The final season of Breaking Bad was widely hailed as a cultural event, but it’s far from the series’ peak-level material, sacrificing thematic cohesion and sociopolitical applicability for neat narrative closure via shocking violence. This should not be surprising to dedicated viewers, as the show had been migrating from the study of a moral decline with social critique elements to a New West gangster noir with Bryan Cranston’s iconic anti-hero Walter White as the morally and physically doomed Caesar figure. With some questionable turns and vaguely unsatisfying conclusions, it’s not certain that Breaking Bad ended with the accumulative power that its complex and intriguing saga retained for four previous seasons.
The fifth and concluding season of the show follows hard on the heels of Walter’s assassination of his meth lord boss Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a retirement-home bombing. This act frees him from Fring’s increasingly oppressive control over him and his meth-cooking, allowing Walt to collaborate with longtime partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Fring’s erstwhile jack-of-all-dark-trades Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on their own operation to manufacture and distribute Walt and Jesse’s trademarked blue-tinted, nearly 100% pure product.
This stream of the narrative represents the continuation and indeed the culmination of Walt’s economic progression from responsible penury to dangerous entrepreneurial dabbling in the drug world to wage slavery in a major shadow corporation to final big-dog status at the head of a major operation. Breaking Bad did once find time to consider the harsh social costs of meth use and addiction, but has long since dropped the subject for the violent twists of a gangland storyline emphasizing the constant taking of masculine measure. Even the critique of American health care that was foundational to the show’s concept has long since faded, though it did bubble up again in the third and fourth seasons with Walt’s drug earnings secretly funding Hank’s recover from a cartel hit that Walt directed his way. With these themes slipping into the background, Breaking Bad‘s most thorough and absorbing theme in its closing hours was unquestionably its expansive dark-mirror metaphor for the vagaries of American capitalism.
Deprived of the state-of-the-art meth lab in the basement of a laundromat owned by Fring (Walt and Jesse burned it to cover their tracks after Fring’s death), our non-heroes strike a deal with a pest control business to take their new lab mobile. Cleverly setting up their equipment in houses quarantined for fumigation, the cooks make their product and get out with the homeowners none the wiser. The exterminator cover brings in a new accomplice, a deceptively clean-cut American kid named Todd (Jesse Plemmons) who becomes ever more inculcated in the business and brings a chilling, uncompromising unpredictability and dangerous associations to bear. He’s instrumental in a daring train robbery to acquire a new methylamine supply (a suspenseful caper that may well have been the season’s high point), as well as a shocking murder to keep it secret. His associations come in handy when Walter decides to off the Fring’s toughs in prison that Mike has been paying not to testify to the feds (after Walt semi-accidentally offs Mike).
Todd’s menacing Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his white power gang prove that the extermination business is not just a cover, but quickly move beyond Walt’s ability to control them. They back the tightly-wound Lydia (Laura Fraser), Fring’s former methylamine supplier, in a massacre to take over the blue meth’s distribution arm, and then kill DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) in a desert shootout that frees Walt from custody but also relieves him of most of his meth-trade millions and condemns the long-suffering Jesse into meth-cooking servitude for the gang. All of this precipitates a climactic endgame that brings Walter, his family connections sundered, his cancer returned, his meth empire out of his hands, to a desperate encounter with his deferred fate.
The shattering of Walter’s family bonds happens, ironically, after he attempts to retire from the business that made him rich but also morally crippled him. The turning point is somewhat controversial for being a bit too slight: over at the White abode for dinner, Hank finds a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the washroom signed by murdered meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) to “W.W.” This single drop overfills the cup of Hank’s suspicion, and he realizes that Walter White is not merely Gale’s lab partner but also “Heisenberg”, the shadowy mastermind of the meth trade that he has hunted for months on end. It’s a neat little device, and a flashback to a conversation that Hank and Walter had about the true identity of W.W. (Boetticher scrawled a similar dedication in his lab notebook) cinches the connection. But it is odd that this detail sets Hank after Walter rather than other seemingly more telling ones.
Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, coming into her own in these last episodes) stands by him when his true nature is exposed, to an extent; she’s so deeply implicated in his money laundering scheme that to do otherwise would be to self-incriminate. But after Hank’s death, which Walter does not claim credit for but does not effectively deny engineering either, all ties are cut. Walter is relocated by an agent of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to a cabin in snowbound New Hampshire, and even his once-worshipful son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) won’t engage with him or accept his attempts to send money. At this low ebb, Walter sees his former friends and scientific business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessice Hecht) on Charlie Rose disavowing his role in the founding of their lucrative firm, Gray Matter.
This last insult, this erasure of the greatest achievement of his respectable life, spurs Walter into a final acceptance of his achievements in the meth underworld. In his final meeting with Skyler, he finally admits to her that he did it all not for the good of his now-broken family, a rhetorical feint he constantly returned to in justifying his actions, but for himself, for his pride, ego, and sense of masculine self-fulfillment.
This is the thematic message that resonated most strongly as the credits rolled on the series finale, of a mutated modern form of capitalist competition that can only be effectively conquered by circumvention of the rules of society and of basic morality. The message itself is shared with many recent notable American TV novels, from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men to The Wire to Deadwood and beyond, no doubt. Breaking Bad was a narratively absorbing, cinematically-scoped, character-driven drama that explored well-worn themes of contemporary American society and culture. If it stood out from the other television luminaries mentioned, it was on the basis of its particular approach to those visual storytelling elements rather than any unique or groundbreaking thematic or metaphorical incisiveness. Breaking Bad had a tone and an aesthetic vision all its own, but not necessarily one that placed it above all others.
On February 14, 1993, a violent altercation occurred at bowling alley in Hampton, Virginia. Described as an all-out brawl, it involved white and black Hamptonians, racial overtones and reckless chair-throwing, as well as some injuries. More importantly, however, it involved a junior from Hampton’s Bethel High School who also happened to be one of the best high school basketball players in the United States: Allen Iverson.
The 17-year-old Iverson, already an athletic phenom who had led Bethel to state titles in basketball and football, was charged and convicted as an adult and, despite outrage from the city’s African-American community and conflicting versions of the events, was sentenced by a judge to a 15-year sentence, with 10 years suspended. Iverson only served four months before being granted clemency, and the state court of appeals later overturned the conviction due to lack of evidence. But the case affixed a thuggish reputation to the swaggering Iverson that stuck to him through his notable professional career, and left deep scars of resentment in his hometown.
These events and their implications for the city of Hampton are explored in a documentary feature directed by Steve James. The filmmaker behind the seminal basketball documentary Hoop Dreams as well as the more recent The Interrupters, James hails from Hampton, and attended and played ball at Bethel’s rival, Hampton High School. No Crossover therefore takes on a personal angle, as James attempts to fathom the racial and class divisions exposed by the Iverson case in his hometown. The title, a reference to Iverson’s mastery of the swift dribbling move that confounded many a defender, makes it clear that athletic prowess alone was insufficient in allowing Iverson to overcome deep structural prejudices in Peninsular Virginia society.
Although James interviews a legion of locals with some connection to the incident, the trial, or Allen Iverson’s early life and burgeoning sports career, he can’t get near the man himself. Indeed, only one other person who was at the bowling alley that night appears on camera, and he is one of the other three young men who was prosecuted for his part in the melee and says curiously little about what actually happened. But whether Iverson and his fellow accused did what it was claimed that they did or not isn’t really the point of No Crossover. The point James’ film makes instead, subtly but persistently, is that in American society, racial prejudice readily rushes in to fill the void left by the dearth of factual certainties.
No Crossover highlights not only the obvious manifestations of this dividing line, but its subtler shadings as well. Faced with a lack of solid evidence that Iverson was even inside the bowling alley when the chairs started flying (he and a friend both claim that he was hustled out when things got heated, his athletic future paramount in their minds), the state used the pack-aggression confusion to its prosecutionary advantage. Iverson and his three friends were charged under an obscure and rarely-used Virginia statute, a felony charge of maiming by mob. The irony that this law was originally passed with an eye to combat the extra-legal discriminatory practice of lynching is certainly not missed by Hampton’s African-American leaders. It is likewise not lost on any onscreen observer that the Governor of Virginia who granted Iverson clemency was the first African-American elected to a governor’s post in the country, and that he was near the end of his term when he signed the order. That noted, James also cannot resist including a redemptive mentor-student relationship between Iverson and a local white female tutor who aided him in improving his academic standing enough post-conviction to earn a spot at a top university (Georgetown, as it turned out).
