El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie Review

“Everything I think I know is just static on the radio…”

Could I have gone on happily with my life without ever having seen El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie? Considering how tightly wrapped up Breaking Bad was as a series, of course that’s true.  I’m always grateful for what’s already been given. But does a film focusing on Jesse Pinkman’s quest for freedom following Breaking Bad’s finale a necessary venture regardless?  Most people would tell you no, yet they liked or loved the movie anyway (as did I), but I’m going to go out on a limb and argue a solid “kind of, maybe, yeah” in regard to its necessity.

A little under a year ago when the film was first announced, I went into great depth listing my concerns for what I feel would help it succeed from a critical standpoint.  Avoiding these pitfalls doesn’t guarantee a brilliant movie, but it’s a template I thought would help nonetheless.  Long story, short, the bullet points were as follows:

  • No Walter White (Unless the story dictates).
  • The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.
  • Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.
  • The film needs to prove its worth.
  • Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

Going forward with this film, conceptually, was a monumental task.  The opening frame, being a signature wide and closed shot of Jesse staring across a lake at a mountain, isn’t just symbolic to the giant hurdle Jesse would have to overcome in achieving the fresh start he desires (or the chance to put things right, which Mike firmly tells him is the one thing he can never do).  It’s also a self-aware, metaphorical nod to the difficult task ahead for Vince Gilligan to land Jesse’s proper conclusion without it stepping on the toes of the former series or proving to be a pointless endeavor.  And when I say proper conclusion, I don’t mean a love letter to the fans for what they might giddily hope to see, but something of value that Vince sincerely felt he should tell.  In the series finale, Jesse’s story ended on an ambiguously conclusive note which was fitting, but it was just a note.  Not a conclusion for a character who earned the role of co-lead (regardless if the show was intended primarily for Walt) and who proved to be just as essential in light of the pawn/plot device he becomes towards the end of the show’s run in larger service to Walt’s story.  Jesse Pinkman has always been a special appendage to Breaking Bad’s journey and El Camino sets out to remind you that.

There’s no question Jesse will carry physical and psychic wounds brought on by Walt’s destructive actions for the better part of his life, so whether or not Walt made an appearance here, his spiritual presence would have inevitably hung over El Camino in a dark, ominous manner.  That said, I’m glad we got little snippets of context through news reports of who this Walter White guy is without taking any focus away from Jesse Pinkman’s present trauma and conflict.  This is what helped give Walter White’s unceremonious turn down the hotel hallway so much dramatic weight.  Here, in a flashback scene taking place directly after being stranded in the desert from season 2’s “4 Days Out”, Walter couldn’t appear any more harmless or vulnerable.  It’s a moment in the series when both characters were sort of at peace that this might be their final cook together, pending confirmation that Walt’s lung cancer hasn’t grown significantly worse.  For standalone movie-goers, this is the same Mr. White who’s been dubbed a drug kingpin and has apparently claimed the lives of many people, stirring up a nationwide manhunt.  The same guy being one who gives such poignant, albeit hopeful advice that Jesse is lucky to have so much time to do something special with his life.

This is shortly followed after a scene where Walt puts Jesse’s intelligence on the spot, trying to measure what he’s capable of and what the future may hold for him.  Walt, being as self-involved as he is, completely forgets Jesse achieved his high school diploma (“Yo you were standing right on the stage when they handed it to me”).  Jesse shows a hint of interest towards maybe pursuing a field in sports medicine if he were to attend college and Walt entertains that idea for about a nanosecond before suggesting a business degree.  For all of Walter White’s intellectual superiority and experience, you have to wonder what the hell does he even really know after all the terrible choices he made towards the end? Who is he to tell Jesse what to do with his life?

It’s at this point where I need to direct your attention to the film’s ending song (“Static on the Radio” by Jim White, featuring Aimee Mann) because I feel it’s immensely important to understanding the film’s underlying themes and use of flashbacks throughout.  It’s dreary, wondrous, and simply beautiful. Listen carefully:

Please also read this superbly written and concise analysis of “Static on the Radio’s” meaning I came across from music blog series The Delete Bin (credit to Rob Jones, thedeletebin.com) as it definitely gave me a deeper appreciation for the song’s use in the film.  Keep in mind, this was written long before the movie. 

Let’s consider the lyrics:

And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
And I know (it’s a crime to weave your wishes into what they said)
And I know (only fools venture where them spirits tread)
‘Cause I know (every word, every sound bouncing ’round my head)

You might have noticed that in every flashback scene, Jesse is recalling some nugget of advice a now deceased character (or spirit) has relayed to him:

  • Mike says, “Only you can decide what’s best for you. Not him (Walter), not me,” while also finishing the scene stating, based from his experience, that ‘putting things right’ is the one thing you can never do.
  • Todd says, “You know Uncle Jack says…life’s what you make it.”
  • Walt says, “You’re really lucky, you know that?.  You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.”
  • Jane says “I’ve gone where the universe takes me my whole life.  It’s better to make those decisions yourself.”

And I know (the blind will sometimes lead the blind)
And I know (through shadowlands and troubled times)
And I know (forsaking love, we see it’s a sign)
And I know (of truths forever hid behind)

Regardless of who’s behind the phrase and whether or not any person in question has affected Jesse’s life in a positive or negative way, it’s all generally good, if not vague words of wisdom that can be spun in any direction he sees fit.  It all sounds nice and it may be exactly what Jesse needs to hear but is life not more complex?  Some of the people sharing their well-intended existential philosophy may be hypocritical, deluded, complicit, morally ambiguous (more good or evil), or complacent when you stop to think what road their motto of philosophy may or may not have lead them.  It goes to show that people in our lives can be just as lost as Jesse, you, or I when it comes to finding the right way to live.  Words to live by can be interpreted in a number of ways so it’s up to you for how to make it work.

‘Cause I know (dreams are for those who are asleep in bed)
And I know (it’s a sin putting words in the mouths of the dead)
‘Cause I know (for all my ruminations I can’t change a thing)
Still I hope (there’s others out there who are listening)

In the beginning of El Camino, Mike plants the idea for Jesse to take up a life in Alaska which is what he ends up striving towards.  He also tells Jesse he won’t be able to correct the unfortunate events of the past and yet, by the end of the film, Jesse still feels the need to make an effort for young Brock, an innocent victim of Jesse’s circumstance, by sending a letter most likely explaining and apologizing for why Brock’s mother was senselessly murdered by Jesse’s captors.  By doing this, Jesse can at least hope to bring some peace to Brock if the boy is willing to hear it.  It doesn’t correct what’s already happened but it’s the best Jesse can possibly hope to do for him.

For me, what I got out of this film is you are who you are and you’ve done what you’ve done.  If you can accept and take responsibility for that, you can begin to move forward, be better, and be content with the life you’ve paved for yourself since the beginning and until the end.  Anyone who crosses your path telling you how life could be spent otherwise is something you need to pick and choose for yourself as you grow.  Because life is not as certain or simple as any fortune cookie slice of philosophy could suggest.  In the end, everyone’s figuring it out as they get older and everything you think you know may very well slip away.  It’s all static on the radio.  You pick up and apply what you know in incremental drips and drabs and the best you can hope for is what good may come from truly acknowledging life’s complexities as you live the life you call your own.

I actually liked that El Camino (spanish for ‘the road’ or ‘the way’) was more meditative, not just in a spiritual sense but mechanically because that’s exactly what made Breaking Bad so special to begin with (something the series finale did away with by having Walt randomly appear in places and magically get things done). The in-between minutiae of conflict that you rarely witness in crime stories is what this show, for the better part of its run, absolutely excelled at. It’s that compelling ‘one foot forward and two steps back’ form of storytelling that drew me to the show in the first place. By the end of Breaking Bad, Walt became such a despicable character and was so far gone from any shred of sympathy, that the show conceptually stripped that narrative structure away from the viewer. Long are the days of taking three episodes to dispose of bodies, an entire episode trying to get the RV’s battery to start, or spending an entire season figuring out how to get rid of Gus.  A Breaking Bad film about the more empathetic Jesse makes sense to bring that methodical pace back, especially considering he’s a character who (while proven to hold his own and has grown to be sharper as an individual) doesn’t possess the same magic, intelligence and bravado that Walt had.

