• "Wars to come" loom in Game Of Thrones' fifth season

    The fourth season of Game Of Thrones was divided, roughly, into three large narratives.

    First: the undoing of House Lannister, a festering evil perpetuated by Tywin that finally came back to pierce him through the bowels. Second: Jon Snow's reluctant rise to unofficial leadership, as the Night's Watch battled Mance Rayder's wildlings, aided by boring Stannis Baratheon. Third: Daenerys Targaryen's realization that governing a large population is not a simple endeavor, but tumultuous and unpredictable—much like dragon ownership.

    There were plenty of other threads woven by the show's large cast, of course—Arya and the Hound's shared journey, for instance—but these three seemed the most significant.

    Two of these three plot lines will continue this season, but we have a giant, Tywin Lannister-sized vacuum in the story. It's a perpetual problem for Game Of Thrones that its unpredictability (and the ease with which it casts aside strong characters) forces others to step in and play a bigger part in the story. But judging by the way the fifth season of the show begins in "The Wars To Come," there's still an overabundance of compelling material.

    Approximately nobody predicted that the fifth season would lead off with a flashback to Cersei Lannister's childhood, where she and a "friend"—does Cersei have friends? Is that possible?—accost a woman living on Lannister land who Cersei believes to be a witch. Since the little Cersei is just as snotty and entitled as she is as an adult, she forces the witch to tell her future.

    It's bleak. She'll be queen "for a time," and her children will have golden crowns and shrouds. Not exactly the rosy picture Cersei was looking for given her family name. The spookiest elements of Game Of Thrones are the moments where the medieval darkness gets a twinge of magic, like when somebody gets raised from the dead or a man changes his face. This is a sword and sorcery epic, after all, so when there's enough of the latter to scare those who rely on the former, the show is better for it.

    But it does seem a bit cheap to just recap everything that's going on around the realm, because while a lot of people have written that the fifth season gets off to a slow burn after all the pyrotechnics at the end of the fourth season, I see it a bit differently. Sure, we could check in with Brienne and Podric as they meander along the way having dispatched the Hound but lost Arya. Or Littlefinger and Sansa, passing right by them undetected in a bit of Shakespearean irony, deviating from the books and traveling somewhere as yet unknown.

    Or, most entertaining of all, we could talk a lot about Tyrion and Varys, on the run from King's Landing, arriving in the free city of Pentos, trading witty barbs with aplomb. There's a cornucopia of catching up in this premiere, but what stuck out to me was that with every reintroduction there wasn't much action, but instead a statement of political beliefs.

    Game Of Thrones isn't just a viscerally entertaining fantasy story—it's now the most thoughtful political show on television, and perhaps the best since The West Wing. And in a lot of ways, it's even better, because while Aaron Sorkin acolytes revel in the walk-and-talk witticisms and trumpet the glorification of the American political machine, The West Wing was terrible at offering up competing viewpoints without favoring one over the other. Sorkin was never evenhanded or ambiguous.

    Benioff and Weiss, by contrast, entertain several different opinions on how this world and the people in it should coexist. Varys details his old plan for a Targaryen restoration atop the Iron Throne, which spiraled into a chaotic mess, leading to his escape with Tyrion across the narrow sea. But he still dreams of a future that, while not necessarily utopian, is at least more benevolent, with a powerful, beloved leader who works as a force for the general welfare of all. Brienne bemoans her wandering, saying that all she ever wanted "was to fight for a lord I believed in." Which is too bad, because as she put it: "All the good ones are dead, the rest are monsters."

    Mance silences Jon Snow with the fact that he's willing to die rather than lead his people into a "foreigner's war" with Stannis. It's a rather relevant political allegory to the last decade-plus of American military intervention. Daenerys continues to struggle as a white woman who believes in her nobility bringing freedom and Westerosi thinking to cities made up of mostly darker-skinned slaves and former masters.

    Without a big bloody battle, or some giant plot revelation, there's an increasing amount of pressure on these season premieres to justify the scale of the show. After such a significant deaths, will there be enough to set the table for further plot machinations down the road? Many readers of the novels believe George R.R. Martin's own narrative drive faltered at exactly this point in the series.

    But since the television series is now no longer adhering to a book-by-book structure, it gets to determine what it wants the story of this world to be about. And the scale and conciseness ofscreen production lets it do so in a very deliberate way.

    That's partly by Martin's design, as the ever-present dread and uncertainty helps prevent the show from having to commit to one type of story development for too long. It has always been tough to bring all the disparate threads together, but "The Wars To Come" manages to cohere around the idea of what these characters envision as an ideal scenario. Some work hard to maintain a feeling of independence and personal fortitude. Some envision fending off all the other schemers who look at the family on the throne as just another piece to be toppled. Others have grand designs for an enduring peace that benefits the entire society. It's a range of visions and goals, and that scope helps Game Of Thrones maintain not only a great relevance as a highly popular and entertaining television show, but as a vital examination of the ways in which ambition can affect spheres of influence both great and small.

     

    Extra Thrones

    • As has been widely reported this weekend, the first four episodes of this season—the ones that were sent out to critics for reviewing purposes—leaked online, apparently from a set of DVDs sent out to a critic. It's not good for those of us who depend on the advance screeners to get reviews done so they can go up right after an episode airs. So after the first four weeks, I'll likely be watching live, which means these reviews will go up late Sunday or early Monday morning.
    • Not in the premiere: Arya Stark, who is presumably still on her way to Braavos, and the Boltons, who are presumably still flaying people alive.
    • There's a good amount of male backside nudity going on in this premiere, at least more noticeable than in previous seasons, but it only took 15 minutes to get a brothel scene with female nudity.
  • Better Call Saul's compelling first season ends

    Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have joked since Better Call Saul debuted that the opening title sequence was tossed off and deliberately designed to look shoddy. But it has stealthily become one of the most thematically potent moments of each episode in the first season. In "Marco," it's a ten-second shot of a coffee mug emblazoned with "World's Best Lawyer" falling to the ground in slow motion, where it shatters into pieces, spilling black coffee everywhere. There's no need to put a fine point on it—by the end of the finale, and the improbably compelling first season of this Breaking Bad prequel, Jimmy McGill makes his first choice in years solely designed to benefit his own happiness, a path which inevitably leads to Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer. The white knight possibility shatters into a million pieces, with darkness seeping out, and though thanks to the prequel setup the audience knows where this ends up, it's almost impossible not to feel thrilled for Jimmy, finally out from under everyone else's thumb, free to use all of his skills, from Cicero to the University Of American Samoa, in pursuit of what he wants.

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    Mel Rodriguez has been a stellar guest star and supporting player on television for years now, but he's really stepped it up in the past 12 months. First on Fox's Enlisted, cancelled far too soon, then on the second season of HBO's Getting On, and now on Better Call Saul and The Last Man On Earth. As Marco, Jimmy's friend and partner in petty crime back in Cicero, he's the stand-in for the kind of life Jimmy could've had if not for Chuck swooping in to save the day. But what "Marco" argues, subtly, over the course of an hour without ever coming out and saying it directly, is that the price Chuck exacted from Jimmy all those years ago may have overcompensated for the life Jimmy was leading as a petty con man. In yoking Jimmy to a job in the mailroom, he thought he'd have control over his brother's destiny, but instead he both gave Jimmy ambition to alter his life considerably and a spot to aim for that Chuck could never accept due to his tragically limited view of Jimmy's abilities.

    When pulling the Rolex con, Jimmy and Marco had great fun, and Jimmy's friend did nothing but admire the hell out of Jimmy's talent. For him to see Jimmy skipping town to impress and serve Chuck, a guy with a stick up his ass about everything, is tantamount to "Miles Davis giving up the trumpet." But it was the price Jimmy had to endure in order to not go to prison for a Chicago Sunroof. Back when Jimmy tracked down the skateboard moron twins, he told them the origin of Slippin' Jimmy, and over the course of this season, flashbacks have revealed what it was like for the younger McGill back in Cicero to keep the Old Style flowing. But until now, the precise nature of the dire straits Jimmy found himself in a decade before this series have remained a mystery.

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    The centerpiece of the episode is Jimmy's most epic monologue all season. Back in the second episode, as Jimmy begged for his life and for his skateboard dolt "clients" to get leniency from Tuco, it was clear that he could reel off a convincing argument when necessary. But this is some next-level stuff, going on and on as Jimmy works himself into a malaise at his situation calling out bingo numbers at the old folks' home, then unfurling a personal tirade on an unsuspecting crowd. When leaving HHM after giving over the case and taking his money, Jimmy is nothing but calm. Howard offers a brief bit of praise—he used to call Jimmy "Charlie Hustle," which is both Pete Rose's nickname and a great little nod to McGill's past—and Kim attempts to console Jimmy while noting his lack of vitriol at the situation.

    It's not until Jimmy is faced with his professional future—the bleakness of building a life on something that he thought would impress his brother, but doesn't do anything to change that the world perceives him as less deserving and incapable of great change—that he breaks down and the truth comes out.

    Back in the day, there was a "Cicero connected" guy named Chet, who slept with Jimmy's ex-wife (the first of two in the Saul Goodman history, for those keeping track on a Bingo card at home). Feeling wronged, Jimmy took an opportunity when he saw Chet's car double-parked in front of a Dairy Queen, and defecated into the sun roof—without knowing that two children were in the back seat. Those connections led to Jimmy being brought up on trumped up charges instead of misdemeanors. In his state of downtrodden terrible luck, Jimmy keeps trying to reframe this as a story where he's the victim—the guy slept with his wife, drove an ostentatious car, had windows tinted too dark for the state of Illinois—but which don't absolve his drunken behavior. But in Jimmy's world, it was just another in a long line of instances where he got the short end of the stick, and it took him out of a cycle that was unglamorously allowed him to eke out a living. If he didn't have that run-in with the law, then Chuck wouldn't have needed to come rescue him, setting in motion the entire sequence of events leading to Chuck berating Jimmy for not being good enough and not being a real lawyer. It's a sprawling, sad spiral for Jimmy, who finally drops the mic and leaves ABQ for a Chicagoland vacation.

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    It doesn't take long for Jimmy to fall back into the cycle of pulling small cons, first with an exhilarating and brilliant scheme involving a faux-rare coin, then later a montage highlighting several ridiculous cons that Jimmy and Marco are deft enough to pull off with various marks. It's an entertaining montage, to be sure, but I'm most interested in how it ends, with Jimmy checking his voicemails, and still heeding the call of professional obligation. After a weeklong sabbatical, he feels beholden to his clients, needing to get back to work at something that he's supposed to find fulfilling. Marco points out that since Jimmy's not raking it in, perhaps he's not doing the lawyering thing right. It's hard to argue with that one, considering that Jimmy lives in essentially the same squalor as Marco does in Cicero, only with a law degree.

