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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews the Final Season of Breaking Bad!

I am certainly late to the Breaking Bad party, having only begun watching the show’s first season on DVD in the days following the airing of the season finale.  All of the hub-bub over the show’s final season finally got me to try the show, and I’ve been slowly watching it on DVD ever since.

Watching Breaking Bad, there is no question that this is one of the best-made television shows in recent memory.  Every aspect of the production of the show is spectacular, though at the top of the list is the writing, spearheaded by creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan.  This show has been a creative triumph in terms of its perfect pacing, and the way it was able to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, chronicling an every-man’s transformation from timid, emasculated science teacher into a ruthless criminal.  Breaking Bad is a perfectly serialized show, with each episode telling a complete story in and of itself, while also flowing seamlessly into the next episode.  It’s been staggeringly, jaw-droppingly dark and grim.  I cannot believe the places this show has gone.  I truly can’t think of another TV show that has explored such darkness so unflinchingly, and been so ruthless with regards to the terrible fates that have befallen so many of its minor and major characters.

This is what makes Breaking Bad amazing, although it’s also what’s made me often keep the show somewhat at arm’s length, emotionally, as a viewer.  Most of the television shows I have truly loved have always left me desperately eager for the next episode.  And yet Breaking Bad was never like that for me (at least, not until this magnificent final season — more on that in a moment).  As I have written before in my reviews (click here for my thoughts on season one, here for my thoughts on season two, here for my thoughts on season three, and here for my thoughts on season four), there has been so much unrelenting unpleasantness depicted in this show that I often felt I needed a short break after watching each episode before moving on to the next.  And similarly, after completing each of the show’s seasons, I’ve paused for a while to watch other things before diving back into the next season.  As a result, it’s taken me two years to watch this show in its entirety, even though the whole series was available to me almost right from the beginning.

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And so, at last, I have arrived at the final season.  (This production season of 16 episodes — the show’s longest — was aired in two batches of eight episodes each, and similarly released on DVD/blu-ray in two separate sets, labeled “season five” and “the final season.”  However, I have chosen to review both of those half-seasons together.)  Many great serialized shows have stumbled in the home stretch, so allow me to heap praise upon praise on the heads of Vince Gilligan and his team for doing the near-impossible.  They have made the final season of Breaking Bad its strongest season by far.  This final season was a masterpiece of television story-telling: exciting and gripping and wrenching and heart-breaking.  For the first time in my watching of this show I found myself watching the episodes in batches, eagerly jumping to the next episode the moment the closing credits of the previous episode started to play.  So much craziness went down so quickly this season that my head was left constantly spinning, blown away by the events of one episode even to be more shattered by the events of the next.

Friends, there will be some spoilers here as I discuss season five, so beware!

The season opens with a flash-forward that teases Walt’s 52nd birthday, with him on the run and taking medicine (indicating his cancer has returned).  We return to that flash-forward at the start of the final batch of 8 episodes (in the episode “Blood Money”).  This is a great hook for the season, as it gives us a peek at the show’s end-game and left me eagerly wondering when the show would catch up to that point (Soon in the season?  Not until the finale?) and how exactly we’d get there.

We then return to see Walt/Heisenberg at the top of his game.  He’s defeated Gus, and is reveling in his victory and apparent invincibility.  (“We’re done when I say we’re done,” Walt growls at Saul in “Live Free or Die,” all tough-guy pit-bull arrogance.  And then at the end of the episode, the way he tells Mike “because I said so” when Mike asks how Walt can be sure they’ve gotten away clean — amazing!)  It’s cathartic and also horrifying to see Walt having actually won.  It’s satisfying as a viewer to see things finally seem to go Walt’s way, and yet this Scarface version of Walter White is hardly an empathetic character.  No, this is a monster, something which the show makes very clear, repeatedly, during this final season.

