Sunday, November 29, 2015

Zombies, Mythology, and the Origins of the Zombie Genre

Shambling corpses with ragged clothing still clinging to their grey, rotting bodies. An unsteady, drunken walk. Long, pitiful moans and an aching hunger for human flesh.
The image is by now so familiar even people with no interest in the genre know it inside and out. These are zombies.
But zombies weren’t always depicted this way. Once upon a time, the zombie was something much different, a creature linked with black magic and Voodoo and having nothing to do with eating flesh.
It seems as if they’ve been around forever, but our modern view of zombies is actually a relatively new creation.
Romero's zombies were meant to be ghouls
The first recorded use of the term “zombie” dates to 1819, as “Zombi,” and probably has its origins in West Africa. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is related to Kongo words like nzambi, which means “god,” and zumbi, which means “fetish.” In 1819, however, the word wasn’t referring to a ravenous undead creature. The view of what a zombie is would take about 150 years to evolve into what we envision when we hear the term today.
The roots of the modern zombie date back to well before the earliest uses of the word. The term “zombie” may be relatively new, but idea of the undead – deceased beings that behave as if still alive – has deep roots in mythology, and in some cases has been drawn from real life. Indeed, the idea of undead creatures that feed on living humans first arose centuries ago.
Tales of vampire-like creatures date back to the Mesopotamians, Ancient Greeks, Romans and other ancient civilizations. The tale of Lilith, for instance, springs from ancient Sumerian and Babylonia legend, as does Lamashtu, a creature that would devour the blood and flesh of newborn infants. European literature from the early 18th Century drew from that ancient folklore and re-imagined vampires as the undead beings we know today, creatures that feast on human blood.
More closely related to modern zombies is the ghoul. In fact, George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead does not refer to the creatures as zombies. Rather, they are called ghouls. His intention was to riff on Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel, I Am Legend, but he didn’t want his flesh-eaters to be vampires. If he wanted flesh-eating undead, ghouls were his next best option. That means for the first 10 years of modern zombie mythology (which most agree began in earnest with Night), they weren’t zombies at all, they were ghouls!
It wasn’t until 1978’s Dawn of the Dead that “zombie” was popularized as the word for these creatures, helped along when Italian producer Claudio Argento renamed that movie Zombi for European audiences.
A flesh-eating ghoul
Ghouls have their origins in Arabian mythology and share several traits with modern zombies. They tend to be found in and around graveyards, and they have a penchant for human flesh. The earliest ghoul stories may appear in One Thousand and One Nights, a sprawling collection of tales written over the course of hundreds of years.
The ghoul, or ghūl, is not quite a zombie, though. They are a type of Jinn, supernatural creatures from Arabic mythology best known for their depiction as “Genies” in the West. In many accounts of ghouls, they are said to eat human flesh. In some stories they can shapeshift (turning into hyenas is common), and in others they lure unsuspecting people into remote parts of the desert, where their victims are devoured.
In one less frequently seen aspect of ghoul mythology, ghouls would take on the shape of the last person they consumed, essentially giving new (and evil) life to the deceased. It’s not quite the same as the dead getting back up and walking again, but it’s a clear antecedent to the idea.
In one of the tales of Sinbad, he encounters the Magian people, who are ruled by a king called Ghul. Aspects of the story appear to contain ancient echoes of what would be transformed into today’s zombies through a centuries-long game of telephone:

Whoever came to their island were required to eat a certain kind of food, but unlike his fellows, whose minds were 'stupefied' and 'state became changed,' Sindibad could not eat. Then Sindibad's fellows were given cocoa-nut oil until they became very fat and stupid after which they were roasted and presented to the King. However, Sindibad succeeded in escaping especially after learning that the Magians eat raw human flesh.

