Better Call Saul 3.05 – Chicanery

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“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”

“Fiat justitia ruat cælum” is the Latin phrase, attributed to a number of classical figures but, alas, with no clear origin. The maxim, however, perfectly signifies Chuck’s hubris. While correct in his accusations against his brother Jimmy, Chuck has a history of preventing his brother from achieving any measurable level of stability or success; he cannot help, for any number of reasons, but attempt to cripple Jimmy’s ambitions. Cloaking himself in professional and academic success – self-justifying with grandiloquent quotes – something complex is driving Chuck’s animus toward Jimmy, something only lightly hinted at in earlier seasons.

Let justice be done though the heavens fall.
Justice must be realized regardless of the consequences.
There’s a question, of course, about what it is that makes Chuck more ‘just’ than Jimmy.

Both characters have injured one another, deceived one-another, attempted to ruin one-another professionally. To be sure, Chuck has never seen the inside of a jail cell like his brother Jimmy, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t employed sabotage and subterfuge to achieve his own selfish goals.

That’s where this week’s episode, titled ‘Chicanery‘ begins – in a flash-back with Chuck as he concocts an elaborate story to deceive his ex-wife Rebecca in order to disguise his illness. In the opening scene, we see the roles of the brothers reversed, in which Jimmy advocates for the power of truth and the consequences of lying while Chuck insists on the necessity of deception. Without any consideration Chuck executes his ruse in one of the most cleverly-written scenes of the series which illustrates how Jimmy, on some level, likely learned some of his tricks.

As season three of Better Call Saul has moved forward, the similarities between the two brothers has become increasingly clear. Where once Jimmy was a tragic caretaker and Chuck a victim of mental illness, now both are revealed as conniving and clever rivals. The one glaring difference – among many others, certainly – is that the elder brother is wealthier with an uncompromised reputation, leaving Jimmy at a disadvantage.

The antagonism between the brothers in Better Call Saul has proved to be an effective metaphor for justice in the modern world. The moneyed charlatan on wall-street is largely immune from his crimes while the petty grifter is prohibited from elevating himself. Neither is innocent, but one is clearly conducting battle from the high ground, and with significant advantages.

At the beginning of the series, Jimmy is a reformed con attempting to turn his life around – going to law school, working long and hard hours as a public defender, always finding himself unable to escape his past mistakes. The man with a record is always at a disadvantage, which often pushes him back into criminality – often into deeper and more intense expressions of criminality. Season three is, in a subtle way, an indictment of our modern concept of ‘justice.’

Though the heavens fall.

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Chicanery‘ brakes from the fragmented story-telling model of the season, focusing on only one story-line rather than several. Fring, Ehrmantraut, Nacho, and the Salamanca cartel are all on the back-burner while the narrative focuses intensely on the hearing between Chuck and Jimmy. This is a huge shift in pace and a welcome breath of fresh air; it doesn’t feel like audiences are being strung-along with an endless parade of Breaking Bad callbacks (though there are plenty) and unresolved plot-lines. The brothers are allowed their time to face one another, each equally dishonest in their attempt to ruin the other – each faced with consequences they hadn’t predicted.

Ironically, Chuck is absolutely correct about the billboard stunt and his brother’s manipulation of court documents. On his own side, Jimmy demonstrates that Chuck’s illness is mental rather than physical. Both brothers think the worst about each other and, in the end, both brothers are right.

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Better Call Saul 3.04 – Sabrosito

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“Nice to fix something for once.”

Most of the entire run of Better Call Saul has split up its time between the story arc of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and the story arc of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), the two primary protagonists. Their stories run parallel, too, as each character is confronted with certain opportunities and temptations. These characters are abundantly aware of the difference between right and wrong, and they both find ways to justify a bending and breaking of the rules.

The overarching plot of the series, at least in the early seasons, is designed to illustrate how these two characters are different and how they’re alike. Jimmy is painted as a reformed confidence-man attempting to leave his criminal ways behind. Mike is painted as a once-corrupt cop who, after the death of his son, is motivated to live a clean life and care for his son’s widow and granddaughter.

