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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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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Better Call Saul 2.07 – Inflatable

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This week’s episode of Better Call Saul opens in the summer of 1973, with an establishing shot of a magazine rack reminding us of the downfall of Richard Nixon. On the cover of the magazine, with Nixon’s stern portrait, the headline reads: “Can Trust Be Restored?” As the scene unfolds, we see a young Jimmy McGill, who eventually takes a hard (and wrong-headed) lesson from a grifter.

“Listen, kid. In this world there are sheep, and there are wolves.” Any Breaking Bad fan will remember that this exact line is spoken by a fully-grown Saul Goodman to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman midway through the series.

This opening scene clearly establishes young Jimmy as a preternaturally wizened student of the human carnival. He sees right through the grifter’s con, even trying to warn his father – a message that falls on deaf ears – before taking the con-man’s advice and yanking a few bucks from the till when dad isn’t looking. It’s an oddly moving scene, witnessing a twelve-year-old boy decoding the vulnerability of his father, the man who is supposed to have all the answers.

“And so we see Jimmy steal from the till, out of resolute bitterness. With a rejection of his father’s soft-hearted gullibility, and through extension the whole sucker-generation of sheep-idealists that let themselves be cheated by the wolves of violence and corruption.”

Clearly, the theme of this episode is occupied with corruption.

As an adult, we know that Jimmy McGill is incredibly good at spotting the long-con; that’s how he landed the lucrative Sandpiper class-action case and parlay that into a company car, corporate apartment, and cushy salary. He knows how criminals work because he is, in no uncertain terms, just like them. Rather than conning convenience store clerks, he has evolved into a legal animal hoping to justify his cons by going after other con artists – for the most part.

This episode sees Jimmy admitting to certain truths about himself openly. He comes clean and admits that his atrocious behavior at Davis & Main was a ploy to escape his contract (but not the signing bonus). He admits that he’s a “square peg” that needs to do his own thing. He drops the British secretary charade when he nestles back into his nail salon back-office. Kim, having absorbed Chuck’s story about Jimmy’s youthful thievery, also confronts Jimmy in more concrete terms. She cannot allow herself to partner with Jimmy and expose herself professionally to any of his shenanigans. Jimmy can sense her distrust even if he isn’t privvy to Chuck’s meddling.

Will Jimmy accept Kim’s proposal? The episode doesn’t seem to want to reveal this until next week, but my guess is that he eventually will.

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Better Call Saul 2.05 – Rebecca

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The female characters in the works of Vince Gilligan often come to represent family, responsibility, order, and process. The audience inherently regards the Skylar White character from “Breaking Bad” with disdain, not because she is morally wrong, but because a hijinx-appreciative audience wants to watch Walter White continue on his destructive trajectory. The women who would reign in these corrupt figures are intuitively the “bad” guys.

That’s the conundrum of Kim Wexler. In many regards, we haven’t been provided the appropriate opportunity to sympathize with her, even if we recognize her as the voice of reason, perpetually trying to talk Jimmy away from bending and breaking the rules. We have seen moments of quiet intimacy between Kim and Jimmy, and we even got to watch her execute a confidence scheme in a hotel bar alongside her wayward friend. This is what elevates her from the status of Skylar White; we know that Kim is drawn to shenanigans, even has an appreciation for how artfully Jimmy is able to find his angle, but she also occupies a moral realm. She can taste the fruit, but life goes back to normal in the morning.

This week’s episode, titled “Rebecca,” gives us an opportunity to walk in Kim’s shoes for a bit, and we understand how she has come to occupy the “nagging wife” archetype. Jimmy himself is experiencing his own form of house arrest, with a new babysitter named Erin, hired specifically to shadow slippin’ Jimmy and make sure he plays by the rules. Kim’s in the dog house and Jimmy’s on a leash, and we watch as they both attempt to adapt to their new circumstance.

