“Better Call Saul” episodes 1-4 review

When Better Call Saul was first announced, my memory is that it was announced as a comedy spin-off of Breaking Bad. Apparently there was talk along the way that the show had morphed into more of a drama, but I avoided news about the show so that I wouldn’t go in with any preconceived notions, so I wasn’t aware of that. Needless to say, I was surprised to find a show that feels increasingly like a continuation of Breaking Bad more than a separate entity.

Spin-off shows are often difficult because they are, at heart, serving two masters. They want to please fans of the older show enough to keep them interested–otherwise, why bother with spinning off instead of just starting anew? But they also want to interest more than just that core audience, because otherwise the show might just as well be an extra episode a week of the original show. The last major successful spin-off was Frasier, which  shared little with its predecessor Cheers apart from using a little-defined character from the original series as its lead. It was willing to admit its past, making references to Cheers, having nearly every cast member from that earlier series make a guest appearance, and even making occasional jokes that relied on knowledge of the previous series. But its humor, its storytelling, its performances, and its overall sensibilities were so far removed from Cheers that it’s difficult to imagine that the audience was that heavily overlapping. (Indeed, I do not like Cheers at all, but I think Frasier is the best comedy show ever.) Better Call Saul has gone in the opposite direction. Continue reading

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Confessions” (05.11, 2013)

Written by Gennifer Hutchison (Previous Episodes: “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” and “Buyout”)

Directed by Michael Slovis (Previous Episodes: “Kafkaesque,” “Cornered,” and “Live Free or Die”)

 Breaking Bad has typically been a show that has burned slowly, building up tension before explosive bursts of activity. This half-season has been positively teeming with activity compared to the show’s typical beginnings. Yet, this episode was still an explosion along the lines of “Half Measures” back in season three.

We’ve been watching Hank, who is clearly not Heisenberg’s final enemy, build up his case against Walter White and Walt/Heisenberg try to squirrel out of it and Jesse completely self-destruct under the weight of the guilt he feels about everything that’s happened. For the first two hours, that is essentially all that has been happening. We’re waiting for Hank to reveal his discoveries to his superiors, only to have Heisenberg turn the tables with a “confession” where he explains his criminal activities but claims that they were all at Hank’s behest. Then, the self-destructing Jesse still doesn’t flip on Heisenberg but realizes that Heisenberg poisoned Brock last season and heads to the White home seeking revenge. It may have been surprising to see the show have a Walt-Hank confrontation so quickly, but that is nothing compared to the surprise of seeing this much activity at once.

Also for the first time this season, I was completely caught by surprise by one plot turn. We all knew the Hank-Walt confrontation was coming—it was only the timing that was a surprise. We all knew that Lydia was going to do something about Declan’s operation and its falling standards and that somehow Todd was involved. However, Heisenberg’s “confession” was a shock. Equally shocking was how easily the pieces fit together from the outside: The DEA would have no reason to think that Heisenberg’s revelation was false and indeed would see plenty of evidence that it was honest and truthful, including Hank’s behavior in this episode as he pulls the detail off of Jesse rather than explain to Steve why he wants it there in the first place. The book that revealed everything to Hank being in his possession with no chain of evidence would be evidence of an illicit relationship between them just as easily as it is evidence of such a relationship between Walt and Gale. The meth money used to pay for Hank’s rehab is, as Hank says, the final nail in the coffin, but the coffin is pretty well nailed shut even without that bit of evidence. It’s an impressive plan on Heisenberg’s part, because it works so well.

But in spite of all of that and how it seems to put Hank on hold for now (His taking the detail off of Jesse seems to be a signal that, for now, he is backing off.), there are two more important bits of business for the show long-term. The first is, obviously, Jesse’s discovery that Walt poisoned Brock. The second is the less obvious continued development of Todd’s weirdness and ascension in the meth business.