Perhaps closer to our modern zombie was the draugr, taken from Norse mythology. Draugr were said to be animated corpses brought back to life to guard treasure and valuables. Much like zombies, they were able to be killed a second time, too. They rarely strayed from the tombs in which they dwelt, and were said to have supernatural strength. Tales vary on how they killed their victims, but consuming their flesh was certainly one of the ways it might happen.
The draugr has largely fallen out of favor in modern horror and fantasy, though they were revived for the hit video game Skyrim, which featured a fairly accurate depiction of what draugr were said to be: essentially strong, fast zombies that guard ancient tombs.
There is another link between draugr and zombies. Depending on the story, draugr boasted an array of abilities, including possession, but the one that has the closest resemblance to modern zombies is the ability to turn their victims into draugr, too. Both the Grettis saga and Eyrbyggja saga, two famed Icelandic sagas from the 10th and 11th Centuries, tell us that victims of draugr arise later as draugr themselves, similar to how someone killed or injured by a zombie may themselves become a zombie.
There are a slew of other examples of undead in folklore, though their influence on modern zombies is often negligible. The jiangshi is a reanimated corpse of Chinese legend, for example, that absorbs a person’s life force. It has more in common with vampires than zombies, though. A more notable influence, albeit not a direct one, may be the mummy.
Photo from
Mummies have existed for thousands of years – and unlike tales of ghouls and vampires, mummies are real – but it wasn’t until the 1827 publication of The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, a novel by Jane C. Loudon that tells the story of a mummy brought back to life in the far future, that western stories began to see the mummy as a walking, animated creature of fear. (Loudon’s novel also borrowed unashamedly from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)
In many ways, pop culture mummies are a major forerunner to what we now consider to be zombies. Zombies don’t come about due to a curse, of course, which became a popular aspect of mummy mythology due in part to Loudon’s book, and mummies don’t eat human flesh, but they did catapult the idea of walking corpses into the mainstream.
In 1903, Bram Stoker dabbled with mummies in his novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which was later adapted for the 1971 movie Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb, but it was around the 1920s and 1930s when mummies truly shot into the popular consciousness. America had started to develop a fetish for all things Egyptian thanks to the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and George Herbert.
Then, in 1932, Universal Studios released The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as an ancient Egyptian priest brought back to life. It wasn’t really zombie stuff – Karloff’s character, Imhotep, is actually able to integrate himself into society for a time – but it helped open the doors for more movies featuring the idea of bringing the dead back to life.
Universal, Hammer and other studios made a string of mummy movies in the decades that followed. There was The Mummy’s Hand in 1940 and The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942, the 1959 cult classic by Hammer The Mummy, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both of whom would end up in Star Wars movies), 1964’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, and many more.
"The Mummy," 1932
For a time, mummies were everywhere. They even became the subject of slapstick, featured in Three Stooges shorts (“We Want Our Mummy,” 1939), comedy films like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), and more.
What was important with these films was not the idea of the undead eating flesh, something largely absent from mummy lore, but the idea of the dead coming back to life and causing chaos when they did.
While all these mummies were romping around Hollywood, another kind of undead being was quietly setting the stage for the zombie explosion we’re experiencing today. These beings were actually called zombies, too, but they were a little different than the shambling flesh eaters of The Walking Dead.
Arising from Haitian folklore, especially the tenets of Haitian Vodou (or Voodoo), the original zombie was a person brought back from the dead using sorcery, usually to serve as mindless slave labor.
Some people even believe they are a real phenomenon.
A 1929 book by occultist and explorer William Seabrook called The Magic Island was among the first to popularize the Haitian zombie. Inspired by tales that came out of the island during the United States occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, it explored the idea of people being turned into mindless automatons and then being forced to labor for their masters. In fact, many believe Haitian zombie mythology is at least in part a metaphor for being trapped in slavery for all eternity.

Not surprisingly, suicide was a frequent recourse of the slaves, who were handy with poisons and powders. The plantation masters thought of suicide as the worst kind of thievery, since it deprived the master not only of a slave’s service, but also of his or her person, which was, after all, the master’s property. Suicide was the slave’s only way to take control over his or her own body. And yet, the fear of becoming a zombie might stop them from doing so. The zombie is a dead person who cannot get across to lan guinée. This final rest — in green, leafy, heavenly Africa, with no sugarcane to cut and no master to appease or serve — is unavailable to the zombie. To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand.

While Haitian zombies may be fairly distinct from today’s flesh eating zombies, descriptions of them may have had an influence on what our view of zombies evolved into. “Those who are turned into zombies are described as having gaunt features and skin with a greyish pallor that is pulled tight against their bones. They have fixed, staring expressions and their movements and actions are characterized as being repetitive, clumsy, and purposeless. They are slow, uncoordinated, and walk with an unsteady, shambling gait.”
Sound familiar?
However, these zombies could talk (albeit in a slow, slurred way), listen to commands, and perform tasks. They existed as if in a half-awake state.
These zombies were not considered to be merely the stuff of horror stories. They were thought to be very real, an actual fate that could befall someone. In fact, for decades stories had come out of Haiti of people claiming to have witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. For example, in 1937, “American folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Haiti and encountered the case of Felicia Felix-Mentor, a woman who villagers claimed had died in 1907 at the age of 29 but had returned to the living 20 years later. Hurston investigated the rumors and discovered evidence that powerful drugs were used to replicate a death-like state.”
And there are dozens of stories like this.
Photo from
Prompted by these reports, in the 1980s ethnobotanist Wade Davis went to Haiti to explore Vodoun culture, examine its rituals, and probe the reality behind the zombie story. The result was The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic. In it, he chronicles a series of supposedly real life examples of people being turned into zombies.
In one incident, for example, “a woman, Natagette Joseph, aged about sixty, who was supposedly killed in a land dispute in 1966 … was recognized (in 1980) wandering about her home village by the police officer who, fourteen years before, in the absence of a doctor, had pronounced her dead.”
In another account, a woman pronounced dead by a doctor was seen alive three years later. When her grave was exhumed, it was found to be full of rocks. In yet another, a man who had been buried 18 years prior showed up in a village, claiming to have been turned into a zombie by his brother. And there are many more. Rumors even spoke of entire plantations being tended by zombie labor.
Davis came to the conclusion that Haiti’s zombies were not an example of the dead being brought back to life, but rather of people being enslaved through the use of drugs. Cases of burial and then “rising” would have been accomplished in the same way, with the help of a concoction used to make people appear dead. Those people would then be dug back up immediately after burial and put to work.
His credentials were good, and his research seemed thorough, but some cast doubt on his findings.

For a while Davis was widely touted as the man who had scientifically solved the mystery of zombies. However Davis's claims were later challenged by skeptical scientists who regarded his methods as unscientific, pointing out that the samples of the zombie powder he provided were inconsistent, and that the amounts of neurotoxin contained in those samples were not high enough to create zombies. Furthermore, the dosages used by the bokors would need to be exact, since too much of the toxin could easily kill a person. Others pointed out nobody had ever found any of the many supposed plantations filled with zombie laborers on the small island country.