Any other film about a fugitive on the run would have gone all in for the non-stop, action-packed thrill of the lead character racing against the odds to outrun the cops, much like El Camino seemed to be hinting at before Skinny Pete and Badger’s video game fakeout. This film offers that tension but it’s more cleverly derived from its smaller, character-driven moments. Figuring out a plan and saying goodbye to Skinny Pete and Badger instead of bolting out of there is more real and believable to me than the film serving as some vicarious ‘what would I really be doing in this situation’ type of story.  Like sure, not shaving would be an ideal way to come off unrecognizable to law enforcement, but Jesse is his own person with his own exclusive experiences and trauma.

The same goes for Jesse deciding to give Todd back his gun for the chance to have some pepperoni pizza and beer rather than a possible escape. It’s especially a more psychological, helpless moment like that which makes Jesse Pinkman a uniquely interesting and deserving character to follow. Spending a significant chunk of the film with Jesse poking around in Todd’s apartment (the last space he wants to occupy) and further exploring the hell that Jesse had to go through rather than glossing over it with mere implications of his torture and imprisonment helps make the road to renewing his sense of self and humanity all the more richer. I like that there are so many unexpected, trivial hang-ups that prevent Jesse from moving on as simply as getting in a car and driving away.  Instead he has to work backwards, wrack his brain over where Todd may have hid his money, and stew in the memories of his enslavement like a bad nightmare while simultaneously proceeding onward like a dream where it takes forever to get to where you want to go (if reached at all before waking).

*By the way, Jesse Plemons’ performance as Todd was a striking reminder of how twisted and unconventional he was at playing the sociopathic villain in those final two years.  He’s definitely one of the more redeeming additions to the series so late into its life cycle and I’m happy Vince seized the opportunity to give him a significant role for him to shine with here.

Another familiar touchstone of Breaking Bad is celebrated thusly with the script’s daring ability to write itself into corners and then write itself out in the most earned, uncompromised manner.  Old Joe wiping the El Camino off the face of the planet (free of charge) would have been just as convenient (ala deus ex machina) as the coincidence of the LoJack’s tracking system being initiated the moment Joe was scanning the car.  The feds are homing in fast but Skinny Pete saves the day with an inspired, improvised plan B by having Badger drive Skinny’s car to the Mexico border while keeping the El Camino right where it is.  It’s the perfect diversion while Jesse drives North in Badger’s car.  Much better than the lazier direction of a typical hollywood car chase.

The creme de la creme though is later when Jesse is literally backed into a corner as two “police officers” search Todd’s apartment with Jesse inside and he’s forced to crawl his way out, guns drawn.  He actually disarms the first man before getting into a stand-off with the other who was wise enough to know his partner was in trouble.  Every beat of this is a master class in tension-building because before you know it, Jesse’s laying flat on his stomach, presumably in custody, but (twist) the two men are actually associates of Uncle Jack who are just looking to score some loot from the recently deceased Todd.  Even with Jesse utterly defenseless, the story finds a natural way to proceed without resorting to any cop-outs.  Seriously, so much good comes from Vince Gilligan deciding to devote Todd’s apartment as the film’s centerpiece. It’s something I initially felt uneasy about but from the moment it was creepily established in flashbacks to its urgent destruction through staple Breaking Bad-esque montage, and then the pay-off with Neil and Casey serving as antagonists, it accomplishes so much with unwavering execution.

The inclusion of new characters like Neil Kandy, the welder who fixed the meth lab’s dog chain with full complicity to Jesse’s imprisonment and torture, and his spoiled partner Casey, is an audacious, yet beneficial decision on Vince’s part because 1) Jesse needed to overcome some baddies (Walt can’t be the complete “hero” to Jesse’s story) and 2) the catharsis he achieved in the series finale to withdraw from the drama brought on by his own demons (revenge, ridding the world of every evil) needed to be challenged.  The scene of Jesse being forced to run back and forth so Kenny and Neil can bet on whether the chain will break is one of the most unthinkably upsetting moments in the film.  It sets the viewer up to be furious and wanting to see these characters ripped limb from limb.  They don’t just serve as additional antagonists, but they stand in for Uncle Jack’s crew (Jesse strolling in their place of business mirroring Walt’s final act of violence at the neo-nazi clubhouse) and it helps that they remain a colorful, distinguished duo in their own right.

All of that said, Jesse’s approach to the situation is different.  He respectfully asks for a measly $1,800 and to never be seen again, being a modest request from someone who allowed Neil to take the majority of Todd’s money. Neil, if circumstances played out differently, seems prepared to shruggingly grant this plea.  However, he’s been drinking, just snorted cocaine, and feels on top of the world after partying with hookers.  Add to the fact that Casey is buzzing in his ear incessantly about how emasculating it is that Neil even gave Pinkman a cut to begin with.  I believe to the fullest extent that if given the money, Jesse would have been the bigger man to walk out of there and close the door on those goons forever.  Neil, on the other hand, represents the Jesse Pinkman of the past in some ways by giving in to the manipulations of his partner, the needless urge to initiate a shootout (“Half Measures” ending), and the naivety in what it means to feel on top.

I don’t think Neil wants a gunfight but is too weak not to upset his buddies.  Jesse doesn’t need to prove something so petty and childish, but if he’s going to get money from anywhere, it’s not going to be from his parents or some random robbery, it’s going to be from those he knows will deserve what they get, worse comes to worse.  Vince Gilligan intelligently places the audience’s (and most definitely Jesse’s) itching desire to do away with Neil as a last resort insurance plan, but it’s not something Jesse feels needs to happen.  This is who Jesse Pinkman is.  Not willing to kill, but capable when he has to.

As an audience who has followed this character for an entire series, we may have a bias in terms of the strong empathy we hold for Jesse.  He’s committed terrible acts but we understand on an emotional level, beat by beat, what drove him to those acts, and we especially know how much punishment he’s faced for it, if not by the world, then by himself.  In El Camino, the universe is indifferent to his torment as it always was.  When Ed, the disappearer turns Jesse away for coming up short with his payment, Jesse tries to win him over with sympathy of his life story (most specifically, events of recent), in which Ed responds by saying he should try his ability to pull on heartstrings with the police if he’s so certain it will work on him.  Ed says, “From where I sit, you made your own luck. As did your former partner.  As did your lawyer.”

This is what I was hoping the film would address because it goes back to what everyone in the flashbacks were more or less expressing.  Life is what you make it.  You need to face the life you’ve made for yourself and stop running from it.  It’s why Jesse endearingly tells his parents they aren’t to blame and they did the best they could with him because this isn’t so much a getaway movie as it is a story of self-realization as one catches and owns up to their current state of being.  Whereas Walt’s motto was twisted in that of New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die”, Jesse is in pursuit for Alaska’s “The Last Frontier”, his last chance to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made.

I found El Camino to be a more profound and effective stopping place for Breaking Bad’s story than that of “Felina” as it has left me reflecting on it just as intensely but with its more methodical return to form.  After “Ozymandias”, I didn’t go into El Camino expecting it to be anything more climactic than simply giving Jesse a proper conclusion as his story dwindles down and yet, it was an enjoyable movie on its own which I welcome into the series canon with open arms.  It checked off everything I hoped it would avoid and accomplish.  It used Walter White appropriately, it didn’t feel pre-occupied with explaining anything (Walter White’s death confirmation is more to sting the fan theorists and to witness Jesse’s reaction), and it used Jesse’s catharsis of valuing freedom and peace of mind as a sly source of tension.  It also leaves the appropriate questions from “Felina” still up in the air.  Following up on where Skyler, Marie, or Junior are at with incoming “donated” money or court proceedings would have been too much information that would have defeated the point that Walt left his family in ruins regardless of what he thinks he might have made up for.  Plus, that’s not a part of Jesse’s world to begin with.

The most important question though is still preserved.  Is Jesse (or Mr. Driscoll) really okay now that he’s driving towards an isolated future?  He’s definitely better off than the manic, screaming state we saw him at the end of the series and beginning of this film, but the juxtaposed, quiet drive into Haines, Alaska makes you wonder.  Will he continue to appreciate his slice of secluded freedom or will he increasingly crack under the pressure of solitude like Gene seems to with every Better Call Saul opener?  I like to think he’ll be better at it, but like the mountain in the opening shot or the entire range surrounded him when burying Todd’s housekeeper, is life not full of conflicting and problematic hurdles to overcome?  The final image of mountains is a gorgeous wide shot showing them snow-capped just beyond the trees, suggesting that external conflict and inner-struggle will exist as long as you live.  Life’s complexities can either overwhelm or stand as a majesty to marvel at and cherish.  You can take it for what you will.