Saul ends up calling the disappearer, as I’ve been expecting, but it’s for Jesse, not Heisenberg. Jesse then discovers that Hule, the seeming klutz bodyguard in Saul’s office, has adeptly lifted his marijuana from his pocket and so has the realization that Hule could have done the same with the mysteriously missing ricin cigarette a season ago. He understandably reacts with some real anger, stealing Saul’s car and heading to the White home with a can of gasoline, throwing it around the house and screaming.

I re-watched the flash-forward from “Blood Money” to see whether the house showed signs of burning, and I’m not sure whether it does or not. The scene is shot with such low-key lighting and so much grey coloring that I just can’t tell whether the living room is burned out or not. Clearly, the house is still standing and parts of it where burns would be more easily visible do not show any such evidence, but it is ambiguous enough that I cannot be sure that something is going to stop Jesse from lighting that gasoline. He may yet be stopped, but it’s possible, with only one can of gasoline and Heisenberg likely on the way to the house, that he is going to get it started and just not succeed in burning down the house.

The more important question from this scene now is what is going to happen to Jesse. It seems likely, the way this season has gone at such a breakneck pace and just essentially disposed of one antagonist, that we could get a Heisenberg-Jesse confrontation already, and it may well be that Jesse Pinkman does not survive the next episode. For years, I had said that the show would progress to Heisenberg v. Gus, then Heisenberg v. Hank, then end with Heisenberg v. Jesse. I’ve decided that his final battle will not be with Jesse, because the Lydia/Todd group is clearly being built up on more of a slow burn. But that means Jesse is going to have to be out of the way soon, and I think this scene may have made it clear that he’s gone next episode, or maybe two episodes if they really want to draw it out. That of course also means that my prediction for the ending is completely shot, but that doesn’t bother me!

Meanwhile, in the continued adventures of Todd, Weird Boy . . .

Todd goes to a diner with a couple of his and Lydia’s hit men from last episode, one of whom I now notice (I’m not sure if it was visible last time.) has a swastika tattoo that reveals he is probably part of the neo-Nazi group Heisenberg used to get rid of Mike’s guys. He tells them the story of the train robbery, sounding like an excited movie fan more than a participant in a traumatic event that included a ridiculous amount of danger and ended with him killing a child (a part of the story that he does not even mention to his comrades). Then, while the two men ogle a pretty waitress (in a really obvious and somewhat laughable way), he not only does not join in but looks clearly uncomfortable at them doing it. We get another reminder about how cold and unfeeling these men are in a sequence that seems like it belongs in A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, USA/Germany 2005), and yet Todd still seems less human than they are. Just not joining in the ogling wouldn’t say much—he could be gay or asexual or maybe the waitress just wasn’t his type—but his clear discomfort made it appear that there is something else there, something deeper and more troubling.

It was clear from his first moment on screen that there was a long-term plan for Todd and he was not as he appeared—Saul introduced the rest of the pest control team easily but had to check on Todd’s name, and of course he is played by a recognizable TV actor in Jesse Plemons. Is he actually the reason Walter White will return to Albuquerque, needing a machine gun in the trunk?

Visually, this episode was a typically excellent Breaking Bad episode, which is good because Michael Slovis’s previous turns as a director have been a bit weak, not so much because of his direction as because the show misses him as cinematographer. The shot of Walt getting the gun from under the Coke machine and the beautiful low-angle shot of Jesse’s entrance to the White home are enough by themselves to establish this episode as ranking at Breaking Bad’s usual high level, and there’s nothing that really takes away from it.

Overall, this episode was the strongest yet in a brilliant opening to the best television show in history’s swan song, and it threw everything that it seemed like we knew from the first two episodes into doubt. I have a feeling we’re about to get another flash forward to confuse us even further before we see the results of Jesse’s attack on the home, but then things are most definitely happening.

