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 3.01 – 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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The Walking Dead 7.16 – The First Day…

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So here we have it, the finale, titled “The First Day Of The Rest Of Your Life.” We’ve been waiting since the season opener for an episode centered around Rick, and I guess this is what we have to contend with. Last week ended with Dwight (played by Austin Amelio) visiting the Alexandria camp with a truce offering and a willingness to help take down Negan – but this story-line doesn’t really go anywhere here, not to anybody’s surprise. There’s always room for next season.

I guess.

Oh. And a betrayal by the garbage-pickers? Shocking.

<rolls eyes>

“We’re going to war.”
That’s all that really happened in this episode. Sasha died (we’d been expecting it) and Eugene is a coward (which we already knew). And we all knew that there wouldn’t be a conclusion to the ‘Alexandria Versus The Saviors’ plot in an hour-long episode. So we get to see an angry Negan, more tactical maneuvers, plotting, and intrigue in the next exhausting season.

I think I’m about done.
This is getting stupid.

Great finale. Huzzah…

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The Walking Dead 7.9 – A Rock In The Road

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Fans have been waiting for the ‘back end’ of season seven to begin, in lurid anticipation after the significant character deaths that have colored the ‘front end.’ Diverting from the comic book, communities like Oceanside – and the new garbage-heap group introduced in today’s episode – have surfaced, keeping fans engaged and completely disrupting the prognostications of comic-book fan-boys like yours truly.

For the first half of the season, the narrative has been exceedingly involved in illustrating the psychological wounds endured by Rick Grimes and the entire Alexandria contingent in the wake of their brutal first encounter with Negan and The Saviors. Regardless, audiences have been waiting to see the Rick Grimes character rediscover his courage and fighting spirit, and it seems pretty evident that this is exactly the theme of ‘Rock In The Road.’

Unfortunately, it also appears that this episode is falling victim to the program’s tendency toward slow-paced “filler.” Character development is important, but when the pace is slowed, it’s important for the character interactions to feel authentic and significant, and there’s something about the scripted dialogue in the opening scenes of this episode that feel painfully wooden and inauthentic. The way Jesus explains his knowledge of another community, “The Kingdom,” feels light and casual, with absolutely no gravity (even though he is forbidden from revealing details about the community). It is also important to remember that the Alexandrians have been isolated survivalists who were, just one season prior, completely shocked by the existence of “The Hilltop.” And there is something about the frenetic and exasperated utterances by The Hilltop’s leader, Gregory – “rheeee-tor-i-cal” – and the interjections by the lovable hayseed “Daryl,” that just don’t ring true when we examine the character.

“Yer either with us or you ain’t! Yer talking out of both sides of yer mouth!”

Watching those words come out of that particular character just seemed awkward and completely out of style for a reasonably unthinking rough-and-tumble man who relies on his instincts and skills and not his diplomacy and intellect. Action set-pieces like a herd of walkers being sliced apart by a taught cable strung between two cars, while visually impressive and undeniably fun, seemed like an implausible afterthought designed to help the episode recover from its painfully shallow dialogue.

Yes. We now have a unified group of people who want to fight – exactly what audiences want – but we also have flagging character development and the introduction, at the tail-end of the episode, of yet another underdeveloped community of people who may or may not aid our heroes in the war to come. And let’s face it – we know that the hooded garbage-pickers are going to fall in line, eventually, in armed conflict with Negan’s Saviors. Little has been left to the imagination and characters are being rewritten and yanked from the thoughts and actions we would naturally expect from them after seven seasons of development.

There is absolutely no reason why Rick would smile after his group is besieged by hooded, gun-wielding kidnappers. But hey, it sure does make for a great cliffhanger.

Has the show jumped the shark? Certainly not. It’s engaging and entertaining, and I can promise you that I’ll be tuning in next week. But something about this episode just didn’t feel right. Let’s see if the ship corrects itself.

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Breaking Bad – Say My Name

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Many folks herald Breaking Bad as the greatest television show in the history of television. I wouldn’t go so far. It was successful in developing a narrative that rewarded its audience and grew along with its popularity. But if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, it’s a show that began slow. It certainly managed to enhance its narrative velocity throughout its five-season run, but there was an undeniable lull during the earliest episodes. Its biggest success rested in the show-runners – and creator Vince Gilligan – outlining how they wanted the story to end. The network had no opportunity to milk the show – keep it on life support while the numbers were good – until it fell into relative obscurity (think Dexter or True Blood).

Sure, we would all have gleefully sat through an additional three seasons of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman dodging bullets and escaping the guillotine, but a poorly-resolved narrative condemns a story to the realm of ‘the forgettable.’ We remember Breaking Bad because the story respected its audience. It was designed to be a complete story, not a money-maker – and that’s why it’s such a profoundly successful money-maker. The competition between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ destroys most shows, most books, and a lot of popular art. Focus groups and ratings have a direct influence on the direction many of our stories go – seeking to please audiences rather than impact them.

Focus groups are as effective as the SAT’s in measuring success – which is to say, they don’t measure success. In many cases, they destroy it. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest examples of long-form story-telling specifically because it didn’t allow itself to be influenced by outside, disaffected parties. It took risks. It reminded audiences that creativity and ingenuity can allow a television show to achieve as much – if not more – than feature-length films. Breaking Bad inaugurated the wave of cinema-quality television we’re now experiencing.

And hindsight is 20/20. If we can be genuinely objective, Better Call Saul is better at the job of character development and story-telling than Breaking Bad ever was. Artists – and the writers in their ranks – evolve. In Saul, nothing is taken for granted in it’s production. Breaking Bad, the early years, has the tainted film of “this might not be picked up for another season” written all over it. Better Call Saul is infinitely more confident in it’s story-telling – in a way that audiences have never seen. Sure, it could be canceled at any time, but it’s obvious that the writers know precisely where they’re going with their characters. They have to be, because half of these characters already exist in the Breaking Bad series.

With the ultimate fate of the principle characters an already-known quantity, the writers of Better Call Saul have been working on – and achieving – a heightened level of story-telling, the likes of which we have never, in the history of books, movies, or television, ever seen. It’s pretty damn cool.

Keep your eyes open. Look at the quality. And please: Say. My. Name.

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Better Call Saul 2.09 – Nailed

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“Nailed” is about right. The screws are tightening and Better Call Saul has breached the barrier between ‘procedural’ into ‘true drama.’ This is the episode that fans have been waiting for, after a laborious – and often frustratingly tedious and long-winded – build-up. Consider the final two episodes as one long story; we’ve only seen the first act. And the gun from the Regalo Helado opening from last week? Well, we all know what happens when you introduce a gun in the first act.

The ‘Cain and Abel’ story between Jimmy and Chuck is reaching it’s apex. The connection between Mike and the Salamanca cartel is cemented, but not resolved. The spindle is turning and the yarn isn’t complete. For today, I’ll be reserving a more in-depth review until the season climax next Monday.

Any predictions?

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