TV Review – Better Call Saul Season Five

Better Call Saul Season Five (AMC)
Written by Peter Gould, Alison Tatlock, Ann Cherkis, Gordon Smith, Heather Marion, Thomas Schnauz, and Ariel Levine
Directed by Bronwen Hughes, Norberto Barba, Michael Morris, Gordon Smith, Jim McKay, Melissa Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, and Thomas Schnauz

Did we really think Jimmy McGill’s story was going somewhere good? If you had watched Breaking Bad, you knew he hadn’t gone down his darkest path yet. In Season Five, we’re headed there. This is when Jimmy goes that little bit further than he should have, deals with the wrong people, and seals his fate. He cannot take old friends reaching out to check in on him; it wounds his ego. But he will accept dangerous jobs from some of the worst clients he’s ever handled, which could get him killed. Kim continues to let it sink in that this man will not change; she’d be foolish to believe she could change him. Instead, she finds a way to accept who Jimmy is and still loves him despite the heartbreak he will clearly bring to her life one of these days. 

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TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 4

Better Call Saul Season Four (AMC)
Written by Peter Gould, Thomas Schanuz, Gordon Smith, Heather Marion, Ann Cherkis, Gennifer Hutchison, and Alison Tatlock
Directed by Minkie Spiro, Michelle MacLaren, Daniel Sackheim, John Shiban, Michael Morris, Andrew Stanton, Deborah Chow, Jim McKay, Vince Gilligan, and Adam Bernstein

And with the final moment of Better Call Saul Season Four, I felt the floor give out underneath me, and all of the misplaced hope I’d had about Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) went up in flames. It shouldn’t be a surprise, though. This is a prequel series, and I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I know who Jimmy becomes, yet Peter Gould and his collaborators have created a show that exists in such a sphere that, despite knowing Saul Goodman was inevitable, I was in no way prepared to see what he did. The way Kim’s (Rhea Seehorn) smile drops, the way you know the truth of who this man is revealed so nakedly to her. Jimmy will never be the man she wants him to be, the man she imagines in her head; he’s lost in a perspective that has him seeing everyone he meets as a potential mark or someone higher on the food chain than him. Like so many arrogant, short-sighted men in the United States, he failed to learn anything, to gain a better understanding of his place in the world, or see how much the woman standing in front of him is in love with & devoted to him. Jimmy deserves to lose everything now. We’re going to be talking spoilers, so be forewarned.

For some stupid reason, I thought Jimmy would eventually open up to Kim and finally grieve over the death of Chuck. I should have known better. Throughout the season, Kim makes continual efforts to be there to listen if Jimmy needs it, but she also offers up the idea of therapy or a grief counselor. He just won’t do it, never overtly saying he’s against it but weakly assuring Kim that Jimmy will take a look when he finds the time. Kim is most worried about the legitimate guilt Jimmy would have to feel over his brother’s passing, a suicide caused by Jimmy’s complete ruination of Chuck’s legal reputation. While Jimmy didn’t set the house on fire, it wouldn’t have happened without him. Yet, we also have to balance the fact that Chuck seemed to not be finding relief from his mental illness. Maybe suicide would have been how the elder McGill’s life ended regardless? We can’t know that, so Jimmy remains at least partly responsible.

Was Kim just a fool for believing Jimmy could end up any other way? Their relationship has always included elements of his past life as a con artist. In previous seasons, she clearly got a thrill from buttering up some out-of-towner at a hotel bar with Jimmy. The con was just to get free drinks, and while the stakes were low, she did find satisfaction in proving herself more cunning than the mark. It’s the same satisfaction she encounters as a lawyer, the ability to use her words to achieve the outcome she desires. That’s a powerful & dangerous thing to know how to do, and Kim makes a concerted effort to not abuse that skill. She thought Jimmy understood that and he could eventually be “domesticated,” but at this point, it’s clear he’s acting out. My read was that Jimmy wants to sully the Law in a way that would upset Chuck; he wants to ruin the thing that his brother loved so much in the act of immature spite.

