Wanting to be the good guy: a review of “Better Call Saul” Season 2.

Spoilers ahead, you are advised not to read if you have not finished season 1 (but it’s safe to read if you have not finished season 2).

At the end of Season 1, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) had vowed that he was “never going to let it (wanting to be the good guy, or doing the right thing”) stop him again, from carving his slice of the American dream.

He had just been betrayed by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) in breathtaking fashion; his dreams of family loyalty and doing right by his brother, a respectable law position and escaping from his past, were all destroyed by Chuck’s insisting to his partner in law Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) that Jimmy not join the firm, as Jimmy practising law would be like “a chimp with a machine gun.”

But Kim, wonderful Kim (Rhea Seehorn), secures Jimmy a shot at another firm which will work with Hamlin McGill or the OAP fraud that Jimmy exposes in season 1.

At close of season 1 it was clear that Jimmy was rejecting the offer to not be held back in becoming what he wants to be by any means necessary.  From now on he will let no-one tell him that the ends do not justify the means. But in episode 1 there’s a huge reversal; Jimmy takes up the chance at another shot of doing things respectably.  He attempts to woo Kim into a more serious relationship.  But his “slippin’ Jimmy” tricks of the trade can’t be repressed.  Whether introducing Kim into the dark arts of quick bar room cons, or performing sleights of hands in his law practice that would get him disbarred if not prosecuted, his rouge self demands a platform.

Eventually the marriage between Jimmy and a respectable law firm proves to be a non-starter, and Jimmy strikes out in a new relationship with Kim to make it big, prepared to sabotage his brother after last season’s big betrayal.

Meanwhile, ex-cop Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks) continues to try and protect and provide for his daughter and grand-daughter.  But his ways have become entangled with Drug Lord Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), here in his pre-Breaking Bad wheelchair days.  He can walk and talk here, and he is highly dangerous.  Ermentraut tries to get one better on him, without any-one getting hurt.  But BB’s law of unintended consequences is making itself felt much more than in season 1 here, and there is a nasty sting in the tale.

The cast are excellent as they were last season.  Bob Odenkirk here tones down the rapid verbal patter and dancing hands.  It’s a more muted, sober Jimmy here, although one prone to the same terrible errors of judgement, deliberately bad or not.  Kim Wexler’s character develops to someone more determined to be successful in their own terms and break through the glass ceiling, even if it means leaving the security of the firm she knows.  She is happy to take part in Jimmy’s bar room cons as a way of letting off steam when wronged by Howard, maybe as a way of kicking back at the male ordered rule-book he represents.  But she is horrified at his malpractice as a lawyer.  Jonathan Banks is excellent again, conveying so much in a twitch of the corner of the mouth.  He’s a fixer and a problem solver whose skills would not shame the most skilled echelons of the CIA’s ‘black-op’s” department.  There is little interaction between him and Jimmy this season, as their stories of trying to out-run and out-think the demons of their past and present run parallel.  I have a feeling they may converge in the world of Gustavo Fring next season.  Maybe, maybe not.

Michael McKean’s Chuck is one of the shows most complex and intriguing characters.  I think we are meant to hate him for his betrayal of his bother.  And yet, we are given a lot of information, related by the brothers or told in flash-back, of how Chuck struggled with his brother’s slippery ways through childhood and beyond, and how he has a knowledge of his brother that perhaps validates his machine-gun toting simian assessment.  Perhaps Chuck could do more to redeem Jimmy and set him up in practice, but perhaps he honestly feels the impossibility of it, and maybe so do we.  Chuck’s illness, his electro-magnetic sensitivity that drives him to wrap himself in a foil blanket, sit in a darkened house and insist that his colleagues leave their mobile phones at the door, gives him his own vulnerability.  By the season finale, Chuck and Jimmy are again in confrontation, there’s been betrayal and counter-betrayal, and it is going to get real dirty real quick.

All this, the memorable minor characters, the quality of the writing, the use of location (Albuquerque is a character in itself) continues the quality of season 1 and makes this so much more than a “spot the BB character or reference” show.  That said, I think it really needs to be enjoyed as a companion piece to BB and not as a stand-alone.  It has similar themes although the scale is smaller.  There are no mid-air collisions, no desert shoot outs or prison massacres here.  It’s more of a chamber-piece than that 5 season behemoth.

And yet, I felt this the weakest of the 2 seasons.  I felt this because it does not build on the momentum of season 1 finale.  Instead it rewinds and tells a lot of the character development of season 1 again.  It seemed Jimmy was scorning and rejecting a respectable law job to build his own practice through un-restrained mischief and larceny.  Instead he unexpectedly has another go at the respectable route, using the odd dodgy trick en-route.  All this makes it feel a frustrating and more padded watch.

But, it still demands your loyalty and there are more than enough hooks to get us back for season 3.





S’all good, man. A review of “Better Call Saul” Season 1

“Breaking Bad” was of course a seismic tv event that spoke eloquently and dramatically over 5 seasons on the power of consequences and moral choices.

Bob Odenkirk’s ‘Saul Goodman’ was a fan favourite, appearing in season 2 with his brand of fast talking ‘ass out of fire’ recovery, through a capacity for moral flexibility and a compendium like knowledge of law by loophole.

Here, in this spin off origin story, we begin to chart how struggling newly qualified lawyer Jimmy McGill balances trying to eke a living out of pro-Bono work and looking out for his brother Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), who appears to have suffered a break-down that has left him convinced that he is vulnerable to electrical waves, and so he sits in a powerless house lit by candles, shrouded in a foil blanket and having to to have his ice cooler topped up with fresh food.  Chuck is on an extended leave of absence from the law firm of which he is one half of the partnership of ‘Hamlin McGill.’ The other, Howard, Jimmy suspects of trying to buy his brother off cheaply.