Jimmy craves success and Mike craves redemption.
Jimmy has raw ambition and Mike has a planet of regret resting on his shoulders.
Jimmy is frenetic and Mike is calm and collected.

The differences are glaring when we compare these characters side-by-side, which makes their similarities all-the-more compelling. In their own way, both characters break rules, break laws, lie, steal, and cheat in order to achieve their goals. They’re both lost souls. Better Call Saul seems to be interested in fleshing-out these characters individually before showing how they ultimately collide.

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This week’s episode, “Sabrosito,” begins in Mexico, with another little vignette with the yellow color-pallet established in Breaking Bad – yellow means Mexico, and it’s an effective visual storytelling element. The scene elucidates precisely how and why Hector Salemanca (Mark Margolis) has come to find a rival in the meticulous and successful Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – a question never completely answered in Breaking Bad. Like siblings at war with one another, the competition between Fring and Salemanca mirrors the tension between Jimmy and his older brother Charles (Michael McKean); anger, frustration, and sabotage.

This is one of the weakest episodes of the series. While all of the characters and stories in the Gilligan-verse are stylized, there’s a certain sense of believability that makes the characters sympathetic and the situations believable. Unfortunately, the idea of Hector Salemanca waltzing into the Los Pollos Hermanos fast-food chain and intimidating the patrons – and then holding the employees captive – rings as painfully unbelievable, as false, as genuinely sloppy from a story-telling perspective. The notion that not one single patron took it upon themselves to call the police after escaping an obviously dangerous situation is asking way too much from the audience. The speech that Fring delivers to his employees the following day – the “this is America!” speech – would also, never, not in a million years, be enough to satisfy a base-wage fast-food employee, let alone a whole crew of them. Regardless, Fring speaks the words and the employees cheer and rally, and the whole dangerous, gang-related, terrifying incident they had all endured magically disappears.

That is asking too much.

The Jimmy story-line is more reserved, illustrating the ‘Cain and Abel’ nature of Jimmy’s relationship with his brother. It’s collected and procedural, as Jimmy plants Mike into Chuck’s house in the guise of a repairman in order to collect evidence; the question as to ‘why’ will likely be addressed in next week’s episode, and attempts at prognostication will be relatively useless. One could guess that Mike has been planted in order to gather evidence of Chuck’s lifestyle in order to support a claim, in court, that Chuck is mentally unstable. Time will tell on that one.

Some plot-holes and inconsistencies are, as always, forgivable in a fictitious universe – inevitable, even. This episode broke some walls and provides some reasons for concern, but this may just be a hiccup as the writers find their way from the point ‘a’ to the point ‘b’ of the story. We see a developing relationship between Mike and Gus, and we see a continuation of Jimmy’s conflict with his brother. Gus offers Mike a position that “will depend on the work,” and Jimmy appears to be setting a trap for Chuck in order to discredit him.

Next week, I predict, will offer some answers to our lingering questions.

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Better Call Saul 3.03 – Sunk Costs

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One of the greatest assets of Better Call Saul is its treatment of time. The entire series is a framework-piece, beginning in a black-and-white sequence that takes place in the present. This divorces the narrative of Better Call Saul from its Breaking Bad roots. Then we rewind and dive into the prequel narrative, where we learn about Jimmy McGill’s apotheosis. He’s is a fallen god in the present but a serf struggling to feed himself in the beginning of his story.

It may just be possible for Better Call Saul to be both a prequel and a sequel to Breaking Bad. If audiences remain engaged and the show continues, we may just see the present-day narrative extend into the future. It’s a clever slight-of-hand that the writers are playing, and I don’t believe there’s any precedent for this kind of story-telling in television.

Like the previous two episodes of this season – and some moments from the previous two seasons – much of this episode’s story is told in montage, rather than spoken dialogue. This is a curious story-telling trick that motivates audiences to pay attention to the television and not their smart phones, to remain engaged, to empathize with the characters and guess at what they’re thinking, theorize what they’re going to do next. Just as the entire show is a framework piece, this episode functions the same way on a smaller scale, opening with the dangling red sneakers on the power lines south of the border. This opening scene foreshadows the Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) story-line, but we later realize that the scene takes place after the main events of the episode.