In these reviews, I haven’t talked much about Mike (Jonathan Banks), but season four is where the character began to emerge for me. We start things out with him feeling restless. He’s on Gus Fring’s (Giancarlo Esposito) payroll, under a false position with Madrigal, and decides to turn that into a more believable front. Posing as a safety inspector, Mike convinces his new boss to let him play the part, yet Mike really is doing legitimate safety inspections. It’s as if he thinks he can make the front feel natural, then it will erase all the bad stuff he does and morally struggles with. But, of course, just like Jimmy, Mike is a character we already know from Breaking Bad, and we know how his story turns out. That foreknowledge makes every choice that causes Mike to sink deeper into the moral quagmire that will eventually destroy him. We can see every moment & chance he had to say no and back away, trying to keep whatever fragments remained of his soul. But Mike just can’t; like so many men in this show, Mike cannot stop once he starts, he’s not a rash person, but he does have a chip on his shoulder. Where Jimmy fails to learn as people he loves are lost, Mike is in the same boat, having profound guilt over his son’s death yet learning nothing of value from that loss.

In a parallel to Jimmy & Kim’s relationship, Mike develops a friendship with Werner (Rainer Bock), the lead engineer of a team of Germans brought to Arizona in secrecy to help Gus build his underground meth lab. It’s another moment of laying the groundwork for things that have to happen to keep in continuity with Breaking Bad, yet it doesn’t feel like an easter egg or something obligatory. Werner is close to Mike’s age, unlike the younger men involved in the construction project. They form a very light friendship to the point that Werner can convince Mike to let him and the other men have an evening out at a local bar, supervised.

Mike is sympathetic when Werner talks about his loving relationship with his wife and how he’s never been far from her for this long. We know Mike had a troubled marriage and wasn’t the best father. There is a part of this gruff, violent man who wants to help his new friend not feel lonely, so he sets up a phone call between the two. Yet, Mike’s softness creates the conditions for his and Werner’s friendship to end. If he had been colder & less agreeable, he wouldn’t have to do what he’s forced to in the season finale. Mike is killing a part of himself when he chooses to go with Gus’s wishes over what the human element of him is screaming out to do. The world just works in a certain way; from Mike’s point of view, he sees himself as partially autonomous. Instead, he’s someone who made an agreement with an influential person and is now responsible for doing horrible things.

This season’s third arc details the rivalry between Gus Fring and Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). The last season concluded with Hector being sent to the hospital for a stroke, and now Gus looms over his hospital bed, keeping a close eye on his rival in the cartel. I also developed a better understanding of the operations of the broader cartel. The Salamancas were brought into the fold because they are brutal enforcers, while Gus is there because he has an exacting mental acuity for brokering deals and being in a position of control regarding business. Hector is a blunt object, while Gus is a scalpel, and we’re seeing that precision wins over brute force. Well, at least in Better Call Saul, it is winning. Those familiar with the conclusion of these two’s arc in Breaking Bad know that hubris is the one thing that Gus is susceptible to.

Thematically Gus & Hector’s storyline ties into the exploration of toxic masculinity at the show’s core. Jimmy is too lost in feeling like everyone is against him, so he has to con them all first; Mike feels like the loyalty he shows to even the worst people is more critical than leaning into humanity, and these two crime bosses don’t care about anything else but destroying each other. Along the way, they cause bodies to pile up, and there’s only one we’ve yet to see the answer for their crimes by the time Breaking Bad ended. That’s why his name is in the title of the show. I hope that by season six, we get to spend some time with Jimmy as he processes how many people he knows are gone now and what that means for his future.

The fourth season’s first half is where the “weaker” episodes lie, though calling any episode of this show “weak” feels like blasphemy. The crucial moment we’re building to is a slow burn, and the writers must bring the characters to a very particular point to move forward in the final two seasons. So many pieces are put into place, like the construction of the underground lab or the introduction of Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), another essential part of the Breaking Bad pie. While these seem slightly Easter Egg-ish, I have been pleasantly surprised by how Better Call Saul hasn’t piled that on. They have to bring elements of that show at some point, and thus far, it has been done with care & attention to the characters and ensuring this show has a cohesive ongoing narrative.

