Posts Tagged ‘better call saul’
Better Call Saul has truly gone Bad. “Sunk Costs,” this week’s episode, witnesses the return of many of Breaking Bad’s visual signatures. The hazy yellow desert coloring. The vistas of flat lands and big sky. The low-angle shots of dangerous men with the cloud-strewn blue above them. The episode-opening close-ups of various damaged objects—most notably shoes dangling from a wire until, worn down by the elements, they drop to the ground near a bullethole-ridden Spanish-language stop sign—the significance of which will not be made clear until the end of the hour (if then). Mike’s tense conversation with Gus in the middle of the empty highway, with future Head Goons in Charge Victor and Tyrus standing by, is straight out of the Walter White saga, with actors Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks exchanging terse just-so statements and queries in their own very different no-nonsense ways. BB’s style was, and is, so distinctive that its successors can switch it on at will, like a regional accent if not a whole second language.
This is still Better Call Saul, though, and even the BB-esque Mike half of the episode maintains the current series’ unique rhythms. By now the laconic pacing of Ehrmantraut’s tradecraft is the most talked-about aspect of the show, and likely the most frequently mocked as well: because I’m a good-natured sort I enjoyed Chapo Trap House podcaster Matt Christman’s joke that on next week’s episode, “Mike spends 40 real-time minutes putting a ship in a bottle.” Indeed, the show keeps the camera trained on him as he tosses a pair of sneakers into the air to catch on a power line a grand total of three times until they catch on the final throw. It’s just daring you to groan with impatience.
But watching a stone-cold operator like Mike methodically make his way through the world—in this case helping Gus sabotage their mutual enemy Hector Salamanca’s drug trafficking route by sprinkling contraband onto one of his trucks via a sniper bullet through the aforementioned drug-packed shoes—forces you to sit with sangfroid, effort, and ingenuity involved in carrying out violent, venal acts. It’s also an excuse to soak into the southwestern landscapes, the local homes and businesses, and the face of actor Jonathan Banks. It’s an experiential and ethical pacing choice, if there’s such a thing. Complaining that it’s not a pulse-pounding thrill ride is like watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker and yelling “Get on with it!”
Don’t believe the anti-prestige-TV hype part 1: I reviewed this week’s fine episode of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer.
To grab an analogy from a different fleshed-out universe, it’s quickly becoming the case that Better Call Saul is to Breaking Bad what Rogue One is to the original Star Wars trilogy. Tonally, it’s not the same thing, and it’s not trying to be. It’s subdued and small-scale instead of boisterous and universe-spanning. The lighstaber-duel-style action set pieces are deliberately absent. Hell, you even know how it’s going to end.
But just as seeing old favorites like Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Mon Mothma, and Grand Moff Tarkin in a new and unusual context managed to provide a familiar thrill without feeling like a retread, so does watching friends and foes from Vince Gilligan’s meth masterpiece pop up on BCS. It’s familiar, yes, but the familiarity serves, somewhat counterintuitively, to keep the show fresh and distinct.
As it’s done with Saul and Mike before, throwing Gus Fring into the mix will allow us to see him from a whole new angle. And we all know the kind of payoff seeing Gus Fring from a new angle can deliver, don’t we? Ding ding ding ding ding!
“Witness” is the episode Better Call Saul viewers have long been waiting for, the one in which Gustavo “Gus” Fring finally makes his debut. Gus was—or is that will be?—the primary antagonist of Breaking Bad, the series to which BCS serves as a sequel. Watching Mike Ehrmantraut and his occasional partner of convenience Jimmy McGill work their way through their relatively petty crimes toward this apex predator’s stalking ground over the course of the past two seasons has been like hearing the longest, most morbid version of “The Aristocrats” ever told.
There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.