    The "one last job" ploy is the start of many an ill-fated caper narrative, but the one here is particularly sad. Marco practically begs Jimmy for one last ride, saying he's got nothing else in his life in Cicero. That tempts Jimmy back into the game for a final victory lap, but the possible farewell celebration never comes. In stark contrast the previously masterful execution in a flashback, the coughing fits over the course of this hour foreshadow Marco's heart attack mid-con, where he's not playing dead, but instead actually dying in that dark alleyway.

    All seems lost, but then miraculously, while standing outside the funeral of his friend, Jimmy gets a call from Kim, and in a moment of somewhat forced narrative resolution, gets the kind of job offer he's been after all season. It's not from HHM, but it's an interview at a partner firm Howard brings in to help handle the case Jimmy brought in, still ballooning because it's such a good class action. But it's too soon—I kept looking at the time, and once I realized the finale couldn't end on this moment. Somehow that gilded ending wouldn't ever happen. That's the kind of reaction Vince Gilligan and his staff have condition viewers to reach, not taking a good outcome at face value, expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment.

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    "Marco" brings Jimmy to the precipice of the success he has craved for so long. He gets within a few hundred feet of the meeting that would change his life. But as he feels the weight of his friend's ring on his finger, he begins to wonder just whose dream that is nagging at the back of his brain. Is it really James M. McGill who wants a partner track job at a law firm in Santa Fe, or is it Jimmy's lingering guilt that he should still be trying to impress Chuck?

    Jimmy has money, job security, and clients who recognize and appreciate him lined up. But though it would provide better compensation than Marco's dead-end job in Cicero, it still gave him the same low level of satisfaction. If there's anything that trip home taught Jimmy, it's that wheeling and dealing and the thrill of a con makes him feel accomplished, in the same way that well executed legal work makes him feel like he's contributing in a way he's uniquely qualified to provide.

    The grand question of Better Call Saul's first season is whether it's possible to change, or whether humans will always revert back to some kind of innate personal conduct. Is Jimmy always Slippin' Jimmy, or can he be James M. McGill, Esq? The answer—as that beat up car streaks out of the parking lot, leaving the two yellow lines on the road as a preview of next year's second season—is that Saul Goodman represents a mixture of the two. He's Slippin' Jimmy armed with all the knowledge Jimmy takes from his servitude with Chuck. And now he's out to get what's his.

  • Better Call Saul: Jimmy and Chuck unite for seniors' rights in "RICO"

    Remember when the idea for Better Call Saul first floated around in television production gossip, and it was conceived as a half-hour comedy? There has been a lot of controversy over the new rules for category eligibility at the Emmys, with Shameless making it into Comedy despite its hour-long runtime and decidedly serious worldview, and Orange Is The New Black finally shifting over to compete in its rightful category as a Drama. I had a screenwriting professor who worked in Los Angeles throughout the 90s and 00s, and was still livid that Ally McBeal got to compete as a comedy when it was an hour-long dramedy that had no business going up against sitcoms.

    Those are all semantic arguments about categorizing shows when there's a lot of mutability. But imagining a world where Better Call Saul isn't 45 minutes of deliberate, enthralling dramatic irony, holding a hopeful carrot out in front of Jimmy when the audience knows there's a banana peel waiting to catch his foot, makes me shudder with would've been lost.

    The cold open to "RICO" is one of my favorites so far this season, because it succinctly encapsulates the futile tragedy of James McGill. Better Call Saul eluded to the fact that Jimmy worked in the HHM mailroom, but here it's on full display, as he cheerfully delivers mail to everyone around the office, with the added bonus that he knows pretty much everyone's name. But the reason the show ventures to this moment in McGill history is because it's the day Jimmy believed his life would change: when he passes the bar and becomes a lawyer in the state of New Mexico. He worked tirelessly in almost total silence, never letting on to anyone but Kim that he was chipping away at a law degree from the University of American Samoa. (Go Land Crabs!) He believes that this will finally put Slippin' Jimmy far in the rearview, with ample opportunities ahead of him to become like Chuck, the man he so clearly idolizes and to whom he owes his freedom from incarceration back in Cicero.

    But everyone judges him based on his past and his job. Chuck, rendered here in the past as a corner-office law partner at the top of his litigation game, can barely offer the modicum of pride Jimmy so thoroughly desires. Kim, ecstatic as she is in private to share the moment of acceptance with Jimmy, and hang in the mailroom with the other guys to celebrate, later doesn't view her more-than-friend as an equal, since she's on the path at a big firm like HHM. And Howard is the worst of them, not only slighting Jimmy at every turn and purposely keeping him down, but continuing to hold the hate torch years later. Jimmy may later embody the very archetype of the scummy lawyer as Saul Goodman, but Howard Hamlin is in many ways the worse human being at this point in the Better Call Saul narrative.

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    Maybe it's just a bad time to hire more attorneys, or they don't want to hire someone from the mailroom on immediately since Jimmy is totally unproven, and hasn't gone through the typical summer associate route. But this moment makes the audience feel Jimmy's aching disappointment, that even after toiling away in the shadows for years to reach what he sees as the same level as those around him, everyone else still looks at him as less-than. It's slights like this one from Howard that have built up inside Jimmy, and made him long for the day when he can stick it in their faces that he's capable of accomplishing something great even starting from where he did as Slippin' Jimmy. That, "Let's reassess in six months" is just a callous reminder that he'll never been regarded as anything more than an insignificant mailroom attendant at HHM.

    "RICO" director Colin Bucksey helmed four episodes of Breaking Bad—most notably second season penultimate episode "Phoenix" (you know, the one where Jane…you know), and "Buyout" in the first half of the final season, where Jesse shares a most awkward meal with Mr. and Mrs. White. I've spent a lot of time marveling at the patience shown by directors, cinematographers, and editors to allow moments to develop this season. That praise is well-deserved. The nearly two minute take that closes this opening sequence, as the camera tracks in when Howard arrives, cuts out his speech to Jimmy with the door closed, and then drags back to leave Jimmy receding in the frame, becoming as small as he feels in that moment, is one of the best shots so far this season.

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    My favorite movie of all time (a different category than "greatest," but that's a discussion for another day) is Cameron Crowe's debut directorial effort Say Anything. Which applies in the case of this episode because it means I know a little bit about plots that involve fraudulent business practices at retirement homes.

    What separates Jimmy from ruthless sharks like Howard Hamlin is that he displays genuine compassion to his clients, so much so that he's willing to sacrifice his own dire financial circumstances in order to accommodate others. But in dealing with an elderly woman who doesn't have enough cash on hand to pay for the will Jimmy draws up, he stumbles upon the concept of an allowance he doesn't understand. The people he deals with get pensions and Social Security—they shouldn't be scrounging for singles. It's a genuine moment of discovery, as Jimmy accidentally happens upon an honest to goodness injustice going on at Sandpiper Crossing Assisted Living. He got into elder law because it was the only thing he could break into and his unflappable charm made headway—but now there's an actual issue at stake, one that is potentially worth millions of dollars.

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    So far, Jimmy and Chuck have always been on opposite ends of the professional spectrum from each other. In flashbacks, Chuck was the shooting star and Jimmy the total screw-up; in the present, Jimmy is a struggling working attorney and Chuck is a reclusive shut-in with a mental illness preventing him from going outside. "RICO" finally brings them closer together, as Chuck gets drawn into the case when Jimmy seeks his advice. What turns the scene, and Chuck's mindset toward his brother's abilities as a lawyer is probably the moment right after the frame above, as Chuck realizes Jimmy caught the fraud and he didn't when going through the files Jimmy left at his house to "Tom Sawyer" him into completing it. ("This was in work I did?")

    Although Chuck is willing to get more involved—he likes having his brother's company around the house more often, since he needs space to work—it's Jimmy doing the dirty work, to an extreme extent. Jimmy is the guy so desperate to hold onto what might actually be his first big, legitimate case that he's willing to literally surround himself in shit and other disgusting garbage in a dumpster order to do whatever it takes—within the boundaries of the law, but right up to line—to move forward. The cruel, hilarious irony is that the rigmarole, from suppressing his gag reflex and whispering while on the phone with Sandpiper's lawyer as he hides in the dumpster, was totally unnecessary. Jimmy finds bags of shredded documents—since the Assisted Living facility caught wind of his potential legal action—and plans to go all Argo on it to reassemble what he can. (Forgive the anachronistic reference, since this show takes place long before that mission was declassified and revealed in a WIRED article, but taping together shredded documents is a rather iconic action.)

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    The excitement on Chuck's face as he gets his brain going over how to help Jimmy's case is such a thrill—but it comes at a price. Last week, everything seemed to be going Jimmy's way, just as it had before in similar ways, before the rug got pulled out from underneath him and he sat broken and weeping on the floor of an empty office that would never be his. So it's understandable that yet another turn of good fortune—uncovering a potentially lucrative class-action lawsuit and working alongside his brother—would incite more nervous skepticism than relief.

    And the seeds of doubt are all over the place. Chuck still works at HHM, and as Kim points out, his partnership agreement is unclear about whether he can work with Jimmy on such a big case, especially when using HHM funds to print off a bunch of case law for research. It certainly seems like the kind of thing Howard would put the kibosh on, or worse, steal the case from Jimmy outright instead of giving him due credit as a growing attorney.

    Yet they steamroll ahead anyway, sending off one of the salvaged documents to Sandpiper's lawyers, which immediately turns a potential sanction over perceived shakedown tactics into a settlement discussion. Once again, in a reversal of that cold open, Jimmy psyches up Chuck, who doesn't know if he can sit at a table and conduct business anymore, so frightened of the time he's been away from his law firm. Opposing council (led by veteran stage actor Dennis Boutsikaris) tries to rattle Chuck by recounting the story of a litigation triumph, and how it foreshadowed a potential career arguing in front of the Supreme Court, a snide backhanded compliment.

    But sitting at the table with so much at stake for the first time, Jimmy holds his own, bringing out the important documents and naming the titular legal act that scares off the lowball offer, swinging and taking punches—until Chuck flutters to life and tags in to drop the hammer with a $20 million line in the sand. It sends the other lawyers out the door, and gets them into the realm of potential evidence discovery. So enthused are they in the wake of that first bit of success in what could blossom into a meaningful, significant case, that Chuck gets up and wanders outside to Jimmy's car in order to grab some documents, before Jimmy runs after him and all the stability Chuck earned over the course of this hour hangs in the balance.

