The Great Escape Pt 2: Papillon (1973)

pap1Ladies and gentlemen: the Randomness of the Universe. Its a terrifying thing; Lovecraft wrote about a universe of chaos, of a mindless cosmos utterly ignorant of us, and our place so insignificant within it that the stark reality of it was enough to drive men mad. Patterns within it, a sense of meaning, well, that’s all just constructs of our minds, it’s just the way our brains work. Its why we ‘see’ recognisable shapes and objects in clouds. We discern patterns that aren’t really there- we see ‘God’, we see ‘meaning’ in our lives, some rational explanation for existence. We are good storytellers too.

How does any of this relate to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 prison epic Papillon?

Well, here goes: several weeks ago I stumbled upon the film Papillon airing on BBC that evening. This in itself was something of unusual good fortune, as I watch very little (network) tv and seldom look at the tv listings or digital guide. Papillon has always been a minor-favourite film of mine. I remember first seeing it one Christmas, decades ago now, back when films were an important part of the Christmas holidays and staying up late to watch a movie something of a treat. Thinking about it, maybe that’s how I fell in love with movies. I must have been maybe twelve at the time, something like that, and the film made quite an impression. I’ve seen it several times since, but not for some years now- possibly it was back in the VHS era when I last saw it. Yeah, thats going back some, when you think about it.

So anyway, I set the tivo to record it, thinking it would be good to see it again, in HD now and widescreen too. Maybe I would eventually get around to it, maybe I wouldn’t- quite often I record films on a whim and wind up deleting them to make room for other, more pressing, stuff. I have seasons of tv shows on that tivo hard-drive (latest casualty of the delete button, the Legion tv series).

papostMidway through last week I received an email from Quartet Records, a French label who released a 2-disc set of Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall soundtrack awhile back. In itself this wasn’t unusual, once you are on someone’s mailing list in this email age you are guaranteed occasional news of releases, and I have had a few from them time to time. This time though the email referred to an imminent release of theirs which caught my attention- they were releasing a new edition of Jerry Goldsmith’s Papillon soundtrack, expanded from newly-discovered master tapes featuring music not used in the film. I’d always been as fond of the score as I was the movie, but had never bought any of its previous incarnations on vinyl or CD… not sure why- but in anycase, here was an opportunity to finally rectify that with a definitive edition. And hey, no double or treble-dipping involved, for once- and so soon after the release of Goldsmith’s Thriller scores on disc (as I wrote on the FSM forums, how weird that life can still surprise with new Goldsmith releases after so many years).

So anyway, although I was coming off (another) twelve-hour stint at work in another long week of them, I took ten minutes to log-in to the Quartet website and preorder the disc. Just as well I did, as it turned out- this edition was limited to 1000 copies and sold out within a few days of being announced, indeed the very next day after I put my order in (apologies if I’ve just spoiled your day).

So here we are with the randomness of the universe deceiving us with some apparent reason. I stumble upon the film airing on BBC 2, I record the film on my tivo, the score suddenly turns up out of the blue in some definitive edition… its like I’m being told to rewatch the film again. It’d be rude not to, right?

Papillon was directed by  Franklin J. Schaffner during a spell of great movies that included the original Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, and would go on to include Islands in the Stream and The Boys From Brazil– all of these films also being scored by Jerry Goldsmith. Its quite a run of films. And the scores are greats too, with Goldsmith in his prime. Actually, this was likely why I first paid attention to the film so many years back- I would always watch films that I knew Goldsmith had scored for. Yeah, I was a pretty weird kid back then- most people watch films because of who stars in them, and here was I watching films because of who had scored the music (I should have gotten out more, clearly, but the ‘seventies could be pretty dismal).