 

 

Thoughts on El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie Announcement Trailer/Promotional Poster

If we’re to refer to the in-depth analysis of the Top 5 Brass Tacks to Help the Breaking Bad Movie Succeed, this one minute trailer promises to honor those concerns listed.  For one, there’s no Walter White imagery or winks being used to hook anyone’s interest here.  Yes, his actions throughout the show undoubtedly influence what’s happening here, but this is clearly a film that is solely exploring Jesse Pinkman, who (as Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall criticized in his book Breaking Bad: The Complete Critical Companion) was reduced from co-lead in the series finale to just another one of Walter White’s victims in order to conclude Walt’s story.  Regardless if Bryan Cranston pops up in the film, it should primarily be to serve Jesse’s story rather than as an exercise in fan-service, which is something I’m not worried about given how excellently disciplined Better Call Saul has been for four seasons straight.  All that said, Walter White will hang over this film the same way Hank and Gomez’s pictures hang over the water cooler (a prime, inevitable subject for discussion).

The trailer seems to trust that you have seen Breaking Bad for you to understand the context of Skinny Pete’s interrogation and yet if you haven’t, it’s played ominously enough to draw you in.  I’m not even sure if the scene playing from this trailer will even be included in the movie considering it seems to be shot digitally and Vince Gilligan has gone on record to prefer the 35 MM film that was used on Breaking Bad.  Seeing as that process of filming was used in a brief flash-forward scene set during the events of Breaking Bad in Better Call Saul last season (S4E05 “Quite a Ride”) instead of the spin-off’s traditional use of digital, I can imagine Vince finding it a fitting opportunity to use 35 MM for the entirety of El Camino.  I also wouldn’t put it passed him to use Jesse’s final getaway scene in Breaking Bad as a refreshing way to kick things off before jumping into the rest of the film.  Given that Todd’s El Camino has now become the titular line, it only makes more sense.

The open-ended question of what happened to Jesse still remains a mystery as we’re shown that law enforcement are thrown for a loop while Skinny Pete expresses his supposed cluelessness.  They clearly have Jesse in their sights though which is a more definitive answer to many fan’s theories and speculations.  Keeping this in mind, the trailer is certainly using the open-endedness of Jesse’s whereabouts as a source of tension.  It’s not just because we care about what happens to the character, but inching forward into telling Jesse Pinkman’s story from here on out will be a risky road to venture.  How much information given starts to take away from the show’s finale?  Or will El Camino become a worthy addition to the Breaking Bad universe proving we ought to have been told this story sooner?  Either way it plays out, the trailer and promotional poster (shown below) emits a sense of awareness going forward that the film will need to proceed with appropriately.

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I love this poster.  The steep, upward battle ahead for a character who has already been put through the ringer.  The uncertainty of where he’ll end up or where he even is.  Will he drive off into the sunset or is the signature wide-open shot of those South-Western clouds absorbing the light he seeks like some higher power that has already cast its judgement?  Can Jesse Pinkman escape or move on from his past now that he’s in the driver’s seat? This is perfectly illustrated by the swirl of green smoke and dust behind him, reminiscent of Breaking Bad’s opening title sequence.  Now that Jesse has learned the quality of freedom of peace of mind, can he physically achieve it?  And does he deserve to when the odds seem to be appropriately against him?

When Skinny Pete says “No way I’m helping you people put Jesse Pinkman back inside a cage”, notice the phrase “you people”.  “You people” is usually a generalization intended to be condescending and when it’s used by Skinny Pete (someone who’s sometimes a drug abuser and sometimes a criminal, but someone no less who we’ve come to love) against law enforcement (who are just seeking justice for their murdered agents and all the people who have died in Walter and Jesse’s wake), we’re left wondering how biased are we to have followed the empathetic Jesse Pinkman up until this point?  This is a character who has committed terrible acts but has been struggling to atone to the greatest of lengths throughout the series.  At the same time, is our justice system’s goal to lock him up the correct outcome?  At a certain point, that steep, dark angle he’s ascending in the poster has to end.  Does he reach the light, fall off a dark cliff, or find somewhere in between where he can properly make amends for his sins without being placed in a cage?

These are the questions I’m invested in as I go into this film.  Not “Will we see Walter White?” or “Will we see Saul Goodman?”.   As the AMC logo used to say back when it exclusively aired Breaking Bad: “Story Matters Here.”

What are your thoughts?

Top 5 Brass Tacks in Helping the Breaking Bad Movie Succeed

Back in November, a Breaking Bad film was announced to be in the works by Vince Gilligan, being a sequel to the critically acclaimed series, code named ‘Greenbrier‘.  The logline reads as following “the escape of a kidnapped man and his quest for freedom”.  If we were to run with that premise, many can confidently assume (although it’s not officially confirmed) that the film is about Jesse Pinkman after the escape from the neo-nazi compound in the series finale…

UPDATE – As of 8/24/2019, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie has been officially confirmed and is set to release on Netflix on October 11th, 2019.  It will be released on AMC at a later date.  You can watch the teaser trailer here.

When I first learned of this announcement, I was thunderstruck with both giddiness and apprehension.  I adore the idea of the Breaking Bad universe being explored beyond the original show.  Better Call Saul, woven with such nuance, has proved to be a master class prequel that stands completely on its own as a more deliberate study of change for a character to undertake.  It’s a show that retains similar themes to Breaking Bad but tells its story in a much different way.  Even the tone and visual representation is carried over, but with enough careful tweaks to help give the show its own identity.

I was naturally skeptical of Better Call Saul when the spin-off was first announced in 2013, but then it turned into one of my favorite shows of all time.  Even executive producers Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan knew they were taking a giant risk going forward.  Thankfully, like a veteran team of surgeons, the entire creative staff were able to avoid nicking the artery in the process of crafting a disciplined, distinguished prequel to one of the greatest dramas of all time.  So why should I feel so cautious towards the idea of a single, upcoming Breaking Bad film, especially with the artist intent of Vince Gilligan?

Generally, it’s because mistakes happen.  Surgery isn’t always a success regardless if the best person suited for the job is operating.  As I’ve said before in other write-ups, a lot of success in television/film comes down to luck.  So with that, here’s my list of vital fundamentals I hope Vince Gilligan and his crew keep in mind going forward.

5. No Walter White (unless the story dictates).

I wouldn’t bat an eye at anyone who says Breaking Bad is just as much Jesse Pinkman’s main journey as it is Walter’s.  Of course that’s true.  Together, both characters were intertwined as the main leads for the show as Jesse proved almost immediately (through great writing and the phenomenal performance of Aaron Paul) to be such a remarkably developed character.  At the end of the day however, the show was rightfully intended to be Walter’s exclusive, finite story.  From his lung cancer diagnosis in the pilot, the concept of his character turning from Mr. Chips to Scarface throughout, and the death that was delivered to Walt in the show’s final shot, Breaking Bad was a tightly told, completed narrative following the iconic chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

Just as disciplined as the Better Call Saul writing staff has been in not unnecessarily forcing a Walter White cameo, I think the same line of thinking should follow for the movie.  Most television shows which make the leap to the big screen feel the excitable need to cram every beloved character in so as not to upset the fans (or even themselves).  Again, Vince, don’t feel obligated.   Just focus on telling the sincere story for Jesse that you wish to tell.  Can I see Walter White existing in a new scene serving as some haunting echo to Jesse’s current conflict?  Absolutely.  Flashbacks or flash-forwards are not foreign devices to either existing series, so if Bryan Cranston was to reprise his role and it made sense for the story, then by all means, fire away.  I do believe that there could be more dramatic weight though if Walter White was given as little context as possible.  Let him stand as this dark, shadowy figure that hangs over the film without him really having to show up.  Allow viewers who have never seen Breaking Bad to view Walter through the lens of a ‘mysterious and powerfully manipulative man’ who supposedly impacted this poor young soul’s life (Jesse Pinkman).  This brings me to my next point…

4. The events of Breaking Bad do not need to be explained.

Almost every start to a new season on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul shows a cold open scene that’s completely new to the viewer, followed by the opening title sequence.  Afterwards we’re fed something of a 30 second rewind from last season which establishes where the new season is kicking off.  Here’s examples incase you forgot:

Breaking Bad:

  • Season 2 intro: Walt and Jesse’s drug deal in the junkyard with Tuco gets violent (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: A montage of news broadcasts recaps the plane crash.
  • Season 4 intro: Jesse shoots Gale (reused footage from season 3 finale).
  • Season 5 intro: Walt tells Skyler “I won” (reused footage from season 4 finale).
  • Season 5B intro:  Hank comes out of the bathroom.

