Posts Tagged ‘breaking bad’
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.
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.
Once again, Jimmy’s done the right thing at his own expense, robbing clients to save their bacon and then ordering them to re-hire Kim to save hers. But this unexpected career rebound makes her less likely than ever to leave the firm and partner with him, legally or otherwise. So he walks into the corner office he’d hoped she would one day occupy, closes the door, and flips out. Yelling, crying, punching the wall, venting years of personal and professional disappointment — who is this man, and what has he done with James Morgan McGill?
On Breaking Bad, Saul had three settings: greed, fear, and entertaining bullshit. The larval form we’ve come to know in BCS is a good deal more nuanced, yet he’s still been driven by a limited number of factors: frustration, finances, fraternal affection for his sick brother Chuck. But while we’ve seen him get bent over plenty of times, we’d never seen him break. Beneath the bluster is a human being in enough pain to make him literally lash out at the world. That’s the kind of hurt a person will radically remake their own life to avoid. It takes way more than a new name or a fancy new office, however, to leave yourself behind.
I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. The verdict: beautifully shot, way too much Kettleman.
The alchemists of Europe had a saying that’s still popular among mystics and spiritual seekers: “As above, so below.” The idea is that the macrocosm and microcosm are mirror images; by understanding the forces that animate mind and body, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe. It’s a concept not without its uses, art-wise: Style and substance are indivisible. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers make both large and small choices that are reflective of one another. Major themes can be glimpsed through minor details, visuals can echo dialogue, and the point of view of a character might hold the key to an entire TV show.
It’s this process that powers “Five-O,” tonight’s stunning episode of Better Call Saul. In shifting its focus almost entirely from hard-luck lawyer Jimmy McGill to aged ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, the show also alters its look, its sound and its feel — all of this a mere six episodes into its first season. Characters are bathed in darkness and immersed in long stretches of silence, while the editing fades from one scene to the next like a dream…or a nightmare. And we see a side of Mike himself — multiple sides, even — that we’d never come close to discovering before.
I reviewed tonight’s absolutely wondrous episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. I cannot overstate the power of Jonathan Banks’s performance.
But it’s the Mike material that sees the episode really come alive, though it does so with barely a whisper. After some 40 minutes of funny old folks, space blankets, and poop jokes, things suddenly get somber. Mike sits a lonely vigil in his toll booth, an illuminated island in a sea of parking-lot darkness. He eats alone, rubbing his furrowed brow. He parks outside a woman’s home (his daughter’s?), exchanging a drawn-out glance with her as she drives away. He returns to his own house, watching old movies and drinking a cold one by his lonesome. The stately pace, steady camera work, and lack of dialogue throughout the sequence create an atmosphere of tension and menace; when a shadow moves past Mike’s window, you half expect a cartel assassin to burst in, guns blazing.
Just four episodes out of the gate, Better Call Saul is proving to be one of the most visually striking and well-acted shows currently on television. When Saul and his patsy drunkenly discuss wolf howls outside their town’s shut-down bars, or when Jimmy stands inside the Day Nail & Spa salon at night, the shots are like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Michael McKean continues to impress as Jimmy’s mentally ill older brother Chuck, selling both the man’s pride in his baby bro’s supposed accomplishments and his crushing disappointment after risking (he thinks) his life to find out whether they’re true. As Kim, actor Rhea Seehorn has an easy rapport with Bob Odenkirk, playfully slapping his hands away from the controls of her massage chair when she comes to visit him. (She wants to go see The Thing on the big screen? She’s a keeper.) And there’s Odenkirk himself, playing an orange shirt/magenta tie man in a Haml-indigo Blue world. It’s going be a thrill to watch him suit up for real.
Conscience costs quarters. Poor panicked Jimmy McGill must have gone through half a roll of ’em during his frantic attempts to save the would-be clients Craig and Betsy Kettleman, using nothing but Albuquerque’s conveniently located payphones. But whether he was jerry-rigging a voice modulator to warn the family or leaving voicemail after voicemail for their supposed captor, Jimmy gained something even as his wallet lost weight: our respect. “Nacho,” tonight’s Better Call Saul episode, showed that once upon a time, the Man Who Would Be Saul cared about people — which makes it a whole lot easier to care about him.
I reviewed tonight’s excellent Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. We’re lucky this show is this good this early.
Would it be weird to call Better Call Saul lovely? Okay, not during the leg-breaking. Or the screaming about the leg-breaking. Or the vomiting after the leg-breaking. But still! After tonight’s episode “Mijo,” that’s the word that comes to mind. With its lyrical, impressionistic approach to filmmaking, largely absent from the airwaves since co-creator Vince Gilligan said, “It’s all over now, baby blue meth” to Breaking Bad in 2013, this prequel show makes for sumptuous viewing, even though its story has yet to deliver a real “this is a must see” moment….Much has been made of whether Better Call Saul has a reason to exist, given how completely its predecessor mastered this milieu. But isn’t quality reason enough? The two-part, two-night premiere of BCS has given us an unusual character (very different from an everyman who starts cooking crystal to make ends meet), and used every tool in its visual, aural, and editing arsenal to make his pre-Heisenberg life something memorable and enjoyable to watch. If that story never transforms into the runaway train that Walt’s did, so what? Stop and smell the vending-machine coffee instead.
How do you get there from here? Breaking Bad loved answering this question. Four of its six premieres began with cold opens depicting mysterious future events, only to slowly rewind time and march us toward these inevitable destinations episode by episode. Better Call Saul, the new prequel series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, takes this technique of narrative reverse-engineering and recreates it on a much larger scale. We already know how Saul Goodman, the con-artist formerly known as Jimmy McGill, ends up: disgraced, alone, working behind the counter of a shopping-mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. What’s more, we’re intimately familiar with his story’s whole final volume: how Saul scored the biggest client of his life and eventually caused him to lose everything. The question, then, is this: Will Jimmy McGill’s long, winding road to “Saul Goodman” — and to the moment that Walter White walks into his office — be worth the trip?
Based on Better Call Saul‘s Gilligan-directed pilot episode “Uno,” the answer is yes — and despite the show’s pedigree, that was in no way a sure thing. Even great shows tend to start with their broadest material, playing to the cheap seats in order to keep butts planted firmly in them. Astute viewers may recall that Breaking Bad itself began as a splatstick black comedy before reaching its dark and terrible final form around the end of the second season, with the one-two punch of a death-by-vomit and a plane going down. Even if you feel that the series finale wrapped things up too neatly and let Heisenberg off the hook too easily, the show was brutally suspenseful, morally uncompromising, and beautifully made right up until that final pulled punch.
But “Uno” earns a favorable verdict by playing to its predecessor’s quieter strengths, not trying to top its loudest ones. That starts with Vince Gilligan, the showrunner responsible for what was arguably the most stylistically bold and formally inventive show in the New Golden Age canon. So many scenes and sequences in “Uno” were simply beautiful: the hand-held, off-center aesthetic of the black-and-white “present day” opening; the piss-yellow palette and florescent-lightbulb hum of the courthouse; the torchlit darkness of the house of Jimmy’s sick older brother, Chuck McGill, a man stuck in an enveloping cloud of obvious mental illness. If you fondly remember Bad‘s visual panache — from those pants floating in the air to that pink teddy bear, from those musical montages to that crawl-space freakout — this premiere episode makes the case that you’ve got a lot to look forward to.
I reviewed the series premiere of Better Call Saul, which was very good and not in the ways I expected, for Rolling Stone. I’m psyched to be covering the show this season!