How good was the last episode of Breaking Bad?

As the title suggests, this blog contains spoilers.  It is dedicated to my good friend James MacDowell, king of endings.

Last night I watched ‘Felina’, the final episode of Breaking Bad.  I also watched the preceding three on the same night; as usual, I am late to the television party, but also as usual, what I lack in punctuality I try to make up for in speed!  However, even though the episode aired nearly four months ago (29 September last year), when I did my first spoiler-immune Breaking Bad internet search this morning, I didn’t find the volume of critical commentary about it that I was expecting.  Perhaps I just wasn’t looking in the right places (and all suggestions are welcome), but in the absence of much criticism to engage with, it made me want to write down my own thoughts.  What follows will not try to cover all the bases, but will mainly focus on the characters present in the programme’s final scenes: Walter, Jesse, Todd, ‘Uncle’ Jack Belker, and Jack’s gang.

In his very interesting discussion of Walter’s character transformation, which was written after the end of the show’s fourth season, Jason Mittell suggests that Walter’s moral trajectory can be ‘benchmarked by those who die or are injured at his hands.’  Walter’s first act of violence is one of self-defence committed on the spur of the moment and under duress, and directed towards a dangerous criminal.  By the end of the fourth season, Walter has poisoned a young boy whose only connection to the trade in crystal meth is that he is loved by Jesse, Walter’s partner, whom Walter is trying to manipulate.  In the (first half of) the fifth season, Walter orders a Michael Corleone-esque simultaneous hit of ten prisoners who pose a threat to his interests.

The turn that events take in ‘the final season’ (or the second half of season five, depending on how one chooses to divide up the last sixteen episodes) might come as a surprise then.  Walt ceases to outdo those around him in terms of brutality, ruthlessness and remorselessness, and becomes a victim once more.  The turning point comes in ‘Ozymandias’, the series’ pre-penultimate episode.  Walt has been lured to his millions, buried out in the desert, by Jesse, and is arrested there by Hank and Steve.  Before the cuffs go on, Walt summons Jack and his crew, giving them coordinates for the location.  He tells them not to come at the end of the phone call, but they come anyway.  The result: Hank and Steve are killed, and Jack takes most of Walt’s money and, because Walt tells them where he is hiding, Jesse too.  Todd tortures Jesse and then keeps him in a hole in the ground by night, and by day forces him to cook crystal meth.

If Heisenberg’s ‘unique selling point’ is the blue colour of his meth (and, of course, its high purity), the thing that is often suggested as a near-USP for Breaking Bad is the scope of the transformation that the main character undergoes – from Mr Chips to Scarface, as creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan would have it.  ‘I like the idea’, Gilligan has said, ‘of approaching a bad guy character from a starting point of zero, from never having jaywalked or littered to doing some of the crazy shit Walter White does’ (I read this quote in Mittell’s chapter, cited above).

Gilligan (unsurprisingly, given that he is the show’s mastermind) identifies here something that gives the programme much of its cumulative power.  It turns out to be a double-edged sword, however, because it can also help us to put our finger on some problems with ending the series with a group of villains like Todd, Jack, and Jack’s crew (hereafter ‘the crew’).

Like many of Walt’s former antagonists, the crew appear to have known nothing but a criminal existence for most of their adult lives, at least.  However, unlike those other antagonists – I am thinking mainly of Tuco, Hector and Gus – we are given no backstories to invest the characters with a sense of history.  This is not just a point about devoting time to developing fleshed-out characters.  It is fitting that such development does not occur, given what the crew represent, and how they function.  They are given no redeeming characteristics, and what makes them, and Todd especially, peculiarly terrifying, is that criminality and violence seem to be for them not means to other ends, but ends in themselves.  Breaking Bad shows us men committing horrible acts in the name of avenging family members and other loved ones, in the pursuit of recognition and self-actualisation, and in the name of trying to protect or provide for one’s family, but never in the sustainedly brutal and dead-eyed way that the crew do.  To be sure, all of the crew’s members will have been ‘made the way they are’ by events in their past, but they are neither connected (chained?) to the past nor oriented to the future in the way that most of the series’ other characters are.  Money in Breaking Bad is often tantalisingly held out as the opportunity to start a whole new life (even if it does not occur in practice).  But it is hard to imagine the crew transforming (that word again) their lives in any significant respect.  They are sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, but it does not appear to have affected their lifestyles at all.  (It might be worth noting that near the beginning of the final episode we see a pair of people who certainly do know how to make their money work: Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz.)  These are a purely death-dealing bunch of men, a monstrous perversion of a family.  (This may be one of Breaking Bad‘s more interesting debts to the Western.  There is a clear precedent for the crew in, for example, the Clanton family in Ford’s My Darling Clementine.)

