Tuesday, July 31, 2012

PARKER: THE SCORE by Darwyn Cooke [2012]

Just last week, Darwyn Cooke released his third volume of his adaptation of Richard Stark's classic Parker novels. Like the first two, Parker: The Score is an illuminating and faithful look at the source material while still containing plenty of Cooke's own style.

The story of The Score is actually one of the simplest in the series. Parker, who is running low on funds, and a large crew of 12 accomplices decide to rob an entire town in North Dakota. They account for as many problems as they can, securing supplies, exit routes and hideouts, all explained in in great detail. However, in the middle of the operation, it doesn't go to plan (as usual) as other variables rise up. But that's the fun part of these stories in the first place. This one is particularly engrossing as the scale is so much grander than knocking off just an armored car, for instance. Plus, everyone finally gets to meet the pleasure that is Alan Grofield, one of the best supporting characters in Parker's world.

It should be noted that I'm a big fan of these Parker novels. Incidentally, the novel version of The Score from 1964 may be my favorite of all the ones I've read. It's the fifth book in the series of 24 from Richard Stark (one of the many pseudonyms used by the great Donald E. Westlake). Earlier this year I finished the long-hard-to-find 16th entry Butcher's Moon, which is probably the only one that I might rate higher. It's been probably five years since I burned through The Score, so I had been wondering if my stance on it being the best in the series to that point was accurate or not. Fortunately, Cooke's version has reinstated my belief that this is one of the finer entries.

As for what comes next, I read some time ago that Cooke planned on releasing five volumes of Parker graphic novels. We're now at volume three. The first covered the inaugural appearance of Parker in The Hunter, a revenge yarn of the most fanatical proportions. His second release was Parker: The Outfit, which covered Stark's second and third novels, The Man With The Getaway Face and The Outfit. This was a really brilliant decision of Cooke's part to combine the two since each is a little thin for a standalone comic. Plus, it establishes Parker as a master thief  (Getaway Face) and completely hellbent on completing his quest of revenge if he's been wronged (The Outfit). The Score is an exhilarating, bombastic heist on every level -- through planning, the execution and it's largely successful. I can't imagine he skips Slayground entirely (where Parker battles a giant force comprised of a local syndicate operatives and corrupt cops on his own while hiding out in an abandoned amusement park) or Butcher's Moon which starts out as a simple sequel to Slayground only to spin into a grand tale harking back to the ruthlessness originally displayed in The Hunter. Whatever he ends up doing, I'm definitely in.

I'd like to thank Trent and Nick over at The Violent World of Parker for creating an invaluable cache of info on these novels (and a lot of other related material). I've been a fan of their site for a long time and it made writing this review much simpler having something to refer to for these books where many of the details had escaped me. Follow their blog; it's good stuff.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

BREAKING BAD - "Madrigal"

Welcome to a roundtable discussion of this week's episode of Breaking Bad from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

Jon: The second week of season 5 is still dealing with the fallout from last season's finale. We're discovering that Gus spun an incredibly intricate web of an operation and his absence is causing catastrophes for just about everyone in his world aside from Walt and Jesse. But this is one of those episodes of a series that pushes its main characters off to the stage and gives the limelight to a sideline player. This time, the honor finally goes to Mike, Gus's blunt, methodically efficient hitman who I've always found impossible not to love.

His hatred from Walt continues to be unwavering, this despite an appeal from Walt and Jesse to become an equal partner in their future dealings. As far as our two main characters are concerned, they need him as much as he needs them. But Mike disagrees. Every time he looks at Walt, the scowl we see is the result of  hearing tick, tick, tick. To Mike, he is a walking timebomb, and it's only a matter of time until he explodes. Aside from Skyler, Mike's the only one who realizes just how dangerous Walt has become.

We've never been given much of a backstory for Mike, and we don't yet get a complete one here, but it's becoming clear he was the closest thing Gus had to a right-hand man. When heat starts raining down on Gus's associates in the wake of Hank's investigation, one top executive at a company called Madrigal commits suicide in imaginative fashion at the company's headquarters in Germany instead of speaking with authorities. Turns out Madrigal is the parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos. Clearly this Mr. Shuler had, at minimum, a deep financial connection with Fring's narcotic ring, and judging by the demands of a very freaked-out Lydia later on in the episode, he wasn't the only one at Madrigal with a finger in the blue-meth pie. Speaking of Lydia, she's a stateside Madrigal exec of some importance and attempts to enlist Mike to clean up the loose ends of Los Pollos Hermanos before those threads are traced back to the two of them. He refuses and hands back her list of 11 names to her.

