“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

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TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Felina” (05.16, 2013)

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

Directed by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Full Measure,” “End Times,” and “Face Off”)

As I have said, Breaking Bad exists in a moral universe. Its biggest characters, therefore, had obvious fates (even if I questioned one of those for a long time): Walter White had to die, and along the way had to pay for his sins in some way; Jesse Pinkman had to get to escape into some sort of freedom from the hell he had endured as punishment for his sins; Skyler White couldn’t escape scot-free but Flynn had to come out with more than he had. What the show’s finale had to do was reach all of those fates in ways that weren’t overly predictable, and for the most part it did. It was by no means one of the strongest episodes of Breaking Bad–particularly coming so closely after “Ozymandias,” which might well be the finest episode of television in history–but it was a generally fitting conclusion to a series that has often reached predictable conclusions in unpredictable ways.

Alice Cooper has commented over the years that the reason his stage persona dies at the end of every concert is that it is the way in which the audience receives absolution for its enjoyment of his crimes, transgressions, and sins throughout the evening. The audience delights in the man with the strange eye makeup as he desecrates corpses, takes on the persona of a serial killer, and even runs for President. So that they can be forgiven for their delight, Alice dies. In the same way, Heisenberg had to die. The glamorous, sexy sort of criminality in which he so often engaged thrilled the audience with shootouts, explosions, and frantic drives against time, and he had to pay for providing those thrills. But he died two episodes ago, leaving behind Walter White.

Did Walter White have to die? Probably. This version of Walter White finally admitted that his criminal activity made him feel “alive” and that he had done it all for selfish reasons, not to help his family (and admitted it not just to himself but to Skyler in perhaps the most effective scene of this episode). This version of Walter White, while he was broken and dispirited the way the Walter White of the first season was, had embraced the darkness and evil within as a part of himself. He may have been afraid to wear the black hat, but he also no longer needed it. This Walter White was a danger to everyone, but he was also walking into his own death and knew it.

In the end, Walt was able to design and effect a cunning plan that forced Gretchen and Elliott to acknowledge their relationship with him, got nearly $10 million to his son, gave him a chance to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, ensured that his empire would not continue on without him, and let his former loyal partner go. It was smart, efficient, and, ultimately, exactly the kind of selfishness-masquerading-as-righteousness that has always characterized this man.

Did he save Jesse out of some feeling of guilt over all he’s done to the young man during the last two years? No. He saved Jesse because he wanted Jesse to believe that he was sacrificing himself to save Jesse and because he was too selfish and weak to pull the trigger on himself and he believed that he could still force Jesse to do it.

Did he kill Jack, Todd, and their crew because he wanted to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, and protect the world from this evil that he had unleashed? No, he wanted to make sure that his empire remained his, even visiting a lab in which he had never worked and leaving his blood on it with his dying breath, marking it as his even though he had in fact never even seen it before, because Walter White wants everyone to know that it was his and his alone.

Did he leave his money with Gretchen and Elliott for Flynn out of some sense of obligation to his son? No, he wanted to force his rich former partners to admit their connection to him (And to do so in a way that would likely become public and severely cut Gray Matter’s stock prices, considering that they had already been taking actions to distance themselves from him.), and he wanted to ensure that he had not done all of this for nothing. After he pleaded Flynn to take his money so that it was not all for naught last episode, this time he is manipulating his own son into being the outlet for what he has left, emphatically telling Gretchen and Elliott that they cannot even pay any taxes or legal fees related to the trust themselves because it must be only from him.

It was all so fitting, and yet it felt too neat and tidy. Like the conclusion of season four, it felt like an overly quick and clean conclusion to a messy series of events. It felt like tying off the threads that remained instead of a continuation of what had made the show so special. Most people like resolution and like their resolutions to be as full as possible (Just look at the reaction to the final episode of The Sopranos even all these years later.), but I’m often not sure it’s the right course of action, and this episode was a good example of why. Not everything needs to be The Sopranos and leave its ultimate resolution so clearly hanging in the air, and Breaking Bad was always a very closely contained show, but it still felt too pat, too much like running a spell check on a finished document.