It should not be surprising to anyone who followed the NBA through the decade plus in which Allen Iverson was one of the league’s best-known and most polarizing figures that his vaunted “attitude” was ruffling the white establishment’s pristine feathers (and sometimes the black establishment’s as well) before he could even vote. Though he appears fairly clean-cut with a conservative early-90s fade hairdo and a modest gold necklace in No Crossover‘s archival video of his Bethel playing days, Iverson later became the avatar of street-level hip-hop culture and post-modern black masculinity in the world’s best basketball league.
His hair in cornrows, his arms covered with tattoos, teetering on the edge of an explosive tantrum at nearly every moment, launching himself at tenacious opposing defenses with a volatility and controlled recklessness that could be exhilirating and even transgressive, Allen Iverson was a star, no doubt. But his stardom was perceived very differently by black and white audiences, each of which read his street-wise “thug” image (very much burnished by his conviction and imprisonment) from diametrically opposed perspectives.
This gap in perception was succinctly exemplified in his most infamous off-court moment, a press conference rant in which he derisively repeated the word “practice” twenty times to demonstrate his disdain for the sports media’s reverence for an activity that, in his mind, didn’t even count. It was a shot across the bow of the sort of meaningless structures that many young (and some older) African-Americans felt that White America was fond of erecting and that stood between them and the success of white elites. Those who shared these grievances identified with his defiance. Meanwhile, sports media and mainstream fans (many of them white) tut-tutted Iverson’s “bad attitude”, viewing his petulant objections to the focus on his poor practice attendance as proof of his character flaws, and by extension the character flaws of a generation of young black men whose modes of expression they found to be unfamiliar and even frightening.
Iverson officially retired from pro ball in a ceremony in Philadelphia, where he starred for the Sixers, only last week, after last playing in Turkey more than a year ago. His number will be retired by the team in March, a commemorative appreciation that demonstrates how time and memory serve to bevil down sharper edges. James features plenty of footage in his film of the older Iverson mouthing bromides about moving on, staying strong, and believing in himself after his brush with the law as a teen, but also speculates that he harbours an understandable resentment against his hometown for what they put him through after giving Hampton so much of himself as a high school athlete. Ultimately, like so many irruptions of racial prejudice in American history, Allen Iverson’s story lacks a satisfying resolution or explanation. It even lacks a level of basic agreement about where the fault lies, or even if there is fault at all. What remains is a groundswell of low, simmering hostility, like a scalding steam rising from fissures that can neither be closed nor safely bridged.
It’s easier to consider the ways in which Breaking Bad stays the same through its run than to consider the ways it changes. The finely-tuned, incremental amassing of narrative detail remains constant and superlative; whatever else one might have to say about the thematic content of Vince Gilligan’s television opus, there’s little question that its storytelling is exquisite. Quibble about its constant thematic drumbeat of motivating masculine pride and immoral Machiavellian manipulations if you will, but Breaking Bad has enraptured a mass audience with its developing plot, and rightly so.
As mentioned, the assertions of masculinity, in particular through the seedy underworld of meth-trade crime, never go away and never really wane. They even flare up on key occasions, against the better mental judgment of the show’s characters, pushing the story forward in a way that is not merely about imparting meaning but also about the unavoidable and unforeseen consequences of human agency. This tendency, the closest thing to a formula that Breaking Bad can be said to follow, crops up repeatedly in the show’s third and fourth seasons.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), for instance, unadvisedly keeps his DEA brother-in-law Hank’s (Dean Norris) investigation into the meth operation he has been involved in alive when it might have advantageously wilted on the vine. A bit elated with liquor at a family dinner, Walter shoots down Hank’s theory that Walter’s former meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was “Heisenberg”, the true chemistry genius behind the pure, blue-tinted methamphetamine product flooding the streets of Albuquerque and beyond, a suspicion that may have put the investigation to sleep and at least temporarily left Walter and his collaborators in the clear. Walter speaks up in his disinhibited state largely because, perversely, the quality meth he secretly manufactures has become the signature accomplishment of his disappointing life, and the protection of that accomplishment the sole opportunity to fulfill any sort of male dominance over his world. Although the cruel irony of this accomplishment is that he cannot openly take credit for it for risk of legal consequence, he’ll be damned if he lets another man, even a dead one like Gale, receive the laurels due to him. And damned, one gets the distinct feeling, he will be soon enough.