*The composition of the frame in the first scene even manages to conveniently crop out the toe of the shoe.
Season two already explains why Ehrmantraut has a grudge against the Salamanca cartel – Hector Salamanca had a civilian “not in the game” killed in the wake of Mike’s truck robbery – and this episode finally illustrates how Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring finally come together. The recipe is simple and as old as time:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The opposing narrative is more procedural and less intriguing, but we know that it’s building to something. We pick up where we left off last week, with Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) preparing to deal with the consequences of breaking into his brother’s house and destroying the recording of his confession. Chuck (Michael McKean) has clearly assembled increasingly clever plans to dismantle Jimmy’s career throughout the course of the series, and his recent trickery appears to be the last nail in the coffin – Jimmy isn’t going to forgive him. We already know that Jimmy is going to become a successful (albeit shady) attorney from the Breaking Bad story, so we aren’t overly concerned with the outcome – we’re concerned with how things unfold. All we have to do, as audience members, is wonder how exactly Jimmy is going to get back into the ring and make it happen. Chuck wants Jimmy to give up law, and we already know that it isn’t going to happen, so we wonder.

It’s a new kind of subtle suspense, and it’s a very compelling gimmick.

We all know that Jimmy McGill is a criminal, that he’s conniving and immoral. Somehow, though, we sympathize with him. We watch him struggle professionally, we watch him struggle with his older brother. We somehow want him to succeed, even though we recognize his moral bankruptcy. Television and Hollywood are replete with anti-hero stories, but Better Call Saul has tapped into the story of the anti-hero without dipping into bald-tire cliché. This story is infinitely more human in its exploration of these characters; it is, quite brilliantly, the best adaptation of Goethe’s ‘Faust’ – thematically, not literally – that television has to offer.

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Better Call Saul 3.02 – Witness

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Jimmy: Does that look straight to you?
Francesca: I think you’re a little crooked.
Jimmy: Yeah…a little crooked…

This is precisely the kind of nuanced conversation that Better Call Saul fans love. Of course we know that these two characters aren’t discussing the moral turpitude of the show’s ethically challenged protagonist – they’re discussing the paint job in the lobby of Jimmy’s new law practice. We’re all in on the joke, though, and the actors play it totally straight, which perfectly sells the moment.

The scene involves Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) meeting Francesca Liddy (Tina Parker) for the first time. A former Motor Vehicle Division employee, she’s looking to apply as a receptionist for the Law Offices of Wexler-McGill. This is yet another introduction of a Breaking Bad alum, a tertiary character embedded in the narrative for longtime fans to appreciate and for newcomers to meet for the first time.

That’s the subtle magic of Better Call Saul. Seeing Tuco Salemanca in season one was a great reveal, inciting audiences to question precisely how the floundering public defendant, Jimmy McGill, eventually manages to ingratiate himself among the prolific criminal empires we already know about from Breaking Bad. In season two we have the one-two punch of seeing ‘The Cousins’ as well as the drug kingpin himself, Hector Salemanca. Rumors of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) making a cameo – even just a simple glimpse of him walking through the background of a scene – have been circulating on social media for over a year, and the anticipation of Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) return in season three has had fans wringing their fingers for months.

It’s a tricky narrative dance, introducing an ensemble of characters that audiences are already familiar with and whose ultimate fates are already known. Breaking Bad aficionados already know exactly what happens to Tuco, Hector, The Cousins, Gus, and many, many others. How does the show motivate interest when it’s already known what happens further down the line? The prequel game is a tricky one, but somehow it has been working for Vince Gilligan and Co, who have managed to keep audiences engaged.

The other interesting aspect of Better Call Saul in general, and season three in specific, is the minimalist approach to dialogue. Some people may find the pacing too slow, especially compared to Breaking Bad, with long sequences in which characters are thinking, plotting, planning, studying, or hunting. ‘No dialogue’ means one serious thing: you have to keep your eyes on the screen and you have to pay attention.