Further, for all of the memorable moments this show has given us, there simply wasn’t anything comparable in the finale. Walt’s threat to the Schwartzes and the reveal that the “assassins” were just Skinny Pete and Badger with laser pointers was a great sequence, and his final admission to Skyler was a very good moment, but neither is anywhere near as memorable as much of what came before, and that is a shame.

I’m finding it difficult to explain how I could find this a rather weak episode when it was so fitting and so little of it could have been any different, and yet it was. It wasn’t fun the way the show was in its early days and it wasn’t harrowing the way the show had been in its final run. Instead, like Walter White, it went out with a whimper. And yet, there is really no other way it could have gone.

Notes

  • My former English professor mother has repeatedly claimed that if Walt died in any way it would make him a hero. I argued that he could die a pathetic death and not come out as a hero. Since he was able to get something to Flynn in the end and his final plan went off essentially without a hitch, I’m not sure he didn’t get a heroic gloss. Vince Gilligan has been clear over the years that Walt is a bad guy, not an antihero, but in the end, he put everyone through two years of hell and killed a brother-in-law whom he always resented but left his son with $9.7 million. If you asked him back at the beginning if that would be a good result, I think Walt would say it was. I’m not sure that makes him a hero, but it seems rather a questionable end for the villain of a show that exists in a moral universe.
  • The gun was for the neo-Nazis. The ricin was for Lydia. Once again, the show actually did exactly what we could have guessed from the beginning but took such a circuitous route to get there that it was easy to get it wrong.
  • I don’t see how he could have gotten the ricin into her Stevia, but I don’t think that’s an important detail.
  • Jesse’s ending was as happy as it could be, escaping into the night away from Walt, knowing that he would never see the man who has caused him so much pain again. It had to end there, because Jesse is, in the end, a criminal who has nothing to show for his own crimes; is probably wanted by the DEA, who knows about his connection to Heisenberg; may be a target for the cartel if it ever recovers because of having been there for Gus’s slaughter of Don Eladio and his men; and has seen both of his relationship partners of the last two years end up dead. I doubt he has a happy life, so we had to stop here.
  • Jack’s reaction to Walt’s statement about Jesse made no sense with respect to how the neo-Nazis have acted in the past. They have been exactly the sort of villains who just shoot Walt as soon as he walks in the door, and that’s what was terrifying about them. That was a bad moment for the show, placing plot above character consistency.
  • This was the greatest series in television history and if we call season 5b its own season that well might have been the greatest season in history as well, even if its finale didn’t live up to what came before.
  • If Vince Gilligan plans on continuing in television, he will have impossible expectations for his next series. Good luck to him.
  • Bryan Cranston’s performance throughout this series was absolutely a sight to behold, and I feel like every other dramatic performance in television  is going to pale in comparison for a very, very long time.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Live Free or Die” (05.01, 2012)

“Live Free or Die” (05.01, 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,” and “Face Off”)

Directed by Michael Slovis (Previous Episodes: “Kafkaesque” and “Cornered”)

Breaking Bad opens its final season with one of its favorite conceits: an odd scene in the future the explanation for which will be slowly unveiled in the future. The show used the same technique in its pilot, opening with floating pair of pants, a rushing Winnebago, and a hurried “confession” into a camcorder by a pantsless man who then stands in the street and points a gun toward oncoming sirens. It returned to the same idea in season two with the pink teddy bear floating in the pool in season two. And of course there was the strange image of a line of people crawling through the Mexican desert in season three. This time, it’s essentially a hint about the future. Walt is celebrating his 52nd birthday at a Denny’s, having grown back his hair and facial hair and sporting a fake ID. Walt sits at the counter nervously and claims to be from New Hampshire, then receives delivery of a large machine gun from his old arms dealer, Jim Beaver. It’s a mysterious sequence, but it’s one about which we can make some educated guesses this time.

