Saturday, December 12, 2009

Breaking Bad: Seasons One and Two Review

White and Pinkman Breaking BadBreaking Bad is an AMC drama about Walter White,(played by Bryan Cranston) a 50 year-old chemistry teacher who has been diagnosed with lung cancer. With the prospect of a few more years of life at the most, White is distraught at the thought that his family will not be left with anything after he passes away.

White's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, is a DEA agent in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the show is set. After hearing Hank talk about the methamphetamine problem in the area, White asks to go along when a meth lab is being busted. Later, White approaches a former student and proposes the idea of cooking crystal meth in order to get some quick money. The student, Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, quickly agrees.

The cancer diagnosis is the final straw for White in many ways. He has led a life of conformity and fear (something that he states outright in numerous discussions with other characters). He has been less than successful—settling for a life as a high school teacher as his former friends went on to successful careers as highly paid chemists. One story-line that gets some play during the first two seasons details how White’s former partner and fellow chemist took formulas that they developed together and launched a company, becoming extremely wealthy in the process. White has always given off an accepting and good-natured exterior, while probably cursing himself at the same time.

As he embraces the role of cooking meth, and accepts the fate that he is not long for the world, he also starts lashing out at the kind of arrogant, self-serving behaviour from others that he always accepted in the past. White swings so far in the other direction, however, that by the end of season two, it's hard to characterize him as anything but a nasty piece of work (albeit conflicted about the recent decisions he has made). He is barely able to maintain his cover in front of his family, completely alienating his pregnant wife Skyler as season two draws to a close. But as with all great drama, despite the things White has done, most viewers will still find him likeable and will root for him in most situations.

White and Pinkman start at the bottom of the meth food chain, working with two-bit punks, then nastier individuals, and finally hooking up with big-time distributors. With great dialogue, superb character development, and a few strong themes throughout, every episode and scene ratchets up the tension and results in a fantastic viewing experiences. Whether White and Pinkman are involved in a showdown with some drug-world nasty, or there is a taut moment involving personal interactions of the main characters, the result is entertaining and always pushes the narrative forward.


How people deal with fear and pain, and the fact that the consequences of what people do can be wide ranging are two of the strongest themes in the show.

Every character is dealing with their own demons, and they all keep secrets from the people who should be able to help them the most. Walter White is the most obvious example. A secretive person to start with, White does everything in his power to prevent his family from discovering how he is making money to pay for his cancer treatment. White’s wife, Skyler, starts contemplating an affair with her boss, and begins sneaking the occasional cigarette, even though she is pregnant. Another character, Sklyer’s sister Marie, shoplifts. Marie’s husband, Hank, harbours a great deal of fear about his job, but hides it behind the bluster of his stereotypical, loud, guffawing, good 'ol boy exterior. But even as people go into themselves to deal with their suffering, the things they do to salve the pain often affects others as well.

Another theme that receives a lot of play, is how people in despair often feel that there is nothing more to lose. The horrible realization is that things can always get worse, and there is no limit to human suffering. This is very reminiscent of the Paul Bowles book Let it Come Down, in which the main character moves to Morocco after a failed life in Britain, and slowly spirals into a nightmarish situation.

Religious and Apocalyptic Themes

The writers of the show inserted religious imagery into various scenes in the second season. This reviewer saw many more examples than I was aware of (they seem obvious after someone points them out). The fear of some viewers is that there will be a sharp turn towards religious themes in the third season, and this may result in thinly veiled attempts at preaching right and wrong and a complete change in the show. At the same time, the religious imagery fits in with the dual nature of most of the characters—all of them are battling personal problems in some way. And none of them seem to be able to find solace in their friends and family.

There is an apocalyptic ending to the second season that has many wondering what direction the show will take in the upcoming third season. Will White start recognizing how far off the rails he has really gone? Will he finally have to pay in some, real, consequential way for all the misery he has caused?

Only time will tell. White's character goes so far over board in his behaviour, committing numerous murders, and choosing not to help someone as they lay dying, that you have to assume that there is going to be some kind of reconciling. Some kind of horrific realization of what he has turned into, followed by redemption seems like a possibility in the coming season.


I don't particularly like the cold open in which they often (but not always) give a glimpse of what is going to happen later in that show or later in the season. Of course, as the writers of the show say, it doesn't always go in the exact direction that the little glimpse might lead people to believe. But, the show is too good to need something like that.

In the world of cinematic and literary police forces, writers usually choose to depict them as incompetents or geniuses. In Breaking Bad, it's hard to believe that the police have not been able to draw a straight line to White and his rather blundersome attempts at becoming a local drug distributor. However, the power of the show means that most viewers won't give this much thought.

