Abiquiu-Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad has always connected to archetypal western themes: the making of an outlaw, the division between the good and the bad, and where this division lies. In the opening sequence of “Abiquiu” Jesse and Jane visit the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. Abiquiu was the location of O’Keeffe’s greatest period of creativity in New Mexico. In the last season we saw Jane market this visit to Jesse as an opportunity for him to see paintings of vaginas. Now we finally see what discussion they had at the museum. Jesse stares at a painting of a door and is bored out of his mind. He complains to Jane that the visit is not meeting his expectations. In a flirtacious disussion about the art, Jesse says that O’Keeffe must have been repeatedly painting the door in order to make it perfect. But Jane believes that the door was O’Keefe’s way of going home and following “where the universe takes her.” The scene ends with her stubbing out the lip stick stained cigarette butt that we saw in last week’s “Fly.” Breaking Bad continues to do a good job of grounding each episode in interlinking concrete details.

In “Abiquiu” the universe takes Jesse to revenge, a classic theme in numerous westerns. In a bid to unload his stolen blue meth, Jesse picks up a girl at his group meeting only to learn that her little brother was the one who gun downed Combo, Jesse’s friend who was selling meth for him. The episode concludes with Jesse identifying Tomas, the young killer, and walking away with revenge written all over him.

Skylar also continues to break bad, just as she started to do in “IFT” earlier this season. In one of the episode’s funniest scenes her and Walt meet with Saul. Saul starts to use a jar of jelly beans to explain money laundering only to be cut-off by Skylar. She’s already fully informed and was the one to concoct Walt’s gambling story. She wants to make sure that Hank and Marie won’t figure out the origins of the money. Skylar takes Walt to the car wash where he used to work and tells him that they should buy it instead of using a laser tag business as a front. Only they need “a Danny,” someone on the inside who’s willing to be morally compromised. Skylar volunteers for the job.

Gus, Walt’s meth employer, invites Walt over for dinner. Walt walks into his palatial house and is asked to cut the garlic into thin slices as Gus prepares his grandma’s stew. For a moment, Walt just stares at his reflection in the knife and then he asks what he’s doing there. Gus says since they are working together, they might as well break bread together. During the meal, Gus poetically muses on the connection between food and memory. Walt responds in typical fashion with an explanation related to brain chemistry and biology.

Abiquiu is one of my favorite episodes of the season because of the way it lets the show’s setting speak. The desert southwest can be a place of restoration, where the universe can guide someone, and a woman can go into the desert and emerge a stronger individual. However, the old western themes of revenge and coming blood shed can never be completely escaped.

Northeast Modern Language Association’s call for papers

From the NEMLA CFP (http://www.nemla.org/convention/2011/cfp.html):
Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson: Revisioning the American West: This panel investigates Toni Morrison’s and Marilynne Robinson’s revisioning of the American West and subsequently the tradition of American literary criticism, and, specifically, the longstanding tradition of the hero of the American West. Panelists might want to consider revisions of race and gender within the authors’ respective fiction and nonfiction, confrontations with American literary criticism, and the role of the new American hero. Inquiries or 250-500 word abstracts (and brief C.V.) to Jane Wood at jane.wood@park.edu.

WLA Resolution on Arizona SB-1070

The Executive Council of the Western Literature Association recently approved the following resolution in response to the passage of Arizona Senate Bill-1070:

Whereas

The purpose of the Western Literature Association is to foster and to promote the study of the literature and culture of the North American West in all its varied aspects; and

Whereas

Immigration is an aspect of both the literature and culture of the American West; and

Whereas

The Western Literature Association is a group comprised of individuals who identify themselves as academics, writers, environmentalists, teachers, humorists, and activists; and

Whereas

The Western Literature Association is affiliated with the Modern Language Association which in 2006 argued that “undocumented workers, through their labor, contribute greatly to the economy of the United States; [however,] they are shamefully deprived of most legal rights other workers enjoy [and] they are superexploited as a result” (cf. Resolution 2006-1); and

Whereas

The 2010 Western Literature conference is scheduled to take place in Prescott, Arizona:

Be it Resolved that

The 2010 Executive Council of the Western Literature Association condemns the passage of Arizona HB-1070, which is anti-immigrant and supportive of racial profiling and will intensify racial discrimination and the criminalization of immigrants—or possibly anyone who does not pass as white or a U.S. citizen.

The Western Literature Association further resolves not to boycott the state of Arizona by canceling its annual meeting, but instead makes the following recommendations for its members and for all concerned citizens:

1. Contact Gov. Brewer and tell her HB-1070 is a disaster for all communities, especially Western ones.

Tell Governor Brewer that racial profiling and racial discrimination are illegal and HB-1070 will be stopped (cf. the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights).

