The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Giancarlo Esposito (“Revolution”)

It’s a matter of public record that I’ve interviewed a huge-ass number of people over the years, but given that most of those interviews tend to be on the phone, it never fails to give me a warm feeling inside when someone actually remembers me from an in-person encounter. Then again, one presumes that the cast of “Breaking Bad” doesn’t sit down and break bread with journalists on their home turf of Albuquerque all that often, so maybe that makes it a little easier to remember such an occasion.

Either way, it was still nice to see the warm glow of recognition in Giancarlo Esposito’s eyes when I came up to him at the Television Critics Association press tour this summer. I mean, it’s certainly better to see that than the steely anger we came to expect from him in his final appearances as Gustavo Fring, right? Sadly, it was a short chat, so we didn’t even get a chance to talk about Gus’s last days (except in passing reference) or even his Best Supporting Actor Emmy nod, but you can still look back at the far lengthier conversation we had a few years ago to get a bit more insight into his feelings about Gus and his career as it stood prior to “Breaking Bad.” For now, though, Esposito is all about looking forward…really, really intensely.

Giancarlo Esposito: Hi, Will! Oh, my goodness, I remember that evening in Albuquerque. I totally remember that evening!

Bullz-Eye: I’m glad I’m not the only one!

GE: How are you? It’s good to see you again.

BE: It’s mutual, of course. So I’m curious: with “Revolution,” you’ve taken on another supporting role. Not that you don’t do them well, but do you have an active desire to kick it up to leading-man status, or do you just enjoy the challenge of making the most out of a smaller part.

GE: You know what? I always have a desire to make it to the big time. [Laughs.] But the more I’m able to put my heart and soul into a role and the fuller that character that is, then the more screen time it has, and for me that’s a plus. But I love doing what I do as a character actor, and I think that’s also important, because that enables me to strengthen my craft. And in this case, that supporting role is with some of the best folks in television. So to me, it’s a journey. I feel like there is a moment in time when there’ll be that moment to step up into films where I’m doing the lead and carrying everything, but right now I think that all is well.

I’m coming off this time with “Breaking Bad” and that’s been very special for me, and it’s a nice way to decompress and play a character that’s a heavy but probably a little more of a loose cannon, a little more psychotic. He’d love to think he’s always in control, but he does lose it. And he’s a guy who’s a little bit different than the last guy, but…audiences just love the bad guy! [Laughs.] And they love the character actor that can play him in a fuller way. So I’m all in. I’m all in with this “Revolution.” I think the show itself is about evolution of human beings, and on a grand scale. I mean, this is an epic show. I don’t know what people expect, but some seem to think that they may be seeing something they’ve seen before. They’re not. It’s a big show to do, a big show to produce…it’s a big, wide canvas of a show, but I think it’s not only a grand action/adventure series but it’s also a very dramatic, character-driven show as well.

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Breaking Bad 5.08: Gliding Over All

SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Monday following a new episode of “Breaking Bad.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game. 

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

There’s a ridiculous amount to discuss from “Gliding Over All,” the midseason finale of “Breaking Bad,” but for now we’ve just got to cut to it. What’s it? The chase. The ending. The cliffhanger. The biggest revelation by a fictional character since “Einhorn is Finkle.” That’s right, Walter White is Heisenberg, and Hank finally knows it, only Walt doesn’t know Hank knows. What else?

It was the single biggest Chekov’s Gun in a show full of seemingly nothing but. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link, or reread the quote up top. In any half decent piece of narrative art, there is no wasted space. When it comes to a show like “Breaking Bad,” that means not a single element is simply thrown in. Not a scene, not a line of dialogue, not a single shot, not a single piece of character background. When it comes to “Breaking Bad” specifically, that means the country’s best meth cook wasn’t going to not be found out by his DEA agent brother in-law. There was never not going to be a final confrontation between the two.

In case you missed any part of it, let’s recap: Just prior to the ending, Walt has more money than he knows what to do with and is finally out of the meth business. The family’s having a nice barbecue when Hank decides to drop a deuce. Once on the porcelain throne, he absentmindedly reaches back for some reading material to find a collection of Walt Whitman poems. Boring. Except that Walt was given this particular collection by one Gale Boetticher, his former partner, a man whose obsession with him bordered on religious.

You see, after he was killed, Hank was given Gale’s file to look over. What he found was enough to convince him that Gale was Heisenberg, a notion Walt helped back up with some insightful chemistry knowledge in the fourth episode of season four, “Bullet Points” (if you’ve got Netflix Instant, click this link and skip to the 20:50 mark). There was just one problem, the notebook included a dedication to “W.W.,” and for the life of him, Hank could not discern who it referred to. “Who do you figure that is,” Hank asks Walt, “Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka?” before jokingly adding, “Walter White?” Walt flipped the pages and found a spot where Gale had written down a poem, and told Hank that its author, Walt Whitman, was his W.W.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”)

You may or may not know this, but…Jonathan Banks is basically just as awesome as the character he plays on “Breaking Bad.” True story. I know this to be true because he proved it handily when he gave my daughter the chance to interview him in the midst of an interview he and I were doing for the Onion AV Club.