Better Call Saul:

  • Season 2 intro: Jimmy contemplates the Davis & Main job (same shot from season 1 finale) and later questions Mike why they didn’t take the Kettleman money (reused footage from season 1 finale).
  • Season 3 intro: Jimmy confesses he tampered with the Mesa Verde files to Chuck (same line of dialogue as season 2 finale, shot from different perspective) and later Mike picks up the “Don’t” message from Gus (reused footage from season 2 finale).
  • Season 4 intro: The embers of Chuck’s house float up into the night sky.

These scenes, no matter in what fashion they’re presented, are brief enough recaps to inform the viewer where the story picks up.  If the Breaking Bad movie was to follow the same traditional, unique style with reused footage after some mysterious opening scene, I think this following moment below is ominous, yet coherent enough to launch the film with for both old and new viewers.  For the sake of my point, ignore the joke ending in this video (but for the sake of the joke, enjoy, because it’s pretty funny).

Imagine this scene being shown in the movie, perhaps with a use of score towards the end to help transition into a new scene.  Prior to that, don’t show the machine gun going off.  Don’t show Walt on the phone with Lydia.  Don’t even let Walt speak here.  Just open with the long drawn out silence and show the nod between these two characters before Jesse drives off.  It would be so cool for viewers who have not seen the show to have no idea what the context of this scene is, but can figure things out in broad strokes that this was a place the lead character, Jesse, is happy to get as far away from as possible.  All the audience has to know is that the heat is hot and the police are closing in.  I’d love to watch this movie without it being clear that this is a character many Breaking Bad fans have long felt empathy towards.  If this film is to be successful as a standalone piece of work, it will give viewers the chance to decide for themselves whether Jesse deserves the freedom he seeks, regardless of if he actually achieves it.  In short, keep exposition to a minimum.  It will be more rewarding in the long run.

3. Preserve the Breaking Bad finale’s small shred of open-endedness.

There’s no denying Walt is dead, but the question of whether Jesse rode off into the figurative sunset or was dragged down like a dog upon his escape is one of the few pieces of open-ended material in the finale that felt artfully reassuring for a show that was intended to have more of a definitive ending.  Same goes for whether Skyler, Marie, and Walt Jr. found happiness amidst the tragedy that Walt wrought upon them.  We at least know they could find peace knowing where Hank and Gomez are buried, so the potential for coping with their losses has already been planted.

Lots of stuff has been left up in the air though.  Did Skyler become wise to Gretchen and Elliot’s “donated money”?  Was Walt’s threat of impending doom against Gretchen and Elliot even effective?  It’s questions like these that make me wonder how many answers provided in this film would be too much.  Wouldn’t it detract from the finale’s lasting impressions if we learn the answers to these questions?  At the same time, would being too vague and ambiguous detract from the film’s sense of boldness?  Or can boldness be found by maintaining a satisfying sense of ambiguity, ala the finale to The Sopranos or The Leftovers?  There’s an incredibly thin line to walk on here to the point where one would have to pull off the impossible in order to have your cake and eat it too.

Then again, Better Call Saul’s black-and-white, near silent film-esque exploration of Gene Takovic has been successfully entertaining and wondrous to the point where I perfectly support that we get to follow his character beyond Saul’s last scene on Breaking Bad.  Perhaps the same could be said for Jesse or Skyler even though they were more central to the series?  When all is said and done, Vince Gilligan is the storyteller and it’s up to him what new information he chooses to disclose.  How the film changes our perspective of the series finale is his creative choice.  In the very least, I just hope he takes this concern deeply into consideration.  Compared to the limited snippets we’ve been spoon-fed for Gene, a feature length film is a tougher puzzle to crack.

2. The film needs to prove its worth.

If the fate of Jesse Pinkman is to be answered and the wonder of that fate I once experienced at the end of Breaking Bad becomes swapped to serve as a merely satisfying, conclusive note for his role in the series (knowing I could now continue his story directly afterwards), then the film would obviously have to be well worth the ride of existing to begin with.  The choice of continuing Jesse’s story has to feel validated by the richness of the narrative and the overall impact it will leave on the audience.  It can’t just be a movie that ties up loose ends and looks stunning as always in its cinematography.  It’s a project that needs to prove meaningful.  I want to come out of this film thinking, “Wow, this utterly shook me.”  I’m sure there will be the usual heart-pumping action scenes (accompanied by the brilliant scoring of Dave Porter) and emotional moments provided by Aaron Paul, but this film must not fall into the big screen adaptation cliche’ of ‘Vince Gilligan presents: Breaking Bad: THE MOVIE!”.  Everything needs to be earned.

The Breaking Bad film needs to be unafraid to retain its identity, but to also be something else entirely, similar to Better Call Saul. Consider David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) or the 2017 reboot that continued Twin Peaks 25 years later with a completely different tone and narrative structure.  You could tell Lynch truly has something to express in those works.  Breaking Bad should follow suit if it wants to avoid the pitfalls of a poor reboot.  Don’t be afraid to be polarizing if it means you could offer something you truly feel must be put out into the world.  As much as I want to see Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul working together once again, it needs to be for the right reasons.

Another thing to note is that Better Call Saul is a continuing series that has developed at its own pace in order to become distinguished from the parent series and coincide as a companion piece.  Can the format of a two hour film manage to do the same?

1. Remember, Jesse’s in the driver’s seat now.  Not shotgun.

For me, Jesse’s story in Breaking Bad is about how he’s always getting strung along in the passenger seat, never having a real say about how his life turns out.  Whether he’s being manipulated by Walt, collecting dead drops with Mike, flying to Mexico with Gus, or working as an informant for Hank, it’s always more or less against his will.  Part of that was owed to Jesse getting in his own way.  If he didn’t succumb to drug use and fall into a life of criminality, he would never have had reason to partner up with Walt.  If he didn’t feel the need to hunt down Combo’s killers, he wouldn’t have been under the threat of Gus.  If he didn’t feel the need to seek revenge on Walt for poisoning Brock, he could have moved to Alaska instead of becoming a prisoner for neo-nazis.  On the other hand, how can anyone tolerate the murder of children?  There’s a lot you can’t blame Jesse for.  His life, similar to Walt’s, was dealt a shit hand where external factors keep him pinned down.  He’s a tragic character, no doubt.

That’s why in the finale, I strongly believe Jesse learned the value of peace of mind and the quality of freedom through that wonderful, dreamy flashback sequence of him building the wooden box, representing his full potential (mentioned in season 3’s “Kafkaesque”).

After Walt’s machine gun lays waste to all of Jesse’s captivators, followed by the death of Uncle Jack and Todd, Walt slides Jesse the gun hoping to receive his final blow, knowing it’s something Jesse very likely wants to do.  Jesse drops the gun however and denies Walt his death, telling him “Do it yourself”.  This is, importantly, the first moment in the entire series where Jesse seems to have overcome his own demons, not feeling the need to get drawn back into the drama and not feeling responsible for ridding the world of every evil.  He can walk away, climb in the driver’s seat, and take complete control of his life beyond the fence.  It’s only now the external factors of the universe, like the police and the feds, which will become a gigantic hurdle for him in the film.

It’s this moment of growth though that I would hope gets carried over thematically into the movie, regardless of how obvious it is that it will.  Out of all the things I’ve listed, this is the easiest thing for Vince Gilligan to follow through with, but nonetheless, it is the most important.  We can’t have a Jesse who gets in his own way again or else it removes so much catharsis that was accomplished from the finale.  Overall I wouldn’t put it passed Vince Gilligan if he’s fully aware of everything I touched on in this article.  I know I’m just some random guy on the internet and this is just me as a fan having fun imagining how the film could work.  I’m by no means any authority on the production of this movie but like anyone I wish the best for it.

Your own thoughts?