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    It's unclear whether Chuck is simply marveling at how he ignored the elements outside that previously left him near-catatonic, or if he's so shocked that he's about to keel over and end up in the hospital all over again. That moment of uncertain dread leaves a wicked cliffhanger for Better Call Saul to pick up next week, either in a moment of triumph and possibility, or yet another almost-there that ended in catastrophic failure.

     

    Extra Legal Advice

    • Another brilliant, potent image for the title sequence tonight: a tarantula crawling all over the garishly colored ties that become part of Saul Goodman's trademark ensemble. Though the creators continue to tout how tossed-off the sequence was, it still has the ability to impart layered and meaningful takes on Odenkirk's character and the show's core theme of navigating the permeable line between right and wrong.
    • As for Mike Ehrmantraut, he's slowly inching his way back into his daughter-in-law's life, helping babysit his granddaughter while she's at work. He gives the all-clear to use the wad of cash his son left behind after his death, but his daughter-in-law's tone when ruing the cost of everything as a single parent drives him to seek out the vet who stitched up his bullet wound when he first arrived. It's clear that Mike will soon get into the kind of work he does throughout Breaking Bad. That's a shame, since the story of James McGill has so far revealed a completely different and compelling character than the Saul Goodman façade who appears in Breaking Bad. As great as Jonathan Banks has been here, he's not playing anything different from Mike on the previous/later-in-the-timeline show. It'd be nicer if it took as long to tease out Mike's story as it has to tease out Jimmy's.
  • Better Call Saul giveth and taketh away from Jimmy in "Bingo"

    That requires not just breaking Jimmy down by battering him against the sharp rocks of life, but first building him up and making him believe his luck is going to change right before he crashes. It's unpleasant business, but Breaking Bad wasn't exactly a picnic either. James McGill doesn't become Saul Goodman until all other options are exhausted, and at the beginning of "Bingo," everything is looking up. But the rhythm of a Vince Gilligan show readies viewers for skepticism anytime it appears that a character has arrived at a plateau of successful complacency. Even when things seem to be going Jimmy's way, it's all so ominously close to slipping away.

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    The opening scene—with the dull hum of fluorescent lighting underpinning everything—essentially continues last week's Mike-centric plot for a brief bit of connective tissue back to Jimmy. Mike and the older detective have history, and after the younger hothead gets his notebook back (with Jimmy hastily making up a story that covers their tracks), all that's left is for Mike to explain that he's leaving his fate in his daughter-in-law's hands. That's all we need to see—Mike and a detective, with a board full of "Wanted" posters overhead—to understand that while the stereotypical criminals are out around Albuquerque, Better Call Saul is right now hiding a few more in plain sight. With that bit of narrative ellipsis in place, the episode shifts back to Jimmy's life and concerns, including Chuck, Kim, Hamlin, and the Kettlemans.

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    It's not a subtle symbol to show a caterpillar creating the chrysalis it will use to transform in the foreground as Jimmy drives up to Chuck's house. It's an image-conscious comparison that Jimmy might make himself. He's got clients, new clothes, and Chuck is even venturing outside for brief periods of time. (Sure he says it's to acclimate to electromagnetic fields like ingesting poison builds up an immunity, but at least he's actually setting foot in the light of his own accord.) And Jimmy does one other important thing here: he leaves behind client files, which he observes Chuck examining. It's unclear what's going on there, whether Jimmy just wants his brother to help out with his work, or if it's a part of some master plan to stick it to Hamlin and sever ties with that firm to force a buyout. Or perhaps it's just to give Chuck something to do while he attempts to deal with the condition in his mind.

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    In the wake of Jimmy's slightly booming business specializing in elder law—he runs bingo down at the senior center, continually drumming up clients—Jimmy is on the verge of occupying some swanky office space with picturesque views. He brings Kim there to check things out—it's clear he doesn't just want to pitch the idea of a legal partnership; he wants to impress her on a personal level as well. But that moderate success, and the extreme effort Jimmy puts forth in order to keep it going, all stems from dirty money he accepted from the Kettlemans. Vince Gilligan has demonstrated a peculiarly fascinating talent for assembling writers who can come up with hilariously inept criminals. The Kettlemans are no exception, especially Betsy, who is a fiercely incompetent criminal blissfully unaware that her husband has failed at every turn to cover up his crimes. This couple is an astoundingly hilarious example of the kinds of dumb criminals Gilligan and the other writers have come up with over the years.

    Kim, being the talented lawyer she is, finagles a plea deal for Mr. Kettleman that would have him in jail for just over a year—provided they give back the embezzled funds. But stubborn Betsy continues to insist the money doesn't exist, going so far as to fire Kim and take the family's business to Jimmy. That puts Kim in the doghouse at HHM, but it also puts Jimmy in a bind. Betsy and the human doormat she's married to blackmail Jimmy, since giving back all the money would mean revealing the bribe they more or less forced on him. So instead of convincing them to go back to Kim and doing her a huge favor, he tries to make an honest go of finding a way to successfully exonerate a man who Kim describes as, "guilty as sin."

     Despite his charm with the elderly and surprisingly agile legal maneuvering around cops, Jimmy is exactly the kind of mediocre attorney he appears to be. There's no smoke and mirrors game to be played. He's not going to suddenly come through in the clutch, turning into a movie star lawyer at the big show for the first time, to save the day for the Kettlemans somehow and abscond with his cut of the money. Instead, he's flipping through a legal dictionary he checked out of the library to look up "embezzlement" again while sifting through pages and failing to formulate a case. The incredibly studious archetype just doesn't fit Jimmy—so he calls in his chit with Mike.

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    The tense action scenes were undoubtedly among the peak highlights of Breaking Bad, at least in part the reason the show ascended so quickly in the popular consciousness during its later seasons. That's something that Better Call Saul has lacked—instead favoring of some of the best deliberately methodical television I've ever seen. There are other slow moments here too, and as more episodes pile up it's easier to take the pacing and say that very few shows are comfortable depicting characters in quiet moments in this way. The camera often observes characters from a distance, intellectually lost, but also physically staged to appear insignificant in the space around them.

    I'm getting a little too conceptual—let's get back to the best scene of the episode: Mike's stakeout. He observes the Kettlemans in their home, slowly consuming apples and listening to his radio as they wind their way to bed. Like the skateboard jokers' act in the pilot, the action here has a significantly different tone than in Breaking Bad. The music is a dead giveaway—it's a silly recon caper, as Mike tags a stack of bills, waits for Mr. Kettleman to discover it, then sneaks into the house and uses a UV lamp to track down the hoard of cash underneath a sink in the upstairs bathroom. This all recalls how invisible Mike the Cleaner will be years down the road, but for now, Jimmy calls on his newfound acquaintance in order to minimize legal repercussions.

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    In a final confrontation with the Kettlemans, Jimmy makes the tough decision to give up his newfound cash flow, help Kim regain the clients that will restore her two-year plan, and insulate himself from as much recourse from the Kettlemans crimes as possible. He returns all the money to the DA—which begets an incredible shot as Jimmy waits for Betsy to scamper upstairs, discover the missing money, then turn her rage back on him. It finally puts things in perspective for Mr. Kettleman, as he finally comes to grips with the reality that he has committed a crime, and needs to take responsibility for his malfeasance. This crushes Betsy, and though Jimmy has reveled in knocking this idiotic family down a peg or two, he's still not happy about the best-case scenario he worked out here.

    He does the right thing by Kim, getting her clients to take a deal she worked hard to put together. He gets rid of the ton of bricks floating above his head in the form of stolen cash in a shoebox in his ceiling. He employs Mike in the first of what will turn out to be many eerie and yet alluring odd jobs.

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    It's just…in order to do the "right thing"—Jimmy literally uses quotes around the phrase when he says that to Mike—he has to give up all the benefits he was about to reap. Sure, it was atop the foundation of an illegal bribe, but Jimmy was at least somewhat enjoying the honest work. "Bingo" almost goes out on an image of Jimmy walking through what could have been his office, slightly dejected that he won't get to have the space, but content that he did the right thing.

    And then, a minute before the end of the episode, it takes a brilliant turn, as Jimmy kicks the corner office door shut in frustration and collapses to the floor to commence sobbing. It's not quite the gravitas of Jonathan Banks' performance last week, but it's no less impressive that Bob Odenkirk can continue to summon such a pathetic character and imbue him with such winning charm that everyone roots for the ferret-like lawyer to win out in the end.

    That money gave him a billboard and new suits and the ability to try and corner the Albuquerque elderly law market. With all of that gone—and he may have even hocked the Matlock suit to scrimp everything back together in that moneybag—he's not satisfied with the moral high road. He's angry as hell that not one break can go his way, and that he doesn't get more than a moment to wallow in his misery before answering his phone as his fake receptionist again.

    This isn't rock bottom, but Better Call Saul suggests that the lowest point isn't the worst—it's clawing tooth and nail to the threshold of success and comfort, only for it to be snatched away. For Jimmy, it's his own nagging conscience and affection for Kim that leaves him descending to the low rung of the ladder once more. But what's clear is that after getting so close, Jimmy might not let another opportunity to rise up slip away, no matter the questionable legality of the scenario.

  • Better Call Saul reveals the tortured origin of Mike Ehrmantraut

    The original idea for the beginning of "ABQ," the explosive second season finale of Breaking Bad, was for Saul Goodman to come to Jesse's apartment and clean up the scene after Jane's death. But Bob Odenkirk wasn't available, too busy shooting something else in Los Angeles (or at least that's the story Vince Gilligan tells). So the writing staff created Mike the Cleaner, and in going through the audition tapes, found Jonathan Banks, who Gilligan and Thomas Schnauz knew from Wiseguy back in the 80's. Fate has been kind to Vince Gilligan's vision of Albuquerque; not only did the Writer's Strike probably help save Jesse Pinkman survive through the first season, but a small bit of revision to that finale script created one of the series' finest characters, Mike Ehrmantraut.

    When AMC announced that Banks would join the cast of Better Call Saul, everyone assumed that we'd learn more about Mike Ehrmantraut's past, simply because it's the nature of prequels. But I don't think anyone was expecting "Five-O," an entire episode solely devoted to the origin story of a character that had to be created due to Bob Odenkirk's unavailability. Many characters had tour de force episodes over the course of Breaking Bad, from Walt and Jesse (too many to name) to Skyler, Hank, Marie, even Gus Fring. But Gilligan and his staff held off on fully pulling back the curtain on Mike Ehrmantraut until now, and it's Jonathan Banks' just reward for swooping in as the Cleaner years ago. It's only March, but I'll say it now because everyone's thinking it: Banks is the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor at the Emmys. (It sort of helps that Aaron Paul won't be eligible, but let's ignore that for now.)