The slowness and silence of Mike’s side of the story is a stupendous choice for several reasons. First, it aims the spotlight directly at the facial expressions and body language of Jonathan Banks as Mike. As an actor, he doesn’t perform so much as he oven roasts, slowly and quietly allowing the characters skill, determination, ruthlessness, patience and weariness to flavor his every move. Second, it provides composer Dave Porter with a blank canvas on which to paint an engrossing post-rock musical accompaniment, miles away from the jaunty country-western kitsch of the soundtrack. Third, it gives director Vince Gilligan—working here with cinematographer Marshall Adams—the chance to let the visual dimension do much of the talking. Mike’s sections of the show are basically oceans of darkness, surrounding islands of warm yet sickly yellow glowing light in which Mike moves or sits like a castaway; that yellow color beams “CAUTION” at our brains like the lights from a roadside construction project on a rainy night. It’s a powerful contrast with the black and white of the flash-forward opening sequence, showing Jimmy’s eventual fate as Gene the Omaha Cinnabon manager; with the Office Space aesthetic of Jimmy’s 2002-era material; even with the dark wood paneling and bright “natural” daylight that characterize scenes starring Jimmy’s Luddite brother Chuck. It’s tough to think of a series with as distinct a visual aesthetic as Better Call Saul which is also willing to vary that aesthetic so much in a single episode.
Finally, Mike’s slow and steady story gives lie to the claim that Better Call Saul is becoming Breaking Bad Redux. Perhaps Breaking Bad’s magisterial final season (minus that regrettable punch-pulling finale, of course), which moved toward the destruction of Walter White with the grace and grandeur of the inevitable, makes the chaos of that show harder to remember. But from literally the first scene of the first episode of the first season, Walt’s story showed him careening from one calamity to another, creating new disasters to extricate himself from the old ones nearly every time. Mike’s story may involve Breaking Bad heavies like the Salamanca Family and, presumably, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring; it may have more in common with that show’s violent stock in trade than the white-collar crimes of Jimmy McGill or the mental illness of his hotshot older brother Chuck; but in pacing and in tone it remains a very different proposition indeed.
I reviewed the season premiere of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Eff what you heard about the show getting too close to Breaking Bad; other than the characters and the overall skill involved they have very little in common.
Vinyl: “Wild Safari” by Barrabás
“Think back to the first time you heard a song that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up,” Richie Finestra bellows at his record-label employees. “Made you want to dance, or fuck, or go out and kick somebody’s ass! That’s what I want!” Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter had similar goals, but virtually none of the musical elements of his period drama clicked. This despite the imprimatur of co-creators Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, who know a thing or two about making magic with music, and supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier, whose previous collaborations with Winter and Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire and The Wolf of Wall Street were all killer, no filler.
There was one grand and glorious exception, and it had nothing to do with Jagger swagger. Rather, it was the result of an unlikely alliance between demoted A&R doofus Clark Morelle (Jack Quaid) and his mail-room buddy Jorge (Christian Navarro). When the latter takes Clark to an underground dance club, they enter in slow motion to the ecstatic sounds of the 1972 proto-disco song “Wild Safari” by Barrabás. The killer clothes, the fabulous dancing, the beatific smiles on the faces of beautiful people, the irresistible rhythm, the rapturous “WHOA-OH-OH” of the chorus, the sense that an entire world of incredible music has existed right under his nose — you can feel it all hit Clark right in the serotonin receptors, and damn if it doesn’t hit you, too. Perhaps my favorite two minutes of TV this year, this sequence demonstrates the life-affirming power and pleasure of music.
I wrote about major musical moments in The Americans, Atlanta, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, Luke Cage, Mr. Robot, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and (yes) Vinyl in my list of 2016′s 10 Best Musical TV Moments for Vulture.