Gus was such a perfect foil to Walt because like Walt, as Gus himself observes, he ‘hide[s] in plain sight’.  In the character of Gus, Breaking Bad dramatises the thin line between legal and illegal enterprise.  The way in which Walt goes about trying to amass a private fortune is not endorsed by the culture he lives in, but the aim itself most certainly is.

In season 5 especially, one can also detect similarities between Walt and his non-criminal antagonist, Hank.  Both are not only supremely driven men, but they are also prepared to sacrifice others to their aims.  Steve worries about the risks of sending Jesse to Walt in case Walt plans to kill him; Hank dismisses the worry by disregarding the value of the life of a drug-addicted murderer.  Hank is also one of a series of men who meets his end as a result of his overwhelming drive to best another man, and do it personally.  Hank ends up in the desert with Walt and only minimal back-up because his dogged pursuit of Heisenberg has left him at some distance from the procedures and support of the DEA.  If Jesse had gone to Walt wearing a wire and not come up with his own ‘better idea’ for revenge and conviction, he would not have been tortured and enslaved by Todd and the rest of the crew; if Gus had not felt it necessary to go to Hector and gloat, he would not have left himself open to Walt’s attack.  This strand continues right until the end.  Jack’s pride – his honour code, we might say – dictates that Walt, even though he is about to die, must see and know that Jesse is not his (Jack’s) partner but his slave, thus giving Walt the chance to retrieve the trigger for the weapon that kills the crew.

It would be impertinent to construct one’s own hypothetical ending, and I will not attempt to do so here, but I do think, nevertheless, that we see some dissipation of the show’s central concept in its final three episodes especially.  For me, Breaking Bad works best when, along the lines I sketch (inadequately) above, it places Walt’s actions uncomfortably close in some respects to drives that are not only tolerated but endorsed and celebrated: the pursuit of money and recognition, enterprise, prudent economic thinking, rationalised production, giving the consumer the highest-quality version possible of the product that they want…  The crew take us to another (ideological) place.  For me, this is less satisfying, but I am prepared to acknowledge that perhaps I am imposing my own pattern of coherence upon the series as a whole, a pattern which cannot quite accommodate its final movements.  Both Jason Mittell and Jason Jacobs have highlighted the show’s commitment to the creation of a world where bad actions have dire consequences.  Taking this step back, it does become easier to see the crew as a capstone to the series.

For the first time in a long time, we are (I would say) unequivocally on Walt’s side once more when he enters the compound to murder the crew.  Clearly, this is ‘relative morality’ at work (see, once again, Mittell’s chapter).  But should we submit unquestioningly to being given an ending where a man who has committed despicable acts gets to go out in a blaze of glory (and to act as Jesse’s avenging angel to boot), simply because he is (probably) less morally reprehensible than those he kills?  Should we count this as sleight of hand?  Likewise: it is, on one level, deeply satisfying to see all the loose ends of the story tied up, and for all characters to be left in a place where most viewers would (I would venture) want, or at least expect, to leave them.  But again, it is Walt doing the tying up.  The mechanics of well-wrought storytelling and the final acts and desires of a villain dovetail here to satisfy our desire for neatness and certainty.  Of course, this is nothing that film and television has not done countless times before.  But if the ecstatic reception of Breaking Bad is to be taken seriously, then we should hold the programme to the highest standards possible.  Should we be satisfied with the invitations to satisfaction we are offered?

I like to end on a grateful note wherever possible, so I will end by talking about Jesse.  Aaron Paul is a beautiful gift, who is better at conveying thought and feeling by just looking at other characters than any other actor I can think of.  It was not far into the series that I became much more interested in charting Jesse’s development than Walt’s.  I have no complaints about Jesse’s trajectory, or his actions in the closing minutes of the programme.  In his final exchange with Walt especially, Jesse is shown to negotiate perfectly the possibilities presented to him, making exactly the right choices, and saying exactly the right things.  Painful though it is to watch, Jesse’s time spent as the gang’s slave can be seen as a form of purgatory and atonement.  When Jesse breaks free from them and from Walt, and breaks through the chain link fence of the compound, there is a genuine sense of exhilaration and freedom.  One feels that Jesse has not only escaped his captors and his manipulative would-be father, but that his ordeal may have finally allowed him to come to terms with his guilt.  Gilligan chose well by making Jesse the character whose fate appears least-sealed, allowing him to act for the viewer as a much-needed repository of hope.

