let down by this book. Unlike The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, which came together organically, the plot here feels a little forced and never quite comes together. There’s a lack of structure evident; Gen and Inazuma’s stories hit their high points in the beginning, then drag through the rest of the plot. There’s a long awkward stretch of Usagi aimlessly running away from – and later aimlessly running after – some dudes. And the masterminds in the background never come across as threatening or even significant; I almost wish they’d just made Hikiji the bad guy here again.

The far stronger half of the narrative is with Tomoe and Noriyuki, who, surprisingly, never actually meet up with Usagi in this book, even though their part of the story is driven by the same conspiracy (Sakai talked in his forum about how he really intended them to cross paths, but then realized it didn’t make sense because of the geography associated with Grasscutter). I also kind of wish that the mythological prologue had more of a connection to the core plot, but all it does is set up the titular MacGuffin. In the end, I can’t help thinking there’s a lot of lost potential in Grasscutter, and it feels less like an epic and more like Sakai moving characters into place for future issues. It certainly doesn’t seem to justify the huge page count.

Bottomline: Not personally fond of this story, but given its popularity, it’s still worth checking out. The Japanese mythology parts are interesting enough if you dig that kind of stuff, and at the very least this sets up some of the superior future storylines.

Book 13: Grey Shadows

Taking a break from the hanging ending of Grasscutter, this volume follows the familiar post-epic route of scaling things back down and moving away from the regular cast. Frankly, this has always been one of Usagi’s less-interesting books to me, and the stories here feel a little more conventional than what Sakai usually comes up with. They’re hardly bad; they just don’t seem to have the same impact that other books have. The opening episode introduces an interesting connection to Usagi’s past and another somewhat-challenging, if slightly clichéd, perspective on honor. Then we get “The Demon Flute”, probably my favorite chapter in the book thanks to some clever bits of storytelling that nicely illustrate the “horror” moments (never an easy feat in comics). “Momo-Usagi-Taro” then provides a diverting retelling of a Japanese folktale (and a check-in with Stray Dog from Daisho). And there’s “The Courtesan”, a fairly interesting look into the lifestyle of the titular class, weighed down by a plot that doesn’t quite work as well as it should.

If there’s one thing Grey Shadows is definitely remembered for, it’s the introduction of Inspector Ishida in “The Hairpin Murders”. Ishida is Sakai’s recurring detective character, done in the traditional Sherlock Holmes style of deduction and fair-play mysteries; Sakai plots a pretty good case here, and along with giving important clues in the script he also puts clues in the art.

Bottomline: Some interesting use of more traditional cultural elements – like kabuki, courtesans, and folk legends – in what might overall be one of the weaker books. But it’s Usagi Yojimbo, and even the weaker entries are well worth reading.

Book 14: Demon Mask

The title, cover image, and back cover summary might make you think this book highlights the supernatural elements of the Usagi mythos, but that isn’t quite the case. The central story, “Mystery of the Demon Mask”, doesn’t have any supernatural elements at all, and is actually another fair-play mystery, this time without Inspector Ishida. I actually like this one more than the previous book’s mystery, although it might be a little easy to guess the murderer given the limited number of suspects (and again, Sakai plays fair). Other than that, there’s actually plenty of humor in this volume, with a bratty kid finding out what a typical day with Usagi is like in “A Life of Mush”, a daring challenge posed to the ronin in “The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill”, and a failed jewelry theft in “A Potter’s Tale”. We do get our big supernatural story towards the end, as Usagi teams up with Sasuké the Demon Queller (whom Sakai frequently hints at having an intricate untold backstory) to face a legion of monstrous spirits.

Also of interest are several shorter, 10-page-or-less stories, like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament”, which flashes back to an incident from Usagi’s childhood; “Tsuru”, a four-pager that was originally told in one-page installments; and “The Missive”, where we check in with Katsuichi and Jotaro. Finally, two full-length stories lead right into the next book: “Deserters” presents the political machinations of the Neko Ninja, and “Reunion” brings Gen and Sanshobo back for the next big epic.

Bottomline: Back to top form, this is one of the most balanced books of them all; humor, romance, mystery, culture, giant spiders, and some brief insights into Usagi’s past. It helps to read this before Grasscutter II, and it’s a terrific starting point in general.