This choice by Walter ripples out from him, in the form of increased DEA pressure on his drug-lord employer Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which further strains their already-poisoned professional relationship (once friendly and even understanding of his brilliant but volatile employee, Fring is trundling Walter out to the desert to make death threats against his family before too long). But Fring, constructed by the writers and played by Esposito as a calculating logic-bot who matches and surpasses Walter’s meticulous double-life practices, makes his own emotional, masculine power-asserting miscalculation which costs him most dearly. Seeking to diffuse escalating cross-border tensions with the Mexican cartels, Fring poisons kingpin Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) and his entire cartel leadership to death. Mass murder may seem an extreme reaction for a highly-controlled man like Gustavo Fring, but then Eladio did have Fring’s former meth-cooking partner killed before his eyes, as a flashback reveals (the trigger-man was Hector Salamanca, memorably played by Mark Margolis as a crusty old invalid in a wheelchair who rings a bell like a mute, avenging angel).
A desire for revenge clouds Fring’s judgment in this matter, and only some unexpected quick action by Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who has become a trusted figure in Fring’s organization, saves Fring, Jesse, and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) from a fate similar to that suffered by the cartel elite. But with primary underhanded operative Mike out of commission in Mexico with a gunshot wound, Fring is left vulnerable to an attack from his newly-minted nemesis Walter, who engineers a final explosive encounter between Fring and Hector. Fring’s unwise, personally-driven overreach proves very costly, as many of our own emotional choices do as well.
Walter and Jesse’s inculcation into Fring’s meth operation dominates both of these seasons, although parallel and related storylines make their presence known as well (the cartel’s attack on Hank which leaves him temporarily paralyzed, Skyler and Walt buying the car wash where the latter once worked in order to launder their money, Jesse’s attempt at family life with a fellow recovering addict). But Breaking Bad‘s continuing allegory for American capitalism circles persistently around Fring’s diversified holdings, and it pulls lesser narratives and implications into this same orbit.
If the early stretches of the show commented on the consuming pressures of the laissez-faire American economy and the dark side of the entrepreneurial spirit, then Walter’s hiring by Fring and relocation into the industrial meth super-lab beneath an unassuming laundry facility represents the pitfalls of corporatization. Walt chafes under Fring’s increasingly close supervision and intrusive surveillance, become progressively more defiant in defending his position in the lab. After Walter put a great deal of effort into getting Fring’s attention and then eventually his patronage for his particular form of chemical art, the protagonist of Breaking Bad finds the supposedly more secure realm of large-scale meth production and distribution no more welcoming or easily navigated than the street-level knife-fight he sought to avoid. Selling out, it turns out, is not the solution to all that ails economic players.
Fring seeks to minimize risk like a true micromanager, and Walter White is nothing if not one big walking risk (throw in Jesse Pinkman and that’s two). His fried chicken franchise is a cunning cover, but it’s also a profitable business that could have kept Fring living very comfortably without the drug trade sideline. The car wash project is mostly about “cleaning” Walter’s income so that it can be used for Hank’s recovery (Skyler suspects quite rightly that the attack on Walter’s brother-in-law had something to do with him), but it’s also a modest step towards at least the appearance of fiscal independence, like Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos. It’s conceivable that, like his boss’ fast food chain, the car wash could give Walter a chance to live straight. But neither man can resist the lucrative profits and ample opportunities for robust dick-measuring that the meth business has to offer. And, to tell the truth, they are both in far too deep to get out, even if they wanted to.
One other notable way in which Breaking Bad shifts on its axis in the third and fourth seasons has to do with its once-balanced portrait of meth culture. As the show has focused with more and more detail and complexity on the business and extortionary side of the trade, it has lost touch with the seedy, painful underworld of the afflicted addicts who actually buy and use crystal meth. The window into this realm was Jesse for a long time in the show’s early days, and and this perspective reached its unsettling climax in his Dante’s Inferno descent into the den of two addicts with a neglected, half-feral son (Season 2′s “Peekaboo”).