Better Call Saul “Wiedersehen” (S4E09)

This is a penultimate hour that’s been a long time coming for this season and altogether the entire series. Ever since Kim awkwardly, yet sensibly turned down Jimmy’s proposal to become law partners in season 1’s “Bingo”, there’s been a pin in the pretty picture that is their relationship. Season 1 is the season where everybody seemed to reject Jimmy or size him us as the slippery lawyer he truly is. Nacho saw him as a criminal, Mike saw him as morally-flexible, and Betsy Kettleman proclaimed Jimmy as a lawyer only guilty people would hire. In a world determined to decide Jimmy’s fate, his aspiration to follow Chuck’s footsteps was the glimmering light of hope that he could prove everyone wrong, or in the very least remain tethered to a quiet, noble pursuit in elder law for the rest of his career, regardless of the occasional slip-up or shortcut. Unfortunately, it was Chuck’s grand rejection of him in “Pimento” which shut the door on any such possible future. From there, almost immediately, Kim has been Jimmy’s saving grace. She has always accepted or tolerated his colorful approach towards the law, but also strongly believed in his potential as a good, sincere lawyer.

It’s this hypocrisy that has hung over the series for a while now, from the aforementioned story in “Bingo”, to Kim offering a compromised proposal for them to share a roof as two separate, solo practitioners in season 2’s “Inflatable”. She compartmentalizes her involvement with Jimmy, yet inches surprisingly closer to him by having his back in times when it makes more sense for her not to. It’s Jimmy though, a man who needs certainty and has more appreciation for the end goal than the minutiae of progress, who has exercised an impressive share of patience in allowing Kim to retain her chipped guard towards his lifestyle. After the scheme of switching the Mesa Verde blueprints, Jimmy jumps the gun in assuming Kim will now be his new Marco but collects himself appropriately when Kim suggests, in a question of ethics, that they weigh each scam justifiably as they see it. There’s an order to Jimmy’s respect for Kim’s wishes rather than antagonizing over the slight dismissal he’s always felt from her. It would take something extremely unexpected to disrupt that order, a true upset in the name of his patience, for Jimmy to become a powder keg.

This twist of Jimmy’s reinstatement hearing falling through due to insincerity is a punch to the gut that I never saw coming. This whole season I’ve been treating his long-awaited reinstatement as something that needed to happen in the story, mechanically. Not once did I consider that Gilligan and Gould would use that anticipation to pull the rug out from the audience in favor for some of the most beneficial payoff the show has ever produced. It’s so fitting that Jimmy’s omission from acknowledging Chuck, and overall refusal to seek therapy this season, is the bug that bites him in the ass. I imagine the only way an appeal for a higher court to override this decision against him is if, through introspection, he supplies further context as to why he wouldn’t have mentioned Chuck in the hearing, seeing as Jimmy’s unique grieving process towards his brother’s suicide is completely separate from the case he’s been punished for. In other words, if he wasn’t forced to sincerely get in touch with his emotions over Chuck’s death before, now he must if he doesn’t want to waste another year.

This is what I’m looking forward to in the season finale, but this could only come to pass if Jimmy and Kim’s conflict with one another doesn’t spiral into something worse. It looks like they’re ready to rebuild from scratch, and if anything the ugly confrontation between the two upon the rooftop was a healthy, overdue release of their underlying issues. It’s essentially Kim’s “Pimento” moment but without the ironclad toxicity that Chuck harbored, so if anything there’s a brighter outcome amidst the settling dust. I do wonder how their figurative shootout on the rooftop is going to push things forward for them though, similar to how season 1’s confrontation with Chuck has fueled the entire show. It was clear that Chuck would never be on Jimmy’s side from then on, but with Kim, being on Jimmy’s side and not being on Jimmy’s side seem to be occupying the same space. I have no doubt I’ll be recalling this moment in future episodes, but I’m still unsure in what fashion. Perhaps she’s going to stick by his side, tragedy will strike, and Jimmy will look back on how supportive Kim has been when he never deserved it.

The construction of the superlab has proved to be a polarizing avenue for many viewers this season and I wouldn’t bat an eye at anyone who has simply not found it engaging, but I am rather baffled by those who chalk this story up as just ‘the construction of the superlab’. As I have previously mentioned, I personally enjoy the magnitude of its presentation, from the excavation site to the housing of these German engineers, and the overall eerie, concerning mood that tends to hang over the entire scope of it. And yeah, knowing how essential this place is going to be in the parent series does obviously play its part. That said, committing half the season to this (the notion of its exploration being planted ever since last season’s “Off Brand”) transcends fan-service for me and only serves as a backdrop to a much more important, carefully told story which I suppose some viewers have not been able to get on board with. The superlab’s creation isn’t just there to mark time passing or to fill in an unnecessary blank, but the slow pace of it is intended to feel trying and frustrating. It helps us get into Werner’s head space, a character essential in Mike’s series arc, through “show, don’t tell”.

The story at its core, is the bond developed between Mike and Werner. Throughout this season, Werner has displayed a pretense towards Mike, talking about his satisfaction with the work and his gratefulness for the hospitality provided for the boys, Deep down though, he’s becoming impatient and home-sick, which is something he has allowed Mike to know. In turn, Mike has lent a sympathetic ear. He took him out for drinks, vouched for him to Gus when the project was leaked to a couple of strangers, and offered him an extensive, long-distance phone call with his wife. By making a foolish, panic-stricken escape, Werner has thrown this sympathy back in Mike’s (or Michael’s) face, leaving Mike to look just as much the fool. If you consider how arrogant Mike has been in the beginning of this season, by inserting himself into various Madrigal facilities as security consultant and the gall he had in demanding Gus put him to work, this is embarrassing. Between the wife-beater mentioned in Breaking Bad’s “Half Measures”, the cops that killed Mike’s son, Hector Salamanca, and later Walter White, Werner Ziegler is probably the most kind, sympathetic adversary Mike has ever encountered.

What’s so bizarre is Werner is very reminiscent of the murdered good samaritan, a married man, who has weighed on Mike’s conscience ever since the end of season 2. Mike is not only responsible for Werner’s escape, but it looks like he’s the one who’s going to have to perform the punishment once Werner is caught. Whether it’s from feeling betrayed or Gus harshly calls him out on his mistake, this is going to be a huge leap forward from where we left Mike off last season when he took up the sad task of searching for the good samaritan’s body before officially joining Gus’ operation. Back then, the good samartian symbolized the responsibility he felt for his son’s death and the toll that has taken on Stacey. Season 3 explored this with the revenge he took on Hector Salamanca, attempting to correct something which can’t be corrected. Now, Mike is in the likely position of taking decisive action and becoming the root cause of killing a good man and leaving another widow behind. It’s a relationship that this story has taken the time to stress the value of. The irony is the only way I could see Mike mustering up the courage to delivering whatever Werner has coming to him, is if he eliminates the association this carries for his son.

The idea of detaching oneself from Matty is exactly what got Mike angry at Stacey earlier this season, but both of them did meet afterwards and came to the conclusion that moving on with their lives is a goal both of them should be working towards. It’s not that they need to forget him, but to not feel burdened by his death anymore. It appears that this is about to happen in the darkest, most tragic way for Mike and I look forward to the climactic drama that’s about to unfold, similar to the music Jimmy is going to have to face. Whereas Mike will be forced to move on from his son, Jimmy will be forced to finally confront his brother. In my opinion, for this season, that’s compelling storytelling. To be fair, we haven’t truly experienced the payoff of Mike’s plot yet in its full execution, so I understand if people feel there’s been a lot to be desired, but Mike’s transformation to the Mike we know in Breaking Bad is and has always been the story for him in Better Call Saul, so if that doesn’t appeal to some, then I respect that.

Hector gets his bell and yeah, it’s a fan-service moment but it’s nothing too egregious or detracting in this extended episode. If anything, it caps off Hector’s stroke, establishing that he is indeed where we’ll ultimately find him in Breaking Bad, but also, and most importantly the scene paints a picture for how Lalo fits into his world. For Lalo’s sake, I think that’s crucial material to touch base on before we continue to follow this guy, considering he’s likely the one character who will throw a future wrench in possibly every other character’s story, influencing the end game. I don’t know what the finale holds for Nacho, but if the finale is all about Jimmy and Mike being forced to confront something dreadful, then I’d imagine the thematic parallel is for Nacho to do the same. Nacho is full of secrets right now, one being his double cross of the Salamancas and another of his plan to escape from Gus’ grasp, so if anything is about to come to a head, it’s the imminent danger he’s been tip-toeing around. Now that Gus and Lalo are in each other’s crosshairs, there’s no telling what heat Nacho is about to catch.

