initial thoughts

i thought the finale was great. i will probably need some time to think about it and the whole of this last season, but for now…the very last scene was almost perfect imo. all the talk about walt being “good” or “bad” or “transforming from good to bad” turns out to have been too simplistic. this show has probably one of the most honest and complex views about conventional morality that i can remember, and i cant really describe what it was i was feeling when i watched that last scene except that i was neither fully sympathetic or relieved to see walt die. the show seemed to embrace that walt had always been good, he had always been bad, that his love of chemistry and scientific reasoning was simultaneously the thing that made him feel alive, while being responsible for his death.

there seem to be a lot of people who say that the finale was too “neat”, which i am not really on board with. especially considering 2 weeks ago i would have said i have no idea how any of this is going to fit together, so for the show to wrap up so thoroughly in a way that maintained the integrity of the characters is quite impressive. also, ive been saying for a couple weeks now that in a way, contrary to what vince gilligan says about the show being “finite”, breaking bad is a show that could conceivably go on forever. that is, the one thing that was absolutely remained consistent throughout the series has been its fidelity to cause and effect. in this sense, the finale is almost antithetic to breaking bad, because we will never get to see the true “effect” of walts actions here, and if past season finales are any indication, the most likely outcome is one walt did not intend. look at season 4’s finale, for example. that was an ending that was just as “neat”, with walt concocting an arguably more elaborate plot than this one to win jesse back and kill gus. the episode literally ends with walt saying “i won”. then episode one of season 5 comes around and it begins to unravel almost immediately.]

it’s not wrong to want it

theres something interesting in our being reminded of Walt the Teacher at this particular moment in the season. for years now the slogan “breaking bad is about turning mr. chips into scarface” has been uttered in just about every interview and commentary on the show, yet the pithy statement is as reductive as it is misleading. as bryan cranston has observed with similar frequency in interviews, walter white’s transformation is not one in which he climbs into the transmogrifier with the dial set to “METH” then pops out with a goatee, but one which is enabled by context. as walt reveals to jesse in the previous episode, just as his pride and fragile ego were both with him in the days of grey matter, so are his abilities as educator and chemist-extraordinaire with him now. they are two sides of a coin: the nearly-nobel-prize-winning scientist who boasts a methamphetamine with 99.1% purity; and the ambitious rationalist who is unable to perceive the disconnect when he declares “no more killing” under the reign of heisenberg. for walt, that he traffics in and sanctions death is simply opportunity cost in the expression of his “potential”.

’say my name’ sees walt making good on his designs on empire. the gleefully perverse opening scene indulges in western imagery, yet what we’re seeing is not a standoff; it’s a merger. walt is not arguing in gangster threats and posturing, but economics. he is unfazed by declan’s threats and his crew – though they outnumber walt’s by two – such is the power of the cold, capitalist logic he wields. it’s heisenberg in peak form, where his chemistry genius and bottom-line rationalizing win the day. declan’s disdain at the notion of being walt’s “errand boy” cant surpass the prospect of no longer having to compete with Big Methamphetamine. the success of walt’s proposal allows him to flex a little, leading to one of the show’s more gif-able moments: “you’re goddamn right,” he snarls through gritted teeth Extremeley badassly.

jesse, on the other hand, is the only character in the episode who is able to turn away from walt’s promise of extravagant, ethically sustainable riches (though it is worth noting that of all the characters, jesse is relatively untethered from responsibility to others). unlike declan, jesse has experienced firsthand the ways in which walt’s amoral theory of meth dealing does not hold out. walt lashes out at jesse, questioning his self-worth and mocking his moral “purity,” yet it is clear that he does so because he perceives jesse’s rebuke as an indictment of his own. “it’s not wrong to want [the money],” walt says, yet it is not entirely clear who he is trying to convince.

the ways in which the influence of money is to obscure or outright negate moral questions runs throughout. “the surveillance budget for ehrmantraut is now zero,” ramey tells hank, after a search of mike’s home turns up nothing. as usual, hank’s hunch is correct, yet in his new role as asac he is quickly discovering that he is less an arbiter of morality than an allocator of funds. the scenes between the lawyer and the bank clerk are a brief but poignant echo: the relationships being built in this show – whether through the exchange of money or bacon-filled cookies – are tenuous, utilitarian, and largely empty.

by episode’s end, walt’s victory from the opening has been severely undercut: jesse is out, mike is dead, and the arrest of the lawyer means mike’s guys are off the leash. walt’s desire for power has allowed him to manipulate and mistreat others with impunity, yet it has left him more isolated than he’s ever been. the heisenberg empire is off to a shaky start; at the very least, it can no longer claim to operate on a morally clean slate.

