TV Episode Review: “Better Call Saul” “Marco” (01.10, 2015)

Written and directed by Peter Gould

Albuquerque is a bright city. It’s full of hot colors and bright sunlight. It’s full of browns, yellows, oranges and reds. It’s a soulless, radioactive Georgia O’Keefe hellscape, but it’s one that’s full of bright-line clarity. Everyone and everything is clear and sharp in the constant sunlight. Chicago is a dark city. It’s full of deep, enveloping shadows. It’s full of cold blues and blacks. It’s a city where a sunroof is a receptacle for defecation, but it’s one where no one can see you well enough to know you’re to blame for their losses. No one is ever really clear in its ever-present night.

Back in the late 1950s, a Chicago graduate student named Lawrence Kohlberg began what would become a seminal theory in modern developmental psychology: his theory of moral development, something that every introductory psychology student learns. His stages of moral development essentially fit into three categories: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional. In the pre-conventional stage, human beings have not yet adopted anything like what we traditionally call morality–they are pure ids in the psychoanalytic sense or pure hedonists in the ethical sense. In the conventional stage, humans adopt the morality of first their parents and then society–those who respond to Kohlberg’s famous Heinz dilemma by saying things like, “stealing is wrong” or “it’s illegal” are in the conventional stage. (Some of us may even say that religion fits into this stage by definition.) In the post-conventional stage, a person calculates morality based on individual principles and application of those principles to the world–they maintain that breaking society’s rules and laws can be allowed under certain conditions, based on the principles that are more important than the rules themselves. (My law school, incidentally, used the Heinz dilemma on us. Most students answered with “conventional” answers, because they were afraid to say anything else. I actually wrote, “I’m in the post-conventional stage and I know Kohlberg’s work. This is not a good exercise for psychology majors.” I have a feeling I got marked down somewhere as obnoxious and not to be trusted.)

The cities represent the moral development of Jimmy McGill, as we view it in this first season of Better Call Saul. Chicago is Jimmy’s pre-conventional stage: he does what makes him happy and gets him immediate gain, with no real consideration of larger principles or society’s rules and expectations. He runs scams with his buddy Marco, including an adaptation of the famous Spanish Prisoner, hopping from bar to bar and not caring as long as he makes it to the next bar before any cops show up. There are seemingly no bounds in the dark backgrounds, and a montage of his antics with Marco during a return trip even eventually fades into a completely black background: a blank canvass on which to paint his scams, with no moral lines to stop him.

Since coming to Albuquerque with his brother, Jimmy has been in the conventional stage. He’s been following the rules and expectations of his brother and society. He’s been carefully doing “the right thing,” even when he doesn’t think it’s really what’s best. He devotes himself to clients who have nowhere else to turn. He’s so willing to follow his brother that his immediate reaction to being told that there is an office with his name on it at Daviston-Maine (I’m guessing on that spelling completely.) is to say, “Nah, Chuck wouldn’t like it.”

And now, Jimmy has finally reached the post-conventional stage. He tells Mike, “I know what stopped me, and you know what, it’s never stopping me again.” He’s leaving the expectations of his brother and the legal community behind for a morality that he decides based on his own principles. Mike was already clearly in the post-conventional stage–a dirty cop who was willing to take the law into his own hands is undoubtedly someone who has already passed beyond the conventional stage. But Jimmy needed to realize that his brother was not some ultimate paragon of virtue. He needed to see that while his reckless past may not have been perfectly virtuous, there was something of a societal positive to robbing people who were trying to cheat him (notice that’s how his scams work–they play to people’s greed and desire to believe that they’ve gotten away with something over him) compared to his refusal to profit from the Kettelmans’ thievery.

While people often described Saul Goodman as “amoral,” “ambivalently moral,” or other such terms on Breaking Bad, I think they were always off base. He was quite moral–it’s just that his morality was post-conventional in the Kohlberg sense. He had principles that mattered to him and he made his decisions based on those principles, but he did not care about society’s strictures around him. And to me a big part of that character’s strength was that he was so comfortable with that. He didn’t need the ABA’s Model Rules for Ethical Conduct to validate him–he just did what he had decided was right.

We just witnessed the birth of Saul Goodman. The fun starts here.

Notes

  • I got to use my psychology degree this week!
  • “If you’re a lawyer and you’re not making bank, you’re doing it wrong. . . . I assure you, lawyers in Chicago make bank.” At least in my law school, the Illinois bar was universally said to be the hardest to join, and Chicago considered the most cutthroat, ruthless legal community in America. It’s not that simple to pick up and move out there, even compared to how difficult it usually is for lawyers. And I know lawyers who are far from wealthy, without even considering those of us who are lawyers in theory but don’t work in the field.
  • “Smoke on the Water” is one of the most overused songs on earth, but somehow it really fits Marco.
  • The first time we saw the watch scam, the mark just immediately looked like a total scum to me. This time, the guy actually looked very sweet and non-threatening. I don’t know if that was just me.
Advertisements

Movie Review: “It Follows” (David Robert Mitchell, USA 2014)

The modern slasher film is one of the more rigid and popular genres in film, and it has spawned no end of parodies and self-aware revisions because of that rigidity and popularity. At its heart, the slasher film is about the dangers of underage and/or premarital sex, with a plot that breaks down simply as: young people have sex and then some monster seeks to kill them for it. There are countless variations on this simple formula that began with Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978) and its tale of babysitters hunted down by a supernatural evil in the shape of a man and has continued through the Scream series with its complex tale of movie-inspired revenge and mayhem, and it has gone every direction in between.