Some point out that “the problem of exact amounts needed for the toxins to work are already represented in zombie lore. The victim was usually well known to the bokor before the process began, giving them time to brew the right dose of toxin into their powder,” and that these practitioners of black magic failed as often as they succeeded, presumably because they had incorrectly judged their dosage.
So does that mean his critics were wrong? Davis certainly thought so. He wrote a follow-up to the book called Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie, and in the late 1990s the English medical journal The Lancet published a report examining three well-chronicled “zombie” cases, all three of which had a great deal of supporting evidence. The report concludes that these were cases of mental illness and/or brain damage that had been misinterpreted as something supernatural or magical, though it also noted, “We cannot exclude the use of a neuromuscular toxin, topically administered together with a local irritant by a bokor, to induce catalepsy followed by secret retrieval of the poisoned individual.”
These reports, however, were exploring a view of zombies that had fallen by the wayside. By the 1980s, today’s flesh-eating brand of zombies were far more fascinating to the public than island folklore, rendering their findings like so much Bigfoot research – a mere curiosity.
For a while, though, that island folklore had a cult following, thanks to a series of B-movies dating all the way back to the 1930s.
"I Walked with a Zombie," 1943
The first movie to officially run with the term “zombie” is probably 1932’s White Zombie, which tells the story of a young woman turned into a zombie by an evil practitioner of voodoo. Though it spawned a sequel, 1936’s Revolt of the Zombies, the movie was widely considered a disappointment. Its influence on what zombies would evolve into was minimal, since it relied so heavily on Haitian mythology, but it did inspire a series of other zombies movies that helped us inch closer to Night of the Living Dead, and in turn to The Walking Dead. Among them were The Ghost Breakers (a 1940 film starring Bob Hope), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). All of these films leaned on the same notion of glassy-eyed, slow-witted people brought back to life in order to work as slaves.
The latter film, it is worth noting, contained at least one element that would later appear in “real” zombie fiction. In The Plague of the Zombies, a disease seems to sweep through a Cornish village, awakening the dead from their slumber. These days, plague and zombies are often presented as being connected. The disease in that film was started and spread by a squire who had learned black magic while in Haiti, and who used it in order to kill the villagers and reanimate them into undead slaves, but the similarities are there, even if mild.
Add all of this disparate mythology together and you get a (very) rough picture that sort of looks like elements of The Walking Dead if you look at it from the right angle. It wasn’t quite there yet, though. Modern zombies hadn’t quite become a thing. We were just waiting for someone to put all the pieces together.
That person would be George Romero.
Keep reading here...


For more about this amazing show, including how it was created, in-depth examinations of each season, a look at characters like Rick, Daryl, Carol, and more, check out Dissecting the Walking Dead, available in paperback and for Kindle.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Twitter hashtags are (still) not news

A few weeks back, I ranted a bit about Twitter hashtags being mined for shitty "news" by shitty websites. It's more than a pet peeve. Pet peeves are minor annoyances. This isn't a minor annoyance. This is a form of Internet cancer.

Today, thanks to the wonders of Farking, I came across a great blog post by someone whose Tweet became the "THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!!" social media story of the day, a minor nothing that was turned into yet another misleading and false tale of Internet anger thanks to shitty news on shitty websites.

You might remember a story from earlier in the year about a lipstick color that had people up in arms. This blogger saw a lipstick called "Underage Red," Tweeted about it, and Twitter exploded with shock and outrage thanks to this person's righteous anger.

At least, that's what all the shitty news by shitty websites would have you believe. It even prompted a response by the C-list celebrity involved with selling the product.

Turns out, it didn't happen like that until those shitty websites CREATED the outrage. From the blogger:

Emails, tweets, Facebook messages, blog posts about “outrage culture,” etc. were thrown my way. These people were very angry about how supposedly angry I was (which I wasn’t).

In this case, Kat Von D responded to the “controversy” on her Facebook page, vowing not to apologize (for something no one actually wanted an apology for).

Skim her full post for the details. The basic story is the same tale we've seen a million times before. A small handful of people say something. Lazy writers turn it into a Thing. Other lazy writers from other websites follow suit, because that's what they do. Controversy is manufactured, people get clicks, and everyone feels some righteous indignation.

Yeah, well, screw that whole scene.

Hard. In the ear. With a cantaloupe.

Just sayin'.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies extended edition is even more disappointing than you imagine

Rather than providing the rich, more deliberately paced, character moment-filled version of the movie that Peter Jackson's extended cuts usually provide, The Battle of the Five Armies is even more jam-packed with mindless battles and stupid sights gags.

And let me tell you, that kind of sucks.

The new 5th member of One Direction
I've perhaps been more forgiving of the Hobbit movies than they deserve. I don't pretend they are great cinema, and readily acknowledge they are deeply flawed to the point of often being downright awful. Still, I love aspects of PJ's cinematic Middle Earth enough so that I let their flaws slide and instead focus on the parts that I like, considering them a lesser but still accepted part of my beloved Lord of the Rings movie family.

Much of that is purely personal and stems from geekdom that predates the movies by my whole damn life. I've mentioned before that J.R.R. Tolkien inspired me to write for a living. That deep love of Tolkien's work bled into film, with the adaptations sparking a desire to learn more about cinematic language. I devour all things Tolkien. The movies were no different.

So, like a Star Wars fan in denial struggling to come up with something good to say after their first viewing of The Phantom Menace, the Hobbit movies have been an exercise in willful blindness for me.

Besides, there's always the extended editions to look forward to!