teenagers…sometimes you wanna just strangle em

the catalyst of the episode is the cold rationalization of the murder of a child. todd is in this moment the purest expression of heisenberg rationality (“i did what i had to do…i did it for us.”). todd’s actions create a rift in the group, which is quickly beginning to rupture. walt feigns regret (and later, a deep sadness) and procedurally lays out three options for how to move forward (though it is clear his mind is made up). mike, who in the previous episode pontificated on the Two Types Of Heist, as well as jesse, who devised the plan to begin with, must certainly be feeling a certain amount of responsibility for the child’s death. in their response, they are not so far from one another, though on opposite sides of the coin: mike reacts as a parent who has lost a child, while jesse laments the kid as the loss of his own innocence. the dead child haunts the episode, and provokes a meditation on the state of the family in breaking bad.

we get the sense that mike can feel the walls closing in on him. as mike later reveals, the dea have been tailing him “for a while now,” but it is not pressure from the authorities that are weighing on him. rather, when we see a teary-eyed mike in the park the following morning watching his granddaughter – while carefully eyeing gomez who looks on from afar – it is in that moment that he begins coming undone. that his illegal activities have contributed to the death of an innocent child is bad enough, and to know that he has put his own granddaughter at risk simply by association is horrifying.

for jesse, mike has become a kind of surrogate parent (as the two wait in the desert for their first meet with declan, the faintest affectionate smile flashes across his face). the bond between the two endangers jesse’s relationship with walt, however, who can barely contain his indifference to jesse and the dead child. walt’s tone-deaf pitch of “self-sufficiency” as “no one to answer to but ourselves” represents a critical moment of failure in their relationship: jesse, who has within a year lost his parents, jane, and andrea, finds himself more in need of family than ever. walt’s inability (and disinterest) to be the kind of family jesse needs is made painfully clear in the darkly funny, twisted parody of a family dinner scene.

the scene is, among other things, a comment on just how alienated walt has become from the other characters. his existence is toxic enough that his children have been sent away, leaving jesse as the nearest walt has to a son – though it is increasingly apparent that their relationship goes only so far as jesse acts in walt’s interests. that walt had had ever intended his dealings to serve his family now seems a time long since passed. he has his eye on something much grander now: empire. walt’s kingpin ambitions are necessarily at odds with family: skylar is forced to become his opposite, assisting walt only to the extent that it will keep him from getting caught and destroying the family. in the mean time, she has her small rebellion, filling the house with cigarette smoke, waiting for the cancer to put an end to it all. the poison will surely get them both now, but skylar can still hope to contain it.

today i turn 23

i, too, fear death; every day i look in the mirror
at the time lapsed explosion of a distant, unnamed star,
whose decay radiates outward, stardust settling
in a chalk outline of a dissolving body.
i am increasingly aware of the ever-
widening maw of my mortality: my field of vision darkens,
and as i descend deeper into the void i am grateful
for the regularity of your messages,
the flickering of facebook notifications
which light the way to my final rest.

its been one year and i didnt write shit

maybe i’ll change that

heres a list again

beach house – bloom

grizzly bear – shields

burial – street halo / kindred

actress – r.i.p.

women – public strain

the xx – coexist

department of eagles – in ear park

com truise – galactic melt

sharon van etten – tramp

knxwledge – buttrskotch

groundislava – feel me

flying lotus – until the quiet comes

jonny greenwood – the master

rustie – glass swords

stumbleine – drifting youth

lone – galaxy garden

mogwai – hardcore will never die, but you will

wild nothing – nocturne

letter

i am writing to you from the inside of a car
hurtling down a road
which is worn and broken and has
always been

google

i wonder what the word is (or if there even is a word) for when
a generation of people grow up with a certain set
of tasks and problems associated with these tasks
and so they develop a solution which comes along with its
own set of tasks and problems and
an added degree of abstraction and
this process continues on and on
until
a generation of people who forgot what hands are for

2011

here is music i enjoyed this year (according to last.fm 12 month chart)

Madlib – Madlib Medicine Show #11: Low Budget High Fi Music

James Blake – James Blake

Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Onra – Chinoiseries Pt. 2

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

Jonwayne – Bowser

Geotic – Mend

Shlohmo – Bad Vibes

Knxwledge – Flowrs

lets see if we cant turn all those links blue

shlohmo – bad vibes

the fascination with analog decay that permeates the chillwave movement, that is so often a point of derision for critics of the style, has the tendency to come across as contrived, as an all-too-convenient way to mask the imperfections of the songwriting behind superficial technological imperfection. while bad vibes certainly shares a lo-fi aesthetic that might be associated with chillwave, it distinguishes itself in a crucial way: it is not just music that has been artificially made to “sound old,” but music that is derived from the imperfect nature of the medium itself (in this case, cassette tape) such that the two are inseparable from one another.

