Better Call Saul “Carrot and Stick” (S6E02)

“You know, I was hoping you’d see our dilemma and do the right thing. But I think what we have here now is a carrot-and-stick situation.” – Mike

“Oh yeah? This the stick? Hmm? You coming here, threatening my family? Huh? ‘Cause you’re gonna need a bigger stick, old man.” – Nacho (Season 2 “Cobbler”)

“Carrot and Stick” continues the struggle of characters becoming compelled and repelled with their allies as they navigate shared goals, but also becomes a story about seeing through people or situations for who or what they truly are. It’s only appropriate that this marks the return of Betsy Kettleman because for all her looniness and delusion, she has always been a character who can see through to certain truths about people. “You’re the kind of lawyer only guilty people hire” cut through Jimmy like a rusty sword back in season 1 when he was trying to prove himself otherwise, but we all know he turned out to be the crookety-crook she always saw him as. When Saul manipulates the Kettlemans into believing they have a shot in exonerating Craig from his embezzlement beef because their past defending council was likely impaired from drug addiction, it’s interesting that her first assumption is “that awful woman with the pony tail”.  Back in season 1’s “Bingo”, Kim was on the straight and narrow trying her best to do right by the Kettlemans. Betsy of course would never see it that way, but she’s not exactly wrong about Kim being an unsaintly adversary.

The idea that the Kettle team have a chance to shop Saul’s inside information to different firms (including Cliff’s) where proof of Howard Hamlin’s “dirty dealings” will come out in discovery goes according to plan. It was important that Saul was not taken on as the lawyer on these phony accusations against Howard because that would only bring him into question for orchestrating it, which is why Saul yells to Betsy that the moment they reveal him as a source, he gets a cut of their settlement. Cliff is also compelled and repelled by the Kettleman’s absurd claims, just as planned. It’s enough for Cliff to reject them as clients based on their lack of evidence, but also enough for him to put two and two together that there may very well be truth to their claims. Davis & Main are not only the partnering firm with HHM for the Sandpiper case, but Cliff and Howard are good friends. Going forward with proceedings between them will now prove just as push-and-pull as Kim and Jimmy’s partnership or with Mike and Gus.

Whereas Cliff’s perspective has been tampered with to shed new light on Howard, the transition between Cliff and Gus’ over-the-shoulder shot invites a scene where Gus sees through Hector’s truce offering for what reality actually is. Gus has studied Hector inside and out to the point where it consumes Gus. When Juan and Gus attempt to console Don Hector for political purposes in his moment of grief, Hector offers a handshake. Hector has always been jealous of being second banana to Gus in their line of work. He knows Gus is a calculative bastard so for him to finally have the upperhand with a secret wild card of Lalo’s continued existence up his sleeve, he can’t help but reveal himself to the man he truly loathes. Gus knows Hector would never shake his hand without putting up a fight, especially with the beaming expression Hector has to go with it. Gus has now learned Lalo lives through his classic Spidey sense. This may become a lesson learned for Hector down the line, because whatever Gus does next with the knowledge of Lalo’s survival will be a large contributing factor in Gus getting the last laugh. I imagine Hector Salamanca will grow self-aware of how he gets in his own way and never look Gus in the eye again for a forseeable future. The next time he does, it better count…

Eyes are on everyone in this episode as Nacho discovers he’s being watched by a mysterious party across the motel courtyard. He can see the air conditioner is in use on a boarded up structure and after biding his time, Nacho baits the mystery man into revealing his vantage point. Upon getting the drop on this spy, it’s unclear who he works for as he describes he’s being paid by whoever’s voice is on the other end of a phone. Nacho takes action however and calls Tyrus to make him believe he’s going to bolt out of paranoia that something isn’t right. Tyrus insists he stay put but Nacho hangs up. After Tyrus tries to call Nacho again, it’s the mystery man’s phone which rings next and just like that the mystery is solved. Nacho is being set up and was likely given a gun so he can die in a gunfight while also bloodying up possible Cartel members in the process.

In the cold open, we’re shown Mike and Gus’ men taking over Nacho’s apartment. They predict one of the first procedures the Cartel will conduct is searching the apartment for any clue as to where Nacho may be. Therefore the hidden safe is the most plausible place to hide such info, being the phone number to the motel. It seems Nacho caught on just in time as an entire truck full of baddies show up looking to capture him, including the Salamanca twins. This entire scene feels like Vince Gilligan’s fantasy to direct a classic shootout at the O.K. Corral which is played to perfection, right down to the thug manhandling a damsel in distress (the motel manager) and taking a prat fall over the wooden porch when shot.  Dave Porter’s wild, heart-thumping score sets the mood for this cowboy scenario as gunslingers close in on Nacho from every odd direction. The Salamanca twins are the real threat as they’re willing to kill their own to ensure Nacho’s survival. Marco motioning “C’mere” at Nacho is icing on the cake before Nacho barrels the truck forward while firing blindly through the windshield. He may have escaped unscathed, but the twins manage to shoot out a tire which will not only slow Nacho down as he embarks Mexico’s backroads, but will make him easier to track.

As far as Mike, Gus, and Tyrus know, Nacho has long fleed before any attempt on his life had a chance to be made. It says a lot about Mike that he reluctantly went through with setting up Nacho’s demise in favor of Gus, but he at least pocketed Manuel Varga’s fake ID to make sure Nacho’s father was kept off the game’s board. Upon learning that Nacho’s death by shootout never occurred, Mike pitches to Gus that their best option is for Mike to recruit four of Gus’ men to help him rescue Nacho before the Cartel gets to him first. With Lalo on the loose, Mike also points out that Lalo won’t be able to make a move against Gus until he can obtain proof of who orchestrated the hit on him. Gus is out of his element here as none of his plans seem to be going accordingly. Between him breaking the glass and ordering Nacho’s father be brought to him ala stick over carrot, he’s losing grip of the chess board. It’s not the rashest idea to summon Nacho’s father because it would protect Manuel from being used as a stick under the threat of death by the Cartel after they capture Nacho, but Gus would be no better in kidnapping his father to use as a stick of influence for Nacho to keep his mouth shut.

Gus is a General in war and wars are unspeakably messy, so I don’t think he sees clear to any other way. When Mike refuses to allow Manuel’s involvement to happen, the tension in the room increases and before you know it he’s staring down the barrel of Tyrus’ gun. This standoff is surprising because nobody ever pulls a gun and treats Mike like a man out of line, especially coming from someone who will go on to work with Mike in the future. Gus is at the brink of desperation but after Mike’s ballsy decision to disobey the General in this moment, Gus may be willing to hear him out. Gus is likely aware of his own tunnel vision and he knows Mike is too valuable a soldier to simply do away with. When Nacho calls Mike’s phone requesting a conversation with Gus, Gus agrees to talk. How this conversation plays out and Nacho conducts himself next is irrefutably important. If he calls Gus out for attempting to kill him and comes off adversarial, Gus will only lean further towards unforgiveable methods to keep Nacho quiet. If Gus declines to use Nacho’s father as a weapon against Nacho or the Cartel, then a compromise between the two may be in order. This could be how Gus finally learns to nurture his chess pieces versus using fear as a motivator.

