Wednesday, August 08, 2018


The fourth season of Better Call Saul premiered on Monday. Good to have it back. But I still have problems with the show.

First, much of its popularity comes from the reflected glory of Breaking Bad.  This is, in essence, a prequel.  We get to see how Saul Goodman came to be, as well as the earlier days of Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring.  If we didn't know Breaking Bad, would we care?

I mean we're in the fourth season and the lead character is still called Jimmy McGill.  The show is called Better Call Saul, which means nothing except in reference to the character we know from Breaking Bad.

Season four begins with a lengthy flash-forward to the world of Saul Goodman hiding as a Cinnabon manager named Gene in Omaha.  We see how he has to worry about being discovered.  I wouldn't have minded a show that gave us the adventures of Saul Goodman who went into hiding at the end of Breaking Bad, but these little glimpses (preciously done in black and white) aren't worth much.  And, as I've noted before, I never understood while Saul had to go underground to begin with--his clients were involved with crime, but couldn't he claim he was just their lawyer (and destroy any evidence that could incriminate him)?

Next we get back to the main story, set in the past.  It's a time of transitions.  Jimmy learns what we saw at the end of season three--his brother Chuck died in a fire.  Jimmy is surprisingly callous about the whole thing when he discovers he helped drive his brother over the edge, but I agree with him.  Good riddance.  The Jimmy-Chuck relationship has been central to the show, and has been the worst thing about it.  All that tiresome stuff where Chuck deals with his affliction alone drove me batty.

Truth is, I never needed to see why Jimmy became Saul. Would have been fine with me if the series started with Saul.  Instead, we got endless scenes where Chuck and Jimmy fight each other, giving us a rather pointless and unnecessary explanation of Saul's origin.  We haven't had a more useless older brother Chuck since Happy Days.

Next we get to Mike's story.  He's finally leaving his job at the toll booth and working full-time security for Madrigal.  Mike's story is a lot more fun--we didn't need to spend a lot of time seeing him get to be who he is, we just get to enjoy him being the cool character we already love.

We also get a bit more on Gus Fring.  Gus is always great to see, and already close to the Gus we came to know on Breaking Bad.  We understand that Gus, Mike and Jimmy's lives will be destroyed when they come into contact with Walter White, but we can at least have some fun before it happens.

This also means, of course, we know they won't die in this show. (Well, I guess Saul can die in the future, but the show is essentially set in the past.)  Which, admittedly, makes the secondary characters, such as Kim and Nacho, potentially on the chopping block, which gives the show a little edge.

Reading what I just wrote, I see I've mostly complained.  But as I said up top, it's good to have the show back.


Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I haven't seen Better Call Saul, other than a few minutes here and there.

I'm currently rewatching Breaking Bad. I thought of you when I saw the episode where Jane dies, which for some reason the smart folks at AVClub failed to understand. As you pointed out, Walt not only let Jane die, but directly (although not deliberately) caused her death by rolling her onto her back. In fact, earlier in the episode Jane mentions the dangers of sleeping on one's back after taking heroin, just to make sure the audience makes the connection.

So my question is: Should I watch Better Call Saul? If so, should I watch it now, or wait till the series is done and binge-watch it then? Or would you rather wait until the series is done to deliver a verdict on it?

Totally unrelated question: Should I watch The Americans?

6:28 PM, August 08, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Jane's death, though it only happened near the end of the second season, was still the most powerful moment in the series. Doesn't the episode also make a point of having Walt prop his baby daughter on her side when she sleeps?

I believe the original version of the script had Walt taking more active measures to kill Jane, but they pulled back, realizing Walt wasn't in that place yet. (He'd be there soon enough.)

When I re-watched BB episodes, the funny thing was it was much harder to watch family fights than cold-blooded killing among cops and gangsters.

Should you watch Better Call Saul? Yes, unless you're really pressed for time. For all my complaints--the biggest being they're taking way too long to turn Jimmy into Saul--the show still has some of the smart writing that distinguished Breaking Bad. I don't know how much longer the show will be on, or if they've got a distinct endpoint--certainly they've got to turn Jimmy completely into Saul, but is that the end, or are there more adventures after that? Then there's Saul as the Cinnabon manager in the future--will they wrap that up somehow, or will it be a starting place for more stories?