PapillonPapillon dates from 1973. Films were different then, even prison epics like Papillon. It has a slow, steady pace that is quite deceptive in how it establishes character and place. It seems very low-key, surprisingly lacking any Jerry Goldsmith score for almost half of its two and a half-hour running time. The film pulls you in with its brutal sense of reality, of time and place. Have I mentioned that this is one of the greatest prison-break movies ever made? Well, it is possibly second only to The Shawshank Redemption… and watching Papillon again I have to note that it must have been an inspiration for Stephen King when he wrote the original story that The Shawshank Redemption was based on. The sense of male-bonding, the passage of many years of trials and adversity, the inhumanity of jailers and inmates, the life-affirming message of friendship and freedom. Its like a cinematic guide to how to write/shoot a prison movie: shady characters, noble inmates, betrayal, loyalty, cruelty, harrowing ordeals such as periods of solitary confinement.

The difference between the two is clearly that Papillon is based on an (allegedly) true story from the best-selling memoirs of Henri Charrière, a burglar arrested for the murder of a pimp (which he always denied) and sent to the brutal penal colony in French Guiana; Devils Island and the St. Laurent du Maroni prison camp from which escape was deemed impossible. Back when prisons were, well, prisons, with no pretence of rehabilitation or mercy. While some doubt has since been placed upon Charrière’s story, its nonetheless a great story and makes for a great movie. The actors are pretty epic too, to be honest. Steve McQueen is hugely charismatic with a great presence onscreen ( a ‘natural’ actor I guess, who, like actors such as Charlton Heston or even John Wayne brought a huge sense of personna to every role, regardless of their actual acting talent). Dustin Hoffman is particularly impressive too, and the kinship and bond these two actors demonstrate clearly prefigures that of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman years later.

pap4One observation- there’s a sequence in the film during Papillon’s escape attempt that he wears a loose-fitting shirt and slacks and a crumpled hat, and he looks like the clearest prototype for Indiana Jones. Its so like he’s wearing the same outfit, I had to do a doubletake. Don’t know if this was simply accidental or something indicative of Spielberg or Lucas loving movies- I seem to remember James Steranko doing pre-production art for Raiders, maybe he was a fan of Papillon. Or maybe its just more of that random universe slipping cosmic tiles into place. In anycase, Steve McQueen looks like he could have been a pretty cool Indy. He would have liked doing his own stunts, for one thing…

Very often as I’ve gotten older, revisiting ‘old’ movies can be rather disappointing, but not so here- this film is more impressive than I remembered. There is something fascinating in the widescreen framing, the steady, long-held establishing shots that don’t try to amaze you in the way so many current films do with fancy camera moves and effects work. The cinematography of course is all in-camera, with none of modern film-makings tinkering in post; it looks very authentic and real. There’s just something ‘classy’ and confident about it. Yeah, films were rather different back then. Less ‘wow’, and all the better for it.

Familiar faces of actors from that 1960s/1970s period grace the film leaving a warm, fuzzy feeling of reacquaintance, memories of other films, other tv shows. A nostalgia for the period. The Goldsmith score when it finally takes hold is wonderfully indicative of his scores of the time and movie music in general back then. Its clearly a film of its time. Its a genuine great, and oddly not available here in the UK on Blu-ray yet. What gives? This film so deserves a good HD presentation on disc with a commentary track or two- odd how some films have still somehow slipped through the net.

Its a great prison-break movie and a great reminder of just how good a star Steve McQueen was. Hmm. Maybe its time I rewatched The Great Escape again…

 

Alien meets its nemesis

…and it’s the US Box Office. Years ago one of the my favourite articles in the monthly Starburst magazine  would be Tony Crawleys annual box office charts, summarising the performance of genre films from the  year before. This was long before the internet, and it was always enlightening to see how certain films had managed at the box office. It was, of course,  no indication of quality -‘the cruelest cut of all’ was how Blade Runner‘s dismal performance was summarised; I’ll remember that line forever. Ever since, I’ve always been curious about box office, the vagaries of cinemagoers taste, critic influence and marketing issues.

So here is the sad case of Alien Covenant, which after a reasonable launch plunged in its second week at the US box office, with a 71% drop in takings. A current final tally of $71 million domestic is a pretty poor showing, and foreign return of $110 million won’t really help the film even break even on a purported $97-110 million (depending who you listen to) budget.

a1
ah, the good old days…

Its funny- the original Alien is perceived as being a huge hit and you have to allow for post-1979 inflation to really know what its then-£80 million domestic equates to in 2017 dollars, but I recall stories back then that the film never actually turned a profit for Fox (rumour  had it that creative accounting was at work to nullify people’s percentages on the profits). For curiosities sake: Aliens $85 million domestic in 1986, Alien 3 $55 million in 1992…

So does this signal another hiatus for the Alien films, despite Ridley Scott’s intention to shoot another sequel next year?

