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Tag Archives: Episode Reviews
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.
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.
There’s something perfect about the much-awaited third season of Rick and Morty debuting, without warning, on April Fool’s Day, even after Adult Swim had announced the show would not return until July. It fits with the series’ “pull the rug out from under you” spirit. But it also fits the specific episode that kicks off the season. The surprise debut is a way of toying with the show’s devotees, just as “The Rickshank Rickdemption” constantly finds ways to play with the audience’s expectations: about how Rick will escape from prison, about his backstory, and most importantly, about whether he is a good person in pain or merely a self-absorbed bastard.
At its best, Rick and Morty is the sum total of these things. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the show combines off-the-wall, imaginative sci-fi action with dark, introspective character moments, and if “Rickdemption” is any indication, there’s plenty more of each to come. The bits of thrilling sci-fi weirdness — from Inception-like journeys into the mind to leapfrogging consciousness transfers, to neon-hued battles between disparate forces across space — were colorful and inventive from start to finish. There are few shows on television with such a commitment to mind-bending storytelling and madcap left turns all over like Rick and Morty.
But what elevates the episode is how it serves as the perfect follow-up to the question the show asked in its Season 2 finale: What motivates Rick Sanchez? Is he a hero, as Summer thinks, some sort of demon or crazy god, like Morty thinks, or is he someone whose motivations are so opaque and arbitrary that he more or less defies that sort of binary characterization?
Fault is a slippery concept. It’s bundled up with intentions, results, and a host of other complicating factors, all of which affect whom we blame and whom we absolve when things go badly. Some people wrong us without meaning to. Others intend to hurt us but inadvertently give us exactly what we need. And some people simply twist in the wind, unsure or unaware of the damage they do to others. How we credit and blame people for their actions and inaction says as much about who we are as it does about the person we’re judging.
But how we move past those assessments of fault, whether we’re blaming others or blaming ourselves, can be just as telling. It matters how we try to overcome, or avoid, the bad blood, hurt feelings, and guilt. In “The Other Side,” Daryl blames himself, Gregory bends over backwards to avoid any perception of fault, and Sasha and Rosita hash out their awkward, shared part in Abraham’s life and death, each trying to figure out where they fit into this intricate ethical hierarchy.
The natural inclination in an episode like this one is to go big, to make the proceedings grand and explosive and exciting. It’s the Original Trilogy meeting the Prequel Trilogy meeting Star Wars Rebels, and so the powers that be could be forgiven for turning the whole thing into an epic confrontation, full of piss and vinegar and force-aided fireworks.
Instead, “Twin Suns” is a quieter, deliberate, almost melancholy episode. That’s a bold choice and one that pays off. Instead of a tribute to the pulpy thrills of the old serials that inspired George Lucas, the episode feels like an homage to the more languid tragedies in the Akira Kurosawa Samurai movies that also influenced him. The result is one of Rebels’s most meditative, understated episodes, that uses that ruminative tone to do justice to the major figures it invokes.
One of the questions The Walking Dead has interrogated from the very beginning is whether the end of the world and the ensuing social breakdown changes people, or whether it just reveals who they truly are. The show has often played around with the idea that the end of civilization and the lack of rules and order that otherwise keep people in line can forces those caught up in the unrest to become different in order to survive. But it also suggests that for others, the fall of society just gives them license to be who they were the whole time.
The centrality of that question in “Hostiles and Calamities” fuels the episode, a slower character piece, but also uses it to pay subtle tribute The Walking Dead’s network-mate. Breaking Bad. Fans of Vince Gilligan’s seminal drama know the significance of a character hanging onto a cigarette with a loved one’s lipstick still on it. We’re familiar with the notion of a former science teacher enjoying the spoils of war, formulating poisons, puffing himself up, and taking to his new role a little too easily. Most of all, Breaking Bad-watchers can appreciate the exploration of whether changed circumstances may change a person or if they simply let the beast out of the cage.