Friday, July 19, 2013

Week 9 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

Rolling right along now, here's an on time instalment that carries over quite nicely from last week's entry in a way that I didn't ultimately plan, much in the same way that following up "Lost" with a parallel narratives episode of "Malcolm in the Middle" was also unintentional. I could have deleted all of that, I suppose, and presented myself as an evil genius the likes of which are written about in today's entry. But this blog and its author are firm believers in journalistic transparency.

After the break: All I can say is that this episode just flat out rocks minerals.

Breaking Bad, "One Minute"
First aired on AMC Sunday, May 2, 2010

“Your meth is good, Jesse. As good as mine.” – Walter White

On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day 2008, 15-year-old me headed to the hospital for a routine tonsillectomy. It wasn’t a particularly arduous procedure, but I did have to stay at the hospital for most of the day. So I brought along a DVD of “The Office,” a show that I had been particularly missing during the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike, to help pass the time.

One of the nurses saw me watching it on the bedside TV and mentioned to my mom and I that she was a fan of the show as well. She then told us about a hilarious new show that she and her husband had been watching recently, a show whose short first season had just ended eight days earlier.

“It’s called “Breaking Bad”. Have you seen it?” she asked.

Neither my mom nor I had ever heard of it. Who would have, really? AMC had only recently started to make a name for itself the summer before with “Mad Men”. It wasn’t until the cable channel was airing both that show and “Breaking Bad” that they established their reputation of “Oh it’s an AMC show, it’ll be the best thing ever” (“The Killing” would go on to ruin that a few years later, but I digress). “Breaking Bad”...I remember not even really grammatically understanding the title at the time. Those two words didn’t seem to belong together.

“It’s so funny," the nurse continued. "It’s about this high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has cancer, so he quits his job and starts making crystal meth to support his family.”

This didn’t seem all that funny to me. But I laughed anyway, and not even just to be polite. I legitimately had never heard a more ridiculous sounding premise for a show before.

I sat on this information until late 2011 when the acclaim from my favourite critics finally got me to sit down and watch the first four seasons of what was being called one of the greatest dramas in the history of television. And after watching the third season’s seventh episode, a heart-stopping hour named for (among other reasons) the amount of time the mysterious caller warns Hank he has to escape the onslaught of The Cousins, I had only one question on my mind:

“If that nurse is still watching the show (and I really hope she is), what in the hell was her reaction to that, two seasons after describing “Breaking Bad” to me as the most hilarious show ever?”

As great as that scene is, I’m almost tempted to just gloss over it, because I think people forget how good the episode is as a whole. In discussing the best TV of 2010, “One Minute” is about as sexy a choice as you can make because of how mind-blowing that aforementioned final scene is. And it’s crazy suspenseful, even knowing what’s about to happen. Being able to hold up is so important to me in the television that I watch. As much as I was mesmerized in the hour by the dream-like quality of “The Crash,” arguably this year’s strangest episode of “Mad Men,” that’s just not going to play again for me. Knowing that crazy “Grandma Ida” breaking in to Don’s apartment and terrorizing the kids will not end in a triumphantly heroic if somewhat scary moment for Sally Draper completely eliminates all the enjoyment I got out of those scenes, which was me sitting on my couch and saying, “What in the hell is going on here, and more importantly, what in the hell is about to happen here?”

There are odd TV moments where every time I watch them, I think that maybe, just maybe, the scene will play out differently this time. Though not on this list, one of my favourite episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” is “Looks and Books” where Sam Weir buys the horrifying powder blue “Parisian night suit” and wears it to school to try and be cool. Of course everybody laughs at him and he tries to bolt for the exit before the bell rings, only to be caught by the school secretary and told he can’t leave. Every god damn time I watch that episode, in which I am so completely mortified and embarrassed for the character, all I want is for Sam to just run out of the school anyway. “Maybe this time he’ll do it!” I say, getting my hopes up. And each time he goes to class where his teacher tells him that we should all be proud to be homos.

Now obviously I’m aware that if he got away with that, the episode would have no point and be far more boring. But I care about Sam as a character, just as I care about Hank Schrader as a character. And the way that final scene builds the tension and really drives home how terrifying the situation is, I still found myself being afraid that Hank was gonna die this time. WHICH IS CRAZY. I’VE SEEN THIS EPISODE AND I KNOW HOW IT ENDS. HE DOESN’T DIE. But that’s just how good of a climax the shootout is: it plays by no conventional rules of TV and that makes it, as a result, eternally suspenseful.

Okay, we good? Good. So let’s build to that wonderful finale by examining the 40 minutes that make it possible.

One minute, sixty matter what you call it, that’s an awfully short amount of time. But for the characters on “Breaking Bad,” that seems to be the amount of time in which the biggest and most critical decisions are either made or not made. Of course, no one realizes this. A minute is meaningless considering how long your life is on average, right? When Skyler shows up at Walt’s apartment and asks, “Got a minute?” we know that expression will not be the beginning of the most serious and important conversation the two of them will ever have. It turns out though that it is a conversation about destroying evidence in relation to a crime, which is kind of important if “the great Heisenberg” (as Jesse will later call Walt sarcastically) wants to remain the meth king of the Southwest and not behind bars for the rest of his life. “Got a minute?” Of course, who doesn’t? Well that’s exactly the problem. We all have a minute. All of us have that small of an amount of time to screw things up royally in ways that will affect all the minutes to follow.