Throughout its second season, Better Caul Saul has chronicled the parallel paths of Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut, and those paths lead nowhere but down. Jimmy blows his shot at the bigtime on the partner track at a prestigious law firm with the corner-cutting, dirty-tricking, mildly felonious behavior his older brother Chuck always said was innate in his character, culminating in a vengeful act of forgery that could cost not only him but his girlfriend and quasi-partner Kim their budding careers in independent practice. Meanwhile, Mike’s moonlighting as low-level muscle in the meth trade slowly draws him into a blood feud with the Salamanca cartel, in which both his stubborn pride and his natural criminal skill bring him ever closer to the line of cold-blooded murder that he’ll cross time and again in the years to come. We know where both these paths lead, of course: to Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Gus Fring, and disgrace and death respectively. But by the time “Klick,” last night’s season finale, drew to a close, their paths had neither once again intersected nor reached the point of no return. Chuck caught Jimmy admitting to a felony on tape (“I woulda made Nixon proud!” he humble-brags, the tape proving him righter than he knows), but the episode ended before he could play it back to anyone. Mike had Hector Salamanca in the sights of his sniper rifle, but a mysterious message from an unseen interloper — “DON’T” — kept him from pulling the trigger. In its restraint, its quietude, its geometrically precise shot compositions, and its overall lack of anything but hints of its predecessor series Breaking Bad’s white-knuckle mayhem, Better Call Saul Season Two was a strong statement from creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, but that statement ended with a question mark.
I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul season finale for the New York Observer. This was quite a show this season.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is in effect our culture’s first tale of AAA roadside assistance. After several more respectable types pass by a man who’s been mugged and left to die by the side of the road, a Samaritan, seen as an outcast demographic by Christ’s audience, stops to rescue him. Tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul is a rare case in which a Good Samaritan is true to his namesake. Nacho, Mike’s man in the cartel, uses the moniker to describe the nameless do-gooder who pulled over and came to the aid of the trucker and drug courier Mike Ehrmantraut hijacked and hogtied on a remote stretch of highway. For his good deed, he gets killed and buried out there, so that the cops Mike was counting on investigating the Salamanca outfit won’t be alerted to the hijacking. Do right and suffer for it? Hmmm. Put aside the homemade spike strip Mike pulls across the road like a snake-charmer to stop the truck—there may be another, more biblical reason this episode is called “Nailed.”
Did Larysa Kondracki just have her Cary Fukunaga moment? The director of “Fifi,” last night’s Better Call Saul, opened the episode with a single four-minute-plus shot that swirled and soared around a border crossing and the drug-courier truck attempting to pass through it every bit as complex and stunning as the multi-minute gang shootout that made Fukunaga a superstar on True Detective. But that famous sequence ended its episode. This was one was merely the beginning of an hour of some of the most carefully composed, strikingly shot, drop-dead gorgeous television of the year. With frequent BCS cinematographer and Breaking Bad veteran Arthur Albert riding shotgun, Kondracki crafted a visual achievement to rival anything on either of those shows—or Mr. Robot, Hannibal, and any other compositionally audacious series of recent vintage you’d care to name. Forget Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler: Larysa Kondracki should be the one setting up her own shingle.
I reviewed this week’s simply extraordinary Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. I really dug deep into this one and I hope you like it.
Better Call Saul a quiet marvel more concerned with doling out little discreet slivers of human behavior, preserved in musical montage sequences like individual slides in a projection reel, than in watching that behavior wreak havoc writ large. And “Inflatable,” last night’s episode, contained the most entertaining montage of the lot. Set to Dennis Coffey and the Detroit Guitar Band’s “Scorpio,” a staple sample source of hip-hop’s golden age (I recognized it from “Bust a Move” and“Jingling Baby”), the sequence sees Jimmy draw inspiration from one of those godawful inflatable dancing men strip-mall stores use to attract attention to do just that—attract so much attention around the Davis & Main office that they’ll fire him rather than force him to quit and thus lose his bonus. Seventies-style split screen shots spotlight the spectacular sartorial sense associated with Saul Goodman as his prior self starts dressing loud and acting louder, from running a juicer in the breakroom to practicing the bagpipes during office hours to admitting he’s the firm’s phantom pooper. (“That was me.” “Jimmy, I just said I don’t wanna know!” God bless Ed Begley Jr., America’s funniest square.)
