Mr Robot 3.2 – Legacy

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Episode three of this season, titled ‘Legacy,’ takes us back in time in order to fill in some of the details leading up to Elliot’s incarceration in season two. It begins in the dimly-lit carnival atmosphere of the Eldorado Arcade – where FSociety originated – with Elliot (Mr Robot) and Tyrell examining the 5/9 hack that brought E Corp to it’s knees at the end of season one. With another clever ‘cowboy switch’ that visually communicates that Mr Robot is currently in the driver’s seat, we witness a confrontation between Mr Robot and Tyrell that illustrates a deeper emotional disturbance in Tyrell than we may have previously realized. The late night meeting, however, is interrupted by the series’ newest enigmatic character, Irving, and two of his henchmen.

“If you‘re seein‘ me, that means you boys fucked up.”

Presumably, this is some of the earliest contact Irving ever makes with Mr Robot, and it illustrates why Irving was so confused when Elliot didn’t recognize him when they met at The Red Wheelbarrow at the beginning of the season.

Irving is a masterful character that communicates – both to Mr Robot and to the audience – how much reach Dark Army truly has; it has eyes and ears everywhere and Stage Two has yet to be initiated. Tyrell is forced into hiding, guarded by Dark Army acolytes at a remote cabin in the woods, divorced from all of his contacts. Elliot is sentenced to eight months in jail for harassing his therapist’s boyfriend and Whiterose, during a private briefing, expresses his intention to pull the right strings to help manipulate Donald Trump into the Oval Office.

The play-by-play of much of the episode is unimportant. What is important are the details and character development. We begin to dig into the psychology of Tyrell Wellick, whose fanatical devotion to Elliot hinges on the disturbing. We witness the button-down demeanor of Tyrell shift to a wild-eyed frenzy, believing he is a demigod. We also see vulnerability in Tyrell when he expresses that he needs to “look good for Elliot,” when he admits that he is afraid he will become like his father, and when we see Irving begin to serve as something of a father figure to him out in the woods. Beyond all of this making Tyrell more three-dimensional and relatable, this also begins to humanize Irving who – up until this point in the season, at least – has only ever appeared calculated, methodical, cold, and threatening.

And if we pay close attention, there is one huge things missing from this episode: notice that Elliot is not narrating this episode, which is a significant departure from the show’s format. The result is that the audience feels more distant from the characters and events (especially Elliot), and adds to the cloak-and-dagger mystery tone of this season.

As each of the show’s central characters become increasingly aware of Elliot’s dissociative personality, Elliot himself becomes increasingly distant from the audience. As more of Elliot’s associates begin to navigate his dual personas, chances are good that Mr. Robot’s world is going to change, too. Last week we saw how Mr. Robot reacted to losing control over Elliot; moving forward, it’s easy to assume that this nervous rage is going to have real-world consequences, especially as Stage Two is implemented.

This television show has woven a complicated tapestry, constructing intricate connections between hacktivists, corporate executives, political opponents, economic balance, and organized & corporate crime. Mr. Robot is expert in revealing enough information to prevent the audience from feeling overly manipulated while simultaneously keeping us in the dark enough to keep guessing. That’s the strength of the show; we know that everything is connected, but aren’t quite sure how or why. All the while, the story is slowly unfolding, slowly filling in the blanks.

The split personality trope is still a shaky one, but it’s being handled with a unique finesse that hasn’t yet threatened to injure the overall narrative. ‘Legacy’ has certainly upheld the mystery and intrigue of Mr. Robot, and it’s certainly clear that there will be many more surprises down the road.

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Mr Robot 3.1 – Undo

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“You know when you fuck something up and you wish you had the power to hit ‘undo’? Like when you say the dumbest thing in front of your biggest crush? Or when you talk shit about your boss in an email and then hit ‘reply all’ to everybody at work?”

“We all have those days.”

Such is the way episode two begins, with an upbeat INXS song (“New Sensation”) and a montage of Elliot’s new routine at E Corp. Our unreliable narrator is hopeful that he can undo the damage he’s done, undo the hack. We see the painful virtual tours and corporate training videos he has to endure at his new job – the security checks and card swipes, the idiot greasy co-worker objectifying women and the other elements of his morning routine.

The beginning of this episode is rhythmically interesting. In many ways it mimics the Aronofski cut that was established in Requiem For A Dream – shirt, pill, train, turnstile, swipe the I.D. card, hit the elevator. All fast cuts. All on repeat. And we listen to upbeat ’80s music and watch Elliot slowly chip away at the senior staff members of E Corp.

Each iteration of the routine ends with Elliot in the middle of a presentation – about cost, efficiency, and security. And each roll-coll introduction of a new “upper-middle” manager reveals a lazy, distracted, arrogant, ignorant, and unconcerned corporate shill – fiddling with their smart phones, ignoring the presentation, interrupting the presentation because they’re bored.

