We were left with next to nothing. Breaking Bad, after the events of season four, gave itself no apparent direction for its fifth and final season. It would be split up, we knew that. Eight episodes this summer, and a final eight episodes next year. Even going into this final, half-season finale, there was no clear direction, no obvious action or tension, but of course, there must be a cliffhanger somehow. The season premiere showed a more classic dynamic between Walt and Jessie, something fun and genuine. Since then, however, it’s only been Walt diving deeper and deeper, akin to what we watching in the past season.
There is an issue here of Walt’s likability. Even through season four, we saw Walt making nasty decisions. He was struggling with his newfound wealth bringing about more joy than his family, which he had intended to support and repair. This made for a great dynamic. He saw himself falling apart. When he did terrible things, it was because it was the means to a more important end. This made Walt’s actions objectionable, but also smart and horrifying to watch.
This season, however, finds Walt sinking deeper because he has nothing else. He is bitter and mean, and we watch him ignore easy outs. He makes things worse for himself and those around him. He’s greedy for the sake of it. We want the best for Walt, and watching him become so desperate and cruel creates a worse relationship with the viewer. It’s not entirely sold either. It’s hard to imagine what’s going through Walt’s head as he shuts the garage door on Jessie. He seems to be lying to himself. This can’t be what he wants.
The broader plot of this half-season is watching Walt restart the old business. Sure, they’re experts now, but we certainly feel the haste with which everything happens. Suddenly they’re set up with extremely professional equipment. In one episode they pull a train heist, which, while exciting enough to watch, couldn’t escape the feeling of being an episode specific plot arc. They do need what they’re stealing, but nothing quite felt broader. In a lot of ways, this speaks to the format of this half-season. The writers wanted the business back up and running, and to get it there in eight episodes, things needed to move fast.
Frequently in the fourth season, Breaking Bad gave us extended character monologues or conversations, wonderful scenes entirely devoted to building these characters. We find less of these here. For the most part, each episode is a slave to its plot. However, as per normal, when they do find time to discuss, it’s stunning. There’s an incredible confrontation between Walt and Skyler. Skyler intends to throw the punches, but instead we watch Walt leading her around the room. There’s a great moment in this past episode between Walt and Hank, a relationship fraught with tension.
For all these complaints, however, this season is still a strong one. The second episode focuses on Mike, whose character is built entirely over the course of that hour. It’s better character development than in some films, all across only part of a single episode. Skyler is annoying as ever, though as usual, we’re unable to fault her. She’s deeply distraught, and while we’d like to see her a bit more engaged, the show always has her acting appropriately. Even as Walt breaks himself off from those around him, when we see him pretending to cry as part of a scheme, it appears in some hidden way to be both truthful and pathetic, beyond its obvious devious intent.
The flash forward opening to this season’s first episode is yet to be resolved, and while presenting this to us runs the risk of being considered cheap, it works strongly. We know nothing else, it’s only a peak. In its context, however, it becomes a bit more thrilling to consider how every event we watch will eventually lead to it. So much must change. This final episode ends brilliantly. There’s an incredible tension in our knowledge of an inevitable cliffhanger. Moreover though, watching the two couples have dinner is stunning. The way that the dialogue is recorded and overlaps itself makes it all feel like a dreary, dull, summertime dinner. Something utterly normal and mundane between two suburban families. Knowing that something must happen makes it all the better. Sure, these tricks rely on the season’s formatting to function, but they’re minor enough that it isn’t a bother. The season could stand on its own.
Topping season four would have been a feat. This season has a lot less to work with going in, and the task of building setups and payoffs so late into an established series made the episodes drag a bit. This is still a fine season of a fantastic show, and it’s clear that the final resolution will be thrilling. Things are finally where we want them to be, with one minor caveat, and watching that develop, or rather, explode, will be exciting. It’s too bad that we have to wait until next year.
More than anything, The Newsroom proved every week how unbearably long a two minute intro can feel. This is the good news: the worst, absolutely worst part of this show is the long and boring title sequence. Outside of this, The Newsroom, without falter, has been an exciting series. The pilot seemed to set up a drama within the fictional newsroom, but the show took it elsewhere. The characters all have the same vision, and we watch them fight relentlessly to do the news the way they believe it should be done. That might sound boring, but the way these people talk, it’s more than compelling.