Visual story-telling has made a huge resurgence, both in television and film, and Better Call Saul has been expert in maintaining narrative intrigue with a minimal approach to dialogue – especially in a number of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) scenes. This week’s scene in Los Pollos Hermanos when Jimmy is sitting in his booth, not a word is spoken. Jimmy sits, fumbles with his food, and waits for his mark to arrive. Then we watch Jimmy struggle to figure out how to get close to his mark, eavesdrop, and find a new seat close enough to keep the man in his sight-line. I’m reminded of the massive success of ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ and the fact that the entire film could have been silent (and there genuinely was very little dialogue) and audiences would have completely understood the universe that these characters inhabit. I’m also reminded of ‘No Country For Old Men,’ where entire scenes unfold in silence, motivating viewers to put themselves in the mind of the protagonist and guess at what he’s thinking and wondering the exact same things he must be wondering. It’s a brilliant device that rewards patience.

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No breakdowns here. If you’re reading this you’ve seen the episode. Ehrmantraut is slowly unraveling details about the Salemanca Cartel’s rivalry with Gus Fring’s operation, even though he has yet to identify Gus Fring as a major player. He knows he’s being tracked, and he’s using his exceptional skill and patience to solve the problem. Chuck has successfully sabotaged his brother Jimmy, and Kimmy is going to be stuck in the middle of this colossal lie-laden disaster. How much does Fring actually know, and what are his plans? That’ll have to be left for later episodes, it seems.

At the end of the day, this writer has one humble prediction for the show: most of the characters who aren’t in Breaking Bad – Chuck McGill, Kim Wexler, Nacho Varga – aren’t going to escape Better Call Saul with their lives. Losing Chuck and Kim would be a logical conclusion to Jimmy’s unique Faustian tale. The obliteration of family and love, a corrupt and ugly dance with the devil, will lead to Jimmy’s metamorphosis into the morally bankrupt Saul Goodman we met in Breaking Bad.

I’d be willing to put money on it.

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Afterthoughts: there’s a fun little easter egg that seems to have gone under a lot of people’s radar.

The cigarette smoking driver that sped away from Los Pollos Hermanos in order to lure Mike onto a remote stretch of desert highway? That’s right, it’s Victor, Fring’s perpetually scowling henchman tasked with guarding Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the underground lab. If this isn’t ringing a bell, just think “Gus Fring – Utility Knife.”

No dialogue means one thing: pay attention.

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Better Call Saul 3.01 – Mabel

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“Good and bad is not the same thing as legal and illegal.”

Entering its third season, Better Call Saul is much more of a slow burn compared to its Breaking Bad predecessor. This has some fans of the Gilligan-verse frustrated, hoping for the violence and action that the Walter White saga delivered, but Saul is a different animal altogether, much more patient with how it allows its characters to unfold. Ultimately I think this is a good thing. Especially considering that Better Call Saul is a prequel, because the audience already knows where most of the main characters eventually wind up – it’s important for this series to be more of a character study than a thriller.

Better Call Saul, when it was first announced, had the stink of ‘cash grab’ all over it. It was announced at the tail end of Breaking Bad, one of the most successful television shows of all time, occupying the same Breaking Bad universe. And let’s face it, when we hear the term ‘spin off,’ our hopes aren’t often that high. But show creator Vince Gilligan and partner Peter Gould have made something far better than a cheap knock-off – in fact, some might argue that Saul is, in many ways, superior to the show that came before.

Aside from the traditional black-and-white Nebraska Cinnabon flash-forward to the dull existence led by the show’s protagonist, season three picks up precisely where season two left off: conman turned lawyer Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) has admitted to his mentally ill brother Chuck (Michael McKean) that he sabotaged some of Chuck’s legal paperwork in order to secure a client for himself and his nascent legal practice. Chuck, the golden child and the successful, law-abiding lawyer, reveals that he, too, knows how to run a long con. Having led Jimmy to believe that his own mental illness had truly gotten the best of him, Jimmy feels remorse – then Jimmy confesses. In the next scene, we see that Chuck is already taking down all of the space blankets taped along the walls to cocoon himself from his fear of electromagnetic waves (the primary symptom of his mental illness). Chuck wasn’t losing his mind after all, and he’d been secretly recording his conversation with Jimmy, capturing the entire confession. Chuck has already been established as an exceptional attorney; he knows his secretly taped audio confession likely won’t hold-up in court, but we all know he probably has something bigger planned.

