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Notebook: In remembrance of Paul Walker

Universal

By Akshay Seth, Daily B-Side Editor
Published December 6, 2013

There’s something to be said about “normality.” Is it a picket fence, closely surrounding the red brick houses that float unnoticed on islands of unkempt summer grass? Is it those tired winter afternoons spent racing down mounds of snow next to the neighborhood cul-de-sac? Or maybe the crinkled ticket stubs you find in your pockets after a night at the movies. No one really knows. But we all have ideas of what we think — or want — it to mean.

Paul Walker, who died in a car crash last Saturday, saw normality in his daughter, Meadow. She was unplanned, the first taste of consequence in a life of irrelevant one-night stands and detached infidelities. It was before his first real break in Hollywood, before he became the unassuming man who categorized his career with the words, “I thought I’d make one movie and be done, but I kept working and now I’m 38 and don’t know what the fuck happened. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Initially, Walker turned away from his responsibilities. He chipped in financially, mailing in a regular stream of checks to his former girlfriend to make sure Meadow wouldn’t be in need of the things he lacked growing up, but he was never there himself. He focused on his career, clinging to that transient lifestyle, “living out of bags” and unable, even, to call anywhere “home” until he was 32.

Things changed in 2011. Nearly 40, Walker did what he’d never considered before: He moved in with his daughter. It was a new challenge — the one he felt he had spent his entire adulthood working toward, and for once, he was OK with being grounded by the permanence. It’s a progression in personality peculiarly suggestive of the franchise that made Walker a household name. The roaring cars, plumes of nitrous exhaust and vibrant, over-the-top storylines sold the tickets, but “Fast and Furious” ’s beating heart was always family — the brief reaffirmation of brotherhood that came with looking out the passenger window and being able to lock eyes with people who you knew would lie down in traffic to protect you.

As the engines hummed beneath the weight of those neon-soaked nights, Brian O’Conner became the closest thing a big-budgeted, “dumb” summer extravaganza could afford to relatable dynamicity. Dom was unmoving — a monolithic dedication to honor, paternalistically guiding how the story unfolded, but it was Walker’s easy blue eyes and patent accessibility that let the films distance themselves from hollowness.

It wasn’t that we could never tell what he’d do next — every character in the “Fast and Furious” universe except, perhaps, Hobbs is a beacon of predictability — it’s just that he made it seem normal. No matter how cheesy or overblown the lines may have looked on paper, he spoke them with an odd stoicism ringing of the endurance that comes hand-in-hand with experience. There was a visible calmness in that experience, a calmness that cut through the bombastically fiery explosions and unnecessarily loud plot twists at every turn.

Yet, it’s intriguing to note how it wasn’t always that way. “The Fast and the Furious,” the first film in the franchise, features an obviously younger Walker whose character approaches his surroundings with a high-pitched innocence that’s invisible in the later installments. The lines aren’t much different; still short, plain, to-the-point statements of fact that never once approach the flowery monologues about the meaning of life and family we see Vin Diesel spewing every 30 minutes.

But in those first two films, hearing Walker’s delivery is like being hit by the new-car smell of a Mustang you just drove off the lot. The persistent traces of potential are there, but what you remember are the swerving fluctuations in emotion that Walker dampens by the time “Fast 5” and “Fast 6” roll around.

In that change, there’s the unavoidable recognition that, like his character, he’s finally at peace with the life he’s chosen for himself. Each movie is still a race, the exaggerated depiction of a struggle to find some trace of stability in life. But O’Conner’s journey is our own. He’s fighting to make a place for himself in a world beyond the finish line.

And in that last scene of “Fast 6,” sitting around a table of food with the people he calls his closest friends, we get an idea of what that means. He never planned on being a family man. It just happened. He chose the people he let into his world, and in doing so, found the calmness he’d spent an entire lifetime struggling to accept. The joking blue eyes and smirking grin didn’t look out of place anymore. They had endured.

O’Conner, like Walker, found meaning. It doesn’t really matter what it was — skids of burned tire marks stretched across the expressway or a daughter he could finally call his own. Because it was his. His normality.