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extremely spoilery thoughts about Better Call Saul

I’m a deeply committed fan of Better Call Saul, to the extent that after each episode I listen, hungrily, to the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast. I am endlessly fascinated to learn about the enormously complex, deeply intelligent, technically sophisticated, emotionally sensitive collaborative energy that goes into making a show like this. Every time I listen I discover something about the show that I had missed, something that makes its already-powerful story even more powerful.

It’s also fun to hear how closely the actors (there’s usually, though not always, one each episode) identify with their characters, in ways that reveal them, the actors, as often insightful and sometimes unreliable. When Michael Mando explains how he sees Nacho as motivated largely by shame — shame before his honorable father — I immediately see the truth of it. When Bob Odenkirk defends Jimmy’s indefensible actions, I just shake my head in disbelief. By far the most interesting of the actors on the podcast, though, is Rhea Seehorn, who is extremely articulate in analyzing Kim but insightful into other characters as well.

In sum: the podcast is a great supplement to the show.

What follows is super-spoilery.

In a vital scene in the just-released final episode of Season 4, Jimmy McGill breaks down weeping in his car. When that scene was discussed on the podcast, I was struck by the number of participants who believe that he was finally weeping for his dead brother Chuck. No, he definitely wasn’t.

Many of the people on the podcast, regulars and guests, believe that Jimmy is in the denial stage of grief, or something like that. On the show itself, Kim seems to think the same — you can’t be sure because neither Kim nor Jimmy tends to speak what they feel — but I believe that it’s her sense that Jimmy hasn’t processed Chuck’s death that prompts her to press him to seek counseling. But when, briefly, he says he will, it’s not because of Chuck: it’s because he got mugged by some punks when trying to run a scam and he’s concerned that he’s still acting like he’s 20 years old.

In my judgment Jimmy has never grieved Chuck’s death and never will. The last words Chuck said to him were, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” And I believe that from that moment on Chuck was completely dead to Jimmy already.

So why does he cry in his car?

In the previous scene, Jimmy has sat in a conference room with a bunch of other lawyers interviewing high school students who have applied for a scholarship. Jimmy argues on behalf of a girl who had been convicted of shoplifting when younger but has put her life together; he says that at least one of their scholarships (there are three to distribute) should go to someone who isn’t perfect, who has made mistakes and triumphed over them. But that argument falls on deaf ears, and after the decision is made Jimmy catches up with the girl and gives her an impassioned speech explaining that people like her never get a fair shake and never will, and that she has to be bold, has to cut corners, has to do everything she can, no matter how ruthless, to maneuver around those people. So what, Jimmy says, if they’re sitting there on the 35th floor judging you? You don’t care because you’re gonna be on the 50th floor looking down at them.

And then he goes back to his car. His old, beat-up car, with a mismatched door, the same one he’s had since we first saw him. And, as is often the case, it won’t start. And that’s when he starts crying.

This episode begins with a flashback to Jimmy and Chuck, right after Jimmy is sworn in as a lawyer, going to a karaoke bar with friends and singing Abba’s “Winner Takes It All.” And Jimmy actually quotes that song to the girl who didn’t get the scholarship. (He doesn’t say, but he means, this line: “But I was a fool / Playing by the rules.”) The song tells us that the winner takes it all, but is also tells us that “the loser has to fall.” And what Jimmy is facing at this moment is, simply: he’s a loser. As Kim told him in a previous eposode, when he complained that she was “kicking a man when he’s down,” “Jimmy, you’re always down.” He’s not on the 50th floor looking down on anyone. He’s sitting in an old beater that won’t start, because that’s all he can afford. The loser has to fall, and does.

And I think this is the point of no return for Jimmy — the point at which it’s absolutely inevitable that he’ll become Saul Goodman, unscrupulous, lying, deceitful, dishonest, crooked as crooked can be. Because he tried, at least sometimes, playing by the rules and the result is, he’s always down. I don’t think he’ll play by the rules any more.

At the end of the episode and the season, Jimmy has just regained his law license — by faking sincerity more skillfully than he had faked it before —, and we learn that he’s not going to practice under his own name but under the name Saul Goodman. The key point is that Kim learns it at the same moment that we do. He hasn’t told her. He has shut her out, just as he had earlier shut out Chuck, though for far less reason, since Kim has been far better to him than he ever deserved. Kim now sees that there is nothing fully human behind the mask. I don’t see how she can ever trust him again.

engagement 24/7

I’ve talked about this before, in bits and pieces, but just for the record: My wife Teri and I believe that our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is to tend to the seamless garment of life — our understanding of which I’ve tried to describe in some detail here — and we try to back that up in various ways. Teri does more of this than I do: she tutors a middle-schooler who lives in poverty and a broken home, and has been supportive of Waco’s immigrant population. In addition to tithing to our church, we have contributed to Sandy Hook Promise and are members of the Nature Conservancy. But we also are strongly, passionately pro-life in the everyday use of that term, so we also support, among other like-minded organizations, Anglicans for Life.