I wonder, what did the studio expect? We are living in a strange world for movies, where studios now have to dodge Marvel blockbusters and DC blockbuster-wannabes and -God help ’em- Star Wars films, and maybe the odd Fox superhero flick or Transformers movie. Where on earth Jim Camerons’ four Avatar sequels eventually fit in is beyond me. Indeed, there seem to be new blockbusters dropped every week in summer- its carnage out there (as King Arthur proved).  

Covenant was originally intended to be released later this year but was brought forward to May- unfortunately two weeks after the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 juggernaut ($336 million domestic, $461 million foreign) and just a week before the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie ($135 million domestic, $392 foreign). When you look at it like that, an R-rated movie (and belated sequel to the ill-received Prometheus) doesn’t really have much hope, does it? A telling comparison is the similarly R-rated Mad Max: Fury Road, universally acclaimed (which Covenant wasn’t) and assumed a hit, which earned $154 domestic and $224 foreign- superior by some margin but on a $154 million budget. So its hard to make out Covenant as some kind of disaster- disappointing yes, but these Alien films have long shelf-lives.

But does it kill any sequel? For all Covenant‘s faults (and I actually quite liked it) I would like to see that sequel, if only to put that Prometheus/Covenant storyline to a rest. It does seem rather doubtful at the moment. Clearly Covenant wasn’t a great film, but was its quality at fault here or rather the swamping of the box office with far too frequent blockbusters and cinemagoers always turning to the Next Thing? I have read that the Pirates of the Caribbean flick is actually deemed the more disappointing by its studio – particularly due to its $230 million budget (foreign box office saved the day for that one). So I guess all things are relative. Maybe Ridley will get one more shot after all.

Garcia at last

garcia12017.31: Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia -its all there in that horrific, oh so typical 1970s b-movie title- is something of a masterpiece.  But it’s rare that watching something you can admire so much can make you feel so dirty too. It must be something like sitting next to director Sam Peckinpah whilst watching it and realising that he’s a thoroughly nasty individual who you’d prefer not to ever meet again. It’s certainly a rare thing nowadays, watching a film and feeling that, rather than seeing something generated by a committee, you are stepping into someone’s sole creative vision, unpleasant as it may be. If Peckinpah was indeed haunted by his demons, then they are all up on that screen to be seen by all.

Peckinpah was no doubt a fascinating, disturbed individual- Arrow’s superlative Blu-ray features ten hours of interview footage about the director that is much too daunting for me to tackle right now, if ever. I’m sure Peckinpah had his redeeming features, but by the time he made Garcia he was an alcoholic and the booze had pretty much destroyed him- its surely no accident that Warren Oates in the role of Bennie looks so like Peckinpah with his dark shades etc, the film approximating some kind of autobiographical features as Bennie spirals towards his doom.

This is a film to provoke as much as entertain, turn away as much as enthrall. There are sudden moments of violence towards women, for instance, that are quite harrowing to watch- Garcia often feels like an artifact from some distant age. Its really quite brutal, a dark fury running throughout- a rage against life, against women, against booze, against God.

And yet you can’t take your eyes from it.

So, Warren Oates is Bennie, a washed-up piano player falling into a liquor-soaked oblivion in a dead-end Mexican bar, having spent his life digging himself into a deep hole he can’t climb out of. A powerful Mexican crime-lord, El Jefe, discovering his daughter is pregnant has demanded the head of the man responsible- Alfredo Garcia. The reward is huge enough to set dozens of desperate men on the hunt, including two bounty hunters who stumble into Bennie’s bar looking for clues. Bennie thinks he has a lead- his girlfriend, a prostitute named Elita (Isela Vega), knows Garcia, and she subsequently tells him that Garcia is already dead.

