Breaking Bad series 5, episode 14: Fifty shades of grey matter

The temperature reduces to a wheezing, purgatorial thaw, in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

In the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, the photographic palette has shifted from the pine interiors, yellow sands and cloudless blue skies of New Mexico to the sodden browns, dotted whites and stony greys of the “Granite State”: New Hampshire. The change in colour says a great deal about the function of the episode. Walter is a fugitive, visibly emaciated by the cancer darkening his lungs, who by the end of the episode has been living in a cabin for at least two months. After the breakneck pacing of “Ozymandias”, life, for Walter at least, has reduced with the temperature to a wheezing thaw. There is a great deal of waiting in this episode: for Walter’s deliverance, for chemotherapy, for the DEA’s next move. The pure whiteness of the snowy lane that leads up to Walter's compound only adds to the second-to-last episode’s purgatorial feel.

We are treated (surely?) to our last scenes with Saul Goodman. Walter’s former lawyer speaks on our behalf when he delightedly notes that his “extractor” Ed (Robert Forster) does indeed run a business selling suction-based cleaning products: Best Quality Vacuum. “I figured the vacuum repair was a term of art!” Goodman dozily exclaims. When we first see Walter, it is on a colourless TV screen. He stomps up and down the stone-walled holding pen where Ed’s clients wait to be reborn into their new lives, whacking the light fixture above him like an animal in captivity. When they are reunited, Saul advises Walt to hand himself in, but Walt has other plans: he wants to kill Jack and his Nazi buddies, and get the money back for his family (or to satisfy his ego – the two have become light and dark shades of the same project). “Then and only then am I through,” he says, before lapsing into a coughing fit – our signal that his illness is advancing. Meanwhile Todd Alquist convinces his uncle not to kill Jesse in exchange for mo’ money and the ever-logical Lydia’s attention. “The heart wants what it wants,” Jack concludes, feeling a little more stoical than usual.

Way down in the hole: Jesse Pinkman. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Todd and Lydia sit back to back and discuss the 96 per cent purity Todd has been producing with Pinkman’s help, following a genuinely horrifying scene in which the Nazis, clad in black balaclavas, break into the White household and threaten Skyler not to talk to the authorities about Lydia. Once again we see that Walter has been unable to protect his family: the house has been violated, his surrogate son Jesse is captive in a hole in the ground, and soon Walter Jr will refuse to accept his father’s money even when he offers it. I like the idea that Todd has become Walt’s unwanted child, with Lydia as his deadly bride: they make a “good team”, assuming that cold, rational and effortlessly calculating are the qualities that make an ideal couple. Perhaps they will succeed in the marketplace where Walter failed – though, as with the Nazis, whose destruction may well provide the only solace in what is shaping up to be a pretty grim finale, I rather hope not.

“Mr Lambert” is living in a Thoreauvian cabin on an Indian reservation in New Hampshire. His only visitor is Ed, who brings him newspapers from Alburquerque and whom he pays $10,000 to sit and play cards with him for an hour. This is torture for Walt: in many senses it is as if he is already dead and is being forced to look over life as he left it (Sklyer is working part-time at a taxi dispatch office, leaving baby Holly with the neighbour and Finn with his pal Louis). Heisenberg appears to have retired, leaving the dying Walter White to his fate. When Walter dons his pork pie hat and heads out for a ramble, he doesn’t venture beyond the compound gate. It is only after he is rejected by his son, takes Saul’s advice to give himself in, and just so happens to catch Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz on Charlie Rose (I used to find it exciting when famous TV presenters popped up in the fictional universe, now it seems a little over-done). Rose accuses them of attempting to purify themselves of Walt’s influence on their company Grey Matter Technologies by investing in drug abuse treatment centres in the south west. As we well know, nothing stirs Walt’s envy better than others taking credit for his work (recall him telling Hank that Gale Boetticher's operation was that of a mere “amateur”), and he disappears before local police arrive to raid the bar.

Pine barrels: Mr Lambert arrives in New Hampshire. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Last week I received some heat in the comments for seeing malice in Walt’s now infamous phone call. The Huffington Post’s TV critic Mo Ryan wrote brilliantly that while the phone call was intended to get Skyler off the hook (another Pyrrhic victory there), nothing Walt says is ever straightforward, as was made clear in this week’s episode when he began howling about his family and his money. Surely his “family”, by now, is synonymous with his Heisenbergian empire? Emily Nussbaum has a thesis about “bad fans”: those who refuse to accept Walter’s guilt, and project all evil onto Skyler and others. I think it’s perfectly possible to see some light in Walter – if, for no other reason than Bryan Cranston is just so engaging onscreen. Cranston himself, in Tad Friend’s profile of him for the New Yorker, said that while Gilligan had long given up on Walt, he felt he could only continue by maintaining some sympathy with the character to the very end.

In the last couple of episodes we have seen Jesse beaten, enslaved and now, forced to endure the Mafioso-style execution of Andrea, the second woman he has loved and lost. “Remember, there’s still the kid,” Jack warns him. It is impossible not to pity Jesse (and Andrea, and Brock) in this scene. It is clear that if Walter is teetering on the edge of the abyss, Jesse is already in hell. The narratological stars are aligning for a Jesse survival, but who really can tell? Ross Douthat has listed a good number of reasons why he underserving of our sympathies. When asked about the final episode of Breaking Bad, “Felina”, after the Emmys on Sunday evening, Anna Gunn said: “It’s mind-blowing. I think people will be frozen in their chairs staring at the TV after. It’s apocalyptical.” Judgement, it seems, is nigh.

Read last week's blog here.

Jesse Pinkman - blameless victim? Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser