Breaking Bad – How Does It Hold Up?

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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.

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Better Call Saul 2.06 – Bali Ha’i

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SEE LAST WEEK’S EPISODE REVIEW HERE

“How about your payment is that you get to live?”
“Not enough.”

Mike is once again confronted with certain dangerous elements, and on two separate occasions on this week’s episode of “Better Call Saul.” What is truly fascinating about the construction of the character is that, given an event where any reasonable audience member would fear for his certain doom, we already know that Mike is going to survive – he’s already in a chronologically much-later sequence of events in “Breaking Bad.” Knowing beforehand that he’s going to make it through, the suspense is remarkably just as palpable here, as we wait to see exactly how the plodding old man manages to wriggle free from closing nets.

Mike’s apparent disregard for his own life, it must be noted, allows him to battle beyond his means. Bravery and intellect help him compensate for ‘bad knees’ and age. And his devotion to what remains of his family makes him easily the most sympathetic character of the show’s entire ensemble (he assumed the throne once Saul quit making ice & food deliveries to Chuck). The total of Mike’s written dialogue for any episode of “Better Call Saul” could be scrawled on a note-card, but a tremendous amount of his thought process is acted through body movements, eye rolls, facial expressions. What’s most interesting about Mike – a character I’ve already insisted is the most interesting character in the whole of the Gilligan-verse – is how his character seems to very closely mirror the trajectory of Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” He is a man with little or nothing to lose, willing to go to any length for his family, loses himself, and dies in the process.

It’s just a bonus to us, I suppose, that the circle finally closes with Mike dying at Walter’s hands. It’s an almost Shakespearean way for the character to die.

The connections to “Breaking Bad” have been steady over the past several episodes, including cameos of Krazy-8, last week’s introduction of Hector Salamanca, and now this week’s reintroduction of “The Cousins.” The arrival of The Cousins was like something out of a horror film, a startling moment in a television program that, thus far, has been noted for its deliberate, slow pace.

Speaking of those connections, it has dawned on me that Nacho Varga isn’t a character in the “Breaking Bad” series. I thought long and hard about this while he sat in the background at the shop at the end of this week’s episode, overseeing Mike’s meeting with Hector and The Cousins. Nacho is still stuck in the middle of all of this, and when Mike hands a conciliatory $25k bundle of bills to the side-dealing Latino, I began to immediately speculate what kind of untimely and grotesque fate awaits the man. At this point it’s just conjecture, but I suspect that Nacho isn’t going to survive the series.

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This week also finds Kimmy and Jim running an almost identical series of professional mishaps and frustrations. Kimmy suffers under the lunch-denying thumb of Howard Hamlin. Jimmy struggles under the constant and corrective watch of Davis & Main’s 2nd year stickler, a role expertly and irritatingly played-off like the most loathsome of teachers’ pets. Jimmy is miserable and resentful and Kim becomes increasingly aware of the tenuousness of her position at HHM.

In a brilliant sequence, we watch Jimmy unable to sleep in his king-sized, well-adorned corporate palace. He wrestles with the bed-sheets, kills time bowling with condiments, and eventually gives in, returning to the cramped office at the nail salon. I’m reminded of the Brooks character from “The Shawshank Redemption.” The aged criminal, finally released from his concrete cage, can’t adjust to life in the real world. He has nightmares, forgets where he is when he wakes up, and daydreams about committing a crime just so he can get back to the life he was used to at the penitentiary. In many ways, Jimmy is so used to his hand-to-mouth former life, all of the rewards of the corporate life are actually more of a burden. He’s Tom Hanks from “Cast Away,” preferring to sleep on the floor rather than the comfy pillow-top bed in his hotel suite.

This effectively illustrates how ill-suited he is to his new life, and suggests to us that he is beginning to realize he needs to find a different, more independent path.

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Up to this point in the series – and in this episode in particular – what has been accomplished is a thorough setting of the table – all the chess pieces are in place. Mike’s conflict with Hector Salamanca and the Juárez Cartel, Kim and Jimmy’s parallel dissatisfaction in their respective workplaces, and an eventual statement of purpose between the two.

All of the loose ends appear to have been trimmed, and we’re ready for the mad-dash to resolution. I don’t think that Jimmy’s coffee cup – “World’s 2nd Best Lawyer” – is just a throwaway joke. Every time he sits in his fancy new car, he gets angry that it won’t fit in the cup holder. Even though the car is nice and new, and represents everything Jimmy thought he would want out of a career, it just doesn’t fit – literally. So how does he solve his problem? He breaks it. He breaks the cup-holder to make it fit. Just like he breaks any law or rule that prevents him from getting what he wants, or what he thinks he wants.

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Better Call Saul 2.04 – Gloves Off

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The ‘continuity game’ with Better Call Saul is insurmountable, and this week’s episode has ratcheted-up the intrigue in new and significant ways. It also contains additional easter-eggs and call-backs to Breaking Bad (see below) to keep super-fans plugged in and on-point.

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Following their late-night meeting, we find Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) laying out his plan across the street from the El Michoacano, the Mexican restaurant where drug lord Tuco Salemanca (Raymond Cruz) holds his drop-meets. With Tuco using crystal and acting erratically, Nacho needs him eliminated before Tuco learns about his side business. As we would expect, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) opts to discard Nacho’s ‘up-close and ugly’ assassination plot for something more surgical.

It’s quite possible that Mike Ehrmantraut is the most interesting character in the Vince Gilligan universe. Like many others, his is a character with a dark history, having tumbled from potential greatness. He once failed to appreciate what he had, and tragedy knocked him down from his morally bankrupt ambition. The story of his life has been coming out in little drips, but in a uniquely satisfying way. The slow pacing of the series has helped with the tricky task of keeping the story mysterious and engaging; it doesn’t show all of its cards all at once.

In Breaking Bad we see Mike as a calm, calculated fixer in the employ of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Because of this, we can reflect back and realize that he had, at some point in his past, become connected to the Salemanca drug cartel. Could this episode reveal how Mike was first acquainted? Not exactly, but the pieces are beginning to fall into place.

In season one of Better Call Saul we learn about Mike’s previous life as a police officer, that he was a corrupt cop in a corrupt precinct, and that he’s the father of a murdered son. We learn how he truly lost his soul, drawing his own son into the department’s corruption and possibly contributing, albeit in a tertiary way, to the murder.

In season two of Better Call Saul we learn just a little bit more. While shopping for the proper sniper rifle to assassinate Tuco Salemanca, it’s revealed that Mike was most likely deployed in Vietnam. In the cheap motel room, surveying military-issue hardware, we see Mike stop short after clapping eyes on a rifle he clearly has a history with. He turns to the arms dealer – a familiar face who helped equip Walter White in Breaking Bad – and says he’s changed his mind.

Jonathan Banks’ portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut is an achievement in acting. To play such a stern and expressionless character with such exquisite finesse requires great skill. The ocean of sadness beneath Mike’s wooden veneer was revealed last season, and the audience remembers that it’s there – hidden, but there. The flash of hesitation speaks volumes of his character, and we watch as Mike chooses to take a ruthless beating – instigating a fistfight with Tuco, essentially framing him – instead of killing. It’s an emotionally complex decision for a character to make. He could have just walked away and not taken the money, but he needs that money for his daughter-in-law (and, more importantly, his granddaughter). “Gloves Off,” plain and simple, is an amazing piece of storytelling.

To quote A.R. Magalli from ‘Cut Print Film’: “How did a surly, taciturn, ruthlessly efficient, hangdog old man get to be the most tragic character in the series? If there’s a truly sympathetic character in the Gilligan-verse, it’s the man with the blood on his hands.”

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EASTER EGGS:
1. Nacho tells Mike about when Tuco became erratic and paranoid while using “crank” and shot their supplier “Dawg” Paulson, leaving a piece of Dawg’s skull in Nacho. In “Breaking Bad” season two, episode two, Hank Schrader presents a profile on Tuco, mentioning that Tuco is “Reputed to have whacked one ‘Dawg’ Paulson.”

2. Mike keeps Tuco’s boxing gloves necklace as a souvenir after ensuring that he’ll spend a good five or so years in jail. The necklace is no late-addition; it can be seen back in season one.
Boxing Gloves
The gem-studded gloves may also signify that Tuco was a former competitor in the National Silver Gloves Tournament, an annual championship for young pugilists. I’m willing to bet Uncle Hector made sure Tuco knew how to fight.

3. In “Breaking Bad” we learn that Tuco’s time in jail was spent with Skinny Pete, which later leads to Jesse and Walt’s involvement with him.

4. Tuco deals with a nervous young man wearing a Tampico Furniture shirt, eventually dismissing him, saying “See you, Domingo.”

Domingo was first introduced to us in the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad,” but we knew him by a different moniker: Krazy-8. Tampico Furniture is owned by Domingo’s father, and we learn that Walt may have bought a baby crib from him when Walt, Jr. was born. If memory serves, Krazy-8 is the first person Walter White kills in the whole “Breaking Bad” series. Pretty wild, eh?

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