The final ‘carrot and stick’ play in the final season’s second installment is exercised by Jimmy and Kim. Back in season 1’s “Bingo”, Jimmy felt compelled to do the right thing by returning the bribe he took from the Kettleman’s stolen funds in order to turn them in as Kim’s client so Craig can plead guilty and take a shorter sentence. Not only did this hurt Jimmy’s pocket significantly and jeopardize his sympathy for honor among thieves due to the soft spot he felt for them, but it was all to push Kim further away from himself. By ensuring the money is properly returned and the Kettleman case gets handed over to Kim, her future at HHM becomes more cemented over the prospect of the two of them ever pursuing a partnership. Doing the right thing crushed Jimmy in that moment, but now things are different. At this point in the series, JImmy has Kim not only as romantic partner, but as a partner in crime of all things. This is the dream for Jimmy McGill in season 1.  When Jimmy’s attempt to buy the Kettlemans off ala the carrot strategy is rejected by Betsy, she threatens to let it be known far and wide of his attempt to character assassinate Howard. She also plucks the emotional chord with him, guilting Jimmy for having destroyed them in the past.

It’s then Kim, sitting in the back like a coiled snake, who strikes by threatening to report their tax crimes to the IRS, completely unsympathetic and challenging them into learning what losing everything really means. Kim is willing to truly obliterate them and Jimmy is left on the sidelines almost seeming as neutered as Craig is to Betsy. Kim even rolls her eyes as Jimmy hangs back to give them the money out of his own guilt. Jimmy finally has a life with Kim that exceeded his purest desires on every level, but it’s Kim who influences and drags him along into doing the wrong thing, which has now become just as conflicting for him as doing the right. Jimmy thought this relationship would operate the other way around but he’s fallen behind. He’s not fully Saul Goodman. It’s Kim Wexler who is the true gangster positioned to turn Jimmy out. She is on Gustavo Fring’s level right now when it comes to wielding the stick and at the moment there’s no Mike around to talk her down.

Jimmy mutters “wolves and sheep” before taking off with Kim, calling back to the flashback where the grifter took advantage of Jimmy’s father’s generosity when manning the corner store in Cicero. The grifter told young Jimmy that there are wolves and sheep in this world and suggested he figure out which one he chooses to be. Kim is no sheep and neither is he, so this vocal callback could be him coming to terms that he needs to step his game up if he wants to continue to be a member of the pack. Ironically, a mysterious vehicle tails behind them before it cuts to credits, implying that they aren’t the only predators on the prowl and that they are the ones who are hunted. My first thought was Lalo, but it doesn’t make sense for him to be there so soon. When “Wine and Roses” ended, he was heading back South to find proof. Regardless of whether this has anything to do with Kim or Jimmy, I wouldn’t expect Better Call Saul to gloss over the details of what his plan is. It’s too soon for him to have traveled up North into New Mexico, let alone pinpoint Jimmy and Kim’s unique location of wherever the Kettleman’s operation is.

I keep thinking of that transitionary over-the-shoulder shot between Cliff Main and Gustavo Fring. The former has perspective on a misguided belief of Howard having a cocaine problem while Gus is about to learn the actual truth of Lalo’s survival because of the unspoken tell Hector gives away. But what if Cliff’s concern for Howard awakens the truth (like it did for Gus) of Jimmy and Kim’s involvement through the process of connecting the dots? Cliff’s next move as a dear friend of Howard would be to confront him. Howard would rebel against these accusations but also possess the good sense that something is aloof. Between a bag of mock cocaine being planted in his country club locker and then the Kettlemans’ clunky accusation of him having a cocaine problem, Howard’s no dummy to assume that this is a coincidence. He already knows Jimmy is capable of weird behavior like throwing bowling balls at his car and siccing prostitutes on him when at a business lunch, so what other conclusions could he possibly draw from accusations he knows he’s not guilty of?

The first step he can undertake is ask around the country club of whether Jimmy was spotted there as of recent, which Kevin or the tour manager can attest to. He could also track down the Kettleman’s place of business and find out who they’ve been in contact with. Whether it’s Howard in the car or the private investigator Chuck once hired, I think them being seen at the Kettlemans is enough for Howard to know what’s going on. Jimmy has also made it known to Howard in the past that he wanted the Sandpiper case settled, which appropriately Howard called him out on. Back in the season 3 episode “Fall”, he referred to Jimmy as transparent and pathetic and acknowledged his own expectations of Jimmy attempting all kinds of trickery to accelerate the lawsuit’s settlement. Howard also has read Jimmy like a book last season as a man who’s in pain in the aftermath of Chuck’s death. Howard may have his head up his own ass sometimes, but he’s been known to see things for what they are when it matters most.

Lingering thoughts:

-The episode opens with one of Lalo’s girlfriends (who likely suffers from a mental condition) keenly eyeing the domino before allowing them all to topple. The entire episode seems to be about characters competing with one another to see how many dominoes they can forsee falling to work in their favor.  She’s fascinated by what the record may be but sadly these two can’t see passed their own abuse and lack of motivation. There may be hope for them yet though as Mike steers them from Nacho’s orbit.

-The inflatable Statue of Liberty is finally introduced at the Kettleman headquarters. How it gets to Saul Goodman’s office remains a mystery but we can already tell Saul admires it. Does Saul holding possession of it in Breaking Bad mean the Kettlemans meet their downfall? Or is it gifted over to him ala France to the U.S. like the real Statue of Liberty? Say what you want about the Kettleman’s illegal outfit, but they seem to be onto something stylistically which Saul finds alluring.  He’ll even be using that slow patriotic medley for his waiting room in the future.

What did everyone else think?

Better Call Saul “Wine and Roses” (S6E01)

“Jeeves, where’s my solid gold blimp? No, not that one. The other one.” – Kim (Season 2’s “Cobbler”)

In many interviews, Vince Gilligan goes on to express one of the greatest narrative regrets he has with Breaking Bad is opening the final season with the M60 machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s stolen car. At the point of the final season, every avenue of storytelling was ripe to explore and as the season unfolded, the writers became intrigued with the treasure trove of conclusions they can steer the ship towards.  Except what about that damn machine gun? It was a flash-forward that handcuffed the writers into having to satisfy their own trapping and while it’s safe to say they wrote themselves out of that corner successfully and delivered a thematically valid conclusion to Walt’s story, it’s still not a problem I would expect them to repeat.   Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan, and their writers seem addicted to challenge however because not only do they have the Gene story to keep in mind, and the mysterious phone call that Francesca has to answer at 3 PM on November 12th, but now they subversively dazzle us with Saul Goodman’s dream palace which seems to have existed during the Breaking Bad timeline or possibly beforehand. A stunning sanctuary we never saw Saul go home to during the former show. There’s so much to unpack here, literally.

First of all, how rock and roll is it not to show us the follow-up to Gene at the start of the season? It tricks us at first to make us think this will be the traditional black and white cold open but then splashes us in the face with a colorfully hypnotic sequence of Saul’s (and what may be some of Kim’s) ties thrown into a box. Then the reveal of this monstrosity of a mansion.  The statues, the artwork, the cathedral windows. A solid gold toilet? Stripper pole in the bedroom? What went on here?? If the season 5 finale was about not having a full scope of perspective on someone, the intro to season 6 blows that idea wide open. What’s probably the most unnerving aspect to this intro is that we are witnessing the Saul empire, not at its rise or its apex but at its collapse. There’s a feeling of how did Saul accomplish this and where is Kim? There’s so much contradiction and ambiguity here when it comes to theorizing her continued involvement, it’s exhausting.

