Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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The Yup Stops Here, Storage Wars

The heat doesn’t get to me, but I know it takes a toll on the other buyers.
I’m going to use it to my advantage.

There’s probably no more tiresome criticism of reality television than the parroted claim that “it isn’t real.” It’s a meaningless comment that misses the point entirely. The Simpsons aren’t real either, nor were the group of friends who hung around Central Perk, nor were those wisecracking doctors in the Korean War. Ultimately, none of that matters. The aim of any television show — of any kind, in any genre, from any time period — is singular: to entertain enough people that it remains profitable. You’ll fool only yourself if you try to think otherwise.

Of course the difference between reality shows and my other examples above is that reality shows are populated with people rather than characters. Right? In Storage Wars professional pest Dave Hester is a man who really exists, of the same name, who really does buy storage lockers for a living. He’s not played by Dan Castellaneta or Matthew Perry or Alan Alda. He’s a real person you can find actually doing this in real life.

Here’s the big secret, though: that doesn’t matter.

Dave Hester — or any “character” from any reality show of your choice — may well exist. But that does not separate him as solidly from any openly fictional creation as one might think. In both cases, whether you’re a yellow-skinned cartoon dad or flesh-and-blood human being who is filmed as you go about your business, you fill the same role: you’re a character in a TV show that wants to keep viewers entertained.

Which is why the argument that reality shows “aren’t real” is meaningless. They don’t want to be real, no matter what they may say. They want to be profitable. They want to be watched. “Reality” is low on the list of things to strive for when assembling any given episode. Maybe you feel the Duck Dynasty guys play it up to the camera, while Intervention features real people with real problems. You’re allowed to feel both of those things, but ultimately those are just two different paths that two different shows have chosen to follow in order to achieve the same thing: profitability.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsPerhaps you’d fault a “reality show” for using scripted segments and set pieces, but ultimately they’re doing it for you. After all, if they didn’t have their dramatic moments, quick zingers and narrative flow, would you still be watching?

It’s the narrative flow that I’m really going to dig into here, because that’s why “reality programming” can never be real. And that’s okay.

Think about your own life. Think about what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve failed to accomplish, the relationships you’ve had, the jobs you’ve held, and the people whose lives you’ve affected. There might be a good story in there, somewhere.

Now think about all of the meals you’ve eaten, the days you’ve spent sick in bed, the time you’ve lost in traffic jams, the numberless uneventful trips to the supermarket, and all the weekend afternoons you spent scrubbing the bathroom floor.

What I’m getting at is this: your life, anyone’s life, real life, is a combination of components from these two categories. You have the important stuff on one side, and the unavoidable but ultimately meaningless stuff on the other. And — fun fact — the meaningless stuff will always and must always outweigh the important stuff, in a quantitative sense.

This prevents real life from ever making a good story. There isn’t narrative flow. You’re always stuck with the boring parts; there’s no skipping them. Bad things happen to good people and they just happen. There isn’t a reason for most of the things you’ll experience…no mustache twirling villain lobbing obstacles in your way, no ultimate goal that you’ll need to achieve. Reality isn’t a story; it really is just a bunch of stuff that happens.

Which is why it’s okay that reality shows “aren’t real.” Of course they’re not. If they were, we’d see people sit around awkwardly in real time for 22 minutes trying to make stilted conversation. Reality shows shouldn’t do that. That’s not fun, that’s not watchable, and that’s certainly not profitable. Nobody wins, and if you really wanted to see “reality” when turning on the television you should probably have turned your head to look out the window instead.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsNo, in order for reality to become a story, it needs to be edited. Finessed into a more cohesive statement. Trimmed of its dull parts and with its stronger moments emphasized. Think about your life again, but this time don’t think about all the mundane aspects. Concentrate, maybe, on an important relationship you’ve had, or a time you stood up for something that was right, or a seemingly insurmountable difficulty that you overcame. Only focus on the moments that contributed to this eventual triumph, and — this is important — stop thinking of anything at all that might have happened after your moment of success. Through the magic of editing, now you’ve got a story.

I like Storage Wars. I think it’s a good show, and if you asked me why I’d probably say something about the characters, or about the interesting items that they find. Ultimately, though, I’m fully aware of the fact that every episode is “assembled,” and on some level what I’m really responding to is the reliability of the structure. This isn’t found footage presented in the raw; this is a formula decided upon by producers and editors so that every episode, even in a show about people who buy storage lockers and hope for the best, follows a clear narrative.

First we see all of the main characters arrive at the location for the day, then they exchange pleasantries. Then we watch some bidding. Once everyone who’s going to get a locker has one, we get to watch them rummage around looking for a rare or expensive item to show off. Later on the group splinters off to have their finds appraised, and we close with a scorecard showing how much money each bidder made.

It’s simple, but it can afford to be simple. We need only the barest sketch of a narrative upon which to hang our attention, but we do need one. I don’t think the show would be impenetrable if, for instance, we cut back and forth between different auctions on different days, or followed one bidder all the way through the process before starting over with another, but I do think it would look messy and be needlessly confusing. The format provides structure, and it also provides a kind of security…both for us, as viewers, and for those who appear in the show. Everybody knows where they are.

Storage Wars until recently featured four main bidding groups: Barry Weiss, Darrell Sheets and his son Brandon, Jarrod Schulz and his wife Brandi, and Dave Hester who is no longer on the show. Sometimes we’d get appearances from other bidders as well, but that was the main cast that you could expect to see in any given episode.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsWhat’s interesting about “The Yup Stops Here,” though, is that it feels just different enough not to be mistaken for any given episode. It features the same bidders listed above, and it’s presented in the same format outlined above as well. But when assembling this particular narrative, the editors took an interesting approach.

We typically get captions telling us where the episode takes place, or subtitling whispered dialogue, but this time around we get something more: we get a time stamp. More importantly, we also get a temperature reading.

As an editor of a show like this, you are massively beholden to the footage you have.* It’s nice to think that an episode can be magically whipped up depending upon editorial whims on any given day, but if you don’t have romantic footage you can’t create a love story, and if you don’t have footage of two people fighting you can’t make such a conflict the centerpiece of your episode. When you do have small moments like that you can of course emphasize them and mislead your viewers into believing them to be more significant events than they actually were, but you need something to work with first. It’s editing, not alchemy.

In this episode, the editors seem to have taken their cue from a comment made by Dave Hester on his way to the auction. He talks about how hot it’s going to be today, and how he’s going to use the heat to irritate his fellow bidders. This way, he says, they will become flustered, make silly mistakes, and overpay.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsIt’s a threat, and the editors are able to see from the footage that follows that he does see it through, so — just like that — “The Yup Stops Here” has its framing device: the heat.

What’s more, there are 25 lockers up for bid today. We don’t know if this is an exceptionally high number, but we do know that the episode at least pretends that it is, drawing attention to how long the bidders have been standing around, how much hotter it’s gotten as the day progressed, and including quick snippets of auctions ending in order to emphasize the tedium of the day.

Typically we don’t see anything like this. One very obvious editing choice for the show is that we only see the auctions that result in a win for Dave, Barry, Jarrod or Darrell; if it’s won by any of the nameless bidders in the crowd around them, it simply gets cut.

At least, it usually does. By including other wins — even in the form of quick cuts — “The Yup Stops Here” is giving us a more realistic look at what a day of bidding on units must be like. There’s a lot of standing around in the sun, growing irritable and uncomfortable as the day gets hotter, watching other people walk off with the items you wanted. The curtain is pulled back, just enough, and it’s pulled back for a reason: Dave’s threat. After all, it wouldn’t mean much if the day was over in 22 minutes. What we need to see is an entire, grueling afternoon, so we know what Dave’s talking about when he says he’s going to take advantage.

The episode is no longer than any other, but this small tweak to the format makes it play out like Storage Wars: The Movie. As fans of any show know, a change in format makes you pay attention that much more; it keeps you on edge, and you remain fixed to the action because…well, if they bothered to change the format, they must have done so for a reason. So whether it’s Archie locked in the basement, Walt and Jesse chasing a fly or a demon that makes all the characters communicate in song, we watch more closely, because we know the show’s getting at something.

Here, the show is getting at the consequences of Dave’s threat. Never before have the actual items found or the money earned felt less important…what we have here is admitted psychological torture administered by the show’s closest thing to a villain.

Dave Hester is an interesting case. He left Storage Wars after season three, alleging various strange things about the show. His main complaint was that producers stuffed lockers with the items we see on television; it wasn’t really found by the bidders as we see at home. He complained that since it’s illegal to fix game shows, the producers of Storage Wars were breaking the law.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsThis is a claim worth debunking in several ways. For starters, planting literally millions of dollars of priceless antiques in storage units defeats the entire purpose of reality programming; it’s a genre that exists so that lots of episodes can be made quickly and cheaply. Secondly, it’s interesting that Dave incorrectly identifies Storage Wars as a game show, because the conventions of that genre are entirely different from the one in which he actually appears, and it’s possible that because he saw himself as a game show champion, he never realized that he was actually a reality show villain.

In this episode he pushes back against his fellow bidders aggressively. When Barry — an older gentleman who definitely knows how to work the cameras, the crowd and the audience at home — shows interest in a locker, Dave keeps bidding higher and higher just so Barry will have to pay more. He makes no secret of this, and eventually stops bidding on the sarcastic pretext that he didn’t realize Barry wanted it; he’d never stand in his good friend’s way.