Book 15: Grasscutter II – Journey to Atsuta Shrine

Now this is more like it! Unlike The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy and Grasscutter, the epic story here is determinedly straightforward: Usagi, Gen, and Sanshobo need to bring the legendary Grasscutter sword to Atsuta Shrine, and they’ve got the warring Neko and Komori Ninja clans hot on their tail. With a single narrative to focus on, Sakai handles this one a lot better than he did Grasscutter, introducing tons of surprising twists that nicely complicate the seemingly-simple quest. There’s a lot of weight to the stakes this time, and a real sense of uncertainty about the outcome, especially when the Usagi-Chizu foreplay comes back into the picture. It also helps that the action almost never lets up, as our three heroes fight for their lives in some of the series’ most harrowing battle scenes to date.

I definitely hold this above the first Grasscutter arc; even the mythological introduction here (focusing exclusively on Yamato-Daké) is arguably better, presented more as a personal story than a history lesson.

(Oh – and can I just point out that that cover is incredible?)

Bottomline: Sure, this storyline might not be terribly deep (by Usagi standards; it still gets pretty resonant), but it’s a thoroughly engaging book and probably my favorite Usagi Yojimbo epic so far. Try to make sure you’ve at least read Grasscutter before this one; Demon Mask helps, too.

Japanese special: running down Usagi Yojimbo

I leave for Japan by the end of the week. Naturally, this would be the perfect time to do all the last-minute research I need to get the most out of my trip, so what better way to waste that opportunity than by going through and reminiscing the ENTIRE TWENTY-FOUR VOLUMES of Usagi Yojimbo?

It took a while for me to realize that it was a scar and not a skeptical eyebrow.

Ancient Japan with animal characters. That’s the best way someone I know summed up Usagi Yojimbo, Stan Sakai’s remarkable black-and-white comic book series that’s highly regarded as a masterpiece of the form. Set in feudal Japan (around the 17th century), Usagi is a traveling samurai whose lord and master was killed in war, making him a ronin. Usagi is a rabbit, and all the characters are animals (but they’re really just visually-interesting stand-ins for humans; none of them actually show animal traits, so Usagi doesn’t go nuts for carrots or anything like that).

Usagi is good-natured, polite, and generous, despite his ronin status leaving him poor, his only income being the occasional odd sword-for-hire job. Unable to settle down, he walks the warrior’s pilgrimage, practicing the code of bushido and training endlessly in mind, body, and heart. You can probably pick up there that this isn’t a funny animal book – it gets into serious, often morose and morbid stuff. It’s feudal Japan, after all – life was harsh, peasants suffered, and the rich and powerful got away with heinous crimes (because that’s not at all what present times are like).

Warning: the series is full of Usagi straight-up killing dudes.

In a weird way, Usagi Yojimbo is where my fascination with Japanese culture really began. And if you’re familiar at all with the work itself…you’d understand why I’m not at all ashamed to say that. This is as solid as storytelling gets, bar none. Even though I’ve since branched out and delved deeply into manga (and completed Lone Wolf and Cub and Samurai Executioner, monumental samurai epics by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima)…I still put Usagi over all of them. Without hesitation. Part of it’s that Stan Sakai does a spectacular job of merging storytelling techniques (the grittiness of the underground movement, the patience and cinematic angles of manga, the action cuts of the American superhero comic, the genuine panel-to-panel cartooning of the classics, among so many others) into a style so uniquely his own. Part of it’s the tremendous amount of research he puts into the series, allowing him to do tales that feature everything from kite-making to pottery to Buddhist music to fishing to supernatural mythology, with further notes in the end pages. Part of it’s the way he manages to flawlessly execute his shortform stories while at the same time building longer character arcs that come to a head in the occasional epic. Part of it’s that…he’s just that damn good.

Yeah, not gonna regret that at all.

Usagi Yojimbo is my favorite comic. Favorites list change all the time, but it’s been at the top of the heap for a while, with no signs of slowing down after over twenty-five years of continuous publication. And everyone I know who’s read the series as thoroughly as I have agrees that Usagi has never had a low point – ever. Are some volumes better than others? Well, sure. And yeah, there are some stories from early on in the run that will forever remain classics. But to this day, Sakai still manages to top himself. “Chanoyu”, a story exquisitely depicting a traditional tea ceremony, could arguably be the best chapter in the entire series, and it didn’t come our way ‘till Book 22. “Teru Teru Bozu”, coming out just months ago (yet to be collected), is one of the creepiest of the many “ghost stories” Sakai has done.