On one hand, this is not a mansion built for one and if it is built for one, it’s very sad. We can see Saul’s blood pressure medication, a box of Minoxidil (hair loss treatment), and Viagra on the bathroom counter as well as a lot of other stuff that may imply a second person lived here but nothing that really ties directly to Kim. Even the toothbrush cup shows one toothbrush and it’s unknown if a second one is in there because a hairbrush blocks our view.  This set dressing is intentionally shot because the use of Kim and Jimmy’s toothbrushes has been a symbolic runner since season 2 on the state of their relationship. We see a bra looped around the faucet of the bathtub and there’s a separate walk-in shower but it doesn’t necessarily mean Kim’s been around. Plus did I mention the stripper pole in the bedroom? If you’re really in denial, you might argue that Kim may have had a sense of humor about it, but realistically this does not seem to be a married man’s house.

I think back to the previous episode when Kim and Jimmy are eating ice cream and fantasizing what to do with all the money they can get from Sandpiper. Kim’s dreams are to build a practice that can provide help for the little guy and give them a defense only millionaires can afford. Jimmy interjects by saying “I was thinking we get a house?” It’s not to say that Saul doesn’t sympathize with Kim’s values, but it shows you where his mind goes first. It’s strange though.  In many ways it feels like Kim has a better grasp on Saul Goodman and how to embrace the real idea behind him. Howard asked Jimmy what’s Saul Goodman about back in season 5’s “Namaste”:

“He’s the last line of defense for the little guy. You’re getting sold down the river? He’s a life raft. You’re getting stepped on? He’s a sharp stick. You got Goliath on your back, Saul’s the guy with the slingshot. He’s a righter of wrongs. He’s a friend to the friendless. That’s Saul Goodman.”

To Jimmy, Saul Goodman seems more like a character brand than a way of life. It’s a put-on. It’s not to say that he doesn’t do right by his clients for those noble reasons but it’s the money which is the main objective. He shares resentment for the upper establishment in the same way Kim does, but helping people who don’t have a chance in the game of law seems secondary. For Kim, helping a client who got set up as the getaway driver to a rich kid’s robbery and rescuing a homeless woman from MDC is one of the best days professionally from her point of view.  Something Saul mistakes as a day from hell. You have to remember, Saul spent the beginning of last season referring to his clients as assholes and suckers.  Before Lalo entered the scene, his goal was to churn through as many clients as he can no matter what their case settled on in order to get the best financial turnover. If he can convince his clients that they received the best legal representation money can buy, then what does he care whether he gave it 100%? Kim is similar in terms of being morally grey but on the flip-side he wants the best financial turnover (Sandpiper) in order to be in a better position to give her clients 100% in legal representation.

Kim seems to egg Jimmy on as to the flashier car Saul should drive and how to properly play up the colorful persona. She highly puts emphasis on flair. Who’s to say this future mansion isn’t just the two of them fulfilling some tongue-in-cheek fantasy just to prove they can. Kim and Jimmy have certainly fantasized about getting a house in the past, coincidentally in the same scene in season 2 when Kim first presents Jimmy with the World’s 2nd Best Lawyer cup. Back then, the house fantasy seemed rich but less Scrooge McDuck. They mention living in a bungalow in Corrales with a big open floor plan, expansive acreage with horses and wine and barbecue on the back patio.  Seems more Kim’s style. Maybe it means something that in the same episode we get a glimpse of Saul’s future house, the World’s 2nd Best Lawyer Again cup is thrown in the trash by Kim. Maybe the flame between them will die. As far as there is to tell, Kim is long gone from the house in the cold open and the Zafiro Enejo bottle cap being left behind seems to hint towards that. “Never say never” though seems to be one of themes to Better Call Saul’s story so is there ever any real telling?

After all, who would think Kim would go so far beyond pillow talk with sabotaging Howard to settle the Sandpiper case. Jimmy of all people seems to be more peer-pressured into it than in direct support. When Kim insists on talking further about it at dinner, Jimmy feels apprehensive and surprised Kim is still mulling the idea over which in turn makes him feel small when questioning it. Her mood shifts to disappointment upon seeing Saul’s uneasiness. There’s an innocence to him as he sips his Coke. As much as Jimmy can’t truly get behind throwing Howard professionally under the bus, he also can’t stomach leaving Kim hanging. It’s not like she’s forcing him as she repeatedly asks if he’s sure he’s okay with it, but he definitely feels compelled.  Kim has done a lot for Jimmy. One hand has always washed the other and Kim has leaned towards alternative ideas of bruising Howard’s reputation as a lawyer rather than tanking his career altogether.

Between countering Kevin Wachtell’s prejudices with anti-semitic claims in the country club, clogging the toilet to distract the clerk, and stripping naked as a means of disguise, Saul’s scheme of planting fake cocaine in Howard’s locker is brilliant. What feels off about it though is that Saul feels like a hired hand who’s not driven of his own accord or getting any genuine reward. As viewers, we’re conditioned to root for the protagonist regardless if they’re an anti-hero or not. Usually it’s because we want what they want. We’re along for their ride and if they have a goal and we understand why they strive towards that goal, then we’re on board.  In this case, not even Saul is fully on board and while we love Kim, we’re left filling in the blanks as to why she’s so adamant in getting the money in such a morally-comprising manner. There’s several reasons previously mentioned in support of her goal and we know why she strongly dislikes Howard, but it still leaves a knot in your stomach even when the groundwork for their long-term plan has gone off without a hitch. The collapse of the Saul empire shown in the beginning of the episode also casts a shadow over everything.

Kim and Jimmy’s endeavor only places them more centered in the crosshairs of danger rather than gets them out. In Nacho’s story, every ounce of energy is about dodging danger but proves just as stressful seeing as the entire south of the border serves as one giant crosshair. Nacho’s escape has intensified when his absence from Lalo’s compound massacre sets off alarm bells to Don Eladio and the Federalis. It’s confirmed by Juan Bolsa that they believe him to be a rat. On top of that, the hit on Lalo was botched which nobody is privy to, adding an extra layer of impending doom. The cartel will want Nacho alive so they can climb up the chain to who ordered the hit. It is not in Gus’ interest for Nacho to be caught so Tyrus guides Nacho towards an evacuation point at a seedy motel.

But where does Gus stand with Nacho? When Mike proposes a rescue to get Nacho home safe, Gus seems to be on a different page. Tyrus walking out of the room suggests a decision was already made and he doesn’t need to be in the room for Mike to give his peace on the subject. Mike pitches that loyalty goes both ways but Gus makes a point that Nacho was never given the choice to be loyal or not. From Gus’ perspective, Nacho was dead the moment he claimed ownership over him to be used for his bidding. Mike closes with “When all is said and done, the kid deserves your respect” after stressing that Nacho has played a tough game on the square. Gus responds that he does have respect for Nacho but it in no way seems to suggest that respect therefore saves him. It seems too late and Gus is too careful to let someone walk. Mike mistakes Gus for a man who is fair which is understandable considering Gus pushed back in Season 5’s “Dedicado a Max” when implied by Mike to be no more ethical than the Salamancas.

So what’s the play here? They provide Nacho with a gun in the motel.  Does Gus need him safe long enough before evacuatin him to a controlled place in which he can safely determine Nacho’s fate? Maybe set Nacho’s death up in a way to further take suspicion off Gus? And does Mike’s input mean anything as Gus’ right hand soldier? Is there no moral value anything else other than the linear road to revenge? Mike is at a crossroads in this situation. It’s one thing for Mike to take out Werner Ziegler, another man he respected. But Nacho and Mike’s alliance was seasoned long before Gus came into the picture. It’s an attack on Mike’s world and his standards to achieve a winning war’s outcome. Mike will actively search for an alternaive play. It’s quite similar to Jimmy’s dlilemma in tearing Howard down. Jimmy may not like Howard, but Howard is his world. It’s Kim’s world too, but with Jimmy, tearing Howard down to the extent of tanking his career is not his style in the pursuit of sticking it to the upper class. “Wine and Roses” explores the follies of a goal when cooperatively pursued, the compromises make in partnership, and how it pulls both parties forward intro re-evaluating their standards which otherwise never would be considered if they went about it alone.