Hard as this material was to watch, it was necessary to ground the meth trade intrigue in real, harsh consequences. It became impossible to forget that whatever pecuniary rewards Walter ultimately earned, at the bum end of the whole sordid affair was a person whose life was being strangled by the drug he made for them to pay to use. But the intrigue was simply too intriguing to Breaking Bad‘s creative braintrust, and the crime noir elements take firm precedence over the depiction of meth’s social costs by the fourth season. My previous consideration of the first two seasons lamented the privileging of the incident-laden story over the possible thematic social messages, and if anything, this issue intensifies as the show carries on. As the fifth and final season looms for this one delayed follower of Breaking Bad, the appeal of narrative appeal remains the main draw.
Twitter accounts that aggregate based on themes are an underappreciated feature of the platform’s creative landscape. Usually the domain of programmed bots (Red Scare Bot is a good one, a parodic McCarthyite that leaps on any use of the words “socialism” or “communism”), there are nonetheless occasional curated accounts draw on existing tweets in order to construct some sort of running satiric commentary on one or more of Twitter’s multitude of parallel discourses.
This brings us to @AccidentalP, which searches Twitter and beyond (with some recommendations, suggestions, and frequent photo submissions from faithful followers) for discursive instances that suggest, in even the subtlest way, the predilections of Steve Coogan’s popular farcical English broadcaster, Alan Partridge. The focus of several television series and movies (including the recent Alpha Papa), Coogan’s Partridge is a cluelessly unctuous TV and radio personality (strongly suggesting the BBC’s legendarily sycophantic Terry Wogan) from Norfolk with plastered-on hair and smile. Although the Partridge character is largely an unknown quantity on this side of the Atlantic, it has proven resilient in its appeal in Britain, where the multi-talented Coogan has struggled to escape its shadow.
Possessed of a dimly-justified confidence in his own interestingness and in the value of his blandly middle-of-the-road on-air opinions and observations, Partridge’s endurance as a comedic character likely has much to do with the consistent applicability of this persistent satirical model to changing cultural circumstances. @AccidentalP collects and retweets examples of this species of rhetoric, accompanied by the #AccidentalPartidge hashtag (or, more succintly, #AP, when limited character counts are of the essence). To be Accidental Partridged is to be implicitly criticized for indulging in insipid mainstream recirculation of clichés and lazy tropes that rise (or sink) to a comedic nature. Examples can be based on any aspect of everyday life, but those emphasizing any traditional descriptor of prototypical, square Britishness are particular favourites.
Though the account is not officially affiliated with the Partridge character, being selected for @AccidentalP retweets constitutes a fan-maintained continuation of the ongoing satiric project of Coogan’s iconic creation. This sort of interaction online between an entertainment product and its collaborative fanbase is always of some critical interest, particularly when the result is as consistently sharp and funny as @AccidentalP manages to be.
Accidental Partridge (@AccidentalP) September 15, 2013
As the final season of AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad broadcasts out to its dedicated viewing base, it seemed like as good a time as ever to rectify a standing oversight and finally watch through Vince Gilligan’s saga of an ordinary chemistry teacher’s descent into meth dealing, treachery, and deadly violence from the beginning. The picture that emerges, at least from the first two seasons that I’ve worked my way through thus far, is an artful, uncompromising portrait of the increasingly sociopathic efforts of Walter White (the revelatory Bryan Cranston) to re-assert a measure of patriarchal masculine power in a shifting social milieu by navigating the dark underworld of sun-drenched New Mexico.
As even those who have never seen the show surely know by now, Breaking Bad narrates the downward moral spiral of Walter, a brilliant chemistry PhD who has found himself teaching high-school chemistry in Albuquerque and gets into manufacturing and selling methamphetamine with former student (and drug addict flameout) Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). He embarks on this dirty business venture ostensibly to provide for his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), his cerebral-palsy-afflicted son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) and unborn daughter (who is born by the end of season two) after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He keeps his activities from them, although the demands on his time and the financial windfalls that result from it make the deception increasingly unsustainable, and Skyler has exposed nearly all of his secret life by the end of the second season and left him.
Although Walter is constantly justifying his actions (up to and including multiple murders) as being for the sake of his family and to pay for his cancer treatment, by the end of the second season his family is fractured and his cancer is in remission. And yet, we can be sure by the show’s subsequent seasons that he hasn’t gotten out of the meth game despite this (for what does it profit a man to gain the world, etc.). The lure of filthy lucre is often suggested as a more baseline motivation; Walter is shown repeatedly carefully hiding and moving and grabbing at stacks of bills, his eyes ever fixed on this tangible pecuniary prize. But recapturing some measure of male pride for himself, after a life marked by diminished agency, crops up as a more primal driving force in his actions. The writers even show their hand on this subject, having Walter defend his right to act as he wants, to make his own decisions for once after deferring to others for his entire life, when faced with stark medical options for his cancer treatment.
