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Category Archives: Television
“Dragonstone” is a homecoming. For Game of Thrones, that means something very different than for the standard alma mater. In Westeros, it means throne rooms, dead bodies, and lush locales in which to do the same thing we do every season — try to take over the world. But the show starts its seventh season with an episode about being away, coming back home, and reflecting on what’s changed, within and without, since you left.
Game of Thrones, as a series, franchise, and brand, is always going to stand in the shadow of The Red Wedding. More than Ned’s beheading, more than Joffrey’s demise, more than the battles of Blackwater Bay or The Wall or Hardhome or the bastards, the Red Wedding is the event that defined the series in the popular consciousness. For a long time, it felt like everything in the show up to that point had been building to that moment, and everything that came after was a consequence of it. The third season in particular was a focal point of the larger story Game of Thrones show was telling, with that mortal matrimony as its zenith.
Season 6 of Game of Thrones has felt more like a sequel to Season 3 than an extension of the work that the show did in Seasons 4 and 5. It is the season of resurrection, one where we’ve witnessed the returns (and, just as often, the demises) of those we knew long ago: The Brotherhood Without Banners, The Blackfish, Osha and Rickon, Benjen Stark, Walder Frey, and more. Whether it’s the freedom that comes from no longer being constrained by George R. R. Martin’s novels, or the knowledge that the end is nigh, Game of Thrones spent much of its sixth year tying off loose ends that been dangling for years, often in a characteristically lethal fashion.
The culmination of that spirit comes in “The Winds of Winter,” a season finale of beginnings and endings. It is the close of one epoch of the show — the one which spun out from the Red Wedding, scattered our heroes across oceans, and brought more and more characters into the fold — and the beginning of another. The monarchs from the War of the Five Kings are dead. Winter is here. And now it’s the future that’s coming.
If you graphed Walter White’s transition from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth-dealing kingpin, there would be a few bumps here and there, but the line would mostly run straight. Breaking Bad always gave him these inciting events, these decision points, that would push him further and further toward becoming Heisenberg.
But the line that runs between Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman isn’t that neat or that clear. It’s more of a series of deepening, parabolic arcs. Time and again, Jimmy stumbles close to the brink of giving in, of becoming the shyster who runs cheesy ads on daytime television and joins up with criminals. But time and again, he pulls back.
There is no show on television that threads the needle between symbolism and literalism better than Better Call Saul. A major part of the show’s success (and that of its predecessor) comes from the fact that the series works equally well as a well-told story as it does a commentary on human nature and what relationships with rough-edged individuals do to us. No character represents that balance better than Kim Wexler.
The scene with her close scrape near the Texas-New Mexico border works well as plot-focused foreshadowing. When her car gets stuck in the dirt, there is so much happening in Kim’s life — yet another tight deadline taken on to make up for Jimmy’s probable financial shortfall — that she tries to take care of the immediate problem all by herself. She find a nearby board, heaves and pushes on the car until it budges, and panics when it starts heading toward a nearby oil derrick.
Only racing into the driver’s seat and slamming on the brakes allows her to avoid a grisly wreck at the last second. The scene functions as a sign that Kim is juggling too many balls, that she’s letting small but important details slip or threaten to overwhelm her (with her car as a particular conduit for this idea) in a way that comes back to bite her later. It’s an indication Kim is trying to take on too much by herself and coming all too close to paying the price for it.
The opening of “Slip” is a little more direct than episodes of Better Call Saul usually are when filling in some gaps Jimmy’s backstory and philosophy. When Marco presses Jimmy about his parents’ shop, about how they worked hard and everyone liked them, Jimmy admits that’s true, but questions the value of it. He protests that it got them nowhere; he characterizes his own dad as a sucker, and he takes the coin his father once planned to put in the poor box for use in yet another scam.
With that, Jimmy’s perspective on life becomes a little clearer, aligning with the prior flashback to his parents’ store. Papa McGill was someone who refused to bend the rules even a little, who wouldn’t take so much as a moderately-valuable coin for himself, let alone sell cigarettes to the kids from the local religious school to make ends meet. In Jimmy’s eyes, that approach got him nowhere. It’s a little too tidy and pat to account for Jimmy’s actions in the present day, but the man himself sums it up nicely — Papa McGill wasn’t willing to “do what he had to do,” and Jimmy assuredly is.
That’s the thrust of “Slip,” which is as much of an ensemble piece as any episode of Better Call Saul so far. Not only Jimmy, but also Mike, Chuck, Kim, and Nacho, are each willing to go the extra mile, to do the difficult or painful thing, not because they wish to or because it’s easy, but because each believe it’s what they simply need to do to go on. It’s what unites these disparate individuals and their very different challenges here — each of them strains a bit more, goes a little farther, in the name of biting the bullet and doing what needs doing.
One of the best qualities of The Sopranos was how it would frequently depict a character having a small but meaningful interaction with another person, and then show how that moment could change their emotional state or plant some idea in their head that would stick with them throughout the episode. Often, the character would then take out those feelings on someone entirely removed from the original incident. It was part of the show’s deft emotional calculus, that captured the way thoughts and feelings flit around in the background of one’s mind, popping up at unexpected times or in surprising ways.
As much as the aptly titled “Expenses” is devoted to the tough financial situation Jimmy McGill finds himself in while suspended from the practice of law, it’s also devoted to that same idea — that one interaction, one exchange with another person, can reframe how you feel about someone or something, in a way that carries with you and cannot be easily erased.
Archer is an outrageous show, full of spy-fueled action, liquor-fueled shenanigans, and libido-fueled insanity, on top of the show’s tightly-written dialogue and surprisingly deep character work. But even in such an over-the-top series, Pam Poovey, the drift-racing, hard-charging, HR director-turned-field agent manages to stand out.
Amber Nash is the award-winning actress who’s brought Pam to life over the last eight seasons of the show. I had the pleasure of chatting with Amber about the new direction Pam’s taken in the noir-inspired Archer: Dreamland, her inspirations and influences, and what the future holds for the inimitable Ms. Poovey.
There’s a sense in “Off Brand” that many of Better Call Saul’s major figures have not been doing the things they’d really like to. The demands of finances, family, and the intersection of the two have kept the likes of Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, and Nacho reluctant or bitter or scarred by the efforts each has been immersed in over the past couple seasons. But for each of them, there is now something pushing them, almost against their will, to move closer to new activities, to different lives, that might be better for their souls.
One of the ways you can tell a show is great, not just good, is if it’s engrossing even when there’s nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy happening. It’s easy to be compelled by Better Call Saul when it’s featuring McGill-on-McGill courtroom combat, or deep into a bit of Mike’s trap-setting, or when another little Breaking Bad easter egg pops up. But the mark of a great show is the ability to be just as transfixing, just as mesmerizing, with something as plain as a man having dinner with his ex-wife, each moment laden with hopes and expectations, with little happening beyond a conversation between old friends.
That flashback to a time when Jimmy and Chuck were working in concert and not against one another isn’t simply a flight of fancy to contrast their antagonism later in the episode, or a mere pleasing vignette from the early onset of Chuck’s condition. It’s a character study, a set of scenes that never say anything explicitly about Chuck McGill, but which tell the audience so much about who he is, how he reacts to obstacles and difficulties, and quietly set up the bigger fireworks at the end of the episode.