Then you have Lalo, the one wild card psychopath who never needs anyone’s moral approval. This is a man who will groom a long historied friendship with sweet, Christian caretakers Mateo and Sylvia on the Mexican countryside, only to murder both of them when needs the husband as a body double in the event Lalo needs to fake his own death. Handling Mateo’s dental work was only so Lalo can swap the dental records to match his own when the Federalis investigate the horribly disfigured corpse of Mateo. This is one of the most cold and sinister plays we’ve witnessed in this universe. Perhaps Lalo actually grew to like these honest, hardworking people, but like Gus’ views on Nacho, they were likely considered dead the moment Lalo decided to use them for his ulterior motive.

Raging chaos on Gus despite Juan or Don Eladio’s wishes does not present itself with a moral hurdle, but a political one. When Hector learns that Lalo’s alive and his plan to take out Gus, he urges Lalo to have proof of Gus’ involvement in his assassination attempt so that the Cartel bosses can get behind him. It takes a beat but Lalo may know where to get this proof. What’s curious however is that he declines to go North, killing the coyotes he had paid to take him there. My first thought is the chain of mistrust that connects Lalo and Nacho and how he was already suspicious of Saul as a questionable link in that chain. But why stay South? The only sensible theory to muster is Lalo deducing the Columbian gang as the ones who likely ambushed Saul. Whether Lalo can interrogate any surviving hitment or the man from the cartel stash house who helped facilitate it, perhaps he can get information as to what exactly happened. Lalo knows there’s no way Saul would survive the ambush on his own, so regardless if the Columbian gang were operating on their own volition or were hired, there must have been interference by another interested party. This may not be hard proof, but he may be building a better case before making the mistake of heading off Saul and Kim again half-cocked.

Other thoughts:

-Saul spins the table on opposing council and Detective Tim Roberts who wants to bring Parsons (the judge) in to review Lalo’s abrupt and alarming release. They are suspicious but Saul throws it in their face that the law and its agents had every resource at their disposal to stop Lalo from walking. Saul’s so caught up in his defense of detaching his responsibility and his contempt for the law’s incompetence, he reveals Lalo’s name accidentally. It would be easy to say this was a hiccup that won’t have any further narrative, but this show is too consequential and deliberate to cut the thread of suspicion so easily.

-This final season premiere is full of slow, dramatic reveals, consisting of wide and closed shots and object POV. Between the spoils of the dessert cart melting away outside Kim and Jimmy’s hotel room, the buzzing cell phone in the foreground as Gus awaits Juan Bolsa’s call regarding Lalo’s assumed demise, or Kaylee’s marble contraption running its course as Mike shares time with his granddaughter amidst the more darker plot, the tone is nail-biting as we approach the final stretch. The best pullback was from the ant on the dead hitman’s finger, followed by the Salamanca twins approaching the crime scene. That ant is representative of how tied together this universe is with itself and how we’ve arrived at the point of no return. Nobody is off the table from meeting a grisly end in this world. Not Saul, not Kim, and not even poor Mateo and Sylvia.

-The beautifully directed cold open played to an instrumental of Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses” has a mysterious object to keep in mind. Notice the notebook that gets thrown into the box marked ‘No Value’. If you freeze-frame the book when opened, there’s an odd, coded language that fills its pages. Very bizarre and alien-like. Perhaps this is a code only Jimmy and Kim will every comprehend? Coordinates? It’s too odd an item given just enough screen time for it to amount to nothing.

-H.G. Well’ 1895 science fiction novel The Time Machine is also featured in a separate shot. It’s a story about speculative evolution and class division between two human sub-species, being the Eloi and the Morlocks. Eloi are the more down-to-earth playful entities, while the Morlocks are more brutal and monstrous. Perhaps this alludes to Jimmy and Kim’s character journeys? I might have to pick this book up!

An interesting note about which was shown on the shoe box in Saul’s palace closet. It’s the company Masai Barefoot Technology that was brought out of bankruptcy in 2013. It was appointed to work behind the scenes under a new name developing a running shoe that utilizes rocker technology to serve up a “soft, smooth ride.” This could mean nothing but the theorist in me associated 2013 as Breaking Bad’s final aired season and as soon as I heard “working behind the scenes”, I thought perhaps Kim shares that similar role post-Breaking Bad.  Behind the scenes with a new name leading a smoother life? Alright, I’ll stop.

Source: ,article by Brian Metzler

What did everyone else think?

Better Call Saul “Something Unforgivable” (S5E10)


Better Call Saul is an interesting show in that it follows Breaking Bad’s beat by beat consequential nature but also puts more emphasis on choice in a show that’s tasked with a wider scope of storylines. It would be easy to write the hellish conclusion for every character here solely with the Lalo storm cloud hanging above in mind so that the plot pieces fit nice and snug with Breaking Bad, but this particular show breathes. It’s less chugging along to the beat of one character’s drum like the story of Walter White and more about becoming fulfilled with independent brush strokes derived from the individuality of each character. Like the opening shot of Kim peering out the apartment peephole, we only have a fixed view within a fixed point in time to get an idea where they’re coming from. Every character is integral to the overall story of Jimmy McGill, but they don’t necessarily exist in service to it. That’s not to say Breaking Bad’s supporting characters weren’t their own, but that the story was more bombastic and the characters were positioned to take cover from the explosive choices of one character.  Better Call Saul is the more proactive ensemble in which they duck and weave from the choices made by the many.  This makes the concept of a prequel much more of a higher achievement as it pushes itself closer to the end because the story of Jimmy becoming Saul Goodman is still very much important.

“Something Unforgivable” starts off with Saul and Kim in the aftermath of being cornered by the dangerous Lalo. We are shown the cold, sterile hallway of the apartment complex as Kim peers out the peephole. Almost looks like the hallway to a cell block or at least emits the feeling of one. Lalo may have departed but the lack of freedom they feel in this moment unquestionably lingers.  After Saul finally fills Kim in on the deadly details from his trip to the border, they decide to hole themselves up in a hotel.  This is a sharp swerve off the bad choice road which Saul had already knew he was on.  It’s for the rest of the episode he’s tasked with how to move forward. It’s one thing that he’s been struggling with PTSD but Kim is most definitely now involved in the world that brought that on. Is he bad for Kim? Will he prevent himself from crossing the next line? Is Kim safe so long as they stay together? These are the questions that hang in the balance and are readily addressed throughout this season finale.

Is Saul bad for Kim? From the audience’s perspective, it wouldn’t be the most unreasonable conclusion to say yes. At this point in the show, mostly every rock of what makes Jimmy McGill tick has been lifted. We know this guy very well and we have the luxury to know where he ends up so the second question of whether he can keep himself from crossing the next line is no mystery. Chuck once compared Jimmy to an alcoholic who can’t help himself. The PTSD from the desert shootout and the Lalo standoff may very well serve as a bad hangover to make him say “never again”, but give it a week and his next bender is likely underway. What’s sad is part of Jimmy deep down wants to change but he has no idea how he’d live any differently.  It’s always been the tragedy to who he is in which he accepts. What goes on inside him is immovable but what’s most intriguing in this hour is the hard external decision he is willing to make based from genuine love.  It’s hard to accept as a fan of Kim and Jimmy’s relationship, but did you pick up on what Jimmy’s next move was after getting assurance from Mike that Lalo won’t be a problem anymore?

The dread is undeniable in that hotel room as Jimmy sheepishly leans towards the notion of going home without enthusiasm.  Earlier he used the perks of the hotel’s services as bait to keep Kim in place. Being no dummy, Kim caught on to this quick which she contests because it’s not in her DNA to live in fear. It’s likely the reason she inquires about more challenging PD overflow from a fellow cohort as soon as she gets back to work.  Taking on felony cases might be a way of honing her skills, assimilating herself in a world of real hard crime, and giving herself a chance to understand the possible future of Jimmy and the company he keeps. It wouldn’t be the first time she used her choice in case work as a therapeutic endeavor. It also would bring more law enforcement in her orbit as a security measure.  Ultimately, Kim is trying to put herself in a better position both mentally and physically to ensure her future with Jimmy is more endurable. Again, genuine love on display here.

When the going gets rough, Kim’s love for Jimmy drives her to move necessary pieces around in the efforts to stick by him. Upon reassurance that the threat of Lalo has absolved, she’s gunning for a dinner date, happy as a clam, and inviting Jimmy to enjoy every splendor their wild ride has landed them amidst the settled dust. However, Jimmy’s love in this instance pushes him to take accountability for what the rest of their road has in store even when the consequences of his recent choices have seemingly subsided. This is noteworthy because usually Jimmy shares the mindset that as long as everything worked out in the end, there’s nothing to worry about.  This is growth.  As devastating as it is, Jimmy wants to go home because it will be an easier setting to end the relationship. It’s never said, but you can feel it.  For him, fun is fun, but if he’s to carry on the way he does which he knows he will, there is no happy ending for Kim so long as they’re together. Jimmy may be stubborn to change within, but it’s impressive that he’s capable of making such a selfless, heartbreaking choice to protect someone he loves.  In a parallel universe, I believe Jimmy went through with this.  Kim could have easily been on the same page, understanding how close they came to chaos and agreed to go home leading to a split but as mentioned above, this is a show brimming with independent brush strokes.

Whereas Jimmy met with Mike privately under the desperate motive to weigh what the plot’s impact (being Lalo) has on Kim’s safety, Howard met with Kim privately to weigh what Jimmy’s influence as a character has on her.  If the encounter with Lalo didn’t scare her off, Howard’s tales of bowling balls and prostitutes are laughably trivial in comparison. Despite Howard’s best intentions for Kim, she simply does not like him and they have shaky history.  Howard may be right that Jimmy is unhinged, in pain, and in a whirlwind of impending trouble, but like Chuck’s reservations, it’s how he goes about presenting these truths.  The white-knighted, politically correct delivery of his concerns that Jimmy may be responsible for her resigning from S&C and dropping Mesa Verde are one thing but the notion that Kim isn’t an adult capable of making her own decisions is what’s most insulting to her. It’s probably more irritating coming from the guy who told her off back in season 1’s “Pimento”:

“You want to know what I believe? I believe that you’re way out of your depth in this matter. So the next time you want to come in here and tell me what I’m doing wrong, you are welcome to keep it to yourself. Because I don’t care.”


Under Chuck’s influence, Howard has always been infected with a pre-determined outlook on who Jimmy is. That’s not to say he didn’t have his own opinion of Jimmy being the go-getting Charlie Hustle who had potential to be better than what his brother made him out to be, but he was nonetheless infected.  Howard was in a tough spot with Chuck, so part of me doesn’t blame him, but how can Kim trust him? Howard will always carry that stink of judgement on Jimmy which was casted by Chuck.  It’s too late for Howard to make up for his involvement in the messy McGill wars, but as a boss to Kim, there was mental abuse at times and that’s something which could have been avoided.  It may have been few and far between but when Howard snubs Kim throughout an entire walk from the office to the boardroom or keeps her in document review as over-extended punishment or talks down to her like a little girl who’s in way over her head, that’s not something to be forgotten regardless of what he feels she may or may not deserve.  He has always rubbed her the wrong way and it’s that bias which unfortunately contributes to his concerns of Jimmy falling on deaf ears.

But maybe it’s not Jimmy we should be worried about. Jimmy has been swimming in self-reflection this hour and was arguably on the brink of breaking up with Kim for her own good. However, Kim makes her own choice born from who she is, being someone who does not need to be saved. She reels Jimmy back in, despite his struggle, and inflates him with ideas on how to continue sabotaging Howard. The more petty pranks she brainstorms, the more Jimmy perks up out of his funk. How can Jimmy leave such an unique partner who empathizes and understands him so profoundly? They are inseparable and although Jimmy was unable to bring himself to cut things off, it’s nothing to be sneezed at in that he’s gaining foresight from his own behavior.

“You know who really knew Jimmy? Chuck…”

Howard’s last sentiment to Kim lands hard as an awfully thought-provoking point in how knowing someone well or claiming to doesn’t mean you have an extensive view of all possible avenues. But for Kim, that’s life and Howard playing the Chuck card to suggest she doesn’t know what she’s talking about only drudges up memories of Howard holding the keys to the McGill castle and punishing her for ever getting involved since the beginning. What could have been a fair heeded warning, becomes a declaration of her own war with Howard, pushing her to devise a more diabolical plan against him. When Kim suggests to Jimmy that they can get Howard disbarred for misconduct by framing him to misappropriate funds or witness bribery from the Sandpiper case, it’s Jimmy who dons the moral compass thinking it’s going too far. Doing so however would grant them astronomical rewards as Jimmy would receive 20% of the common fund equating to $2 million. The Sandpiper Crossing clients would get paid a hefty sum which they can begin spending now before it’s too late. Kim argues every angle that’s it’s all in trade for one career setback for one lawyer who they don’t even like.

This plan, if followed through with, will be the worst thing Kim has ever done. It feels like we’re missing a piece of who she is in this moment which is what seems to worry Saul the most. It’s appropriate that she’s wearing her Kansas City Royals shirt in the final scene.  This shirt has always served as a curious reminder that we don’t know her full story.  There’s a mystery that surrounds her past to explain the enigma for why she’s so heavily drawn to the misbehavior of Saul. It makes you wonder who the real chimp with a machine gun actually is between the two. She seems to be an entirely different animal who’s better at masking this side to herself. Some might interpret that Kim has become fully corrupted in this episode but who’s to say she’s been suppressing her true self all along the same way Jimmy has attempted to suppress Slippin’ Jimmy. Who is the bad influence on who? Kim’s sleek whip-around slinging imaginary handguns mirrors season 4’s final scene when Jimmy’s turn to become Saul completely sideswipes her. The action here however isn’t just a mere two finger point, but she’s firing shots and blowing each barrel. Does this symbolize her being the more reckless influence in contribution to Jimmy’s transformation going forward? Perhaps she’s not so much collateral damage to Saul’s actions than he is to hers.

In an episode full of character choice exploration, the Nacho subplot complements Kim and Jimmy’s by being a story about having no choice. Nacho has been pulled in every direction this season as a pawn between Gus and Lalo. Under the threat of death for him and his father, Nacho has been forced to commit acts he otherwise would never fathom committing.  Saving the cocaine stash from a building crawling with DEA agents, burning down Fring’s restaurant, and now being ponied up to Don Eladio as the leader of the Salamanca territory north of the border, he’s fallen farther and farther down the hole he’s desperate to escape from.