“I’ve got a soul-cycle class I’m late for. Let’s pick this up sometime…next quarter?”

The beginning of this episode has the stains of American Psycho all over it, right down to the ’80s music, the polished surface of corporate America, and the roiling ocean of distraction and discontent beneath the surface. At the end of each cycle, we see that Elliot has managed to remove another corrupt manager; the space-bar click sound effect machine-guns the exit of corrupt corporate leaders – the sub-prime scammers, pension embezzlers, ponzi schemers, and sexual harassers.

Until he finally gets a receptive audience who gives him what he wants: the digitization of all corporate records.

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The first act is the most important. Elliot grinds through the days until he gets what he needs in order to try and begin reversing the damage he has done. Act two finds Elliot speaking with Krista, his therapist, who later recognizes his dissociative personality and seizes an opportunity to speak directly with Mr. Robot. Little comes of the conversation; the audience watches Krista come to terms with truths that the audience is already aware of.

Copycat organizations begin masquerading as F-Society and the noose tightens around Darlene. A currency war is introduced, presenting the tired notion of an “America Versus China” conflict. Joanna, manipulative and beautiful as she is, dies at the hands of her lonely and jealous lover, leaving her blood-stained infant wailing in the back of a car. No character shows remorse, even with the presence of the crying child, and I don’t believe the audience really cares, either. The woman was something of a robot herself.

Obviously Mr. Robot is building tension and stacking pieces together; long-form narrative is chess, not checkers, slow and patient strategy, rather than impulse. But there is absolutely nothing about this episode that stands out. Elliot crazy. China bad. Crazy wife dead. Audience not surprised.

Perhaps this is an insulting analysis. Maybe this is all building toward something more. But for now, I find myself not giving a single f*** about any of these characters, what they’re doing, or the world they live in. The story is pregnant with intrigue but lacks sympathetic characters. Let’s hope something changes.

Let me know in the comments what you think. I’d be curious to know.

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Mr Robot 3.0 – Power Save Mode

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It’s difficult to tell whether or not Sam Esmail’s brainchild will be able to maintain its narrative momentum as we begin season three of Mr Robot. The “split-personality” device is a tricky tightrope walk, especially as contemporary psychology has largely debunked the concept of multiple-personality disorder. This isn’t to say that it isn’t an interesting device that can be used to great effect (think Fight Club or Primal Fear) but it can fall apart very catastrophically (think Identity or Secret Window).

But, for the time being, Mr. Robot hasn’t yet jumped the shark.

Season three has introduced new players to pump some new life into the narrative, but the story is also beginning to fold in on itself. It was clear from the beginning that Esmail hadn’t diagrammed the whole arc; the pilot itself was a grand ‘hail mary’ with wonderful, and likely surprising, success. But Mr. Robot will only last as long as the ratings do. The USA Network will continue to find ways to add new things into the mix, for as long as they can, which could easily doom the show to a fizzling-out in a style not dissimilar to Dexter, Entourage, or Lost.

When the story-teller knows how the story is going to end before the first script it authored, the architecture of the story isn’t compromised by executives and ad-dollars. Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire are excellent examples – all of these ended on a high note that left audiences wanting more, rather than their stories being wrung dry, left to die on the vine, to die the death of a million weeping pinhole wounds.

The opening of season three introduces Irving(Bobby Cannavale), a Robert Goulet/Gordon Gecko mashup whose cold demeanor and self-interest begs for a gaudy pinky ring or gold bracelet. His character is interestingly convincing even while being painfully one-sided and almost clichéd. Untroubled by personal wealth, he’s introduced in a barbecue restaurant arguing with a minimum-wage cashier over the redemption of a coupon. He is modeled after other villains defined by meticulousness – Hannibal Lector, Guss Fring, Anton Chigurh. The idea, really, is to find his style laughable while also recognizing an undercurrent of profound influence and brutality.

There have been a lot of villains like this in television lately.

Irving is tasked with handling the situation between Tyrell (Martin Wallström) and Elliot(Rami Malek). If you can recall, Tyrell put a bullet in Elliot’s stomach at the conclusion of season two when Elliot tried to put a stop to his alter-ego’s machinations. Irving is the linchpin that connects our developed protagonists of the underground hacker network ‘F Society’ with the elusive underground network known as ‘The Dark Army,’ whose goals are still completely, mundanely, boringly obscure; I’m sure there will be a shocking reveal further down the line.