For most of Peter Jackson's forays into Middle Earth, the true, "definitive" versions of the movies have been those extended editions. Rife with character moments and lore that didn't make the theatrical cuts, for most fans they represent a richer, deeper experience that are just plain chock full o' more stuff we love.

The Lollipop Guild
Each of the three Lord of the Rings movies were improved in the extended format. Since their release, I've never bothered to watch the vanilla versions. So was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which became a much better movie in the extended cut (with the exception of more crass humor).

By contrast, the extended edition of The Battle of the Five Armies, the last of his Hobbit trilogy, is a complete waste of time and money.

Unless you're a completionist, don't bother.

Almost all the added time comes in the form of additional combat scenes and action gags, as if that's something this movie was lacking. A few are pretty clever, sure -- the initial clash between the elves and dwarves features some cool dwarf tech that would be awesome in a videogame, and the introduction of Dain Ironfoot, Thorin's brash cousin, is far better thanks to some cheerfully mean-spirited banter between him and the elf king Thranduil -- but most additions either border on or veer outright into just plain stupid.

What can you expect?

  • More physics-defying Legolas antics.
  • A bunch of trolls and orcs having their limbs and heads cut off with unnecessary, Walking Deadesque splatter (including an orc shown trying to walk on the stumps of his cut-off legs).
  • The insipid villain Alfrid getting a cartoonishly idiotic death scene in which he's shot by catapult into a troll's mouth, all while dressed in drag.
  • And a bunch more mindless, sight gag-filled stuff that will be invisible to most viewers, serving to increase the run time without actually increasing the meaningful content.

When it comes to "meaningful content," there are really only two new scenes, maybe three, and one of them is just a few new lines of dialogue. The highlights (and that's using the word generously):

  1. We see Bilbo and Bofur have a longer conversation before Bilbo sneaks off in the night to turn over the Arkenstone. It's a great moment that never should have been cut from the movie.
  2. Dain Ironfoot, Thorin's rowdy cousin, has a longer introduction. It's better and somewhat funny, though the CGI on Billy Connolly is still dodgy as hell.
  3. And finally, we have Thorin's funeral, a scene that features no dialogue. It should never have been cut from the movie in the first place. To leave in so much of that asshole Alfrid or the mindless action rather than a brief, haunting scene that says goodbye to one of the key characters of the trilogy is stupidity I can't wrap my head around.

Otherwise, eh. There are a lot of minor dialogue additions, but when I say "minor" I mean it. Someone says a single extra line here and there. "Look, Thranduil made a reference to Ecthelion!" That's about it.

Look, stuff!
It's mostly just a lot more action. A lot more. TONS more. Of the 20 additional new minutes, I'd say only 5 are worthwhile in any way. The rest are "clever" new ways to kill orcs or show trolls smashing shit to pieces.

Considering the theatrical release was an hour of setup and then 80 minutes of nonstop fighting, that substance-to-flash ratio for the new material pretty much sucks.

I don't care how big a fan you are. I don't care if you're a forgiving fan like I am. This thing just isn't worth your time. And if you were on the fence and hoping some additions would improve the movie, forget it. Not going to happen. It's exactly what these movies didn't need: more self-indulgent playtime for Peter Jackson.

What a disappointing finish to this 15-year-old ride.

Friday, November 13, 2015

It's not music, it's Memorex

I used to work a really boring job juggling numbers.

This has nothing to do with that.

A few years ago, during a strangely relaxed period of my life, I sat down at night and thought peaceful thoughts while strumming blurry, hazy guitar drones. I recorded them. They turned into another m2 album, which for inexplicable reasons I sat on for several years.

Well, now it's here. Cue up. Listen. Relax.

Comfortable Clarity (2015)

NOTES - Recorded in pieces two years ago or more. Sat in a vault because I was, in fact, too comfortable to bother releasing it. Cover photo taken at Cattus Island, Toms River, NJ.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writer smashes reviewer with a wine bottle, aka How NOT to handle getting a bad review

I've touched on authors having meltdowns when criticized a few times before (like this guy or this woman's now deleted Amazon war), but this one takes the cake.

A year or so ago, British author self-published a novel inspired by the woman he was stalking. Seriously. He blogged extensively about stalking her, law enforcement got involved, and he eventually wrote a fairy tale in which she was the main character. Given that he blogs extensively about mental illness, I have to guess that he's a wee bit unstable.

Anyway, he posted an excerpt of this work to Wattpad, where an 18-year-old Scottish girl gave it a harsh review. Among other things, she said:

This is painful. Everything is written through telling and purple prose which is just about the worst combination there is as both a reader and writer. You can have the most fantastic plot in the world, but if you can't write it well, it won't sell. At least concerning self-publishing. And bad writing usually equals bad characters.

I have no idea how accurate the criticism is. Haven't read his work, have no plans to. It is rather telling that he repeatedly attacks people who review his work poorly, but whatever. The crazy part of the story is that in response to the review, he drove 500 miles and smashed the young reviewer over the head with a wine bottle. That could have killed her. He plead guilty to the attack.

I saw blood covering my hands and dripping down my arms. Without the pressure on my head, the blood spread down my hair and the back of my neck. 

Responding to critics is almost never a good idea (and stalking them, like this other author did, is also a bad idea). Every writer will be criticized at some point. Every single one. Sometimes that criticism is well considered and ought to be heeded. Other times, it's just someone who didn't like your work.

That's okay.

Assaulting people for it is not.


