The Beautifully Drawn Deterioration of Breaking Bad’s Walter White

A meek, yet brilliant high school teacher discovers he has cancer, cooks meth to pay for chemo, becomes intoxicated by the power of being a drug lord, beats cancer, keeps cooking meth, becomes a sociopath.

That’s a crude exposition of the transformation of Walter White’s character in AMC’s Breaking Bad over the course of five seasons.  As Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, explained in his pitch to AMC, “You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”

Walter White copyOn paper, the transformation from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to badass gangster is absurd.  If one of my students laid out that premise for a story, I’d tell him to aim a little lower.

But Vince Gilligan has proven since 2008 that I might be wrong.  Breaking Bad’s premise is ambitious.  In the hands of a lesser writer, it would wither immediately into the land of melodrama and hacky crime television.

The question that interests me as a writer, and as a viewer, is how does Gilligan pull off one of the most acrobatic character mutations in the history of television?  In theory, this experiment should fail.  Looking at the millions of viewers the show’s pulled in over the last two weeks, however, proves Gilligan hasn’t failed.  He’s succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

So how’d he do it?

First crack at answering that question, you might answer that Bryan Cranston’s virtuoso performance as Walter is responsible for the believable transformation.  There’s some truth to that, but that answer seems too easy.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I want to look to Gilligan and his writing staff for the answer.  Here’s what I think all writers can learn from Walter White’s transformation.

Do me a favor and re-read the opening sentence of this post.  It’s intriguing, but it doesn’t move you the way the show has moved so many of us, does it?  The sin of the opening sentence is that it tells us something without showing anything.  It’s that old writing adage you hear ad naseum in writing workshops: SHOW, DON’T TELL.

Part of why Gilligan succeeded in this writing feat is that he showed Walt’s change.  He slowly let the transformation happen through dramatic action.  He didn’t cut a single corner with Walt’s character development.  As a writer it would be enticing to jump quickly in the transition to Scarface.  Most writers cut corners and hope the reader will just allow them to make leaps without putting in the hard work to show a character’s development.

A lot of crappy movies use a five-minute montage to show the wimpy math nerd hitting the gym and emerging suddenly as the ass-kicking ninja.  A montage is the ultimate corner-cutting technique.

Breaking Bad cuts no corners.

Instead, Gilligan slowly teases out Walter’s inner sociopath.  He let’s us see Walt consciously choose to let Jessie’s girlfriend choke on her own vomit to better his own situation.  He shows us Walter confronting a would-be meth cooker in a Lowe’s parking lot and telling the cooker to stay out of his territory.

Walter’s bark starts out as a whisper and grows to a sonic boom.

It’s believable because the writers of the series show us the change in Walt’s psyche through his actions instead of lazily telling us, Then, all of the sudden, this docile chemistry teacher became bad.

The next time I want to undertake the Herculean task of having a character make a full shift, I’ll think of Walter White.

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5 Reasons To Still Believe In Baseball

This summer SportsCenter has spent more time analyzing the fallout of A-Rod’s turbulent relationship with Biogenesis, than it has showing actual highlights of baseball games.  So much air-time is given to analysis of which players he outed, how long the appeal of his 211 game suspension will take, and his newest douchery, a malpractice suit against a Yankees’ team doctor.

BaseballsAnd if it’s not A-Rod’s drama taking away from the games happening on the field, it’s reports of Ryan Braun playing a bogus anti-Semite card to protect his 2011 MVP award.  Shame on you, sir.

I thought the Mitchell Report took care of this nonsense.  Didn’t Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens show us the ugly fallout of taking PED’s?

Guess not.  Humans, being human, we are destined to repeat our fathers’ mistakes.

With all this off the field, I need to remind myself that baseball is thriving in 2013.  There’s a lot of good out there.

Here are five reasons to still believe in baseball.

1.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.  For a while, it seemed like the Pirates were the worst team in professional sports on the planet with one of the nicest facilities.  Now they’re a kick ass team in a kick ass facility.  The three-way race in the NL Central alone is reason enough to pay attention to baseball.