Funnily enough, though, while he and I clearly built a bit of a bond as a result of his conversation with myself and my daughter, we’d never actually met until earlier this month, when he attended the Television Critics Association Awards with some of his fellow “Breaking Bad” cast and crew members. I was giddy when I spotted him at the event, and I strolled over and said, “You and I have never met, but you’ve chatted with my daughter…”

His jaw dropped, and he said, “Son of a bitch.” Then a smile appeared on his face, he stuck out his hand, and he said, “How are you, brother? And how’s that little girl of yours doing? Oh, man, it is so good to finally meet you. Is your wife here? I need to say ‘hello’ to her, too!”

Yep. Jonathan Banks is awesome. Indeed, he’s so awesome that, although I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t be up for doing a quick interview in the wake of Mike’s storyline coming to a conclusion on “Breaking Bad,” I still felt obliged to go through the proper channels to chat with him. As such, I sent a formal request to his manager, even as I admitted, “I realize there’s a pretty strong chance that he’s just going to say, ‘Well, if he knows how to get in touch with me, then tell him to get in touch with me, for chrissakes, but even so.”

Within 24 hours, I had a direct email from Mr. Banks, simply saying, “Call anytime.” And when I asked if he had a preferred time, explaining that I’d have an empty house from 8:30 AM EST onward because of my wife and daughter heading out to get their hair done, he said to call him at 8:30 AM EST…which was a little surprising, given that I knew he lived in California, but damned if he didn’t answer the phone right away.

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Breaking Bad 5.07: Say My Name

SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Monday following a new episode of “Breaking Bad.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game. 

Classic Coke

In my post for last week’s episode, “Buyout,” I concocted a theory that Walt’s plan (“everybody wins”) would have something to do with creating some kind of fake or ersatz meth. It was based on a few small clues: Hank’s comparison of Miracle Whip and mayonnaise, a news report about a kelp-based caviar knock-off, and Jesse’s comment about “truth in advertising, yo.” Well, it turns out I was part right, which is pretty good for a show as unpredictable as “Breaking Bad.”

See, it wasn’t Walt making the knock-off, it was Declan, the big-time meth dealer the guys met with. Declan and his crew have been aping Walt’s product for some time. They switched to a P2P cook and even started using blue food coloring to make their customers think they had the real deal. But in reality, they were only getting a product that was 70 percent pure, nothing compared to Walter’s 99.1 percent. “It’s grade school tee-ball versus the New York Yankees,” Walt explains, “yours is some tepid off-brand cola. What I’m making is classic Coke.” Incredulous, Declan replies that all he has to do is kill Walt right there, and poof, no more competition, no more Coke. It’s only Walt asking if he “really wants to live in a world without Coca-cola” that stops him. Originally, Declan wanted to buy all that methylamine to put Heisenberg out of business. Instead, he ended up buying major stock.

All this is directly related to another revelation from last week’s episode, that Walt’s motivations are not quite so noble as they once were. He is no longer the guy who got a bad rap his whole life, up to and including getting lung cancer, struggling to obtain some sort of safety net for his family ($737,000 to be exact). That is, assuming he ever was. Nowadays it’s about being Heisenberg, “the best meth cook in America.” It’s about the “empire business,” and proving to everyone that looked down at him that he really is superior.

This notion was given further credence when Jesse showed up to get his share of the money. Prior to that point, Walt had simply brushed Jesse aside each time he brought up that he, like Mike, would be getting out of the meth business. When it comes down to it, and Jesse (finally) sticks to his guns, Walt is entirely unable to understand why he would want to quit. “Being the best at something is a rare thing,” Walt says, “You don’t just toss something like that away.” But Jesse doesn’t care about being the best, or all the money he stands to make. He even walks away from the $5 million he’s owed, and still it simply does not register with Walt that anyone could not care about the things that motivate him. Heisenberg is always calm and collected because things always go his way. For him, “it’s all there, black and white, clear as crystal.” He’s an emotionless meth-making machine. But as Jesse turns his back, Heisenberg’s robotic calm evaporates, only instead of printing error messages and beeping “does not compute,” he screams “If you leave you get nothing! [You lose! Good day sir!]”

When Todd becomes Walt’s new cooking partner, it’s clear that all is not well in the Kingdom of Heisenberg. However, Todd’s willingness to learn (studying his notes during a break) and refusing to discuss his cut of the money until he’s earned it pleases Walt. At the very least he’s got someone with similar ambitions, and who’s already proven that he will do whatever is necessary to succeed (like, you know, shooting an innocent child). “I don’t need you to be Antoine Lavoisier,” Walt says, “What I do need is your full attention. Listen and apply yourself.” Of course, Todd was never going to get a reference to an 18th century scientist (“the father of modern chemistry”), which just goes to show that Walt’s words weren’t meant to reassure anyone but himself.