And even though Better Call Saul is entirely its own show, fans have been excited to see the return of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the ice-cold drug lord who masks his criminal enterprise in a collection of fast-food franchises. The conclusion of season two planted the seeds, and various easter eggs (including a clever acrostic of episode titles), have confirmed Fring’s return (as well as later-released press photos).

It appears that audiences can look forward to seeing how Mike (Jonathan Banks) becomes one of Fring’s chief enforcers. As Mike gets ever-closer to discovering precisely who Fring is, Jonathan Banks continues to deliver a show-stealing performance. The Saul story-line dissolves when we cut to Mike, and audiences try to figure out what he’s thinking, what he’s planning.

As strong as Odenkirk, McKean, and Banks are in the show, the production’s secret weapon is Rhea Seehorn’s complex portrayal of Kim Wexler. She is the heart and soul of the Saul’s story, a character struggling to keep her head above water during the ensuing flood. She isn’t manipulative (as Jimmy and even his brother Chuck are), she isn’t greedy (as the various suits in her field of work appear to be), and she isn’t criminal (as virtually every other character in the show is). She maintains her affinity for moral uprightness, but cannot control her attraction to Jimmy’s crooked ways – that’s the primary struggle of her character. Kim portrays the most human struggle in the show, one that all audience members can relate to in one way or another. She doesn’t like it, but she continually gets wrapped-up in Jimmy’s schemes, and it is this writer’s opinion that the conclusion of Better Call Saul will include her death – that will be the final tragedy that divorces Jimmy McGill from any hope of moral redemption.

Vince Gilligan may be a one note pony – Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are identical, Faustian tails of relatively innocent men being drawn into a criminal enterprise that threatens to overwhelm them. Jimmy’s crimes are certainly more nuanced than Walter White’s, but that’s just a detail. It is to the show’s credit – to the writing and the acting – that we continue to root for Jimmy despite the wrongs he has done – such was not the case by the time we hit the third season of Breaking Bad. Jimmy can’t outrun his lies forever – we already know that – and it is certainly entertaining to watch his character evolve while the noose begins to tighten.

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There are a couple of easy-to-miss details that I would love some assistance with. As fans of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul already know, nothing in the frame is accidental. Color scheme, costuming, editing, frame-rate, perspective, and pacing are all meticulously constructed to create an intentional, dynamic universe for the characters to inhabit. So why is the miserable Cinnabon manager reading “The Moon’s A Balloon” while on break at the mall? There isn’t a chance in hell that this particular book wasn’t chosen specifically for this character.

“The Moon’s A Balloon” is one of the best-selling memoirs of all time, of a man that contemporary audiences would scarcely recall: David Niven. The book is an account of his life in Hollywood during the 1950’s and 1960’s, beginning with the early loss of his aristocratic father. Stories of service during the second world war follow, and then tales of partying with legends of the silver screen. It’s a gossipy tome, at times earnest and heart-felt, but mostly boastful, about life among the stars while living in Los Angeles.

Does this somehow reflect the dim life that the once wealthy and talented Saul Goodman has been reduced to. A memoir about a long-forgotten Tinseltown big-shot perhaps reminds our character of how grand he used to be? I’d be curious to hear your opinion.

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Breaking Bad – How Does It Hold Up?

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It’s mid-summer. We’re in a lull. Spoiled by this, the ‘Golden Age Of Television,’ there’s a lot to look forward to, but not a whole lot to indulge in, other than second viewings of our DVR’d favorites and bingeing on Netflix – and ‘Mr Robot,’ of course. Recently, I’ve started burning through all of the old ‘Breaking Bad’ seasons, not only because I’m a fan of the show, but because I’m curious as to how well, even just a couple of years after its finale, the show really holds up.