2. The young talent in the game is astonishing.  Bryce Harper is the most electrifying twenty-year-old home run hitter since Ken Griffey, Jr.  Also born in 1992, Jose Fernandez packs the usually empty Marlins stadium with his spellbinding stuff.  The Dodger’s phenom Yasiel Puig is hitting .342 and makes a top-ten play nightly.  And leading the voltaic group of MLB youngsters is last year’s AL Rookie of the Year, Mike Trout, who spoke out against the use of PED’s, calling for a lifetime ban if a player tests positive.

Thanks, Mike, for leading your generation with raw, God-given talent and a level head.

Baseball Glove

3. Miguel Cabrera.  Enough said.  He’s the type of player you’ll tell your kids about.  The same way my dad told me about watching Yastrzemski play.  I know he’s had a few off-the-field hiccups, but he’s seemed to have quieted that down.  I saw him tag Mariano Rivera two nights in a row earlier this season for ninth inning homers.  If he can catch Chris Davis in home runs, he might win another triple crown.  Do you know how monumental that is?

4. And speaking of Mariano Rivera, here’s one of the all-time greats going out with class.  His tour around big league ball parks is unprecedented.  While A-Rod pulls his ego-maniacal shenanigans at one end of the Yankee club house, at the other end is a humble future Hall of Famer doing it right.

5. And finally, Clayton Kershaw’s curveball.  It makes my knees buckle from my couch.  It’s pure poetry.

It’s important to remember that baseball is still baseball.  At its core, it’s sacred.  It’s still about hitting a round ball with a round bat.

If we can quiet the noise of the A-Rods and Ryan Brauns and watch the games being played on the field, we might just understand how good we have it right now.

A Disturbance in Frenchville, Maine: Part II

Herman and his friend make the journey back to Herman’s camp a week after the first disturbance.  During the seven hour trek of driving up 95, four-wheeling narrow logging roads, and hiking the final two miles, Herman and his friend speculate endlessly about what threw the boulder at their canoe.

“A hermit,” Herman says.

“A bear,” his friend replies.

“But we heard voices,” Herman insists.

“Then what — ”

“Bigfoot?” Herman finally says.

“Sasquatch?”

“Yeah, Yeti.”

Before Europeans showed up in North America with their pasty skin, diseases, and guns, Native Americans had legends of a man-like beast in Northern Maine.  They called it Pomoola.  More recent names for the Maine Yeti are Ridge Monster and Meddybumps Howler.  There have been reported Ridge Monster sightings as recently 1988.

Maine’s relationship with Bigfoot is intimate.

Ok, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re telling a bigfoot story?  What’s wrong with you?  Well, reader, there’s a lot wrong with me.  But remember, this story is true.  And Herman, our protagonist, is by all accounts a level-headed man.

I’m intrigued by stories.  Even stories about encounters with mythological monsters.  Or, especially stories about encounters with mythological monsters.

Now back to Herman.

Herman and his friend wake up early the next morning.  They load their canoe with fly rods and tackle.  They decide to fish until they hear sounds like they heard last week.

All morning there’s nothing.  The men cast without speaking.  Herman holds his breath from time to time to listen better — a trick he learned from his yellow lab.

At one point a bull moose bounds out of the woods into the pond.  The men jump.  The canoe nearly tips.  They laugh nervously.

Around one, Herman reels in his line.  “Let’s eat,” he says.

His friend nods and retrieves his line.

That’s when they hear it.  The garbled human voices sound from the far edge of the pond.  The rocky cliff where something threw a boulder at their canoe shimmers in the afternoon sun.

The men share a look.  Herman smiles.  His friend wipes sweat from his forehead.

They each grab a paddle and silently work their way towards the edge of the pond.

The voices go quiet.  The men stop paddling.

Herman squints, looking into the canopy of forest at the pond’s edge.  There’s a shriek from the trees.  The voices, two, maybe more, sound urgently.  This could be humans, Herman thinks.  It could be something else.

Herman’s friend grips his paddle to leave.  Herman’s not leaving.  This is his family’s camp.  This is his pond.  He’s not leaving.

In the woods there’s the same clanging as the first time.  Something’s knocking a piece of wood against a tree.

They listen without moving.

“We should go,” his friend urges.

More pounding.

“Let’s go!”