The best part, though? You can start reading anywhere you want…well, almost anywhere. Sakai does his absolute best to make sure that each new story is as new-reader-friendly as possible, and, in general, you can’t go wrong in picking any of the 24 books as your first step. But the released volumes all offer different things and, of course, some starting points are better than others. Given the still relatively low-key profile of the series, you’d be lucky to find the exact book you’d want to start with at your local store. So here I’m gonna run down all 24 currently-released book collections of Usagi. I’ll avoid spoilers (as much as possible) and stick more to pointing out what each book has to offer, to give you ideas for putting together a possible reading order that might best suit you given whatever choices are available – and at the same time charting my own deep affection for this comic, because that’s what I really wanna do anyway.

How Gen says hello.

Book 1: The Ronin

One thing about Usagi Yojimbo is that its publishing rights are still split between two companies. Fantagraphics prints volumes 1 to 7, and Dark Horse puts out the rest. I didn’t get a chance to read the first book until years after I’d started Usagi…and it was actually a lot better than I expected it to be.

Usagi was very much a part of the ‘80s underground comics crowd, a batch more largely known for its energy than lasting craft. I expected the series to begin in that same vein before maturing into the classical epic it is now, and I was wrong. Stan Sakai brings in most of the series’ core elements with the very first story.

Really. That first story – “The Goblin of Adachigahara” – nearly has it all; Usagi stops by a house for shelter, meets a mysterious old woman, recounts his past as a samurai – with a flashback to the defeat of his lord on the bloody plains of Adachigahara – and then faces the titular demon. All in 8 pages. With a tragic twist ending to boot, something you can expect a lot of in this series.

Following that, we get some more short stories (this being standard format for Usagi books) that introduce us to elements we’ll see again. Usagi meets his primariy allies – Tomoe Amé, a swordswoman of the Geishu clan who matches him in skill; Noriyuki, the young Geishu lord; and most importantly Gen, an arrogant, cutthroat bounty hunter – and his main enemies – the Neko Ninja, controlled by the ambitious Lord Hikiji. There’s also another touch of the supernatural as Usagi stumbles upon a village terrorized by a murderous spirit. Oh, yeah, and we’re also introduced to the Blind Swordspig, one of Usagi’s deadliest – and most sympathetic – rivals.

So that makes Book 1 a great starting point, right? Well, yeah, but I will say that while it’s solid stuff, it’s a bit more dour than other volumes. The first four stories are full-on action fests with Usagi hacking away at endless bad guys– all well done, but it takes a while for things to lighten up and give us a better idea of the benevolent, lighthearted character Usagi is meant to be. Thankfully, the latter half of the book gets into that, with two humorous episodes (“Horse Thief” and “A Quiet Meal”) preceding a “Homecoming” story that fleshes out Usagi’s background and motivation.

Bottomline: Might feel a little aged and underground, but definitely one of the best places to start, with plenty of important introductions. Gen and Tomoe’s first stories are fun, and even this early on there’s a hint of something more than friendship between Tomoe and Usagi.

Book 2: Samurai

Getting into these earlier volumes late was a funny experience, though it’s the path most people follow given how difficult it was to come by them. As I said earlier, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed volume 1…but this volume completely blew me away. Samurai is without a doubt one of the best books in the series, as it’s hard to find any story that so perfectly encapsulates what Usagi Yojimbo is all about.

After an unexplained duel, Usagi once again runs into Gen, his sometimes-useful-often-irritating-partner, and decides to tell him everything: how and why he trained to be a samurai; who his mysterious mentor was; how he received his swords; how he entered the service of Lord Mifune; and how Mifune died in battle with the armies of Lord Hikiji, leaving Usagi as a ronin. We’re introduced to Katsuichi, Usagi’s sensei, and his almost hilariously unorthodox method of training. We see how Usagi matured from an impulsive boy to a skilled swordsman – and how the rivalry with Kenichi, his childhood friend, deepened accordingly. This is also where Stan Sakai gets to first explore the principles of bushido, as Katsuichi’s philosophical lessons guide Usagi’s actions; he refuses to loot dead bodies, he helps his lord save face, and – most significantly – he chooses duty over love, leaving his girlfriend Mariko behind as he joins Mifune to serve in the civil wars.