Visually speaking, Kim’s face was the image that defined the episode. This began early, with a long-held look at her as she sits on her bed, listening to Jimmy serenade her answering machine with a reedy rendition of “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific. Saul’s a show that doesn’t mind sitting with a supporting character as she sits quietly and soaks in the goofball charm of its protagonist, a guy with whom at this point she’s both furious and, despite herself, infatuated. Using this as the payoff for her morning routine, during which it becomes increasingly apparent she was waiting for him to call despite having no intention of picking up, was a lovely idea, and director Michael Slovis’s execution was inspired.
The Jimmy half of Better Call Saul is very good, sure. But the Mike half of Better Call Saul feels like the onset of a panic attack. You can feel it creeping up on you like have your back turned on a menacing stranger, one who’s tracked you down and is walking his way toward you, quiet and full of bad intent. Certainly that’s how I felt as I watched the final scene of “Rebecca,” this week’s episode. As Mike Ehrmantraut sat with his back to the door of his favorite diner, Hector Salamanca materialized from the debris where Breaking Bad left him to gently request that the ex-cop help get his nephew Tuco off the hook. Nothing overtly threatening about it, of course, no visible stick to go with the carrots of a kindly disposition and a bribe of $5,000. Tio Salamanca doesn’t even bat an eyelash when Mike parries back his blandishments with deadpan disinterest: “You see what I’m getting at?” “Not really.” “I would like for you to tell the police that the gun was yours.” “Would you.” No, all the menace comes from the implications of putting these two men, these two murderers, in close proximity. We know where their stories end up, but that does nothing to lessen the tension. Rather, our knowledge increases it, investing the current moment with our foreknowledge of all the awful moments to come.
Mike, meanwhile, shuffled his way into a bonafide Breaking Bad prequel. Our first guest: Lawson, Deadwood actor Jim Beaver’s folksy and efficient gun dealer, years before selling Walter White his series-ending machine gun. His scene with Mike drops a major reveal—the old man’s a Vietnam vet—and is chilling for its casual, workaday vocabulary regarding machines designed only for killing. “Too much gun,” Mike worries about one particularly large rifle. “For most applications, I’d tend to agree,” Lawson replies, as if they’re discussing which iPhone model gets the most bang for the buck. The two men respect each other for their shared calm demeanor and knowledge of the trade; given that the trade is murder, the ease with which an ex-cop and veteran can pick it up doubles as political commentary.
Better Call Saul is two of the best shows on TV right now. One of them is a subtle, period workplace drama about a con man trying desperately to go straight but finding his old ways too lucrative to avoid employing in his new life too. The other is an ominous slow-burn thriller about a retired cop with the eyes of a Methuselah and the voice of a mausoleum door, slowly being drawn into a life of crime he’ll be better at than anything he was before, but which will inevitably destroy him, body and soul. If AMC put these two shows on back to back, it’d have a hell of a programming block on its hands. But if it ran the period workplace drama while some other network played the doom-laden quiet-man crime thriller in the same time slot…well, I know which one I’d DVR and which one I’d watch live.
Better Call Saul has a Mike problem. Granted, this is what Marlo Stanfield from The Wire would refer to as “one of them good problems,” but a problem it remains. Simply put: No matter how thoughtfully composed the shots, no matter how refined the acting from the show’s cast of largely comic talents gone dramatic with excellent results, no matter how strong a character Jimmy McGill remains—when Jonathan Banks is on screen as Mike Ehrmantraut, there’s no one else you’d rather be watching.