More pounding.

His friend yells again, but Herman doesn’t hear him.  Three quarters of the way up the rock cliff, he sees it.

The pounding noise echoes out across the water, bringing Herman back to the canoe.

The two men paddle to the middle of the pond.  The pounding stops.

“I saw it,” Herman says.

“What?”

“A cave.  That must be where whatever that is lives.  Next time I come back, I’m bringing guns, and we’re going into that cave.”

…This coming weekend, Herman and his friends are going to the cave.  You’ll get Part III of this story as soon as I find out what happens in that cave in Frenchville, Maine.

A Disturbance In Frenchville, Maine: Part I

I don’t know how this story ends.  Even Herman doesn’t yet know how it ends.  But we’re all hoping for a big finale.

A friend told me this story yesterday, and it’s me gripped in the way storytelling has entranced us since the first cavemen sat around a crackling fire and told tales of mysterious beasts in the darkness.

It’s one of O. Henry’s yarns.

A story that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

One that keeps you up at night.

For anonymity, we’ll call the main character in this story Herman.  Herman is from Portland.  He’s a large man.  Hands big enough to palm a prize-winning pumpkin.  Size 16 feet.  Shoulders that barely fit through doorways.  I heard that Herman was drafted by a Major League Baseball team, but in working-class Maine fashion, had to decline the offer to work in a mill.

In addition to his behemoth stature, Herman is a skilled hunter and fisherman.  It’s in pursuit of big game adventures at his camp in Frenchville, Maine this summer where Herman’s story begins.

Frenchville borders Canada at the top of Maine.  It’s all potato fields and pine trees.  The remote town boasts some of the old wilderness that once covered New England.  It’s common to come across moose and bear driving to the grocery store.  The word ‘primitive’ comes to mind when thinking about this part of Maine.

The drive to Frenchville from Herman’s Portland home takes five and a half hours.  Herman motors the two hundred miles up 95 and continues through back roads.  His family camp is so removed from civilization, Herman has to park his truck at the end of a road and drive five miles through tight logging roads with his ATV.  When his ATV hits the end of the logging road, Herman then has to hike with all his supplies two additional miles before he reaches the front door of his camp.

The only way to get there is by car, ATV, and, finally, on foot.  Once there, it’s just Herman and the woods.  No other people.

At least that’s the way it should have been.

After making the trek to camp three weeks ago, Herman and a friend settled in for some mid-summer trout fishing on the pond abutting his camp.

From their canoe, Herman and his friend hear what sounds like people talking.  It’s a sound so rare in these parts, that it startles the men.

They listen.

The sound goes away.

Ten minutes later, it’s back and louder.

The men reel in their lines and decide to paddle towards the voices at the far end of the pond.

The voices swell.  Herman tells his friend that the inflection sounds human, but the voices don’t seem to be speaking intelligible words.

They row to the edge of the pond facing a steep rock cliff.  There’s a rustling.  Loud unintelligible voices call out.  Their canoe rises and falls with the breath of the pond.  Neither man speaks.

Suddenly, a massive boulder crashes from the rock cliff above and splashes into the water, nearly capsizing their canoe.  There’s a loud banging in the woods.  Like someone is thumping a stick against a tree trunk.

The men steady the canoe and frantically paddle.

In the middle of the pond, they stop.

“No man could have heaved that boulder,” Herman says.  Remember, Herman is hulking, and if he doubts man’s ability to launch that boulder into the pond, that’s saying something.

“Whatever that was,” his friend says, “it doesn’t want us here.”

“Maybe it’s a hermit,” Herman says.

“Maybe — ”

They paddle back to Herman’s camp.  In the morning they make the journey back to civilization.  The men vow to come back the following week to further investigate the disturbance in Frenchville, Maine.

…Stay tuned for Part II of this three part story.  Part II is known, Part III, like I said, is yet to take place.

Maine’s Best Drink-Me-Everyday IPA Is An Old Friend

You can’t swing a growler in Maine today without hitting a new brewery crafting high quality beer.  Gone are the days of swilling Shipyard and Gritty’s because you were dying to drink local beer.  Maine has joined the brewing revolution with full force.  Rising Tide, Maine Beer Company, Oxbow, Baxter Brewing, among others, have brought Maine to the forefront of the craft brew renaissance.