‘Breaking Bad’ raised the bar, but it definitely does feel a little dated, which I hadn’t really expected. Coded character archetypes and narrative patterns that have been emulated by countless television series, the treads on ‘Breaking Bad’ are surprisingly thin. It’s still an enjoyable show, but I suspect it will fade quickly, as did other hit shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Shield.’ It broke new ground, but it isn’t a stand-alone triumph. Rather, it raised the stakes and motivated other series to ‘up’ their game, raise their standards, and push forward.

When all is said and done, only period pieces manage to capture an ageless, timeless quality. ‘Rome,’ and ‘Deadwood,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ aren’t anchored in contemporary culture and modern life, so they will never age so terribly as many other stories. Flip phones are already a thing of the past – sorry, ‘Breaking Bad,’ but your age is showing. And there was a three-season story arc in ‘The Shield’ revolving around the protagonist’s child being diagnosed with autism and a class-action lawsuit against an MMR vaccine that his daughter’s autism was blamed on – but the science is in on that one, too.

For anybody looking for a fight: the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. Hit me.

It’s risky, trying to anchor story-lines in the present; things in the present change very quickly. Dangerously so when you’re a screen-writer.

The music-video jump cuts of ‘Breaking Bad’ are also slowly disappearing. Audiences recognize these montages for what they are: near-effortless attempts to kill time and compensate for a script that doesn’t quite fill the forty-two minute run-time of the episode.

‘Breaking Bad’ broke new ground, along with a few other of its contemporaries. It will be forever remembered as an innovative leap in long-form television story-telling. And I will always be a fan. But watching the shift from ‘Breaking Bad’ to ‘Better Call Saul’ has been interesting. The deliberate pace of ‘Saul’ has alienated some viewers, but it demonstrates how the show-runners and executives understand the medium, and the changes the medium has undergone. I’m very much looking forward to what Vince Gilligan & Co. have up their sleeve for seasons three.

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Break That Bad – Waiting For Gus

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The architecture of story is important, and consumers are educating-up. ‘Breaking Bad’ wasn’t the first major television series to elevate the medium, but it certainly perfected the craft. For fifty years, audiences were passive consumers of story-telling, and there are several examples of master storytelling in television – from ‘X-Files’ and ‘Law & Order’ to ‘The Office’ and ‘The Wire’ – but the tide began to turn about ten years ago. I would argue that the FX flagship series ‘The Shield’ really sparked a new flame in long-form serial storytelling, a program of anti-heroes that paved the way for ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Deadwood’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’

Now we’re up to our necks in amazing content. Netflix jumped into the realm of original programming with hit series like ‘Daredevil,’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ on HBO has been one of the most successful – and amazing – series of all time. We live in a remarkable time, with thoroughly literate programming that has broken from the four-camera sit-coms of the past. I’m currently catching up with ‘Preacher’ and ‘Mr Robot.’ There’s more good television out there than feature-length film. A ten episode run, simply stated, lends more time – ten one-hour episodes, on average – than anything that can be achieved in a two-hour feature film. And audiences want character development.

I’m a photographer and I’m an artist, and I love all of these amazing stories. Raised on Stephen King novels and comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, I can’t help but be super-excited by all of the amazing storytelling we’re seeing today. We’re halfway between the conclusion of ‘Better Call Saul’ season two and the premier of season three. And Gus Fring – expertly portrayed by actor Giancarlo Esposito – is destined to reprise his role in the opening episode. Fans of ‘Breaking Bad’ already know how he died, but now we get to learn more about how he built his drug empire.

I know that I’m not alone. It’s going to be a rush to see how “Slippin'” Jimmy McGill and “troll under the bridge” Mike Ehrmantraut first make contact with the calculating crime lord Gus Fring. The show has been a slow burn, boring a lot of viewers, but good story-telling takes time. I expect things to really heat up with the season three debut.

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