Walter asserts his purportedly threatened manhood in other, more dangerous ways, of course. He sets fire to the expensive convertible of a cocky businessman who, though obviously a douchebag, has done nothing more than irritate him indirectly in a banking queue. He constantly dominates and belittles his dealing partner Jesse, ripping his lack of intelligence and backbone when it comes to the meth business. And he causes an unsettling scene at a party celebrating the evident success of his cancer treatment, insisting on giving Walter, Jr. more tequila than he can handle in defiant resistance to his blabbermouth DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a rival father figure for the boy. Indeed, Junior’s function in the show (as the least-developed of the central characters) tends to be to occasionally remind his dad not to be such a “pussy”, to stand up and be a man.
These recurring themes, in combination with its drug-underworld subject matter and attendant threats and violence, has earned Breaking Bad a vocal fanbase of young males who openly understand it as an artistic lightning-rod for their undirected social discontent. Perhaps due to this association, the show has sometimes been accused harbouring misogynistic sentiments. Such sentiments have swirled menacingly enough around the character of Skyler, who attempts to draw out the increasingly secretive Walt and limit his (misspent) independence, that Gunn felt compelled to pen a New York Times op-ed pushing back against anti-Skyler (and anti-Anna Gunn) fan chatter on the internet as well as against more sober assessments of Breaking Bad as an essentially anti-feminist text.
Not to dismiss Gunn’s insider understanding of creator Gilligan’s intentions as far as signification goes, but reading Breaking Bad as proceeding from an anti-woman discursive location is not off-base. This is not to suggest that Gilligan or any other creative force behind the show is purposely misogynist, per say. It would be nearer to the point to analogize that Breaking Bad prepares suitable laboratory conditions in which misogyny can thrive, and steadfastly refuses to stamp down such inclinations when they arise. Indeed, actively contradicting those inclinations would directly undermine too many of the show’s core themes to be worth the risk.
Perhaps this is why those who lean more progressive are more hesitant in their praise of Breaking Bad. It may also serve to explain why the show’s social commentary is much more proscribed than that of a serial television text similarly focused on the drug underworld, like venerable liberal totem The Wire. Like the gangland dick-measuring that now pervades the once-promising period drama Boardwalk Empire, the attempts by anti-hero Walter White to annex the traditional masculine privilege connected to the position of economic provider carry on despite the complexities of shifting social structures.
Unlike Boardwalk Empire, and to Breaking Bad‘s greater credit, there is little ambiguity about Walter’s choice to pursue an expression of male agency having deep, powerful moral and mortal consequences for not only himself but especially for those around him. Breaking Bad‘s mastery as narrative is most evident in this last element, the gradual, devastating cause-and-effect relationship between choices and consequences, the trickle-down of tragedy and pain from the bloated reservoir of immoral conduct and greed. Just as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings theoretically becomes a destructive hurricane an ocean away, Walter’s decision to do nothing to help a young woman in distress ripples into the deadly mid-air airplane collision that ends season two. And the consequences of this event will multiply further as Walter White’s path from righteousness winds on into the dark desert valley in which he finds himself.
August 9th, 2013 marked 25 years since the public announcement of the momentous trade that sent Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player ever, from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. It seemed like an appropriate day to finally get around to watching Peter Berg’s 30 For 30 documentary film (the first one aired in the long-running ESPN sports film series) about the deal’s lead-up, its execution, and its long-tailed aftermath, A King’s Ransom. The initial verdict on Berg’s film is that it’s a fairly cursory and facile portrait of an event whose psychic scars are still visible on a certain generation of Edmontonians and whose legacy continues to be manifested in the NHL’s stubborn insistence on succeeding in southern U.S. markets.