Lingering thoughts:

– I was immediately pleased with Marceline Hugot’s cameo playing Shirley in the cold open. She’s most recognized for her role as Gladys in HBO’s The Leftovers, which is a three season drama I absolutely recommend everybody go watch.

– Earlier in the season, I compared Howard to Werner, being two guys who are unafraid to face the hurdles ahead for what they are (grieving process for Chuck, superlab construction), but now that Werner has spiraled completely out of control, on the verge of meeting his demise, I wonder how Howard is doing right now? Did he take Jimmy’s ‘tough love’ advice and save HHM from going under? I really hope the finale comes back to him.

– Even if you felt Hector’s bell moment was too heavy-handed, there’s no denying the great performance of Mark Margolis’ increased heavy breathing the further Lalo told the bell’s backstory. Vince Gilligan directing this episode also reminded me just how talented he is in discovering the most satisfying way to shoot and sell each scene. Between the tense, teetering rotation of the camera when Werner was examining the faulty wire, to the Kubrick-like zoom out shot on Mike in the hangar after Werner has escaped, Vince truly knows how to immerse you in the story, visually. Also, Dave Porter’s atmospheric scoring was perfect for Werner in this one.

– It’s also strange to think that even in the birth of the superlab, it was this ghoulish place of utter frustration, anxiety, and fear for a guy like Werner Ziegler, long before Walter White. Now every time I watch Breaking Bad’s “Fly”, I’m going to think of Werner’s panic attack and how the superlab is host to some of the most unnerving behavior even when it was a damn cave. Rainer Bock has really done a great job this season.

– I looked ahead and it looks like the finale, entitled “Winner” is going to run (with commercials) a full hour and 25 minutes. I’m excited. Between this and HBO’s The Deuce, this latter half of 2018 has been a pretty sweet ride for TV.

Better Call Saul “Coushatta” (S4E08)

“You’re gonna die.”

Danger looms in the eighth episode as the future of Werner, Nacho, and Kim are brought into question after straying from the strict paths designated to them. If I was a betting man, I’d say one of these three will be gone by the end of this season, and because the show is too intelligent to kill Kim (an outcome that would be Better Call Saul’s dumbest, laziest mistake if EVER committed), let alone Nacho (at this point), my bet is unfortunately on Werner. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot going on in the final two episodes, but I feel it would be premature for a surprise Nacho death, especially with Lalo (played by Tony Dalton) just now being introduced. That said, death doesn’t necessarily mean death, but exposure. Death is closed doors of opportunity, such as going to jail, living life in fear on the run, or getting disbarred as a lawyer. We’re all going to die, but these are outcomes for the characters that are just as real, if not scarier.

It’s been quite a ride for Kim this season. It’s one thing in the last episode’s cliffhanger for Kim to compromise her career to help Jimmy after so much emphasis was put on the divide of their relationship, and then it’s another to have an ending in this following episode where she’s thrilled to do it again. If there’s ever a reason to stay with your partner who’s grown further apart from you, it’s for the hope that you can rekindle the chemistry that once was. Jimmy and Kim’s relationship wasn’t in jeopardy solely due to their opposite values, but because of the secret, inner-conflicts that they’ve withheld from each other for so long. It’s the lack of full disclosure of their daily activities and what’s going on with them that’s been driving them apart, not precisely the actual content of those activities. Now that Kim knows where Jimmy’s head is and what he’s been up to, she feels a sense of closeness again (or traction), something the two have been starved for, for nearly a year.

If the proceedings for Mesa Verde weren’t such a drag for Kim, she probably would never make this worrisome choice. I think back to the younger, eager version of herself in the cold open of “Pinata” where she’s Jimmy’s #1 buddy but her admiration for Chuck and aspiration for becoming the rockstar lawyer is her real draw. You have to consider what happened to her along the way where Howard locked her in doc review and Chuck proved to be more of a disappointing role model. Even though she never achieved Mesa Verde properly (because of Jimmy), she still owned it through her hard work, but even that pales in comparison to what Jimmy has always consistently offered her in which Howard, Chuck, and even Kevin Wachtell have failed to. And that’s the rockstar, home run moment. Between her scamming ‘Ken Wins’ out of buying the most expensive tequila, fighting in Jimmy’s corner in the case against Chuck, or pulling off a Hail Mary in getting Huell no jail time, Jimmy has always been the guy that granted her the rewarding satisfaction of winning.

There’s always been a corruptible blot on Kim’s x-ray and she’s overcome that with the firm belief that working within the lines of legitimacy was her ticket for gratification. She wore this like a badge of honor to the point where she even warned Jimmy in season 2 that fabricating evidence in his cobbler scheme was not worth sacrificing the more lucrative, straight and narrow road he’s built for himself. However, Jimmy has proved time and time again that through the same willpower in which Kim possesses, he can run each side of the law like a ski slalom in his favor. It’s that exhilarating feeling of coming out on top that triumphs over the lawful standards Chuck reveled in, where currently for her it’s all tunnel and no light. That said, I don’t think Kim is stupid. By telling Jimmy “Let’s do it again”, it’s not that she’s willing to unnecessarily bend the law when there’s no present hurdle giving them a reason to, but a message to Jimmy that she’s willing to fight dirty in his corner when the next situation calls for it. It’s too much of a stretch that she would join Jimmy as a criminal partner (she still has higher morals), but she certainly seems eager to be a disciplined asset to him.

The reveal and execution of Jimmy and Kim’s plan (one Kim was hoping to avoid by doubling down on hiring expensive associates) was nothing short of brilliant. I couldn’t stop laughing at the website for Huell and Jimmy’s improvisation as a Louisiana pastor which felt like a tip of the hat to Odenkirk’s comedic stylings in Mr. Show (Peter Gould even requested that Bob bring a little bit of Senator Tankerbell into his performance). Also, I’ve been wondering for a while if we would ever see the UNM film students again and lo and behold, they make their season 4 debut in the best way possible. The character of ADA Suzanne Ericsen also played a great foil and I love the hurricane that develops in her office over this. Superb comedy and drama all at once.

After a three episode hiatus, we finally return to Nacho, shown for the first time after the time jump. His physical wounds have healed and he seems more hardened in his new role as the Salamanca territory’s supreme enforcer, even if it’s still a role and overall way of life that he’s determined to escape. Switching Hector’s pills last season proved to be a major bust and now both him and his father’s lives are at higher risk the longer he plays as a double agent puppet for Gus. His plan to flee to Canada with his father under new identities is hopeful, especially with the flashy camouflage he’s created for himself with a hot rod and house full of junkie girls. This will help feed the narrative that he’s a comfortable, content drug dealer with no plans of jumping ship.

It’s the money Nacho’s stashing away in his safe that has me worried though, considering the surprise visit from the mysterious Lalo Salamanca, who supposedly is there to surveil the cash flow. It’s still not clear if Nacho has made any mistakes (out of desperation to speed up the process) with the income he’s been storing for himself, but something along those lines certainly seems to be implied. Lalo hiijacking the restaurant under such an infectiously charming guise is probably one of the most unsettling, non-violent moments this show has ever displayed. The temperature of the room provided by the look on Domingo’s (Krazy-8’s) face, does not match the gracious soul Lalo is presenting himself as. The invaded sense of space that he asserts is the total opposite of the silent involvement he’s promising. It’s a power play and Lalo is likely fully aware of this contradiction.

As much as Lalo may be over-estimating Nacho’s ability to pick up on the threat of this situation, it’s still crystal clear that Lalo is smart and a much more sharper adversary than Tuco, the cousins, or Hector have ever been. The last thing Nacho needs is another powerful, intelligent figure breathing down his neck and what’s worse is this will be the beginning of what will tie Jimmy closer to this world. If the breaking point of Walter White’s story brought about the downfall of Saul Goodman, then it makes you wonder how much of a role does Ignacio Varga’s story play in the downfall of Jimmy McGill? With Kim getting pulled in closer to Jimmy, how intertwined will the independent stories of Better Call Saul become and what are the consequences of that?

