Breaking Bad: The Read-Ahead Actor

In a scene from “Breaking Bad”, Year 3, Episode 10, Walt and Skyler are having a conversation about laundering money. Skyler offers to manage a car wash Walt is considering buying for that purpose. He has to buy it because, he says, the manager has to be in on the scam, and the only way to control the manager is to own it.

Somehow the conversation turns to their divorce and Walt says to her something like “but we’re divorced?”.

Skyler has been after him to sign the papers for several episodes. She has been resolute that there is no future in their relationship because of his chronic lying. In a previous episode, in a moment of moral clarity, he finally did sign, with a flourish.

Now, “Breaking Bad” is a brilliant TV series, exceptional in almost every respect. But I was not as happy with this episode as I had been with the earlier ones and this scene was emblematic of a problem beginning to creep in. (Maybe it stops here, maybe it gets worse: I don’t know). Walt reads his line as if there is some question about whether or not they actually are divorced. He almost makes it a question: “we’re divorced?”. “Right?” “Aren’t we?” But in this story line, we find out that Skyler never filed the paperwork after Walt signed it. She notes that married couples can’t be forced to testify against each other. This is important because Walt makes methamphetamine.

In my opinion, Bryan Cranston gave away a plot element in his reading of this line. The character, Walt, has no reason to believe that Skyler had changed her mind about the divorce, and every reason to believe she would have rushed out the minute he signed the documents and filed it with the court. He should have said, “but we are divorced” as if it was final, settled fact. But the actor, Bryan Cranston, knew what was coming next. He tried to set it up, perhaps unconsciously.

Fans of the show and of Bryan Cranston’s otherwise impeccable work on it might argue that Walt may well have suspected that Skyler hadn’t filed the paperwork. Maybe, maybe not. And if it had been the only instance of read-ahead acting in this episode, I would have ignored it. However it was, by my count, the fourth and maybe fifth time in this episode that a character had reacted to knowledge held only by the audience, or a secret known only to the character they were talking to. The conversation between Jesse and Walt about the night Jane died was utterly portentous because of this flaw: Jesse was filmed as if he was about to receive a piece of shocking information, though he could not possibly know that there was anything shocking or even important about Walt’s nattering. He should have continued his tasks (cleaning the equipment) without paying much attention to what Walt was saying at all.

In real life, in fact, we often don’t even hear information that we don’t expect to hear.

These are quibbles, relatively minor quibbles. I just don’t like to see flaws like that creep into what is a very, very good TV series.

There is one other problem I have: it is clear that the series has become invested in the actors playing the major roles. None of them are going to die any time soon. I know it and they know it. This does deflate the drama of some of the tension that should be there. I have long believed that good dramas should plan to kill off major characters along the way just to make sure that the audience doesn’t come to the sedate feeling that no matter what crisis confronts our heroes, they are going to live. They are under contract.

It diminishes the effect.

Fatal Revision: Jeffrey MacDonald

The problem with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald is that it really looks like he dun it. The bigger problem is that few people seem to care about the idea that constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment matter. Even fewer people are willing to pay the price to ensure that those constitutional protections are actually respected by the government. I’m serious: very few Americans, who sing hymns to freedom and democracy at the tops of their longs, actually care about freedom.

They are far more excited by punishment.

And let me walk back a bit from my opening statement: the evidence by which many people, like myself, have concluded that Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald probably murdered his wife and his two children is not reliable. As everyone knows by now– even the prosecution– the emergency crews and investigators from the army mucked around MacDonald’s apartment at will, moving evidence, touching items, removing items (including, apparently, MacDonald’s wallet), and generally destroying the credibility of any conclusions drawn by subsequent forensic examinations. You just can’t trust any of the forensic data because no serious effort was made to ensure that evidence had not been tampered with. The chutzpah of the FBI (check) team that allegedly “reconstructed” events in the apartment the night of the murders is beyond belief.

Dr. James Brussel, appointed by the Judge to “examine” Dr. MacDonald, came to the conclusion that MacDonald was a homicidal psychopath. He didn’t actually meet with MacDonald. He just read the case files.

Dr. Brussel was famous for having diagnosed the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo.

Who turned out, of course, to not be the Boston Strangler.

And that’s that.