But this is before Hank and Gomez ask him to come in for a little talk. Overconfident that the DEA duo has nothing substantial on him, he taunts them and appears to have won the battle of one-liners before heading to the interrogation room door. Just then, Hank pulls out his trump card -- a pile of cash to the tune of $2 million in the name of Mike's granddaughter hidden away in one of those Cayman Island bank accounts listed discovered in the picture frame from Gus' office last week. Mike had mentioned a fondness for a granddaughter in a previous season, and we get to meet her in all her Hungry Hippo domination this time around. So it's not completely out of nowhere that he did this and, frankly, it's hard to blame him for allowing little Kaylee to be his lone weak spot. But with Hank and Gomez keying in on it, it tosses him back into the Madrigal shitstorm he was trying to lay low from.

Turns out Lydia didn't shake the idea of offing the 11 people on her list and lured one of the others in the group to take care of them and adding Mike to the list. But somehow this lady isn't aware that good 'ol Mikey is THE MAN and snuffs out the would-be assassin's plan first. Mike pays a visit to Lydia's home next, and I was completely convinced that that was going to be the last we saw of her. But between her pleading, her being a single mom and the realization that she could help him obtain methylamine, a suddenly scare chemical Walt and Jesse are in need of to cook again. So now Mike is reluctantly back in the fold with Walt against his better judgement.

Meanwhile, on the sideline, we learn what Walt did with the ricin shot he concocted -- he still has it, and stashed it behind an electric socket faceplate. Only a matter of time until he has a need for it at this point. Concurrently, he makes a placebo vile of salt so a panicked Jesse will calm down once he knows the poison has been disposed of and can't hurt another innocent like he believed had happened with Brock. The two tear apart Jesse's house looking for it in a very intriguingly shot montage, before Walt plants it in the path of the Roomba roaming the floors.

Jesse had little to do again this week aside from opine for the Crystal Ship's return, although Aaron Paul gave a marvelous performance in the moments after discovering the misplaced "toxic" cigarette as Jesse breaks down and apologizes to Walt for nearly killing him (which obviously he was spot on about) and solidifying his position as the conscious of Breaking Bad. The very existence of this intense friendship is completely due to Walt's manipulations at this point, but it's still hard not to enjoy just how great of a bond the two of them have right now. It won't last since I'm sure Walt will slip up at some point about Brock's poisoning, but that doesn't mean a part of me doesn't like their closeness while it lasts.

Not fooled by Walt's duplicitous sweet-talk, however, is Skyler. She's completely frozen by her fear of Walt and the monster he has become, not even able to muster the energy to get out of bed for days. And, my god, Walt even out-creeped himself past last week as he consoled her with unwanted kisses to her shoulder. It's almost impossible to root for him on any level after watching him engage in this behavior. But that also happens to be the most fascinating aspect of this show -- the steady devolution from mild mannered high school chemistry teacher to master crimelord.

The other moment from "Madrigal" that stuck out was Hank's soon-to-be ex-boss, recalling how Gus had joined his family at his home for meals and wonderful conversations, yet lamented "the whole time he was somebody else completely, right in front of me, right under my nose." Those words are likely going to mirror how Hank feels when he discovers Walt's crimes before the series comes to a close. I have no doubt about that happening, and I expect how he deals with that revelation to be especially riveting when it comes to pass.

Man. This show just doesn't stop even when it slows down, does it, fellas? Hit me up with your reactions.

Mike: Okay, then -- here is what I thought of this week’s “Breaking Bad” in quick, bite-sized format:

- Hilariously bleak cold open.  I’m actually really glad that it wasn’t another flash-forward to whatever Walt is up to in the future, what with the hair, and the guns, and the 52nd birthday.  That will keep.  I’ll just say this, then -- “Breaking Bad” seems to have an endless vocabulary in the way of visiting indignities upon characters, and I love every minute of it.  I could really use some chicken nuggets right now, but I’ll pass on the Franch sauce.

