Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Better Call Saul Season 2 Is some of the best TV this year (SPOILERS!)

Better Call Saul just finished its second season the other day, and I think this is one of the best shows I've seen in a long while. It's a prequel to Breaking Bad, for one thing, and I never thought I'd like a prequel this much. But here we are. I think the secret to this is pretty simple, a sort of Occam's Razor thing: Vince Gilligan and his team just know how to write characters and stories you want to see.


In a lot of prequels, the problem is that the stories aren't compelling – they're just paying lip service to the original thing they were based off of, but explaining really dumb, obvious things that never needed explanations, ruining the mystery and intrigue. Better Call Saul is a prequel in the sense that it's showing how Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad became the hilarious, sleazy, corrupt lawyer he is. But he's a character we want to see more of. I read once, somewhere I can't recall, that the secret to creating a long-lasting character – think Batman, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, that sort of thing – is to make them so malleable that they can fit into multiple situations and you want to hear more stories about them. That's what Gilligan and co. have done with Saul Goodman.

This season has just been excellently done. The first season was good too, though it felt kind of like a first season – underdeveloped a tad and not quite firing on all cylinders yet, so to speak. It introduced Saul as his birth name, Jimmy McGill, and his brother Chuck, who has a sort of mental illness that makes him sick when he's around electricity or any kind of technology. It also introduced Kim Wexler, Jimmy's sometimes fuck-buddy and eventual girlfriend, and the law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, who Jimmy was trying to work for. At the end of that season, the big twist was that Chuck had actually been sabotaging Jimmy's career, believing his younger brother to be an incompetent con man who was unfit to practice at a real law firm.

The second season took that and just started running with it. Despite the fact that the show wants us to hate Chuck for his lies and betrayal, Chuck wasn't wrong about Jimmy – Jimmy is a con man, through and through. He constantly cuts corners and bends the rules to get what he wants, in this season even crossing over to straight up felony offenses like forging legal documents. He's a likable character and we want to be on his side. But art imitates life – as in real life, con men like Jimmy are only successful when you like them enough to buy into their act.

That's what Gilligan and co. did so successfully with Breaking Bad. They made characters who do horrible things to each other and those around them, but you want to keep watching. Gilligan understands human motivation and human nature. This second season of BCS exemplifies that. Jimmy, for all his (kinda flimsy) attempts to do right and walk the straight-and-narrow, is a criminal at heart. Kim helps him get a job at Davis & Main, a huge prestigious firm. He basically immediately begins to sabotage himself. Unwittingly or not: he doesn't really want to be there.

What I really just love about this season is that it never – never – just takes the easy, shitty path that most shows would take. Despite his reckless and ridiculous behavior at Davis & Main, Kim still likes Jimmy and they work things out like a real couple would. They have their problems – it's not some kind of blind adoration – but they work things out because they like each other. Jimmy gets Kim in trouble with her own firm when he goes behind his bosses' backs and makes a corny commercial without their consent. She's angry at him. But they make up from that, too. A lesser show would have had them exchanging dramatic soap-opera-y shouting matches and swearing they'd never be together again, taking half a season to resolve things in a predictable way, kiss-and-make-up. BCS has them resolve things quickly and quietly because they know you don't just throw out a good thing like that. Real people don't – relationships take work. So these characters don't let their relationship go to waste. It makes for refreshingly candid, unpretentious TV that comes off as rewarding in the way it isn't content with giving the viewers bottom of the barrel entertainment. It doesn't treat the viewers like jackasses or simpletons.

Again, and perhaps more tellingly: the second half of the season focuses on Kim and Jimmy breaking off into their own firm. Kim wants to take this big client from her old job with her, but Chuck and her boss, Howard, take it back by persuading them in a rather underhanded manner. Jimmy, seeing red, breaks into Chuck's house while he's in the throes of a panic attack and doctors his documents, humiliating him in court and losing him the client. In a stupider, less gratifying show, this would have taken many more episodes to play out – a bunch of stalling and game-playing before we see Chuck fuck up in court, and then at least another half a season before Chuck figures out what Jimmy did.

