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Tag Archives: Episode Reviews
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.
Realism is always going to be a tricky needle to thread for The Walking Dead. On the one hand, a big part of the show’s claim to fame is the way it takes the well-worn idea of the zombie apocalypse and plays it seriously, sometimes overly seriously. That’s in its DNA. On the other hand, it’s also a show where corpses come back to life, civilians can use weapons like pros with minimal training, and the undead recur in some new obstacle course-like form on a weekly basis. The very premise of the show means that The Walking Dead can’t exactly be as down-to-earth or grounded as its naturalistic aesthetic might suggest, and that’s simply part of the deal.
But sometimes, the series just pushes things too far. The Junkyardigans (my name for the collective that congregates at the dump, at least until an official one is offered) read as silly from the word go. Our heroes have run into plenty of colorful groups before — The Terminites, The Wolves, and the dibs-based biker gang come to mind — but they tend to read as pulpy rather than cheesy. It’s a fine distinction, to be sure, but the difference is that as wild as those groups could seem at times, their outsized characteristics seemed to fit into a certain exaggerated, over the top quality that’s present throughout the series. The Walking Dead isn’t just real; it’s hyper-real, and its more extreme villains and antagonists fit well enough within that atmosphere.
The Simpsons: Reinvention, Acceptance, and Why “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″ Is One of the Show’s Greatest Episodes
When The Simpsons parodied The Great Gatsby this season, it tapped into one of the novel’s major themes — the uniquely American desire for reinvention. For centuries, people have come to the United States, or sought unspoiled frontiers within it, in the hope that new surroundings would allow them to become new people. Regardless of whether that’s an attainable goal or a false fantasy, the impulse to start anew is buried deep within the American psyche.
But it’s also within an eight-year-old girl struggling to overcome her innate nerdiness and make a few friends. As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, “Summer of 4 ft. 2,” is one of the series’s best and most resonant episodes because it captures that universal desire to remake ourselves, and yet realizes that in the personal, affecting tones of a lonely kid with the simple want of friendship. Even in a family full of unusual people, Lisa Simpson is a misfit, and that makes her quest for her first real friend(…ship bracelet) an undeniably poignant one.
The Walking Dead is a frustrating show for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that even in an episode like this — one filled to the brim with dull speechifying, blatant wheel-spinning, and lame parables — there’s one or two moments of brilliance that make it hard to just give up on this ever-mercurial series. Even when the show is stalling for time, serving up weak dialogue, or leaning into its weakest tendencies, it sprinkles in a couple of great bits that manage to rise above the rest of the flotsam.
This week, it’s the zombie cheese slicer and Rick’s smile, two dissimilar but connected moments that demonstrate what The Walking Dead is capable of when it’s not tripping over its own bad lines and plot contrivances. Such faults are out in full force in “Rock in the Road,” an episode that sees Rick and the gang at The Hilltop and The Kingdom in an effort to rally forces sufficient to take on The Saviors. The forging of that coalition is inevitable, and the arguments over whether to unite and fight or cling to the status quo have already been turned over by dozens of people dozens of times, which leaves “Rock” with only the thrilling walker-slaying sequence and a brief but clever way to convey Rick’s state of mind to recommend it.