When being interviewed by Eladio, Nacho takes Lalo’s advice and is honest when asked what he wants. Respect and the ability to make his own decisions without having to look over his shoulder. Can Nacho ever achieve this when his fate is so tightly sealed? Don Eladio points out that if he wants to have any of that, he’s in the wrong business.  On top of that, he’s already been guilted by his father to take responsibility for his actions. Running is cowardice. He can’t escape the business and he can’t get what he wants from the business. Regardless of where he ends up by the end of Better Call Saul, the best we can hope for is Nacho gaining the ability to make a choice greater than himself, unfazed by the criminal underworld’s storm cloud. Obviously his father is the most important factor to him here, but if Nacho is to go down, it would be cathartic if it was on his own terms. Less flight and more fight.

Nacho is appointed as the man on the inside of Lalo’s Chihuahua compound for Gus’ assassination mission. When Gus’ hired squad of assassins contact him, Nacho tries to argue for the safety of the innocent folks who reside within the compound, but he’s ignored which raises the severity of his actions by allowing them inside. Again, he’s forced to make a bold, morally-compromising choice but it’s the only way to be rid of Lalo for good. Nacho is a tool, not a person in this damning scenario. What’s interesting is when pushed into a corner, Nacho is capable of taking on incredibly daring action like starting a grease fire in the kitchen to distract Lalo. We know he’s capable of taking control of his life if ever given the chance, whether he deserves to at this point or not.

After some intense difficulty, Nacho has definitively betrayed Lalo upon opening the gate for the hitmen.  There’s no turning back from this as he disappears into the night. Gus has informed Mike that these hitmen are the best in their business.  Mike informs Jimmy that Lalo will be dead come tomorrow. Jimmy tells Kim the Lalo ordeal is over. What Gus underestimates about Lalo is that he is a ferocious wild card. It’s insane what unfolds in the compound from here and what it means for the entire Better Call Saul universe. A secret bathtub escape hatch?  This is an hour of television that stresses the idea of limited perspective both for character and plot. Even a man like Gus who has eyes on everything cannot foresee every hurdle. This bathtub is the plot equivalent of Kim’s finger guns. Something that just shockingly reveals itself. Is this hinting at our own limited perspective of the Breaking Bad universe? Is it possible for characters like Kim, Howard, Nacho or even Lalo to exist behind the scenes of Walt’s story? No…right? Nah… Maybe?

Because after Lalo subdues every assassin and forces the last survivor to call and tell Gus “mission successful”, Lalo not only holds all the cards for all of these characters’ fates (Gus being completely none-the-wiser), but he’s furious, especially after having seen his people, including Yolanda the cook, slaughtered. With Nacho nowhere to be seen, Lalo knows he’s been betrayed.  The first thing Lalo is going to do is track Nacho down and once he gets a hold of him, he’ll likely make Nacho reveal every detail that lead up to this massacre through torture.  That includes the true story of Saul Goodman’s involvement which Kim had previously vouched for at the end of “Bad Choice Road”. If it wasn’t for Kim, Lalo wouldn’t have pulled the trigger on trusting Nacho and setting up a meeting with Don Eladio to cement that trust.  This is so deeply personal now and nobody is safe. Not even Howard who will be the focus in Kim and Saul’s world before it comes crashing down.  As if blowback from the attempt on Howard’s career isn’t scary enough, the unpredictable force of nature that is Lalo Salamanca is coming.

“No it wasn’t me, it was Ignacio! He’s the one!”

One more thing to note:

Jimmy makes an effort to not have mint chocolate chip ice cream towards the end of the episode echoing the one he dropped earlier in the season which got covered in ants. That ice cream represents the point of no return brought on by his choices and the contamination of Jimmy McGill’s soul.  Perhaps choosing a different flavor can be seen as a fresh start or simply a way of putting his bad choices (past, present, and future) out of his mind.

What did you guys think?

What Are We Chasing (Or Running From) When Consuming Entertainment?

The main hope when consuming entertainment is for our imaginations to be captured. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are cinematically moving shows where every small action is consequential. The Simpsons is an absurdly flexible playground rooted in character and emotion. 2001: A Space Odyssey shows us how both eerily insignificant and significant our bizarre existence is all at once. And Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 remake provides the most addicting gameplay loop on how to fly around an entire city on a flat board with four wheels without cracking your pelvis in real life.

But then we watch more. Play more. Listen more. We want more sequels and more works provided by our favorite directors, writers, and artists. We want to build our libraries and be a part of the conversation, whether it’s about the new thing or the old thing. Some, like me, will write blogs or reviews on their favorite stuff purely because we want to (without pay!) and then hang it up on a figurative refrigerator with a figurative magnet so we can tilt our chairs from across the figurative kitchen and say “I did that.” (The chair is the only real thing in this scenario). Do we crave validation? Is it an ego thing? Maybe.

Most of the time, we don’t even know what we want in entertainment. Often, we’re chasing what we’re already used to. More quirky characters who got themselves in a jam. More shootouts. More deliberately paced think-pieces. More trippy atmospheres. We rely on creators to recapture and expand on our past loves or to hopefully innovate and show us something new to obsess over. Even with all the great content being generated across all mediums, it’s few and far between that you’re going to get the same fix you had from Mad Men, Mulholland Drive, or God of War.

It’s our duty though as media lovers to be open-minded and keep consuming until we become enamored by that next favorite. It’s quite the conundrum. Until then, the many commercial and critical hits we absorb will only result in us revisiting our core favorites regardless of the outside works we deeply admire. It’s a cycle I find myself always doing where the lesson taught is ‘patience’. You don’t need to experience everything. It’s good to, but don’t burden yourself as if you’re obligated. Not everyone is running a business on the matter. Part of entertainment is filling a void and escaping reality for a bit. Feel free to step out of the dump truck once in a while. Because if you’re taking entertainment too seriously, then you would hope you can apply what you’ve taken away from it to enrich your life beyond that void.

In recent video game news, Sony greenlit a remake of 2013’s The Last of Us and cancelled the prospects of a sequel to 2019’s Days Gone, two games that immerses a player in a post-apocalyptic world. Many fans, non-fans, and media heads across the gaming sphere are upset. But why? This is the cat-and-mouse nature of the entertainment consumption process. On the one hand, Sony is future-proofing one of its most critical darling properties. Am I going to play a remake of The Last of Us? I have no conceivable plan to but I understand the effort to preserve the feeling a beloved piece of entertainment gave me, regardless of how soon and desperate the manner in doing so is.

Desperation goes both ways for provider and consumer in the vicious cycle of satisfying our hearts and minds. Does Days Gone need a sequel? It sold incredibly well but other than the wacky, sequel-baiting twist at the end of the game, I’m not surprised Sony wasn’t won over by Bend Studio’s pitch. I liked Days Gone. I platinumed it. Beyond that, Deacon’s story was told and what more is there to explore? How big do the zombie hordes have to get to outdo itself? (If there’s more zombies than what we got at the Saw Mill, then I’d rather just get bit.) How ‘out there’ does the mythology have to become to justify another installment? Mainly, why does everything have to become a franchise? Are we just as desperate and pathetic for prolonging an IP as Sony is in preserving one? That last question goes for all forms of entertainment.

I wish the best for Bend Studio. I hope the cancellation of a sequel means they can work on their next great thing because they surely have a talented development team who has earned the right to do so. My advice for those who want more Days Gone? Go play Days Gone. Be grateful it exists. In the meantime, when the universe closes a door, it opens another. And then there’s a long hallway. Hopefully leading to another room with a chair I can sit in.