As for The Americans, I've heard good things about it, but never watched it. Someday, if I ever have the time, I'll probably check it out. I think it was on for six seasons, so it might take a while.

8:17 PM, August 08, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I agree about the family dynamics. I think that Skyler is perhaps the most complex person in the story.

Maybe my biggest worry about Better Call Saul is that it could undermine some of the BB mystery -- especially if the rumors are true that Walter White will someday show up in BCS. If he does, I worry that the writers might decide to fill in some of the "gaps". But BB is such a good show that the gaps are best left as such. For example, in BB season two, Walt and Gretchen meet for lunch and we learn that each of them has completely different recollections of their breakup. This was never explained, and it worked very well. I would hate for a BB prequel to show us the actual Walt/Gretchen history to "fill in" that gap!

12:50 AM, August 10, 2018  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Origin material after the fact is often disappointing. Even in Breaking Bad when they'd show you past events to "explain" character or plot, more than once it was done in a way that I felt undermined what they'd established (but it's their show, so they get to decide).

I like how they only hinted at the whole Walt-Gretchen-Elliott thing (though there was one scene where they showed Walt and Gretchen many years ago). We can't be sure what happened, though I tend to trust Gretchen more than Walt--they see things differently, but we know Walt has anger issues which probably blew things up. We do know he was a hotshot scientist with a great future, but we can guess his character helped screw that up, so by the time we meet him he's a beaten-down man aware he hasn't lived up to his potential (which, of course, sets up the path he's about to take as much as his need to provide for his family once he's got a terminal disease).

Now imagine if BB had decided to show us more of that past. There's a good chance it would have been very different from what I'd imagined, and possibly quite disappointing.

Incidentally, Walt's lunch with Gretchen is one of my favorite scenes from the series. It's from the episode "Peekabo" which is best remembered as the one where Jesse becomes an enforcer and goes into the house with the drug-addicted couple and their kid--but I consider the lunch the highlight. And, even though Walt is by normal standards quite rude to Gretchen, I can understand that anger. (It comes as much out of disappointment and envy and anything else. Not that I always agree with Walts actions regarding Gretchen and Elliott. Walt is pretty tough on them in their final meetings, and many enjoyed it--the underdog finally sticking it to the rich kids. But they didn't deserve it, and what Walt did was a horrible thing.)

1:41 AM, August 10, 2018  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Your last point touches on how to evaluate the finale in general. My view is that Gilligan took the easy way out with the finale. "Sold out" might be too strong a statement, but the whole point of BB was that Walt was becoming a villain, and even though one might sympathize with certain things that drove his journey, we weren't supposed to actually support him.

In the finale he does three things that are GOOD: he has a nice conversation with his wife, he admits "I did it for me," and he decides not to kill Jesse. That's a pretty darn low bar for "good"! Meanwhile, he terrorizes Elliott and Gretchen, he kills Todd and his uncle and their gang (no great loss), and he kills Lydia (who certainly has done awful things, but almost every one of her wicked deeds was performed as Walt's accomplice). And his unjustified murderous rage at Jesse doesn't abate until he realizes that Jesse has been horrifically tortured for many months. Walt gets to die with a smile in his beloved chemistry setting.

I can see three interpretations, two of which are awful:

(1) Vince Gilligan, who previously had said the entire show was a reaction to the fact that Idi Amin died peacefully in his sleep, tried for four years to convince viewers that Walt was a badguy. But he failed. So he figured "Give them what they want," and wrote a finale that gives Walt a relatively happy send-off. (Yes, Walt dies. But every aspect of his final plan worked perfectly -- and to Walt, that is the very definition of victory.)

(2) Gilligan is being very subtle: Like C.S. Lewis and at least one Twilight Zone episode, he is telling the viewer that evil people are punished by having all their wishes come true, giving them the heaven they want -- which actually turns out to be their own private hell.

(3) At the beginning of the episode, Walt breaks into a frozen car and trie to start it. It won't start, and he lays his head down on the steering wheel. At that point, the keys magically drop in his lap. That is a subtle way of telling the viewer that Walt died in the car, and everything from the magic keys onward is his dying hallucination.

2:33 PM, August 10, 2018  

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