Three more short stories round out the volume; Usagi battles a Kappa (water demon), saves a village from corrupt officials (the first of many such stories), and, uh…meets Godzilla. Yeah. I can’t really explain that one, so go read it yourself.

Bottomline: Fully explaining who Usagi is, this might be the best place to start overall, and it’s just a damn good book besides.

Book 3: The Wanderer’s Road

In many ways, this is the first traditional Usagi Yojimbo book, beginning the format that most others will follow. It’s another set of short stories, each one averaging 22 pages (the modern length of American comics) with themes more in line with what you’ll see down the road. The opening story, entitled “The Tower”, is a fun little morality play on karma, intolerance, and Usagi’s willingness to stand up for what’s right, no matter how trivial. The rest of the book is a pretty solid mix of light and dark: Usagi once again runs into Gen (his “best friend”) for another offbeat adventure; he has a rematch with the tragic Blind Swordspig; and he meets two important adversaries – Shingen, leader of the Neko Ninja, and Jei, the demon spearman. Most of these characters will feature in Book 4’s upcoming epic (which makes it best to read this volume first) and the demonic Jei will grow into Usagi’s unstoppable nemesis.

But the darkest and most testing story in the book is “A Mother’s Love”, where Usagi commits what might just be cold-blooded murder. Some of the values of bushido have their place in modern society…but other aspects of it are harder to embrace, presenting moral difficulties that Usagi will deal with time and again. A strong example of how complex the series can get, in spite of its simple approach.

Bottomline: Still a solid starting point and a decent set of classic stories; if available, try to read this one before Book 4.

Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is the first true Usagi epic (a six-issue story that comprises the entire book), and many still consider it the best. It’s hard to argue with that, because this one has it all: intrigue, betrayal, a massive action set piece, and important moments in the lives of the characters we know. When an upstart lord plots a war on the Shogun, Usagi is drawn into a dangerous mission to rescue Tomoe Amé. Stan Sakai clearly wanted to make this a big deal, and pulls out all the stops; even his pencils take a cinematic approach, delivering some beautifully detailed spreads right from the beginning (the opening two-page splash of Tomoe in the rain is breathtaking).  The narrative builds tension amidst a foreboding storm, and nearly every major character returns to play a role: Gen hunts the Blind Swordspig for the price on his head; Shingen tracks down Usagi, seeking vengeance; and Lord Hikiji, still in the background, makes a surprising move on the Geishu clan. Usagi faces another moral dilemma – “is it better to stay loyal to a good lord or an evil lord?” – and everyone else gets a life-defining moment (with some of them not making it out alive). We also get our first glimpse of Chizu, Shingen’s little sister (who’ll show up in the Dark Horse books) and a few more hints on what’s going on between Usagi and Tomoe.

Bottomline: Great stuff, a culmination of the beginning Usagi stories and the model of future epics, with some of Sakai’s most striking visuals in the entire series.

Book 5: Lone Goat and Kid

Take that, Dracula!Going back to the shortform, this volume almost feels like a fresh start, as Usagi leaves the Geishu lands and most of the old cast behind. Yep, no more Gen, Tomoe, Noriyuki, or even enemies like Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja (don’t worry, this won’t last long), as we instead meet new one-off characters that Sakai  makes as complex and memorable as the old ones, and get the new Komori Ninja in place of the Neko. More than anything, though, what sets this volume apart from the previous ones is how deeply it delves into Japanese culture; there were certainly hints of that before, but here Sakai gets into it so well that you can feel the authenticity in his stories. “Frost and Fire” cleverly weaves an ill-fated romance together with Usagi’s view on the sacredness of a samurai’s swords; “The Way of the Samurai” examines an aged warrior’s desire to preserve his honor; and – in this volume’s most famous chapter – “A Kite Story” serves as a fun adventure with a detailed account of the ancient kite festivals, complete with an illustrated process of how giant kites were made. Sakai’s embellishment of this old tradition is a delightful read that shows how different the series can be.

Strangely, the titular characters of the book – the Lone Goat and Kid assassins, homages to Koike and Kojima’s “Lone Wolf and Cub” – don’t show up until the very end and remain to this day among the lesser-used characters of the ensemble. Their meeting with Usagi is still pretty exciting, and gives us this book’s one real swordfight.

Bottomline: One of the less-remembered volumes; while not as key as the previous books, this is arguably Sakai at his most authentic and artistic.