CALL (602) 542-4331 | You can also e-mail Gov. Brewer atazgov@az.gov

2. CALL the White House at (202) 456-1111. | You can also e-mail President Obama at president@whitehouse.gov

3. Give direct support and express your solidarity to communities organizing on the ground in Arizona.  For its part, the Western Literature Association will:

    1. Honor Distinguished Achievement Award recipient Luis Valdez, who began his career writing and producing agitprop theater to demonstrate the humanity of Mexican-American farm workers.  His work on behalf of civil rights in the face of those who seek to deny these rights via HB-1070 is a reminder that artistic expression is a powerful force against oppression.
    2. Offer panels, papers, lectures, and teach-ins that will catalog, explore, and discuss immigration and its attendant issues of oppression, racism, and xenophobia as it appears in literature, academia, and Western society and culture.

The Finale of Lost

There’s a story, possibly apocryphal (and I’m not even sure where or when I read it), about science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who had been hired as a consultant for the original Star Trek series (back in the 1960s). As the story goes, some network executives were after Ellison for ideas, telling him that they wanted “something BIG” for Star Trek. Ellison pitched the following idea:  The Enterprise gets tossed into deep space, and as they are trying to figure out where they are, they, surprise, come to a huge wall signifying the end of the universe. Curious, they use photon torpedoes to blast a hole in the wall. They pull the ship up to the hole, and what do they see looking back out at them, but the very eye of God, and thus they discover the first verifiable scientific evidence of God’s existence. After a moment’s pause, one of the network executives spoke up, “No, no, no. We said ‘something BIG.'”

Ellison got up and walked out of the room.

There’s something about the final episode of a series, especially one as teasingly mysterious as Lost, that seems to turn us all into network executives. No matter what is revealed in the finale, it’s greeted by a nearly unanimous cry of “No, no, no. We said ‘something BIG.'” Even before the episode aired, people were expressing their disappointment in a conclusion they hadn’t yet seen. And expressions of disappointment and scorn have been appearing at various blogs and online newspapers ever since.

The episiode brought in over 13 million viewers (a number that, according to the New York Times, stayed pretty much consistent through the entire 2 1/2 hour episode, as well as big rating numbers for the 2 hour recap that preceded it and that carried through to the show that followed it). The consistency of the audience through a block of time that ultimately stretched over 6 hours is remarkable, nearly unheard of in today’s television market—and, yet, a quick internet search found several posts about the disappointing ratings. (“No, no, no, when we said big ratings we meant BIG ratings.”)

Other than Mike Hale’s “No Longer Lost” (The New York Times), which provided a nice balanced critique of the episode, I seem to be one of the few that liked the finale. As Hale noted, it was very much a sentimental rather that action-oriented conclusion, which is true, but that emphasis on sentiment only placed it much more firmly in the camp of Charles Dickens (whose novel Our Mutual Friend got a nice shoutout in an earlier season) and the 19th-century serial novel, a form that Lost in many ways updated for a 21st century television audience.

Spoilers follow from here on out:

The big mystery solved involved the so-called sideways universe, the place where the characters were all living out parallel existences in a world where the Oceanic flight never crashed. As it turns out, this parallel universe was a kind of waystation where the souls of the Lost survivors gathered together one last time before “moving on” to whatever comes next (whatever that might be remains a mystery). This does not mean that they all died during the plane crash. Rather, they all lived out their individual existences, dying at different times, but all gathering at this place outside of time for a big reunion.

And it was nice to see all the characters again, many of whom had died in earlier seasons, and to see them smiling and happy, after 6 years of island torment, sadness, and death. Sentimental, indeed, unlikely, certainly, but also somewhat reminiscent of the alternate ending of Great Expectations, in which Pip and Estella meet accidentally on the site of the ruins of Havisham’s house for a kind of reunion and reconciliation. So, Lost, good job with the Dickensian ending.

As Mike Hale notes, there’s a lot of cheesiness in Lost, much of it revolving around the bad wigs and the worse fake beards. However, to me, that’s part of fun, part of the way Lost embraces some of  its other, less reputable, generic roots (not the novel but the cheap science fiction film). Bad hair, dubious set design, all that has seemed to me an intentional part of the Lost aesthetic, an homage to those disreputable roots. What would the original Star Trek be without the garish colors or William Shatner’s acting style? That’s part of the fun of watching the series.

This also seems to be where Lost is influenced by one of its creative predecessors, The Adventures of Briscoe County, Junior, the western (with sci-fi touches) series created by Carlton Cuse (who went on to become one of Lost‘s executive producers). Briscoe was both straightforward western and straight-out parody of the genre. “Just under over-the-top” was the mantra for Briscoe, and it’s a philosophy that Lost also often put into practice (although, probably not getting as close to “over-the-top” as Briscoe often did). Also, Lost‘s island has long reminded me of Briscoe‘s mysterious magical Orb, with the island sort of being the Orb writ large. And Matthew Fox (who plays Jack Shephard) reminds me a little of a young Bruce Campbell (who played Briscoe, Jr., and who was doing “Jackface” when Fox was still a kitten).