James W Carey on Harold Innis

Electronics, like print in its early phases, is biased toward supporting one type of civilization: a powerhouse society dedicated to wealth, power, and productivity, to technical perfectionism and ethical nihilism.  No amount of rhetorical varnish would reverse this pattern; only the work of politics and the day-to-day attempt to maintain another and contradictory pattern of life, thought, and scholarship.  As Innis pointed out, the demise of culture could be dispelled only by a deliberate cutting down of the influence of modern technics and cultivation of the realms of art, ethics, and politics.  He identified the oral tradition with its emphasis on dialogue, dialectics, ethics, and metaphysics as the countervailing force to modern technics.  But support of such traditions or media requires that elements of stability be maintained, that mobility be controlled, that communities of association and styles of life be freed from the blinding obsolescence of technical change.  However, the demands of growth, empire, and technology put an emphasis – in education, politics, and social life generally – on those media that fostered administrative efficiency such as print and electronics.  Only by supporting the countervailing power of substantive rationality, democracy, and time would the bias of technology be controlled.

James W Carey. ‘Space, Time, and Communication: A Tribute to Harold Innis.’ In his Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised Edition. Routledge, 2009.

Learning environments and learning experiences

If teachers were to live in constant full cognizance of the full weight of responsibility that they have, the result might well be blind panic, or paralysis.  I’m not referring to the quantity of work that many teachers experience, but rather to the fact that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of being the guides to particular fields of knowledge, and to the broader experience of learning as a whole.  As a result of one’s teaching, a student might be inspired to devote a lifetime to a subject, or equally might swear off it forever.  Few people emerge from their educations completely unscathed.  In my experience, teaching is second only to parenting as an activity which almost every day leaves you feeling that you failed in some small or large way, that you didn’t manage to provide what was needed in that particular situation, and that with more time, and patience, you could have done better.

Since this blog began earlier in the year I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic proselytiser of various pieces of education theory/scholarship.  And a lot of that theory itself radiates enthusiasm, if not zeal.  The parts of it that I have encountered are often very ‘up’.  In particular, books about teaching in higher education which are at once research-based and designed to offer guidance to teachers will be quick to point out where we have been going wrong up to now, but will also offer clear advice about how we can make things better, perhaps by moving towards a student-centred mode of teaching, and/or ensuring constructive alignment between learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks, and/or ensuring that we create feedback-rich learning environments.  I have no doubt that thinking through all of these ideas and applying them to my own teaching has been hugely beneficial.  But I also have no doubt that in teaching there are no magic bullets.  Nothing I have learned or tried has stopped me feeling ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ about teaching a fair proportion of the time, and as I look back on my year of teaching there’s one thing in particular that I keep returning to.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at getting students to participate in classroom activities, and at designing those activities themselves (the two things are of course related).  Reading Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science was something of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in this respect; that book gave me a name for and a way of thinking about things I had been trying to achieve for a few years.  If something is well-designed, be it a public space or a domestic appliance, then one’s engagement with it will be smooth, natural, intuitive.  Few of us need to be told how to find a cash machine or a place to sit in an urban area, nor how to operate a microwave (some people reading may also detect the influence of Heidegger via Paddy Scannell here – another set of ideas I’ve been absorbing for the past two years).  In my classrooms, I consciously design things in order to encourage students to act in particular ways, to engage in particular activities.  Sometimes it will be a spatial matter: I will make students sit in a horseshoe around a screen so that the audio-visual sequence we are analysing is there before us, everyone can see and respond to everyone else, and so on.  Sometimes I will issue a set of instructions that create a series of steps for the students.  Sometimes, taking control of the learning environment will also involve, quite simply, holding one’s nerve in the face of initial reluctance to talk.  Teaching/learning is too inherently ‘sticky’ and ‘subversive’ to be as smooth as the other kinds of design alluded to above, but there are similar motivations at work.

‘So what?’ might be the response so far.  All teaching activities are planned and therefore by logical extension ‘designed’.  What gives me pause for thought is the element of coercion that goes along with certain kinds of learning environment design.  A big part of the job of all but the most fortunate teachers is getting students to speak more than they are naturally inclined to.  We smile while we do it (well, most of us, most of the time), of course, but we are applying pressure.  A lot of this can be justified in the name of getting the best out of students (notice the language of extraction), and again, it could not really be any other way.