It’s just the first missile he fires in the heat, and it’s his only successful one. As if in response to Dave’s claim that the show is “fixed,” this episode seems dead set on following everything he does to his fellow bidders in order to throw them off their game…up to and including a verbal confrontation with Darrell’s son Brandon.**

What happens on screen is every bit as uncomfortable as any high school scuffle you might have witnessed in real life…with the exception of the fact that Dave Hester, who appears to be in his late 40s, is sparring with a much fitter man in his early 20s. While Dave wants to appear in control and intimidating, he actually comes off as rather pathetic, and the discomfort in the crowd around him is palpable. At one point he mentions the fact that Darrell is standing between them is the only reason he’s not in an actual fistfight, which gives Darrell the funniest moment in the episode as he casually strolls away and observes, “Brandon’ll kill him.”

But no punches are thrown. The cameras are there. Far from inventing drama, the cameras here absolutely quell it, as both parties — as upset and heat-crazed as they are — know better than to assault another human being while being filmed for television. And as Brandon walks away — taking with him the title of Bigger Man — there’s a little bit of inevitable disappointment that Dave didn’t get punched. After all, he’s the bad guy. But that’s okay…we still have half the episode left…and narrative convention tells us he’s primed for a fall.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsThe heat goes on, the lockers go by, and the bidders are tired and frustrated. Barry finds himself in the same situation that Dave was in before: he knows Dave wants a unit, and he intends to make him pay more for it, just to get even. He pulls this off successfully, and is clearly happy about it, but Dave won’t admit defeat. He takes Barry over to the locker and tells him that it was Barry’s loss…there’s a 125 year old couch in the unit and it’s going to make Dave a fortune.

Barry’s response is something I’ll always be able to point to as evidence that the show — at least in its bidding portions — is real. He makes Dave a hasty bet of $5,000 that he’s wrong.

This isn’t a Mitt Romney style moment of misjudgment…this is an exasperated man who is tired of being pushed around in the heat by someone who cannot accept defeat. He doesn’t bet Dave $5,000 to be funny, to be cute, or to look cool on camera. He bets Dave $5,000 because Dave is wrong, Barry knows he’s wrong, and he’s had enough that he’s going to go out of his way to make him look like an ass.

Barry’s the anti-Dave in practically every way. He’s playful, with a natural charm and a genuine quick wit. He’s friendly, and though he does get caught up in the same bidding-up game that everyone does on this show, he never initiates it. He admits defeat regularly, and seems to just want to have a good time. We see this silver-haired guy with the silly skeleton gloves and the restless desire to make people laugh, and we like him.

Dave is aggressive. He pushes people, and relishes the fact that the cameras don’t let them push back. He’s a bully, and doesn’t really seem to have much fun. Whenever the show employs an obviously-scripted talking head featuring one of the bidders making a bad pun about something they found in the locker, Dave is noticeably absent. He doesn’t record lines like that. There’s a certain honor in that decision, but there’s a much larger stubbornness, and it’s not attractive in a character.

The Yup Stops Here, Storage WarsThe $5,000 bet turns Dave’s threat right around on him. Yes, Dave did indeed needle his opponents in the sweltering heat until they cracked…but when they cracked, they took it out on him. They didn’t make silly mistakes; instead they came at him with knives out. He physically threatens a boy half his age, doesn’t think enough to walk away from the fight, tricks his fellow bidders into paying more than they can afford on lockers he knows are full of junk, and needles the nicest guy on the show into making him a $5,000 bet just to shut him up.

Barry ultimately wins the bet as an appraiser confirms that the couch is nowhere near that old, and when he does Dave storms off, leaving Barry and the appraiser behind, saying with his back to the camera that they can keep the couch. And when this happens, especially as it’s followed by the episode’s score card touting Barry as the winner and Dave $5,000 in the hole, it really does feel like the triumph of good over evil.

But that’s because it’s a TV show. And maybe this stuff actually happened, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that somewhere in an editing booth, people took real words and real moments and real confrontations, and turned them into an engaging piece of television.

Does “The Yup Stops Here” accurately represent what happened that day? I don’t care. The events are being sculpted in a way that takes what was probably just a miserable day bidding on storage lockers, and turns it into a sharp and insightful character piece, with quiet meditations on manhood, hubris and friendship thrown in for good measure.

They took actual footage of real people going about their day, and turned it into an engrossing, effective work of art. Is that misleading? That’s not the word I’d use. I’d call it impressive.

Reality TV isn’t real. It’s not supposed to be. It’s just supposed to be entertaining, and that’s enough for me.

——
* As if to illustrate this point, during the Dave and Brandon squabble we get a couple of seconds of people’s ankles, presumably because the camera simply wasn’t there to catch what was being said.

** The episode’s title is a telling stab at him as well, as it effectively uses Dave’s “Yup!” catchphrase against him…and, sure enough, after this season the yup did stop.

Retro City Rampage

Good gosh!
The hero has arrived.

Last month, a game called Retro City Rampage was released for download on the Wii. By this point, the Wii is already dead, its place in the console market usurped by the WiiU. This was a too-late release for the system in another way as well: other versions of the game on competing systems were released in 2012. The game itself was announced in 2010…and development began all the way back in 2002. That’s an extremely long journey for anything on its way to a dead platform.

I remember the announcement well, because I decided more or less immediately that I didn’t want it. It seemed like a nice idea — retro-style games such as Mega Man 9, the Bit.Trip series and VVVVVV had a pretty high success rate as far as I was concerned, and I’d take a simplistic, difficult romp over a modern-day talky slog every time — but early screen shots, and then the eventual trailer, were enormously disappointing.

Or, rather, there was one specific thing about those screenshots and trailers that was disappointing: the sheer number of references.

Retro City RampageI’ve written about this before. I’m simply not a fan of references for references’ sake. I don’t like the modern tendency for the snake to wink as it swallows its tail. I want to see art that carves out its own space to inhabit…not lazily inhabit the spaces carved out by those who came before.

There’s a place in the world for parody — of course there is — but that place is not front and center. That place is not in the spotlight. When parody becomes the dominant form of expression you end up with garbage like Epic Movie, which ends up spoofing Nacho Libre because there simply isn’t enough straight-laced material to serve as fuel anymore, and comedy has to begin eating itself.

Personally, I’m happy to blame Family Guy for the glut of lazy references and recreations masquerading as something new. Parody has existed long before Family Guy, of course, and lazy parody has existed exactly as long. But only Family Guy seems to have found more success the lazier it gets, to the point that entire sequences and acts consist of word-for-word reenactments of other programs, films, music videos, or anything else the writers might have watched earlier that week.

It’s lazy, and it’s not creative. But people eat it up. Prior to its first cancellation, Family Guy knew how to pull off its warped style of twisted comedy. Since its revival, it’s circled ceaselessly toward a lazy singularity, replacing jokes and cleverness with joyless recreations. It’s not funny, it’s not interesting, and it even drifts into the territory of insult when they decide to lift wholesale scenes from other parodies, such as Airplane! Perhaps the Family Guy staff simply can’t tell the difference anymore. Certainly its audience can’t. And that’s beyond disappointing…that’s irresponsible.

Retro City RampageRetro City Rampage appeared to be following in those footsteps. One of the areas resembled the first stage of Metal Gear for the NES, complete with on-screen mocking of that game’s infamous Engrish. Two of the characters are named Bill and Lance, who we remember from Contra. A store called WonderHats uses the ThunderCats font. A dessert parlor is called Vanilla Ice Cream. Tee hee hee.

Even its title is a triple reference: Grand Theft Auto, River City Ransom, and Rampage. This is all before you get to the clear Back to the Future homage of its cover art. The entire thing just screamed out that it was pieced together from bits and fragments of better things.

It felt cheap. It felt lazy. It felt like it was attempting to coast on the goodwill engendered by its source material, rather than any merit that it could have possibly earned on its own. It wanted the laughter of recognition. And that’s quite possibly the least satisfying kind of laughter there is.

The game boasted a huge world to explore, but if all I was doing is finding cutesy puns on the signage and identifying bland references to better games, then it didn’t feel worth exploring. At least Family Guy delivers its own personal blend of offensive laziness to you passively…Retro City Rampage required interaction. It wasn’t enough to just groan at what you were seeing…you first would have to make the effort to track it down.

And I wasn’t interested in that.

But I learned something from Retro City Rampage. Specifically, I learned that Family Guy has done even more damage than I thought. Because not only does it train me to see references like this — even in things that I enjoy — as unnecessary and annoying, but it made me forget why people started making references like this in the first place: love.

At Nintendo Life, Featured Editor and all-around great guy Thomas Whitehead interviewed Brian Provinciano, essentially the single man responsible for the entire game. And it was a good interview, but here’s what really stood out to me:

It became public knowledge on Gamasutra in 2009 that a sales threshold is in place, whereas, if you don’t sell enough copies [as a WiiWare download], you don’t get paid a cent. […] Many developers became unable to sell enough units, and this became a reason for so many cancellations of announced WiiWare titles. The publishers knew they wouldn’t make a cent and needed to cut their losses. Between the office rent, hardware, insurance, game ratings and other costs, had I not done the WiiWare version, I could’ve saved around $20,000 – not even including my salary in porting it. And as it stands, virtually no games hit the threshold these days, so it’s only being released as fan service. A $20,000 gift to the fans.