The fight here is hardly ever within the newsroom. These are people working together, or at least, doing their best to work together, to fight against external forces. Sometimes it’s ratings, but most often, it’s soft news. The Newsroom’s pilot remained almost apolitical. It seemed to make statements that wonderfully straddled viewpoints and could be applied by the viewer how they liked. Moving forward, however, the show tried to remain balanced while being defined in its politics. The anchor, WIll, calls himself a Republican. Aside from occasionally halfheartedly defending some conservative policy, he spends most of his time attacking ‘Republicans’, though Will would argue that they shouldn’t be called it. Many of Will’s news battles take place around dogmatic Tea Party members. We get action scenes of him taking them down. In the season finale, Will attacks Republicans for disenfranchising primarily Democratic voters with Voter ID laws.
Does this make the show balanced? It’s hard to say. ‘Republicans’ of the day seem to fall pretty in line with the Tea Party extremism that Will calls out as un-Republican. Does the fact that it comes out of the mouth of a self-proclaimed fictional Republican balance it? There is a distinct possibility that The Newsroom, due to its heavy basis in of the moment politics, will be unable to hold up in the future. It’s hard to say that it matters though, when right now they’re able to fictionalize excitement around difficult and often dull real world issues. The events of the show began two years ago and end one year ago. It’ll be interesting to see how much real world material they’ll need before they begin work on a second season.
Outside of this, the characters deal largely with relationship issues. The show however is smart enough to make these issues speak to deeper problems within the characters, rather than simply who loves who. Will and Mac are both stubborn but express it in wildly different ways. Maggie lacks confidence, Jim often needs direction. Brilliantly, the show closes the season without resolving any of the love plots but while leaving each pairing aware of their feelings for one another. This makes things exciting, tense, and deeply awkward around the office. It also means the plots can be intelligently and reasonably extended for another season.
The storytelling continues to be through quickly paced, snappy dialogue. These characters are all sharp speakers, but writer Aaron Sorkin manages to build in flubs and idiosyncrasies that set each person apart. Somehow, even when these characters slip up in the middle of what feels like a monologue (and every line does), they still come off as intelligent and quick. The show mimics this visually. The shots are clean and sharp with a modern edge to them. Characters seem to have lightly associated colors, and the shots will quietly be speckled with pieces that enhance them. Even in a back and forth conversation, both sides of the shot have tones that work with their characters. Charlie is accented by blue and brown, Mac by gold and green. It’s no accident where those books are placed.
Beyond all this, The Newsroom is about idealism. It’s a fairy tale about people trying to make a difference by properly educating the public. The characters all recognize this. They joke wistfully about lost job opportunities and better money working elsewhere. The ‘action scenes’ in The Newsroom are stunning because of their political context. We finally get to see someone standing up for truth and accuracy (perhaps this is informed by my own political leanings, but it does feel like this message speaks louder to a select audience - however, the show certainly tries to deliver this feeling to everyone, and that’s a smart way to get the audience riled up about these characters’ goals). This show’s reality is an unfortunate impossibility, but it’s taken so seriously that we love watching it happen.
The show didn’t take us all that far in its first, brief season. There were arcs, but largely the show works off of pleasure from dialogue or more immediate plot issues. Beyond running the show, with politics included, there’s endless content for The Newsroom’s characters to get riled up about. It’s hard not to want to be there with them. Sometimes they’re covering major news events, but most often, they’re discussing issues still relevant over a year later. It makes the show seriously smart and continually engaging.
There isn’t a better show on TV right now, and after the events of last season’s finale, viewers are perhaps driven more out of curiosity than a specific excitement as they head into season five. Breaking Bad, as many shows tend to do, has previously ended its seasons with cliffhangers, but the show’s fourth season ended with such an explosion (literally), that it seemed the show had brought itself largely back to square one. Of course, this isn’t entirely true. Walt is changed, and it’s likely that this will be key as the show gathers itself for its finale run.
This first episode was not a huge plot piece. It was a nice throwback to the show’s earlier seasons - Walt and Jessie working together to solve a problem through science. For all they’ve gone through, here they’re getting along charmingly, and it’s great to see that dynamic at play again. Early in the episode is a fantastic and humorous moment that finds Jessie shining (“Yo, what about like a magnet?”). It also works to reiterate the show’s fantastic strengths in storytelling. Walt and Mike are in profile on opposite sides of the screen with an out of focus Jessie between them. It speaks to his marginalization. Both Walt and Mike make their arguments and present us information both that we need to know and that embellishes the world, while Jessie makes it all feel so natural. It’s sharp and smart and detailed.
