Monday, February 8, 2016

A Chimp With a Machine Gun, or Thoughts on Better Call Saul

There’s so much crime under the harsh New Mexican sun.  Since Vince Gilligan was making a modern western with Breaking Bad, is Better Call Saul more of a modern noir?  It certainly has all the elements.  We know the outcome of this character; the story is basically one long flashback after the black and white Cinnabon intro.   The series unfolds in parking garages, diners, nail salons and courthouse rest rooms.  Darkness is punctuated with pools of light and garish neon, like a living Edward Hopper painting.  There’s foreshadowing, inevitability, and the temptation of an ultimately tragic character, all of which tends towards the argument for modern noir.
Season 1, aka Life Before Heisenberg, sets the stage, introduces the characters, and adds some layers of back-story all in preparation for The Rise of Saul Goodman.  There are four stages for Saul in this character arc: His youth as Slippin’ Jimmy in Cicero, the present James McGill Esq., Saul Goodman and then the post-Heisenberg Cinnabon Manager.  Do we really need to talk about how good Bob Odenkirk is in this role?  And while we’re on the subject, how great was he as Chief Oswalt in Season 1 of Fargo?
As Jimmy McGill, Saul tries in vain to turn his life around, fight the good fight and land a big, career defining case all to redeem himself in the eyes of his brother, Chuck.  He started in the mailroom of Chick’s law firm but this is no Secret of My Success (1987).  Family is complicated and the dynamic and rivalry between brothers doubly so.  I think the dynamic between Chuck and Jimmy/Saul is one of my favorite aspects of Season 1.
They’re two sides of the same coin, those McGill Brothers.  Chuck honed his intellect into an impressive and intimidating legal mind while Jimmy used the same brains to look for shortcuts.  Chuck quotes case law verbatim with the same dexterity that Jimmy uses to seek out loopholes and opportunities.  It’s the same McGill moxie applied to different ends.
Chuck’s psychosomatic electronic sensitivity also bookends nicely with Jimmy’s criminal tendencies, in the sense that they are both deep-seated compulsions that are hard to control.  Chuck’s aluminum space blanket is the physical manifestation of his brother’s Slippin’ Jimmy past finally catching up with him.  But when Chuck gets better, after Jimmy piques his interest in the Sandpiper case, he casts Jimmy aside, which we as viewers know will ultimately transform him into Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer.
The Sandpiper case was redemptive to Jimmy, both as an attorney but more significantly, in his brother’s eyes.  We want Jimmy to succeed, thanks to Bob Odenkirk’s natural charisma, but you know he won’t because we’ve watched Breaking Bad.  At least he won’t succeed in the flashy LA Law manner of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill.  (And let’s take a moment to recall that ridiculous Irish accent he uses when he poses as his assistant).
Season 1 also features the origin story of Mike Ehrmantraut, a retired cop who’s crossed the line more than once and literally gotten away with murder.  (If you’re interested, check out a very young and very menacing Jonathan Banks in Beverly Hills Cop (1984).  I was very happy to see Kerry Condon, aka Octavia of the Julii from Rome (2005) as Mike’s daughter in-law and his primary motivation in needing a little extra cash.  Kerry also had my favorite Walking Dead cameo in Season 4 as a feral Irish survivor in the woods outside the prison.
You cannot diminish Saul Goodman’s role in transforming Walter White into Heisenberg.  He introduced him to Gustavo Fring, taught him how to money launder and was essentially responsible for ushering him into the larger world of professional crime.  Of course, Walter White was a fast learner and left Saul far behind, but that’s another story altogether. 
One of the reasons we love Saul Goodman is that once you buy his loyalty it is unassailable, at least until the money runs out.  That’s a known quantity, a given, something you can rely on.  It makes him a good criminal, to paraphrase Mike, because he always keeps his word.  You can trust him, sort of…
The genius of Vince Gilligan lies in his creation of memorable characters that viewers are interested in and want to get to know better.   He could have easily made a show about Skinny Pete and Badger, perhaps on a road trip to Colorado or Portland.  Better Call Saul has the same essential themes as Breaking Bad, a middle-aged man, unfulfilled potential and dreams of empire building.  It just doesn’t share the quiet desperation of turning 50 and having basically one year to live.  So is this Deep Space 9 to the Next Generation?   It certainly looks that way.  Better Call Saul is cooler, edgier and funnier, at least for the moment.  We all know Heisenberg is just around the corner.

But much like Titanic (1997), the story, as always, lies in the journey, not the ending.


my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.