MAD MEN: Seeing the show as a Period Piece


“I’m interested in how people respond to change. Are they excited by the change, or are they terrified that they’ll lose everything that they know? Do people recognize that change is going on? That’s what the show’s about." Matthew Weiner

One of the great joys of Mad Men comes from being immersed in a time and place that is not our own. We delight not only in the look and feel of the show, but also in the way in which it’s instructive when it comes to how people lived and behaved just a few short decades ago. It not only allows us a glimpse into that world, it also puts our own modern world in context.
Because that’s what the best period pieces do, right? They capture a time and place so well and with such fidelity, the nature of our own world comes more clearly into focus.
However, Mad Men doesn't fall into the same trap so many period pieces do: inserting modern day moralizing into the period.
That’s a good thing, because that can be a dangerous trap to fall into, pulling the audience out of the moment and making them feel as if they are being preached to.
On the show, we regularly see aspects of late 1950s/early 1960s American culture we'd find awful today. Even setting aside the big and obvious "isms," we also have kids being locked in closets, careless littering, parents unconcerned when their kids draping themselves with plastic bags, kids romping around the car without seatbelts, drunk driving, adults slapping other parents’ children, and pregnant women drinking and smoking, just to name a few. Despite this often uncomfortable behavior, Mad Men passes no judgment. It does not ask us to look at this behavior through modern eyes. It does not present it to us and say, "Look at this! Wasn't it awful?" It’s just something that exists in this particular world.
And when it does confront issues that have since seen deep changes in our culture, such as matters of race, it still does so through the prism of yesteryear. There are few on the show we’d recognize as having truly modern viewpoints, and there are none who can be viewed as standing in for the audience’s point of view, as is typical with period pieces.
For example, Peggy is younger and more forward thinking than her colleagues at work, though not more forward thinking than many of her peers outside the office. On a few occasions she pushes at the issue of race. Unlike her workmates, it’s an issue she is willing to confront with something more than the casual dismissiveness of, say, Roger Sterling. Still, she does not do so with all her heart. It's not a crusade for her. She broaches the subject, awkwardly but sincerely, yet it’s an issue even she is only just beginning to feel comfortable with, and she’s the show’s first example of a “modern woman.”
Perhaps it’s because Peggy herself is at the center of her own equality movement. For example, at the height of the Civil Rights movement she expresses frustration at being left out of the boy’s club when it comes to business meetings and after work gatherings. While blacks hold rallies and the case for Civil Rights ends up on the tip of every tongue, she claims, “half of the things negroes can't do I can't do either, and no one seems to care." She tells her boyfriend, Abe, that business is routinely done inside clubs she can’t get into because she’s a woman.
Tellingly, even the progressive Abe doesn’t take her seriously. “All right, Peggy,” he says with sarcasm, “We'll have a civil right march for women.”
Was Peggy wrong for equating her own struggles with those of blacks in America? Was she being selfish or was she correct? Does she have an equal cause to complain as those impacted by segregation?
The show offers no answers. Those are questions we must answer for ourselves as individuals.
This approach works so well because it ensures that characters like Peggy ring true. The sudden loudness with which the race debate took hold in America and the change in tone of that debate was something new even to a fairly progressive thinker like Peggy, who was herself struggling with her own obstacles. Meanwhile, someone like Abe might adopt the race issue as a cause, but can’t even consider the idea that gender equality was also a battle worth fighting.
The people who do talk deeply about matters of race, class, and gender are young people, fringe people, marginal people. They are the counterculture existing on the outskirts of Madison’s Avenue’s reality. We get fleeting glimpses into their world, but they're not the mainstream, nor is their cause. We can see their views bubble up to the surface from time to time, and even exploding into the forefront on occasion, such as after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but by and large these are people that Don and Peggy and Betty and others only occasionally (and awkwardly) mix with.
This refreshing choice is one of Mad Men’s great strengths. It would be easy for Mad Men to get political or to fill itself with social messages, to use itself as a platform for Important Social Commentary, but it doesn't play that game. We don't get a Very Special Episode. We don’t get poignant reminders of Issues We Should Care About. We just get an unvarnished, sometimes uncomfortable, and even more often uncomfortably casual window into another time and place.
It's up to the viewer to take it from there.
That said, it’s worth noting that while I'd argue that Mad Men presents its period without judgment and allows viewers to come to grips with what they’re seeing on their own, show creator Matthew Weiner suggests there is a larger purpose to that approach. Essentially, his casual approach to these issues is itself meant to be a message. He told the Chicago Tribune in 2007, "You tell me if this is a period piece: The men are asking, 'Is this it?' and the women are asking, 'What's wrong with me?' You tell me if that sounds like it's 1960 or 2007."
And indeed, when you peel things back and look more closely, it becomes clear that the period being depicted isn’t quite as distant as the fashion of the time may make it seem.

It’s still close enough to us, or we to it, that there’s a certain familiar pain beneath the viewing pleasure. Peggy would no longer have to be such an oddball, but her dilemmas and agonies would hardly be unfamiliar to an ambitious professional woman today. The sexual politics of the office might be submerged beneath a host of written and unwritten codes, but the dangerous temptation to mix work and play for pleasure and advancement has hardly died. Many marriages are still structured so that one spouse—more likely the woman—has to live out her ambitions through the other. (3)