There’s no chance — and I say this in the nicest possible way — that Retro City Rampage will hit that sales threshold. Most games released through the WiiWare service never made it, and that was definitely one of Nintendo’s major missteps with the Wii. Far from encouraging developers to put their best work into the console, it encouraged them to put it anywhere else. Releasing through WiiWare was expensive, and as more developers and games failed to turn a profit, fewer developers and games went near the service at all.

Retro City RampageWith fewer games, the audience simply drifted away. A sales threshhold that was already near-impossible to hit just got shoved that much further out of reach.

Additionally the Wii is dead. And, with it, WiiWare. Retro City Rampage comes long after most Wii owners will have upgraded to the WiiU, and the ones that stayed behind aren’t likely to be in the habit of checking the shop channel anymore. On top of that, just about anyone who was dying for Retro City Rampage would have simply bought it somewhere else over the course of the past year.

And yet, here it is. Not because it’s expected to make any money…in fact, Provinciano is convinced it will lose him money. And I agree.

But he released it because he could. Because he made enough money from its other versions to put this one out there on a Nintendo console, as a gift to the fans. A “$20,000 gift to the fans,” to be exact.

And that’s love. That’s love, and that’s nothing short of love.

That’s also what made me buy Retro City Rampage. I know this version of the game won’t make a dime, but I bought it anyway. Because that’s the least I can do. Far from the smorgasbord of lazy references and winking visual recreations of classic games, Retro City Rampage was made with love. How do I know that? Because nothing but love could make you shovel twenty thousand dollars into a release you already know will be totally unprofitable.

It’s what I remembered about references, about why people make them, and why they took such an easy foothold in parody and pop-culture: making them betrays, or should, a love for that source material. It’s a form of flattery, a form of tipping one’s hat, respectfully, to those that laid the groundwork for what you are now able to do.

Family Guy doesn’t express love. It can’t, because it feels none. Its references are lazy at best and outright mean-spirited at worst. Robot Chicken feels very much the same way. It lives to deflate the cultural ephemera of days gone by. By contrast, when Futurama incorporates the lore of other science fiction works into its universe, it feels like the show saying thank you…no matter how they subvert the character, idea or object. Futurama exists because its creators and writers love the genre, and want to play with the same toys. Family Guy might have existed at first because Seth MacFarlane loved the golden age of television, but it continues to exist just to feed more meat into the grinder. It all comes out the same. A joyless, tasteless, inconsequential mush.

Retro City RampageRetro City Ransom, which I can say now that I’ve played it, is great. But I almost missed it, simply because I forgot that references aren’t always lazy…they’re often, when done right, admirable. They’re a familiar seasoning in a new and exciting dish. At least, again, when done right.

Many years ago, in 1999 or so, I made two video games myself. They were both part of the same series. The first was called Larry Vales: Traffic Division, and its sequel was Larry Vales II: Dead Girls Are Easy. I haven’t thought about them in a long time, though certainly at the time I was working on them they were everything to me. I invested a lot of creative effort into two games that, for all their faults — and there were faults, boy howdy — people enjoyed. That was all I really wanted. I wanted to make people laugh, and I wanted people to have fun.

A couple of years ago I found a video on YouTube of somebody playing through the first game. I watched it, and re-experienced the game for the first time in around a decade. And I was overwhelmed by the number of references I crammed into it. Whereas Retro City Rampage mainly pays homage to classic NES games like Super Mario Bros. and Bionic Commando and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Larry Vales paid homage to The Simpsons, and 1984, and Pink Floyd. In short, it was everything that had inspired me, at some point…just as Provinciano refers back to everything that inspired him.

Watching that video, I cringed. I felt lazy. I felt as though I had every opportunity to make something interesting and unique, but I fell back on mindlessly referring to other things that I enjoyed, hoping that others would share in the nostalgia, and that would be enough. I was being a bit harsh on myself, I think now, but I also believe there’s some truth to that.

But that’s just the Family Guy effect. I felt guilty for making those references because the practice of paying gentle homage to your inspirations has been dragged through the muck and become something dirty, something lazy, and, above all else, something to be avoided.

Retro City RampageWhat I forgot — or, perhaps, was in no condition to remember — when watching that video, someone else playing through a game world of my own construction, was that I made those references out of love. They may have been lazy. They may not have been funny. But they were my way of saying thank you…of openly expressing my gratefulness for the so many wonderful things that made me want to create.

That’s a lesson Retro City Rampage taught me, all over again. There are a few bad apples that have poisoned the practice…but, in doing it right, it’s still as noble a way to tip your hat as it ever was.

References are a way of saying thanks. That’s something I’m going to try to remember again. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even give those thanks right back to Retro City Rampage, for showing me that someone, somewhere, still knows how to make them for the right reason, in the right way.

Hell, releasing Retro City Rampage at all, with the complete foreknowledge that it will only lose money, is a way of saying thanks. Provinciano is using Retro City Rampage as a sort of double-sided note of appreciation…he’s thanking the industry that inspired him, and the players who’ve been inspired right along with him.

It’s an admirable thing to do. And I really do hope he ends up turning a profit, against all odds, because it’s nice to see goodness rewarded in the world every now and again.

And the game is also, to put a fittingly obscene button on it, pretty fucking incredible.

You burned so bright…

Neither Bob Dylan nor John Lennon survived 1980. And yet, they’re both still with us. Transformed…echoes of the past. One solid, one ethereal…but both of them spokesmen for a time long gone. The major difference, of course, is that only Dylan’s career was buried. It was Lennon’s body.

Tragedy is relative. In somebody’s mind, John Lennon deserved to die. His death, for reasons neither you nor I nor anybody will ever understand, was necessary. We may not have the right as individuals to decide who should live and who should die, but we all have the ability. One finger, one firearm, one bullet. It’s all anybody needs. It happens all the time. It’s usually somebody we don’t know. It’s sometimes a man who changed the world.

That early December gunshot can still be heard, if you listen hard enough. If you concentrate. If you take a moment to think about how the entire world shifted from one state of being to another, from one bright future to an uncertain, poorer, infinitely more frightening one. It’s easy to hear it, when you think like that. It’s easy to hear it still pounding against your eardrums…a violent swing into another time and place…an audible reduction of hope and optimism. A tragedy in New York City that left the world lost and confused. It’s not that hard to imagine now.

John Lennon was a cultural icon…one of very few people — and even fewer musicians — who shaped the planet on which he lived. He was also — and this is a bit harder to imagine — a human being. He’s dead now, though there’s no reason he has to be. He’s dead now because that’s what somebody decided he’d be.

That was almost thirty-two years ago, as of this writing. I’m thirty-one. I never shared the world that John Lennon helped shape. By the time I was born he was already gone. I inherited a world that was already missing him. I can still hear the echo.

Bob Dylan shared a world with John Lennon. And a friendship. And a history. John Lennon and The Beatles changed history, but Bob Dylan changed The Beatles. He broadened their horizons…an intellectual and experimental emissary from America. They became close. They even wrote a song together, though it was never recorded. Dylan spent most of his time with George Harrison, with whom he wrote songs that actually were recorded. For years John and Bob traded barbs in their separate recordings. They were friendly adversaries. They were troubadours pulling us toward a brighter future. They redefined music, and it was up to everybody else to follow along, and behind.

We all, to some extent, lost John Lennon, but a few people lost him in a more substantial way than they can ever articulate.

Now, thirty-two years and fifteen albums later, Dylan closes Tempest with a paean to his lost friend, the circling, haunting “Roll On John.”

I had never wondered before what Bob Dylan must have thought on the night of December 20, 1980. Why would I have? Yet also…why wouldn’t I have?

It’s all too easy to see celebrities as superhuman. The larger they loom, the further detached they are from the world we inhabit. Particularly in the case of figures so massive as John Lennon and Bob Dylan. They don’t appear to us as people, but as presences. As messengers from magical kingdoms we would not be fit to enter. They aren’t real…they are forces beyond our understanding.

And yet…

And yet.

They can be killed. They can be revealed as mortals after all. At which point…it’s too late.

Bob Dylan lost his friend. We may have lost an idol, a hero, a figurehead, but somewhere out there…somewhere, on a cold winter’s night, a confused artist lost a man he loved.

“Roll On John” swims in survivor’s guilt. Bob Dylan is an old man…something John Lennon was fated never to be.

On the last night of his life, though, if anyone would have expected one of them to be around in 2012, it would have been Lennon. Earlier that year, Lennon released Double Fantasy. It met with a fairly universal critical shrug, but went on to win the Grammy for album of the year, and has received retroactive reappraisal elevating some of its tracks to Lennon’s canon of all-time best, such as “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” and the disarmingly poignant “Watching the Wheels.” Whether he was recording the best music of his career is, was, and must always be up for debate, but there’s no question that he had a great deal left to say, and a still-powerful voice with which to say it.

By contrast, Dylan was a universal joke. An aimless and meandering has-been who was currently in the depths of an embarrassingly public conversion to Christianity. The dangerous Jewish folk-singer who once led millions to challenge the status quo was now unironically and uncreatively singing the praises of Jesus on albums that couldn’t be forgotten soon enough. He had just released Saved, his second disposable album of love songs to Christ (of three). It featured songs such as “Solid Rock,” “Covenant Woman” and “Saving Grace,” all of which were used as ammunition against him by critics and fans alike. He was unquestionably recording the worst music of his career, and it was taken as gospel — ahem — that had nothing left to say, and a failing voice that wouldn’t stop saying it.