What’s my point again?

Top 7 Simpsons Episodes of Season 3

Ah,  season 3.

The debut for showrunners Al Jean & Mike Reiss churning out 24 glorious episodes spanning from September 19th, 1991 to August 27th, 1992.  It’s a crime to dismiss the rest of the season’s installments.  So many series favorites come to mind and may very well only be excluded due to writer’s block.  If it were up to me, I’d rank and review the entire season, but sometimes we must kill our darlings in order to make a random Top 7 list.  Enjoy!

7. “Lisa’s Pony” (Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss)

It’s every little girl’s dream to have her own pony.  At least that’s how the generalization goes, but what if The Simpsons took that cliche’ and ran with it to explore the physical and economical toll it would have on the father providing for it?  Lisa, starved of the support of a present father figure is disappointed once again when Homer fails to retrieve a saxaphone reed in time for her recital.   Her cynicism however is flipped to pure childhood bliss when she’s given a pony as a grand apologetic gesture.  The premise is ‘out there’ for so early in the show’s run, but its the emotional resonance which keeps it glued together.  What seems like a quick fix exercise in parenting from Homer, becomes an extraordinary example of the commitment he’s willing to endure (working a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart) just to uphold his daughter’s happiness.  In the end, it’s Lisa who meets Homer’s sense of willpower by admitting “there’s a big, dumb animal I love even more than that horse…”

“Oh no, what is it, a hippopotamus?” – Homer

*This episode won Dan Castellaneta the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’

6. “Dog of Death” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for dogs like anyone else, but out of all of season 3’s episodes, this one always jumps out at me.  The Simpsons family dog, getting his key introduction in the pilot “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, became a gleaming symbol for the love and gratitude shared as the family continued to live paycheck to paycheck with a colorful, down-but-not-out optimism.  If the pilot was about being grateful for the riches you have or find in life, season 3’s “Dog of Death” is a story of how complacent we can get when carrying that appreciation forward.  The best aspect to this episode as Santa’s Little Helper faces imminent death is the balance between cynicism and sincere emotion.

Writer John Swartzwelder holds back no punches whether it’s Mr. Burns literally bopping SLH in the face to make him a fiercer attack dog or if Bart, SLH’s number one defender, calls his beloved pet a “dumb dog” with utter contempt due to the misfortune brought on the family in the effort to pay for the dog’s surgery.  This is not a fluff piece on whether or not the dog will survive by episode’s end, but of what happens if he did survive after considerable sacrifice.  That said, there are moments found in this episode that are quite special and real for anyone who has had to deal with a dying pet and one I’ve found especially reassuring after losing my childhood wheaten terrier, Mickey.

5. “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” (Written by Jon Vitti)

Many people refer to this episode as the one that gave us the famous ‘Land of Chocolate’ sequence, as it should, but for me, the first associative image I have is what shortly follows: A can of carrot cat food whizzing miserably as it rotates slowly in an electric can opener, followed by Marge walking through the kitchen door with her beehive hairdo split in two.  The ‘Land of Chocolate’ fantasy helps to enhance this moment as it whisks both Homer and the audience into a playful fantasy before completely gutting you when Homer is fired from the nuclear plant and the family is forced to improvise their penny pinching (back when Homer being fired actually had some punch).  This is a result from Mr. Burns’ depression which leads him to sell the plant to a snug and friendly consortium of German businessmen, whom despite their easy-going nature, find no use for Homer’s continued employment as safety inspector.  Not to mention the extra sting that prior to this, Homer impulsively sold his company stock for a measly $25 (spent on beer) unaware it was set to skyrocket to $5,200.

What ties “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” together in a very interesting way is that Homer’s termination happens for all the right reasons and him losing money on the stock is completely derived from his own carelessness, but also his naivety.  You still feel immense sympathy for him and yet, you also feel bad for Burns when Homer, Bart, and Moe’s barflies throw Burns’ depression back into his face, taunting “Nobody loves you” and reiterating how money doesn’t bring you happiness.  Sure, Mr. Burns is an entitled, filthy rich man who only wants to open new opportunities to raise terror in his fellow man, but he absorbs every blow in this moment, considerably, with absolute defeat.

It’s amazing how Homer and Mr. Burns couldn’t be any more repelled from one another as characters, yet they oddly need each other.  This is an episode I believe winks as a potential set-up for an idea that could have been in a future final Simpsons season, as Burns buys the plant back and vows to employ the man who sassed him in the bar, only to make him feel safe and secure throughout the years, before bringing the hammer down when it’s least expected.  If it wasn’t for Burns’ increased senility and forgetfulness over the show’s run, I have no doubt Burns would follow through.

4. “Bart the Murderer” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

“Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city.  He is the cancer and I am the…uh…what cures cancer?” – Chief Wiggum

Stupid cops.  Stupid criminals.  Stupid everybody.  “Bart the Murderer” is once again a Swartzwelder jamboree of thrilling absurdism, being one of the earlier installments to really test the foundations of the Simpsons universe’s flexibility.  It’s the introduction of Fat Tony’s mafia and a humorous exhibition of Springfield’s criminal underbelly with Bart caught in the center.  The very heart of its comedy derives from Bart’s routine day-to-day serving as comic foil, doing no favors in steering him towards any hopeful direction regardless of his relentless optimism.  The first act break shows him falling face first into a mafia syndicate’s headquarters and the second act demonstrates, through his own obliviousness, how much Bart fits into this dark world as he mixes drinks, busses tables, and helps confine their operation. 

As the police and opposing mob members tighten the noose on Fat Tony, Principal Skinner proves to be another problem on the mafia’s laundry list by keeping Bart late after school.  It’s when Skinner goes missing where Bart must come to terms with the bizarre company he keeps.  This episode helps us see that it’s Bart’s own guilty conscience instilled by his day-to-day upbringing which may some day save him regardless of where the monotonous chicanery of Springfield Elementary or the incompetence of lawful authority pushes or pulls him.  And if Bart were to find himself before a court on trial for murder, Skinner himself may come busting through the door to tell the most pathetic story imaginable on how a lifetime of exercising seemingly useless knowledge and mundane patience can be the very key to one’s freedom.

3. “Black Widower” (Written by Sam Simon & Thomas Chastain)

Depending on how you look at it, the best Sideshow Bob episodes tend to be the ones where he’s at his most unpredictable.  “Black Widower” is exactly that while pushing Bob’s innocent facade to the absolute edge regardless of whether you share Bart’s mistrust towards him or not.  Bart keeps the audience’s guard constantly up yet any suspicion of ill intent on Bob’s account in becoming smitten with Aunt Selma is squashed almost immediately when he admits in full transparency the disdain he felt for the little boy who got him incarcerated.  Any obvious endeavor to do harm towards Bart is shrugged off with flattering dinner party banter.

“Bart, if I wanted to kill you, I’d have choked you like a chicken as soon as I walked in that door.  But then what kind of a guest would I have been?”

The conflict seems to solely be that Bart doesn’t like how Krusty’s treacherous sidekick is marrying into the family.  Keep in mind this is the first Sideshow Bob episode to air after Krusty was framed for armed robbery in season 1 so there never was any inkling that Bob was anything more than a TV clown’s begrudging sidekick who got locked away.  His return is shocking but the rest of the episode does a pretty good job at establishing his spiritual turn-around and lulling us into the minutiae of Bob and Selma’s developing relationship and wedding preparation satire.  It’s what’s in the smaller details of Bob and Selma’s domestic life where the mystery lies, perhaps being more complex than what Bart was tasked to deduce in “Krusty Gets Busted” and is brashly realized in what I’d consider the best climax a Bob episode ever pulled off.