So clearly Weiner wants to say something with his show. That’s never really been in doubt, though. He’s too smart a creator and the show is too literary a piece of work for it to be nothing more than a period piece soap opera. The setting serves a purpose beyond window dressing. It’s supposed to tell us something about ourselves. In fact, in many ways it’s supposed to tell us more about ourselves than it is about the period.
The only way to really do that, though, is to present the period with full honesty. So in that sense, the show really does present its period without judgment, because in order for us to truly see the past for what it was, and in turn to see how little we’ve actually progressed, we’ve got to see the unvarnished truth without great big signs saying “important moral message here!”
That’s not to say the show is never ‘on the nose’ with this sort of commentary. Weiner clearly picks what is presented in order to make a statement. Rather, it’s to say that the messages imparted to us are woven into the fabric of the show in such a natural way they never feel like moralizing. If it’s true to the time and feels like a true reflection of the time and place central to Mad Men’s conceit, it’s on the table as far as story is concerned.
Sal is an excellent example of the writers’ willingness to stay true to the social mores of the 1950s and early 1960s, even when it means losing a character we love and allowing our protagonists to be even bigger bastards than they usually are. Salvatore Romano (Bryan Bratt) was as pure and likable a character as has been on the show. Talented, honest, charming, he’s one of the few you’d leave alone with a $100 bill.
But when a male client falsely accused Sal of making a pass at him, Sal had to go, and it was our “hero,” Don, who put him out of work.
Yet that was a fairly big moment. In many ways, it’s the little moments that truly put us into Mad Men’s world while also telling us a little more about our own.
When Betty’s children are hurt in a car accident, for instance, she’s concerned, but her concerns are superficial at best and indicative of where Betty comes from. In the accident, Sally gets a minor cut that may give her a scar. To Betty, this is awful. “A boy with a scar is nothing, but a girl?” It’s easy to laugh or cringe at Betty’s statement, but what does she know? All she knows is that her role in the world is to be pretty, catch herself a successful or handsome man, and be a darling little housewife. It’s a small line of dialogue, yet it speaks volumes.
The flippancy with which the characters deal with matters of race, religion and gender is enough to make many modern viewers cringe, but for the older characters these aren’t topics worth taking seriously. When Peggy and Roger are debating whether or not to hire Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman), for instance, Roger notes that Ginsberg is Jewish. For him, this is a positive – but not because he’s open-minded. “Everyone's got one now. To tell you the truth, it makes the agency more modern,” he tells Peggy.
Weiner and company know we’re going to contrast this kind of frank dialogue with the kind of talk we’d tolerate today. As Heather Marcovitch and Nancy Batty write in the introduction to Mad Men, Women and Children: Essays on Gender and Generation, “part of Mad Men’s appeal is the pleasure contemporary viewers take in the apparent wrongheaded behavior and unenlightened attitudes of the characters. Pregnant mothers smoke, children, when they are not simply ignored, are physically disciplined by both parents and adult neighbors, a drunk-driving accident results in an overnight stay in a police station’s drunk tank and a fine.” It’s entertaining to watch this because it’s both alien to us and it’s instructive about our own modern world, but, they warn, there could be a danger of connecting that sort of behavior with the more glamorous aspects of the period (great clothing, classy dinners, etc.), effectively making the negative behavior seem more appealing. They fear such mixed messages can result in the negatives of the period becoming “in a sense inextricable from the same objects and behaviors that evoke admiration or nostalgia.”
That stance is perhaps overstated – it’s hard to imagine many younger viewers would want to revert to that time, despite the surface appeal of the time’s look and feel – but in a way that’s exactly the sort of inner debate a show like this should inspire. Far from being a danger, this author argues that intertwining the appealing with the ugly presents the kind of moral and intellectual conflicts good storytelling should evoke. We should feel an inner conflict as we weigh the allure of well-dressed people having intelligent conversations over cocktails against the ugliness of empty marriages and casual bigotry. This is a good thing. It’s what makes the conversation about Mad Men so strong.
So yes, Mad Men is a period piece. It strives for authenticity not only in its technical details but in the behavior of the people who populate its world. And it’s a period piece that does not insert modern mores into the past, clumsily trying to deliver an Important Message to modern readers.
Instead, it presents us with a conflict. It gives us beautiful people living lives that are at times enviable, yet inside these are often ugly people living lives that are more pitiable than enviable. Sometimes we daydream of being there in the office with them, coming up with brilliant ideas over a glass of Scotch. Other times, we’re thankful at the societal changes we’ve experienced since the 1960s.
That inner conflict we feel is the point. It’s the reason why the honest approach to handling the era is more powerful than seeing the 1960s filtered through modern eyes.
Because there is no such thing as a black and white world.


For more about this amazing show, including examinations of each season, a look at characters like Don, Peggy, and Joan, and more, check out Celebrating Mad Men: Your Unofficial Guide to What Makes the Show and its Characters Tick, available in paperback and for Kindle.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Breaking Bad's 10 Greatest Moments

The idea of selecting the greatest moments of a show filled with memorable moments is, admittedly, like asking to be slapped around for how absent-minded you are. Such a list can only ever spark a flurry of “how could you forget Moment X?” comments from readers.

Still, it’s worth revisiting these scenes not only because it’s fun to roll a mental highlight reel, but because many of them distill the essence of Breaking Bad down to a few memorable minutes. Yes, there are some that were painful to leave off the list – Gale’s murder and Hank’s shootout with the Cousins spring immediately to mind – but you have to cut things off somewhere. Taken as a whole, these moments, two from each season, serve both as an overview of what made this show so special while also just being damn good television.