- This was definitely Mike’s episode.  Being that pretty much any scene with Walt churns my stomach these days, it was a welcome focus.  Now, Mike's a paragon of prudence, he’s just as careful as his old boss Gus was, business-wise, and only works with people that he’s “vetted” and who can be trusted.  Not to mention that they have been well-compensated in case of any trouble.  But since Walt’s little magnetic mishap last episode simultaneously ruined a bunch of evidence (that was probably going to be inaccessible anyways) while introducing valuable, game-changing data to the tune of a dozen or so secret Caymans bank accounts, now that compensation is gone.  And the noose slips a little bit tighter.
- Well, every man has his soft spot, even one so guarded as Mike Ehrmantraut.  His is a little girl named Kaylee.  I think we first saw Mike’s granddaughter when he bought the balloons that he used to short-circuit the warehouse way back in the season three finale.  And when Hank “Columbos” Mike in the interrogation room -- you know, the whole, “one more thing…” thing -- thus threatening the monetary insurance policy for his beloved granddaughter, that’s when Mike starts to go against his own rules.  (No half measures, remember, Mike?  Damn it!)  All of the sudden, he’s getting in back in bed with Walt, and not killing Lydia when, let’s face it, it’s pretty much a given that she is going to be trouble.  I hope Mike wises up to his own wisdom sooner or later, or we’re not going to be seeing him in the back half of this season.

- Speaking of the mysterious Lydia, I hope I’m not the only dumbass watching this show who immediately thought that we’re looking at some sort of ex-trophy wife of Gus’.  I mean, I know we’re also supposed to have drawn a few conclusions from the flashback to Don Eladio and Gus’ tenderness towards the missing Pollos Hermano.  But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have started a family after that.  Anyway, there were some mysterious children’s toys spotted in his house a while back that have always stuck in my mind.  Now, whether or not Lydia has a personal connection with Gus, she definitely has a business one.  The Internet consensus seems to be that some have spotted her in the room with the U.S. drug agents and Madrigal executives during this episode.  I’m not so sure.  One thing I am sure of, though, is that she is bad news, and is only going to add to Walt, Jesse and Mike’s woes before she ends up with that promised bullet in her head.  Or worse.
- And so on to Walt’s continued calculated manipulation of Jesse.  This week, here’s a classic routine for you: the old “plant the ricin cigarette in the Roomba” gambit.  Works every time.  As a result, and completely on purpose, Walt breaks Jesse’s heart yet again.  And maybe mine, too, a little bit.  At first, I thought that Jesse’s emotional outburst was just explosive relief venting, but in actuality Jesse’s reaction is proof positive that even with everything that’s happened over the past year or so, “Breaking Bad” time, Jesse still has a good heart.  And that Walt has a black one.

- When Jesse called Walt “Mr. White” yet again during his pathetic (in the best possible way) monologue, we’re reminded again, but for perhaps the first time this season, exactly where Jesse sees himself in relation to Walt.  Sure, Jesse might respect Mike, and even regard him as a friend, but it pales in comparison to the nigh paternal regard he holds for Walt.  Until something changes.  And dramatically, it makes sense for that to happen.  Knowing Vince Gilligan and staff, it’s probably just going to happen at the worst possible time.

- Man, so gross!  Speaking of Walt’s psychopathy, is every episode in this half of the season going to end with Walt uncomfortably forcing himself on Skylar, to varying degrees of intimacy?  Nah, probably just the first two.  It’s only a matter of time until she starts coming out of her stupor and facing up to the very few choices that she has: either wise up and get the hell out of there, because Walt is radioactive, or take a page from the Carmella Soprano book of selective cognition and make the best of an awful situation that is only going to continue to spiral downwards.

See you next week, a little further down the spiral!

Previous Breaking Bad season 5 roundtables: 
Week 1 - "Live Free Or Die"

Monday, July 23, 2012

BREAKING BAD - "Live Free Or Die"

Welcome to a roundtable discussion of this week's episode of Breaking Bad from your friendly neighborhood LowBrowMedia savants.
This is a spoiler-heavy zone. You have been warned.

Jon: Gatorade me, bitches! Another season of Breaking Bad is upon us, and sadly, it will be the last. At least AMC has split the 5th season into two parts, so it'll be a while until we reach the end, leaving us plenty of time to savor each glorious moment left. The Mad Men roundtables earlier this year were a lot of fun for us and, judging by the increased spike in the site's traffic, enjoyed by many of you out there as well. Thus, we're planning doing something similar for our favorite meth dealers. Let's get to it.