Bennie decides to turn this to his advantage- the money from the reward could rescue Elita and him from their dead-end lives, so they jump in his car and travel across country to find Garcia’s grave, dig up the body and take his head back to El Jefe. Along the way they have to dodge bounty hunters and other bad guys they stumble across- but Bennie is a drunken fool shit out of luck, and all he manages to do is get people around him killed as he digs himself deeper into that hole he is already in. By the end of the film, all Bennie has is the sack containing the decomposing head, swarmed by flies in the relentless desert heat- even as he succumbs to madness, perhaps his prize could still finally be his way of getting even?

garcia2Garcia is a hard, twisted film. Its the kind of film Tarantino must wish he could write and direct- there is something horribly authentic about its internal logic, its mindset. Life is venal, cheap, dirty- this is a world in which men have no redeeming features at all. Women are repeatedly demeaned and marginalised, but there is also some purity to them, even the prostitute Elita, while the men are pretty much all no-good, greedy fools dominated by their lust for wealth and women- except for the two bounty-hunters that approach Bennie at the beginning. It is suggestive that they are homosexuals, something they are secretive and ashamed of, manifested by a violent hatred of women (one of them beating a prostitute unconscious for provocatively touching him).

Its utterly bizarre and quite unlike any film made in the last few decades, a throwback to a time -1970s American cinema- and a director who seemed to belong to some other era. Its not a Western, it’s not a film-noir, and yet it is both, as well as being rather horrific. The curious thing about watching films as old as this now -it dates from 1974- is how you can in hindsight trace its impact on subsequent cinema and film-makers. There is a scene for instance, with a naked, post-traumatic Elita sobbing under the spray of a shower, comforted by Bennie, which is clearly the ‘inspiration’ for a scene and imagery in 2006’s Casino Royal. There’s no doubt that Peckinpah, for all his faults and demons, cast a long shadow over cinema, and Garcia is likely his masterpiece. But it’s certainly not easy to stomach.

 

Who liked Trainspotting too?

t2b2017.30: T2 Trainspotting 2

This was great. I’m not a big fan of the original film- I watched it back when it first came out on DVD and never since; maybe it was just too harrowing to watch, too far removed from my own experiences to really fathom out the fuss (nearest thing I’ve had to drugs is a paracetamol, I’ve never even smoked or even gotten badly drunk). But T2, set and filmed some 20+ years after the original, is more akin to the world I know, with its jaded characters reunited and suffering the anxieties and crises of middle age. The funny thing is, watching this sequel has finally gotten me keen to watch that original film again.

The original Trainspotting was, from what I remember, full of youthful anger, of characters on the edge of life and a youth culture feeling impervious to the Big World; T2 has characters taking stock of their lives, their regrets and sense of waste, feeling beaten down by a world bigger and harder than their youthful selves had realised. In that sense, I could certainly relate to it more easily. I’m not sure its a better film- it doesn’t feel as bold and unconventional as the original, but then again, the whole zeitgeist has changed and this is a different world now. This really is a continuation.

I would go so far as to suggest that T2 is the perfect kind of sequel, reuniting the original cast and creative team, with nice cameos and a sense of real respect for the material, locations and characters. It doesn’t feel like the kind of cash-in so many sequels seem to be- I only hope Blade Runner 2049 feels so authentic and sincere as this one did. There are powerful, poignant moments here and it does raise particular issues unique to our times which the original couldn’t. I really liked the use of (sometimes quite sophisticated) flashbacks to imagery from the original. And mock Super 8 footage of events prior to that original film too, really adding a poignant sense of reflection and nostalgia/age. There is some really clever film-making here, and it again demonstrates Danny Boyle’s clever eye and deft touch in storytelling.

Yeah, I really enjoyed this and I’ve no doubt I’m going back to the original again. I’d even quite like to see a T3 someday too; I’m sure there is more of a story to tell and perhaps a bigger part for some of the characters unfortunately (though understandably) given some short shrift here, like Kelly Macdonald’s character. Yeah, bring it on boys. After all, with how fast times and politics change these days (Scottish Indyref, Brexit, Trump, terrorist attacks, hung elections…) I’m sure there isn’t any need to wait so long before making the next one- it would be welcome yesterday.