It was a stumble Dylan wouldn’t recover from for at least nine years (if your personal resurgence point is Oh! Mercy) and maybe as long as seventeen years (if you’d prefer to go with Time Out of Mind). In 1980, there was no coming back. Dylan was written off. He was dead.

Before the year ended, Lennon joined him. He was dead, too.

Lennon, with a rich and unknowable future before him, was gone. Is gone. Dylan, lost within himself and fumbling to recapture his lost talent, was still alive. Is still alive. I’m not sure that anyone’s pondered the justice of that. Anyone apart from Dylan, that is. Of course.

“I read the news today, oh boy,” Dylan sings in “Roll On John.” Just one of many Lennon lyrics and references that take on a bone-chilling resonance in this new context. This new context of an old man who outlived his usefulness mourning the loss of a young man who never got the chance to fulfill his.

Dylan howls and growls with a voice from beyond the grave…a tormented spirit raging to unburden himself of earthly woe, but to no avail. Bob Dylan started his career by impersonating Woody Guthrie, but seems sometimes to be auditioning now for the part of Jacob Marley.

Lennon’s death was a chance for Dylan — like everybody else — to look inward. If his musical output that followed is any indication, it’s not an opportunity he took seriously. But now, with so many decades separating him from the tragedy, he has the chance to look backward. In fact, “Roll On John” is adapted from a song of the same title Dylan was performing as far back as 1961. As an old man Dylan reflects on a decades-old tragedy, and sees in that reflection himself as a young man, singing a song that wouldn’t yet have meaning for him…wouldn’t yet have meaning until one of his contemporaries, a gentle, love-preaching genius, was shot in the back just before Christmas, and left for dead.

Dylan’s been through his share of tragedies since then, and it’s unlikely that the release of Tempest on September 11 was coincidental. His lovingly tormented remembrance of Lennon is one flavor of New York tragedy…and Dylan knows there are others. In fact, “Roll On John” follows the title track, which is about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. There’s a third flavor. The link is deliberate.

Tragedy is always a term decided by scope, and scope is always personal. The world can change on December 20 or September 11 or April 14 or any other combination of month and day that the calendar will allow. It can change for the better, or it can change for the worst. Waking up one morning does not suggest that you will wake up the next, and it only takes one person to make that decision for you.

Dylan survived, and Dylan survives. His career has been buried and exhumed so many times that keeping the critics satisfied has become exhausting. Instead, Dylan just does what Dylan does…and, sure enough, the critics came around, and are glad he survives.

But Dylan wonders.

If he could have traded places…

…he wonders. How the world would be different. How much he’d be missed, if he was the one gunned down in the street that night instead, at that phase in his career.

What would it mean to people? What could it mean to people? Is it better to die in your prime, loved and beloved, or to age fast and gracelessly, shedding relevance and ticket sales, as the world deteriorates around you?

Which is tragic? What really matters? A sinking ship, a falling tower, a silenced activist. An old man dying alone. A cynical world that can only be shocked back to reality by a major and devastating change. What is tragic? What really matters?

We’re all human, and yet we’re all different. We all hear the same words, and yet process different meanings. We all see the same man, and yet are flooded with different emotions.

Tragedy is what tragedy is. It’s a lesson Dylan waited a long time to learn, apparently. He might still be learning it. We all should be. After all, we’re in this together.

Roll on, Bob.


Or, perhaps, we’re just one of God’s little jokes.

When it comes to sincere and affecting meditations on the human condition, Monty Python will probably not be the first thing that comes to mind. And yet the globally-popular sketch comedy troupe made a name for themselves with material about God, about philosophy, about death, about inner conflict, about melancholy, about fear, about desperation, about alienation, and about pretty much anything else you could imagine.

Those skits, produced mainly for their television program Monty Python’s Flying Circus (though also performed in other media, such as comedy albums and live performances), are more popularly remembered for their clever wordplay and unrivaled physical comedy than they are as any profound explorations of their subjects, but there’s something intrinsically human about the Monty Python canon. After all, that wordplay wouldn’t be as funny if society wasn’t already so confusing, and that physical comedy wouldn’t resonate if we weren’t already conditioned to accept the absurdity of our own daily interactions.

When Terry Jones fails to get medical assistance from Dr. Graham Chapman because he’s bleeding out too quickly to fill out the patient admission forms, there’s a recognizable undercurrent. It’s exaggerated, certainly, but it’s recognizable. When John Cleese performs all manner of silly walks it’s funny…but also forces us to wonder why they are funny, when — we’re led to believe — our own walks, and gestures, and handshakes, and ladder climbing, and dancing, and anything else we do with our bodies are not. Are we just conditioned to accept certain kinds of absurdities as given? Why are Cleese’s silly walks any different? Again, they’re exaggerated, but how much do they need to be exaggerated before we find them funny? Where’s the line between what we do and what we laugh at other people for doing?

The Pythons were always capable of injecting genuine insight into their work, even if they rarely or never chose to openly explore it. Life of Brian would certainly qualify as one of their baldest statements, and it’s also one of their most powerful and best. But what of The Meaning of Life? Comparatively less loved — but no less brilliant — The Meaning of Life seems to arrive with a huge announcement of cosmic philosophizing, putters around in circles for a bit, and then completely runs out of steam.

At least, that’s what it does in one sense. Its aimlessness and lack of drive are part of the joke in a film called The Meaning of Life, but is that all there is to it? Or is there some real, deeper message disguised by its carefully calculated sense of chaos?

The Meaning of Life is Monty Python’s third and final film of original material, and it stands apart from the other two in very obvious ways. First of all, there is no driving plot to the film, and no central character that we can follow from beginning to end. To further the sense of narrative disorientation, it does not even unfold chronologically.

In fact, it’s all too tempting to dismiss the film as being nothing more than a collection of sketches, linked together by some sort of vague insinuation of a common theme. And, to be fair, that’s an understandable perspective for somebody to have. It’s not, however, the final word, because The Meaning of Life does manage to blossom into something more than a string of barely-related comedy skits. It may not bother with a singular, chief narrative and there may not be an Arthur or a Brian with whom we can align ourselves for the ride, but it does open with a question (“I mean, what’s it all about?”), offers a promise that the question will be answered (“For a change, it will all be made clear”), and closes with appropriate fulfillment of that promise (“Thank you, Brigitte”).

The question of The Meaning of Life, posed in the film’s first scene, is resolved just before the film ends. And yet the meaning given at The End of the Film carries no more weight than the other brief ponderances peppered throughout the script, and it only appears to be more important because of its structural placement as concluding sentiment. Here it is in its entirety:

Well, it’s nothing special: try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

Feeling a little dissatisfied with life’s ultimate meaning? You should be. It’s one of the major jokes of the film, after all, and if you are somehow satisfied with what is more an impersonal, itemized list of basic social advice than any kind of real, underlying meaning of existence, well, then the Pythons probably can’t help you.

But let’s not get bogged down in that, because not only is this “Meaning of Life” disappointing…it’s not even the Meaning of Life that the film itself suggests! Nothing in The Meaning of Life suggests that being nice to people will get you anywhere, nor is reading a good book ever suggested to do you much good (though it does get one character out of marching up and down the square). Getting some walking in and avoiding fat might make you less likely to become Mr. Creosote, and living in harmony would have avoided some otherwise pointless death in the war sequences, but, again, even if these items qualify as good advice they don’t actually clarify the mystery of existence. The Meaning of Life explicitly stated by The Meaning of Life therefore isn’t likely to be The Meaning of Life that The Meaning of Life actually believes to be true.

Also, consider the source. Is the female presenter a reliable vessel through which the answers to the grandest of grand questions might be delivered? Certainly not, as, immediately following her delivery of life’s meaning, she lapses into a self-righteous tirade against cinema, censors and the movie-going public in general. (That’s you.) Generally speaking it is never a good idea to take as gospel the proclamations of a character with an obvious agenda, and agendas don’t get any more obvious than hers. As if that were not enough, she then promises “completely gratuitous pictures of penises,” which never do come. (Ahem.) So not only is she biased, but she is also unreliable. If she is not even an authority on the contents of her own film, how could we expect her to understand the workings of the infinite cosmos?

We can’t. So, fine, that much is clear, and the film’s stated Meaning is bunk.

But that, then, should raise a further question: does Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life actually have an answer better than what we are given at the end?

Personally, I believe it does…it’s simply a question — like the fish in the middle of the film — of where.

Skipping The Crimson Permanent Assurance (for the time being), we find ourselves gazing into an empty fish tank…or so we think. First one fish, and then another, and then another four, swim into view, greeting each other and exchanging bland pleasantries.

We should be reminded here of a far more human interaction, such as arriving at the office for another day of work, or perhaps stilted, unenthusiastic talk over breakfast. We are only a few seconds into the film, and already we are presented with a tankful of fish in a scaled-down approximation of human interaction. A glass-tank microcosm, if you will. And, just in case someone out there might not have understood the parallel, each fish has a real, human face.

We are meant to see the fish tank segments as one of the most important segments in the film, based on the important fact that it recurs several times, whereas nearly every other segment is closed off and abandoned one by one, having served its singular purpose.

But why fish? If, to backtrack for a moment, we opened with several adult males in an office, standing around the water cooler, greeting each other and eventually pondering the meaning of existence, wouldn’t that be enough to get the film rolling?