Meanwhile, another BB fan favourite Mike Ehmantraut (Jonathan Banks) also has his prologue told in parallel.  We find out, in a powerful episode, how his career in the Police force came to an explosive and tragic end.  We see him struggling to support his daughter and granddaughter, and find his way to do this when the best he can do by way of work is as a car park attendant, watching the gate as Cerebrus guards Hell.  It’s here that Jimmy meets him, parking his ‘seen better days’ vehicle to visit the offices of Hamlin McGill.

Their stories converge when Jimmy is assigned to help the Kettlemans, middle class suburbanites and career embezzlers.

Jimmy’s quest is to build his practice, so that he can move out of a rented closet and stop pretending to be his secretary whenever someone calls, redeem and re-establish his brother in his partnership, and redeem his own past, which has seen him landed in jail for con related pranks gone wrong.  Odendirk’s performance is magnetic, and although we know the end of his ultimate trajectory, there is still incredible humanity and pathos in this struggling Everyman, doing his pro-Bono work, trying to heed his brother’s lectures in moral probity and professional ethics.  With his rapid quick talking wit and accompanying rapid hand gestures, all nervous energy and frantic pin balling intelligence, we root for him and warm to him.  He’s grounded and helped in the series by one of the warmer and more consistent characters by way of integrity and salt of the earth charm, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).  She’s a solicitor who is vulnerable to Howard Hamlin’s ruthless machinations and must work doubly hard not to be relegated to the basement.

Sub plots burn on, creating swerves and obstacles for our quick thinking lawyer.  For example, BB’s Drug-Lord Tuco has a messy and violent encounter with Jimmy and 2 skateboarding slackers who tried to embroil him in a road-accident scam.  Jimmy must use all his fast talking persuasive skills to influence Tuco away from the murder of said slackers if not himself.  This adventure embroils his path with Tuco apprentice Nacho, and it’s here we see real shadows of the world of Saul Goodman.

The narrative leads to a betrayal that is truly Shakespearean in its scope and effect on Jimmy’s destiny.  It combines the drama of boardroom and family, and it is compelling, powerful, unforgettable stuff.  As the season finale closes we feel that Jimmy is now well and truly starting to walk in the shoes of Saul Goodman.

Some thoughts on Breaking Bad

There is so much this post doesn’t mention, because in “Breaking Bad” there is so much to talk about and so much worthy of respect.  But this is a quick overview, an attempt to sum up some key thoughts and impressions of mine on the show.

Five seasons about a man living the American Dream in a very dark way.  In its totality it is epic, like some unwritten great American novel brought to the screen.

Walter White, in season one, learns he has lung cancer and, raging against the dying of his light, puts his chemistry teaching skills to what he hopes is a profitable use in looking after his family when he is gone.  With ex student and twenty something slacker Jesse as his reluctant apprentice, he sets about ‘cooking’ crystal meth.  As he reasserts himself against a society stacked against him his virility and sense of self returns.  his poor wife, Skyler, finds herself subjected to sudden random, rough, sex acts as a symptom of this.

Hank, his DEA brother in law, wonders where this new strain of unusually pure blue crystal meth is coming from, and so begins a game of cat and mouse that last over five seasons.

Over these seasons Walter gets more enmeshed in the world of meth cooking and becomes more powerful, and his bosses bigger and more frightening, such as the maniacal Tuco and the fried chicken franchise owning Gustav Fring, urbane, cool headed, ruthless, efficient, and ‘hiding in plain site.’  Hank eventually finds himself at war with Gustav by season four, and by season five, has become the biggest monster of all, the ultimate drug King-Pin “Heisenberg”.

One of the most striking and effective themes in the series is causality.  The ripples from the actions of one man spreading in ever increasing destructive circles, bringing planes down from the sky, destroying lives, families, and darkening societies and communities.    Although I am sure there are inconsistencies, and I’ll come to one that has troubled me in a moment, it’s impressive how a seemingly casual character or action early on becomes of immense importance much later on.  Nothing seems to be forgotten.  We see links where we never dreamed there were, breathtaking causal chains.

The acting, production values, and dialogue are all of course cracking.  The haunting title theme, the eclectic soundtrack, like a meth fuelled browse through Spotify, all make for an unforgettable whole.  So what are the problems?

One is the credulity straining nature of Walter’s descent as he continues to cook and grow his empire, seemingly to ensure his family are financially secure for ever.  But we are meant to believe the man has latent decency and yet nothing makes him stop, when he really could stop.  He knows he has directly and indirectly caused such atrocity and tragedy including airline disaster, child murder, and the worst kinds of betrayals.  His reasons for carrying on don’t seem proportionate, don’t seem to balance the scales of our credulity enough.

And one plot hole or inconsistency you may be able to help me with, if you can please use the comments to this post.  End of season four, I think, the boy Brock has recovered from suspected ricin poisoning, the Doctors say it was in fact likely to have been caused by berries from a plant called ‘Lilly of the Valley.” Cut to a plant in Walter’s yard.  Then season five there’s pivotal moment where Jesse realises that huckster lawyer, Saul Goodman, on Walter’s bidding, lifted a ricin cigarette from his pocket and then poisoned Brock to influence Jesse to whack Gustav.  But what happened to the Doctor’s diagnosing Lilly of the Valley?

And the final episode bloodbath is noisy and effective but as ultimate pay-off, it should have been more complex than a machine gun gadget and an unholy hail of bullets.

But I will not forget this sprawling monster of a show.  And yes, I could start again at season episode one, but Better Call Saul is also out there…