Advertisements

Breaking Bad

ALIAS – ‘Countdown’ (2×20 – Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Countdown is quite a strange episode of Alias, especially considering the placement of it toward the end of Season Two.

A season ago, The Solution began establishing the key narrative pieces that would build up into the finale, that played out over the next two episodes, but Countdown doesn’t quite operate in that way. Jeff Pinkner’s screenplay—from R. P. Gaborno’s story—certainly contains ongoing pieces of the narrative in play, but it chooses to specifically focus on two characters who are going through the same trauma in very different ways: Dixon and Sloane, both of whom killed each other’s wives. In that sense, it almost hits the pause button on the thrust of the Rambaldi narrative and the majority of the other storylines, to facilitate these two key character arcs.

At the same time, Countdown chooses to hone in on an aspect of the Rambaldi mythology which has never been expressly explored, outside vaguely of the nebulous quatrains in The Prophecy: the idea that Rambaldi is not just analogous to Leonardo da Vinci but also Michel de Nostradame, the 16th century prophet who predicted, with varying degrees of accuracy that have been questioned by historians for centuries, a wide range of future apocalyptic events and key points in ‘future history’. The very conception of Rambaldi was as ‘Nostravinci’, a fusion of these two legendary figures of the Renaissance, but while Alias has given us plenty of examples of Rambaldi as Da Vinci, there have been few points to date where he could be compared to Nostradamus. Countdown changes that. Countdown suggests Rambaldi could see the future as well as create technology that was centuries ahead of his time, and in many ways beyond our own.

Indeed, for all Rambaldi’s prophecies and mythology influences Alias in the next three seasons, we never quite get an episode like Countdown again, where the prophet’s hand reaches out from the 15th century and directly threats to destroy the world of the 21st. …

Advertisements

ERIN BROCKOVICH: A relaxed but powerful American star-vehicle (2000 in Film #11)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 17th, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich

Erin Brockovich was the first true success story of the year 2000. Not only was it heavily critically appreciated, with a celebrated and eventually Oscar-winning performance from Julia Roberts, it was also a remarkable commercial hit, netting a quarter of a billion dollars world wide and in the top 15 box office films, globally, of the entire year.

It was, in a very real sense, a trend-setter in that regard. This is Roberts at the very peak of her game as an A-list Hollywood icon, able to open a film on both her name and that of the character she portrays in this simple but effective David vs Goliath story, or as Albert Finney’s lawyer Ed Masry puts it “David vs Goliath’s entire family”, given extra weight and depth by its strong through-line of female empowerment. This isn’t just a gift of a role for an actor like Roberts, it’s also a charm of a character; a real-life, genuine modern heroine who fought the system and won, a tale director Steven Soderbergh and writer Jennifer Grant never embellish. It’s a remarkable story enough based on the facts.

For Erin Brockovich to make such a powerful dent in the global box office attests to multiple things at the turn of the century; the continued, key importance of star wattage to open a movie (Tom Hanks would pull a similar trick later in the year with Cast Away), a clear audience appetite for female-driven, progressive cinema, and indeed at this stage the desire for more than just rinse and repeat sequels. In the age just before the true birth of the franchise picture beyond certain cult sub-genres, Erin Brockovich is proof that true-life pictures with the right combination of talent in front of and behind the camera, strong word of mouth based on quality, and perhaps a reactive element against the emptier big-budget blockbuster could make bank. 

It undoubtedly paved the way for the mid-2000’s fusion of pop-culture blockbuster and auteur-driven drama as typified by Christopher Nolan and, indeed, Soderbergh himself. Erin Brockovich’s legacy is a strong one.

ALIAS – ‘The Enemy Walks In’ (2×01 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

The second season of Alias is, let me preface this right out of the gate, one the most impressive twenty-two episodes of television made on an American network. 

It is by degrees thrilling, dramatic, filled with stunning twists and turns, and is absolutely JJ Abrams spy-fi series at the top of its game. It is however, also, extremely knotty and complicated, and season premiere The Enemy Walks In immediately sets the tone of what’s to come. For one thing, the episode begins with a change to the stylistic choice entirely unique to Alias in the annals of television – the weekly series recap. By 2001, the ‘previously on…’ segment at the top of an episode, certainly a two-parter, had become a recognised trope but Alias might have been the first show to deliver one that prefaced the entire concept of the show every week so viewers didn’t become lost. Throughout Season One this was voiced by Jennifer Garner. Season Two switches it to Greg Grunberg.