Just how great is Bryan Cranston in this, the role that will define his career forevermore?  Mr. Cranston has been knocking it out of the park since the very first episode.  His tremendous performance as Walter White is the rock upon which the success of this series has depended.  He’s so good that it’s easy to overlook just how good he is.  And yet, I found myself continually reminded of Mr. Cranston’s incredible skill during this final season.  I love seeing him as the confident Heisenberg, criminal mastermind and lord over all he surveys, like when he barks at the drug-lord Declan in “Buyout” to “say my name.”  And I also love seeing him as the failure that is Walter White.  Taunting Hank into spilling what he knows in his garage in “Blood Money.”  Realizing that Hank has finally caught him in “To’hajilee.”  Seeing that he has lost Skyler and Walter Jr. forever in “Ozymandias.”  Pathetically paying Robert Forster’s character ten thousand dollars to spend two more hours with him in “Granite State.”  And on and on.

The start of the season gives us a few final great Walt science-schemes to get out of various pickles into which he’s gotten himself.  That whole business with using magnets to destroy Gus Fring’s computer (which contains video surveillance of Walt and Jesse in the lab) in “Live Free or Die” is spectacular.  Also spectacular: that, in classic Breaking Bad pattern, one solution only leads to more problems, as the cops then uncover Gus’ secret bank accounts, the codes for which were hidden behind a photo whose frame was shattered in the magnet-induced chaos.  Even better than that magnet caper, though, was the magnificent train job in “Dead Freight.”  Every aspect of that heist was brilliant and wonderful and an absolute joy to watch.  (Until, of course, the cruel gut-punch of the twist ending in which Todd shoots and kills and innocent boy.)  That this show, set so iconically in New Mexico, would show us a cowboy-esque train robbery here in its final season?  Absolute genius.

One of this final season’s greatest pleasures is the way that Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) steps into the forefront in the first half of the run.  Mike has always been a great character, but this final season cements him as one of the great TV character creations of all time.  I loved every minute Mike was on-screen.  Tough, loyal, fearless and fiercely competent, Mike is such a great foil for the often-bumbling Walt and Jesse.  While Saul might be cowed by the newly-big-for-his-britches Walt, Mike sees right through him to recognize him for the ticking time-bomb that he is.  Mike is a criminal and a scoundrel, but he’s also hugely lovable, which is one of the geniuses of the character’s creation, a perfect combination of writing and performer.  And so we hate seeing Mike continually dragged back into having to work with Walt, and when his end comes, it’s incredibly sad.  (Equally heartbreaking: his repeated failed attempts to get his “nest-egg” to his granddaughter.)

Mike’s end came far sooner in the season than I expected, a hallmark of the sped-up story-telling of this final season.  Breaking Bad has always been a show that tore through plot-lines at quadruple the speed of any other show, setting up a status quo only to ruthlessly topple it over a few episodes later, and that tendency is on even greater display this season, which is one of the reason this final season was so nail-bitingly intense.  Time and time again this season, the show played cards that I’d expected to be held in reserve until the very end.  Again, I applaud the writing brilliance of Vince Gilligan and his team, boldly pushing the story into places I never expected it to go (or at least, that I never expected it to go until the very end) and then exploring those new avenues.

The two MVPs of this final season for me were Aaron Paul as Jesse and Dean Norris as Hank Schrader.  Both have been phenomenal throughout the entire run of the show, but both really killed it here in this final season.

I knew Hank’s story-line was kicking into high-gear when we got that spectacular moment in the second episode, “Madrigal,” as we see a close-up of Hank while we hear his defeated boss say, of Gus Fring, that: “He was somebody else completely.  Right in front of me.  Right under my nose.”  What a moment.  Did Hank suspect, hearing those words, the truth about his brother-in-law, I wondered?  Apparently not, but soon enough he would have the blinders removed from his eyes.  Hank’s discovery as the cliffhanger ending at the end of “Gliding Over All”, the last of the first run of eight episodes, floored me just as it did Hank.  First of all, what a perfect method for Hank to learn the truth.  It was a mis-step by Walt, leaving that book (signed by Gale), out in his house, but it’s an understandable mistake that still required Hank to connect a number of dots on his own.  That so many of Walt’s sins come back to bite him in the ass all at once is also perfect — not only his involvement in the death of Gale, but also his arrogance in convincing Hank, last season, that Gale wasn’t Heisenberg.  Episode nine, “Blood Money”, picks up on that moment perfectly, with a great audio device of showing the way the whole world crashes down around Hank’s ears the second he steps out of that bathroom.  Every single moment with Hank, following that discovery, is absolute gold.  This broken, angry Hank is hard to watch but also impossible to turn away from.  There are so many incredible Hank moments in the final run of episodes.  His increasingly desperate attempt to convince Skyler to testify against Walt when the two meet up in a diner in “Buried.”  That crazy, awkward dinner between Hank & Marie and Walt & Skyler at a restaurant in “Confessions”.  The way he finally brings Jesse over to his side in “Rabid Dog” and “To’hajiilee”.  And, of course, his heartbreaking final phone call with Marie (in “To’hajiilee”) and his devastating final words to Walt (in “Ozymandias”).