But then Berg (director of macho Hollywood dreck like Hancock and Battleship as well as Friday Night Lights, both the film and the more acclaimed television show, which he helped to develop) can only work with what he has. The principal players in the deal – Gretzky himself, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall, and Oiler general manager Glen Sather – give a pretty simple picture of the trade-building process. The decision to move Gretzky was influenced by a combination of factors. There was dire economic need: Pocklington was losing money on the Oilers, a trend which continued well into the ’90s when he sold the team and then later filed for bankruptcy, and he got $15 million in cash from the Kings in the deal. There was roster and contract calculation: Sather and Pocklington would have to convince Gretzky to re-sign for less money than he was most definitely worth to keep him in Edmonton and keep a strong team around him, and Gretzky was looking for compensation that befitted the best player in the game at the peak of his powers. They couldn’t let him walk for nothing in another year so as a free agent, so they grabbed assets for him while they could.
But there was a grander, deeper motive behind the deal which has been enshrined as a foundational moment of the modern NHL, and Berg gives it more than a bit of lip service. Quite simply, there was a vague feeling that the game’s greatest player should play in the continent’s glitziest media centre, and that this could only serve to benefit the game’s growth in the U.S. The league, especially under the stewardship of Gary Bettman, has aggressively pushed expansion into non-traditional American markets, often to the perceived detriment of the game’s passionate grassroots in Canada (although, ironically, it is now the muscular incomes of the Canadian franchises that support the zombie American ones through revenue sharing).
In this way, the Gretzky deal – benefitting a southern U.S. franchise and damaging a northern Canadian one – is a sort of creation myth for the contemporary big-money NHL, or perhaps more properly its messianic break from the smash-mouth backwoods heritage of the game. Once the Great One’s name was in lights in Hollywood, there was no going back for the league; flash and glamour were a part of hockey for good, even if they were supported by law-breaking robber barons like McNall (who later spent a few years in prison for fraud). Hardy northern outposts of dedicated fandom like Edmonton would have to return to the wilderness. With the exception of a few playoff series wins around the turn of the millennium and a Stanley Cup Final run in 2006 that is beginning to feel almost as distant as the glory days of the 1980s, the Oilers have mostly wandered in that very wilderness ever since.
As mentioned, A King’s Ransom only addresses these long-established readings in a cursory way: a closing onscreen title half-credits Gretzky’s coming to Los Angeles for the three teams now based in California. Berg also doesn’t do much more to explore the divergent reactions in both cities to the trade other than to show that Edmontonians were pissed (it didn’t help that Pocklington was clumsy at PR and local media hacks like Jim Matheson fanned the flames of anger unwisely) and Los Angelenos sycophantically hopped on the shiny bandwagon (as they are wont to do; witness the glamourous reception for David Beckham when he signed for the MLS’ LA Galaxy a few years ago, despite soccer being even more marginal a sport in the city than hockey was in 1988). Longer-term effects are left unconsidered.
What’s much more interesting is the glimpse A King’s Ransom provides into the perspective and feelings of the Great One and those closest to him concerning the whole affair. Though Gretzky will forever be hockey’s demigod, he has hardly covered himself in glory since retiring from the game, or indeed since leaving the Oilers: no further Cups, only a single MVP, a painful Olympic defeat in 1998, and in retirement, a failed dalliance with co-owning and then coaching the increasingly-disastrous Phoenix Coyotes franchise and a gambling controversy embroiling his wife Janet and a close associate.
Janet appears here, downplaying the role she may have played in the event. Although she was a Hollywood actress (“I saw Police Academy 5!” yells one fan following her wedding limo in the doc, a hilarious summation of her onscreen career) who had married Wayne the same summer as the trade and they had begun living in L.A. in the off-season, she tells us she had nothing to do with any of it. No thinking fan was ever fully comfortable with the misogynsistic tone of the popular effort to cast her as the Yoko Ono of the Boys on the Bus, but neither could a thinking fan believe that Gretzky’s decision was not influenced by his recent marriage to a Californian. Gretzky’s father Walter also shows up, relating how he told his son a few hours after the last Cup win in Edmonton that he would leave for more money soon. The influence of this most famous of hockey fathers is also underplayed, though most inside views have understood the elder Gretzky’s sway over his son was considerable.