Book 6: Circles

Most of this book is given over to one of the most pivotal stories in the series, as Usagi once again returns to his hometown. There he reconnects with his sensei, Katsuichi, his old rival Kenichi, and his lost love Mariko…who drops an unexpected bombshell on him, setting up a new status quo between Usagi, Katsuichi, and Mariko’s son Jotaro. Usagi also has an unexpected reunion with Jei, as the enigmatic demon makes his first of many return appearances intending to destroy Usagi and “rid the world of his evil!” Like Samurai, this is as personal as Sakai’s stories get, hitting on the high points of Usagi’s character and developing his key relationships with Katsuichi, Jotaro, Mariko, and Jei; if only Gen was in this one, we’d have a complete picture of the ronin right here.

There’s one more story that deserves mention in this volume, and it’s one of my personal favorites in the series. “The Duel” portrays the difficulties faced by samurai who lose purpose, summed up perfectly in the tale of a ronin trying to provide for his family the only way he knows how. By this point we expect Usagi to win most of the duels he’s in, yet Sakai still manages to build up enough anxiety in this one to make us doubt the inevitably tragic outcome.

Bottomline: Both a great starting point and an important landmark; it can be hard to find, but try to read this one as soon as possible.

Book 7: Gen’s Story

The last of the Fantagraphics books brings back some of the series’ missing pieces, with the expected return of Gen (in time for the long-promised revealing of his backstory) and the more-surprising return of another character whom I didn’t think we’d be seeing again. The Gen-Usagi “friendship” has definitely come into its own by this point, setting them up as comfortably bickering partners who – even in the face of Gen’s arrogance and greed – always have each other’s backs. And I love how Gen routinely calls Usagi out on the ronin’s one major flaw: his tendency to play hero without always thinking it through.

Gen’s origin is as poignant as I hoped it would be, explaining his frequent gruffness and cynicism, but without losing his more humorous side (the final scene where Gen once again tries to cheat Usagi out of his money cracks me up every time I read it). Sakai also introduces Kitsune, a charming pickpocket and street-hustler, who serves as a female foil to both Usagi and Gen. I have a feeling she’s one of Sakai’s personal favorite characters given how frequently she’ll crop up again later on.

Bottomline: Obviously a must-read for Gen fans, this is all in all one of the funniest books (there’s even a humorous flashback to young Usagi’s training with Katsuichi). The last story is another great one that slyly plays against your expectations in the best ways.

Oscar Predictions 2011

It’s Oscars this Sunday! And after sitting out most of the previous two seasons of speculation (though I did still post predictions for the ceremony itself, scoring pretty high regardless), I’ve been following the race this year since fairly early on. It helps that this has been a pretty great year for movies, and I intend to post my list of personal favorites later, but now we throw bias and preference to the side – or, at least, we try – and make our guesses as to who’ll get the highest honors from the Academy.

 

The Oscars are fun since, yes, they’re mostly politics, and guessing how a political race will swing is way more enjoyable than predicting winners based purely on merit (he said unironically). Not that some of the winners aren’t deserving – what’s nice about a lot of good films coming out this year is that a lot of the predicted winners are hard to contest. And honestly, if you haven’t already, try to watch as many of the ten Best Picture nominees as you can; they’re all worthwhile, even the less-talked-about Winter’s Bone.

 

How does one predict the winners? Based on buzz, campaigning, some critical sentiment (when in doubt, yes, Academy voters will look to the critics to help them decide), and the precursor award ceremonies that Academy members also vote in – The Producer’s Guild Awards (PGA), Director’s Guild Awards (DGA), and Screen Actor’s Guild Awards (SAG). Guilds with heavy Academy representation are also present for Cinematography and Writing; they’re not quite as strong indicators since they represent smaller contingents of the Academy (and Writer’s Guild has plenty of weird requirements for nomination that the Oscars don’t have), but they’re still worth looking at. Checking the BAFTA winners can help, too, for something of an idea of how the European contingent of the Academy might vote. And don’t look at the Golden Globes, which has no real bearing on Oscar night (any awards that happen to match can be better determined from the guilds).

 

For each category, I put a numerical “score”, which stands for how sure I am in guessing the winner. As a frame of reference: a rating of 10 means a foregone conclusion. A rating of 7 to 9 means the odds are stacked in one candidate’s favor, but with possibility of a second-stringer or dark horse winning out. 5 or 6 means we’re seeing more of a real race, between two or possibly three candidates. 3 or 4 means an open race, and scores below that are arbitrary races that I’ve little idea how to predict (those are reserved for the Shorts and, in some years, the weirder tech categories).