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    Take any train around the Four Corners area and this desolate, beautiful landscape can be seen all over, before the Rockies give way to the Midwestern plains and everything flattens out into rather drab scenery. But despite gussying up the natural majesty with praise, it still represents a void. That's what Mike walks off the train into when he first arrives in Albuquerque where his daughter-in-law, the wife of his late son Matty, greets him. It's an awkward reunion, one that still has more lingering questions and less tearful reconciliation. Mike gets to see his granddaughter, but mostly Stacey questions him about what happened right before Matty died, how her husband's behavior changed, an unexplained angry phone conversation in the early hours of the morning.

     We've known for a long time that Mike is a former Philadelphia police officer—going back to yet another incredible Breaking Bad monologue. It's a fact that kept coming up as Hank Schrader went after Mike, digging up details on his past that never quite got shared in full. Better Call Saul gives viewers a chance to see the end of Mike's police career, and how he came to be in New Mexico.

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    More troubling, though, is the bullet wound Mike has in his left pectoral muscle all throughout his opening hours in Albuquerque. It's right around his heart, meaning he was certainly lucky not to be killed, even if it's higher up toward his shoulder. Always looking to avoid suspicion, Mike gets his cab driver to take him to a veterinarian, who stiches the wound up. Then he makes an offer to Mike, saying that if this was more of a "sticking around" deal instead of a "just passing through" under-the-table appointment, the vet might know of some work. It's a question designed to tease out for just a little longer where on the scale of criminal activity Mike finds himself at this moment. Yes, Mike has an unexplained bullet wound he's hiding from Stacey. But by turning down the work, it's clear he's not quite so far down the path as he is when he shows up on Breaking Bad.

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    James McGill, along with all his concerns that made up the story of the first half of the season, is onscreen for all of 8 minutes and 10 seconds in "Five-O." It's an ambitious jog to the side, relegating Jimmy to basically the same supporting role he functioned in during Breaking Bad. He gets called in during the present day to act as Mike's lawyer, but only gets one order: spill coffee on one of the Philly detectives in order to help Mike lift a notepad from the guy's jacket. Jimmy feels a bit insulted on top of his confusion, but once he starts to get Mike's full story from the Philly detectives, he changes his tune fast. Mike gave Jimmy the idea to find the Kettlemans, which earned Jimmy's respect, but now he knows the full story behind Mike's son Matty getting shot in a crack house, and the subsequent shooting deaths of Matty's partner and sergeant.

    It's nice to see Better Call Saul handing off the episode to Mike for the emotional heavy lifting, because it allows Jimmy to work as the electrifying support. His lines pop just that much more when there's so much Mike stoicism hanging around.

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    The big reveal takes up most of the back half of the episode, as Mike confronts Stacey about calling the police. Stacey insists that something was wrong with Matty, that there was inexplicable money as well, but Mike is adamant that his son was a clean cop. And then, as he storms out of his house, the episode cuts to the longest flashback of the series. Not an isolated moment to illuminate something going on with Jimmy, but the whole story of what exactly Mike did around the time his son, his son's partner Hoffman, and his son's sergeant Fensky all died within six months of each other.

    Mike jimmies the lock on Hoffman and Fensky's patrol car, planting something, before going into a bar and getting properly sloshed within sight of the two officers. He goes over to say hello, grabs the two officers in a headlock, and gives them the old Michael Corleone: "I know it was you." The ensuing sequence, from Mike alone at the bar at closing, dropping alibi hints for his trip to Albuquerque, to the officers picking up a seemingly staggering Mike and offering to take him home, to the confrontational conversation, to the final standoff, is a master class in the kind of dramatic tension Breaking Bad excelled at, and has been somewhat lacking as Better Call Saul takes its sweet time meandering through Jimmy's plot. That's not to say the deliberate nature of the main storyline isn't great so far, but this is the kind of weight that viewers have come to expect from something created by Vince Gilligan.

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    It's a chilling and heartbreaking reveal, made incredibly compelling by the direction and cinematography, which makes Mike look trapped in his drunken mind as the shadow of the squad car bars reflect on his face, then in the final image harkens back to wild west gunslingers as he walks off into the dark night. That shot dissolves to Mike walking back to his daughter-in-law's house, with a voiceover playing his full confession to Stacey.

    Like every other Philadelphia cop in that precinct, Mike was crooked. He took money, just like all the other guys, because you had to go along to get along. Mike was willing to accept that level of corruption to stay in place. But when Matty came in, he couldn't do it—so Mike not only forced his son to take money illegally, he admitted to his son that he was a dirty cop, ruining his son's conception of his father. There's no other way to say it than Jonathan Banks knocks the sequence out of the park, a shattered, hollowed-out man torn apart by how his life choices and the stupidity of others culminated in a ruined life. There's a reason we respond when the brutish warrior softens and reveals a vulnerable side. All the salty barbs Mike launched at everyone else in his previous appearances built to this moment, this time when his armor strips away and it's just Mike Ehrmantraut distraught over his culpability in his son's death and disgrace.

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    What does telling the origin of Mike Ehrmantraut within the larger narrative of James McGill's progress toward Saul Goodman give us, aside from more information about a popular character? The risk here is that by dispelling some of the mystery, it will actually make Mike less interesting. I don't think any of the events in "Five-O" are outright shocking, as it was plausible to infer Mike had done something illegal in Philly, though not as far as killing other crooked cops in retaliation for his son's murder.

    If there's one thing to nitpick—and in light of Banks' knockout performance, it seems unfair—it's that there's not much in between Mike leaving his daughter-in-law's house and returning to show why he changes his mind about being totally honest with her. The audience sees the truth of how Mike left Philadelphia filled in, but there's never a moment that changes Mike's mind, that sends him back to that house, other than the sheer power of the truth he has to tell.

    But Mike's story helps explain why he cares so ardently for his granddaughter, and dotes on her whenever she appears in Breaking Bad. It's the last piece of his son—a stubborn, innocent man who Mike feels he corrupted unjustly in an ultimately futile attempt to save his life—and he clings to that piece like a life raft.

    It also colors his future mentorship of Jesse Pinkman, how the two of them begin to bond when the younger man goes from shattered junkie to Gus Fring's employee. Jesse is no innocent, even when compared to all the darker, more entrenched evil people around him—but he's the one capable of the most levity, and perhaps that made Mike feel like a father figure again.

    This origin story also helps explain how Mike can do what he does throughout Gilligan's first series. Each season after that first appearance demonstrated Mike's considerable skill, not just as a hitman, but as a businessman and a manipulator of people. He doesn't get there without his son's death emptying him out emotionally, leaving him with anger, bitterness, and regret. He knows his life is irredeemable, so he does the dark things that will hopefully one day benefit someone who deserves a better life. That's an admirable goal, but it doesn't absolve Mike's actions—which could also be said, to a lesser degree, about what the future Saul Goodman engages in as well. As an episode entirely devoted to a character not named Jimmy, "Five-O" almost feels airlifted in from a second spin-off show, Mike The Cleaner, which intersects with Better Call Saul at this point. Where the show goes from here, and how it continues to pursue the Jimmy/Mike burgeoning professional relationship, will affect how much quicker Jimmy descends down the rungs of his moral ladder.

     

    Extra Legal Advice

    • The man who directed tonight's episode, Adam Bernstein, also directed "ABQ," the episode that features Jonathan Banks' first appearance on Breaking Bad.
    • When we saw Stacey at the end of last week's episode, she's clearly upset to see Mike, but at the end of "Five-O," she's got a decision to make about how she feels. Considering Mike gets to see his granddaughter more in the nebulous future, I'm assuming there's some fluctuation in how Stacey deals with Mike's actions before and after arriving in Albuquerque.
  • The midpoint of Better Call Saul's first season hinges on scenes without Jimmy

    There have been very few scenes in Better Call Saul without Bob Odenkirk. I can recall a scene between Howard and Kim at Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, but that mostly concerned Jimmy and the billboard situation. There's the scene with Tuco, his grandmother, and the two skater morons—but that was a brief moment without Jimmy in a timeline that always included him. And last week's episode ended with Chuck stealing his elderly neighbor's newspaper, but that's more of a continuation of a previous scene, and it's also because Chuck fears there's something in it about Jimmy. This all makes sense for a show built around its star and ostensibly telling the story of how the slimy lawyer from Breaking Bad became the go-to criminal lawyer. But James McGill/Saul Goodman isn't the only story worth elucidating in this part of the timeline.

    "Alpine Shepherd Boy" begins, much like second episode "Mijo," with a scene carved out of Jimmy's story that he triggers, but isn't around for. But the episode ends with the first scenes that truly do not involve Jimmy, and simply have nothing to do with him in the moment. This is the midpoint of the first season, where a lot of the slow work that has gone into character development needs to get moving—and that's exactly what the plot does by the end, teasing out more mystery that will draw Jimmy McGill closer to potential crimes.

    Let's start back at that first scene though, with Chuck talking to two police officers outside his door. It's not difficult to take this as an indictment of overzealous police work. Sure, Chuck stole a newspaper from his neighbor. But he stole a newspaper from his neighbor. De-escalation tactics would be best applied here, and yet, Chuck goes through his nightmare scenario, exposed to the outside world and shocked with a taser. There seems to be good reasons piling up as to why Saul eventually works so tirelessly against the police. In his eyes, they aren't helpful, and prove to be hopelessly biased, corrupt, or incompetent impediments to peaceful, unobstructed society. Granted, he eventually sours that stance even further to take the side of obvious and admitted violent criminals, but he starts from a position of distrust caused by what he views as officer misconduct.

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    Jimmy is initially oblivious to what happens to his brother after he departs for his appointments, as he has to rush off to the first of his meetings. When Jimmy checked his voicemail in last week's episode and discovered that he'd finally managed to bring in some business, he thought things were finally looking up. But once again, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould zagged, and Jimmy found himself wading through increasingly ridiculous and unviable potential clients.

    First he meets a man who wants to pay him $1 million to help him attempt to secede from the United States—only to offer the payment in money only good in the hypothetical new republic, "America's Vatican City." Next is a man, played by the lead guy from Onion Labs' Clio-winning sponsored content YouTube series Tough Season, who has invented a talking toilet that encourages children to finish their business. (It's basically a comically and unintentionally sexual version of O.T. from Bob's Burgers.) By the time Jimmy fills out a will for an elderly woman who sets forth unnecessarily complicated instructions for bequeathing her figurines—one of which lends the episode its title—he can barely contain his desperation when she pays him his full fee of $140.

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    There is perhaps no image that encapsulates the absurd hilarity and glacial pace of Better Call Saul's first five episodes than a woman descending a stair lift as Jimmy attempts not to jump out of his skin in frustration. It has been a deliberately prodding progression, but with images like this, it's rewarding.