And yet.  There are times, over the past eighteen months or so especially, when I have felt that my role as teacher was shading into something more like that of a ‘gamemaker’.  I think that, along with carefully-structured activities which assign students roles which are difficult to escape, things like provocation, persistent questioning, playing the fool, and even plain old goading all have their place in teaching and learning.  But so too do things like prolonged solitary reflection, letting a question or a piece of reading stew in the back of one’s mind for weeks (months, years), and the right to say ‘I do not feel ready to talk about this yet’.  If learning environments should be designed to cultivate in students the kinds of habits of mind they will require for ‘deep’, ‘life-long’ learning, then those environments should not just be about cut and thrust, wall-to-wall talking, and rapid cycles of feedback.  One of my teachers once told me, as I was about to embark upon my own teaching, ‘Don’t be afraid of silence.’  More and more, I see the value of such advice (especially when I consider that the filling of silence can often be as much about the alleviation of anxiety as it is about the contribution of something worthwhile).

It is good to feel permanently dissatisfied.  It is a sign that one is still learning, and still alive.  When my teaching resumes in the New Year, one thing I will try to do is let my teaching pendulum swing back (or is it rather a deepening spiral? – that’s the metaphor that most closely fits my pattern of thinking on the topic) a little towards a set-up that allows students more space and time to reflect, and to involve themselves in ways that may be less audible and visible to others, but may also be ultimately more beneficial to them, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Mad About the Boy

This review contains spoilers.

As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event.  I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)!  My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog.  Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term…  This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory.  Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character.  Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.

I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy.  It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure).  But I also enjoyed the novel hugely.  Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.

  • At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat.  There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’  There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities.  I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel [...] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement [...], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
  • One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences.  Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe.  On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons?  Why?  Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’  (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children?  They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
  • This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood.  For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’  The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
  • Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying.  Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic.  Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised.  It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured.  As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
  • This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters.  These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end.  It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice.  In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy.  And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel.  Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable.  Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot.  One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse.  In the end, this does not happen.  Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side.  (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.)  There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
  • Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration.  In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
  • I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either.  This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement).  Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.

I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it.  The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative.  Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult.  The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well.  The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at.  Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.

Pride and Prejudice on stage

Last week I went on a rare trip to the theatre, to see a production of Pride and Prejudice at Hull Truck Theatre.  It had a high concept selling point: this particular take on Austen’s novel retained twenty one characters, but they were all played by only two performers, one female (Joannah Tincey) and one male (Nick Underwood).  (The play was directed by Abigail Anderson.)

On the whole, this approach worked very well, and created some interesting effects.  The performers often shifted quite rapidly between different characters, sometimes even stepping aside and continuing a conversation with the character/space they had just vacated.  They distinguished between their different roles partly through broad performances (which is a treatment that, as anyone who is reasonably familiar with Pride and Prejudice will know, several characters in the novel lend themselves quite readily to: Mrs Bennet, Lydia, Sir William Lucas, and perhaps most of all, Mr Collins), and partly through the judicious use of props: Mrs Bennet punctuated almost every phrase with the wave of a handkerchief; Mr Bennet was usually chewing on a pipe (and often slamming shut a book); Caroline Bingley brandished a fan; Mr Collins wore a black clergyman’s cap.  A shade more subtly, both performers were very adept at using carriage and posture to transform themselves from confident or overbearing characters to meek ones and back again. (Tincey’s sketch of Charlotte Lucas, hiding herself behind a pair of spectacles and nervously self-effacing mannerisms, was particularly vivid.)  Underwood did not play all the men and Tincey did not play all the women.  I was pleased to have confirmed my intuition that to see Bingley played by a woman would feel appropriate.  There was only one character whom the two performers took turns playing: Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

For me, one of the most interesting features of the production was the way that the novel’s narration was incorporated.  In the screen versions of Pride and Prejudice, if any of Austen’s words besides the direct speech of the characters are retained, they will tend to be put into characters’ mouths.  The novel’s famous first line, for example (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’) has sometimes been given to Elizabeth.  It is not a line one would wish to lose, but transferring it to a character is not without its costs.  As John Caughie so acutely puts it (in a passage I also found useful when I was thinking over one of my very favourite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Lost in Austen), when the source of the novel’s opening observation is changed in this way,

It assigns to Lizzie a knowledge of her social and historical situation, a knowledge which in the novel is shared between author and reader over the heads of the characters. A Lizzie who has the wit to know escapes at least some of the ironies of prejudice. In adaptation, characters become knowing and textual irony, the discourse of the narrator, becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s arch knowingness. The ironic trope of an embryonic modernism regresses historically into the wit of an earlier classicism.