 

Now onto the Oscar pool!

 

Best Picture: (10/10)

 

* Black Swan

* The Fighter

* Inception

* The Kids Are All Right

* The King’s Speech

* 127 Hours

* The Social Network

* Toy Story 3

* True Grit

* Winter’s Bone

 

I don’t know anyone serious about the Oscar pool who isn’t guessing The King’s Speech as the big winner. There’s no reason not to pick it. It’s won the PGA and DGA –those two alone would’ve stacked the odds heavily in its favor – and it won Best Ensemble Cast at the SAG, and, most surprisingly, it took home Best British Film along with Best Film at the BAFTAs, a prize that’s usually reserved for, well, a British-company produced film. That’s crazy support covering all the bases it needs. Yes, it kills me that The Social Network, previously touted as the unstoppable favorite thanks to its overwhelming critical acclaim, has lost its chance, but it goes to show that ultimately the Academy votes for a film that the Academy likes, and The King’s Speech touches all the right buttons; TSN’s the younger, edgier, more innovative film, while TKS sticks more with classic movie standards. But at least they’re both great movies, and all in all we’ve had a pretty good string of winners since 2006.

 

Best Director: (9/10)

* “Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky
* “The Fighter” David O. Russell
* “The King’s Speech” Tom Hooper
* “The Social Network” David Fincher
* “True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Tom Hooper won the DGA (Director’s Guild Award). Only six times in history has the Best Director Oscar not gone to the DGA winner, making this the easiest category to predict. That said…Hooper winning was – and probably will remain – the biggest surprise of the entire Oscar season, and before that, David Fincher was so much the consensus choice that speculators weren’t even considering anyone else. And while The Social Network backlash has cost it its big win…people in the Academy still seem to like Fincher. I will obligatorily pick Tom Hooper here, but will be watching more cautiously than most. This may just be the seventh time.

 

Best Actor: (10/10)

* Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”
* Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”
* Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”
* Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”
* James Franco in “127 Hours”

Colin Firth’s been the longest lock for an award this year; they’ve had him pegged since Toronto. He deserves it, being the definite centerpiece of The King’s Speech and the reason it’s had such an overwhelming charge.

 

Best Actress: (8/10)
* Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”
* Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”
* Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone”
* Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”
* Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

 

I liked Black Swan, I generally liked Portman’s performance and I’m glad the film stands a good chance of scoring at least one award. I can’t say she’s the most deserving choice, but she did have the most to do and, like Colin Firth, absolutely carried the film. No one’s really going to bet against her; not only has she won all the precursors, she’s also the only lead actress role that was really buzzed about. The only possible upset I see is Annette Bening, and it would be a deserved upset and a long time coming for her, but I highly doubt it’ll happen.

 

Best Supporting Actor: (6/10)

* Christian Bale in “The Fighter”
* John Hawkes in “Winter’s Bone”
* Jeremy Renner in “The Town”
* Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”
* Geoffrey Rush in “The King’s Speech”

Well, finally.  Not only do we have an interesting race here, we also have the first actual race for Best Supporting Actor since 2006 (Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, and Christophe Waltz had their wins locked). It’s not as open a race as the ones of ’05 and ’06, but it’s certainly an interesting one: will it go to Christian Bale, who’s been in the lead since the beginning, or will it be Oscar-friendly Geoffrey Rush, who was nearly as crucial as Colin Firth to The King’s Speech’s popularity? Is Rush ready for his second Oscar (well, of course is he is, but does the Academy think so), or is crazyman Bale finally going to get his due for all his weight-loss-gain-loss-again stunts? I still think it’s Bale’s to lose, but it’ll be an interesting fight regardless.

 

Best Supporting Actress: (3/10)
* Amy Adams in “The Fighter”
* Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech”
* Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”
* Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”
* Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

It’s wide open, in which case it sometimes pays off to pick someone crazy and unexpected who’ll sneak in and take it. To that end I almost want to pick Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom over oft-touted Melissa Leo, but I’ll stick instead to Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit. Yes, it’s blatant category fraud (her role was absolutely Lead Actress), but maybe bumping her down here is part of the process of giving her the win; young actresses nominated for Lead rarely fare well. Then again, “sneak in and take it” could easily go to the well-regarded Helena Bonham Carter riding the TKS wave.

