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Critics' Notebook: True Blood, Newsroom Finales --- and a Bad Break

With buckets of gore and flustery bluster, HBO's big-ticket summer items True Blood and The Newsroom signed off Sunday with noisy season finales. But as usual, the night was owned by upstart AMC's brilliant Breaking Bad in the season's penultimate episode — its finale airs next Sunday as a Labor Day distraction — with a quietly devastating death scene for one of its most memorable characters. Some thoughts in ascending order (also the order in which I watched):

Matt Roush
Matt Roush

With buckets of gore and flustery bluster, HBO's big-ticket summer items True Blood and The Newsroom signed off Sunday with noisy season finales. But as usual, the night was owned by upstart AMC's brilliant Breaking Bad in the season's penultimate episode — its finale airs next Sunday as a Labor Day distraction — with a quietly devastating death scene for one of its most memorable characters.

Some thoughts in ascending order (also the order in which I watched):

A BLOODY MESS: In the middle of an overstuffed and typically (for this season) unfocused season finale of True Blood, among those watching Andy Bellefleur's fairy lady friend squeeze out a litter of four hybrid babies in a slapstick comic interlude is the campy Lafayette, whose demon-possession powers have gone the way of so many other misbegotten subplots this season: nowhere. "It's always the weird stuff that's the best," he quips.

Well, not always. And certainly not this season, which peaked early on in the surprise staking of Christopher Meloni's vampire leader. The religious allegory involving the cult of Lilith was awfully heavy-handed, and by forcing Bill and Eric to hang with the exceedingly dull femmes fatales Salome and Nora, it underscored the perils of keeping these vamps separated from Sookie for the majority of an entire season. At least the finale fixed that problem, by putting Eric front and center as he saved Sookie and the Fairy World (of which every glimpse is a bit of Show Death) from the ravenous Russell before the opening credits by staking his nemesis to death while Russell was absorbing the fairies' combined power blasts. An anticlimactic end to a once-terrific character.

With Sookie and Tara in tow — also a mopey and vengeful Jason, whose vamp-baiting haunting by his dead parents grew quickly tiresome — Eric leads the charge at Authority Underground Central, with countless vamps shot or staked into geysers of goo, while Bill and Salome keep jawing on about who's the chosen one. (When Bill concedes to Salome, we know better, so it's hardly a surprise when she gulps down a vial he switched with silver-tainted blood.)

I could have used one of Lafayette's tastes-like-candy Cajun margaritas while waiting for other storylines to play out: Alcide getting a fight-to-the-death rematch with V-juiced pack leader J.D.; shape-shifters Sam and Luna attempting to rescue their puppy spawn Emma from the big bad vamps (at least that led to the one of the more baroque vamp deaths, when Sam-as-a-fly buzzed into bossy Rosalyn's mouth and changed back while inside of her: yuck).

In the end, as we learn that one of the books in the vampire bible is called Vicissitudes, power-mad Bill is confronted by the love-of-his-afterlife Sookie, a last-ditch attempt to jolt him back to reality and a throwback to the part of the show we actually care about. Too late. After quoting himself saying how "vampires often turn on those they love the most," Bill drinks the Lilith Kool-Aid and quickly goes sploosh into a pool of blood. But he's not dead, merely transformed into what may be next season's Big Bad. He rises from the viscera, bloodied and naked (like the visions of Lilith), roaring in fury as Eric screams, "Run!"

You don't have to tell me twice. I'm ready to put any season in my rear-view mirror that thinks it's funny when a pregnant fairy declares, "My light broke," as she's about to give birth. If anyone shone this year, it was the acerbic Pam, who as usual summed things up nicely when she gripes to Jessica: "One of the worst things about being immortal is having to watch the same scenarios happen over and over ... guess this proves we [vampires] are just as (bleep)ing retarded as they are."

Hoping for better scenarios next season, aren't you?

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SOME ENCHANTED NEWSROOM: "Do you have any life philosophy that isn't based on a musical?" screeches News Night producer Mac to her ex-lover/anchor/muse Will McAvoy as he recovers in a hospital bed from a bleeding ulcer exacerbated by anti-depressants. He has made the mistake of shifting gears from identifying with Man of La Mancha's Don Quixote to Camelot's King Arthur, invoking the symbol of the little boy at the end of Camelot who's going to spread the word of the king's noble if dashed intentions. Will, you see, thought the New York magazine profile he'd engineered would be his version of that kid, spreading his journalistic gospel. It backfired, becoming a hatchet-job cover story titled "The Greater Fool."

Which actually turns out to be a good thing, because (as business-news siren Sloan tells Will, after turning down a $4 million job offer to stick with cable news) our country was built by greater fools. And remember the "sorority girl" in the pilot episode who asked the question about "What makes American the greatest country in the world" that sent Will down the rabbit hole in the first place? She wants to be a greater fool, too. Or at least a News Night intern. This girl, Will decides, is his kid at the end of Camelot.