In the theatre production, the performers would often deliver lines from the novel’s narration whilst they were ‘between characters’, as it were – or perhaps one should say, standing partly inside and partly outside them (between sympathy and detachment, perhaps).  They spoke in the voice of a particular character, and used her or his mannerisms, but the audience understood, I take it, that it was not actually that character talking.  This is a very good and interesting way of approximating indirect free style, that literary technique Austen used so masterfully.  It is a style that ventriloquises characters, often taking their choices of vocabulary and so on, and turning these things against them for (in Pride and Prejudice especially) satirical effect.  It dances on the threshold of characters’ understandings of their lives and the people in them, speaking in voices which partly fit their perspectives but do not emanate from their consciousnesses.

The relationship that this production established between characters and audience, then, brought out interestingly some features of Pride and Prejudice that are often lost in translation – principally, the distance that stems from Austen’s irony and from the fact that as well as being populated by some rounded and psychologically satisfactory characters, the novel also features a cast of types, sketched vividly and in broad (and this word again, masterful) strokes.

As one might expect, the aesthetic cost that this incurs, if it be considered to be one, is that within such an overall tone it is harder to make intimate and deeply emotional moments for characters work as such for the audience.  When watching the production I was certainly impressed with its modulations of pace.  Scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy were given a good amount of room to breathe.  Nevertheless, my emotional engagement with this Lizzie and Darcy remained some distance from that which I feel when experiencing other versions, including the source text.

I wouldn’t want to end on a negative or ungrateful note though.  It is not possible for any text to deliver all potentially valuable aesthetic effects simultaneously, since many of these effects are mutually exclusive.  (This said, one measure of a truly great artist is her or his ability to range across and move between effects with greater facility than most mortals.)  This production made me see new things in a well-loved novel, created some novel effects, seemed to know what it wanted to do, and did those things very well.

All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that - rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

In one of his commentary tracks on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD releases, Whedon talks about how his original idea of having Xander (Nicholas Brendon) make his first appearance by hitting a railing and coming off his skateboard upon seeing Buffy for the first time had to be abandoned because it would have taken too much time and money to light the set-up correctly.  (I went to one of David Lavery’s many eloquent writings on Whedon to refresh my memory of the details of this.)  Here we have too little money and time standing in the way of creativity.  In the opening few minutes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we see a fully-realised action sequence involving a rescue from a burning building, and a location shoot in Paris that takes in a series of landmarks.  Here, I want to argue, we have too much money and time standing in the way of creativity.  It was nice that the programme began with a young boy looking at superhero figures in a shop window, and that there was a stoic son – struggling father exchange, but even this felt cursory and vestigial in comparison to Whedon’s earlier skill in sketching characters.  If you are paying through the nose for explosions and location shoots, then there will be an understandable inclination to focus your attention on these things.  But such an impulse can have aesthetic costs too.

The pacing of the episode was brisk brisk brisk.  Whedon’s characters have always been fast-talking, but never before has their dialogue been so brittle.  In his past pilot episodes, Whedon has always pulled off the trick of blending the delivery of a vast amount of information (‘We’re in a world where vampires and other demons exist and there also exists a Slayer to fight them’/’We’re in a future world in which space travel is possible, after a war between “the Alliance” and “the Independents”’/’We’re in a world where it’s possible to wipe people’s personalities and “imprint” them with new ones, and this ability is controlled by a shadowy corporation and sold to the rich using the bodies of the poor.’) with swift sketches of engaging characters who also develop relationships with one another rather than standing and trading quips or chunks of exposition.  (It didn’t help, I think, that most of the characters we saw in Agents were military or quasi-military – used to having clipped, formal exchanges and wary of giving anything away.  Much less promising material than loquacious intelligent teenagers, ancient demons, old mystics, space cowboys and eccentric geniuses.)

My dislike of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also informed by my renewed thinking about the use of space in television, inspired by my attending the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference last week.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a formalist, interested in the possibilities of film style.  What a session about chromakey and other forms of image composition (in the sense of composoting), which left me cold, brought home to me is that my main interest in fact is focused on a very specific area of film-making: the rhetoric of the relationship between three things – the camera, the characters/actors, and the mise-en-scène.

