Better Call Saul 3.05 – Chicanery

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
ALL ‘SAUL’ & ‘BREAKING BAD’ MERCHANDISE HERE

“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.

– – –

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.

READ LAST WEEK’S REVIEW
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Advertisements

Better Call Saul 3.04 – Sabrosito

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
ALL ‘SAUL’ & ‘BREAKING BAD’ MERCHANDISE HERE

“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.

– – –

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.

READ LAST WEEK’S REVIEW
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Better Call Saul 3.02 – Witness

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
ALL ‘SAUL’ & ‘BREAKING BAD’ MERCHANDISE HERE

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.

– – –
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.

– – –
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.

READ LAST WEEK’S REVIEW
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Breaking Bad – How Does It Hold Up?

Breaking Bad - I Won blogFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
MORE POSTS FROM THE GILLIGAN-VERSE

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Save

Save

Break That Bad – Waiting For Gus

Face Off blogFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
MORE FROM SAUL & BREAKING BAD

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.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Better Call Saul 2.09 – Nailed

Jimmy-Boy postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
READ PREVIOUS SAUL POSTS HERE

“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?

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER

Better Call Saul – Expert Camera Work

Regalo Helado postFINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
READ OTHER ‘CALL SAUL’ POSTS HERE

One of the better things I’ve heard somebody say recently was that “storytelling is telepathy.” I was listening to this interview with a young screenwriter and he summoned those [likely not too famous] words from author Stephen King. I enjoy the odd logic of the statement, though – somebody writes the words down, and then we absorb them when we read them and create the story in our minds. We don’t just absorb them; we become a part of the story. The inert symbols on the page, black ink on white paper, become images in our imaginations. We assign voices and details, interpretations and emotions, to the tune of elegant simplicity – black ink on white paper.

We’ve been doing it since the birth of civilization.

Cinema, a decidedly modern method of storytelling, is a little different. It’s all more specific. The images, the look of the characters and the sound of their voices – these things have all been chosen for us, by a director. In many ways, we can describe reading as more of a ‘participatory’ form of storytelling – we have to use our imaginations and help co-author the story being told – and watching film & television as more of a ‘passive’ form of storytelling. This is why we associate books with intellect and television with laziness.

This is a false dichotomy.

Good storytelling, either in print or telecast, motivates the reader (or audience member) to make decisions. Good storytelling on the screen is the kind of storytelling that rewards the audience for paying attention – to color palettes, symbolism, narrative structure, foreshadowing, and character development/evolution. Most of us recognize these things, even if we aren’t looking for them or actively thinking about them. Television shows in the last several years, it should also be noted, have achieved a level of quality and substance that rivals most mainstream feature films.

In many ways, the television series allows storytellers to exercise their talents in a way that feature film could never allow. Can a ninety minute film accomplish as much as a sixteen episode season (or an entire series)? Of course not. A television series has more time to introduce an ensemble of characters, establish their unique and individual qualities – their challenges, their strengths, their shortcomings – and bring the circumstance of their lives into clear and cutting focus.

Better Call Saul is a wonderful example of long-form story-telling. It’s one of the reasons that it’s so beloved (and simultaneously so under-appreciated, because of it’s painful rarity) in the television world. It is incredibly ‘literate’ in its approach, each episode a small little piece of a morality play, each episode a small little piece of a bigger puzzle. The most recent episode, to my mind, is one of the greatest examples of cinema-quality film-making applied to a television series, specifically because of how the opening scene is shot, choreographed, and cut.

The entire first sequence follows a refrigerated truck – presumably smuggling narcotics – across the US-Mexico port of entry. Using one camera operator, three different vehicles, and a steady-cam, the establishing shot is achieved in one single, sustained, three-plus minute shot. A ballet of vehicles and extras – law enforcement, truck drivers, perpetrators, and K-9 units – swirl around the scene. The camera glides through and captures this scene without a single cut. The trick of trying to cram non-narrative story into a long, sustained, uncut shot is as old as film itself, but rarely is it accomplished with such extraordinary finesse. The longer the camera can reveal an unfolding narrative, the less the audience is motivated – whether consciously or unconsciously – to question its authenticity. That’s because real life – our true, moment-to-moment lives – aren’t cut from angle-to-angle, perspective-to-perspective, over one shoulder and then <whack> over another shoulder. The longer the scene can go without an edit, the more we are seduced, as audience members, to believe it.

If you haven’t hopped aboard the Better Call Saul bandwagon, I suggest you give it a day in court – pun intended. Following the ‘cartel mule-truck through the port’ scene – an extraordinary achievement in television film-making – I can’t wait to see what other cards the show-runners are hiding up their sleeve.

– – –

Other films with remarkable tracking shots (nope, can’t think of any other television shows):

  1. Boogie Nights – The opening scene starts outside the night club, tracks into the club, snakes through the seating area and onto the dance floor, and winds back out. Every single major character in the film has at least one spoken line of dialogue and the scene lasts roughly ten minutes (a so-called ‘full-film-magazine’). It is insane when you consider how hard it must have been to choreograph this.
  2. Irreversible – This is the film that can’t be un-seen. It’s one of the most grotesque and challenging-to-watch films ever made, with Gaspar Noe at the helm. The film is replete with slight-of-hand cuts (paving the way for Birdman, but taking it’s inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope) that give the illusion of long cuts, including the devastating brawl at the gay sex club in the first scene. But it’s the sexual assault scene in the middle of the film, in a dark roadway underpass, that is truly shocking. The camera sits like a fly on the wall. The graphic content of the scene makes it all-the-more uncomfortable for the audience, that the camera never blinks, never looks away, never cuts to something less awful than the brutal violation right in front of it. It’s easy to forget that this is just a movie, watching this scene. It’s hard to remember that it’s not real, that this isn’t in fact a true-to-life snuff film. This is one of the most amazing films ever made, but it comes with an asterisk – not for the weak of heart.
  3. Children Of Men – I’m not even a fan of this film. The premise is outlandish, with little or no real time spent on trying to explain how or why the characters live in a world where women simply can’t get pregnant. The idea itself is compelling, but the details are glossed-over and we’re expected to just accept that, yeah, this is the world of this film. Women ain’t gettin’ pregnant. World’s gonna end. Bummer, dude.
    Nevertheless, there is a moment in an embattled urban area, tanks creaking into the streets, in which the protagonist walks through mortar fire and military vehicles, through throngs of people, to bear witness among a huddled gathering of resistance fighters, to an infant child. The camera follows him through the streets, around tanks, amid explosions and hordes of civilians battling military personnel. The camera never cuts, and the scene is undeniably, tear-inspiringly beautiful. It’s a shame that it’s embedded in what, to me, is a muddled mess of a film. But it’s one brilliant piece of film-making nonetheless.

Can you think of any long-cuts that should be added to the pantheon? Let me know in the comments.

FINE ART PRINTS AVAILABLE HERE
– – –
SIGN UP FOR THE LENSEBENDER NEWSLETTER