This in itself is a curious decision. Could it be because Grunberg’s character, the somewhat hapless Eric Weiss, takes a bullet during The Enemy Walks In and spends half of the season recovering off screen? From that perspective, Weiss almost becomes the omnipresent narrator of the series, reminding audiences through to the game-changing mid-season episode Phase One—when the recap is finally ditched for good—of the complexities behind the CIA, SD-6, Syd’s mission and now both of her parents. There is also the strong possibility Abrams wanted to nod once again to some of the spy-fi inspirations from the 60’s and 70’s, with Weiss as a veritable Charlie from Charlie’s Angels or the voice on the tape recorder from Mission: Impossible, delivering exposition with a deeper masculine lilt.

Either way, The Enemy Walks In needs such a recap to remind audiences of not just the series premise, but what happened in the final three episodes of Season One, given the episode picks up directly after Almost Thirty Years while employing yet another favoured narrative trope of JJ Abrams – the flashback framing device.

EL CAMINO: Breaking Bad’s non-essential yet fitting coda

While billed as a Breaking Bad movie, El Camino falls between two stools. With a two hour running time and a solo Netflix slot, along with an element of theatrical release, Vince Gilligan’s film technically fits the bill of a motion picture but, ultimately, El Camino never misses a step in how it syncs up with its parent show.

Gilligan reputedly had the idea of how to continue the story of Jesse Pinkman, Aaron Paul’s hapless dropout turned meth-cooking, streetwise junkie, while shooting the final season of Breaking Bad back in 2013. He kept it under wraps until they approached the 10th anniversary of the series before electing to push ahead and make it happen, alongside production of still-airing prequel series Better Call Saul. Gilligan has consistently now played in his Breaking Bad universe for over a decade and while Better Call Saul is yet to reach an end point, El Camino very much draws a line under the post-Season 5 future of Breaking Bad. This is the coda you never imagined you needed.

Or perhaps you may have thought along the same lines as Gilligan, who always wanted to know what happened to Jesse after he escaped Neo-Nazi captivity thanks to his old mentor Walter White in series finale Felina, screaming away in torment at the wheel of the titular Camino to an uncertain, open-ended future. Walt’s fate had long been sealed as Breaking Bad’s complicated anti-hero protagonist but Jesse, often, served as the vulnerable, manipulated humanity at the heart of the series. To have him escape horrendous suffering and deep psychological trauma and not find out what became of him does, in retrospect, feel like a lost opportunity. El Camino very much takes advantage of that.

As a result, Gilligan gives us closure, maybe as much for himself as Jesse Pinkman.

TV, Book and Movie Roundup – April 2019

Welcome to May! Because there’s not enough useless information floating around on the internet, I thought I would update readers of this blog as to what I’ve watched/read over the previous month, each month, in the form of TV, movies and books.

Some of this I will have reviewed on Cultural Conversation but others I’ve just been watching for enjoyment with Mrs Black.

Let’s start this month with Film…

ALIAS – ‘Almost Thirty Years’ (1×22 – Review)

When you think about it, Alias gives away the final twist at the end of Almost Thirty Years by virtue of its title alone.

Season 1’s climactic episode is probably best remembered by critics and fans for those final couple of minutes, in which Sydney Bristow is confronted with a twist on the truth that has steadily been unravelling across the entire season. Not only was her mother secretly a KGB spy, and not only did she not tragically die when Syd was just a little girl, but in reality she is the grand master villain behind (almost) everything she has been fighting for the last twenty-two episodes. Her mother, Irina, is ‘The Man’, the shadowy, powerful, mysterious machiavelli in control of vast crime organisation. She literally appears here in shadow, cast against the wall of a dark room Syd is held in captivity, and won’t emerge into the light until the first moments of Season 2.

This grand twist, leaving Sydney with the quiet and stunned final line “Mom?” (which is perfect for a season which has almost entirely been about the secret dysfunctional history of her family), was an inevitability, yet somehow JJ Abrams manages across this episode and indeed the entire season to make it a surprise, and an incredibly effective final moment. You do and you *don’t* see it coming all at once, perhaps because the show has devoted so little time to the supposed ‘Man’, Alexander Khasinau, and kept the entire organisation he seemingly controls in the shadows, dropping the bombshell that Irina has been hiding behind a masculine, almost cliched alias of her own lands with both us and, naturally, with Sydney.

It is the icing on the cake of an extremely assured season finale for a remarkably tight and strident first year. Alias has some enjoyable season finale’s left in its back pocket, but none with the skill or control of Almost Thirty Years.

Plugging Gaps: How backstory is *becoming* story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead *becoming* the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

ALIAS – ‘Q&A’ (1×17 – Review)

While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.

Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.

It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.

Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.