My Favourite Web-Slinger

spidey 60Go back some 43 years, and early on a Saturday morning you’d find me lying awake in bed waiting for the familiar noise of a delivery through the letterbox. It was a regular routine, every Saturday through most of my childhood. The rest of the house would be asleep, enjoying a lie-in at the start of the weekend, and I’d usually be awake, light dimly streaming through the curtains, waiting for that noise. I’d hear the swing of the letterbox flap, the sound of the morning newspaper and my Spider-Man comic being pushed through and finally falling to the hallway floor with a dull thud. With that, I’d get out of bed and silently, oh so carefully (woe I woke my parents!) creep down the stairs trying to avoid the creaky spots, go down to the front door, pick up the latest issue of my favorite comic and return upstairs for a read.

I remember how crushing it would be, those rare weeks that only the newspaper was delivered, and my comic missing/delayed. Upset my whole weekend. Was I ever that young, life ever so simple, days so easily crushed?

Spider-Man Comics Weekly was a UK b&w comic that reprinted the American original The Amazing Spider-Man- the first issue of the UK reprint came out in February 1973 (free Spider-man mask that didn’t really resemble the free gift in the tv ads), and it continued into the ‘eighties. I think I read it until about 1980; sometime after the original mag’s Ross Andru run the quality seemed to fall off dramatically and I’d finally grown out of it- remember Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns were several years away, but I’d already been reading 2000 AD and enjoying it’s harder, more grown-up stories. But during the 1970s that weekly ran through all the Steve Ditko run, the John Romita period and into the Ross Andru years- what an astonishing run that was, with the advantage of weekly installments racing through the original monthly run of four-colour comics.

omni 3Why do I mention all of this? Well, the other day my copy of The Amazing Spider-Man Marvel Omnibus Vol.3 was delivered. This fantastic book reprints issues 68 – 104 of the original monthly edition. This period is probably my favourite period of all the Web-Slinger’s adventures. While I will naturally always love the Steve Ditko years, it was this period, with artwork by John Romita, John Buscema (my favourite comic artist) and Gil Kane, that seemed to feature the strip all grown-up and sophisticated. The artwork was wonderful, and the stories brilliant- the Kingpin, the Green Goblin, Dr Octopus, the ‘drugs’ issues, the death of Captain Stacey… these were the issues that blew me away, and being able to own them in this luxury hardcover is like being ten years old again.  Indeed, sometimes I think we never really grow up. I cannot express the joy of reading strips I have not read in decades and yet remember as if I only read them yesterday, they were so burned into my subconscious. I think I forgot how much of a big deal/real love they were to me, those Marvel comics in the 1970s, and of course, to be able to read them in their original colour format, with the original letters pages, is something of a wonder.

So now I have the three Spider-Man Omnibus volumes, and all those original issues from issue 1 through to 104 with annuals etc in between. Hopefully volume 4 will follow in a few years, with the death of Gwen Stacey and through to the Ross Andru era. One day I’ll sit down and read them through and it’ll be like some kind of microcosm of my childhood. But this book, volume 3, is really something special- I’m sure my eyes must light up with the joy of my childhood self as I read it. No, we really don’t ever grow up, not if we’re lucky.

Jerry Goldsmith’s Thriller (and Prince’s Purple Rain)

tadthrillrWhilst on the subject of Jerry Goldsmith in my previous post, I thought it timely to raise the release by Tadlow Music just recently of a re-recording of some of the Jerry Goldsmith scores from the 1960 tv series Thriller. While I grew up thrilled and scared by classic anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, I never saw Thriller, so I was unfamiliar with the particular episodes Goldsmith scored or the music itself. But really, it’s Goldsmith. Classic, vintage Goldsmith. No-brainer.