To say that I was shocked that Hank Schrader didn’t make it to the finale would be an understatement of epic proportions.  As I mentioned above, the show moved far faster than I’d ever dreamed it would.  It felt right that Mike got taken off the board in the season’s first half, so that the final half could be focused on Hank vs. Walt.  But that Hank would get taken out three full episodes before the end left me stunned.  Was Breaking Bad ever better than during those final 15-or-so minutes of “To’hajiilee” and those first 15-or-so minutes of “Ozymandias”?  I don’t think so.  A triumph of writing and acting and directing.

Then there is poor Jesse Pinkman.  In the early going of the show, Jesse often felt like an obstacle that Walt had to overcome, or an anchor around Walt’s neck that would wind up dragging Walt down.  Turns out Walt was the anchor around Jesse.  The series did a marvelous job developing and humanizing Jesse.  By this final season, I think he was the most sympathetic character on the show.  I wanted him to escape from Walt even more than I wanted Mike to.  It’s great seeing Jesse stand up to Walt in “Say My Name” and “Gliding Over All” insisting that, like Mike, he is now out of the business.  (I love that moment when an angry Walt closes the garage door on Jesse, shutting Jesse out of his world.)  Then, in “Gliding Over All,” Mr. Paul shows us the terror in Jesse when Walt comes to visit him at his house.  That’s a totally new spin on their relationship.  This metastasizes into rage when Jesse finally discovers that Walt poisoned Brock (a long-running story-line that I was eagerly awaiting coming back to the forefront this final season!) in “Confessions”.  The way he screams, desperate and heartbroken, to Hank that Walt can’t keep getting away with everything, in “Rabid Dog”, is devastating and heartbreaking.  I also loved his earlier moment standing up to Walt in “Confessions” when he interrupts Walt’s latest run of B.S. by demanding that “would you just, for once, stop working me?”  Absolutely astounding work from Mr. Paul, proving his incredible acting chops.  Well done.

There were a few times in this final season in which the sped-up story-telling hurt the show rather than helped.  Just how did Hank and Gomez bust Mike’s lawyer in “Say My Name,” anyways?  That’s a key plot point that leads to Mike’s downfall that I would have liked to have seen better explained.  I was also not quite convinced by the synchronized killing of all of Mike’s imprisoned guys in “Gliding Over All,” as executed by Walt and Uncle Jack.  With three to five inmates involved in every single death, that means as many as fifty guys were suddenly complicit in these murders — that’s a HUGELY widened circle of criminality for Walt to be involved in!  Hank and co. couldn’t break and flip ANY of those fifty criminals?  I didn’t buy that.

But more often than not, this sped-up story-telling was thrilling.  For instance, after Hank discovered the truth about Walt in the final moments of “Gliding Over All,” I’d expected to get several episodes of cat-and-mouse between the two men.  Instead, in the very next episode, “Blood Money,” Walt forces a confrontation with Hank in Hank’s garage, and the two men go at one another, each laying all their cards on the table.  It’s a magnificent moment, and it was a HUGE surprise to me watching that episode!!

One of my very favorite aspects of Breaking Bad has been its wonderfully inventive cold-opens that begin every episode, before the opening credits.  These little vignettes are almost always the last thing I’d ever expect and yet also a perfect set-up for or companion to the story about to be told in that episode.  These incredible cold-opens reached their apotheosis with the astounding, wonderful, at-first head-scratching opener to “Madrigal,” in which we watch a dead-eyed boss sit in a pristine, almost-empty kitchen and sample a variety of new dipping sauces that have been created by his chefs, who stand assembled and waiting desperately for his feedback.  Funny, weird, intriguing, and hugely memorable, that scene will stand as one of my favorite moments in the whole series.  It was also a clever way to introduce a huge plot element of this final season: the company, Madrigal, that owned Gus’ Los Pollos Hermanos chicken chain… and also the woman, Lydia, who was a key player in Gus’ chefs getting the methylamine they needed for their cook.

