Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Picking Up Flags, Putting Down Integrity

There's an ESPN explosion of coverage on the controversial call that ended the Patriots at Panthers game on Monday night. I'll summarize it this way. The Patriots were at the end of a last gasp effort to win the game, a common occurrence in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Down 24-20, time ran out as Brady threw a pass into the endzone intended for (on a path for) Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was running for the back of the endzone. He was also being bearhugged by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. (The use of the word "bearhugged" is not an exaggeration.) Brady's pass was intercepted near the front of the endzone. The clock expired. Game over, right? Right...except for the flag that was induced by the Kuechly-Gronkowski bearhug and then picked up following an official's conference.

That non-called penalty is the focus of all the post-game banter. Was it actually a penalty as the ball would have been intercepted anyway as there was no way for Gronkowski to get to it? Does it matter if the ball would have been intercepted anyway because a bearhug is a bearhug and is illegal? What do coaches and officials that weren't involved in the game have to say about it? All of these questions are irrelevant and are an example of the minutia that permeates the content put out by the mainstream media. What happened, happened. There is no point in speculating if it should have happened differently and what would have happened afterwards if it did. Rather, the discussion should be about why what happened, happened and if that reason is right.

In other words, this "controversy" is an example of missing the forest for the trees. The focus is so intensely on one tree, the picked up flag, that all the other ones are being missed. Other ones such as:

1. Kuechly bearhugs Gronkowski
2. Panthers Tight End Greg Olsen holds Patriots Cornerback Devin McCourty and McCourty is called for holding

Both trees demonstrate the same issue--players doing what they know is against the rules in order to gain any advantage possible. In number one, Kuechly is trying to prevent a big and tremendous pass-catcher from moving how he naturally would to catch the ball. The rules are specifically written to prevent this type of action by defenders. In number two, Olsen is holding onto McCourty in a way that makes it seem like McCourty is holding him (I wish I had a better picture) in order to draw a holding penalty. That action is, in a word, dishonest. Players, coaches, and fans sidestep that dishonesty by saying you do whatever it takes to win. "Whatever it takes" includes intentionally flouting the rules in hopes of not getting caught, apparently.

Winning by breaking the rules is an oxymoron. The rules are what make the game what it is. They are the parameters you play within. You're talking about different footballs if you score by kicking a ball into a net or if you score by moving a ball into a specific zone. Even if those rules are the only ones you play with, they are still parameters. They are limitations on reality that tell you what a "score" means. The game then is about measuring who can score in that manner the best--who has the most skill at completing that goal. Any rules that are subsequently added are intended to make sure the process for determining who can score the best is fair and correct. You want to make sure you are measuring the right things.

We could argue all day about whether the rules in the NFL fulfill that purpose (and I agree, there are many that don't), but the rule book is agreed on prior to each season by owners, coaches, players, league officials, and/or representatives of each of these groups. By agreeing to play by the set of rules, a person is agreeing that process is proper for determining who is better at a certain skill. So what does it mean when a player openly flouts the rules to do "whatever it takes to win"? He doesn't care about the game. He only cares about winning. The only problem is there's no such thing as winning without rules. Everyone works towards achieving different values. Rules ensure that a group of people are working toward the same value. That is what winning a game is. "We both find this skill equally valuable. Whoever can do it bests deserves to be honored for it."

The "whatever it takes to win" mentality is certainly not limited to football. (I would argue it's a larger cultural issue.) However, in recent years I've seen it's prevalence grow in the game. The Panthers are the most recent franchise in a series of defensively oriented teams that have utilized this approach. (The most notable would be the Ravens.) Each of these teams has been known for their mentally tough and physically brutal play--at least, that's how they're characterized. I, on the other hand, find their play to be dishonest, dirty, and dangerous. This in-congruence is an important issue. When the "whatever it takes" approach is intentionally whitewashed in post-championship exhalations by exaggerating other supposed strengths these teams possess, it devalues the entire game, season, and league.

