Breaking Bad series 5 episode 12: Brimming with colourful metaphors, and, is Breaking Bad still good?

Jesse suffers a crisis of confidence - he's not the only one.

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

There are only four episodes of Breaking Bad left. The first four episodes of series 5, part two, have been so densely saturated with Things Happening, there has been little room to breathe. Unlike the first couple of series, there has been little time spared for characterisation, for dialogue without an instrumental or episodic purpose. Although I'm sure calamity is headed Walt’s way, he has avoided it so many times, in such spectacular fashion, my suspension of disbelief has been stretched to the limit.

Watching each episode run hot and cold in three perfect chunks (unlike HBO, AMC runs adverts), the show’s epic moral vision appears to have fallen short in certain ways. Perhaps it’s because I’m taking notes and watching Talking Bad to supplement my habit, but I feel as though I’m with the writing team as they run through a list of edgy adventures for Walter White and Co. There is little introspection, or psychology left: Walter Jr is no longer the stroppy teen with friends he's desperate to impress, but a puppy-dog-eyed emotional sponge who wobbles his lip and makes the pretence of tears. Saul is a clown. We know that Scarface is our end point, and my eyes are still riveted to the screen, but to really make the last four episodes count I hope they provoke us a little, turn down the melodrama (stop focusing on “winning” and “losing”), and when a deeper sense of chaos is in place, let rip.

When Walt and others die, and die they shall, I still want to care about it.

Walt and Walter Jr share a moment by the hotel pool. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

The Albuquerque sun has thawed Walter’s gun. He has become an intruder in his own home (again), and discovers that Jesse has drenched the living room in gasoline and fled. After hiding the pistol he pulls a coke-smothered disc from Saul’s car - note the number plate: LWYRUP - and tells Huell to call by Walter Jr’s school and the car wash to find his former partner.

On the phone he tells Jesse he’d like to “talk”, explaining that he wants to “fix things”, and signs off by saying “Be safe”. Everything he says sounds like a gangster metaphor, something Skyler later comments on: “Just to be clear, these are just euphemisms?” But Walter appears to be speaking sincerely. He seems - remarkably - shocked that anyone could think that way of him. He chastises Saul bitterly, not just for his suggestion that Jesse might be an “Old Yeller type situation”, but for his fruity language. Eeesh, such a materialist. But by the end of the episode when Jesse believes a very Heisenbergy-looking Walter has hired a goon to kill him at the shopping plaza, we begin to wonder ourselves. He hadn’t, it turns out, but you never know.

"I'm coming for you - next time I'm gonna get you where you really live". Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Marie, it turns out, has been researching poisons on the internet. She blubs to her psychiatrist, and is frustrated when he becomes interested in the details of her story. Meanwhile her sister has also taken to violent thinking, telling Walter: “We’ve come this far, for us, what’s one more?” after he argues that Jesse can be reasoned with. Over at Hank’s house - I notice Hank is a Deadwood fan, nice - two unlikely partners are united by a common enemy. Jesse tells them everything, but they still lack physical evidence. When Hank and Gomie suggest Jesse tries to get Walter to confess on tape by wearing a wire, he spits back that they don’t understand, and that Walter is “the devil”, an idea I like very much.

Hank is furious when Jesse fails, deciding instead to call Walt and threaten him, “I’m coming for you - next time I’m gonna get you where you really live”. But Jesse has a plan. He has decided there is a better way, but then, so has Walter. The episode closes with Walt calling Todd, and telling him: “I think I might have another job for your uncle”.

Halfway through “Rapid Dog” Walt nonchalantly burns two of the show’s longest-serving characters. In the car with a bandaged Saul Goodman (“I never should have let my dojo membership run out”) and henchman Kuby, Walt suggests they look for his friends, “Beaver and whatsisname”. That’s Badger and Skinny Pete, Mr White. And they’ve been busy, as Kuby reveals: “For three hours, all he talked about was something called Babylon 5.”

Next up: “To’hajiilee”.

Ice cold - the devil himself, Mr White. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era