The Bathtub Scene
Season 1, “Cat’s in the Bag…”

Considering how dark the show eventually became, it’s easy to forget that Breaking Bad essentially began life as a black comedy. There were grim moments of seriousness, yes – it’s clear early on that this show won’t compromise when we see Walt strangle Krazy 8 in Jesse’s basement – but there is also an air of absurdity in those early seasons that is hard to ignore. The banter between Walt and Jesse is often hilarious, and there is a borderline slapstick quality to the physicality both bring to the screen (especially the clumsy, hard-luck way in which Bryan Cranston portrays pre-Heisenberg Walter White). No scene typifies this as well as the infamous bathtub scene.

After Walt is forced to poison a drug dealer intent on killing him and Jesse, Jesse is forced to dispose of the body. Walt instructs him to use hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the corpse but warns him that he must use a certain type of plastic container to hold the acid and the body. Jesse doesn’t listen. He dissolves the body in his bathtub instead. The acid then eats through the tub and the upstairs bathroom floor, resulting in a grotesque and hilarious waterfall of liquefied remains crashing through his ceiling. It’s sick, it’s demented, and it’s absurdly funny – pretty much everything that defines the tone of the first season.

Walt Gives Tuco A Present
Season 1, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”

If Walter White was anything, he was certainly resourceful. From the very first episode he showed himself capable of using his smarts to get out of a jam when he quickly concocted a poison gas to take out two drug dealers intent on killing him. In many ways this is what made Walt such an appealing anti-hero. He wasn’t a badass. He was an ordinary schlep who also happened to be brilliant. And in those rare moments when he did stray into badass territory, well, he was as cool as they come.

When psychotic local drug boss Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) steals a generous supply of meth from Jesse and then hospitalizes him with a beating, chemistry teacher Walter White does the perfectly logical thing for a pasty old chemist to do: he confronts the dealer in his lair. Walt demands money for the meth that was stolen, as well as a partnership with Tuco. When Tuco balks and Walt’s life appears to be in jeopardy, Walt pulls out what looks like a chunk of meth and throws it to the floor. That “meth” was actually an improvised explosive. The windows are blown out, Tuco is left in a daze, and a newly-bald Walt leaves with his money – and a newfound sense of power. It was our first glimpse of Heisenberg coming out to play, and it was badass.

Don’t Call Her Skank
Season 2, “Peekaboo”

As the delightful bathtub scene showed, Breaking Bad was not afraid to get a little gross. That scene was played in a humorously dark way, but a grotesque scene in the second season replaced humor with horror and in doing so served as one of the show’s rare reminders that the substance peddled by Walt and Jesse ruins lives.

At the urging of Walt, Jesse arrives at the home of two destitute meth addicts only to find that they have a young child. His concern for the neglected boy puts him off his guard, allowing the addicts to take Jesse hostage. The two parents are unstable, though. When the husband’s constant taunt of “skank!” finally pushes his wife too far, the wife pushes a stolen ATM onto his head, crushing his skull. The entire sequence is sickening, showcasing the depravity of the addicts for whom Walt and Jesse are producing meth, but the sound of the husband’s skull being popped is what pushes it over the top. It’s more than an exercise in being gross, though. The scene sets the stage for Jesse’s eventual moral awakening by igniting his concern for children in neglect, making it one of the most important in the series.

Walt Just Watches
Season 2, “Phoenix”

There were hints early on that Walter White was perhaps a little more vile than we initially believed. We could almost forgive him getting into the meth business given his situation – he otherwise seemed like an affable family man, after all – but there were things that troubled us. Asking Jesse to murder people, for example, or the way he verbally and emotionally abused his partner in crime. Still, we forgave Walt his transgressions because we were entertained and we thought perhaps deep down inside he really wasn’t that bad. Boy were we wrong.

When Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), finds out that Walt is withholding a large sum of money from Jesse, she takes the kid gloves off and blackmails Walt into paying up. He does. She and Jesse then plan to skip town, but first they want to have one last drug binge. Walt shows up to try and reconcile with Jesse and finds the pair passed out. He attempts to wake Jesse, accidentally pushes Jane over onto her back, and she begins to choke on her own vomit. If she is not rolled back onto her side she is going to die. But Walt just watches. That he watches with some degree of horror only underscores the idea that he knows exactly what he’s doing. This man, this father, watches someone’s daughter die simply because he knows she posed an obstacle to him. Once Walt opens this door and steps into the darkness, there is no going back.

Skyler Pulls No Punches
Season 3, “I.F.T.”

Skyler White wasn’t exactly Breaking Bad’s most popular character. While we were engrossed in Walt’s increasingly dark adventures, Skyler did her damndest to steer Walt away from his darker side. When the White family started to fray at the seams thanks to Walt’s erratic behavior, Skyler tried to hold things together and put a stop to Walt’s strange doings. Essentially, for many in the audience Skyler White was the brooding, frowning obstacle between us and our fun. It certainly didn’t help when she dropped a bomb on the guy who was (at the time) our hero.

After finding out that Walt was manufacturing meth, Skyler demanded he leave the house. Walt refused. So in an effort to drive her meth-producing husband out of the house and away from her children, Skyler chose a tactic that set fans against her once and for all: she slept with her boss, then immediately went home and told Walt about it in rather, ummm, direct language. “I fucked Ted” quickly became one of the most memorable lines of the show, and seeing that Skyler could be just as ruthless as Walt became one of the show’s biggest gut punches.

Don’t Just Stand There, Jesse
Season 3, “Half Measures”

Mr. White wasn’t a particularly good or kind father figure to Jesse Pinkman, but it can’t be denied that despite the regular abuse thrown at Jesse by his frustrated elder, there was a streak of genuine caring there, too. Something about the young man triggered a protective streak in Walt.