All that by way of context.

Yesterday we were watching one of our favorite shows, The Starters on NBA TV, and to our surprise were treated to a little in-show infomercial for Planned Parenthood … and our hearts sank like stones. Now you may adore PP — and if so, there’s no need to tell me why, I’ve heard it all before — but just understand: in our view, there’s no nonprofit organization in America that does as much harm as PP. (The NRA doesn’t come within miles of it, though, speaking more objectively, it may be the only nonprofit that’s more controversial than PP). So we were no longer in the mood to enjoy funny banter about basketball; we turned off the TV, and may not watch the show again. Time will tell. We’re not the boycotting type, but that was a serious annoyance. 

Later on I was thinking about my reaction, and recalled the recent absurd kerfuffle about that arose when some Fox News yammerer chastised NBA players for their political activism and told them to shut up and dribble. I asked myself: How am I any different? Am I not saying to The Starters, “Shut up and make basketball jokes”? 

I’ve been turning over the question in my mind, and I think there is a difference. As it happens, when players like LeBron James speak out about racism in America I almost always agree with them, but even if I didn’t, their views don’t alter my experience of the game they play. (The same is true of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, though I don’t watch the NFL. If I did, I could just wait until kickoff to turn the TV on.) Similarly, I don’t care whether the chef at my favorite restaurant has totally different politics than mine, nor am I interested in what charities he or she supports. 

But if that chef came out between the appetizer and the entrée to explain what charities she supports and to press me to support them too, I would be pretty pissed off (even if I supported those charities myself). If LeBron could call a time out in the middle of the third quarter, grab a microphone, and give the audience a lecture about Black Lives Matter, I would be seriously annoyed (even if I were a fervent supporter of BLM). 

So that was my problem with what happened on The Starters. I would never try to find out what charities the hosts of a show I watch supports or what their politics are, and if I happened to find out I wouldn’t stop watching the show. But for them to use show time to cheerlead for one of the most controversial, one of the most widely despised, nonprofits in America — that strikes me as a violation of the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience. And once that implicit contract is violated, then there’s no way to know whether or not it will become a regular feature — which is why I may not be watching the show again. 

But here’s the thing: what I have called “the implicit contract between the entertainers and the audience” no longer holds, at least not generally. The infiltration of every corner of culture by politics, of every former site of pleasure by culture wars, is nearly complete now. I have no doubt that The Starters see promoting their politics on the show as a mark of seriousness, a mark of true virtue, and will therefore be pleased rather than chagrined by any pushback they get.

If you don’t want to be engaged in the struggle 24/7, your only refuge now — if you’re lucky — is your dreams. 

For thirteen years MGM had the great Tex Avery; after 1940 they also had Hanna and Barbera putting Tom and Jerry through their formulaic wars. Those differ from the Coyote-Road Runner quest in that whereas Wile E. and his quarry exist in different psychic universes — the one obsessed, the other blithe — the Tom-and-Jerry formula calls simply for a cat who’d eat a mouse if only he could manage to catch it; but the mouse, being smaller, hence smarter, can always outmaneuver him. The Road Runner never outmaneuvers the Coyote. He’s never even distressed by him. what outdoes the Coyote is the interactiveness of a single coherent universe, where fanaticism is guaranteed to defeat itself.

If we contemplate the lives of the Teletubbies, questions start to pose themselves. These four creatures are evidently infantile beings, unable to look after themselves (hence their elaborate environment of technological attendants). We wonder: where are their parents? Have the Teletubbies been abandoned by their families? Are the ’tubbies alien creatures, or are they post-humans, genetically altered?

I prefer a different reading, one that folds the surface logic of the text back into the underlying logic of ‘entertainment for toddlers’. It seems clear from the world of the Teletubbies that, whether alien or posthuman, they come from a technologically advanced culture. Like the Borg they have assimilated technological devices into their own bodies, but unlike the wholly technological/artificial worlds of the Borg they have chosen to inhabit an environment shaped largely by the aesthetics of the natural world. We have, then, a disparity between (on the one hand) the high degree of intelligence and technological know-how needed to build the ’tubbies home, their automated toasters and vacuum-cleaners, the periscopes, the broadcasting tower and all that; and (on the other) the evident puerility and immaturity of the Teletubbies themselves.

In 2005, The Lancet published a comprehensive review of the literature on media violence to date. The bottom line: The weight of the studies supports the position that exposure to media violence leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence and lack of sympathy for victims of violence, particularly in children.

In fact the surgeon general, the National Institute of Mental Health and multiple professional organizations — including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association — all consider media violence exposure a risk factor for actual violence.

To be fair, some question whether the correlations are significant enough to justify considering media violence a substantial public health issue. And violent behavior is a complex issue with a host of other risk factors.

But although exposure to violent media isn’t the only or even the strongest risk factor for violence, it’s more easily modified than other risk factors (like being male or having a low socioeconomic status or low I.Q.).

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