Notes

  • I still wonder if somehow there is a Nazi component to what’s going to happen at the end. We have this neo-Nazi group now involved heavily in the business. Gus was from South America, where many Nazis fled after the Third Reich fell, and Don Eladio said, “I know who you are,” something that still has not been completely cleared up. Madrigal is a German company. That’s a lot of potential Nazi connections.
  • I feel sorry for Hank, paralyzed as he is by Heisenberg. He’s a good man—perhaps the only really good man we’ve seen on this show—and he’s good at his job, and his goodness has completely trapped him.
  • This episode is Aaron Paul’s Emmy submission, right? He’s always great, but that was as good as acting gets.
  • This is the first time Saul has ever gotten roughed up. He had been amazingly able to keep himself out of things physically.
  • So who is more dangerous, Lydia or Todd? Who is more mysterious? Do they have time to give us any definition of either character?
  • Is every meal scene on this show unbelievably tense? I don’t think this one was as bad as the Heisenberg-Jesse-Skyler scene we had before (or even the old Walt-Gretchen meal scene), but it definitely had more than its share of tension. And the overly enthusiastic waiter’s repeated arrivals were hilarious.
  • This show is always great, but seriously this episode was a wow episode—best we’ve seen since “Box Cutter?”

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Madrigal” (05.02, 2012)

“Madrigal” (05.02, 2012)

Written by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” “…And the Bag’s in the River,” “Cancer Man,” “Peekaboo,” “ABQ,” “No Más,” “Full Measure,” “Box Cutter,” “Face Off,” and “Live Free or Die”)

Directed by Michelle MacLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” and “Salud”)

 

Breaking Bad continues to clean up the last season, explaining that Hule indeed took the cigarette from Jesse in Saul’s office and having Heisenberg assuage Jesse’s worried mind about the cigarette by “finding” it in Jesse’s Roomba. It’s an explanation we didn’t really need and the resolution is a bit difficult to swallow, but it does emphasize what these characters have become. While Jesse would definitely have questioned Heisenberg finding the cigarette someplace he had already looked near the end of last season, he now accepts it. Where Walter White in the past would not have known what to do about Jesse’s breakdown after finding the cigarette, Heisenberg now knows to let Jesse feel that self-loathing while half-heartedly trying to calm him down, ensuring that Jesse will not again become as self-assured as he once was while working for Gus Fring. Aaron Paul also gets a great showcase for his talents, as he responds to the discovery of the cigarette not with relief or elation but a complete breakdown, thinking that he lost the cigarette and could have killed someone out of simple carelessness.

Meanwhile, the show again contrives a way to force Mike into working with Heisenberg. Heisenberg, having spent every dime of his money, wants back into the meth business and it’s sensible enough that he would turn to Mike, a seasoned distribution operative, for aid. However, Mike rightly turns his offer of partnership down, stating to Heisenberg that he is a “time bomb” and that he’s sorry that Jesse doesn’t see it. So, Vince Gilligan gives us a group of guys who could spill the beans on the whole operation unless Mike either silences them or pays them off and then has the DEA take away all of the money Gus had stashed away for Mike. It’s rather contrived, but it enforces one of the show’s themes: that crime never really does pay, since there are always new expenses popping up. It’s a bit inelegant by this show’s standards, but it still works.

The other interesting development in this episode is the introduction of Lydia, the nervous Madrigal executive and methylamine provider who asks Mike to silence his operatives and when he refuses contracts someone else to kill them as well as Mike himself. She appears to be a loose cannon similar to Heisenberg, but Mike’s need for money forces him into business with both her and Heisenberg. Mike is clearly uncomfortable with this arrangement, but sees it as necessary, so he makes the arrangements, giving himself as much control as possible and keeping the two radical elements at arm’s length. It seems that Mike is signing his death warrant, and he knows it.

Visually, Michelle MacLaren has long been one of the show’s stronger directors, and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful episode, with rich, strong colors and the typical, bordering-on-overused Breaking Bad musical montages. I don’t know how much of the improved visuals is because of MacLaren and how much is because of having Michael Slovis back to cinematography, but it looks better than when he directed the first episode.