Now that we have so much choice, it’s time for this hop-head to ask the question: Who makes the best IPA in Maine?

That’s a loaded question.

It seems like the new breweries in town are brewing imperial IPA’s.  These double IPA’s often come in a 22 oz. bottle costing the drinker as much as a six-pack.  Beers like Maine Beer Company’s Lunch and Rising Tide’s Zephyer might be magical, but they are special-event beers.  Beers you buy when someone special’s in town, or when you want to treat yourself.  Who can shell out that kind of cash on a daily basis?

Not this guy.

So let’s revise the question: Who makes the best drink-me-everyday IPA in Maine?  Who brings the citrusy, piny hops without asking you to take out a second mortgage on your house?  One you can pick up in a six-pack at Hannafords?

The answer surprised even me.

IMG_20130816_121823After drinking Baxter’s Stowaway IPA, Shipyard’s Monkey Fist, Peaks’ Organic IPA, and a few less noteworthy Maine six-pack IPA’s, it became clear that the IPA of choice has existed in this state long before the recent micro-brew renaissance hit Maine.

The winner: Frye’s Leap IPA from Sebago Brewing Company.

Ok, don’t get your microbrew panties in a bunch.  Just because this beer’s been around since the last century doesn’t mean it doesn’t kick the other IPA’s asses.  Just because the brand doesn’t exude hipster obscurity and the brewpubs don’t feel trendy doesn’t mean Frye’s Leap doesn’t demolish the competition.

Because it does indeed demolish the competition.

Frye’s Leap was part of the cascade hop movement of the late twentieth century.  That means it has the clean citrus aroma and bittering effect that comes from IPA’s hammered with cascades.  (It’s not a double IPA, so don’t expect it to pummel your mouth with the bitter.)  It also doesn’t commit the sin many heavily-hopped IPA’s commit: too much malt.  For some beautiful reason, Sebago brewers had the wherewithal not to destroy the delicious citrus taste of the cascades with bucket loads of malt.  Thanks, Sebago!

Two Frye's LeapsThis is a beer that will run you about $10 a six-pack and can still stand its own against the new we-don’t-distribute-six-packs breweries.  It’s a beer you can have one or two of everyday without experiencing a chasm in your budget.  It will bring a refreshing smile to your hop-hungry tongue.

It’s an old friend that has stood the test of time.  Get some.

Cheers!

Fenix Theatre Co. Brings Shakespeare Back To The People

Lord Capulet

Quick refresher of what your high school English teacher taught you.  Shakespeare’s plays were performed in daylight.  The common folk attended the plays and spent much of the performance eating, drinking, talking, and waiting for one of the Great Bard’s dirty jokes — of which there were always plenty.  In Elizabethan England high theater would have looked pretty low to us.

That is to say, William Shakespeare did not write his plays for grey-haired scholars to quibble over.  Nay, he wrote them to entertain and move the people.

I was reminded of this last night as I experienced Romeo and Juliet in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park.  The production is being put on by Fenix Theatre Co., and it is everything good about Shakespeare: entertaining, fast-paced, bawdy, and high-minded.

When — not if — you go to this production, be ready to have the actors swarm the crowd as they perform their lines.  Romeo crawls through the audience moving from one side of the outdoor theater to the other during the famous balcony scene.  Mercutio holds a cell phone up to an audience member as he leaves a message for Romeo.  A cell phone?  Yup, a cell phone.

To say the fourth wall is broken in this performance is a vast understatement.  There are no walls here.

The outdoor setting and the use of the crowd-as-prop might be distracting in some productions, but the acting in this play is magnetic.

Peter Brown and Karen Ball in the roles of Lord and Lady Capulet are a dysfunctional force as Juliet’s parents.

Michael Dix Thomas breathes new life into the often flat Benvolio.

Tybalt and Lord CapuletTybalt is given combustible gravitas by Matt Delamater as a single-minded powerhouse whose raison d’etre is to kill Montagues.

Nate Houran’s Romeo is at once a pathetic romantic and a forceful murderer (the lover directly kills two characters), while Karin Baard hits the right pitch as a young Juliet — the audience should remember “She hath not seen the change of fourteen years.”