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    When Jimmy finds out about his brother—while painting Kim's toenails and modestly celebrating a newfound avenue into "Elder Law"—he immediately rushes to the hospital, where he clashes with the attending physician (Clea DuVall). Once they remove all electronic devices from the room, Chuck slowly comes back from his catatonic state, and argues against the idea of institutionalization. The doctor proves to Jimmy and Kim, while triggering the electronics in Chuck's hospital bed, that the condition is in fact all in Chuck's head. Kim exhibits doubts over Chuck's mental state, but Jimmy, though he recognizes that something is wrong, can't bring himself to side against his brother's wishes.

    "Is that helping, or enabling?" the doctor asks. At times, Jimmy wavers between genuinely looking out for his brother and perhaps enabling his psychosis due to the potential for monetary gain from Chuck's firm. But ultimately, Jimmy just can't overcome how smart he perceives his brother to be in his best moments. That is, of course, until Howard shows up. Then all Jimmy can do is shout that Howard only sees Chuck as a "cash cow" and how he'll have his brother committed so he can become legal guardian and cash out of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill once and for all. It's a bluff, but it's a good one, a serious ploy that demonstrates to Kim just how little Jimmy trusts Howard's intentions.

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    After Jimmy takes Chuck home, they finally have it out over the billboard and the newspaper publicity. Chuck, exhibiting his archaic principles, finds the very idea of an attorney advertising scandalous, citing "five Supreme Court Justices" who "went completely bonkers" to allow that. But despite the ill-gotten gains that funded the charade, Jimmy convinces Chuck that elder law has potential, and all it takes is one well-executed montage to prove how. Jimmy watches Andy Griffith on Matlock to craft a suit, and buys custom McGill-branded Jell-O cups to pass out at a senior center. He's schmoozing potential clients in a way that requires him to look and act a certain part, not prove his legal competency. Maybe he doesn't believe he's innately intelligent like his brother, but one thing is clear: Jimmy believes that by projecting a certain image instead of proving his abilities, he can get the most mileage out of his talent.

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    Which leaves the final minutes of the episode, as Better Call Saul hands things off from a slightly satisfied and happier Jimmy to Mike Ehrmantraut, still standing stoic guard over the parking lot in his little booth. I remarked to my father during this episode that we don't know exactly where in the course of his backstory Mike is at this point. Given what is revealed about him during Breaking Bad, it's not clear when or how he became embroiled in the Albuquerque criminal underworld. And given the tiny bits of information revealed so far, it looked like the show would be slow-playing his future involvement in Saul Goodman and Gustavo Fring's dealings. But this episode advanced Mike's plotline considerably, without much warning or development, and the arbitrary nature of that surge forward felt a bit strange.

    Mike leaves his job in the morning after working the night shift, covers his face in distress while eating at a diner, and then drives to a house where a woman in a nurse's uniform leaves for work and spots him sitting in his car. It's relatively clear this is Mike's daughter, presumably the mother of the granddaughter that he sometimes cares for in Breaking Bad. At the moment, to call their relationship strained would be an understatement.

    In his small home, watching old television reruns alone, Mike is similar to the lonely and wistful Saul in the series opening sequence, and not that far away from Walt in Breaking Bad's penultimate episode "Granite State." He's older, grizzled, and separated from anyone and everyone in his life who meant anything to him. Given the way the cops show up at Mike's door, and the way he recognizes them, it's reasonable to assume they're from his time in Philadelphia, and the business card Jimmy handed Mike will come in handy. What remains to be seen is whether Better Call Saul will ramp up the narrative pace now that there's a reason for Jimmy and Mike to work together, and whether it will lose the rewarding character shading in the process.

     

    Extra Legal Advice

    • Before talking to the secessionist modeled after Cliven Bundy, Jimmy practices explanations for why he drives such a beat-up car, pretending his Mercedes is in the shop. But the crazy guy only thinks it's bad that Jimmy has to drive a crappy foreign car—which is a hint that when Jimmy finally lands a new ride, something like an American-made Cadillac will be his choice.
  • "Better Call Saul" shows Jimmy can wear many masks in "Hero"

    Like many a Midwestern actor before him, Bob Odenkirk studied improv under Del Close at Second City, which later led to Saturday Night Live and the immortal Mr. Show with David Cross, two powerhouses of sketch comedy that required cavalcades of characters. It's becoming clear that in flashing back to the origin story of Saul Goodman, Better Call Saul takes full advantage of Odenkirk's chameleonic talent for shifting at the drop of a hat. In Breaking Bad, Saul is a smooth operator presenting a professional slimeball image who masks an alternately flippant and fearful petty criminal—but his character has solidified. Walt ultimately terrifies Saul, but he's largely the same scummy lawyer he was during his first appearance.

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    James McGill allows Odenkirk to drift through many layers of performance. In another cold open flashback, Slippin' Jimmy runs a rather ingenious scam on an unsuspecting drunk in Cicero with his buddy played by Mel Rodriguez. It's a gambit based on Jimmy initially seeming friendly and jovial, before moving into innocent skepticism as the wallet is discovered and robbery broached. But once he lifts the expensive looking Rolex, the stranger is more than willing to part with the watch and hundred of dollars in his own money to obtain the dubiously valuable timepiece. The payoff isn't just more money for beer and bong hits, it's the way Rodriguez's accomplice reveres Jimmy. Sure it's a small-time gig, but the recognition makes it worthwhile.

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    At his closest to purely ethical, which is still perhaps a foot over the line, Jimmy is an overeager lawyer desperately trying to earn business of that one notable client that will honestly push his name into the minds of potential clients. That's his main goal in the wake of discovering the Kettlemans are as guilty (and stupid and uncaring) as he presumed. Though he's intent on winning business and using that to start raking in money, he refuses many times when a petulant Mrs. Kettleman foists a hefty bribe plucked from embezzled money upon him. But she won't budge—he will not be their lawyer. It has nothing to do with work ethic, or size of law firm. It all comes down to image, and Jimmy looks like "the kind of lawyer guilty people hire." The irony of that sentence doesn't occur to a woman who also cites "human slavery" as justification for her husband embezzling what they believed he was owed by the county as an overworked employee.

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    With Nacho free from custody, Jimmy slips into another developing role, the police skeptic. By the time he becomes Saul Goodman, he'll be police enemy number one. But he's making his first forays into defending the rights of accused criminals here. Just one catch: Nacho isn't buying that Jimmy had nothing to do with the Kettleman's impromptu camping trip. Only this time, instead of retreating in fear, Jimmy has learned to whip some sense into Nacho, arguing that whoever called in a warning to the Kettlemans actually saved him from getting arrested for a bigger crime since the neighbors already spotted him.

    When listing off all the things Nacho did wrong, he might as well be giving an early version of one of his grinning rebukes to Walt and Jesse, or any number of other unaware criminals. Jimmy is legitimately scared of what he saw when he got roped into Tuco's world, but he certainly learned quickly how to look someone dangerous in the eye, mount a logical and respectable legal thought process, and get away with being a smart guy facing down a violent one.

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    In what is perhaps the best shot of the episode, the camera catches Jimmy as he sits down to calculate the bribe he ultimately took from the Kettlemans. He creates some phony billing information, and voila, he's theoretically insulated from some scrutiny. But when he makes a big show out of going to a fancy tailor and requesting specific fabrics and mother of pearl buttons, it looks like he's making the classic mistake of showing off the purse too soon. But Jimmy's not trying to upgrade his wardrobe in order to look less like a guilty client's lawyer. He's making himself the thorn in Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill's side once again, taking aim directly at Howard Hamlin. We got to see Jimmy resist taking the bribe in the first place, but he does take the money, actively becoming an accessory to the Kettleman's crime and covering it up with falsified records in order to ease his burden and start growing his business.

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    Jimmy is playing another role, the David to Hamlin's Goliath. And much like professional athletes and their critics on Twitter, the best option is not to respond, because acknowledging the existence of a pest only gives that pest power they wouldn't have otherwise. But Hamlin is too vain and arrogant, deciding to respond to a mocking billboard—Jimmy poses for a photo as the spitting image of Hamlin, suit, hair and all—with a cease and desist letter delivered by Kim and an injunction hearing in front of a judge. It's basically a prank, but because Hamlin can't let it go, it allows Jimmy to tease the discomfort out long enough to have another brilliant idea.

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    The entire billboard stunt echoes the cold open, as it's all just one long con, only blown up on a massive scale. Instead of petty crime in a dark alley for a few hundred dollars, this time Jimmy turns a bribe from clients who would rather pay him handsomely not to represent them into a prank on Hamlin, which snowballs into a PR coup. He falsely concocts the perfect human-interest piece for the local news, using a couple UNM media students looking for quick cash and a worker who's easy to bribe as well. The monologue Jimmy delivers to the camera is self-mythology of the highest order, also hitting a bunch of Americana touchstones for broad appeal to the mainstream viewership.

    It's essentially the wallet scam blown up to a massive scale. Jimmy saves a guy he paid to take a fall, attracts the media attention he craved, and finally gets messages on the answering machine in his nail salon boiler-room office. He got the same recognition he got from his buddy back in Cicero, only magnified and attached to his identity as a lawyer. I think Jimmy genuinely wants to help stand up for the little people, because he's been stepped on so many times. But every now and again, he's willing to compromise his morals in order to seize a little territory from the Goliaths of the world. As he grows more comfortable with that, and it leads to more success, it'll be interesting to see just how quickly his relationship to Kim and his brother changes.

     The final scene, as Jimmy visits his brother Chuck and attempts to keep his newfound local fame a secret, harkens back to some unique cinematic style employed on Breaking Bad. Chuck works up the courage to venture outside his house in order to retrieve a copy of the local newspaper, and suddenly we get POV shots and herky-jerky editing to approximate Chuck's mental state when confronted with sunlight and the outdoors. It's not that different from how Nicolas Cage's character in Matchstick Men reacts to the outdoors at the beginning of that film.

    But it's the cut to his neighbor's house that really elucidates Chuck's condition. Up until now, Better Caul Saul didn't tip its hand as to whether the audience should sympathize with Chuck's reclusive lifestyle or find it totally insane. The nearly silent shot from an elderly woman's point-of-view watching Michael McKean scamper back to his house draped in a shimmering space blanket leaves no room for doubt that whatever ails Chuck, it's psychological, and not some as-yet-undiscovered medical condition.

     And then there's the unfurling of the paper. The crestfallen look of realization that creeps over McKean's face says that he's disappointed, sure, but not exactly shocked beyond belief to see the lengths his little brother has gone to in order to make a splash in the Albuquerque legal industry. Moving out to New Mexico, working at HHM, putting himself through law school—all of these things are built on top of the core flimflam man that is James McGill. No matter how fancy the costume Jimmy puts on to play a part, he's going to go back to that garish orange shirt with an equally ugly tie and become Saul Goodman. That's his comfort zone, and he'll be climbing down there one rung at a time whether he's looking or not.