BCS didn't do that. Chuck figured it out the very next episode, and confronted Jimmy about it in the same episode. It's instant gratification, yes, but it's good storytelling. It doesn't keep the promise dangling above the viewer like a mouse toy for a frustrated cat. Breaking Bad was masterful at drawing out its plot and making callbacks to earlier seasons and plot threads at unexpected times. BCS, by contrast, is both simpler and more complex – it gets to the point of a plot thread right away without delay, but everything going on is rife with subtext and hidden character motivations and all kinds of shade and light. It's fascinating, complex writing.

In the finale, the first scene is Jimmy and Chuck in the past, sitting with their dying mother in the hospital. Jimmy pesters Chuck to go with him to get some lunch, as they haven't eaten in a while – she'll be fine when they get back, he says. He ends up leaving by himself, after saying he'll bring Chuck something. Their mother wakes up when Chuck is sitting there by himself, and she calls for Jimmy briefly, who isn't there. Then she dies. When Jimmy comes back and learns that she died, Chuck lies and tells Jimmy she didn't say anything before she died.

That is fucking great. There's so much going on in that sequence – Chuck was, on the one hand, being merciful by not guilting Jimmy and admitting that she said his name before she died, which would have surely made him feel bad for not being there. But on the other hand, Chuck also resents Jimmy because their mother called his name before she died, and as we know from the numerous other stories and tales told this season, Jimmy was a fuck-up all his life while Chuck tried his hardest to succeed in the name of the law. But Jimmy was the favorite. And it killed Chuck; that did. There's so much unspoken in that short three-minute scene that opens the finale.

And again, later on in the finale, we see Jimmy go to Chuck, who has turned his house into a certifiably crazy-looking mess of tin-foil walls to supposedly keep out any electric vibrations, or, well, some shit like that. Chuck breaks down in front of Jimmy, saying he's lost his mind and has to retire from the law because of the mistake he made on the case from earlier in the season. All this finally gets Jimmy to confess – with Jimmy exiting the room by saying it's his word against Chuck's. Chuck then uncovers the hidden tape recorder he'd been using to catch Jimmy confessing on tape.

Again, so much going on. Jimmy's hubris and recklessness are immediately laid bare – the whole “it's my word against yours” thing; wow. Wow. That's nuts that he thought he could just say that, basically flaunting his crime in Chuck's face. He had good intentions, yes – but the fact that he deceived his brother at all and committed a felony speaks volumes as to his character. He's surely put his feet as well as Kim's in the fire now, as the case he confessed to fucking with is the one Kim is currently trying to build her solo law practice off of. If you thought it was impossible for a show to make you care this much about what would in real life be boring legal stuff – well, BCS pulls it the fuck off.

And Chuck, well – part of Chuck's whole rant about his brain being fried and senile was rooted in his own fears. Chuck has done some terrible things in this show, and shown his own egomaniacal levels of conceit, but he's still a human being, and Gilligan and co. don't forget that. When he breaks down and cries that he's losing his mind, it's an act to swindle Jimmy like Jimmy swindled him. But I interpreted that scene as being partially rooted in Chuck's real fear, that he might just be going crazy. That's what I like about this show – no character is just doing one thing. There are always these hidden motivations that make them compelling to keep watching.

Mike's storyline, too – we see him in this season as a less professional version of who he'd be in Breaking Bad. Though he had the 'half measures' story back in Breaking Bad season 3, and we saw the story of why he's in Arizona last season, this year his story is again about him mixing up with criminals he doesn't fully understand and kind of underestimates, too. His parts here are short and often without many words. There's a very cool, pulp neo-Western feel to them. And I like how they're taking it slow with his character – it shows that a person isn't changed completely or defined utterly by one event only. A person is the sum of many different experiences. You can see that in Jimmy's transformation into Saul, too. The layering of these characters is what makes the drama rich and rewarding to watch, much more than just a mere series of suspenseful events happening in sequence.

It's great drama. The way these characters are written, and the way these scenarios play out, make for a cracking, heartfelt drama with depth and shading to match a classical work of art or a painting of some kind. There's no talking-down to the audience and no silly TV-show clich̩. What BCS is, is a real work of art and a masterfully unfolding story. The events in this season built on one another like a well-played game of Jenga. Next season, sparks will fly. I'll be there to witness that Рwill you?

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