Is there another show with better cold opens than Breaking Bad? If this season follows the pattern of the last few, we'll continue to follow these future adventures of one Walter White as Vince Gilligan and company slowly reveal them out for us to parse over. We start out with one of the show's staples -- breakfast -- but it's immediately clear that something is amiss as Walt Jr. is nowhere to be seen anywhere in the vicinity of this plate of eggs and bacon. We quickly learn that Walt  isn't there to celebrate his 52nd birthday, but rather to covertly meet up with the black market arms dealer (played by the great Jim Beaver) who sold him that pistol in a hotel room last season. In the clandestine paradise that is a Denny's restroom, he and Walt exchange a fat envelope for a set of keys. These keys open up a new set of wheels for Mr. White, complete with ginormous rifle for who-knows-what. Clearly some length of time has past since current events, as in addition to the return of Walt's hair, he's sporting a thick beard, glasses and is using a fake New Hampshire i.d. This being this show, I'm sure we'll learn things didn't go so hot for Walt and his "current" plans, and he's now forced to take matters into his own hands in predictably extreme measures. Who knows where this will all lead, but I suspect a familiar face will staring down at the other end of that barrel soon enough.

But just as our appetites were whetted by that little tease of the future as much as the glimpses of a Denny's Grand Slam platter, we're re-winded back to the close of season 4, with Walt assuring Skyler on the phone that the war with Gus is over and that he's won (not that she actually knew that was what the security detail was for, but you get my drift). If there was any doubt left that Walt was behind poor little Brock's poisoning last year, it all evaporated as we watched him clear away all signs of his concoction of the toxin from the house, including the Lily of the Valley plant where the powder was derived from. And just as he's about to enjoy some celebratory booze for a crime well covered up, it dawns on him that even after disposing of the poison evidence, killing Gus and setting Gus' lab aflame that there's one loose end -- the security cameras recording their every move. And only one person left knows where those recordings were kept -- Mike, our favorite hitman.

If you recall, Mike had been critically wounded during the Don Eladio massacre and was left in Mexico to recover. He's mostly healed now, living a simple life of feeding chicken in a bathrobe. After getting wind that Gus has been blown to bits, his fury overcomes him and nearly takes down Walt at first sight. Unfortunately for Walt, Jesse and Mike (who are essentially the only three left with anything left to worry about in this), during his inspection of the torched meth lab Hank has also realized that there was likely a security footage feed of the inner workings of the room broadcast somewhere. Only the realization that the existence of this footage could ruin them calms him enough to put aside his murderous rage for the time being, listen to Jesse's pleas and reluctantly work with Walt.

And what's misery for them is a treat for us, as they hatch a plan to eliminate this threat. After establishing they can't just waltz into the precinct and swipe the laptop from the evidence room, an idea emerges from Jesse's infinite wisdom in the "so crazy it just may work" variety -- magnets, yo! And before you assume that a magnet couldn't possibly strike their mark behind two feet of reinforced concrete, keep in mind we live in an age of String Theory and God Particles, so really any cockamamie idea can't be ignored or realized with the power of science behind it. The solution is no mere magnet, however. It's super electro-magnet! With a scheme devised with Old Joe (our favorite junkyard man last seen in season 3) that would make Reed Richards a little jealous, the crew cobbles together a ridiculous amount of batteries to power the junkyard's giant, car-transporting magnet, store it in an old U-Haul truck and park it outside the wall of the evidence room. Let's just say hi-jinks ensue, and it's a safe bet at this point that the hard drive on that laptop is dunzo. (Would it work in real life? Experts seem skeptical, which is close enough to a "yes" for me.)

Ah, but things are never that simple, are they? As the police department re-categorizes the items in evidence room, an old framed photo of Gus and his deceased lover is revealed to have been damaged. Normally this wouldn't be much of anything to take note of, but the astute evidence room officer notices that were a series of words and numbers hidden behind it. Methinks this looks an awful lot like some offshore Cayman Island bank accounts that Mr. Fring had his excess cash tucked away. Before long, our old friend Hank will be following that lead back to Walt and company.

Can you tell I liked this episode? I haven't even mentioned Saul or Skyler yet! But they had plenty to do too (in fact, aside from Marie who didn't appear, Jesse was probably played the least key role this week out of our regulars). Saul drops in on Skyler at the carwash, warning her that the authorities may similarly pay her a visit about Ted. I for one assumed Ted's demise before Huell and Bill Burr last year was the final black comedy moment for the character, but it turns out he survived. Skyler visits him in the hospital, where he appears to have little left to live for considering most of the rest of his life was in shambles before his fall. He still has his kids, however, and pledges to Skyler that he'll never breathe a word of this to the police. It's then that Skyler realizes he's completely horrified by and frightened of her, and basically will do whatever she asks. In a flash, she turns on that same steely, calculated strength Walt channels in this situations over the very real grief she was expressing moments before and simply tells him, "Good."