I know, I know, how dare a Patriots fan write about this issue and continue to support the franchise after "Spygate." Honestly, I'm tired of that argument. Accepting that the Patriots were using the "whatever it takes to win" approach with Spygate requires that you accept Belichick is a despicable human being who not only used that approach but then lied about using it afterward. The evidence just doesn't support that view of Belichick, even though many people do. That's fine, of course. It's up to them to decide what they believe, but it makes me wonder, are these people the same that advocate the "whatever it takes to win" approach (I mean, everyone does it, right?) and are just mad that Belichick does it (according to them) better than them or their team?

I know, I know, I also sound like a pussy right now. I should nut up and be a man. I'm just complaining because I'm not good enough, right? Wrong. People who believe they aren't good enough flout rules because they don't think they can win within them. Men come to agreements and stick to them because they believe the agreements are right and they are good enough to succeed within those agreements. Ultimately, respect for rules (that you've agreed to) is respect for yourself.

I don't care that the Panthers beat the Patriots on Monday night. I've witnessed much worse losses in my time as a Patriots fan. (18-1 for one,) I care that I'm supposed to sweep all of it under the rug by accepting that the Patriots didn't play nearly well enough to deserve to win even though it was an extremely close game the entire time; and if I don't except that, I'm a whiny crybaby who isn't smart, mature, or masculine.

The Panthers won. The refs fucked up. I accept those facts. I also trust that the NFL is run in a manner so that most games won't end this way; and if a lot of games do end this way, the NFL will do something to fix it as soon as possible. If I couldn't confidently say any of these things, I wouldn't be a football fan. It would be a waste of my time. I just wonder why so many people who can't say these things insist on remaining involved.

There's a lot of trees in the forest. Find another one to climb.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Breaking Down Breaking Bad: You Can't Destroy to Live

(Note: If you intend on watching Breaking Bad and don't want to be spoiled, stop reading. This post is heavy on spoilers as there's no way to write about the show without them.)

I finally did it. After some good old fashioned peer pressure and one very good argument, I watched a man recently diagnosed with cancer slowly die over 62 episodes of a television series. This wasn't a tragic tale of a disease debilitating an honorable man either. This was a descent into evil and madness--a cleverly plotted, deeply dark, and difficult to watch modern Western that serves as a depressing and scathing indictment of the American ideal.

Over the five season run of Breaking Bad, protagonist Walter White transformed from mild-mannered science teacher Walt to America's-Most-Wanted Meth kingpin Heisenberg. The show is the story of that transformation. What happens to a man when he becomes pure evil? Every character other than Walt is nothing more than a tool to demonstrate how he has changed.

 Skyler, Walt's wife, and Jesse Pinkman, Walt's protege, are two sides to the same coin--prisoners who suffer the depth's of Walt's emotional and intellectual manipulation. Hank, Walt's brother-in-law and foil, is the constant reminder that Walt isn't meant to be viewed as a hero. Gus, Walt's distributor-cum-boss and another type of foil, is a reason for Walt to resort to even more ruthless and reckless methods. Everyone else is just a bit player, including Walt's children--necessities of plot development or the fleshing out of the situations that brings about the rise of evil.

I mean, what exactly does Walt Jr. aka Flynn do with his friend Lewis in all that time they spend together? Hell, why did he specifically choose to be called "Flynn?" The answers to these questions don't matter, just as it doesn't matter what happens to any of these characters when Walt isn't around anymore. Not since 8 Mile where Eminem's Jimmy Smith was in every scene have I seen a motion picture, let alone a television series, focus so intensely on one character.

Perhaps for that fact alone Breaking Bad should be applauded. Television series are known for being ensemble pieces, long drawn out sagas where each character and actor gets a turn in the spotlight and under the microscope. At times this approach can become tedious and trivial as we learn Claire once dressed like a goth (LOST) or mostly anything that happens with Jason Street beyond the pilot (Friday Night Lights). There are no such deviations from Walt's world however, and that's just how he wants it.