It Follows follows in that tradition, but this is no more complex new version of the slasher genre. It’s not a loving tribute to the simplicity of the form like the most recent Halloween entries. It’s not a self-aware tribute to the genre like Scream (Wes Craven, USA 1996). It’s not a parody like Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA 2000). It’s not a message to the film industry about its solipsism and fear of new ideas like The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012). Instead, this film comes across as an experiment: what if we boiled down the slasher genre to nothing more than: young people have sex and a monster goes after them. The only plot element that Mitchell adds to that simplified version of the slasher plot is that this monster actually only hunts one person at a time, and the way to pass it on is to have sex–an element that helps to simplify the plot to its boiled-down core. Continue reading

TV Episode Review: “Better Call Saul” “Pimento” (01.09, 2015)

Written by Thomas Schnauz

Directed by Thomas Schnauz

The big question left after the last episode of Better Call Saul was exactly what Chuck dropping that box meant. Was he shocked to realize that his “illness” had gone away, and about to celebrate? Was he panicking at the realization that he had gone outside and now going to run inside? Was he going to go into a catatonic state and so leave Jimmy to handle a case that’s clearly too big for two men, let alone one, to handle the case alone.

That question was answered immediately in “Pimento,” seeing Jimmy and Chuck sitting on a bench near Chuck’s home. Chuck is clearly ill-at-ease, but he’s surviving. Jimmy is telling him to kick off his shoes and relax. It’s a simple scene that tells us what we need to know: Chuck isn’t about to get the power turned back on in his house, but he knows now that he has at least some capacity to go into the world of electricity.

But what this episode is really about is Jimmy discovering that Chuck is not in his legal corner. As I said earlier, it was Chuck, not Howard, who rejected Jimmy at HHM. And now that Jimmy has an enormous class action suit that requires a bigger firm to execute properly, it’s again not Howard who rejects him, even if he is willing to take the heat for Chuck’s decision. Jimmy’s hatred aimed at Howard all these years has actually been for Howard being a good friend to Chuck and accepting all the heat for Chuck’s own rejection of his brother. The asshole in charge of HHM who has created this feud with Jimmy is actually Chuck, not Howard, who now comes across as a truly decent guy for his willingness to help Chuck pull the wool over Jimmy’s eyes.

Early in the season, it felt like Michael McKean was wasted on this series in a role that didn’t require anything, but as the season has gone on he has become indispensable to the series’s success. The look he gives when returning to the firm–the look of a powerful feudal lord returning to his kingdom–belies just how much he loves his own position within the legal community and also his relationship with his brother. Then, his look watching Howard reject Jimmy makes it clear, even if you ignore all of the background we have, that he’s watching something he orchestrated. And Patrick Fabian, whose performance has generally been easy to ignore in the robotic Howard Hamlin, had to show a subtle level of discomfort, unable even to say, “I’ve decided,” because that would be a lie, and Howard isn’t really the bastard Jimmy thought he was. And then his ridiculous attempt to turn James Bond villain on Kim, saying, “I don’t care” is so clearly rehearsed and insincere that it adds even more to our sense of Howard.

But the heart of this episode lies in the dramatic Jimmy-Chuck confrontation wherein Chuck reveals himself to Jimmy, saying, “You’re not a real lawyer!” While his position would have been understandable back when Jimmy first passed the bar, at this point Jimmy has proven that he is at the very least a competent attorney with a great work ethic. But when he mentions Jimmy’s education, he reveals himself, not questioning the school’s accreditation or academic reputation but instead saying, “I worked my ass off,” suggesting that Jimmy didn’t put in the kind of work in law school that he did. Chuck isn’t really worried about Jimmy doing a bad job or even Jimmy ruining the reputation of HHM. He’s worried about maintaining his position as the successful brother. Like the brothers in Dream Theater’s rock opera, one is a success and the other a failure, and Chuck is not going to allow their positions to change.

All season, we have been wondering how the talented-but-unsuccessful Jimmy McGill would so soon become the hightly-sought-after criminal attorney Saul Goodman, and we may have just seen the turning point. Jimmy wasn’t going to change his name partly because he was so proud of his brother, but now that he’s out to burn that bridge, he has a reason to change his name. And he now has an infusion of cash coming from HHM that could pay for updating his office and advertising to recognize his new name. In the end, it’s not some falling from grace or sudden realization that all the money was in representing criminals that made him change–it was the discovery of his brother’s betrayal of him.

Meanwhile, Mike has completed his transformation from the comic relief he offered earlier in the season to the same world-weary streetwise badass he was on Breaking Bad. He disarmed and beat the crap out of an armed bodyguard-type without breaking a sweat and got a greenhorn criminal through a deal unscathed based on his own intelligence and willingness to do the work required to reduce the risk involved. And he did it with the kind of logic and quiet confidence that always controlled him in Breaking Bad.

Notes

  • “Slippin’ Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun.” Wow, that’s a vicious line. And quite untrue–lawyers are under more scrutiny than most people, so really that’s a good place to put someone who is something of a reformed scam artist.
  • Something that will probably interest very few: I don’t remember anymore how exactly, but I think we know that Chuck went to the University of New Mexico. That is a top-100 law school, so there is at least some reason for Chuck’s ego on the subject. However, I went to a top-100 law school (at the time that I went there), too–it’s not as impressive as he’d like to think.
  • Why on earth did Howard tell Kim? Did it just prey on his conscience that much? Really? That seems weird.
  • “Erin Brockovich and Ed Masry brought in heavy hitters from Los Angeles to bring that case home!” Was that a sly comment about the mediocre film?
  • It’s “pimiento,” not “pimento.” It’s a pepper, not a cheese. I see that a pimiento sandwich is made of cheese, but pimiento itself is not the cheese.