I don’t think I’m stating anything revelatory when I say the strongest episodes here are the last two, “Wiedersehen” and “Winner.” The cold open is a reminder that Kim isn’t opposed to Jimmy’s scams when she has benefitted from them. In this instance, she and a client want changes made to blueprints for a new bank that have already been submitted to the proper municipal authority. She runs a scam where she wants to compare them to a new set of blueprints but involves Jimmy as an irresponsible brother who fails to keep an eye on her non-existent baby son. The civil servant working in the office is distracted long enough for the switch, so Kim’s clients can stay on their timetable. When this is compared to the final scene in the season finale and the devastation Kim feels, we understand that in this last moment, she realizes that Jimmy is partly this way because she has enabled it. She didn’t discourage him when she benefited, so can she even stop what’s coming next?

“Wiedersehen” culminates in the biggest fight we’ve ever seen between Kim and Jimmy. Hurtful truths are finally spoken that have been hanging in the air for a long time. Jimmy makes the same excuses; there’s always a reason he hasn’t grabbed the golden ring. Finally, Kim calls him out on it with a simple but devastating line, “You’re always down.” Those words are like daggers, reminding Jimmy of his bruised ego related to his social status and that he seems to thrive in full loser mode when he’s a desperate dog scavenging for a bone. And we see it’s true throughout the season as Jimmy gets a job working in a cell phone store during the year of his legal license suspension. He can’t do the 9 to 5 and falls into crime-adjacent work selling burner phones to people who are obviously up to no good. 

The season finale, “Winner,” definitely earned its title, being one of the most emotionally brutal episodes thus far. Where Saul Goodman served mainly as a character to lighten the mood in Breaking Bad, we understand the horrible truth behind the man in this episode. Once we’ve gotten to know people like Kim and Chuck, suddenly Jimmy/Saul doesn’t seem so funny anymore. The Jimmy/Kim portions of the episode focus on his efforts to get his license reinstated by leaning into the passing of Chuck. He donates a considerable amount to rename a legal reading room after his late brother and plays up his “grief.” He even cons Kim, who forgets who she’s dealing with. It’s not until his impassioned, tear-filled plea to the appeals board and his subsequent flipping of the switch in the hallway outside that Kim is left stunned in the wake of this man’s ability to crush it all down and not feel anything. 

Jimmy is Saul now, and that’s who we’ll be dealing with in the final two seasons. He pulled off his “greatest” con; he tricked the woman he loved into thinking he could feel remorse or guilt or even just be sad and process that feeling. So a clock is ticking, counting down to when Jimmy loses her too. But she already said that Jimmy’s always down. Kim was an oasis on the way to the bottom.

TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 3

Better Call Saul Season 3 (2015)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Jonathan Glatzer, Gordon Smith, Ann Cherkis, Heather Marion
Directed by Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Thomas Schnauz, Daniel Sackheim, Keith Gordon, Adam Bernstein, Minkie Spiro, Peter Gould

What does it mean to do “good”? There is so much talk about good, evil, laws, and criminals in America without any tangible examination of what these terms and their underlying concepts even mean. Season three of Better Call Saul opens with another black-and-white vignette set in Jimmy McGill’s present. He’s still working at a Nebraska Cinnabon under the alias of “Gene.” “Gene” is taking his lunch break, munching on a homemade sandwich, when he witnesses a teenage boy shoplift. The boy hides in a photo booth, and the mall security guards have no idea where the boy has gone. A beat passes. “Gene” nods towards the photobooth after making eye contact with the guards. They apprehend the boy, and he glares, knowing precisely who turned him in. The guilt suddenly washes over “Gene” as they march the boy away in handcuffs. “Gene” did what was ‘right,’ but he certainly doesn’t feel that way. Suddenly he shouts, “Don’t say anything without a lawyer present!” which garners an expletive from the guard. 