Most revealing, however, is how Berg, speaking to Gretzky on a golf course in the film, perhaps inadvertently exposes the great sports hero as a bit of a shallow intellect. When trying to explain his decision to accept the trade, Gretzky says that he decided to leave because he was angry that Pocklington and Sather were thinking of trading him. They were thinking of trading him, so he let them do it; I’m sure that showed ‘em. Gretzky is fully aware that more Cups were to be won in Edmonton with that wonderful Oilers team, and from an on-ice perspective, the motivations for the move are much less clear. Indeed, Berg shows plenty of highlights of Gretzky’s prowess with the game, but A King’s Ransom represents one of the first major points in hockey history where what was happening off the ice trumped what was happening on it. In our era of cynical lockouts and shady ownership machinations, perhaps this was the true legacy of the Wayne Gretzky trade. Big business came to NHL hockey in a major way, and the game itself hasn’t regained primacy over the course of its own destiny ever since.
The Supersizers (BBC; 2007-2009)
The discerning television viewer can generally trust the British to fabricate a strong television concept, execute it with the proper balance and tone, and complete its necessary arc before it becomes stale. This is certainly the case with The Supersizers, a 13-episode series on the history of food in Britain with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Beginning with Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007, The Times restaurant critic Giles Coren and broadcaster/comedienne Sue Perkins immerse themselves in a different era of British history for one week, eating only period-appropriate food prepared for them while also donning period dress and experiencing the hobbies, activities, professions, and social conventions of the time.
Both Coren and Perkins are enormously witty, assessing the often-disgusting victuals and the outmoded customs of periods from the High Middle Ages to the Restoration to the 1980s with razor-sharp dissections. The delightful, laugh-out-loud-funny Perkins owns the program, though, filleting the traditionalist assumptions of women’s roles throughout the UK’s long and patriarchal history while simultaneously puncturing Coren’s inflated, preening chauvinist act (which never really seems to be ironic). It certainly doesn’t hurt, either, that both hosts faithfully consume the vast amounts of alcohol their historical counterparts would have drunk and wind up absolutely stewed every night as a result.
But in addition to its high entertainment value, The Supersizers is also a record of undeniable gastronomical progress. The title of the original Edwardian special was a knowing riposte to Morgan Spurlock’s famous personal laboratory experiment documentary chronicling the unhealthiness of a McDonald’s-only diet. What The Supersizers shows beyond much doubt is that whatever criticisms can be levied at the average contemporary Western diet, it remains a definite nutritional improvement over the protein-heavy, hugely-portioned meals of the past, just as our messy democratic social polity remains a conditional improvement over past strictures.
Dinner Party Wars (Food Network Canada; 2010-Present)
Staying on the subject of clever, snide commentary on food and social manners, Food Network Canada staple Dinner Party Wars provides both in spades, though without the historical education element of The Supersizers. Hosted by chef Corbin Tomaszeski and Brit TV presenter and domestic etiquette guru Anthea Turner, the show pits three Toronto-area couples against each other in a reality-game-show literalization of the neighbourly social competitive effort to top each other’s dinner parties.
Corbin and Anthea watch the proceedings as recorded by robot cameras in the host couple’s home and sample the same food served to the guests, nitpicking and judging their cuisine and their behaviour and eventually assigning both the meals and the party presentation scores on a 10-point scale. It’s fly-on-the-wall voyeurism mixed with culinary critique and it’s delicious stuff, mostly. Obvious effort is made by casting to mismatch backgrounds and personalities of contestants to create fireworks, if only mild ones; it is Canadian television, after all, as further evinced by the indefinite winners’ prize of cookware, gold-painted collander trophy, and amorphous “bragging rights” as competition champions. At least they get a tangible prize; contestants on Canadian cable hit Mantracker slog through the bush for a couple of days and aren’t awarded a darn thing for their troubles.
Despite its trademarked Canadian production frugality (and disproportionate implication of warfare that is a tiresome repetition of the competition-show trope), Dinners Party Wars works as well as it does by allowing the running snarky commentary that any engaged viewer provides in their own living rooms to be embodied in the frame of the show itself. In practice, the assessment of the food, the social interactions, and the domestic host setting is thus presented in layers: by Corbin and Anthea in their curbside panoptic chamber, by the dinner guests themselves to the private confessional camera, and then by the viewer, who also critiques the critiques. It’s not exactly Borgesian in scope and sophistication, but such opportunities for nested-doll meta-commentary are few and far between in the generally theatrical realm of reality food competition television, after all.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.
In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.
The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.
A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.
And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.
Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.
But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.