The cold open is a also an interesting and revealing glimpse into the past, a dinner with Jimmy and Chuck immediately following Jimmy’s move out west to begin his new career in the mail room at HHM. Chuck’s mental illness hasn’t gripped him yet. Polished utensils, chandeliers, jazz music on the hi-fi stereo adorn the scene. And we’re introduced to a new character: Rebecca, Chuck’s wife, a celebrated violinist and a personal acquaintance of Yo-Yo Ma. The scene is underplayed and deceptively simple, but what it reveals is Chuck’s refined bourgeois lifestyle being disrupted by his brother’s beer-swilling and artless boorishness.

Rebecca is taken with Jimmy’s charm, laughing at his jokes and smiling while Chuck is left aside to scowl. There is resentment, here. Jimmy has an ease and charm about himself that Chuck cannot comprehend, and certainly doesn’t appreciate. At the end of the flashback, Chuck tries telling a joke to Rebecca, hoping for a similar laughing response – but he fails. This undercurrent of anger and resentment colors the entire dynamic between the brothers, and we become much more aware of the Biblical ‘Cain and Abel’ dynamic at play.

The brothers are engaging in silent war. The book-end of the McGill conflict occurs at the end of the episode, with Chuck telling a story about his father to Kim. We learn that Chuck blames Jimmy for their father’s death, and his story is an obvious attempt to poison Kim against her friend and sometimes lover. Simultaneously, he insist that he will talk to Hamlin and try to get her out of the doc-prep dog house and back into an office. At the beginning of his sermon, he points out how destructive and self-interested Jimmy is. He ends his sermon by demonstrating that he is the only McGill that’s willing to go to bat for her. It will be some time before we see how she responds to the brothers, each yanking her in different directions.

The most interesting aspect of the episode is in it’s title, which doesn’t only refer to the introduction of Chuck’s absent wife. A.R. Magalli of CutPrintFilm astutely observes:

“‘Rebecca,’ the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, is the story of a woman caught between fighting in the present over the wrongs of the past, largely the death of the titular Rebecca. The novel’s protagonist is used as a pawn when those devoted to the deceased try for revenge on who they feel is responsible. Here we see another Rebecca disappeared, and the man once devoted to her, Chuck, using another woman as a weapon against the man he may feel is responsible for her death or disappearance, Jimmy.”

There is little chance in the Gilligan-verse for this to be a coincidence. Painterly sweeps of light, the color palette of the offices of HHM, the connective-tissue of the narrative – all are carefully mapped-out, infusing “Better Call Saul” with a tension and an identity that sets it apart from anything else on television. This is among one of the most literate programs ever produced, asking more questions than it answers and peeling away at the layers of each individual character with slow deliberation.

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Better Call Saul 2.02 – Cobbler

Saul Is Born post“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised I have to tell you this. But it’s probably a bad idea that you willingly talk to the police, being a criminal and all. ”

Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t disappoint as season two inches forward. Last week, he explained his perspective clearly enough, explaining to Kim (Rhea Seehorn) that the reason he liked being a lawyer was because he likes to sell people, persuade them into believing him. He also put it bluntly, after pulling a con on a loathsome businessman at a hotel bar, that “I don’t have to be a lawyer to do that.”

But he still takes the job offer in Santa Fe, eventually. We’re left with the impression that he’s more curious than passionate about the position, but it’ll serve his interests for the time being. Company car, salary, and his own office – including an almost too ‘on-the-nose’ painting of a man slipping on ice.

This week, we see one of our first concrete glimpses into the Saul Goodman we known from “Breaking Bad.” Jimmy spins an intricately detailed fiction and sells it to the police to disrupt an investigation into his client’s extra-curricular drug dealing. How does he do it? Easy as pie – or cobbler. He invents a tale that plays into the jaded worldview police detectives: people are stupid and sick and anything, no matter how ridiculous or depraved, is possible.

Jimmy reserves the right to break all the rules, and his lies have migrated from hotel bar and into his profession. This is the first crack in the facade, and temptation is no doubt going to continue chiseling away at his already-flimsy sense of morality.

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