Tag Archives: Vince Gilligan

The Maturing — and Inevitable Breaking Bad Arc — of Better Call Saul

 

Pity poor James McGill.

He’s got a brilliant, condescending older brother who undermines his career dreams. He’s got such a penchant for scoundrels  he becomes known as ‘Slippin’ Jimmy’ in the neighborhood for his staged injuries. He has the Albuquerque branch of the Mexican drug cartel miffed.

And now he has to carry on the legacy of one of the greatest television shows of all-time, Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul, which launched its second season this month, stands as a marked improvement over its smart-but-sporadic freshman year. Two episodes in, the series already has recovered some of the dark humor and violent tension that defined Vince Gilligan’s landmark preceding show.

Saul Goodman (Jimmy changed his name to match his motto: ‘S’all good, man.’) now has a love interest. A company  car and his own digs. He’s even smoothing out the relationship with soon-to-be hired gun Mike Ehrmantraut. mike n saul

Of course, that puts Saul — and creators Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould — in something of a pickle. As the chronological predecessor to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul must, eventually, return its hero to the place we first saw him: In Breaking Bad climes, as a pretty sleazy Yellow Pages injury attorney.

Consider how Saul was first described by Jesse Pinkman in Season 2, Episode 8 of Breaking Bad: When you’re up against the wall, “you don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”

And while he was great comic relief, Saul also was, in truth, a racist  and chauvinist. He openly propositioned his secretary Francesca (“You’re killing me with that booty”) and confided in Walter the reason he changed his name: “My real name’s McGill. The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”

The Breaking Bad Saul even sassed the feds. In the same episode, he trades barbs with DEA macho man Hank Schrader, who offered an unsolicited review of Saul’s daytime TV commercials. “I’ve seen better acting in an epileptic whorehouse,” Hank taunted.

hank n saul

“Is that the one your mom works at?” Saul snapped back. “She still offering the two-for-one discount?” Saul is decidedly gentler in his own series, and Gilligan and Gould  would appear to have wedged themselves into a creative corner.

But Gilligan takes to pickles like a kosher dill. He is the first to admit he likes to write his characters into near-inescapable peril — then have them pull Houdini-esque escapes. Gilligan said he knew, for instance, that he wanted to end Season 2 of Breaking Bad with a plane crash, even though the series had been as landlocked as a dehydrated scorpion. So he wrote the season finale first, then retrofitted the story arc to include an airline disaster.

Shades of those darker grays are surfacing in Saul. Just as Walt slowly circled the drain into villainy in Breaking Bad, Saul appears headed for a fate that will change his law-office nickname from Charlie Hustle to Charlie Hustler. Just how dark a fate? In Gilligan’s hands, you’re almost scared to ask.

Still, Saul deserves credit for understatedly fixing what Hollywood movie studios still can’t: creating tension in a prequel. There’s a certain lack of suspense in an opening chapter: After all, your hero has to survive an origins story if chapter two is already written (and a hit). Gilligan and Gould circumvented that by making Better Caul Saul both flashback and prequel, leaving us to fret over his ultimate fate.

Of course, Saul the man still has a ways to go before he becomes a lovable lowlife, just as Saul the show faces its own challenges turning sinister: Mike continues to look older than he did in the “sequel” show, and capturing any of Breaking Bad‘s bleak lightning in a bottle would seem an impossible appeal.

But in the courtroom of television drama, even a shadow of Breaking Bad is a convincing argument. And in Gilligan’s and Gould’s hands, s’all good.

 

 

 

 

 

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Say My Name (Four Times)

Technically, this story contains spoilers to a show some unfortunate souls have yet to see. If so, read no further. However, in this Twiteration, any plot point not revealed 30 minutes after a show airs constitutes less a ‘spoiler’ than an ‘archaeological find.’

 

First, a firm and earnest caveat: I am perhaps the planet’s most ardent fan of Breaking Bad, and it remains my favorite show of all time (though Mad Men, considering its subject matter, may be the greatest). So I realize this is blue meth heresy.

But the fifth and final season pales in comparison to the first four, and, however slightly, tarnishes the show’s legacy.

That’s not to say the fifth season wasn’t awash in genius. Todd and “Ozymandias” should take their rightful place as two brilliant offspring of their (crystal) Glass parents. “Ozymandias” may be the most tense, melancholy and heartbreaking 42 minutes of television.

But consider the first four seasons as a whole: It was unique in that it a) Turned middle class rage inside out and b) Paid attention to the grisly, pesky details of death.

Walt was the ultimate nerd anti-hero. And who was the show’s greatest villain? Fast food manager Gus. Our relatable hero? Jesse, a skinny junkie who sucks at math. It took three episodes (its first shows) to dispose of two bodies, blasphemy for a crime drama.

And remember: Vince Gilligan and writers weren’t sure whether the show would be picked up for a fifth season, so he wrote the fourth-season finale, “Face Off,” as a prospective show-ender.

And what an ending it was! Never has a book seen a more elaborate final chapter. Walt, ever the chemist, luring Gus into one more bump from the one dope he could not resist: vengeance. Gus and Tio’s final, wordless exchange. That Walt simply provided users the tools of their destruction (much like his meth to junkies) proved a perfect, explosive finish, as did the upbeat-yet-bittersweet postscript of the poisonous depths Walt was willing to plumb.

But overdue popularity made a fifth season (and its drawn-out cash-in over two years) inevitable.

And let’s be honest: The fifth season didn’t match the previous in subtle decadence.

For one, the fifth season finale is terribly derivative of the fourth: Jesse, imprisoned in a lab, forced to cook for evil dealers while an armed Walt with uncertain motives arrives for the showdown.

The fifth-season nemeses, as well, lacked that unexpected villainy. Aside from Todd and Lydia, our evil-doers are white supremacists with prison records and swastikas tattooed on their necks. Not hard to hate — or spot, in a run-of-the-mill crime story. Our fifth season cliffhanger is a dying killer on the lam with nothing left to lose. It can turn out only one way.

And to have Walt’s cancer return was a misstep. It made his death a certainty and his life a waste. Walt needed to die from the life he’d chosen (even if it’s by Jesse’s or Skyler’s hand), not from the genes he inherited. His dramatic turn on Jesse, from protector to predator, strayed the what were always the show’s true addictions: Jesse’s need for a father fix; Walt’s high from dealing it.

Of course, this is to critique a Monet. That the show invited such fine-toothing, debate and dispute is to testify to its greatness.

And yes, I still know your name. You’re that high school chemistry teacher. The one with the doting-but-watchful pregnant wife and the high school son with Cerebral palsy that you’re desperately trying to still impress.

You’re Heisenberg.

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