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- Breaking Bad‘s Pilot Has It All, And Yet Has Nothing
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- Star Wars: The Last Jedi Is About Making Mistakes, But the Trip to the Casino Planet Isn’t One of Them
- Relief Can Only Be Temporary when The Good Place Takes the “Leap Into Faith”
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Category Archives: Television
It’s all there. And none of it’s there.
As I talked about on the Pilot Study Podcast, the Breaking Bad pilot tells you everything you need to know to watch and understand the series. It gives you Walter White, the down-on-his-luck, spineless high school chemistry teacher who’s sleepwalking his way through life. It gives you the hint of an interest and a talent within him that goes unnoticed and unregarded by everyone around him. It gives you Skyler and Walt Jr., Hank and Marie, Jesse Pinkman and so many other figures who make up his world, with just enough color to get a sense for who they are. It gives you the cancer diagnosis that ignites something in Walt, that causes him to take control of his life. And it gives you the sense of the consequences of that change and that choice, the subtle transformation that sets him on a different trajectory.
But what isn’t present, what’s barely even hinted at in this first installment, is where that slow-burning transformation will take him. That’s the beauty of Breaking Bad, and it’s devotion to the idea of change embodied in Walt’s speech about chemistry. We see the first chemical reaction here, the catalyst that sends a lowly science teacher down a new path. We see brief sketches of his wife, his brother-in-law, and his new, less-than-reputable business partner. But we can’t see how much these individuals, and our view of them, will shift and flip over the ensuing five seasons of one of television’s all-time great dramas.
This pilot gives you everything you need to dip your toe into the world of Breaking Bad, but only gives the slightest hints as to how deep and how dark the water goes.
You could be forgiven for getting whiplash from the on-again, off-again romance between Tina Belcher (Dan Mintz), Bob’s Burgers’ resident love-struck tween, and Jimmy Jr. (H. Jon Benjamin), her longstanding crush. The show’s featured each one pursuing the other; it’s had them alternatively dating and feuding, and it’s even shown them pulling off wild stunts to impress the other, without ever really settling on a consistent level of interest, as befits the messy world of middle-school romance.
The Good Place likes pulling the rug out from under its audience. Even before the big reveal in last season’s finale, the show was constantly offering twists. And it’s only gotten wilder from there.
If you’re a Walking Dead fan who’s made it this far, you’ve gone through a lot. As someone who watched that first fateful episode on Halloween nearly eight years ago, it’s easy to feel, in a weird way, like you’re one of the survivors from the show. After all, you’ve stuck this thing out, experienced good stretches and bad stretches, while more and more of your friends and acquaintances drop out, many of them resigned to the fact that things can never go back to how they used to be.
Star Wars has always drawn a connection between the Empire and the Nazis. From the very beginning, the franchise presented images of Grand Moff Tarkin and his officers, replete with enforcers dubbed “stormtroopers,” wearing uniforms that likened them to the men who served Hitler. It’s a visual choice that’s meant to tell the audience who the Empire is at a single glance, without needing to unpack the details that the franchise would explore in the ensuing decades.
The continued struggle of The Walking Dead is remarkably consistent. The show’s unhurried pace often gives it time to delve deeply into the theme of the week and really chew on it rather than just gulping it down and moving on like the eponymous, ravenous zombies who populate the series. Sure, some episodes are little more than epic climaxes or piece-moving adventures, but for the most part, even the worst episodes of the show have something they’re trying to say and some idea they’re trying to dig into.
But the show is almost impressively bad at crafting the sort of dialogue for its characters that can ground those examinations in something that feels like real human experience and interactions.
Episodes like these make me thank Heaven that The Walking Dead didn’t start airing on network television in the era of twenty-two episode seasons. With scores of characters, multiple locales, and plenty of plotlines, the show should be plenty capable of finding enough plot and incident to fill an eight-episode half season with minimal wheel-spinning. Sure, not every episode can advance a major season arc, but there’s still tons of space for character development, illuminating vignettes, or details that make it more meaningful when those major arcs do finally come to a head.
Instead, it feels like every half season has at least one episode like “The King, The Widow and Rick” which cannot, even charitably, be called a table-setting episode. At best, it’s an episode devoted to tying up loose ends. It throws out a few miscellaneous plots here and there, but those storylines don’t move the ball in terms of the overarching story of the series; they don’t really tell us anything new about the characters, and they don’t add much, if anything, to the show as a whole.
“A war of all against all.” That’s how philosopher Thomas Hobbes pithily explained the “state of nature,” his theoretical account of what it was like when human beings lived without government, without order, and without rule. He imagined a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” and posited that we all needed a Leviathan, the personification of the force and power of the government, to avoid that unenviable existence. On Hobbes’ account, people needed to give up certain freedoms and turn things over to the Leviathan to ensure compliance with the order of the day, as the price to avoid that endless, indiscriminate war.
In Negan’s mind, he is that Leviathan. The last time The Walking Dead interrogated Negan’s moral philosophy, it left it ambiguous how the leader of The Saviors viewed himself. It was nebulous whether Negan really believed that his brutal ways were for the greater good, or whether he was just spinning propaganda to justify the comparatively lavish and carefree lifestyle he could enjoy while others toiled.
“The Big Scary U” is much less ambiguous. There is a certain sense that Negan may be deluding himself, offering rationalizations and eliding the darker or more self-serving side of the choices he’s made. But it nevertheless becomes clear that, on the surface at least, he is a true believer, someone who thinks that he’s doing what needs to be done to avoid a worse fate for everyone.
Imposter syndrome. Fake it till you make it. False confidence. There are dozens of phrases in hundreds of permutations that each stand for the proposition that if we can just project enough strength, if we can put the right mask on over our doubts and insecurities, then we will become who and what we hope to be. It’s the idea that inspiration can be built up from within, and eventually flow out to those we seek to lead or impress or merely comfort.
But what if you have imposter syndrome because you are, in fact, an imposter? What if you fake it with all your might, but the odds are too stacked against you for you to make anything? What if your false confidence just gets your friends and allies killed.
For a while, it felt like The Walking Dead had found a nice, consistent rhythm in its storytelling. Since about Season 4, each season would include a handful of episodes that featured everyone in the cast, but most would be smaller, more standalone affairs that focused on a narrower subset of characters. These episodes would tell individual stories and focus on small facets of bigger events that deepen our understanding of the personalities and problems at play. It gave the show a certain decompressed feeling that raised accusations of “boring,” but which also provided The Walking Dead with the space to flesh out its characters and make those stretches between the big set pieces feel less like wheel-spinning and more like an effort, however variable in its success, to make those grand finales matter.
But Season 8 has seemingly abandoned that tack. While not everyone has showed up in every episode thus far, each installment this season has felt like an immediate sequel to the prior one. The siege that began in the premiere continued in last week’s episode. And this week’s episode, “Monsters,” follows directly from there, depicting the same moral conflicts and the same lingering issues that Rick, Daryl, Carol, Ezekiel, Morgan, Jesus, Tara, and Aaron faced in the prior episode. We’re getting one giant story here, rather than a collection of related, but distinct plots that become part of a larger mosaic.