Turns out the music is great. Innovative orchestrations with some creepy music, some of it akin to the original tv Star Trek music from the sixties (which is perhaps odd, as Goldsmith had no involvement in that- likely it’s just me, or something related to the limited orchestras involved in tv scoring back then, the ensuing creativity in tv scores of the time). In anycase, it is a great disc and sales have been good enough to encourage a second volume, so it’s all good news. How odd that stuff like this surfaces even now with cd sales falling through the floor and so long after the work was originally created- it’s the very definition of ‘niche’ market and likely means nothing at all to most who read this.

purpleRecently I’ve been following the rather tortured path to release of the remastered Purple Rain remaster/expanded edition due this month. Following Prince’s death last year there has been great interest in the artist’s fabled vault that houses hundreds, perhaps thousands of unreleased songs and abandoned album projects etc. From what I gather, this Purple Rain release may have unreleased tracks but they are not likely to be sourced from original masters within the vault itself- Warners seem to have their own copies of material from around that period which are second-generation. At any rate, there has been endless legal wrangling over rights to the music within the vault and whether it will be properly archived/restored and released one day. Some Prince fans feel that proper archive releases are likely years away, possibly decades- and indeed, some speculate they will never live to see/hear them (some of us Prince fans, as he ‘peaked’ in the ‘eighties, are getting a little long in the tooth now). After all, the recent deluxe Sgt Pepper remaster/expansion is 50 years after its original release.

The complication is simply that the cd, and physical music formats in general, are becoming increasingly marginalised in an ever-more digital market. So even if, say, work began on a series of properly mastered, deluxe vault releases tomorrow, would there even be a physical format and market for them over the coming decade/s? Or if there was, would it be so niche that prices/limited numbers would make them unviable? Of course we fans would like to think that Prince was a huge megastar, and he was a great performer/musician, but how popular/relevant is his music to the general public (and younger generations) today? Hardcore fans would likely pay any price but the general public? Perhaps this reality is why this Purple Rain release seems to be so low-budget and unambitious packaging-wise compared to some deluxe packages doing the rounds, with some Prince fans looking at the Sgt Pepper deluxe with envious eyes and wondering of what might have been. Warners seem to be dumping out a cardboard cheapie in order to keep the price down (and keep impulse purchases up?).

Naturally in this there are parallels to movies being released on disc. With streaming and downloads increasing in popularity, we have to wonder how long we will be so spoilt by films -particularly older, catalogue films- being released on disc. It can already be seen that some of those expansive, intensive bells and whistles releases of new films are becoming all the more rare. We’re lucky to get a commentary track days- usually its just EPK fluff thats no interest at all. So whats the future for film lovers who just want to treasure their fave films and have them pride of place on a shelf as part of a collection?

Kick the Can (and kick that horrible Twilight Zone movie)

kickcanLast night I rewatched some of Twilight Zone: The Movie– in particular the dreadful prologue featuring Dan Aykroyd and the Kick the Can segment directed by Steven Spielberg. Its a pretty miserable, leaden movie, with the awful on-set accident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children hanging over the whole enterprise like some terrible spectre. Indeed, considering that accident it is a wonder the film ever got released at all- it would have been little loss to film, as it turned out.

The film made money though, enough to ensure a 1980s revival of the show got made. But in truth it’s a poor imitation of the classic original show.  I know there is much appreciation for the segment that remakes the Nightmare at 20,000 feet episode, but I didn’t get that far into the movie.  In truth, the only reason I watched the Kick the Can segment was Jerry Goldsmith’s music. I remember watching the Twilight Zone: The Movie for the first time decades ago when it was aired on television, and that Goldsmith score was really the only thing that really caught my attention in any favourable way. Eventually I bought the FSM CD, pretty much solely due to Goldsmiths score for that segment. Its a tender, romantic sequence of music, perhaps a little over the saccharin limit for most tastes, perhaps as excessive as Spielberg’s particularly unsubtle direction. Indeed, watching it again last night, it seemed obvious to me that this segment highlights all the worst shortcomings of Spielberg back then. But anyway, I watched it again just to see a reminder of how Goldsmith’s score functioned within it.