The End of Ehrmantraut

I’ll say it again, this entire season (and series) has been about the transformation of mild-mannered Walter White into criminal mastermind Heisenberg. There’s just one problem with this scenario though: the first episode of the season showed what appeared to be a subdued Walter returning from exile in New Hampshire to buy an M60 in a Denny’s. Heisenberg’s little “say my name” tirade was his apex, his “high-water mark.” Killing Mike was the first move in the opposite direction, “the place where the wave broke and rolled back.”

When Walt tells Jesse that no one else needs to get hurt because they are now in control of their business, Jesse responds with “You keep saying that and it’s bullshit every time.” And how correct he was. Almost directly after letting those words drip out of his mouth, Walter up and kills Mike essentially for hurting his feelings. Walter has left more than a couple bodies in his wake as he rose to the top, but this is the first one that was entirely without purpose. Walt’s decision to kill Mike was made based on pure emotion, the exact pride and ego Mike had just finished scolding him about.

Just after firing the killing shot, Walt had a look on his face that we haven’t seen in a while. It was one of fear, of surprise. It represented a lack of understanding. For the first time in a while, things didn’t go exactly according to Heisenberg’s plans. After working so hard for so long to be “in control,” he couldn’t even control himself. Walt follows Mike down to the river, and immediately recognizes that the whole thing could have been avoided, as he could have gotten the names of Mike’s “guys” from Lydia. Mike responds, “shut the fuck up and let me die in peace.” A badass ending for a badass character.

The fact is Walt can still get the names from Lydia, and he will, based on the sneak peek into next week’s episode, the last of the summer. To save himself, Walt needs to do something about the guys in jail, and I’d be willing to bet Todd’s “prison connections” are going to come back into play.

Watch the cast and crew go inside “Say My Name” below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

  

Breaking Bad 5.06: Buyout

SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Monday following a new episode of “Breaking Bad.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game. 

The Aftermath: Bikes, Bodies, and Hydrofluoric Acid

Alright, we’ve got to talk about the cold open, again. Everything about it was fantastic: the near complete lack of dialogue paired with that ominous music, the methodical way Walter, Todd, and Mike, go about decomposing the bike (and the body), all of it. But that’s not really what I want to discuss.

Rather, let’s think about what it says about the quality of the show and the way it has shaped the thinking of its viewers that we don’t need dialogue explaining what’s going on. This week’s “Story Sync” tells us that the young boy’s body is the fifth dissolved in hydrofluoric acid thus far. The first time Walt and Jesse did it, after Walt strangled Krazy-8 way back in the first season, they spent nearly a whole episode weighing their options and ultimately completing their task. At that point, killing and disposing of a human being was still something of a big deal for Walter, and as a result, the viewer. Now, not so much. The guys weren’t so adept at the task back then either, recall Jesse making the mistake of putting aside the plastic bins because he had a perfectly good bathtub. We all know how that ended.

Now, in much the same way the gang (minus Jesse) efficiently and meticulously go about the process of permanent evidence disposal, almost as if it’s routine, we watch them fully expecting and understanding their actions. There is no need for explanation. The fact is at this point, it is routine. That is just what they have to do. They know it, so we know it. They have no qualms with it, so neither do we.

Moving on. When Todd attempts to justify his actions, he says, “It was him or us, and I chose us.” The line was eerily and intentionally reminiscent of what Walt said to justify killing Gale: “When it comes down to you and me versus him… it’s gonna be him.”

Walter, Mike, and Jesse then vote on what to do with Todd. For perhaps the first time ever, Walt and Mike agree on something, and it’s Jesse who’s left out in the cold. It’s decided that the man who will now be forever known as “Ricky Hitler” will be kept close, because they don’t want to pour acid over yet another body nor pay him off and hope he keeps everything to himself. That’s probably a good decision given that when Todd gets in his car, we see he’s held onto a creepy souvenir.

At first, I couldn’t figure out the significance of showing Todd looking at the tarantula in the jar. My first thought was it was meant to show that despite his seemingly nonchalant attitude, Todd really does feel sorry for killing the boy. Perhaps that is part of it, but a show like “Breaking Bad” doesn’t waste a single moment of screen time, and Todd already voiced what I believed to be genuine regret (not necessarily for the murder itself, but for being put in that unfortunate but necessary position). Then it hit me. In a missing person investigation, one of the first things the authorities will do is collect the boy’s prints (likely from his home), so they have something to work with. The old jar o’ spider has the victim’s prints as well as Todd’s, and maybe even another member of the crew as well. That’s my guess anyway. There’s a reason for using a method of complete destruction of any and all evidence. But this time it wasn’t allmthe evidence, and that’s got to have some kind of significance later on.

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