At the episode’s start, Hank shows up at Jesse’s house and beats the crap out of him for calling his house and terrorizing his family. As a result, Hank is suspended from work and Jesse presses charges against him. Though he takes gratification in that brief, minute long moment of beating Jessie to a pulp, all of the repercussions that come as a result arrive slowly in the following days. It’s just one shameful moment after another in which he is forced to realize that as cool and powerful as he felt in the moment, he couldn’t have behaved more irresponsibly. He realizes it when he has to relive the encounter by giving a statement to the police, when he gets suspended and has to turn in his badge and gun, and when he has to pack up his desk and walk out of the DEA office past all of his colleagues who know what he’s done. Just when you think Hank Schrader has never been a smaller man, stepping in to the elevator greeted by his wife while looking devastated, the elevator door closes and we immediately cut inside to Hank sobbing on Marie’s shoulder. When they arrive at the ground floor, the sobbing is done and Hank is cool again.

It’s just the beginning of a humbling hour for just about every character on this show. Whether its characters that are downright awful and even monstrous (Walt, occasionally Saul), or characters who are inherently good who let the darkness envelop them sometimes (Hank, Jesse, Skyler, Marie...actually, probably everybody except Walt and occasionally Saul), it’s almost never not gratifying to see characters forced to admit they’re not what they think they are. Hank, for example, is not someone I would necessarily call instinctively cocky or egotistical – but he does have moments like in the pilot episode when everyone at Walt and Skyler’s barbecue is impressed while watching the news report of Hank’s drug bust, and Walter Jr. is all excited about wanting to go on a ride-along, where Hank can’t help but take advantage of the attention he’s getting and how cool his nephew thinks he is. “One Minute” makes it clear that “the cool cop who arrests dangerous drug dealers with no fear” is a costume he’s worn so much that it’s become like the haunted mask in the “Goosebumps” books – Hank has worn it so many times that not only can he not get it off anymore, it has basically become him. Seeing that all shatter into pieces for him all at once is devastating to him – as he later tells Marie in a quiet, powerfully heartbreaking scene, “I guess I’m not the man I thought I was.” It’s also the lynchpin that makes his actions in the final scene believable. With no confidence left and not being sure of anything he thought he knew about himself, Dean Norris absolutely sells the idea that the mystery call warning him of The Cousins would throw Hank off so completely that he would have zero idea of what to do and would simply sit in a panicked state waiting for his downfall rather than just driving off as fast as he can. Fantastic work by Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt, who are easily the MVPs of the episode.

There’s another side to that coin, though. What does Hank’s attack mean for the victim? Jesse falls into that “ultimately good yet falls off the horse” category and as the show has become the story of this good guy trying to stop himself from doing terrible things, we definitely feel for him the most when he has to confront his worst qualities. Jesse is just as impulsive and irrational on a regular basis as Hank is when he attacks him, and sometimes you gotta get the shit kicked out of you to figure out what’s what. Eventually that is, as for now he has to inform Walt (in a stunning monologue that Aaron Paul is completely committed to, not even blinking) just how badly he’s going to make Hank pay for what he did to him. It’s another one of those “made in a minute” decisions that had Jesse not been confined to a hospital bed covered in bruises, could have been a truly terrible one that ruined not just his life, but those of his “business associates” (if we can call them that in this seedy world of crime).

Regardless, though, Jesse is more or less just talking out of his ass. Like Hank, he’s trying to save a little face and remain the tough guy/badass he thinks he is (I love that when he finishes that speech, Saul’s response is basically a Dr. Evil-style “Riiiiiiiiiiight”). Because you know what? Jesse Pinkman is just a cuddly teddy bear. He’d never hurt a fly, except for that one episode where he did nothing but try to kill a fly. He was never going to go ruin the lives of Hank and his family because he cares enough about the people in his life. In particular, he cares about the man who does not really seem to care about him.

Oh, Walter White. What a horrible bastard you are in this episode. With his transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface well underway at this point, it is remarkably disgusting that a lot of the dramatic stakes in this episode hinge on the idea that Walt will have to admit that someone else is his equal in order to stop a bad thing from happening. The way he so dismissively tells Jesse that his meth is good, basically rushing through the sentence so he can start pretending he never said it, is so evil and so well played by Bryan Cranston (it is a testament to his skills as an actor, thrice rewarded with an Emmy for this role, that I never thought of Walter White when watching Hal do his goofy bowling superstitions in the “Malcolm in the Middle” episode I wrote about last week). And of course, it’s not to make Jesse feel better about himself in the immediate aftermath of Walt being cursed out by Jesse (rightfully) for being the cause of every bad thing that has happened in Jesse’s life since the two met. It’s so that Jesse will come back to work in the superlab, replacing Gale as his right hand man and thus preventing Gus from putting a bullet between Walt’s eyes just as soon as Gale learns the recipe for Heisenberg’s infamous blue meth. And of course, the easiest way for Walt to get rid of Gale (at least in his own mind) is to make him think he’s making mistakes and ruining their batches. Sure, why not? Not only will that get Jesse back in the lab and lower his chances of being murdered, he’ll get to call up Gus and gleefully inform him of how much better he is at this than Gale will ever be.

Walt even agrees to make Jesse his – gulp – partner in the operation, and not just his assistant or number two or any other demeaning title. The way Walt uses Jesse as his puppet in this episode is so brilliantly reprehensible: when he learns that Jesse has dropped the charges against Hank, Walt breathes the heaviest sigh of relief. But it’s not because his brother-in-law will not be sued or because he’s proud of his young protégé for taking the high road. It’s because he is so glad that even the smallest connection between his family and his life of crime has been severed. Heisenberg roams free for another day. He is just the WORST.

Everyone needs a reality check once in a while. It just so happens that in “One Minute,” everyone seems to get or pretend to get theirs’ at the same time. That might actually be the scariest thing about the idea that everyone has a minute to screw something up – what happens when everyone’s minute comes simultaneously, and no one – not even Saul Goodman – can be there to bail you out of trouble?

Next week: Rest in peace, Steve Ryan.