Break That Bad – Waiting For Gus

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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.

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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 2.07 – 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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Nebraska Life

Fallen Saul postThe return of “Better Call Saul” on Monday has seen me reacquainting myself with the show’s first season. Anybody who has been a fan of “Breaking Bad” and “Saul” will understand that most episodes warrant multiple viewings; the narratives are layered, the characters complex, and the writers go to great lengths to embed interesting symbols – easter eggs, if you will – into each episode.

It is always fun watching genre-bound comics break through with powerful dramatic performances. With a great script, rubber-faced slapstick goof-ball comedians often turn in remarkable performances. One may never have believed Jim Carrey could play a dramatic role, but “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” turned a lot of heads. Bill Burr, albeit a secondary character, was given an interesting opportunity as one of Saul’s fixers in “Breaking Bad.” Bob Odenkirk, who plays the titular character in “Better Call Saul” has himself spun some incredible magic bringing his character’s internal struggle and moral complexity to life.

There’s little doubt that “Saul” is a strong show, replete with powerful performances, but season one ended with a whimper. The writers have taken great care to make Jimmy McGill relatable, sympathetic, and three-dimensional. This is necessary if we’re to care at all as we watch his gradual descent into corruption and moral ambiguity. Nevertheless, the phenomenal performances and fascinating back-stories haven’t led to any concrete gasp-worthy moments, which is what we have been preparing for. I think this has a lot to do with the rhythms set up by “Breaking Bad,” but “Better Call Saul” has proven to be a different kind of program. The ten-episode set-up of season one didn’t lead to a satisfying catharsis, car chase, murder, or any other kind of earth-shaking revelation.

Season one of “Saul” is a sentence without punctuation. It’s a beautiful sentence, yes, but we are left without knowing quite how to feel. We know the ultimate fate of Mike Ehrmantraut. We know that Saul Goodman flees Albuquerque under an assumed identity, relegated to the life a low-rent fast food manager, always looking over his shoulder. What we don’t know is where he came from, not entirely. We’ve been provided with some interesting details, but the picture is still undeniably incomplete. What we’re still waiting for is a solid explanation: when, exactly, did Jimmy McGill ditch his birth name and become Saul Goodman? When did he lose his soul? How did he lose it? And why?

Hopefully, season two will satisfy some of these questions.

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Better Call Saul 2.01 – Switch

Saul On Knees postBetter Call Saul has a tricky, if not wholly problematic, premise. We, the audience, already know what’s at the end of the line for James McGill (a.k.a. Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk). The series begins by showing us exactly where he winds up after escaping New Mexico at the end of Breaking Bad. He is trapped and miserable in Omaha, Nebraska, paranoid, afraid for his life, working under an assumed identity at a local shopping mall. And when you already know how the story ends, great care has to be taken with the narrative in order to keep the story interesting and the characters dynamic.

Season one sets up the chess pieces, the key players, and the motivations. The themes are ultimately borrowed from Faust, the noble doctor tempted by the devil into abandoning his morals for wealth and accolades. Who the devil is in Better Call Saul, we’re not sure. There doesn’t appear to be a Mephistopheles here; the titular character is at war with himself.

Season one explains why con-artist-turned-lawyer Jimmy McGill transitions from a reformed con-artist to slithery lawyer. The first episode of season two, appropriately titled “Switch,” pushes forward. If we have already begun to understand why he abandons the idea of leading an altruistic life, the show is now beginning to show us how he does it.

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Season two picks up right where we left off, moments after Jimmy decides that he no longer needs to satisfy the wishes of his mentally ill older brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Frustrated by failed attempts at establishing a legitimate law practice, he resigns himself to living a morally ambiguous life – a life he seems much more adept at living. The episode steers into territory we’ve only experienced in small vignettes during season one. Above all else, “Switch” explores Jimmy’s relationship with Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), illuminating the nature and details of their intimacy.

The two characters live their lives in seemingly assumed roles, playing characters that aren’t true to who they really are. Jimmy is preoccupied trying to live up to his brother’s standards, and Kim is preoccupied with her professional ambitions. Beneath it all, the two characters experience a sense of freedom together that their personal and professional lives don’t allow. They become giddy, playful, and optimistic when they’re together; apart, their jobs and responsibilities bleed the enthusiasm out of them. Kim occasionally drifts out of her role to spend time with Jimmy, but always returns to the workaday world. Jimmy turns his back on the best opportunity to become a lawyer that he’s ever had – although he does, eventually, take it, and we know it won’t last.

“Switch” is a great title. It’s yet another in a parade of Vince Gilligan tropes. In this case, it refers metaphorically to the transformation of Jimmy McGill. It also refers, quite literally, to the light switch in his new office. A sign is taped over the light switch, with printed instructions to “never ever turn off.” Oppositionally defiant, Jimmy can’t help himself. He peels the tape back and flips the switch into the ‘off’ position. He looks around. Nothing has happened.

It’s a wonderful metaphor for the character. He cannot – absolute can not – abide by the rules, so he breaks them. In this instance, at the close of the episode, he flips the switch. He broke a rule and there is absolutely no consequence. If that isn’t telling, I don’t know what is.

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