When Walt goes into the bathroom to confirm the delivery of the gun, he coughs and takes some pills, leading to the question of whether his cancer has returned. His hair makes it clear that if his cancer has returned, he has not gone through another round of chemotherapy, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Walter White has refused treatment for his cancer. The nervousness, the fact that his family is nowhere to be found at his birthday breakfast, and fake ID suggest that he has been running—perhaps he’s used the “disappearer” Saul talked about last season. Then, there’s the gun. Walt doesn’t even just need a gun, he needs a GUN. There isn’t much to tell us what’s scaring Walt, but something sure is. Another fact that deserves mention is that the guy in Denny’s is Walter White, not Heisenberg, which may be a suggestion that Heisenberg is already dead. Even when he looks at the gun, Bryan Cranston’s reaction is one of resignation and a bit of fear, not excitement.

Then, we get into the fallout from the death of Gus Fring. The discovery of Gus Fring’s meth operation leaves Walt and Jesse jobless but also with one major loose end: Mike, still recuperating in Mexico. However, the show resolves this situation rather easily. Walt, Jesse, and Mike must band together to keep themselves from getting caught, now that Fring’s equipment throughout his empire is being checked out by the APD and DEA. It’s a nice way for the writers to get Mike off of killing Walt and force the three into working together. It leads to a typically slapstick-but-still-working caper for Jesse and Walt, cleaning away what they believe is the only trace of them in Gus Fring’s effects.

However, the most important development is the changes wrought on the characters. Once he finally embraced his bad guy nature near the end of last season, Walter White became Heisenberg full-time. Where previously, it appeared that Walt had played Heisenberg to survive the drug world, it now appears that Heisenberg is the real man and there is simply no trace of Walter White left. Heisenberg, the hardened criminal, is also now incredibly self-assured, to the point of ridiculousness, even telling Saul, “We’re done when I say we’re done” and Mike that he can believe that the evidence destruction has worked “because I say so.” Jesse has meanwhile fallen back in line underneath Heisenberg, with Walt’s manipulations again working the way they once did and the confidence and self-possession that Gus and Mike had given him out the window.

Meanwhile, back at home, Skyler has become terrified of Heisenberg. She has probably figured out that he was the source of the bomb that killed three people at the end of season four, and realizes how evil and callous the man who was once Walter White has become. It also hurts her that she has put Ted Benneke in the hospital, where he is alive and awake but apparently may never walk again. Heisenberg’s manipulations don’t work on her like they do on Jesse, but she is too afraid to fight them. Walter White got into this business for his family, but Heisenberg has now alienated it.

Heisenberg feels invincible, but there are definite cracks in his world, and we already know that it’s going to blow open in the next year. His voracious appetite for control is being fed, but he’s lost everything else he was after. We can even see him sewing the seeds of his own destruction, moving back in to Skyler’s home and unpacking the copy of Leaves of Grass we saw him reading back when he was working with Gale in the superlab. The show rather hamfistedly draws attention to the book, making it clear that it will be a major part of the future. I can only assume that it is somehow going to be the clue that tells Hank who he is, though how exactly that will happen I do not know.

Michael Slovis, normally the show’s cinematographer, steps up to the director’s chair for the third time, and again it seems that while he is capable of directing quite well, the show is just better served with him as a cinematographer. As great as everything about this show is, the first thing that got my attention was its look—the care given to the use of color and shot composition was on par with a film, something that no other television show has ever attempted, let alone succeeded in doing. Much of that look is provided by Slovis on the camera, and his absence there is felt more than his presence in the director’s chair.

Still, it’s a strong opening to the season, if a bit predictable and wearing its structure on its sleeves a bit more than Breaking Bad typically does. The opening scene is a brilliant opening, dropping plenty of hints about what’s going on in the future, but leaving so much unexplained that we have to look forward to its revelation.