The answer is yes, absolutely, but there are two reasons this would not work. Firstly it wouldn’t be as funny, and it wouldn’t be nearly as striking a visual upon which to open the film. And, secondly, it would actually start our journey on an uncomfortably sombre note. These fish, after all, only begin to question the nature of existence when death is introduced among their number: they stare helplessly through the glass as Howard — who was among them as recently as the night before — is presented by a waiter, dead and grilled on a platter. It is here, at this precise moment, that the meaing of life itself is raised…that they take the world outside of their small tank into consideration…and that they begin to question the nature of a universe that could allow such a thing to cruelly — and, to them, mysteriously — happen in what they had once believed to be a safe environment.

Even if the entire film to follow were played out just as we know it, there’s no question that the human equivalent of the same opening would start the film sourly, and could actually make much of what follows appear to be in poor taste. By opening with the bathetic fish, the Pythons manage to construct a morbid comic conceit that managed not to feel particularly dark, and that’s what sets the tone for what is to follow: enormous ideas explored in small — and resonatingly irrelevant — ways.

Consider the film’s opening theme song that follows. In addition to being supported by possibly the best piece of animation Terry Gilliam ever created for the group, the title song serves as an important overture to the film, and also a catchy sort of mission statement on behalf of the troupe.

While it is impossible for a first-time viewer to know this so early in the film, music plays a much greater and more important role in The Meaning of Life than anywhere else in the Python universe, and here, already, we are being promised through song that the questions posed by the fish will not go unanswered.

“Come along,” it seems to say, and it’s not entirely coincidental that Eric Idle performs the song with the same French accent he will later use in his portrayal of Gaston the waiter. Both the singer and the waiter (who may be the same person) invite us to follow them on a journey that will eventually reveal to us the meaning of existence.

Rather than shape the film in any way that implies direct movement toward one grand solution (or, to put it another way, a film that gradually narrows from confusion toward enlightenment), though, the Pythons give us a selection of metaphorical and indirect musings on the general nature of existence. Sometimes we seem to drift very close to an answer (“You know, Maria, I sometimes wonder whether we’ll ever discover the meaning of it all working in a place like this…”) and sometimes we seem to be helplessly off course (Tiger Brand Coffee is a real treat / even tigers prefer a cup of it to real meat!), but it is precisely this seemingly-carefree patterning that allows the film to work. After all, if the zanier, irrelevant situations were all bunched up together toward the beginning of the film and the comparatively serious, verbose musings on the strangeness of existence were strung together at the end, The Meaning of LifE would be a plodding (and didactic) fizzle. Instead, the cycles of life are emphasized, which serves both the pacing and relatability of the film.

Triumph and tragedy alternate throughout the film, yet there is always a steady magnetic return to the middle ground of life’s tedium and banality, such as when trench warfare takes a back seat to a birthday celebration, or an exploding restaurant patron gives way to an after-hours cigarette break. Whenever big ideas are touched upon, all of the characters — except for the fish, who seem to genuinely crave an answer more than anyone else in the film does — tend to blithely shrug them off in favor of getting on with their lives. The elderly Hendys illustrate this most vividly (“Waiter? This conversation isn’t very good…”), but examples of this very human tendency to shy away from dangerous questions can be found everywhere. As silly as The Meaning of Life gets, and it certainly does get silly, there is always a deliberate element of human befuddlement that keeps it grounded.

The film, however, is called The Meaning of Life, not The Meaning of Human Life, and the Pythons have fun with this. We take several forays into the Kingdoms Animal (the fish) and Vegetable (the dying autumn leaves). In each instance, though, and interestingly enough a human veneer is applied: the fish are quietly content with their lives until tragedy spurs them to question larger things, and the leaves are affected — in ever-increasing number — by the grief of having lost somebody close to them.

In fact, taken together, these two situations demonstrate opposite reactions to an identical stimulus: one constructive, the other destructive. Faced with the reality — and inevitability — of death, the fish choose to ponder life, and they are rewarded for this philosophizing by a film that promises an answer to their questions. The leaves, on the other hand, when faced with the same tragedy, turn instead to the conclusion that life is inescapably cruel, and the cynicism leads quite directly to suicide. The fish see death as an excuse to explore life’s mystery, and the leaves treat death as a reason to stop trying. The fish bring the entire film to life, and the only thing the leaves bring to life is the Grim Reaper — channeled by their negative reaction to existence’s only real assurance — who then brings the lives of several more characters (and the “life” of the film itself) to a close.

Duality of this type exists all throughout the film. We are given two different versions of the process of birth, two different live-action scenes of death, two different wars, two appearances of The Crimson Permanent Assurance, two helpings of “The Galaxy Song” (more on that later), and so on. We are invited, routinely, to compare and contrast the various choices made throughout the film.

In fact, the second of the birth segments (Birth in the Third World) also has another, internal dichotomy for us to explore: the Protestant family unit versus the Catholic family unit. The differences between the families are strikingly obvious, but they each exist in both a positive and negative sense, so that there is no clear “right” answer suggested by the film. For instance, the Catholic family lives in squalor and must sell its children for medical experimentation in order to make ends meet…by contrast, the Protestants appear to be well-to-do and cozy in their home life, yet their interactions are impersonal and entirely without emotion.

Additionally, the patriarch of each family demonstrates severe sexual selfishness, though in opposite directions. The Catholic man may indeed be guided by his religious faith when he refuses to use contraceptive devices, but the enormous (and increasing) number of his children proves that he hasn’t taken any steps to keep his libido in check. Conversely (but in definite complement) the Protestant man withholds sexual intercourse from his wife, who would clearly benefit from receiving attention in that very way. The Catholic keeps on his selfishly sexual path without regard to the consequences his family will face, and the Protestant keeps on his selfishly non-sexual path despite the consequenced hiw wife will face. Python has managed to caution us against two very unenviable extremes, and it is suggested that the “right” answer is actually somewhere in the unspoken middle ground.

In fact, this seems to be a good rule for interpreting the film itself: we are shown extremes, but the Meaning of Life, if we are to find it at all, is going to be somewhere inside, unemphasized, perhaps even silent. But, it is there. Just as darkness cannot exist without light, these moments of clear wrongness cannot exist without at least a suggestion of the “right” way to do things.

Another perhaps important duality can be found by comparing the Catholic and Protestant couples discussing birth at the beginning of the film to the couples confronted by Death at the end. Whereas the religious couples each have an unflinching faith in something larger, the three couples at the end of the film refuse to believe in anything larger than themselves, even when they are confronted by a physical manifestation of the Spiritual World. In fact, they cling to every last material vestige that they can, even as they’re dragged into the afterlife, taking their drinks and automobiles along with them.

Again, neither of these viewpoints is explicitly endorsed by the film itself; the audience is always meant to be laughing at these characters, whatever opposing things they believe, rather than aligning themselves with them. The “right” answer, again, must be somewhere in the middle. All of which, of course, is at odds with the fact that the female presenter claims to have a concise and inarguable moral for all of us to accept without question.

Part of the reason we, as viewers, might be tempted to accept her moral is that, thanks to The Middle of the Film and The End of the Film, this female presenter appears to be our framing device, and therefore exists on some narrative level “above” the rest of the characters. That is to say that she is speaking to us watching the film directly and could — should such a need arise — summarize the action of any other segment of them, while conversely no other character in the film would be in a position to summarize her segments.

This is reinforced by the fact that “Christmas in Heaven” is cut short when the television we are watching is switched off, and the camera turns to reintroduce the presenter, along with the suggestion that she has been watching along with us.

But why? What good did it do Python to set such an unreliable character up to serve as our personified framing device? Well, the Middle / End of the Film segments form a flimsy frame at best. It is only suggested that these segments exist on some level above the rest of the film…it is not confirmed. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is confirmed, and that these segments should not be viewed as having any more importance than the others.

After all, The Meaning of Life seems to have been generated spontaneously — the cinematic equivalent of a Big Bang, if you will — simply because the fish raised an interesting question. The film itself is serving as a sort of elaborate and indirect answer to that question, with the female presenter appearing to have a broader vantage point than any other character in the film. In reality, however, she appears only twice, and serves as a red herring (natch) each time.

In the Middle of the Film we play a game of Find the Fish. Where is the fish? Well…it’s probably nowhere, but the most fair thing we can say about it is that we don’t know where it is. We are given cryptic clues as to its whereabouts, bizarre characters strut around either in order to distract us from the search or to help us along, and various possibilities are shouted out from the film’s “audience.” An interestingly complicated — and ultimately unwinnable — arrangement for such a trifling question…yet at the End of the Film the supposed ultimate solution to life’s true meaning is found…in an envelope that is conveniently handed to the presenter from off camera.

The unbalance seems almost criminal; the search for the fish is more elaborate and difficult than the search for the Meaning of Life. One requires, it seems, an impossible amount of effort and meditation, and the other is simple produced on command. Something isn’t right here. Something is — forgive this — fishy.

It’s important that we keep the Middle of the Film in mind when we watch the End of the Film, as it reminds us that nothing important in this film could be located and explained so easily. In fact, the game of Find the Fish should serve as a thematic explanation of the film on a much smaller scale: humorous wordplay, bizarre characters, an impossible search — isn’t this practically the Monty Python mantra? Find the Fish is a cautionary tale to the viewer, you should keep it in mind as you watch the film. If there is a fish to be found, its location (and identity) will not be explicitly revealed. You are provided with your clues and a little entertainment in the process, and then you are shoved politely along to the next segment, never knowing if it was right under your nose…and you missed it.