Aaron Sorkin's Newsroom is awash in fools. Fools for news, and less enjoyably, fools for love. And never the twain should meet. The disconnect is especially acute in Sunday's finale as we shift from a timely and provocative focus on the voter-ID issue to more feckless obsessing, even on Mac's part, over the Jim-Maggie-Don triangle. This achieves a silly nadir, which I'd not have thought possible, when Maggie is actually splashed by a Sex and the City-themed tour bus, right after spilling to her roomie Lisa that Jim (who's still dating Lisa) is really interested in Maggie. Her hysterical single-girl rant to the bus patrons is observed, naturally, by Jim, who's on the bus. Is there no way to throw this storyline under the bus? Speaking of bussing, Jim and Maggie ultimately kiss, but neither has the stones to "gather ye rosebuds" and make a go of it, because Don has finally asked Maggie to move in with him. Whatever.

For weeks, we've been teased with the clip of Jane Fonda (breathtaking as CEO Leona Lansing) firing Will, and that showdown is spurred by a leak that Will was high the night of Osama bin Laden's killing, a leak that only exists because of Leona's smarmy son Reese's illegal phone-hacking of Will's own cell phone. (Mac, typically, is more concerned with what Will said about his feelings for her in that call.) So with Charlie bluffing his way through the meeting — the evidence from the suicidal whistle-blower turns out to be a beef-stew recipe — Charlie saves Will's job and gets to rattle his own saber: "Let's show 'em what we won't stand for. Let's do the news." And thus Will, the knight errant and would-be king of news, armed with a "Don't shoot and miss" warning from Leona, goes on to denounce the Tea Party as "the American Taliban." He eloquently deplores the plight of 96-year-old Dorothy Cooper (the great aunt of his mean hospital nurse, because that's how news happens on this show), who after 75 years of voting may be denied the right because she lacks a proper photo ID.

Call me a fool, but I enjoyed this episode of The Newsroom, except for those moments when I wanted to strangle it. Pretty much the way I felt about the show most of the season.

THE BAD NEWS:Let the Emmy campaign begin for this season's casualty of crime on Breaking Bad, the latest victim to fall to Walter White's ruthless take-no-prisoners approach to criminal supremacy. Worked last season for Giancarlo Esposito's masterfully restrained performance as sinister kingpin Gus Fring. May it also pay off for Fring's long-suffering fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, played with an understated gravelly menace by veteran character actor Jonathan Banks, who I've admired since the classic Wiseguy. (This is easily his best and meatiest role since then.)

"I gotta hand it to you, Walter," Mike grudgingly tells his partner in crime (Bryan Cranston, gripping as ever) after the masterful opening scene, in which Walt confronts his new drug distributor under the open desert skies (as always, marvelously photographed). "Say my name," Walt boastfully challenges them in a display of coldly preening ego. The answer, invoking his notorious alter ego: "You're Heisenberg." Is he ever.

But Mike has had enough. With nothing but contempt for Walt and nothing but concern for Jesse ("Just look out for yourself"), who also wants out, Mike walks away, pocketing $5 million. We learn he's a man of his word, parceling out payments to the families of Fring's jailed crew through safety-deposit boxes, while putting a mother lode away for his beloved granddaughter. This turns out to be his Achilles' heel, because in one last desperate move on the part of Walt's DEA brother-in-law Hank to nail Mike, the feds target the hapless lawyer making the bank drop-offs, and the jig is up.

What follows isn't as shocking as what transpired a few weeks ago during the train heist, because there's a sense of inevitability about Mike's fate as the plot machinery (which includes Walt overhearing the DEA's plans to nab Mike) tightens the noose. The stage is set for Walt to fetch Mike's escape bag at the airport and deliver it to him in the middle of nowhere by a river, where the quietness and solitude only add to the intensity as Mike unloads one last time on the man who ruined the good thing they had going with Fring. "It was perfect, but no, you just had to blow it up... You just had to be the man!" Challenging Walt this way may be cathartic, but it's also dangerous to attack "Heisenberg" where it would hurt most: puncturing his narcissistic pride. 

It was already telegraphed that Walt probably took the gun he spotted in Mike's getaway bag, and sure enough, Walt shoots him through his car window, partly out of frustration that Mike won't give up the names of the people in his crew. As you'd expect on this show, this is a messy kill. Mike manages to drive toward the river, and by the time Walt gets to the car, Mike has vanished into the scrub, found propped up, bleeding, looking out at the water, and cutting off Walt's apology (which is more of a sheepish acknowledgement he could have got the names from Lydia) with the hushed plea, "Let me die in peace."

Which he does, as the camera pulls back and Mike falls over, a haunting image that does honor to a great character and wonderful actor.

Say his name: Mike Ehrmantraut. One for the ages.

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