The third season of Better Call Saul centers on this question. Are the actions of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) ‘good’ and ‘lawful’ & do they have to be both. He’s positioned against older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whose crusade against his sibling reaches its zenith here. Chuck sees the world in clear absolutes. There is the LAW; anything outside of that is wrong, bad, evil, your negative pejorative here. Jimmy sees the legal profession as a malleable tool to reach desired outcomes. Jimmy’s core motivation is not money but winning. He loves going head to head and coming out the victor. Chuck would never admit this, but it is his fundamental motivation. Instead of being open about it, as his little brother has always been, Chuck couches it in a veneer of civility & order. You see the cracks when Chuck is delivered a metaphorical killing blow in the season’s third act. 

One of the biggest problems when making a prequel television series is that you risk making a static show. We know where Jimmy will end up, so how do you still deliver fresh stories showing growth when the endpoint is known? You do this by introducing new characters not present in the starting series. Chuck, Howard Hamlin, Nacho Varga, and Kim. Oh, Kim. Before watching this show, I’d seen some people refer to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as the “heart” of Better Call Saul. I had no context for that, but it stuck with me. I’m seeing that happening now, making my heart ache for future seasons. Kim is a glorious character, a perfect counterpoint to Jimmy & Chuck. They are angry little boys who use the Law as a cudgel in their personal family bitterness.

Kim is the audience surrogate more than Jimmy or Chuck, or Mike. She is in the middle. Kim is a person who wants to do good. Helping people makes her feel good. She likes the way she can use the law to help them. Yet, she acknowledges that the law’s mechanisms can harm and impede progress. Like all of us, she has personal ambitions; she wants to be known as a good lawyer in her community. Jimmy constantly tempts Kim to his side, not benevolence but mutually beneficial. Look at the Sandpiper Crossing case, where Jimmy wants plaintiffs to settle now so he can get paid quicker than waiting for the process to play out. The victims will get compensated, and so will Jimmy, but they may not get a fair deal. Chuck believes the case should play itself out regardless if the delay harms Jimmy personally. Kim benefits from Jimmy’s machinations; this results in the greatest internal conflict for her. But, ultimately, she does appreciate what he did.

That doesn’t mean she agrees with Jimmy entirely. His loss of income when his ability to practice is harmed, Kim says it’s OK to his face but then overburdens herself with finding additional clients to make up the gap. By the end of the season, Kim is in the hospital because of this and has to re-center herself to understand what really matters to her. Some of Jimmy did rub off, the fun-loving part, yet even then, she is still her own person. I didn’t think I would become this invested in Kim Wexler when I first started watching a show about the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, but here we are. Rhea Seehorn has me in awe, such a nuanced yet strong performance that results in a multi-layered character that surpasses anything I’ve seen in the Breaking Bad verse. Kim does good things and bad things, all in a realistic context. She might not become a criminal mastermind, but she will leave out a piece of evidence if she thinks it could benefit, but it is when she ultimately relents and adheres to presenting everything, even if it harms her case, that we come to love Kim. We hope she can hold onto Jimmy’s hand and keep him from going over the edge, but…we know partly how this story ends. I’m worried because Jimmy would only end up where he is now if Kim wasn’t there to pull him back.

TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 1

Better Call Saul Season 1 (AMC)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Bradley Paul, and Gordon Smith
Directed by Vince Gilligan, Michelle MacLaren, Terry McDonough, Colin Bucksey, Nicole Kassell, Adam Bernstein, and Larysa Kondracki

Justice is a joke in the United States. I was born & raised in the U.S., and it’s evident that our system of law & order is a complete joke, a hollow icon trotted out by the worst corrupt figures responsible for doing near incalculable harm to the most vulnerable people. But we give them badges, call them “Judge,” and put everything on fancy official letterhead, which legitimizes the evil. There are always pressure release valves built into any social system like this, and the establishment understands most people will not go along with the idea that the justice system is hallowed & pure. So they allow us to mock one part of it, and it works out to their advantage that way; they mock defense attorneys. I grew up seeing commercials for people like Bart Durham, downright shady ads that promised people big paydays if they went with him. These are always working-class lawyers, the big city, expensive slick ones get a bit more grandeur in their media portrayals. On the surface, Saul Goodman appeared to be one of those ambulance chasers when he appeared on Breaking Bad. With his own series spin-off, a prequel of sorts, audiences got the chance to see if there was more beneath the colorful suits & flowery language.

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