So what is the film’s framing device? If the Middle / End of the Film segments are just unhelpful distractions rather than any kind of useful guidance, is there any segment of the film that stands above the others in terms of authority?

The answer is yes. The fish. The fish in the tank not only start off the film, but they appear to be “above” the Middle of the Film as well, as they are able to watch and comment on it when it’s over. Which is somewhat problematic, because it shuffles our levels of authority around a bit, but it’s not wholly unresolvable.

For starters, we have a lowest level of the film, in which the characters do not know they’re characters and do not realize they are in a film. Above them is the Middle / End of the Film lady, who is aware that she is in a film and that she is presenting segments of it. Above her are the fish, as they are able to watch and comment upon what she says and does. This means that the fish are at least two levels above the main action of the film itself, yet when Mr. Creosote enters the restaurant the fish all panic and scatter, meaning that, somehow, the film had managed to overtake itself. We no longer have three parallel levels of reality within the film — instead, somehow, unpredictably, the lines have converged, and the fish, previously in some authoritative position, are now potentially in danger from the action on the lowest fictional plane of events.

In fact, it’s more than a little likely that Creosote ate them all. For all they wanted to know about the Meaning of Life, and as many times as they interrupted the film prior to that point to wonder when we’d finally hear something about it, the fish make no interruption whatsoever when we actually encounter a segment entitled The Meaning of Life, simply because they are no longer around to comment.

They were destroyed by events that should have been two levels safely below them. Somewhere along the way the film got tangled and the planes began to cross and intersect. The film — quite literally — consumed its own framing device. Oh, look. Howard’s been eaten.

Some more glaring evidence of this self-consumptive tangle occurs when The Crimson Permanent Assurance escapes the confines of its “supporting feature” status and attacks the main picture, only to have its setting and characters destroyed in a contrary manner to the destruction we’d witnessed earlier in the film. And, finally, instead of the gratuitous pictures of penises we are promised by the presenter, we have, instead, a lonesome television set floating through space, playing — of all the metaphorical possibilities — the opening animation to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The film, at this point, has escaped every one of its boundaries. It has destroyed the fish who set it into motion in the first place, it has overturned the authority of the woman in its framing devices, and it has crushed its supporting feature. It has become an entity unto itself, drifting alone through the inhuman coldness of space, with nobody to answer to, and our control over our experience of the film is also symbolically pulled away, as the television drifts further and further from reach.

The film wrests control from us because it has one final thing to say, one concluding thought with which to leave us, and it begins that thought that begins with two sage words: “Just remember…”

“The Galaxy Song” closes the film, but before we discuss why that might be significant, we should wind back the clock a bit and consider its first appearance in the film, during the segment on Live Organ Transplants.

The song is an atypical one for Python, as there aren’t really any jokes in it, nor does it make use of clever phrasing or poke fun at a certain musical genre or social attitude. Furthermore, the song says practically nothing about the character who is singing it, as we’ve never seen him before and will never see him again. The song exists outside of the film’s other music numbers, outside of the character who is performing it, and very possibly outside of the film itself…a larger, vaster statement that halts the progress of the comedy sketch within which it’s embedded for three minutes or so, and then sends it spinning off in another direction.

Every effort seems to be made to get us to pay attention to this song. The action of the live organ transplant comes to a halt and the set collapses around the characters. Our vocalist in pink escorts us into an empty starfield and…that’s it. There is now nothing at all to distract us from the song and its lyrics. There is a brilliant piece of Gilliam animation in this sequence, but it is confined entirely to the instrumental verse, and makes no effort to divert our attention from the content of the song itself.

If you make allowances for estimation, the facts about the universe as presented in “The Galaxy Song” are actually pretty accurate (as far as facts like that can be said to be accurate), so what happened here? We’re watching a comedy film, after all, but nothing particularly funny is happening…yes, the song is lovely, but it doesn’t contain any jokes. We do get stung by a slight barb in the closing line, but that line is sung after the vocalist and Mrs. Brown return to the set. In other words, we’ve been physically relocated for the duration of the song, and the lone humorous sentiment at the end is a lyrical way of easing us into our return.

But why this detour in the first place? Well, it’s because Mrs. Brown has a decision to make: does she give her liver to the two not-doctors who are asking for it? Bear in mind that such a choice would unquestionably result in here death, and it seems like an easy choice to make. She declines. John Cleese’s kind-of-doctor then introduces her to the vocalist in pink as a sort of final flail in his argument, and, after hearing the song and being confronted with the facts and figures of such an enormous, complicated, expanding universe, Mrs. Brown agrees to have her liver taken out, and to be killed in the process.

Yet the song itself is not inherently nihilistic, is it? It does — as we see — present its listeners with a sort of a choice to become nihilistic, but that isn’t explicitly the viewpoint that the song itself endorses. In fact it seems to endorse almost nothing at all, except for its opening and closing sentiments:

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown
And things seem hard or tough
And people are stupid, obnoxious or daft
And you feel that you’ve had quite enough
Just remember…

It’s that “just remember” that’s key, because this is the advice that the vocalist in pink was sent here to give. He introduces his song by saying that he knows that you sometimes see life as cruel and unforgiving, and, in fact, he doesn’t disagree with you. But just remember that the universe itself is so much bigger, and that whatever we might encounter during the course of this painful, incomprehensible scramble we call life, it amounts to precisely nothing when gauged against the incomprehensible enormities around us.

And, just in case she might have forgotten, he ends by bringing the song right back to a personal perspective:

So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth.

So far from nihilism is this particular sentiment that it actually declares Mrs. Brown’s value as an individual. He stresses her own cosmic impossibility, and yet, by sheer virtue of her existence, she beaten the unfathomable odds: she is alive. In a universe that is not interested in her existence and against infinite conditions that could have (and should have) aligned to keep her from even being born, she has triumphed. She has beaten greater odds than she herself can ever know.

Yet when faced with the hugeness of the universe around her, she becomes nihilistic, loses her faith in her own significance, and sacrifices herself to the cause of live organ transplants.

“The Galaxy Song” can be read in either of two ways: it is either a life-affirming promise that every life is miraculous simply because, mathematically, we shouldn’t have ever existed to begin with, or it is an assurance that nothing we accomplish can amount to anything on a universal scale. Mrs. Brown has chosen to fall into the latter camp. She was faced with both morals, and she made her choice.

And just as she has been escorted by the vocalist away from the film and into a starfield where she can ponder the meaning of his words without distraction, so are we at the end of the film. We are left alone with his song in the vast emptiness of space, and now the decision is ours to make. Do we come away from the film feeling insignificant, or proud to be an individual? Does the weight of the facts drag us down or buoy us up? Do we resign ourselves to death’s inevitability, or do we choose to live life to its fullest? The first time we encounter the song, the decision is Mrs. Brown’s to make. The second time, it’s ours.

Mr. Brown sacrificed himself because he was too full of good intentions to realize that he was signing his own life away. Mrs. Brown sacrifices herself because she no longer has any intentions left, despite the fact that she’d be leaving an orphaned teenage son behind. Somewhere in the middle, we are silently assured, is the “right” answer.

There is one sequence in the film, however, that does hew closely to providing explicit human guidance. Surprisingly enough, that sequence is Mr. Creosote’s.

The Mr. Creosote sequence seems at first to exist only for the purpose of sheer, vile repulsion, and it never really offers any form of relief; instead, it builds to one enormous (and only partially cathartic) explosion, which is bigger than what we’ve already seen but isn’t necessarily any more disgusting. In fact, it’s hard to produce anything shocking after a scene as that, and so the Pythons make a wise decision to segue into a secondary segment called…The Meaning of Life. This segment sees three of the characters from the Mr. Creosote sketch cleaning up the restaurant, and idly pontificating over the nature of life and existence. It’s a quiet segment and is strikingly dry in its execution, considering the infamously over-the-top scene that preceded it.

In terms of pacing the film, however, this is necessary, and also a deft artistic move. Instead of trying to trump the manic energy of Creosote’s visit, they reset the energy level to zero. Characters pass the time on chairs in a quiet room, discussing the meaning of life barely above a conversational whisper. The only thing shocking about the scene is that it manages to follow the insanity of Mr. Creosote without seeming out of place.

We really shouldn’t move on, however, without discussing the significant of the Mr. Creosote scene itself. What purpose does it serve in the greater film? For starters, it somehow manages to feel like one of the bigger and more important events in the movie. The first World War, for example, is actually just the backdrop for a sketch about an inopportune birthday party. The birth sequences are trivialized first by the doctors and then later by the Protestant couple, and even the arrival of Death turns out to say more about gradual acceptance than it does about sudden change.

The big things are made small, and, in the case of Mr. Creosote, the small things are made big. This one solitary evening out for a very overweight man seems to be of paramount importance. Why? Because it contains, at its heart, the most explicit exploration of social themes in the entire film. And, yes, it goes a long way toward helping us figure out the Meaning of Life.

The Mr. Creosote scene illustrates very clearly a hierarchical social structure and pecking order, which, during the course of the sketch, is shaken up by the second-highest ranking individual on the ladder.

Let’s break it down: at the top of the ladder we have Mr. Creosote, whose every whim, however selfish, disgusting or bizarre, is catered to by those beneath him. Immediately below is the Maitre D, played by John Cleese. Below him are the other patrons of the restaurant, who presumably command service from the rest of the restaurant staff but are certainly beneath the Maitre D’s wish to cater to Mr. Creosote. Beneath the other patrons would be Gaston, played by Eric Idle, who is essentially at everybody’s beck and call, and beneath him is Maria, the cleaning woman, because even though Gaston is passively abused, he is never humiliated nearly as badly as she. And beneath her, we have the fish, who have absolutely no say in anything, including their own fates, and are very likely consumed at some point during the course of the sketch.