A major thread running through the conference was discussions of the differences between filming in a studio and filming on location, and between filming with multiple cameras in long continuous sequences and adopting the traditionally more filmic procedure of single camera shooting, which involves lots of stopping and starting, lighting and re-lighting, and assembly in the editing room.  All of Whedon’s shows have been ‘single camera’ shows, but his budgets up to now have effectively confined him often to fixed spaces for large portions of episodes.  When Serenity, the spacecraft of the Firefly crew, is described as the show’s ninth character, this is absolutely right.  The relationship of all the show’s characters to the ship is extremely eloquent.  Think of Mal resting his hand on the pipes in ‘Out of Gas’ when the life support system has failed, of River’s feet on the metal floor, and of bounty hunter Jubal Early’s enthusiastic and peculiar speeches about the ship’s ‘flow’.  Whedon also comments on the Buffy commentaries that in the first season, there was effectively one set that could be dressed as a corridor that had to represent the entire school – excluding the library.  But these restrictions created recurring, intimate, lived-in spaces, which also did not need to be thrust in the viewer’s face but could recede to the background to allow for an emphasis on what Renoir thought ‘alone [was] worthwhile, the detail in human expression’.   Think also of Dollhouse, another programme much of whose meaning was contained in its wonderful set – a kind of perverted health spa (which is wonderfully ‘deconstructed’ in the ‘Epitaph’ episodes of that series).

As well as the camera-character-mise-en-scène triangle, the other thing that attracts and holds my interest in fiction, I’m not ashamed to admit, is ‘moral seriousness’ (that’s the label given to the Leavisian tradition by a book I was reading this afternoon, and I can’t think of another one right now).  This is a central part of the entire Whedonverse to date.  Was it there in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.?  Not that I noticed, though I’d be happy to be corrected.  When the J. August Richards character (who, to give him his due, played every emotional beat of his character with both precision and depth) delivers his speech about the injustices of the system, we see that Whedon’s heart remains in the right place, but although there is a certain logic to the speech in relation to what has come before, it is hard to accept it as the principal meaning of the previous forty minutes or so of explosions, fights, gadgets and wisecracks.

I’m not so doctrinaire to confuse my own aesthetic preferences (however high a value I place on the qualities I have isolated) with things that all visual fiction should deliver.  It’s just that the work of Joss Whedon has up until now provided me with an extremely reliable supply of these things.  I felt a deep affinity with his aesthetic and moral outlook.  Perhaps, as the end-of-relationship cliché goes, we simply no longer want the same things, or at least, not all the time.

Joss Whedon owes me nothing.  If anything (I’m thinking here of Bart Simpson’s exchange with Comic Book Guy in ‘The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show’), I owe him a great deal, because he has given me, along with much else, ‘tiny pieces of time that I’ll never forget.’  The moment in the Buffy pilot where Darla, whom we had perhaps thought was a vulnerable victim in the making, turns around to reveal her vamp face.  Anya’s voice breaking and Willow’s crying in ‘The Body’ (in fact, pretty much that whole episode).  Simon telling River that it’s not time to go to sleep but ‘it’s time to wake up.’  The moment where we see hope and faith drain from Mal’s face when the battle of Serenity Valley is lost.  The moment where Giles walks into a tree.  The moment where, upon learning of the depths of his sacrifice to protect her and Dawn, Buffy kisses Spike.  The macho Jayne reaching out to grab pretty lights before the drugs take full effect and he crashes to the floor.  The bit in Xander and Anya’s musical number in the miraculous ‘Once More, With Feeling’ where the camera joins in the dance, going up and around in Astaire/Rogers fashion.  Nathan Fillion’s mugging, preening and prissiness, Neil Patrick Harris’s pain, and the beautiful visual and musical counterpoint in ‘My Eyes’.  Most of the moments where Buffy adopts a hero pose (especially the one from ‘Anne’ with the two axes, which became the final image of the credits sequence, where she reclaims her Slayer identity), and most of the moments where the Scoobies stride diagonally offscreen to do battle.  Wesley proudly declaring ‘I’m Angel’ just as he succumbs to his latest moment of clumsiness.  Billy, a broken man at the end of Dr Horrible, staring into his webcam with dead eyes.

I could go on indefinitely, but my slightly ignoble rhetorical purpose is to note that a thousand moments from the Whedonverse have stayed with me, and yet, only two hours after it has finished, I struggle to bring to mind a single memorable, let alone transcendent, moment, image or line from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!