 

Best Original Screenplay: (7/10)

* “Another Year” Written by Mike Leigh
* “The Fighter” Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson;
Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
* “Inception” Written by Christopher Nolan
* “The Kids Are All Right” Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
* “The King’s Speech” Screenplay by David Seidler

Logic would have one pick The King’s Speech here, since this is one of the categories most probable to feel the Best Picture push, but if The Fighter misses on the Supporting categories this might be what it takes home.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay: (9/10)

* “127 Hours” Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
* “The Social Network” Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
* “Toy Story 3” Screenplay by Michael Arndt; Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
* “True Grit” Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
* “Winter’s Bone” Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

If The Social Network doesn’t win here I’m gonna break stuff.

 

Best Art Direction: (8/10)

* “Alice in Wonderland”
Production Design: Robert Stromberg; Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara

* “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1”
Production Design: Stuart Craig; Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
* “Inception”
Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas; Set Decoration: Larry Dias and Doug Mowat
* “The King’s Speech”
Production Design: Eve Stewart; Set Decoration: Judy Farr
* “True Grit”
Production Design: Jess Gonchor; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

I was going through the history of this award the other day and discovered something interesting: every Tim Burton film that has ever been nominated has won – Batman (1989), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and Sweeney Todd (2007). That’s three different movies that all bear Burton’s trademark cutesy-gothy style, and over three different decades, showing that the Academy has some timeless love for the look. That, and this award has gone to stylized and effects-heavy films for the past thirteen years. Alice in Wonderland is the safe choice, with Inception I’d say a second guess; The King’s Speech might surprise, though it doing so would go against the trend of previous winners.

 

Best Visual Effects: (7.5/10)

 

* “Alice in Wonderland” Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
* “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
* “Hereafter” Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
* “Inception” Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
* “Iron Man 2” Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

 

Unless one of the nominees is a Best Picture favorite, you can never be completely sure here. If Inception doesn’t win, it’ll at least be fun to see all the internet nerd-rage that results.

 

Best Film Editing: (7/10)

* “Black Swan” Andrew Weisblum
* “The Fighter” Pamela Martin
* “The King’s Speech” Tariq Anwar
* “127 Hours” Jon Harris
* “The Social Network” Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

There’s a history of this category echoing Best Picture; at the same time, though, it sometimes recognizes the Best Picture runner-up. And if there’s any sentiment left at all in the Academy for The Social Network deserving to take the big win, they should at least award the spectacular editing that held together its dazzlingly unconventional structure.

 

Best Animated Feature: (10/10)

* “How to Train Your Dragon” Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
* “The Illusionist” Sylvain Chomet
* “Toy Story 3” Lee Unkrich

Yeah, come on.

 

Best Foreign Language Film: (5/10)

 

* “Biutiful” Mexico
* “Dogtooth” Greece
* “In a Better World” Denmark
* “Incendies” Canada
* “Outside the Law” Algeria

 

Everyone says they can predict this category, then a Japanese film about corpse-dressing wins and they get egg on their faces. Remember that not everyone in the Academy votes here; only those who’ve seen all the nominees may do so. Watching the big category films is easy enough for voters, but having to sit through five additional full-length foreign movies is not something that everyone does. That’s why the safe choice (A Better World) doesn’t always win, and why sometimes you’re better off going with the artsier, more critically awe-inspiring-but-still-Academy-friendly choice (Incendies) since that’s what those who’re aficionados enough to have watched all the nominees like to pick.

 

Best Documentary Feature: (6/10)

* “Exit Through the Gift Shop” Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz
* “Gasland” Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
* “Inside Job” Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
* “Restrepo” Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
* “Waste Land” Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

 

You have to go with socially relevant to predict the winner here, and while I’m still mystified by Waiting for Superman not even getting nominated (easily the biggest snub of the year; heck, it even won the Best Documentary PGA), that might mean the Academy’s looking for more current, urgent, news-headlines-relevant stuff, which is why I’d pick Inside Job over Restrepo and Gasland. But will Exit Through the Gift Shop’s sensationalism turn people off (as most believe)…or will it actually attract votes? Probably the former, but it’s still a damn popular film.

 

Best Cinematography: (8/10)

* “Black Swan” Matthew Libatique
* “Inception” Wally Pfister
* “The King’s Speech” Danny Cohen
* “The Social Network” Jeff Cronenweth
* “True Grit” Roger Deakins

People will want Deakins to finally win this one, and he certainly delivered on True Grit.