And, so I’ve been thinking about Hale’s comment on the finale: “The production crew was never able to make the cave holding the all-important, island-binding golden light look more impressive than a water ride at a cheap amusement park, and it was a major problem that the scenes of Desmond and Jack lugging stones around the sacred pool inspired giggles rather than awe.”

Okay, fair enough, but, as I say, I kind of liked the aesthetic of the look, and I wasn’t inspired to giggles by the scene. What I liked about it was how it referred back to events in the Hatch, where Desmond had been for years, repeatedly entering a code into a computer to prevent an electromagnetic disaster from occurring. In this episode, however, his purpose was to cause said disaster–or, to turn off the magic of the island, thus transforming our immortal characters (the Smoke Monster, aka UnLocke, as well as Richard and newly immortal Island Guardian Jack) into mortal ones, and, of course, setting off storms and earthquakes, and allowing the cast to engage in some classic Star Trek really-the-ship-is-being-horribly-shaken acting.

The “sacred pool” was really just another version of the computer, a much more ancient one, although still operating on a simple binary code: on/off. Rather than entering a string of numbers, this ancient computer had only one operation. Pull the rock out of the hole, off. Put the rock back in the hole, on. The operation of the device of the sacred pool is the ur version of all the other island operations (and perhaps of the other Island binaries).

And it was a nice touch to have the series end the way it started, with a point of view shot looking up at palm trees, and with a close-up of Jack’s eye, which closes rather than opens (on/off) as it did at the series beginning.

Fly-Breaking Bad Episode

In “Fly” Walt becomes obsessed with a fly that he sees as a contamination of his prestine meth lab. Jesse arrives for work and tries to talk sense into Walt with limited success. With last week’s “Kakfkaesque” and with this week’s bug-centric episode, the idea of metamorphosis is again interrogated. However, in “Fly” the central questions become what does it mean to live knowing that there’s little chance for change and at what moment did things become permanently altered? Can one moment even be pinpointed?

Nearly the entire episode takes place inside the lab with Walt and Jesse trying to kill the fly and confroting the issues within their own relationship as partners. The episode centers on Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend who fatally overdosed last season. Jesse still misses her. At the episode’s start, he stares forlornly at a lipstick stained cigarette butt. What Jesse doesn’t know is that Walt could have prevented her death and saved the people that died on the plane that crashed because of Jane’s grief stricken air traffic controller father. Walt tells Jesse that he met Jane’s dad the night of her death at a bar and talked about family with him. Walt muses on the odds of such an encounter and says that he tried to calculate it and couldn’t even reach a number. Even Walt’s scientific mind failed him in that instance. With Jesse trying to reach the fly by balancing precariously on a ladder that Walt holds, Walt tells him that he’s sorry for Jane’s death but he never tells Jesse that Walt could have saved her. That her death actually was his fault. Walt does tell Jesse that the night he drank with Jane’s dad and returned home to Skylar singing a lullaby to his newborn daughter was the moment that Walt should have died. If he’d died then possibly things would have been okay. That’s what Walt chooses to tell himself.

In the end, Jesse kills the fly in the lab but the episode ends with Walt trying to sleep at home. His arm stretches out across where Skylar would have slept and another fly buzzes around a blinking red light on his ceiling. Control, exact numbers, and a meticulous environment are essential to Walt, but now nothing is within his control-not even a fly.

Justified The Hammer

The F/X series Justified continues to provide a good substitute for the Deadwood reunion we’re all longing for but are unlikely to get. In the recent episode, “The Hammer” (the nickname of a Federal Judge that Raylan is protecting), the former-Deadwood-actor guest star came in the person of Sean Bridgers, aka Al’s henchmen Johnny Burns—playing a character named Virgil who has his issues with the Judge. Any guesses as to which Deadwood actor will appear next on Justified?

Rosowski and Lyon Awards Deadlines Extended

The deadline for nominations for the Thomas J. Lyon Book Award for the best single-authored book in the field published in 2009 is extended to June 1 (from May 20). If you plan to nominate your book or someone else’s book and have not already sent three copies of it to the address below please contact William Handley to let him know of the planned nomination.

The association welcomes nominations of outstanding teachers and mentors in the field of western American literature for the Susan J. Rosowski Award. Candidates can be nominated by students or colleagues with a letter of support addressed to the award selection committee; candidates can also self-nominate. Once nominated, the candidate will be notified and invited to submit supporting materials (such as letters from students and/or other colleagues, syllabi, especially those for courses using western American literature, a narrative letter about teaching/mentoring philosophy, documentation of advising, pedagogical publications, and other materials, due August 15, 2010).

Letters of nomination for the Rosowski award (by fellow WLA members, fellow faculty at home universities, students, or self-nominations) are due by July 1, 2010, and should be addressed to:

William R. Handley
Department of English
THH 404
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California 90089-0354