All throughout the Creosote scene we see the results of this particular power structure play out, and eventually become strained. Each character plays his or her part in the hierarchy without complaint, and it isn’t until the sketch draws to a close that we realize that the Maitre D might have something underhanded in mind after all, as he plies his insufferable customer with a wafer-thin mint. When Creosote refuses, the Maitre D resorts to inserting it forcibly into Creosote’s mouth.

Knowingly, the Maitre D dives behind a low wall to protect himself from the resultant explosion. It was an intentional act of gastronomical terrorism, and, as a result, the Maitre D has installed himself as the new head of the social order, which is reflected by his demeanor during the following scene, in which he smokes a self-congratulatory cigarette and converses confidently with members of his staff.

He has managed to seize command of his own destiny, however temporarily, by incapacitating the man above him, and there is a definite change in the character of the Maitre D from one scene to the next. He is more at ease with himself, and allows himself a more relaxed posture. He is, for once, his own man, in control of his life and — for the time being at least — in command of the film.

He uses this newfound authority to steer the film more closely toward its stated central theme, and it’s an opportunity for both Terry Jones, as the cleaning woman, and Eric Idle, as Gaston, to shine. Each of them are invited to share their philosophies, and each character (as well as actor) embraces this opportunity fully.

With Creosote removed from the top of the social structure and the fish removed from the bottom, the Maitre D and the cleaning woman represent the highest and lowest social orders coming together. And, when they do, we learn that there’s more to the cleaning woman than appearances might have suggested:

I’ve worked in worse places, philosophically speaking. […] I used to work in the Academie Francaise, but it didn’t do me any good at all. And I once worked in the library in the Prado in Madrid, but it didn’t teach me nothing, I recall. And the Library of Congress…you’d have thought would hold some key. But it didn’t. And neither did the Bodlein Library. In the British Museum I hoped to find some clue. I worked there from nine ’til six, read every volume through, but it didn’t teach me nothing about life’s mystery. I just kept getting older, and it got more difficult to see, until eventually my eyes went and my arthritis got bad. And so now I’m cleaning up in here.

All of which should lead us to feel sorry for her. After all, she made took every opportunity to better herself, and to come to some sort of grander enlightenment about the nature of the world around her, only to run out of life in the process, to feel her body running down. She took a job cleaning up after people like Mr. Creosote with nothing to show for her intellectual pursuits. And, yes, she may follow up her story with an ignorant comment, but from a Meaning of Life standpoint, the real criticism we should have with her is the fore-runner to that anti-Semitic rhyme:

I feel that life is a game. You sometimes win or lose.

And there is the reason that she is a cleaning woman. She allowed herself to accept failure as possibility in her life, and, therefore, she did not fight against it. She accepted failure, which, in this particular social structure, is tantamount to inviting it. The very fact that she expects to lose as often as she wins is what keeps her on the bottom of the social order while the Maitre D and Mr. Creosote, both self-assured men in their own right, seek opportunities to make it to the top.

Gaston reveals a similar fact about himself as well when he takes us on a pilgrimage to the house in which he was born:

You know, one day, my mother…she took me on her knee and she said to me, “Gaston, my son…the world is a beautiful place. You must go into it, and love everyone. Try to make everyone happy, and bring peace and contentment everywhere you go.” And so…I became a waiter.

Whereas the cleaning woman has resigned herself to the fact that she will sometimes lose, Gaston has resigned himself to the fact that he must always lose, if it means he can make somebody else happier in the process. He may or may not hold resentment toward his mother for providing him with an outlook destined to keep him out of the privileged classes, but he certainly does become defensive after sharing his philosophy with us, suggesting that it’s more a desire to follow his mother’s teachings than any kind of innate belief within himself. In this case, nurture has indeed triumphed over nature, and Gaston storms off toward the home — a symbol of his mother and her teachings — when he begins to feel that we might find fault with his philosophy.

Something else is revealed in this scene, however: you are the central character. Throughout this entire sequence the camera operates from a first-person perspective. Characters address you, apologize to you, invite you to follow them, and become frustrated with you. It is for your benefit that they are having these discussions, and they sincerely want you to benefit from them, becoming upset when you walk out of the restaurant, or frustrated when you don’t seem to have learned anything from the philosophies they share.

In fact, if we take this along with the Middle / End of the film lady, and the fish in the tank at the beginning — who make it a point to face us head-on, all six of them, when they pose the question that gets the whole machine running — we realize that this is all for our benefit. From beginning to end, we are the ones meant to learn from this film.

There is no central character that we can following along on this journey, because the journey is ours.

Suddenly the film has transformed into a series of brief parables, and it is up to us to interpret them. Chronology and consistency no longer seem lacking, because the film is a series of ordered vignettes with a common agenda. It doesn’t succeed or fail based on its narrative thrust, it succeeds or fails based on the reaction it manages to get from us.

We are the central character, and we have been all along. The journey through the film is a personal one, and it is up to us what we take from it, how we apply what we’ve learned, and, as we are left to drift ponderously along through space with “The Galaxy Song,” what we decide to do next, even if we can’t be sure where it will take us.

The Meaning of Life has tremendous fun with the choices we might make along the way, but it never wavers from the fact that death remains inevitable. We may go somewhere, and we may not…but we sure as Hell can’t stay here. The film may make many concessions toward fantasy, but absolving us of death and dying is not one of them.

In fact, the Death segment features two illustrations of death’s inevitability. The first is Arthur Jarrett, who illustrates — philosophically speaking — that we are all hurtling toward death, no matter how desirable it might be to turn around and cling to life. There is no escape. Jarrett is dead, and the horde of topless women go unloved. The second promise of death’s inevitability is the fact that all six dinner guests are taken by the Grim Reaper, despite the fact that one of them didn’t even eat the salmon mousse that was meant to have killed them. Regardless of the decisions one might make along the way, we all get taken in the end.

We can’t escape death. We know that. The question is what, then, is to keep us from falling into Mrs. Brown’s nihilism and just…giving up?

That is answered by the destination that the characters all reach at the end of the film: the afterlife. Here it is revealed that, in death, we retain our personalities and appearances, so whatever accomplishments we might have made in life are not for naught. We all meet up together in some spiritual night club and find ourselves on the receiving end of eternal entertainments. It’s a comically metaphorical illustration of one unfunny, very real universal claim: we are building toward one final, complex singularity.

The fact that all of the characters from the film — and, presumably, all throughout human history — converge in one location suggests that they are being kept there for a reason. That reason could be the gradual resetting of the entire universe, which, as proponents of the Big Crunch theory will tell you, is not an entirely fictional concept. The souls may be kept here for however long until the singularity is achieved, and all of time, space and matter is redistributed again from the start.

Even the lyrics to “Christmas in Heaven” seem to suggest that the narrowing toward singularity is already underway. Consider how many opposing forces are brought together for the sake of one song: it is snowing, but it is warm. Everyone dresses in their best suits, but still go swimming. The Sound of Music and the Jaws films converge as opposing — but presumably complementary — examples of great films, with the former running twice an hour, suggesting that time is indeed undergoing some sort of cosmic compression as well.

“Christmas in Heaven” manages to be both about the spiritual and the material, and the song itself spans several genres — it begins as a simple Christmas song, but soon becomes a heavy-handed lounge number, closing out with aspects of hymn, pop, funk, and salsa, all in one brief singalong. And, of course, the angels wear Santa suits and gratuitously expose their breasts, so that’s the spiritual, the material and the sexual becoming one.

Life is an assortment of themes and ideas, many of which are touched upon by the film — though certainly not all of them. The Meaning of Life doesn’t intend to provide one final satisfactory answer, but it does provide the viewer with a lot of material for launching a legitimate philosophical search of his or her own.

Was that the intention of the Pythons?

No. Certainly not.

But it says an awful lot about the kinds of people they must be if they can set out to create an hour and a half of comedy sketches, and just so happen to provide their audience with the fuel for a lifelong quest of spiritual examination.

They just don’t write like that anymore.


This isn’t you.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am far from caught up on Breaking Bad. I’ve only finally started watching it within the past few months, and there’s no question that it deserves the mountains of praise its gotten. Season five began this week, and while I’m still lagging a few seasons behind, I thought it might be nice to spotlight an episode that really managed to stand out for me. Perhaps this will serve as a kind of time-capsule as well…a record of my thoughts before I knew for sure where things were headed. A moment of reflection before barreling forward, before I know too much of what’s coming for these thoughts to really matter anymore. A time when I get to delight in the fact that I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, and so focus that much more intently on what little I do have.

In fact, that’s a more appropriate introduction for this episode than I had intended, because focusing on some small aspect of the larger picture — and doing so deliberately, for whatever reason one may have as an individual — is something of a passive theme here.

Peekaboo comes midway through the second season, and it catches a lot of things about the show in a state of flux. It also stood out to me immediately — and continues to stand out to me — as a clear and permanent favorite. Breaking Bad is at its best when it reveals — nearly always indirectly — an undercurrent of humanity. A living and breathing conscience behind (or below, or within) the meth, the violence, and the devastation. Peekaboo elevates that humanity to a level we haven’t seen before. That, in itself, is not much of an achievement. The achievement comes in how masterfully it’s done.