 

Best Makeup: (4/10)

* “Barney’s Version” Adrien Morot
* “The Way Back” Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
* “The Wolfman” Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Always one of the strangest categories to predict; remember when Click got nominated? While I’d say all three have equal chance of winning, The Wolfman is most in line with previous winners and the most widely known, and since the other two nominees are out of left field, that’s the best basis we get.

 

Best Costume Design: (5/10)

* “Alice in Wonderland” Colleen Atwood
* “I Am Love” Antonella Cannarozzi
* “The King’s Speech” Jenny Beavan
* “The Tempest” Sandy Powell
* “True Grit” Mary Zophres

The Academy has its favorites here. Sandy Powell just won last year, and even in a category where a number of designers get nominated regularly we haven’t had a consecutive-year-winner since 1951 (pretty much since the category was introduced). Cannarozzi has the odds against her as a newcomer, but don’t count her out. It probably comes down to Beavan and Atwood; Beavan is on the Best Picture film, but also…well, look up what’s won since 2006. Notice anything in common? Unless there’s been a big shock to the voting body – and the nominees list doesn’t seem to indicate one – I can make a safe guess here.

 

Best Original Score: (7/10)

* “How to Train Your Dragon” John Powell
* “Inception” Hans Zimmer
* “The King’s Speech” Alexandre Desplat
* “127 Hours” A.R. Rahman
* “The Social Network” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

The King’s Speech is the safe choice, with oft-nominee Desplat finally winning…unless murmurs are to be believed that Reznor will get enough backdoor support to pull the win he deserves for The Social Network’s remarkably effective score (yes, I know my biases are seeping through).

 

Best Original Song: (6.5/10)

* “Coming Home” from “Country Strong” Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
* “I See the Light” from “Tangled” Music by Alan Menken Lyric by Glenn Slater
* “If I Rise” from “127 Hours” Music by A.R. Rahman Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
* “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3” Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Something tells me they’ll want to honor Toy Story 3 with more than one Oscar, especially with the grumblings of a Pixar dip that everyone (even the company itself) is preparing themselves for this year. If not, people seem to like Tangled’s song.

 

Best Sound Editing: (8/10)

* “Inception” Richard King
* “Toy Story 3” Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
* “Tron: Legacy” Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
* “True Grit” Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
* “Unstoppable” Mark P. Stoeckinger

Best Sound Mixing: (7/10)

* “Inception” Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
* “The King’s Speech” Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
* “Salt” Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
* “The Social Network” Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
* “True Grit” Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

I’d love to see The Social Network disappoint the Nolan fans in Sound Mixing (and Roger Ebert made a good case for why it’d deserve it, given the difficulties of recording intricate conversations in crowded locations), but I will stick with the safe choice for both sound categories (i.e. the tech-heavy Best Picture nominee). Though I wouldn’t be surprised with True Grit here either.

 

Best Documentary Short Subject: (4/10)

 

* “Killing in the Name”
* “Poster Girl”
* “Strangers No More” Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
* “Sun Come Up” Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
* “The Warriors of Qiugang” Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

 

Practically everyone I know is predicting Killing in the Name. But these are the short subjects, and no one really has the best idea how the votes will go. Like Documentary Feature, it actually does help here to predict based on the content of the film. Someone who often got this category right once told me that he always chooses the most tragic of the nominees, and if it’s about children, bonus points to that. Strangers No More is about poor struggling children coming together to try to get education in Tel Aviv. Oy.

Best Animated Short: (2/10)

 

* “Day & Night” Teddy Newton
* “The Gruffalo” Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
* “Let’s Pollute” Geefwee Boedoe
* “The Lost Thing” Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
* “Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)” Bastien Dubois

Pixar hasn’t won this one in forever (Day & Night might stand a better chance given its unusual approach), and the race is pretty much always wiiiiide open. Unusual animation styles do seem to have good chances here, though, so I’ll pick A Journey Diary. That, and it’s the kind of film that just screams “vote for me!”
Best Live Action Short: (1/10)

* “The Confession” Tanel Toom
* “The Crush” Michael Creagh
* “God of Love” Luke Matheny
* “Na Wewe” Ivan Goldschmidt
* “Wish 143” Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

As arbitrary as races get, so I’ll go with what most are guessing from the trailers. The Crush could be a fun surprise, though.