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    Extra Legal Advice 

    • The emerging friendship between Jimmy and Mike continues, as Jimmy makes small talk and gives Mike credit for telling him the story that led to finding the Kettlemans.
    • My biggest problem with how slow the plot of this first season is moving mostly involves Kim's character not becoming a bigger part of the story as quickly as I'd like. I hope she's not just the love interest from Jimmy's past at HHM.
    • "Yeah, this is right up there with that."
  • Better Call Saul explores survival instinct in "Nacho"

    Perhaps the reason Jimmy is so invested in shaking down the big-time Albuquerque law firm to get every penny from he thinks belongs to his brother Charles McGill is that he was once in the position of so many future Saul Goodman clients: sitting in jail for a dumb crime that could potentially ruin his life. (The "Chicago Sunroof" will soon have many imaginary definitions on UrbanDictionary.) It's clear that Slippin' Jimmy's understanding of the legal system is rudimentary at best. He assumes that Chuck has "a million legal loopholes that we can dance through," as though he's a miracle worker instead of a smart, hard-working, and humble man. Sure, there's a lot of slick wit on the surface, but when the going gets tough, Jimmy drops all pretense and outright begs Chuck to get him out, and in exchange he vows to turn his life around. And perhaps some of the mystery behind how Chuck gets Jimmy out of that pickle is what inspires him to pursue the legal profession in his brother's footsteps. Well, you can take the boy out of Cicero, but you can't take the Cicero out of the boy.

    03.01

    What we're witnessing during this opening salvo of Better Call Saul is James McGill at his moral apex. Before, he was Slippin' Jimmy, potentially going to prison as a sex offender, calling in his brother for a Hail Mary to get him out of trouble. And the events of Breaking Bad show a future where he went back to that life, only with a lot more preparation and knowledge of how to get away with his crimes. So this a caesura, when Jimmy isn't above jumping over the line now and again in order to make a play to get ahead, but he's certainly not committed to criminal activity the way he will be down the line.

    In "Nacho," Jimmy is creating more problems than he's solving, and finding ways to MacGyver his way out of harm's way. First, he calls Kim—the woman he shared a cigarette with outside Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill in the pilot, who he clearly has a previous relationship with—and mentions the Kettlemans might be in danger, thanks to his knowledge that Nacho plans to rob them. Then he places an anonymous warning call to the house—which plays out rather like anytime Breaking Bad depicted the couple behind Gray Matter Technologies dealing with something rough-and-tumble. The next day, the whole Kettleman family is gone, including two young children, their house ransacked, and Kim frantically calls Jimmy, who rather cryptically predicted this kind of scenario.

    Worried about his own connection to this potentially violent crime, Saul desperately reaches out to Nacho, a sequence of events that includes a comical police chase and ends with Jimmy and Nacho in a police interrogation room, the latter the chief suspect in the Kettlemans' disappearance. Bad as the circumstantial evidence looks, Nacho insists he was only casing the house. He never went inside. He couldn't have committed a kidnapping. Worse, he thinks Jimmy set him up to be arrested and gave the robbery to another crew, so now Jimmy's life is on the line if he doesn't get Nacho out before the cops uncover anything to do with Tuco's crew.

    03.02

    That scene in the prison resonates with all of Jimmy's grunt work in "Nacho." Though it's motivated by his desperate survival instinct, he's learning how to massage the system into providing an angle he can work with. There's a bit of a missed opportunity here direction-wise, as the opening flashback in the Cook County jail never visually repeats the same framing as Jimmy's chat with Nacho. In fact, the only two-shot of Chuck and his brother peers in through the observation window, they're never shown in a balanced frame together. Changing up the actor's staging but maintaining some kind of visual parallelism might've helped. Episode director Terry McDonough—whose first American television credits were on season two of Breaking Bad, including the origin of the character in "Better Call Saul"—creates a handful of great moments, but doesn't measure up to the first two episodes handled by Vince Gilligan and Michelle MacLaren. Those two are a lot to live up to, so it's no real slight to McDonough. What "Nacho" does provide are the first inklings of a partnership between Jimmy and former Philadelphia police officer Mike Ehrmantraut.

    03.03

    Jimmy and Mike's transactional relationship reaches a confrontation as Jimmy circumvents the sticker policy, only to be barred entry the next time he arrives at the courthouse. But that does lead to the cops intervening—the same guys trying to pressure Jimmy into giving up his client. Only upon inspecting the Kettleman residence, and noticing a missing doll, Jimmy isn't so sure any kidnapping actually took place. The cops put a bit too much undue pressure on Mike, and once again the silent but deadly Breaking Bad stalwart shows he's got the best instincts of anyone on the show and backs out of helping the cops, since something doesn't add up.

    03.04

    The climax of the episode begins with Mike and Jimmy in a stairwell, as they find common ground for the first time. Mike tells one of his tales from his time on the force in Philly—about a bookie who tried to get away without paying out bets that didn't go his way—which gives Jimmy the impetus to go back to the Kettlemans' place. One hunch from a bumper sticker later, and he's the one who finds them.

    03.06

    "Nacho" is the first time Better Call Saul dips back into something Breaking Bad depicted in short doses when focusing on Hank Schrader: the corruption of law enforcement. Sure, they're out to protect the public and go after criminals, but they bend the law too, and it's precisely that abuse of power, building up like death by thousands of paper cuts, that seems to push Jimmy toward defending those unable to push back against a justice system all to ready to take advantage of those who can't stand up to the overreach of authority. Nobody but Mike believes Jimmy's theory that the Kettlemans skipped town, and the police begrudgingly admit that it's possible but implausible. Jimmy has to admit the flipside that it's also possible the family was kidnapped, and given the circumstances putting young children in danger, he needs to do something about his client. But seeing as how one option results in Jimmy staying alive and the other leads to certain death, there's one he's pursuing with more gusto.

    Linked with the moment in the bathroom where Jimmy berates the same prosecutor who took a bag of Fritos as part of a plea bargain for mixing up cases and refusing to negotiate, and there's the groundwork for why Saul Goodman takes the tack he does with what the majority views as the white hats in criminal proceedings. He's a thorn in everyone's side during Breaking Bad, from the DEA to local police to opposing counsel. From the vantage point of Jimmy's origin story, it's easy to see how he'd take these events and view himself as a necessary check, a line of defense for those who don't know how to take advantage of legal defense, to become that miracle worker with all the loopholes he thought his brother to be. But we also know that in the course of transitioning from James M. McGill to Saul Goodman, he pushes too far and, to borrow the words of Jesse Pinkman, stops being a criminal lawyer and starts being a criminal lawyer. What happens in the tent in the wilderness behind the Kettlemans' house will only hasten that progression.

     

    Extra Legal Advice

    • I thought about it during the broadcast, and a bunch of others noticed it too: Though the Edible Arrangements shout out was hilarious, the first one in New Mexico didn't open until 2006, a few years after the main timeline of Better Call Saul supposedly takes place.
    • The title sequence will be changing with every episode, but this is the first time there was a rather important bit of vandalism to the icon invoked: the scales of justice, used as an ashtray. It dirties up a revered and symbolically incorruptible object in just the right way to represent where Jimmy is heading.
    • Jimmy confesses a bunch of information regarding Nacho to Kim, which should only complicate their relationship going forward. They clearly worked together before, and have some lingering embers between them, but with her trajectory at a major firm and his slide into the criminal underworld, this won't be happy in the long run.
    • The Cowboys and the Steelers have played in the Super Bowl three times, so which game was Mike referring to?
    • It's now been three episodes, nearly three hours of story time, and the only female characters with lines I can remember have been Kim, Mrs. Kettleman, the nail salon workers, the receptionist at Chuck's old firm, and the woman at the courthouse doling out public defender work. If there's one big problem on Better Call Saul so far, it's that there's no Skyler or Marie to balance out the bleak dudeness of yet another dark prestige television drama. Kim better turn into something great fast, or that's going to the be the giant demerit holding this show back even as it's the showcase Bob Odenkirk has waited a lifetime for as a dramatic actor.
  • The best moments from the two-night premiere of Better Call Saul

    Following in the footsteps of Breaking Bad so shortly after that show completed one final domination at the Emmys, there are plenty of reasons to question why anyone would want to mess with such a well-constructed story with a definite end point. But over the course of the two-night premiere last week, Vince Gilligan and fellow Breaking Bad producer Peter Gould made the case for dipping back into ABQ. Breaking Bad told the story of one man's criminal rise-and-fall during the final years of his life, staring down a death sentence of a cancer diagnosis. Better Call Saul establishes that Walter White wasn't the only character in Albuquerque worth following over that timeline, that the patchwork of the city as envisioned by Gilligan and his cowriters is fertile ground for further exploration.

    Thanks to the creative team assembled, Better Call Saul has the same visual palette, a handful of familiar characters, a knack for revelatory music cues, and healthy thematic parallels to the now-iconic drama series that preceded it. But in order to justify its existence, it shades in a different facet of what Gilligan and Gould revealed in Breaking Bad. In preparation for tonight's third episode, here's a look back at several of the key moments from the opening episodes "Uno" and "Mijo."

    01.01

    Whoever picked The Ink Spots' 1939 single "Address Unknown" to score this opening sequence deserves a healthy raise right off the bat. The extended black and white sequence recalls the second season of Breaking Bad, which strung out several episode-opening moments throughout the season along with a message hidden in the episode titles. But right from the get-go, that technique is used for a different effect than it was on Breaking Bad. Previously, it was cryptic and morbid foreshadowing of a massive traumatic event that affected the entire area (two planes colliding) that had personal underpinnings for the characters, linking back to Jane, her air-traffic controller father, Jesse, and Walt. For Saul, it depicts how he's always looking over his shoulder, waiting to be discovered and caught in violent retribution. His loneliness—that empty wasteland of an apartment is his own private "Granite State"—only gives him infinite time to contemplate when he had it better. And so he digs out the VHS tape to relive the glory days before Better Call Saul flashes back to the beginning.