Despite any pretense to the contrary about family (not-so-subtlety planted by corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman), it's all about Walt (and Bryan Cranston's sublime portrayal of him). Sorry Jesse fans (and I may mainly be speaking for myself here), if you hoped for more than 10 minutes of screen time for him in the final episode (or any other character for that matter), you were severely disappointed. Perhaps you should count your blessings though. Jesse may have limped away at series end as a physical and psychological mess, but that's much more than most people who crossed paths with Heisenberg can say.

The other reason to laud Breaking Bad with praise is its well paced and compelling plotting. As with any descent into drug culture, it's a narrative of escalation. As Walt goes from unknown cook to kingpin of a Meth empire, he deals with more and more powerful drug movers and dispatches them with more and more complex and violent schemes. He becomes intertwined with an international company based in Germany. He hires neo-Nazis to off six people in different prisons in a two minute span. Early on, I thought this plot pattern would become redundant. Thankfully, in the middle of Season 3, the introduction of Gus signaled a shift in quality and scope. Suddenly the developments are compelling and logical as Walt is a pawn in the schemes of a drug lord embroiled in a feud with the Cartel. Of course, if there's one thing Walt hates, it's being a pawn.

Throughout the series, Walt hides behind the veneer of self-interest and rationality while working toward the antithesis of rationality--destruction. He harps on the fact that people owe him because he devised the formula for the purest meth ever and repeats that he earned all his money from cooking it. Yet somehow he thinks that whenever anyone else tries to assert that they deserve a piece of the pie, they're illegitimately controlling him and thus killing them is justified.

Walt can give lip service to the idea of creation and earning as much as he wants. In reality, all he does is take. He sees everything as a power struggle. Either you're in control of other people or they're in control of you--and whoever's in control takes from those people he controls. Logically, such relationships can only progress to one point--force, either through manipulation or violence. That is exactly how Walt treated every character in the series until his empire crumbled. When someone stopped allowing Walt to take from him, either emotionally or financially, their death arrived sooner rather than later.

If you followed my live-tweeting of my viewing of the series, you know that I frequently compared Walt to the eponymous main character of Dexter. Both protagonists are anti-heroes who live a double-life that involves manipulation, violence, and a search for self-actualization. Notice how that description also applies to many contemporary television characters--Francis Underwood from House of Cards, Dr. House from House, Don Draper from Mad Men, Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire. The list goes on. Also note how each of these characters work and/or exist in fields, locations, and time periods that are revered parts of the American identity: education, justice, medicine, politics, advertising, Washington DC, Manhattan, the 50s, Prohibition.

Shows like Dexter have fallen short at taking a stance on their anti-hero and his self-indulgent ways. At the end of its final season, Dexter had its psychopath protagonist suddenly develop empathy and lose his desire to kill. Breaking Bad makes no such misstep. Walt is unequivocally one of the worst villains in television history (perhaps in American lore). By series end he is compared to the Unabomber. His laser-like focus on asserting his control on the world has destroyed the lives of everyone he touched, including his own. That irony is what Walt never realizes. True evil never does. (In contrast, Dexter's new-found humanity helps him realizes the destruction he brings so he exiles himself by disappearing to a logging job and one-room cabin in the Northwest.) You can't build anything, an empire or a life, through destruction. It's a chilling commentary on how Americanism viewed solely as empire building changes a man.

Still, despite the quality plotting, production, and protagonist, I'm still left with the same question I had when I started the series, the one that kept me from watching it for a good while. Why do I want to spend my time watching a show completely focused on pure evil? Is the point to understand it? Can't that goal be achieved through other types narratives? Bryan Fuller's Hannibal gives a closeup look at evil through the gaze of Will Graham, a man trying to stop and not succumb to it. Sometimes his struggle feels harrowing, others hopeful. In contrast, there were few moments that moved me in Breaking Bad, and when I was moved it was most often to a deep hatred for Walt. What value does that add to my life?

As an aspiring writer, Breaking Bad enriched my life by teaching me plenty about plotting and some about characterization. As a viewer seeking to be entertained, the show shined through with a few glowing moments before leaving me like Jesse Pinkman--limping away, glad its over, finally free of its control.