the familiar elements of tape hiss, distortion, and overcompression, which might otherwise merely serve the purpose of evoking some vague notion of nostalgia, are well represented here. yet the brilliance of bad vibes is the way in which these extraneous details are represented organically, blurring the distinction between noise and music. the samples are used not only for their melodic or percussive content, but the implications of the physical space in which they were recorded. ‘big feelings’ for example opens with a recording of birds chirping while the music gradually fades in beneath it, as an image gradually being pulled into focus. it is not until the entrance of the mbira (which itself is an imitation of the bird song) and the percussion (which similarly imitates the clicks and pops of the cassette tape) that the image settles into place. the field recording is used to establish a setting, then the music springs up all around it, as if to suggest that the music was contained within these sounds all along, that it is an enhancement of the sounds of nature and not the other way around.

by viewing the world through old, imperfect equipment, the music suggests two things: that nature itself is imperfect, and that there is beauty to be found in its imperfection. we live in a world that has become increasingly obsessed with the recording and cataloging of life, where nothing is transient to the point that things cease to exist if they have not been recorded. bad vibes is a reminder that despite our best efforts, nothing is actually permanent, that decay is as important a part of nature as growth, and that the two have equal potential for beauty.

if ‘big feelings’ was the music of growth, its polar opposite, ‘trapped in a burning house,’ appearing at the other end of the album is the music of decay. it’s a shocking moment in an album which until this point had focused almost exclusively on memory and nostalgia to the point of willfully shutting out the present (‘anywhere but here’). ‘trapped in a burning house’ is a sudden, violent jolt back to the now, where we are forced to acknowledge not only the abstract notion of lost memory, youth, etc. but the frightening notion of our own mortality. the delicate vocals which had been present throughout much of the album are nowhere to be found here, replaced by a single voice which has been tuned so low as to be utterly incomprehensible, a wordless moan. everything in the track burns. a heavily distorted instrument, which sounds as though it may have once been a piano, alternates between two resolute, menacing chords, as a melody seemingly made up entirely of fuzz and distortion slowly winds its way out from underneath.the track is a twist ending of sorts, revealing that the album had not been a celebration of nostalgia but a representation of transience itself. as the present comes roaring back into focus we are left with no recourse but to accept and perhaps find consolation in our destruction, the house burning all the while, crumbling to pieces around us.

Shlohmo – Same Time

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you’re no boy scout

i was reminded of one of the introductory scenes from breaking bad’s pilot, where walt is trying to explain to his students what chemistry – and essentially breaking bad itself – is all about: change. “growth, then decay, then transformation.” walt has gone through several phases which might be described as growth, decay, or transformation. however, it seems to me that season 4 is, in the broader scope of the series, walt’s point of decay: he has faced humiliation after humiliation, been scorned by perhaps the only true friend he had left in jesse, been reduced to pleading for his life, and finally (once again) resigned to his inevitable death.

and that is part of what makes the events of ‘face off’ so shocking. when walt spins the gun in ‘end times’, pointing twice at himself, and then once at (what we know now is) the lily of the valley, regardless of whether or not we understand the implications of that plant, we get an impression of just how limited walt is in his options: to accept his fate, or to take that gun and face the world head-on.

walt spends a great deal of ‘face off’ appearing desperate and frantic. it’s a testament to the show’s brilliance that, having seen firsthand the horrible things walt is capable of, we still see him as the same hapless, bumbling, in-over-his-head chemistry teacher. when the two officers confront jesse in the hospital, they completely overlook walt nervously clutching the bomb concealed in his daughter’s diaper bag (echoing a similar scene from season 1 in which a police car drives right past walt). when saul’s secretary attempts to extort walt, he takes a while to come around to the fact that the $20,000 she demands is not, in fact, for repairing the glass on the front door (he may or may not have been playing dumb in this situation). or the scene where walt escapes his house from gus’s men, clumsily tumbling over his backyard fence.

part of the genius of walt’s plan is in the way he exploits the means of his oppression and turn it against his enemies. those omnipresent surveillance cameras, gus’s proxy, frustrated walt at every turn this season. yet walt manages to use the cameras to his favour, when he is trying to convince jesse that gus is responsible for brock’s poisoning. when gus shuts the lid of the laptop displaying surveillance footage, i was reminded of that scene from the matrix where the agent torturing morpheus takes out his earpiece – it’s a moment where gus leaves himself exposed, blinded by his hatred for hector.

in ‘end times,’ walt told skyler that he intended to accept the consequences of his actions. throughout the series there have been various points which offered walt a way out of the destructive path he’s chosen, and each time he has rejected it. now, walt finds himself in a position where the only escape left to him is accepting that he will be killed. by choosing to kill gus – to protect his family, perhaps, but largely out of self-preservation – he denies himself what may have been his only true redemption. before now, walt has never really seemed to fit into the role of heisenberg, fancy black hats and door-knocking notwithstanding. ‘face off’ is a crucial turning point, perhaps the exact moment of walt’s transformation into heisenberg. with gus out of the way, he no longer answers to anyone. yet if there’s anything that the downfalls of people like gus and don eladio can teach us it’s that this sort of victory is never permanent, no matter how smart you are. how much longer can walt prolong the inevitable?