    01.02

    There are plenty of visual similarities connecting the Better Call Saul pilot to the actions of Walter White. But the difference in focus is a matter of scale and scope. Breaking Bad takes place between Walt's 50th and 52nd birthdays, ending in 2011. Co-creator Gould has stated that Saul takes place before, during, and after Breaking Bad. But despite the shortened timeframe, there's a lot more dramatic distance to cover sliding downhill from Mr. Chips to Scarface than there is from James M. McGill to Saul Goodman, and Better Call Saul is finely tuned to that distinction. Where Breaking Bad moved in Shakespearean sweeps, Better Call Saul is more gradual. Jimmy's life isn't great, he's struggling mightily as a lawyer, but he's not dying of cancer like Walt was, so there's no great motivation to make drastic changes by whatever means necessary. If Breaking Bad didn't have such a compelling inciting incident—high school chemistry teacher cooking meth to provide for his family before he dies and is forgotten forever—there wouldn't be as much excitement around exploring the history of a small-time crooked lawyer in Albuquerque.

    01.03
    One of the most interesting strains of Breaking Bad concerned Gray Matter Technologies, the corporation that Walt left under mysterious circumstances before the series began, and before he could take part in the lucrative profits—which created an all-consuming bitterness in him that festered all the way through to the finale. It fueled his rage at being unrecognized for his intellect, and though it went unremarked upon for large stretches of time, it was always a key factor in his thirst for an empire.

    Jimmy has something similar. His brother Chuck (Michael McKean) is a name partner in a highly profitable law firm in Albuquerque, but due to some unnamed condition, be it something to do with electromagnetic fields or just paranoid schizophrenia, he no longer leaves his house, and allows no electronic devices inside. It's clear from Jimmy's first conversation with his brother that there's a shared history at the firm. Chuck references Jimmy's "cronies in the mailroom" and his "friend Kim"—who should play a larger role in the series going forward—but it's clear from Jimmy's interactions at the firm that he's seen as less-than. Again, it's not as archetypal or catastrophic as what sets Walt's actions in motion, but Gilligan and Gould are dealing with a more demure type of ostracized talent.

     01.04

    Aside from the fact that New Mexico has an excellent array of dinosaur fossils, and that skate park is an excellent shooting location from a visual standpoint, there's some thematic significance to be mined from here. This kind of small-time con exists in a tiny bubble—similar to Walt and Jesse's tepid initial forays into meth distribution—oblivious to the depths of the actual criminal underworld. Here these guys sit, listening to one small-timer regale them with rip-off schemes that pale in comparison to a big-time score. This is where these guys belong, unless something—such as the eruption of Walter White's insatiable ambition while facing his own mortality—yanks them from a fishbowl into the deep, blue sea.

    01.05

    And now we arrive at the biggest moment of convergence with Breaking Bad. Yes, we've already seen Mike Ehrmantraut as a parking attendant at the courthouse, but bringing Tuco Salamanca into the fray fulfills one of the somewhat truncated plot threads from Gilligan's previous show. During the WGA strike in 2007, Breaking Bad cut its first season short, which had some big effects on where the series went during its second season. One of those big chances was mandated by Raymond Cruz's role on TNT's The Closer (which he still continues on spinoff Major Crimes). The Tuco arc finished up in the first three episodes of that second season—and Jesse lived through it—but clearly Gilligan didn't get to finish what he wanted to with Cruz's character.

    Of all the moments that harkened back to Breaking Bad, this is the choice that made me hesitate the most, because it now requires Saul to fill in the background of even more familiar characters. There are plenty of little cameos sprinkled in here, but with Jimmy, Mike, and Tuco, there's a lot of connective tissue that directly affects the other series, and what I liked most about these first two episodes was how much new ground it staked out while complicating shared themes. Having said that, reviving Tuco, and showing his comically out-of-place Abuelita, suggests that there's a chance Tuco's uncle, Don Hector (Mark Margolis) may make an appearance, which would be phenomenal.

    02.01

    The above image is the exact midpoint of the second episode, "Mijo." It's the shot when Jimmy makes his first official deal with the devil, a gorgeously composed handshake in the desert with the bounty at stake floundering in misery in the middle ground. The skater punks may think he's the worst lawyer ever, but as he makes plain, "I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation. I'm the best lawyer ever." Gilligan directed the pilot (of course), but it's also significant that Michelle MacLaren got to helm the second episode, at once extending and expanding the visual cadences of Better Call Saul in concert and apart from Breaking Bad.

    Once again, there are visual callbacks to the previous series. But MacLaren does well to hammer home just how significantly this event in the desert affects Jimmy. The longest notable take in either of the first two episodes is the minute-long track/zoom in on Jimmy watching, horrified, as Tuco breaks the skaters' legs. It's so traumatizing that he can't hear breadsticks snapping without having flashbacks—all communicated through the direction, sound design, and Odenkirk's performance.

    02.02

    And there's the montage. MacLaren has gotten her due after phenomenal work on Breaking Bad—she's helmed a handful of Game Of Thrones episodes and is slated to direct DC's Wonder Woman. And Saul coping with his public defender workload isn't exactly the shocking two-minute "Gliding Over All" sequence (also directed by MacLaren), but again, it's a question of scope, and Better Call Saul hammers home the message of this montage once Jimmy has a moment to relax on the tiny pullout couch in his boiler-room office behind the nail salon.

    Just like the clients he represents, who he meets while looking at them through bars, Jimmy is trapped by this cycle, unable to rise above to a better job and unable to walk away for fear of what his last scheme wrought. It's a top-down visual cue any college freshman making his or her way through a Bordwell and Thompson textbook could single out, but that doesn't make it any less notable. That is until Tuco's advisor Nacho (Orphan Black's Michael Mando) becomes the first customer to show up at Jimmy's crummy "temporary" office, prepared to offer McGill a finder's fee for information that helps Nacho rob the corrupt county treasurer of his ill-gotten gains.

    02.03

    The final image of the two-night premiere is another one fraught with meaning. James McGill is certainly willing to work in an ethical gray area—all lawyers do, exhibited by that moment in the montage where Jimmy finally gets a prosecutor to agree to a plea bargain with the extra promise of a bag of Fritos. And he's not idealistic—this is a guy who earned the name Slippin' Jimmy in Cicero, Illinois, and as he emphasizes to Chuck, "Money is the point." But unlike the guy who pops up in Breaking Bad as the personification of a slimeball, at this juncture, Jimmy McGill has hard limits on how far he'll go to keep his head above water.

    But now that the criminal world has been revealed to him, through brutal violence after a laughably failed attempt at extortion, there's no way to go back and forget it exists. That's the beaded curtain—Nacho walks right through it, back and forth into his world and Jimmy's. And instead of a solid door barring his entrance, or the cell-like existence of an Omaha apartment waiting out there in Saul Goodman's future, it's clear that Jimmy is going to have a hard time not following Nacho right through that curtain.

     

     

    Extra Legal Advice

    • The Albuquerque-area lawyer Ron Bell—who allegedly partly inspired Saul Goodman—went full ouroboros and created a "Better Call Bell" billboard.
    • Though the Cinnabon outlet from the opening sequence purports to be in Omaha, it's actually the Cottonwood mall in Albuquerque. I love how this show has maintained a cottage television production industry in a small metropolitan area.
    • In addition to all the callbacks (though since it's a prequel it feels weird to use that term) and connections in the pilot, AMC also put out a webcomic that shows what went on from Saul and Mike's side of things in "Better Call Saul" back in season two of Breaking Bad.
  • Remembering Robin Williams, cinema's Rorschach test

    In the late 1980's, film producer Joel Silver set his sights on developing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' massively successful graphic novel Watchmen into a feature film with director Terry Gilliam. Rumors swirled at the time, and the 2005 Entertainment Weekly oral history of the project confirmed that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in line for Dr. Manhattan, Richard Gere showed interest, and Robin Williams, fresh off his role as a delusional but sprightly vagabond in Gilliam's The Fisher King, could be tapped as Rorschach.

    During the hellish development, which would bounce between studios and producers for decades until Zach Snyder's film hit theaters five years ago, casting attention switched from Williams to Brad Dourif, allegedly due to wariness over fan perception that Williams was unsuitable for the part. Going in a direction away from a captivating comedic performer with overtones of chained darkness looked foolish when Michael Keaton proved an excellent Batman as that comic franchise dominated the box office. And that criticism seems even more baseless decades later, after Good Will Hunting, Insomnia, One Hour Photo, and many other films that proved Williams' heft. Rorschach, a deeply haunted man with an ever-changing mask that doesn't hide an unmistakable voice, now seems like it would have been a perfect fit.

    There's little point in rueing a missed opportunity from 25 years ago. But in the aftermath of Williams' death at his Bay Area home yesterday, many people were quick to point to a moment in Watchmen when Rorschach sneeringly recites a grim joke about a depressed man who seeks help from a doctor, which now rings frighteningly true:

    It's easy to cherry pick roles from Williams' career that stand out as great—his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting and nominations for The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society—and perhaps even more difficult to highlight all of the supporting roles and notable guest appearances he had throughout his career. He could jump effortlessly between celebrity impressions, regional accents, and even the history of modern dance styles. When I sat down to compile a list of the Robin Williams films I could recall, I ended up with over 25. There's a case to be made for most of his notable films as falling either under universally beloved or infinitely polarizing, which is also a reflection of his impact as an actor. What you think of nearly any of his movies can make or break a connection with another person. I still know which of my friends roll their eyes at my distaste for Hook; I share a special kinship with other Jumanji apologists; anyone else who can recite whole swaths of Good Will Hunting is an instant friend for life.

    But more than his contributions as an artist, the stories that have flooded out of friends and colleagues in the past day have largely been from offscreen interactions. There's the time he cheered up Julliard classmate Christopher Reeve after the Superman actor's debilitating accident. Or when he called Steve Spielberg during the production of Schindler's List to cheer the director up while working with such bleak material. Or Kumail Nanjiani's touching remembrance on Twitter of Williams dropping into a comedy club for an impromptu 15-minute set that left Nanjiani tongue-tied an unable to express his full appreciation. Or Williams' commitment to Comic Relief and USO tours, which harkens back to the moment in Good Morning Vietnam when Airman Adrian Cronauer delivers an impromptu edition of his radio show in the middle of a roadway to a cavalcade of young soldiers departing to fight in the jungle—realizing that his job is to entertain others and lighten their burdens, even at the expense of his best interests.

    Viewers in my generation likely remember Williams first as the Genie from Aladdin, which continued his lightning-quick voice work that hit peaks in Good Morning Vietnam and in Mrs. Doubtfire. Though trained at Julliard—he and Christopher Reeve were the only two students in their class selected by John Houseman to join the Advanced Program—in roles like those his manic energy at times seemed best suited for standup performance. That distinction is the first limitation that Williams burst apart as he progressed from purely lighthearted comedy to deeper, more complex roles and inhabited them with aplomb.