Few prestige dramas since the term was coined have made as much use of the quiet as Better Call Saul, which returned last night with its Season Two premiere, “Switch.” Considering its status as the can’t-miss prequel to one of the era’s most explosive shows, Breaking Bad, this is something of a surprise. That series didn’t mind silence, of course, but it was always a silence freighted with the expectation of eventual explosion—the hiss of a fuse before the dynamite blows. Pretty much from the start, BCS co-creators and BB honchos Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have dwelled in the other end of the dynamic range. Rather than recreate the rollercoaster rise and fall of Heisenberg in all its white-knuckle tension and tumult, they’ve been telling the story of Jimmy McGill’s transformation into Saul Goodman in half-muted slow motion. He’s a small man with small dreams, the kind that are shattered by harsh words and hopelessness rather than bombs and bullets. The tonal shift is is dramatic, and given how easy it would have been to cash in with Breaking Bad Part Deux–level mayhem (Fear the Walking Dead, anyone?), creatively courageous.
Game of Thrones (HBO, April 24)
The cable network’s dark-fantasy juggernaut has left a long trail of dead characters and shocked audiences in its wake, though readers of George R.R. Martin’s books always knew when to duck. All that changes when the show returns for its sixth season this year — because The Winds of Winter appears to have hit the proverbial Wall, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have been free to plan their own red weddings this season. While the show will continue to be based at least in part on future plans revealed to creators by Martin, it had already begun deviating from the source with increasing regularity and boldness. (Is Jon Snow alive or dead? Who the hell knows?) Look for an even stormier winter than usual.
The shit didn’t hit the fan. It just slid through the sunroof.
Nothing shocking happened during Better Call Saul‘s season finale. No one was murdered and no one was betrayed; no one poisoned a kid, caused an aircraft collision, or blew a drug lord’s face off. The show’s inaugural go-round ended not with a bang but a guitar riff, as Jimmy McGill sped away from the square life and toward “Saul Goodman, Attorney-at-Law,” singing “Smoke on the Water” all the while. Ironically, this refusal to be daring is the most daring thing the show could have done. Written and directed by Peter Gould, the co-creator of both the character and his solo series, tonight’s episode — “Marco” — played out with the confidence that we didn’t need to see fireworks to enjoy the show. And you know what? That’s probably right.
When Jimmy finally confronted him with the truth, Chuck’s usual open-book of a face snapped shut, his mouth a tight grimace, his eyes narrow slits. Even before he delivered that final devastating monologue — “What a joke! I worked my ass off to get where I am, and you take these short cuts and you think suddenly you’re my peer?” — his feelings were clear: When he sees his brother, he feels nothing but resentment, fury and contempt. The work being done by both Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean is absolute dynamite. Who’d have thought one of the most powerful dramatic scenes of the year would take place between two comedians?
“Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun,” Chuck concludes, condemning his kid brother’s con-man past. “The law is sacred. If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game! You have to know, on some level I know you know I’m right. You know I’m right!” Thanks to Breaking Bad, so do we. The tragedy is that the older sibling had the opportunity to prevent that awful outcome by letting Jimmy go legit. By stabbing his brother in the back, he’s creating the very future he sought to avoid.
Better Call Saul: the feel-good hit of the season? It was tonight, anyway. This week’s episode, “Rico,” administered a mainline hit of happiness from the start. Hard work, brotherly love, sticking up for the downtrodden, sticking it to bullies in business suits — if you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d tuned in to Disney movie about an underdog sports team. But the cinematography, pacing, and performances kept this surprisingly sweet Saul from sliding into schmaltz. You get to watch characters you like do something good, and do it very well. If that doesn’t put a grin on your face the size of a James Morgan McGill Esq. billboard, your case is hopeless.
I appeared on HuffPost Live’s Spoiler Alert tv talk show today to discuss the finale of The Jinx, the return of Community, the trajectory of Better Call Saul, and the tangled web of spoiler culture. It was a lively and informative discussion, I think. Check it out, but be warned if you’ve never watched The Wire, as our host Ricky Camilleri blew like four major plot points just to prove he could, bless his trollish heart.