One thing Breaking Bad did quite well from the very beginning was that it allowed for shifting allegiances between its audience and its characters. This was handled brilliantly by centering the show on Walter White, a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher played with almost meek understatement by Bryan Cranston.

From the very start, we want to like Walter. In fact, we want to like him so much that we make allowances for him. When he actively seeks out the chance to cook meth, we temper our natural feelings for drug dealers with the fact that he just found out he has cancer, and needs to pay for his treatment. When he snaps and berates somebody who doesn’t deserve it, we take into account the fact that he has a lot of stress in his life, with both a son with cerebral palsy a new baby on the way. And when he lies to his wife and keeps those who care most about him frustrated in the dark, we compare him to, say, his boorish brother-in-law Hank, who’s relentlessly obnoxious, racist, sexist and homophobic, and decide that at least Walt’s not that bad.

We don’t need to do these things, but we want to do them. We want to like Walter, so we will work to like him. We want to see the man beneath…and not the accumulation of garbage that continues to compound on top of him.

But Breaking Bad doesn’t let us get away with that for long. Two old friends of Walt’s — Gretchen and Elliot — offer to pay for his treatment, so his justification for cooking meth gets a lot more hazy. His outbursts become more frequent and more severe, which makes it harder to see them as troubled cries for help and easier to see them as a man gradually discovering his inner asshole. And the more we see Walt cheat and steal, the more we see that Hank, on the inside, is a tremendously scarred and scared individual who requires such an obnoxious front simply to make it through the day.

As much as we want to like Walt, and view him as a victim of circumstance, Breaking Bad leaves us with less and less room with every episode to rely on such a reading. In the process, by simple comparison, it also deepens the humanity of the characters around him, and lets us feel more aligned with them than we ever thought possible when they were introduced.

Peekaboo is a perfect distillation of the show’s desire that we question our allegiances to these characters. When we first meet Jesse Pinkman in episode one, he’s a drug dealer, immersed in a dangerous and criminal world that we, as viewers, likely would want no part of. Walter is the outsider, and he comes to Jesse, pleadingly, as an assistant. We can count the number of subsequent episodes on one hand, however, before that dynamic upends itself, and we see that it’s Walter dragging Jesse down, rather than vice versa.

By separating — yet still following — the two characters, Peekaboo lets us see exactly who these people really are. With each making his own decisions, free of judgment or pressure from the other, they are allowed to be themselves.

Jesse’s role in this episode is to break into somebody’s home and threaten them with grievous bodily harm unless they pay him back for the the drugs they stole. Walt’s role in this episode is to have a series of conversations. That Jesse comes out of this looking like an infinitely better human being than Walter could ever be is a sign that this journey will be deliberately confusing, and it’s a testament to Vince Gilligan’s absolutely brilliant storytelling.

Peekaboo picks up from the end of the previous episode, Breakage, in which one of Jesse’s friends, Skinny Pete, is robbed. Jesse accepts this as an understandable risk in the business, and is obviously just happy that Pete is okay. Walter, on the other hand, disagrees. He hands Jesse a gun, and vaguely orders him to “take care of it.”

When Peekaboo opens, Jesse is waiting for Pete on a street corner. He is going to follow Walt’s advice, because a drug dealer that can be pushed around is never more than one push away from being brought down forever. But it’s not his mission that he’s focused on…or, at least, that’s not what he chooses to focus on. He finds a beetle crawling along the curb, and he watches it skitter around. He lowers his hand to it, just to feel it walk across his skin. It’s a little sliver of life among the desolation in the poor part of town, and it holds Jesse magnetized.

The beetle didn’t need to be there. That is to say, it affected nothing around itself. It neither made the street corner better nor worse. It was no safer, and it was no more dangerous. It did not contribute to the identity of the world around it. It was, therefore, in its own strange way, a kind of escape. By centering his attention on the beetle, Jesse is able to block out everything around him, everything behind him, and everything up ahead.

It’s temporary, as it must be, but it’s something.

Later, after breaking into the home of the couple who robbed Pete, Jesse finds a similar — but far more affecting — sliver of life among the desolation: a little red-haired boy…alone, neglected, and hungry.

Jesse’s reaction to the boy, who is the only one home when Jesse climbs through the window, is one of almost immediate warmth and protectiveness. He begins by asking the boy when his parents will be back, but he quickly loses sight of his main task. The pity in his eyes in unmissable as he watches the boy play distractedly with the duct tape on the arm of the couch…obviously the closest thing he has to a toy in the entire house. The television only gets a station playing infomercials…not, as Jesse would have preferred for the boy, Mr. Rogers. And then, all at once, the boy says that he’s hungry. Jesse still has a mission, but in that very moment it becomes something else.

Walt, on the other hand, is going back to work after several weeks’ of medical leave. Apart from a minor detour in his lecture — during which he becomes visibly incensed by how poorly General Electric treated one of their chief engineers — his day is uneventful. When he arrives home, however, he finds Gretchen speaking to his wife. In order to hide the fact that he was paying for his treatment with drug money, Walt told his wife that he had accepted Gretchen and Elliot’s offer, and his wife still believes that. Gretchen, on the other hand, obviously knows that that is not true, and the fact that she doesn’t reveal Walt’s dishonesty demonstrates many things about who Gretchen is as a human being. Walt, whatever else he might be, is important to her. He’s somebody she, however we’d like to define it, loves. She wishes the best for him, and won’t speak up until she has some idea of what that is.

He meets with Gretchen later to explain, only his explanation consists entirely of a reminder that it’s really none of her business. Gretchen is played here with an almost angelic sweetness by Jessica Hecht, who even in the face of disrespect, dishonesty and outright hostility wants only to help her friend. She even reiterates that the offer to pay for his treatment is still on the table…despite the fact that Walt uncomfortably involved her and her husband in the deception of his own family.

In return, Walt refuses to tell her anything. He owes her an apology, he admits, but not an explanation. Gretchen pleads with him to accept her help, and Walt, steadying his gaze and speaking with deliberateness and complete control over what he’s doing, chooses to say, “Fuck you.”

Jesse, on the other hand, is feeding the little boy. He makes him a sandwich that seems to only be mayonnaise between two pieces of bread, because there’s nothing else in the house to eat. And when he hears the couple returning home, his first instinct is to put the boy in his room, and tell him not to come out. He doesn’t want to involve him. Pete opened the episode by crushing Jesse’s beetle, and Jesse won’t let this dim light be snuffed out as well.

What follows is more in line with his original plan. Jesse intimidates and threatens the couple, gets back the small amount of drugs that is left, and stands around waiting for the man — called Spooge — to break into an ATM that he stole. A victimless crime, Spooge explains, as we see the dead body of the Indian store clerk he stole it from.

Jesse can’t see the irony behind the “victimless crime” that we as viewers can see. That’s our luxury, and we get to view this morbid comparison point through the wonder of editing. Jesse has no such luxury, and that may be why he won’t see that his own victimless crime — dealing drugs — is directly responsible for the squalor around him, and for the hopelessness of that child’s future.

Later in the episode, the boy does come out of his room. He does so because he wants to continue the game of peekaboo that Jesse tried to teach him earlier. Then the child’s confusion was palpable…he had never seen this game before. His parents, it’s safe to say, have never tried to play it — or anything — with him before. And having finally had the experience of an adult who paid him a positive kind of attention, he shuffles out of his room and starts the game again.

As with the beetle, Jesse latches immediately onto this sliver of life among the lifeless. He blocks out his situation and focuses so intently on the magic of the little boy’s innocence, and the urgency of keeping it alive, that he doesn’t notice the boy’s mother coming up behind him to knock him cold. It was an escape, but it was temporary. As it must be.

The two stories end not the way they should end, but the way they must end. Walt returns home, where he learns that Gretchen has called his wife, and told her that they are going to stop paying for Walt’s treatment. Faced, as ever, with an opportunity to stop lying and find some honest way to move forward with his family, Walt chooses instead to extend the deception, and claims that Gretchen and Elliot stopped paying because they are broke. He even offers up a few condescending chuckles at their misfortune.

Jesse, ever Walt’s opposite in this episode, comes to just in time to find the boy’s mother crushing Spooge’s head with the ATM. Her drug-obsessed tunnel vision prevents her from caring much about the fact that Jesse is up and about and brandishing a gun, so he scoops up whatever money he can carry and calls the police, leaving the phone off the hook.

He’s not done here, however.

Jesse returns to the little boy’s room, and engages him in one last round of peekaboo. Only this time, the boy must keep his eyes closed, and not open them until they’re outside. He shuttles the boy frantically past the carnage in the living room, and sits beside him briefly on the front porch.

It’s clear that Jesse wants to offer something to the boy, but there’s nothing he can offer. This merciful — and, of course, temporary — exit from the home is all he can provide. From here, with sirens growing louder in the distance, it’s out of his control. Somebody will always come along to step on the beetle…but Jesse did his part to at least delay that inevitability.

“You have a good rest of your life, kid,” Jesse says, at a loss for anything else and clearly on the verge of an emotion he can’t understand, let alone process. He strolls off with his hands in his pockets, fighting the urge to look back. If he looked back, he wouldn’t have been able to keep going.

And that’s the moment the drug dealer became more sympathetic than the high school teacher.

Walt would not have rescued the child, and Jesse would not have said “Fuck you.”

Allegiances shift. Life is complicated.

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