2. “Lisa the Greek” (Written by Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky)

The episode where Lisa and Homer make bets on pro football is one of those stories where I wish I could have been in the same room when the idea was conceived and/or pitched to showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.  Out of all the Homer/Lisa episodes which delves into their unique, sometimes rocky relationship, “Lisa the Greek” is the most surprising every step of the way, offers the most seamless balance of emotional conflict with levity, and arrives at quite possibly the most inspired resolution to a character conflict in the show’s 31+ year history.

Usually these episodes follow the general direction where Homer is falling short to embrace Lisa’s interests and as a result he’s left picking up the pieces.  This installment goes the opposite route by having Lisa take the initiative to get closer to her father by joining him on the couch for Sunday night football.  At first glance, Homer is uncomfortable with her “invading” upon his down-time and you’re just waiting for Lisa to give up and write the sport off as mindless or barbaric.  However, she grows to not only appreciate the intelligence and art of the game, but they both grow to enjoy each other’s company.  The conditional glue of Homer and Lisa becoming an undefeated team of gamblers and their mutual agreement to let it be their own little secret, helps bring them closer, but also suggests that conflict is on the horizon once the football season is over while the illegality of gambling remains an overlooked fly in the soup.  All of that in mind, the story pulls off this lovely feat where their time together plays so enjoyably in-the-moment that you don’t care if conflict is creeping around the corner.

An episode about weekend-daddy-daughter bonding actually feels like it’s on ‘Sunday drive’ and the smaller moments become magnified because of it.  Even Bart’s small subplot of getting dragged to go clothes shopping with Marge helps feed into the main plot’s tone of simplicity and casual pacing.  A completely character-driven script where its conflict raises the question if Homer and Lisa’s relationship would crumble once conditions are removed is best resolved by what the episode has already been bathed in throughout:  Their chemistry.  Is it based on love despite Lisa proving to be a beneficial asset in helping Homer win money?

“Lisa the Greek” dives into these questions when Lisa realizes how shallow Homer comes off when he only seems to care about her winning predictions for the superbowl after already voicing disappointing plans to post-pone their weekly time together until next football season.  The lack of reciprocation is incredibly thoughtless and inconsiderate on Homer’s part, but is it just a misstep in how he ascertains the value of the time they spend together?  Do they still love each other?  Lisa unenthusiastically tells Homer who she believes will win the superbowl, but notes that if she’s wrong, it’s most likely due to her subconscious wanting Homer to lose.  The outcome of the game has now become less about money and more about where they stand with each other as father and daughter.  It’s one of those final acts that makes you realize how the psychological and poetic framework of The Simpsons runs much deeper than its technical, moving parts because this resolution only works when the art of the show speaks for itself.

*This episode also won Yeardley Smith the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’.  That’s two Homer/Lisa episodes this season (“Lisa’s Pony” and “Lisa the Greek”) where Dan and Yeardley won respectively.

1. “Homer at the Bat” (Written by John Swartzwelder)

In one of John Swartzwelder’s earlier pushes for the The Simpsons to embrace the absurdist humor it so expertly seemed destined for, “Homer at the Bat” is a master stroke in having fun with a ‘far out’ idea without straying too far from the central character’s headspace.  Homer’s humble desire to become a team hero in the eyes of his friends and family by playing for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s company softball team is the pathos to the mock-up of the entire episode.  He builds up his secret weapon to his co-workers and son by revealing ‘Wonder Bat’, a homemade baseball bat he made from scratch.  It’s a very down-to-earth origin story, born from a lightning storm and Homer’s naivety, being two strong forces of nature which are arguably beyond you or me.  Homer is persistent to follow with the dream of molding the “magic piece of wood” into something special.  It’s treated like an extension of himself and he feeds a deep mythology into the bat, believing it will garner him the most homeruns.  It’s a symbol of turning his dumb luck at the face of danger into an opportunity to count his blessings and achieve something great.  Homer may be dumb and lazy on most occasions but when passionate he works hard towards his goals.

Lenny and Carl may mock and undercut the reveal of the bat during their first game, but Homer transcends their disbelief by hitting his first home run on the first pitch.  There’s hope for Homer’s rising success but it’s here where the higher operating powers of Mr. Burns and his million dollar bet with Shelbyville will swiftly marginalize the well-trodden zero-to-hero story with an even zanier premise.  Mr. Burns’ plan to recruit major league ringers on the team serves as an antithesis which happens to be so overwhelmingly fun and hilarious to the point where you laugh rather than cry when Roger Clemens destroys Homer’s homemade bat immediately with a 100 mph+ fastball.  Many shows that attempt to make an extensive band of guest stars the focal point of an episode usually run the risk of the final product falling flat.  An episode can come screeching to a halt if celebrities are shoe-horned in with lame jokes or scenes that are written solely to highlight the vanity of their presence.  “Homer at the Bat” avoids this (with sports guest stars no less!) which is a much more impressive feat given their inexperience in voice acting or any theatrical performance work on TV.

What helps is the self-awareness on the Simpsons staff of what exactly they could expect out of this unique guest cast.  While the jokes that are written around them are wildly bizarre (Ozzie Smith falls into another dimension, Steve Sax gets arrested and charged for every unsolved murder in New York City, etc.), the dialogue is written with each player in mind and they are all well-directed in the parts they have to play.  It’s almost as if Swartzwelder, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss knew that some of the dead-pan deliveries of the lines would only add to the comedy.  Not lessen it.  And some of the performances actually come as a fun surprise like Roger Clemens being completely game to cluck like a chicken or Wade Boggs getting increasingly fed up with Barney over their Pitt the Elder vs. Lord Palmerston debate.

Not only does the inclusion of MLB guest stars benefit the episode as a comedic piece, but narratively it harkens back to Homer’s talents being smothered by something much more uncontrolled and systematic.  Homer can’t compete with Mr. Burns’ wealth and resources in generating an all-star softball team, but can he prevail? For an episode that’s subversive in favor of a comedic sandbox, it’s important for Homer to remain the sympathetic lens for what ensues.  ‘Wonder Bat’ may have been built up only to be obliterated in a quick throwaway gag, but “Homer at the Bat” doesn’t lose sight of Homer’s desires amidst the chaotic hi-jinx that continuously makes him seem largely irrelevant to Mr. Burns’ desire to win.  One of the small marvels of the episode is how Homer doesn’t even question the absurdity of what unfolds like Darryl Strawberry soaring into the sky to rob his pop-fly catch or the sheer luxury of getting to share a spot on the team with these MLB legends to begin with.  The episode may have become a loony circus for comedy but Homer’s still feeling down and out over the conventions of his own personal crisis.  The balance of that with say, Ken Griffey Jr. becoming monstrously deformed due to an obsession with Brain & Nerve tonic, is nothing short of genius.

Overall, “Homer at the Bat” is a gold mine, being rich in reference and astounding in its casting while remaining true to what makes The Simpsons great by carrying its story’s intentions out from beginning to end with lovable characters and a fun, experimental universe.  It’s definitely required viewing if you call yourself a fan of baseball and television alike.  Also, the closing song “Talkin’ Softball” is a parody of Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” (1981) and is sung by Terry Cashman himself.  It’s the episode that keeps on giving!

Thanks for reading! What are your favorites?