And Ian Alan Carlsen gave an absolutely standout performance last night as Mercutio.  The literary critic Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio for fear that he would take over the story of the star-crossed lovers, and last night, Carlsen showed us why.

There were three scenes that gave me straight up chills.

First, Carlsen’s Queen Mab Speech.  It was well-paced, hilarious, and marvelously bipolar.

The fight scene where Mercutio and Tybalt die was so passionately acted and so perfectly choreographed that it felt down-right real.

And the scene of domestic violence where Peter Brown’s Lord Capulet manhandles his wife and daughter in a fit of rage brought on by Juliet’s refusal to marry Count Paris was shocking.  In the best possible way.

The play, though true to Shakespeare’s old English, is wildly accessible to adults and kids alike.

Here’s my suggestion, grab your favorite lawn chair, pack some food and a bottle of wine, and head to Deering Oaks Park to watch Romeo and Juliet in a way that Shakespeare himself would appreciate.

Mumford and Sons Video Injects Humor Into An Earnest Brand

Imagine a world where twenty and thirty-somethings are clad in dusty boots, tight fitting dungarees, suspenders, suit vests, and handle-bar mustaches.  A world where bands play in barns with all acoustic instruments, ne’er a synthesizer is to be heard.  This, my friends, is what Portlandia calls the Dream of the 1890’s.  (You really need to watch this sketch if you haven’t seen it.)

It’s also, sadly, the world we live in.

My BootsI’m not hating on the Industrial Revolution garb, Lord knows I have a couple pairs of dusty boots I clop around town in.  It’s just that the 1890’s hipster style is becoming so earnest.  I thought hipsters were all about irony.

You know, it’s like when one hipster says to another hipster, “Check out this 1980’s neon tank top I’m wearing.”

And the other hipster responds, “So ironic, man.”

But the 1890’s style is becoming an ardent way of life.  It’s a paradoxical I-wear-old-timey-suspenders-but-own-an-iPhone lifestyle.  My point is that it’s hard to take someone who looks like they belong in the Portlandia sketch seriously.

And who’s nourishing this style on a pop culture level?  Mumford and Sons.  What’s ironic about M&S’s fueling an old-timey Americana look and sound is that the band is British.  They dress in outfits that wouldn’t standout in HBO’s Deadwood, while they grew up playing cricket and drinking Pimms.  (Ok, that might be stereotyping on my part, but you get the point.)

Three years after their debut hit American ears, the entire scene’s become a bit stale.  M&S are a great band, don’t get me wrong; it’s just that the whole pre-WWI look seems a little uninspired at this point.

So, when someone told me to check out Mumford’s “Hopeless Wander” video, I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll check it.”

And thank God I did.

It opens with, presumably, a member of M&S at an upright piano in a field.  I’m already thinking how trite this whole scene is.  When the camera moves to Marcus Mumford, I get annoyed that the sun obscures his face.  I wonder how long I can watch this post-millennial, pastoral gobbledygook.

Then the band is shown walking down a dirt road with all their instruments.  One member laboriously pushes the upright piano.  On the far left, a member is carrying an acoustic guitar, a banjo, a mandolin, and he has a tambourine around his neck.  “This is ridiculous,” I think.

And then they show the faces and I understand, that, yes, this is beautifully ridiculous.

What follows is four minutes of absurdity, brimming with homoerotic overtones, Eddie Van Halen banjo playing, crotch bumping, beer spitting, and upright bass humping.

It is absolutely wonderful.

I’ve watched the video ten times in twenty-four hours.  Every time it’s hilarious.  Jason Bateman’s performance is magic.  Ed Helms is a gift.

Whoever produced this spoof got everything spot on: the outfits, the different settings (my favorite is when they’re on a tiny rowboat), even the instruments and how the actors hold them are perfect.

My Boots 3By the end of the video, I had a new respect for M&S.  They suddenly seemed self-realized.  If they allowed this to be produced, they must understand the layers of irony their style is awash in.

This video injects a new life into the Mumford brand.  Kudos to everyone in the Mumford camp who made this happen.