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.
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“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” “Granite State” (05.15, 2013)

Written by Peter Gould (Previous Episodes: “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” “Bit by a Dead Bee,” “Better Call Saul,” “Caballo sin Nombre,” “Kafkaesque,” “Half Measures,” “Problem Dog,” “Salud,” “Hazard Pay,” and “Blood Money”)

Directed by Peter Gould (Previous Episode: “Problem Dog”)

Back in “End Game” (04.12, 2011), a despondent Walter White sits at his backyard table, certain that Gus Fring means to kill him and unable to figure out a way to survive. He absent-mindedly spins a gun around on the table. It winds up pointing at him. He spins the gun again. It points at him again. He spins it again and it finally points at a potted plant, giving him the idea that he uses to escape certain death at Fring’s hands. At that moment what is left of Walter White dies and is replaced by the pure darkness that is Heisenberg. It’s perhaps the single most important scene in Breaking Bad‘s history: a very bad man is being told that he will be punished, understands it, and yet keeps pushing until he finds a way to delay that punishment. This show’s universe is a moral universe, and not just one where morality exists but one where “bad” behavior is punished (even if “good” behavior is not necessarily rewarded).

In “Granite State,” we see that one of the relative good guys, Saul Goodman (who may be a slimeball but is certainly not a villain the way many of our remaining characters are), is allowed to leave in order to live out his life free and clear of Heisenberg. He’s stuck in Nebraska (The horror!) and says it will take everything going right to end up managing a Cinnabon, but he’s not trapped inside Heisenberg’s web any longer.

And the reason that he’s no longer trapped is that Heisenberg is dead, replaced by the empty shell of a man that Walter White was clear back in the pilot. He’s trying to play the part of Heisenberg still, but he can’t do it. He tries to intimidate Saul the exact same way he has done previously, and yet even the cowardly Saul realizes he has nothing to fear when Walt breaks down into a coughing fit. When he ends up in a cabin in New Hampshire, hiding from a nationwide manhunt that the disappearer warns him means he will be caught if he its seen at all, even putting on Heisenberg’s black hat does not give him the strength to walk to the nearest town in order to act out a typically hubristic Heisenberg scheme. The cancer causing him to weaken is obviously part of the issue (The disappearer did say it was eight miles to the town, trudging through snow in the cold.), but there’s also the simple fact that Walter White is a sad, risk-averse man who isn’t willing to risk getting caught so easily. Heisenberg was always convinced of his own ability to do anything he wished and didn’t stop even when prudence should tell him to do so, and Walt’s inability to make the journey to the nearest town even with the hat is a sure sign that Heisenberg is no longer here.

Walt’s New Hampshire adventure also serves to tell Walt that the world no longer has any use for him. While on the surface his pained cabin experience appears to be just a man starved for contact, he also can’t send money to his family, can’t order hits on Jack and his crew, has no Jesse to boss around, can’t contact Skyler, and his son says point-blank, “I don’t want anything from you!” Heisenberg is dead, and Walter White has been rendered completely useless. He’s as impotent as he was for that handjob back in the pilot.

Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis have taken over the show and in so doing deconstructed it. The criminality on this show has often been glamorous and “cool” in much the same way that violence and criminality often is in media. There have been Heisenberg’s bad guy catch phrases (“I am the one who knocks!”), the fancy cars, Lydia’s legs, and always cunning, elegant plans from Walter White. Todd and the neo-Nazis aren’t glamorous. They’re down and dirty pragmatic criminals, and they’re all the more dangerous because of that, and if we didn’t know that before, we certainly do after the murder of Andrea, which is perhaps the darkest moment in this show’s history. It’s not a dramatic moment like when Gus killed Victor or Jesse killed Gale. It’s not a major action sequence like Hank killing the twins or the neo-Nazis killing Gomez. Instead, they just make sure Jesse can see it as Todd lures Andrea outside and calmly puts a bullet through her head and leaves her dead on her own front porch, probably to be found by the little boy Heisenberg decided to poison back when the gun finally pointed away from him.

Meanwhile, we finally got a good example of the cold cruelty of which Lydia is capable, as she nearly broke off her partnership with Todd in anger for Todd having decided to scare Skyler into submission instead of simply killing her, saying, “We’re not Western Union, Todd. We can’t settle for you sending messages.” That scene also was loaded with some brilliant detail emphasizing Todd’s infatuation with Lydia (Todd is drinking tea. He’s disappointed that she wants to sit facing opposite directions. He won’t actually keep from looking at her.) and yet another instance of Lydia mentioning Stevia. It seems clear to me that the ricin is going to replace her Stevia, or else they have paid considerably for placement on the show.

Finally recognizing the futility of his own continued existence, Walt decides to turn himself in, but then he discovers a reason to live, which is of course an attack on his pride. The biggest driving force in Walt’s life as he has cut a swath of destruction through the world has been his pride, so of course it is only a blow to that pride that could bring him back to Albuquerque. The interesting part is who delivers that blow, as it is none other than Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, his ex-partners who bought him out of a multi-billion dollar company back when it was a startup after a rude ending to Walt’s romantic relationship with Gretchen that has never been fully explained on the show but surely has something to do with his pride again. Hearing them claim that his only contribution to their company was the name apparently* sets Walt off, and he is gone before the federal agents arrive to look for him, making one wonder if he has some plan to attack the Schwartzes and/or Gray Matter in the end. Meanwhile, Gretchen Schwartz, the person who always seemed to understand Walt more than anyone (except maybe for Mike), explains the duality of Walter White and Heisenberg but claims that Walt is clearly gone while we can see that Heisenberg has died and left behind the same Walter White that she knew.

*They also talk about the blue meth being seen throughout the southwest and in Europe, so it’s possible that Walt is reacting instead to the fact that his meth is being peddled without him. Or he could be reacting to Gretchen’s description of him as “the sweet, kind, brilliant man we once knew.” It seems more likely to me that it’s their belittling his contribution to their company, but it’s not impossible that it’s one of those other things.

Peter Gould didn’t distinguish himself as a director in his previous episode (and on this show, that’s praise), and he doesn’t this time either. He makes nice use of some great high contrast lighting in the bar and otherwise composes his shots very smartly, but there isn’t anything that stands out from what Breaking Bad usually does. It doesn’t do him any favors to follow up the incomparable Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson, but he holds his own.

Overall, this was yet another amazing episode of Breaking Bad that continued moving chess pieces but left the finale open. It cannot be easy to set up a show like this and not make the finale obvious, but Gilligan and company have done it.

Notes

  • This show has always had more than its share of surprises, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised than I was when it was Saul stepping out of the van at the beginning.
  • From what we hear on the Charlie Rose Show, it’s clear that Walt’s crimes have become public knowledge–even the name Heisenberg and the color of his meth are mentioned.
  • Gretchen and Elliott must be bored as hell during that “interview.” Not much back and forth there!
  • Maybe Jesse will be hidden underground when Walt shows up with the machine gun, so that Walt inadvertently saves him. The fact that Jesse has survived this long makes me think he’s making it out of the finale.
  • Jesse Plemons deserves more attention than he gets for the job he does with Todd. Look at the little smirk he gets at Jesse mentioning his killing Drew Sharp–it’s a kid enjoying his brush with fame at his name being mentioned on TV and he doesn’t care at all that it’s for killing an innocent kid.