Then there’s Werner and the rest of the German engineers. I feel as if Kai might very well be serving as a red herring to a dreadful chain of events that are going to take place due to the hairline cracks in Werner that are beginning to give. Werner is someone who’s bond with Mike has developed so pleasingly over these last handful of episodes. Not only can his life now be at risk after leaking the construction plans to the strangers in the bar, but the whole team could result as collateral damage from any future slip-up. The most ambiguously eerie aspect to all of this is I 95% believe Werner successfully received Mike’s warning and understands the seriousness of what he needs to keep a lid on, while the other 5% (symbolized by him fumbling over his safety jacket) leaves me doubtful. Meanwhile Mike sticking his neck out to Gus, proclaiming the conflict as all good and squared away, makes me 95% sure that Gus will take his word on it. On the other hand, the other 5% makes me wonder if “good” is good enough and whether a paranoid Gus is surveying the excavation site of the superlab in this moment as a potential kill room.

At the end of the day, I’m worried about Werner, but I’m concerned for Mike. What would it mean, to Mike’s surprise, if Gus has the Germans killed, regardless if Werner messes up again? Or what does it mean if Werner, who Mike vouched for, messes up again, and then must be dealt with? If either direction comes into play, how does this story benefit the cold blooded alliance between Mike and Gus which will come to be? What causes Mike to pledge allegiance to Gus if such dark circumstances occur with the death of the Germans? These are the thoughts I have going forward into these last two episodes, as I’m really curious how the writers will land this side of the story.

Better Call Saul “Something Stupid” (S4E07)

Time jump!

Ever since the wait for season 4, I’ve wondered how the show is going to respond appropriately to the events of last season while keeping Jimmy’s extensive PPD period engaging and essential to the overall story. The aftermath of Chuck’s death is enough drama fuel to go on, of course, but at the same time, 10 months is a long while for Jimmy not to be a lawyer and at the show’s pace, we don’t need to actually experience that time in order to feel the blow of Jimmy’s punishment. The driven wedge between Kim and Jimmy has been so substantial and intricately told across (what will be so far) most of the season, that it still came to a surprise when we got that wonderfully constructed, artful montage pushing us from 2003 into the summer of 2004, a month short before Jimmy is reinstated. It’s at this point that I predict the last three episodes will run out the remainder of his month with focused story that will help launch Saul, the lawyer, for season 5.

The split-screen montage, played to Lola Marsh’s extended cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Something Stupid” (created exclusively for this episode) is a cathartic, rewarding payoff as to why this show should never gloss over the smaller details. We know why they’re drifting apart and have felt it, so if time is to accelerate, this scene successfully capitalizes on that feeling. Other shows, guilty of using montage as a lazy story device purely to avoid telling a story, should be taking notes from Better Call Saul, not just for when it’s creatively necessary to implement into a script, but also how to make it entertaining and meaningful. I love how this show is always taking on fresh and inventive directing/editing techniques in delivering these pieces, instead of relying on the former show’s signature use of time-lapse (which even Breaking Bad didn’t necessarily rely on).

The state of Kim and Jimmy’s relationship following this sequence is irrefutably worn out, yet they’ve forced each other to function as the world’s most frustratingly unresolved couple, Remember how I’ve been anticipating some ugly explosion between the two this season? Well, it’s been nearly a year since the last episode and no such confrontation ever reared its head. It’s unnerving and ironic, because they seem to be some of the two greatest problem solvers on the show. Whether it’s a scam from Jimmy or a case Kim’s working on, they fight tooth and nail to ensure resolution. Legitimate, illegitimate, destruction, construction… Together, they’re like a paradox, but just like the superlab continues to bear parallel metaphor, they’re “not quite impossible”, if not a little overdue in becoming fixed or fully realized.

“…Well that was something.” – Kim

The distance illustrated between them in “Something Stupid” is nothing short of jarring, especially since they have become more public with their relationship. Back in my review of season 2’s “Rebecca”, I mentioned how dinner parties (or in this case a cocktail party) tends to be the perfect time to put up a front and have a passive aggressive dance take place around a deep-seeded issue. In the cold open of “Rebecca”, Jimmy used his charm and humor to take undermining shots at Chuck’s profession and ego, ultimately leaving Chuck insecure with his marriage. The cocktail party of S&C is no different as Jimmy takes this opportunity to peg Rich Schweikart into a corner by getting his employees jazzed up for an expensive retreat. What Jimmy really is doing here though is rubbing Kim’s nose in her own success and intentionally embarrassing her. It’s a message of their differences and how they don’t belong together if they can’t be on the same page. It’s something they fail to outright address no matter how much time goes by.

After Huell sidelines a cop with a bag of sandwiches, Jimmy has no choice but to reveal to Kim that he’s been selling drop phones on the street. This only further exemplifies how much they have grown apart as she responds with more validation of their crumbling relationship than the old Kim (even from last episode) would have reprimanded him over. It’s not until she hears Jimmy spoken of as a scumbag witness by the opposing counsel, before her concern for Jimmy truly registers. Her line “You don’t know the whole story” is telling to the tragedy of Jimmy’s life that she’s been drawn to ever since she discovered Chuck’s refusal to hire him at HHM.

I noticed there were two misleads with Huell in this episode. The first is where Jimmy is giving a tour of an office space, where you would presume he’s pitching the place as some desperate, last ditch effort to Kim, (or more likely to Francesca, another supposed do-gooder), but instead the reveal of Huell completely undercuts those expectations. The second instance is towards the end of the episode, where after Kim hears Jimmy has been peddling phones to criminals, she’s shown making an urgent call, requesting to meet the person on the other line. Even with Jimmy and his Esteem out of focus in this shot, you would think that the person Kim most urgently needs to see is him. Again though, it’s Huell, and the only news she has for Jimmy is that Huell will have to serve time. Both misleads here show how determined they are to keep to their separate paths, but the most surprising outcome is how Kim’s concern for Jimmy, instilled anew by speaking to the cop’s lawyer, is what causes her to make a decision completely antithetical to what the entire hour has been driving at.

There’s many layers to this twist, beyond just the mystery of what she plans to do with these pens and markers. For one, the last time we saw Kim driving her car in silence, she was met with a violent car crash, arguably brought on indirectly by her subconscious guilt to what she and Jimmy did to Chuck in court, and due to her anxiety of Jimmy’s misbehavior in general. It’s why she was operating on little sleep as she buckled down into her work for Mesa Verde. There’s also the idea of Kim and Jimmy’s separate paths. By having her take a sharp, risky U-turn, it helps visually convey the compromising decision she’s making in favor for Jimmy’s illegitimate practices. Finally, in the episode’s opening sequence, Kim took up half the screen, divided from Jimmy, whereas in the final shot, Kim gets so close to the screen that she envelops it entirely to the point where the single frame can’t even capture her properly. From a visual standpoint, all of this helps elevate the gravity of the moment, especially as she’s cut off from the frame while making the call to Jimmy, conveying a sense of wrongness (even stupidity) in this decision.

Then there’s Gus and the superlab plot. Look, personally I enjoy how the show has handled these stories. I definitely think the lens of Nacho is a predicament that fires at the highest cylinder and not seeing him for the last few episodes certainly leaves something to be desired, especially when the Gus/Hector plot is more about filling in the blanks. That said, I like the little we’re being fed with and how quickly it’s progressing (especially with the time jump). I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t feel absolutely enthralled by Giancarlo’s performance when that helpless smile comes over Gus’ face upon realizing he can now keep an entombed Hector under his thumb. I’m also curious to know how many shots it must have taken for him to give that subtle spike into the camera without destroying the fourth wall. It reminded me of Breaking Bad’s “Hermanos” when Walt spikes the camera in the same fashion when Hank tells him that something deep down says Gus is his guy.

As for the superlab, other than standing as a string of metaphors for Jimmy’s story, I strongly believe it’s building to something beyond just ‘filling in the blanks’, especially as the German engineers become more restless and agitated with the project. As Mike continues to bond with Werner, I’m worried what happens to him and his team after the superlab is finished. I feel the longer things get delayed, the more likely something is going to go wrong, and a loose cannon like Kai or any of the others are on the verge of being the spark to that. All of that aside, for me, the superlab is a grander spectacle than just simple Breaking Bad fan-service. There’s a monolithic, transfixing quality to it’s creation that I find fascinating. Peter Gould even mentions in the insider podcast, how the superlab’s excavation, to him, mirrors 2001: A Space Odyssey’s moon excavation scene, and I couldn’t agree more. I just eat that stuff up. Plus, Mike scolding “Boys! Cool it!” in what I would assume is clunky German was great, and if it doesn’t become a meme of some sort, then the internet has failed.