Later, Walt pays a visit to Saul at his wonderfully over-the-top office (it still cracks me up every time a scene takes place there), where he learns of the Ted situation including the $600K of his money Skyler used to pay him off. A furious Walt stares down Saul into submission after he attempts to quit their business relationship, a moment that's a little hard to believe the man from season 1 would be capable of. Walt's creepy, subdued anger is also dished out on Skyler in the final scene of the episode, where he tells her, "I forgive you." But even though he tells her this in regards to giving Ted the money without his permission, that it happens during a very awkward embrace is all the more chilling. I mean, I'm pretty sure Fredo Corleone wet himself when he heard that line. Just as Saul cow-tows to Walt's wishes out of fear, Skyler is scared too. After the events of "Face Off" to close out season 4, it's not hard to envision just how far Walt would go again if they were to incur his wrath. They both know Walt is no longer a man of half measures, and should rightfully be terrified of him.

So I'm not crazy, right? This episode kicked a lot of ass even if it was chock full of exposition and table setting for the remainder of the show's run. Thoughts? Predictions!

Mike: It's my son's birthday today, and on top of that, I had Internet accessibility problems, but all excuses aside, it's going to have to be brief and to-the-point this week.  So, without any further ado, here are my thoughts on the season premiere of "Breaking Bad," season five:

- What a cold open!  Nice to see Jim Beaver again, and I love his signoff – "Good luck, I guess."  Though a little Internet magic, I was reminded that it was Walt's 50th birthday in the pilot episode.  Which makes this scene, well, exactly two years in the future – as long as Walt's fake ID birthday is the same as his real one.  (Which strikes me as a really bad idea, now that I'm thinking about it.)  We don't know the circumstances that Walt is in, though unless Vince Gilligan completely drops the ball we eventually will.  He's sick again, he's got his hair back, and a beard, and is very clearly not wearing a wedding ring.  He's not up to any good, though he does leave his waitress a very generous tip.

I notice the Heisenberg Swagger is not there in this cold open.  Walt is hunched over, defeated, not quite the "Mr. Chips" of season one, but also not the promised "Scarface" that I'm sure we'll be seeing this entire season.  Events must have taken place to really cut Walt down.  He's getting ready for something that even he isn't sure he'll see the other side of.  But not to worry -- we're seeing Heisenberg's head get just about as inflated as possible in the "present time" segments of the program.  Now, I don't expect a glimpse into the future every episode, because they've already done this in the second season of this fine program.  I wouldn't complain if it became a regular feature most weeks, though.

- I was a little taken aback by how much Jesse is on Walt's side again.  I know that in his eyes, he is has been redeemed to a large degree – mainly because he doesn't know what the audience, if they have been paying any attention at all, knows.  Especially when you take into account the standoff scene with Mike near the beginning of the episode, Jesse is the only reason that Walt doesn't have a gaping hole in his forehead.  (Thinking of that, it also applies to many of the previous seasons as well!)

- Look, Mike's not going to be able tolerate Walt for long, no matter how much he may have come to respect Jesse as a partner.

- I'll say it right now, which isn't to say that it's probably not obvious to even the most casual of "Breaking Bad" viewers: Walt's pride will be his downfall.  I could tangibly feel his blood boil as Walt Jr. glorified his uncle's crimefighting skills in the living room scene.  It's been proposed (on the Internet only, mind you) that Walt Jr.'s inevitable fate lies on the floor of a squalid meth den, ironically telegraphing the efforts of his father.  I don't think that's really going to happen, but it sure would be interesting, to say the least.

- In only the sequentially most recent instance of Walt's pride getting the better of him, he pushes the electromagnet too far, which perhaps takes care of the little laptop problem, but also unwittingly creates a new arena for Hank and his cohorts to investigate -- that of Gus' illegal holdings in a simultaneously Swiss and Cayman Island bank.  If Walt hadn't nudged the power just that much further, he might have been home free, at least for the time being.  But as usual, he is his own worst enemy, and that will ultimately be what does him in.  I don't know how it's going to happen, but I honestly can't wait to see it.

- The final image of Walt, embracing his estranged wife clearly against her will and "absolving" her of her wrongdoing, will stick with me for a while.  But even more horrifying, and nightmare-inducing, is the Ted Beneke hospital scene.  Man, did that guy look awful!  And Skylar's cold, no-nonsense response to his promise that he will not breathe a word about her shady financial dealings indicates to me that she's not so different from her husband, at least not where it really counts.  I'll really be looking forward to seeing her circle the toilet along with Walt this season.

- My prediction: it's going to be a real bloodbath!

See you next week!