The performance of Bryan Cranston as Walter White is one of the driving forces behind the show. He puts on a stunning performance in the first two seasons. Like may great performances, you truly feel that he was made to play this role. But as with all great acting, it's only a fantastic script that allows such a performance to come through.

Breaking Bad does a great job of dealing with suspension of disbelief. This is largely down to the great storylines, dialogue, and performances from the actors. The absurdist humour that comes through also helps dispel those “as if” moments that could destroy a show that didn’t have the same level of quality as this one.

After 2 seasons and only 20 episodes, this show is already a classic. For fans of Breaking Bad, the much anticipated season three can’t begin soon enough.

Read a review of season 3 of Breaking Bad

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Book Review: The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

the scarecrow by michael connellyWhen a skilled writer gets lazy, the result is a novel like The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly.

When you have built up a solid fan base and are guaranteed a fat payoff for every book you are commissioned to write, it must be tempting to churn out a top-of-the-head, subpar effort that is full of clichés.

The plot is basic here. A sexual deviant, who also happens to be a skilled hacker, butchers women and frames up other people using his computer skills. Planted evidence on other people's computers, and hacked e-mail and credit card accounts are some of the tricks he uses. A journalist, Jack McEvoy, becomes a major part of the story after he and a new reporter discover that the suspects taking the fall for these crimes are innocent.

In the first sign of pure laziness on the part of the writer, we have that at-first omnipotent bad guy, who can do absolutely anything to anyone because of his computer hacking skills. But we are never told how he does all these things. A criminal hacking into e-mail and credit card accounts, planting evidence on other people's computers, and accessing other personal information stored online is, of course, plausible. But at least give us a semblance of an explanation as to how this is being done. Here there is nothing of the sort.

No Character Development

The major problem with this book is that the characters are paper-thin. As a reader, you give not a damn about what happens to them, because you have absolutely no sense of who they are. There is no character development, of either the good guys or the bad guys.

Oh wait, there is a few paragraphs-long, laugh-out-loud bit of tripe that is supposed to inform us about why the central creep does the things he does. Pure, well-used cliché here—the individual's mother was a stripper. Take a wild guess what the result is—yep, he hates women and starts butchering them.

Books with a serial killer of some sort always hinge on the fact that everything the killer does has a significant meaning which then allows the cops (or journalists) to cleverly figure everything out due to the references that the killer drops along the way. As if the killer really wants this to be a cat and mouse game, and/or wants to give the cops a legitimate chance to find him. This is something that readers of crime fiction put up with to a degree. But when there are so many other weaknesses in a novel, this kind of boiler-plate becomes even more annoying.


Connelly is either aware of the third-rate book he is offering up to his readers, or he subconsciously lets on through the words spoken by the characters. There are numerous "tells" in the book in which the characters try to head off the inevitable reactions that readers will have.

"It was strange, sometimes, how life worked out." Strange too how a line like that will make an implausible plot twist easier for readers to swallow.

"She said it so matter-of-factly. There was probably nothing in this world that surprised her or horrified her any longer." The flat, meaningless reaction of this character to the discovery of a corpse just doesn't wash. That's what happens when characters aren't developed. The things they say sound strangely inappropriate and unbelievable.

In the section that attempts to give the killer some back-story: "He wondered what had made him go down the hallway to look. He knew the answer was tangled down deep in his darkest roots. In a place no one could go." And in a place that no reader will go, because there is no reasonable insight into his personal history or psyche, and hence no understanding about why he turned into a killer.

"I didn't know exactly where I was going but I drove with subconscious purpose, as though the hands on the wheel and the foot on the pedal knew what my brain didn't" I.e., a meandering, unfocused arc to the book that indicates a lack of planning.

"This doesn't sound like a plan, Jack. It sounds like you're making it up as you go along."

Other Weaknesses

A huge hole in the plot appears as the two main characters, McEvoy and his FBI agent girlfriend Rachel Walling, head to the organization where the killer works. At this point in the book, the story about the serial killer has received huge publicity, with McEvoy's name part of the story, his face on CNN etc. Yet they blunder in to the office and use their real names.

Another major absurdity involves the FBI agent first being fired and then reinstated.

Another failing, and what brings so many books down, is the lack of resistance that is developed in various situations. Things just happen without the requisite opposition from situations or characters.

And in another crime novel cliché, there is the false ending, where the journalist and cop believe that the case is wrapped up but the real killer is still on the loose. As a reader, it is unlikely you will care at this point.

The book isn't a total write-off: there are some reasonably interesting passages. However, these sections involve McEvoy and Walling discussing the case and telegraphing the main plot twists. Another sign of a weak novel.

Are there any themes at play in this novel? I doubt it. And even if there were, they wouldn't salvage this substandard effort.

There is no flesh on the bones of The Scarecrow. Save yourself some time, and give this book a miss.