Its such a genuinely 1980s movie. The ‘look’, how it sounds, the actors featured, the directors involved. It really should have been a better movie considering the talent. It really should have had more bite. Probably would have been better served by having original stories rather than remaking episodes from the classic series. You can’t capture ‘lightning in a bottle’ twice, and it is clear that the black and white photography really allowed the original a life and mood utterly lost by bringing it into colour and a modern setting. The stories should be universal, yes, but it clearly doesn’t work, remaking them- the truth is, its the episodes that are universal.

I have the complete classic series on Blu-ray on the shelf. I really should return to them, if ever time allows. But this movie? Wouldn’t be surprised if I never watch any of it ever again. Its done.

Chaos and Causality: Breaking Bad Season 2

brb22017.29: Breaking Bad – Season 2

Watching a tv show years after it ended has many advantages, particularly with their current fashion for multi-season story arcs. There is, however, one drawback- even if you don’t know how a story ends, you know when it ends, from knowing how many seasons the show ran. Its an issue I found during the last episodes of season two of Breaking Bad. I would imagine, back when the show first aired, audiences were unaware of how many seasons the show would last and must have been open to any season finale, including Walter’s money-making scheme finally succeeding and a ‘happy’ conclusion for all- or maybe it all collapsing into a sudden, final disaster.

But of course, watching it now, fully aware that another four seasons follow this one, I knew it would hardly end well for Walter- where’s the future drama of a cancer ‘cure’ and a million dollars in the bank? But back when this season first aired in 2009… maybe viewers were suckered into the possibility, incase a third season wasn’t forthcoming, or, if that third season would be the end of the show, maybe a turn towards a ‘proper end-straight?

There’s a moment during this second season, when a cancer treatment promises some reprieve for Walter from what he thought was imminent death from his lung cancer, that suggests that the critical and popular success of the first season had struck the showrunners with the problem of stretching the series out into more seasons than originally planned. I may be wrong, maybe there was always a plan to extend to five or more seasons, but it just felt a little forced to me following the relentless pressure of time that dominated Walter’s efforts in season one. I was always aware that Walter’s desperate actions stemmed from a lack of time, his health always an issue. Season two eases that tension somewhat.

That said, thankfully Breaking Bad is as much about the character beats and the incidental moments as it is the story of Walter’s plunge into the world of drug-manufacturing and distribution.  In a way, the drugs etc are almost incidental- the biggest joy, if thats the word, in this show is Walter’s moral code being tested, his ‘crossing the line’ so to speak. His journey is a little like the ride up the river in Apocalypse Now, and at this point in the series, I don’t know exactly what Walters destination will be. The pleasure of this show is finding out.

One of the lines that Walter crosses is in allowing Jess’ girlfriend (Krysten Ritter) to die of a drug overdose through his own inaction. Her death solves an immediate problem re: a risk to his and Jesse’s enterprise but it has terrible repercussions later. Jane was a recovering addict who was pulled back into drugs by her association with Jesse, against the wishes of her caring father Donald (John de Lancie), who Walter himself has a conversation with in a bar- a chance meeting which has the feeling of other peoples lives, like the orbits of planets, being pulled into Walter’s gravitational pull, as if he were a black hole. Jane’s death hits Donald hard, and when he returns to work weeks after her funeral, it transpires he is an air traffic controller, and on returning to work we later see him unravel and cause a tragedy. But its all Walters fault, through him allowing Jane to die- Walter has caused the death of perhaps hundreds of people, ruined the lives of countless others. And he’s the good guy of this story, our principal protagonist.  Its a study of chaos and causality, of Walter trying to make sense and order as events fall apart around him, and his actions causing effects beyond his control.  I guess this sense of cause and effect is reflected by this season’s regular flashes-forward to the season’s final, disastrous event, a mystery that filters through all of it, fragments of imagery which are tantalising clues to what’s coming. Its a testament to the showrunners that I didn’t suss it out until Donald’s workplace was revealed and the horrific repercussions of Walters desperate act fully dawned on me.

That quandary I mentioned earlier, knowing ‘when’ a series will end simply by knowing the number of seasons it ran. Its something of a two-edged sword. There are still four more seasons of Breaking Bad to follow. What the hell happens next?