What interests me is Whiterose (BD Wong) and his discussion at the beginning of the episode, following a wide, sweeping shot over what we assume to be a nuclear reactor or a particle accelerator. And this is where I weep for the future of the show – the introduction includes nuclear technicians casually discussing a theory of the multiverse, it then expands to visually reveal a massive technological structure that invites comparisons to the “hadron collider” in Cern, and eventually leads to Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) asking Elliot what he would do if everything could be changed, if everything could be erased, including what happened to their parents, and that it’s an absolute possibility.

Discussions of the multi-verse and the possibility of changing time – Mr. Robot is tinkering with some tricky subject matter that is completely divorced from a critique of capitalism, illustrations of manufactured consent, and a celebration of the meek rising up to conquer their masters.

The psychological drama takes a back seat, thematically, to the opportunity of changing or shifting reality altogether. The masters of the economic world are transforming into masters of reality itself. The unreliable narrator, Elliot, has been completely changed. The story, moving forward, can be good or it can be a disaster. And this episode doesn’t pass the smell test.

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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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Logan (Soaring Character Development – Low Budget)

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The struggle between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ is a real one. Content is regularly stripped of complexity to make stories more accessible to more people. Films are also regularly stripped of violence and profanity to achieve a PG-13 rating, making stories more accessible to the widest possible audience. Material is dumbed-down, focus-grouped, and manufactured ‘by committee,’ and the result is often a muddled, boring, effects-driven dumpster fire.

Wolverine Origins is a good example. It had stunning visuals and a magnificent opening montage to illustrate Logan’s near-immortal status and battle-hardened personality, but it also bastardized many beloved characters and fell flat to a passionate fan-base. More recently, we have the Suicide Squad and Batman V Superman debacles, films that spent a tremendous amount of money only to insult hardcore fans. Sure, these films performed okay at the box-office and appealed to casual fans, but they were roundly dismissed by critics and didn’t perform as well as the studio had hoped. With huge up-front costs, large action set-pieces, and remarkable visual effects – not to mention monumental marketing campaigns – these films ultimately did not pass muster.

Films made by committee, that attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, never endure. Marketing may contribute to successful opening weekends, but the numbers predictably dropped-off as the word spread. Home video sales take a huge hit in these situations, and movies like this quickly become bargain-bin offerings at Wal-Mart.

We’ve had a couple of wonderful object-lessons in recent years. Deadpool‘s monumental success is often cited as the only reason Logan was allowed to have an R rating. Both films were made with a modest budget compared to other films of the genre and both films performed exceedingly well at the box office. With smaller crews, practical effects, and lower budgets, the film-makers were given more freedom to execute their vision without interference from the studios.

A novelist doesn’t hire a crew of people to change his story in order to make it more palatable to wider audiences. Why is this model so routinely employed in Hollywood? The most celebrated films of all time are typically the realization of one person’s singular vision. The rise of the writer/director in the 1960s and 1970s is our evidence. Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are two recognizable names, and they are notorious for their relentless control over their productions. I would shudder to imagine what Pulp Fiction would have been like if Bob and Harvey Weinstein had insisted on focus groups and a rating reduction.

We certainly wouldn’t be revering the film today.

Director James Mangold spun some magic with Logan, borrowing the tone from the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book series and allowing the titular character to be exactly what he has been on the written page for the past several decades. The budget was modest and the set-pieces weren’t heavily glossed over with digital trickery. The film was concrete and character driven, something that’s difficult to do with a large ensemble cast. The gravitas of a specific character’s arc is difficult to illustrate with an Avengers-style film, with over a dozen major players to consider. Logan focuses mainly on two characters, Logan and Charles Xavier, and the minimalist approach leads to meaningful and emotional character arcs.

Being smaller is a good thing for super-hero and comic-book properties. The source material is serialized story-telling anyway, and we’ve seen several new comic book properties being adapted for the small screen. Daredevil and Luke Cage, Dirk Gently, Preacher, The Walking Dead, and many others have proved to be successful adaptations of comic book stories, capturing the imaginations of not just children, but adults as well. This is where the R rated film comes into play. Comic books aren’t just for kids, as television networks and Hollywood executives have assumed for an entire generation. Comic books are our modern mythology. We’ve all been raised on comic books and there are plenty of 18+ viewers who want to see these stories told in an adult, mature way.

Logan effectively closes the chapter on the Wolverine story, passing the torch to a new Wolverine. It lays the groundwork for a whole new set of stories without overwhelming glitz and glamour, without throw-away exposition and forgettable characters. The film relies on character and story, not effects. It respects its audience, rather than insulting the audience’s intellect. It did something that few of these superhero films has been able to achieve – it has a heart. It has grounded characters whose struggle we can identify with on some level. In over fifteen years of playing Logan and Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart ended the saga in a beautiful way, paving the way for new stories.

After the success of Deadpool and Logan, let’s hope that the message has been read loud and clear. Audiences aren’t only ready for more mature stories. They want them.

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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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