There are careful choices made here. The decision to leave a certain character alive is brilliant. If he’s dead, it makes matters all too simple. Alive, there’s no telling where it could go. Even after swearing not to say a word, the show leaves open that uncertainty. It’s a minor worry that works to build this show’s incredible mounds of tension. Outside of these small notions, there’s little hint as to exactly where we’ll be going from here. Our characters believe that they’re in the clear, though it’s not quite established whether Walt has any money left after all of this. There are, of course, events from last season that may come back to bite, and it’s clear that the police may still have threads to follow.
Most interesting here is the episode’s opening scene. Breaking Bad has long had a bad habit of using catchy openings to draw the viewer in. It feels cheap, and the show presents itself as smart enough not to need them. Here however, we’re given a flash forward. It’s indistinct in many ways, but what we’re given is a beautiful character portrait. It’s largely dialogue, a conversation between Walt and a waitress. It’s the kind of character interaction that Breaking Bad excels at delivering. It’s enough to create serious anticipation for what’s to come. Beyond this, it’s good to see an hour of the show without everyone at everyone else’s throat. We want to see some of these relationships succeed - there’s no reason that some of these people can’t learn to forgive, and it’s nice to see that happening.
This season’s opener doesn’t give us much to go with, but between the opening teaser and the continued quality of the writing and directing (although, the show still insists on visually identifying Mexico with orange, though I suppose it works), it’s enough to excite us all to be back. It’s no surprise that Breaking Bad is back off to a good start. It’s still hard to see where it’ll all head to, but it’s reached such a stride coming through season four, it’s difficult to imagine them stumbling here. For all the exciting elements within the show, it’s true success lies in the juxtaposition of these characters who have inappropriately made their way into this world. It’s the final season, and these may be their final days in it.
It’s only been three months, but The Legend of Korra’s first season is through. The original series had a more traditional season length at twenty episodes, but the philosophy here seems to be on creating a more taught season - twelve episodes, no filler. This is both good and bad, of course, but fortunately the worst aspect is simply that we’ve only been given twelve episodes. There is also a shift in how the plot plays out - in the original series a greater arc brought the three seasons together in a major way, but here each season appears to work as its own self contained piece. Now, twelve episodes are down, and naturally, one bad guy with it.
What Korra must face is complex and grave. There are corrupt politicians and a growing movement toward an insurrection. Those rebelling are called Equalists - what they want is all too reasonable (equality, as one might gather), but doing so begets further oppression. Worse, such oppression is accomplished with an irreversible and deeply intrusive act on each ‘oppressor’ (there is certainly an essay to be made comparing this to some form of rape). There is a figurehead to the rebellion, which simplifies matters in some ways, but this is all far beyond Korra’s grasp.
Episode to episode Korra tries to balance some amount of training with the growing pressures on her to save Republic City. The short season length means constant momentum. There’s always something happening, something to be discovered. While no needless episodes makes for a stronger season, the amount that must be packed into each episode leaves little room to play around. We see very little of Korra and her friends hanging out or Korra training with Tenzin. This makes character development difficult - we have to learn about these people amidst grander plot relevant moments.
In fact, the brevity here might be The Legend of Korra’s weakest aspect. The rebellion in Republic City is deeply interesting - more interesting than it can be afforded in twelve episodes. Additionally, there’s a serious amount of ‘stuff’ packed in without quite being given due. There are massive mech-tanks and advanced uses of these characters powers without any nod to it (as a side note, perhaps the biggest downside to the complicated technology at play in this new world is that anything too advanced is produced in CGI rather than the show’s regular beautifully illustrated visuals). These complications all makes sense within the world, but it does make the series a bit harder (or perhaps, less exciting) to dive into without having seen the original. This is not to say that Korra requires its predecessor - this is hardly the case - but while some bits are logical and consistent, they may well appear excessive to a new viewer.
The show does a good job justifying its movements. It’s hard to say that anything was particularly rushed - each event seemed to naturally follow one another - but these pieces could have been lingered on. Set ups (such as the United Forces or Amon’s “endgame”) could have used more time to sit with the viewer before an introduction. On top of this, in part from Korra’s nature as a do-it-herself kind of Avatar, we don’t get to spend all that much time with her friends in the back half of the season. These characters are alright, but we simply can’t love them yet - we just don’t know them well enough. This leads to a weird situation in which we’re more interested in side characters with big personalities (such as the gray haired well into middle age chief of police) than Korra’s friends.