I was pleased that, even in the final season, the show took the time to introduce and develop new characters like Lydia (Laura Fraser) and Todd (Jesse Plemons, who I just saw in Black Mass), both loathsome creatures in their own way.  Lydia was comical in her fumbling attempts to act “undercover” (first with Mike, then later with Todd), though also empathetic as she repeatedly begged Mike for her life (first in her apartment when he came to kill her, then again when Mike, Walt and Jesse think she has betrayed them by putting a tracker on one of her barrels).  That the show took the time to develop Todd’s little infatuation with Lydia is wonderful.  Every time I saw him in his preppy button-down shirt I got a good laugh.  Ahh, Todd.  From the moment he appeared on-screen it was clear that he was going to be a huge problem for Walt and Jesse, and he did not disappoint in that respect.  This dead-eyed killer was horrifying, a new kind of villain for the show, as was his Uncle Jack and his band of skinhead Nazis.  It was hugely gratifying seeing them get wasted in the finale.

There’s so much to talk about, that I have hardly mentioned yet Skyler, or Walt Jr., or Saul Goodman.  I’ve discussed how the show masterfully built up enormous audience empathy for Jesse — perhaps even more impressive is the way the show did the same for Skyler.  She, too, often felt like simply an obstacle for Walt to overcome in the show’s early going.  Skyler was an easy target for the audience to dislike and blame for Walt’s downward spiral — had she just been a little more loving and attentive to him, none of this would have happened.  Of course, for the audience to feel that is a simplistic shifting of responsibility away from Walt, the man who is wholly responsible for everything that happened.  I like the way this final season works hard to emphasize that point.  Skyler isn’t a saint.  She could have and should have left Walt and never gotten involved in laundering his money.  But particularly as this season opens, and we see how helpless and broken Skyler has become, trapped in a house, and a bed, with the monster that Walt has become, I found it impossible not to empathize with Skyler, despite any dislike one might have felt for her at the start of the show.  When Walt climbs into bed with her in “Live Free or Die” and tells her “I forgive you,” my heart broke for her.  I was also pleased to see Skyler break through that shell-shocked version of herself as the season continued, and regain some of her former toughness.  Her climactic confrontation with Walt in “Ozymandias”, demanding he tell her what happened to Hank, was an extraordinary scene.

That moment was also a home run for RJ Mitte as Walter Junior.  Poor “Flynn” often hasn’t had much to do in the show other than eat breakfast, but thankfully he was given some great moments in this final season and RJ Mitte hit those scenes out of the park.  His hysterical, angry reaction in “Ozymandias” when Skyler and Marie finally told him the truth about his father was everything I’d hoped that moment would be.  We the audience had five seasons to wonder what would happen when that moment finally arrived, and the writing and performances in the scene did not disappoint.  RJ also scored in that same scene with Skyler that I had mentioned before, from later in that same episode.  When Walter Jr. leaps on top of his mother to protect her from the knife-wielding Walt, we — and Walt — at last see the final break in this family unit that has, really, been broken ever since the pilot episode.  Magnificent.

Then there’s Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), another of this show’s greatest creations.  Saul didn’t have a huge amount to do this final season, but I felt the show came to life every moment he was on screen.  Saul is funny and pathetic… and also wise, as time and again he gives Walt solid advice that Walt foolishly ignores.  I love Saul’s floppy hair, his drawer of cell-phones, his habit of getting a happy ending massage in the middle of the work day, and on and on.  I can understand why Vince Gilligan didn’t want to be done with Saul once this show came to an end!

OK, it’s time now to start to discuss the ending of the show.  As I have often written when discussing the finales of long-running television shows, one of the most important aspects of the success of a finale is whether we the audience feel satisfied with where all of the characters end up.  That doesn’t mean that everyone needs a happy ending, just that everyone needs an ending that feels like a satisfactory conclusion to their journey, an ending that feels “right.”