When a horrified Jesse sought revenge on two drug dealers who first used a child to shoot his friend Combo, and then killed that same child (who also happened to be his new girlfriend’s brother), the act was destined to be a death sentence for Jesse. If the drug dealers didn’t kill him, their boss, Gustavo Fring, certainly would. Walt knew this, so just before Jesse walked into a hail of bullets Walt appeared out of nowhere, ran down the dealers, shot the lone survivor in the head, and commanded Jesse to run. It was a stunning moment in a show filled with them. Not only did it drop our jaws, it was an exclamation point on the growing unease between our meth-cooking duo and their chicken-cooking boss.

Walt Has a Nervous Breakdown
Season 4, “Crawl Space”

As brilliant, focused and capable as he was, Walter White was never a calm man. From the very first episode he was prone to fits of futile anger, clumsy frustration, and childish belligerence. Despite these failings, however, the one thing he was not prone to do was to give up. He had done that before, after all, when he gave up on Gretchen and Gray Matter. Look where it left him: with a life he hated. With the cancer giving him a deadline he couldn’t ignore, giving up on reaching his goals was no longer an option. So when Walt finally cracked, he cracked hard.

Walt, realizing his days are numbered now that Gus has another way to cook Walt’s blue meth, arranges to have he and his family “disappeared.” All he needs to do is pay Saul’s guy and the Whites can avoid being another set of numbers in Gus’s body count. But as Walt discovers, Skyler gave their money away. Her intentions were good – to protect the family from an IRS investigation that would blow the lid on Walt’s illicit income – but it doesn’t matter. She doomed them. And so Walt lays there in the crawl space in which their money had been hidden, laughing hysterically as the camera pans up, up, up and the air fills with an ominous drone. Television is rarely this potent.

Gus as the Terminator
Season 4, “Face Off”

A case can be made that Breaking Bad went from a cult hit to a cultural phenomenon with this scene. That unforgettable moment was perhaps the biggest “Holy SHIT!” of the entire series. Despite the still relatively small audience at the time – 1.9 million viewers tuned in, or just 1/5th the number who watched the show’s finale – the Internet exploded with glee, shock, excitement, and a wave of proselytizing from fans urging everyone and anyone to watch this show. For those who watched it live or without spoilers beforehand, it will likely remain one of the most memorable TV moments they ever see.

After an entire season of cat-and-mouse games between Walt and Gus, Walt rigs Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair with explosives. Gus comes in to once again taunt his old adversary, but Hector is able to have the last laugh. He triggers the explosive, blowing his nursing home room to shreds. Then, unbelievably, the camera pans to the door where we see Gus strolling from the room, calm, collected, and inexplicably still alive – but only for a moment, because as the camera continues to pan we see that half his face has been blown off down to the skull. He adjusts his tie, collapses, and dies. Walt wins. The audience cheers. And the show cements its place in legend.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Season 5, “Dead Freight”

Breaking Bad frequently shocked us over the years, but it was never shocking just for the sake of being shocking. Even its most over-the-top moments served a greater purpose. The crash of Wayfarer 515 was a lesson in the law of unintended consequences. Murder-by-ATM underscored the reality of what meth does to people and horrified Jesse onto his path towards a purer sense of morality. Gus Fring’s half-blown off face was as symbolic as it was shocking. So when a 14-year-old boy is shot in cold blood, you know it’s not simply to make us gasp – even if it does make us gasp.

Walter, Jesse, Mike and Todd had just gotten done hijacking a train’s supply of methylamine when they realize a kid on a dirt bike, Drew Sharp, has been watching them celebrate. Walt had earlier warned that no one must know about the heist, so before anyone can react, Todd shoots the kid. As an audience we were left numb, especially since the murder came at the end of a light and fun heist sequence, but not as numb as Jesse, who has an affinity for kids. The shooting ends up fracturing the short-lived post-Gus meth crew, sets the stage for Todd becoming one of the show’s most hated villains, and reminds us that in the world Walter White has created for himself, no one is safe. Not even children.

Walt Offers A Friendly Warning
Season 5, “Blood Money”

We had been waiting five years for this moment. Hank, the coarse but diligent DEA agent we eventually came to respect, was destined to discover that his brother-in-law was the elusive Heisenberg. The tension had long kept us on the edge of our seats, and the delicate balancing act Walt had to play to continue his role as a drug lord even while maintaining the facade of a normal family man was one of the show’s greatest sources of drama. In some ways, that dichotomy defined the show. So when Hank finally found out the truth about Walter and confronted him, we expected something big.

Instead of something big and explosive, though, Breaking Bad’s creators defied expectations and gave us a small, quiet moment more powerful than any explosion could ever be. Hank is certain Walt is Heisenberg, he just needs to build a case. Meanwhile, Walt suspects Hank is on to him, and goes to Hank’s house to confront him. With the garage door down and the lights dim, the two square off, Hank seething both at Walt’s betrayal and at knowing Heisenberg was under his nose the whole time, Walt not worried about being caught as much as he is about having his image as a good family man shattered. And then Walt, knowing Hank doesn’t have a rock solid case yet, offers a dire warning: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” It was heart-stopping stuff that opened the final stretch of the series with an air of menace that would last through the finale.


For more about this awesome show, including examinations of each season, a look at Walt and Jesse's father/son relationship, a journey inside the mind of Gus Fring, and more, check out my book, Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Unpeeling the Layers of Television's Greatest Drama, available in paperback and for Kindle.