It’s all deeply compelling though. Beyond even the overall mythos and the overarching rebellion, watching Korra fumble through the big city and deal with matters way over her head is thrilling. It’s a fantastic world, and Korra is trying to get a handle on it while simultaneously coming into herself as a person and the Avatar, which is one heck of a task for a seventeen year old. The fights are always stunning and choreographed far better than any big budget action film. The downtime is just as good - it’s great characters figuring out this increasingly more complicated new world.
Of course, it’s only been twelve episodes - the season may be over, but the show is just getting started. It wasn’t until the thirteenth episode of the original series that it truly began to show the moral ambiguity that it would come to explore. This is no excuse for Mako, Bolin, and Asami (Korra’s friends) being half-baked thus far. There is a wonderful scene of the three swimming in a pool with Korra, but moments like these are far too infrequent - it’s hard to say that they even have a clear rapport yet. In part, this is from the nature of this season’s events. More important though, when it comes to major character developments, the show nails it. For all these complaints, in the end we want more - and not simply because it will allow for further development. We want more from The Legend of Korra because it’s exciting and smart. Like the original series, somehow a cartoon on a youth focused network has the best action and the best story around.
With Girls and Korra wrapping up this past week, it looked like there wasn’t going to be much on the air this summer. HBO didn’t skip a week though. Replacing Girls on Sunday nights is Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a drama centered around the production of a nightly news broadcast. Compared to something like Breaking Bad, it’s hardly a compelling concept - in fact, it’s hard to imagine how much drama one could find week to week behind a news desk. The Newsroom’s pilot aired on Sunday night, and thus far, Sorkin’s writing suggests that there’s a lot in store for the show.
The pilot finds a shakeup in the newsroom - our lead anchor is having PR trouble, his entire team is jumping ship. There’s a lot of discussion and argument all spoken at Gilmore Girls’ level speed. As one would imagine in a Sorkin created and scripted show, the dialogue here is the star and it’s stunning. These characters can give a moving speech in a throwaway moment. There’s a rhythm to the discussions that leads to quick jokes and and snappy retorts. Sometimes characters will raise their voices, but it’s never really necessary here as it’s all there in the content. It’s a fantastic stylization that never actually seems stylized - you believe it’s all perfectly real, yet these characters are giving eloquent speeches to one another.
Perhaps the finest piece of drama set up in the pilot is that the anchor, Will McAvoy, is given the opportunity to review and fire his new producer after each week. Otherwise, we see that McAvoy is a naturally talented speaker and a smart guy. He’s known for not stepping on anyone’s toes, but the show begins with this about to change. In fact, part of what makes The Newsroom compelling is that in part it’s about a man with the superpower of extremely sharp speaking skills. By the time the pilot reaches its climax, even though what’s going on should by no means be this thrilling, it’s hard not to be excited by the action.
Among the more interesting pieces to this show is its political standings. It’s characters refuse to identify their leanings, but they still find a way to make political criticism. The points that are made in The Newsroom are specific and important, but they seem neutral enough on the surface that regardless of ideology a viewer can take the point and run with it. It’s a politically charged show that, like its characters, somehow manages to not actually choose a side. This is in part the show - trying to reinvigorate the news, to remove the soft interviews and complete neutrality. Near the pilot’s end, the network head points out that Murrow and Cronkite had points of view and were important for it.
There are a few sloppy bits to be found here. It may be trite, but the title sequence is long and ugly. The first scene after the intro, we’re dropping awkwardly into a conversation that’s clearly setup for the episode. It’s understandable with the constraints of a pilot, but it’s not the right way to introduce three characters. The camera itself isn’t much to marvel at at least until the action gets going. Once the news room is riled up, the camera films it halfway between a montage and an action sequence, and the momentum works. The final moment is a bit odd, but these bits are all worth overlooking for the way that the show plays them off.
Brilliantly, the show has set itself about two years in the past. This gives it the perfect space of relevance and future knowledge. The show can speak thoroughly about past news events and provide intelligent commentary. It’s close enough for us to be familiar with the events and far enough that the show can play them properly. It’ll be interesting going forward to see what events are focused on and how this fictional anchor will come to interact with and affect them.
The Newsroom shows serious promise. The first episode was thrilling, and they didn’t do much more than produce a single night of news. The writing is enough to watch for. There’s brilliance in brief casual moments - in the bigger moments, everything plays even better. There’s likely to be some fantastic verbal sparring to come. It’s hard to tell where exactly the show will go from week to week - perhaps more into the specific characters, which its done little of thus far. It’s worth watching to see. The Newsroom is HBO’s new hit.