For the most part, Breaking Bad succeeds wildly in this.  All eight final episodes were magnificent, and in particular the final run of episodes, from “Rabid Dog” to “Granite State” (the penultimate episode) were as good as this show ever was.  Talk about ending on a high note.

As for the finale itself, “Felina,” I was very satisfied, though, after doing some reading on-line after watching the episode, I can understand why some were underwhelmed. After all the twists and turns of the previous several episodes, “Felina” unfolds in a fairly straightforward fashion. On the one hand, this is good in that pretty much everything I wanted to see happen, happened, and so as a viewer of the show I was satisfied with these final movements of the plot and the places in which all the characters were left at the end. On the other hand, the episode didn’t live up to the thrill-a-minute pace of the previous several episodes. So I can see how that might disappoint some.

It’s an interesting challenge that a serialized show has to face — can you keep up the thrills until the very last minute? A great novel usually has some pages devoted to an epilogue after the story’s climax. Is it inappropriate that a novel-for-television would do the same? When viewed in that context, it makes sense that the real climaxes of the show’s story might come in those last few episodes, while leaving the actual finale itself as more of an epilogue. This works for me. (I’m reminded somewhat of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, my favorite of the Trek shows. That show ended with what was advertised as “the final chapter,” a nine-episode, ten-hour, completely serialized epic that was spectacular, the best run of Trek episodes before and since. Viewed together as the ten-hour finale of the show, it is magnificent.  And yet the actual final episode is just okay, not the greatest of the bunch. The best moments came in earlier episodes. At the time that disappointed me — why couldn’t they keep up that pace until the very end?? — but in hindsight I can understand how and why that might have happened.)

Another source of dissatisfaction for some with “Felina” is that, after watching Walt’s entire world fall apart around him — and seeing the same thing happen to pretty much EVERY SINGLE OTHER CHARACTER ON THE SHOW in the previous few episodes — it might seem anti-climactic for suddenly every one of Walt’s schemes to play out perfectly.  Some have even suggested that perhaps the finale is all Walt’s dream, asleep dying in that frozen car up in New Hampshire.  I certainly don’t think that’s how the final episode was meant to be seen, but I do understand the potential for dissatisfaction.  It’s somewhat weird seeing things go according to Walt’s plans at the end, and I might have preferred a few more complications for Walt.  (He certainly is able to get his car remote control back, even when being watched by the Nazis, with laughable ease.)  But I think Bryan Cranston’s performance sells that Walt is finished and knows it, so it’s not so much that everything goes perfectly but that Walt doesn’t care anymore about the consequences of his actions or any blowback.  He simply needs to get a few last things done and that’s it.

Personally, if I had any dissatisfaction with the finale, it’s with the way many of the show’s main characters had so little to do in it.  Mike and Hank were already dead, and Saul was gone in his new identity.  Walter Jr. didn’t even have a line of dialogue.  Marie was barely seen, which I think was a big mistake.  I really wanted more clarification on the status of her relationship with Skyler at this point.  The two sisters seem to be on decent terms during the one phone call we see them share in the episode, which surprised me.  With Hank dead, I couldn’t imagine Marie being able to look at or speak to her sister — how could she not blame Skyler for what happened to Hank??  I wish we’d gotten to spend more time with the two women in the finale to clarify how things played out between the two of them after Hank’s death.  But most disappointing for me was the near-complete sidelining of Jesse, who we hardly saw until the final moments and who had very few lines of dialogue in the episode.  I didn’t love that whole final story-line of Jesse as slave of the Nazis.  All of those scenes with Jesse and Todd/the Nazis in the final run of episodes were gripping and wrenching as I watched them, but when thinking about them afterwards that story-twist felt like a weird digression for Jesse.  I’d expected the show’s finale to be about a full-on confrontation between Hank, Jesse, and Walt, with my thinking that each one would be trying to outwit and escape/defeat the other two.  When Hank got taken out in “Ozymandias,” I though that was for sure to set up the finale’s focus squarely on Walt versus Jesse.  Instead, Jesse had hardly any role in the finale at all.  And while that final moment of him screaming triumphantly in the car, while speeding away, was a great fist-pumping moment, I wish that at the end of the show I had a better idea of Jesse’s ultimate fate.  Is he going to be able to get his life back together, or did his connection with Walt destroy him completely?  That’s a huge hanging question that I’m bummed to be left with.