    But it's also important to acknowledge how publicly his boundless energy was unfortunately balanced with addiction and depression. Like Richard Pryor before him, Williams mined those difficult topics for material, especially on his A Night At The Met performance, which helped launched the actor into film roles permanently. And though he wrestled with those addictions—kicking his cocaine habit, returning to rehab in 2006 after beginning to drink again—Williams never quite fully put away the darkness that hovered in some small way over everything he did.

    What's difficult to reconcile now is how much positive criticism Williams received for performances where he was deemed to have harnessed his boundless energy and inner turmoil correctly, whatever that means, and how much ire he earned when he didn't hit that mark. The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting? Great. Jakob The Liar? Miserable. Roles like Bicentennial Man or Patch Adams have not aged particularly well—though some would single out the latter for the chemistry between Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which now seems even more tragic. Though a terrifically engaging screen presence at his most gregarious and joke-focused, he had to chops to be just as mesmerizing when muted, which would only draw out tension for the moment when he could turn on the jets and shift to full bombast.

    I'm not sure I can think of another actor with Williams' combined dominant traits: instantly recognizable for his warmth and energy, fiercely multitalented, flying between understated and exuberant emotional extremes in comedy and drama, and yet maligned whenever the unpredictable balance he struck in a given performance didn't match the critical ideal. In that way his Academy Award for Good Will Hunting in 1997 is both the peak of his control and the most patronizing harness of his career. Here is your reward for taking the raging combustion, powerful as a radiant star, and tamping it down to understated levels while remaining perforated, so that emotional peaks still have a chance to flare out. It was an unhelpful and unjust expectation on an actor who did nothing but give of himself to his performance.

    If there's a bone to pick with the final decade of his career, with RV and Old Dogs and the Night At The Museum franchise, it's not with the quality of the films he appeared in compared to his previous work. That has long remained the raging debate in the career of Robin Williams. People either ardently adore or mercilessly revile his movies, from Hook to What Dreams May Come to Jumanji to Bicentennial Man. Still, what separates that final decade is that all of the edges that drew out such extreme emotional responses from audiences seemed smoothed out. Hook, Jack, and Patch Adams demanded a reaction to the incendiary, divisive performer at the center. Old Dogs and the rest played 

    Therein lies the problem with the however deeply concealed desire for an honest and raw performer struggling for control and stability to continue in that struggle. Is it better to suffer for the sake of memorable art, or to find some kind of peace if it means that an audience will harbor an unspoken thought that it made a performer less interesting? Slate's Mike Pesca, host of the daily podcast The Gist, recently devoted most of an episode to the link between comedy and varying degrees of mental illness, spurred on by Amy Solomon's senior thesis at Princeton. There is no clear explanation for what happened yesterday, even with a publicist noting Williams had sought treatment for sever depression. Yet the data suggests that comedians almost unanimously suffer from some sort of mental illness, wherever that may be on a spectrum.

    But it's too limiting right now to call Robin Williams simply a comedian, despite the tremendous outpouring from the comedy community that continues today. He was an actor, one of the most gifted and adventurous performers of his generation, and it's a shame that it took something like his tragic death to take stock of the possibility that the outsized expectations of an audience could have prevented more people from simply enjoying the effort Williams made in so many films, no matter the critical adjudication.

    During his

    Reddit AMA almost a year ago, Williams fielded questions about his favorite anime series, the latest video games he played, and his taste in comic books. This is a man who named his daughter Zelda after the legendary video game princess—an inspiration that he's retold everywhere from interviews on the floor at E3 to an official Nintendo commercial. He found joy in the cultural spaces that have become goldmines for the industry long before studios wanted anything to do with what they perceived to be niche properties. In that way he earned the "One Of Us" label from many fans who felt a kinship with his interests, much in the same way that he's rightly seen as a Bay Area icon for the way he. It's potentially harmful both to think that you know someone simply because they're famous and put a lot of themselves on display, and equally ill-advised to get attached from the "just-like-us" factor

    Robin Williams left behind a myriad of ways to punctuate the philosophical impact of his career, from Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting to John Keating in Dead Poets Society to his incredible interview with Marc Maron on WTF. But it's this simple clip of Williams on Sesame Street getting passed around that seems the most succinct and representative of his incredible ability to address big topics in a sly, unique way that always took a left-turn by the end.

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  • The happiest Father's Day possible in Game of Thrones [s4 finale]

    It takes guts to end a television season with patricide on Father's Day. But that's what Game Of Thrones has displayed from the very outset. This is a show that makes bold, bleak moves with increasing regularity, where even the "happy" endings (for now) offer only tidbits of satisfaction. Scores of people die, some we care about, some we don't know enough to care, and we're caught between thirsting for revenge and questioning just how easy it was for a television show to instill such base, animalistic responses. It's still amazing that a world with such a negative worldview, one that provides fanciful escapism while emphasizing the triviality of life and seems gleeful at the prospect of pulling another rug out from under the audience, has grown so insanely popular.

     "The Children" isn't a perfect capper, nor has the fourth season been without glaring flaws. Finale director Alex Graves presided over the tone-deaf responses from creative personnel over the Jaime/Cersei scene in the third episode. In this final hour, Graves doesn't make up for that controversy, instead plastering over those comments with compelling direction of an extra-long episode that checks in on almost everyone except the Boltons and those within the Eyrie.

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  • Game Of Thrones: "The Watchers On The Wall" [s4e9]

    Game Of Thrones has only committed to one location for an entire episode once before: "Blackwater," the penultimate episode of the second season that brought together Stannis Baratheon's forces with a capital defensive force led by Tyrion Lannister, truly fighting for the first time. That hour was also directed by The Descent director Neil Marshall, who has apparently become the series' go-to big-time action director—and with good reason. "The Watchers On The Wall" is equal to the cinematographic triumphs of "Blackwater" in almost every way. It's a visual extravaganza, featuring incredible perspective-change shots—the archers lowered over the edge of the Wall to shoot at climbers—masterful swordfight choreography, and a breathtaking long take that encompasses the scale of the entire battle as it circles around the fight on the south side of the Wall. (There's even a great "That's not a knife…THIS is a knife" moment between a giant and a regular Wildling wielding bows.)

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  • Crunch time in Game Of Thrones [s4e8]

    George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire series quickly gained a reputation for zigging when other high fantasy stories would zag, particularly when it came to mercilessly killing off beloved (or simply just familiar) characters. Ned Stark gets beheaded when he appears to be the hero crusading for justice. The Lannisters defeat Stannis with Tyrion's choice to employ Wildfire as a weapon in Blackwater Bay, preserving his famiy's power in King's Landing. The rest of the major Stark players die at the Red Wedding. Martin originally intended these kinds of choices to destabilize the expectation that A Song Of Ice And Fire would follow fantasy genre conventions when it came to a triumphant hero arcs. But even in trying to buck those familiar patterns, Martin's story uses new, compelling scenarios to reach the same ends: a big, boistrous death scene.

    Since this is an episode that doesn't have one focus but moves around in scattershot fashion to more locations on the map than usual, I'll zero in on three key moments that still feel resonant a few days later. Look, in the immediate aftermath, everyone focuses on the big-ticket scene at the end of the episode, which has become Game Of Thrones' calling card ability as televised entertainment. Pick a few weeks during each season, and watch Twitter during the final five minutes of an episode's debut—that's where it has the most significant cultural impact as water-cooler television.

    But it's the moment before that pivotal showdown that gives "The Mountain And The Viper" its name that I want to focus on first, with Tyrion whiling away the moments until the march to uncertain doom begins in his cell with his brother Jamie, his only defender left in King's Landing. It is quite possibly the most bald-faced existential moment of the series so far, perfectly encapsulating the dread of watching Martin flip coins over whether characters live or die. (Obviously he's not doing that, but scores of fans probably feel that way.)

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  • Game Of Thrones opens a Moon Door [Recap: s4e7]

    I had the good fortune of seeing Robet Schenkkan's All The Way—a play about Lyndon B. Johnson, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the run-up to the Democratic Convention before 1964's Presidential election—with Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston on Broadway this past weekend. Stick with me for a moment—but All The Way is part of a larger resurgence in reclaiming LBJ as one of the most skilled politicians of the 20th century, and one of America's greatest presidents. Its greatest achievement, in weaving together Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Act, J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping, the impending wave of misery in Vietnam, is to frame LBJ as a formidable puppet master, a preternatural political manipulator, able to push and poke and prod and pummel friends and enemies alike to craft his vision of a brighter future for anyone like him, who would grow up in the dirt and claw as far as they could toward the top, obtaining great power along the way.

    However strangely, that lens informs how I view Daenerys' fledgling dominion over Meereen and the rest of Slaver's Bay in "Mockingbird." She's trying to drag the entire region in Essos into the light, away from slavery, but struggles with how best to achieve that goal. Daario Naharas, refusing to be contained by his vow to adhere to Daenerys' orders, sneaks into her private quarters under the guise of proving her windows aren't properly guarded, and pitches both his carnal desire and his desire to take back Yunkai in her name—since he's good at two things: fighting and wooing women. So the mother of dragons does what any leader who has traveled a long distance to arrive at a comfortable place of leadership would do: she tells him to take off all of his clothes, then the next morning sends him to kill every remaining master in Yunkai, effectively giving into everything Daario wants.

    Though she's proactive about her personal needs, which is a rarity for this show, she's at a loss for what to do as a queen to bring Yunkai under control. Jorah, who awkwardly crosses paths with Daario the next morning, raises questions about both her Daenerys' decisions. If Ned Stark had implemented the same justice Daenerys is showing to Yunkai, Jorah wouldn't be there to advise her. (Nor would he be a former spy for the Red Keep, a nugget of information that now looms large whenever he and Khaleesi disagree on anything.) Daenerys is making her own choices, and her advisors are loyal servants to a would-be queen of Westeros. But she's still under the influence of others. Sometimes it's to her benefit, as Jorah's arguments lead Daenerys not only to change her mind and offer the rebellious slave master in Yunkai a choice—live in her new world, die in their old one—but also to credit an advisor looking for a bit a praise. But as Daenerys continues to discover, figuring out how to rule—especially how to manipulate the little things in order to make the big picture function as a peaceful and prosperous whole—is going to be a lot harder than she thought.

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  • Silicon Valley's heroes get their chance to Disrupt [s1e7]

    In its first season's penultimate episode, the first part of a divided Silicon Valley finale, there's so much humor about the awkwardly showy displays at a big tech conference that the show gets right. It's better to start there, since beating the drum on the problems related to female characters—not just representation, but pigeonholing characterization—gets tiring week after week when there's no reversing course after the season has already been produced. "Proof Of Concept" absolutely nails the brutally tone-deaf and ironically repetitive nature of the startup pitch at a place like TechCrunch Disrupt. The episode's three best moments derive big laughs from what this season has built toward: presenting in the main room for Startup Battlefield.

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