Uncompromising Films: The Proposition

Did he ever question the morality of what they did? “I’m very proud that there were people in my family who made difficult choices in a difficult time,” he says.  Matthew Bondurant

I haven’t seen “The Proposition” but some critics compare “Lawless” favorably to it. That is, they liked both films: “uncompromising”. So I saw “Lawless”. Basically, it’s a story about blood, guns, blood, guns, fast cars, guns, blood, brass knuckles, knifes, throat-slitting, with a few characters and plot points strewn around to disguise the sequences as “film”. Beverly Hillbillies meet The Godfather. “Uncompromising”.

If you made a film about sex as uncompromising as “Lawless” is about violence, you would have lots of shots of sexual organs, sexual intercourse, oral sex, sodomy, and so on, with intermittent snatches of dialogue, and then, I suppose, someone could say it was an “uncompromising” film about something. Implying, of course, that that was a good thing, an artistic thing– something of which you might reverently whisper: “authentic”.

Roger Ebert loved “The Proposition”. I’ll have to see it to judge for myself, but the plot summary sounds even more violent than “Lawless”. [I just noticed that Ebert did not like “Lawless”. See link on the right.] Both films were written by Nick Cave, renowned for his “authentic” music, including the inimitable “Curse of Millhaven”, a very dark song I like very much.

Uncompromising it is.

It is films like “Lawless” which have led me to question the value of films that sell you, as it’s main virtue, a lack of compromise. Here’s the key thing, the bait and switch: the compromise is not in the sense that it shows you things that are so troubling and disturbing and honest that you will be discomfited– no, no. In fact, what it is selling you exactly is the most comforting, cliché-ridden, boring truths imaginable: people do bad things to each other. If someone does something bad to you, it is pleasant to do something even worse to them. And if someone does something unpleasant to a member of your tribe (be it family or friend or nation), it is extremely pleasant to unleash a torrent of violence upon them, especially if it includes lots of explosions, fires, and helicopters crashing.

Teenage boys, especially are convinced that the violence in movies like “Lawless” imbue the story with some kind of profound meaning.

Nor is it uncompromising in the sense that it humanizes people who appear to be monsters. No, they really are monsters. Not that we should all get hysterical about what monsters they are. No, we need to grow up and acknowledge that people are monsters. If you have already done that, there is nothing shocking in “Lawless”. They are human, all right. Though the film is embarrassingly sophomoric when dealing with Bertha and Maggie (poor Jessica Chastain– a very good actress– has almost nothing to do in the second half of the film, except to look solemn and concerned whenever Forrest feels any pain).

What is a little shocking is how much pleasure people take in watching other people suffer horrible pain. People are lined up at the theatres to see these films. They love them. There is nothing that is more pleasant to the average citizen than to go watch a movie that depicts violence, sadism, and torture. Are we really all that shocked when something like Aurora happens? Or is it all a big put-on? “I would never do something like that because I am a good person”.

What’s also shocking is the romantic attachment we seem to feel to these rogues who make money by selling addictive substances that destroy people’s lives and inflict untold misery upon millions of children and spouses. I don’t mind that anyone humanizes them or portrays their characters in depth, but it is fascinating that the only constituency of moon-shining that is not given the slightest regard in “Lawless” is, say, the children of some alcoholic farmer who gets his supply from the Bondurants. That alone doesn’t make them monsters but an “authentic” film would tell us that this is what they, the Bondurants, and the corrupt police, are selling. The film-makers want us to believe that Jack is honorable in some way because he’s loyal to his family and nice to Bertha.

He’s also stupid if he thinks selling moonshine is a harmless vocation.

I don’t reject the use of explicit violence in film. Both “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Godfather” featured unusually explicit, bloody murders, but both of them also offered some insight into character and culture. In a sense, Michael Corleone stands in for all of us who think we value family more than almost anything. What does that mean anyway? Given a different place and time are most of us capable of murder?

Today, in the same Franklin County, it appears to be methamphetamine that these same tight-knit families are selling.

So Matthew Bodurant proposes the ultimate euphemism, spoken like a true writer, with a genius for finding some way to tell us that the doesn’t approve of his moon-shining, murdering distant relatives of whom he is so proud. They didn’t commit crimes: they made “difficult choices”.

Gosh, even Ebert didn’t like this one.

Bill’s list of truly disturbing, “uncompromising” films:

  • Carnal Knowledge
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin
  • The White Ribbon
  • The Third Man
  • Autumn Sonata
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • The Seventh Seal
  • Coma
  • The Conversation
  • The Godfather
  • Shoah
  • The Pianist
  • Midnight Cowboy
  • My Winnipeg
  • Kid with a Bike
  • Monsieur Verdoux (Perhaps the most genuinely subversive film of all time)


Uncompromising TV
Breaking Bad