Other thoughts about this final season of Breaking Bad:

* One of my favorite tiny details from the show?  Hank’s “Schraderbrau”!!  Amazing!

* Nice touch to have Walt and Walter Jr. watching Scarface together in “Hazard Pay,” considering how often Walt’s journey to crime-lord has been compared to that of Scarface.  At the time of that scene, I thought Walt’s comment that “everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?” was a hint that Breaking Bad wouldn’t end in the kind of bloodbath that some had predicted.  Guess I was wrong, considering the finale shoot-out in Jack’s lair.

* So glad to see Badger and Skinny Pete again, briefly, in this final season!

*It was a weird moment of comedy in the middle of grim drama, but Jesse’s dinner trapped between Walt and Skyler in “Buyout” was amazing.  Aaron Paul has never been better, totally selling the squirmy comedy of the scene.

*It was also wonderful to see Gretchen and Elliott again at the end, considering that pretty much all of Walt’s misery can be traced back to his decision to leave the company, Gray Matters, that he’d started with them as a young man.  For a show that tied up so many plot-lines so carefully, I wish we’d gotten to see what exactly caused the schism between the threesome.  We know enough to understand that Gretchen and Elliot got together, romantically, leaving Walt jealous and miserable, but still, I would have loved to have actually seen in flashback more of what exactly happened.

*I loved the moment in “Blood Money” in which Jesse is incredulous that Saul thinks Mike is still alive.  There were several moments this season when we got to see Jesse ahead of the curve (he also came up with the magnets plan), and these were great to see.  Jesse had come a long way from where we first met him back in the pilot.

*I loved Huell and Kuby.  Wish we’d gotten to see more of them.  Spin-off?  (Side-note — just how long do we think Huell waited in his apartment after the doomed Hank and Gomez left him there?)

*Speaking of Hank and Gomez, one disappointment for me in this final season was our never getting to actually see Hank tell Gomez the truth about Walt.  Hank kept the information from Gomez, against Marie’s advice, for several episodes after Hank’s discovery of the truth in “Gliding Over All,” and then we see Gomez with Hank for Jesse’s videotaped confession in “Rabid Dog”.  I wish we’d gotten to see the moment in which Hank finally spilled the beans to his former partner!

*Holy cow, the twist in “Confessions” — in which Walt recorded a faked confession in which he painted Hank as Heisenberg — was staggering.  A stunning twist in a season replete with stunning twists.

*I loved the surprise appearance of Robert Forster, playing Saul’s mysterious guy who can create new identities!  Nice to actually see this guy in the flesh, and Mr. Forster’s incredible work really anchored “Granite State,” the series’ penultimate episode.

*I’m glad this season clarified that, even in his final days, Walt stuck with his tightie-whities.

*Badger’s Star Trek script idea?  LOVED IT.

I have been a fan of Vince Gilligan’s since The X-Files, when I quickly learned that if an episode had his name on it as a writer that it was very likely going to be great.  And so I feel like something of a proud papa, seeing how Mr. Gilligan went on from The X-Files to create and run this show that has been so unique a vision.

There’s no question that Breaking Bad has been a masterpiece of a television show.  Every aspect of this show — the writing, the performances, the sets/costumes/design, the music — has been terrific.  I can’t think of another show quite like this one.  It has plumbed the depths of humanity, exploring some dark, grim places.  It’s been exciting and action-packed, but most of all it has been a complex character-study of one hugely flawed middle-aged white American man: Walter White.  The show told the story that it set out to tell, and it ended on its own terms, at exactly the time and place of Mr. Gilligan’s choosing.

While I can’t say that I unabashedly LOVED Breaking Bad, I have tremendous respect for it, and I’m very glad to have seen this series in its entirely.  This is not a show that I’ll be rushing to re-watch, but it’s so well-made that I have no doubt that it would stand up well to a re-watch.  I’m definitely curious to check out Vince Gilligan’s prequel, Better Call Saul, as more time with Mike and Saul seems like a very good thing to me.

But for now, let me just say one final thank you and bravo to Vince Gilligan and his entire team at Breaking Bad.  This was a hell of a journey, and a hell of a show.

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