Extra stuff to note:

Burl Ives’ “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was a fitting choice of song for the Germans arriving at the laundry, especially how the lyrics keep tediously repeating, emitting the feeling of how exhausted they are. And yeah, big rock candy mountain is obvious for what the superlab will be used for, but I also like how it’s a humorous nod to what Walt’s blue meth is actually made of from a production standpoint.

– When Kim was receiving her Mesa Verde trophies for each state completed, I freeze-framed to see if Nebraska was one of them, and sure enough it’s front and center. I’m still dying to learn more context for her past there.

– Here’s a little fun fact I’ve been anticipating. The next episode “Coushatta” will mark the 100th episode of the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe (62+38=100).

Salud!

Better Call Saul “Pinata” (S4E06)

If “Quite a Ride” gave us a flash-forward to the collapse of the Saul era, book-ended with the major turning point that will propel him towards said era, then “Pinata’s” cold open shows us in flashback, the hopeful origins of lawyer, Jimmy McGill, followed by the rest of the hour book-ending the demise of this chapter of his life. We’re at a crossroads. We learn that Jimmy’s motivation to become a lawyer is just as intertwined to win Kim’s respect as it was for Chuck’s, reminding us that Kim is just as much a crucial anchor for his saving grace.

Unfortunately in present time, the wedge continues to be driven between the two. As Jimmy discloses his decision not to seek therapy, Kim uses this as an excuse to follow the career choice that makes the most sense for her (joining Schweikart & Cokely). They continue to omit their conflict by upholding a false pretense with one another. It’s a dance around facing the truth which will lead to the future of Wexler-McGill becoming no more than a pipe dream. I love how thick the tension is, derived from something so quietly subtextual and character-driven. Bravo for Gilligan and Gould for taking advantage of Jimmy and Kim’s prolonged divide, allowing us to toss and turn over the drama that’s found here. For a show that’s tasked with heading towards a certain, highly anticipated future, it’s fully aware of when it needs to stay put.

Odenkirk plays the moment with such unspoken devastation when Jimmy excuses himself from the table after Kim casually crushes the sole hope of them working together. Having Jimmy stand in the intersection between the restaurant’s kitchen and bathroom was a great staging choice as well to help convey anxiety and misplacement. The ‘path’ he heavily relies on to move forward with, so as to avoid navel-gazing, has hit a definitive fork in the road, which I feel the yellow sign on the wall next to Jimmy was appropriately tipping its hat towards. I also couldn’t help myself from having this Seinfeld line in the back of my mind.

Lets put this in perspective. Back in season 2’s “Inflatable”, Kim actively chose to join Jimmy under the same roof as two solo practitioners over the prospect of joining S&C, which was argued even with partner-track, to be a lateral move from HHM. She’s the one who proposed the idea of separate law practices due to Jimmy needing to play the law colorfully in contrast to her being straight and legitimate. Back then, you could tell Jimmy felt a bit conflicted with the proposal, considering it was not just a rejection of an ideal venture, but most importantly it’s a rejection of his values (if not a kinder rejection than Chuck’s).

That said, she did make a professional choice that brought her closer to him than anyone else. She accepted him to a degree and even surprisingly fights in his corner when Chuck brings the hammer down in the midst of the Mesa Verde files tampering. After Chuck’s death and the guilt she’s been reeling with ever since, Kim has changed her tune. Kim’s decision to join the ranks of S&C is very telling that she’s creating an exit strategy from Jimmy alone (not just Wexler-McGill), especially as he shows no effort to better himself and continues to keep her at an arms-length. I don’t know how much longer the show could restrain itself from an explosive confrontation, yet it’s successfully nail-biting the further it continues not to.

Not only is Wexler-McGill presumably over with, but the episode manages to wrap around from the early days of the show. Mrs. Strauss, the first client who served as a foot in the door for Jimmy practicing elder law, is revealed to have passed away in her sleep. Jimmy, for the first time this season, exhibits genuine grief upon hearing the news (as if he’s due for an emotional release) and even digs up the Davis & Main commercial she acted in during season 2. This sadness he feels is the first opportunity he can allow himself to feel bad. She represents a time, primarily in season 1, when he gave a genuine effort to stay on the straight and narrow, regardless of not being able to help himself from taking shortcuts along the way. Those days, properly illustrated in “Pinata’s” final scene are undoubtedly over.

After last episode, I was half-hoping that the show wouldn’t go in the direction of Jimmy taking revenge on the boys who mugged him, considering such popcorn satisfaction doesn’t really exist in real muggings, but in this case I’m wrong. Those kids have nowhere else to be. They’re going to be on the streets again and Jimmy isn’t some innocent passerby victim. He’s going to be back at it too and Slippin’ Jimmy needs to set things right if he’s to continue selling phones. Overall, I like how this was handled by using Jimmy’s business proposal to them as a mislead to his more sinister back-up plan.

It’s also appropriate that the line Jimmy crosses here is balanced between over-stepping into a situation that feels out of place for Slippin’ Jimmy but also not fall under a hyper-extreme Heisenberg moment. I don’t think even Saul Goodman would commit an act of physical violence against another if he could avoid it. Jimmy’s performance of intimidation towards these punks was great but I did wonder how much of it was borrowed from his extensive movie knowledge. I’d be interested to know whether any of the films up for an Oscar in 1993 contained a scene that mirrored his actions here.

I know this is a shallow observation, considering I have no proper knowledge of the actual contents of the film but it’s interesting how Howard’s End is a title referenced in the same cold open where Jimmy peruses HHM’s library, seeing as it marks the start of the war between the McGill brothers, in which Howard will be forced to wear a straight-jacket with an umbrella. Flash-forward to the present day of this episode and it doesn’t look like HHM is looking too hot in the aftermath. Not only that, but Jimmy ripping into Howard to stop wallowing over “one little set-back” and calling him a shitty lawyer, is finally answered with a long over-due “Fuck you, Jimmy.” It’s a line that felt so deserved, AMC (for whatever reason) didn’t even censor it.

Bottom-line, Howard and the firm are in shambles and with Chuck deceased, as well as there being no further reason to protect Jimmy anymore (which is all he ever really did as recent as taking the blame for Chuck’s death), Howard has every right to drop his sensibilities. It’s a long way from the pilot when Howard would entertain Jimmy storming into his conference room, demanding money. The thing is though, Jimmy is trying to help Howard here, even if he gets to enjoy knocking him in the process. It’s as if Slippin’ Jimmy, the scam artist, can honestly size up Howard’s strengths and weaknesses for what they truly are, and instead of using that to run a game on Howard, he’s outright sharing this intuition as a gift of tough love.

It’s one thing for Jimmy to be afraid of examining himself inwardly to face his darkness in order to move on from Chuck, but then there’s a character like Gus who revels and remains consumed by the inner-demons he harbors. It’s funny how in Better Call Saul, we learn more about Jimmy and Mike’s family than we ever did on Breaking Bad, but with the second show taking Gus on as a regular character as well, his supposed family life which was hinted at in Breaking Bad remains a mystery.

Whether that’s because he was telling a lie of their existence or not, and his implied relationship with Max was the last person he was ever close to, this scene still paints a pretty clear picture as to where his priorities lie. Gus is the guy who will ignore his own brothers just to take a long, unnecessarily drawn out act of revenge on an animal, which by nature is only feeding off the lacuma tree to survive. Fruit will grow back, but imagine when a human being such as Hector Salamanca maliciously snuffs out the most important person in Gus’ life. This is why we never see Gus’ family or home life detached from anything business. Revenge is his home and the story he eerily tells here of keeping the coati as a tortured pet shows us this is who he’s always been.

Mike making suggestions to Gus on how to make the German excavation crew feel at home, beyond basic shelter and necessities, is fitting here too. While Gus agrees and supports Mike’s idea, he’s much more invested with the revenge on Hector to appreciate the proper accommodation that he’ll be providing these men. It trumps him from even taking pleasure in his own business, let alone family life. As for Mike, it’s good to see he’s making such an impact on Fring’s operation, but I’m waiting for the conflict to arise which will spark the beginning of his transformation towards a cold-blooded murder-for-hire. I wonder what issues the spoiled newcomer Kai is going to present and if the development of this housing situation is going to lean towards Mike being forced to get his hands dirty.

Oh and of course, it was wonderful to see Michael McKean as Chuck again, who’s still shown brimming with subtle resentment towards Jimmy even when he was in the mail room.