Saul: Season 5, final comment

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In an earlier comment on this season I noted that Jimmy’s character arc is basically complete by the end of Season 4, when he registers to practice law under the name Saul Goodman. Insofar as anything substantial has happened to Jimmy’s insides this season, it has been his dawning awareness that he isn’t going to change, and because he isn’t going to change he has gone down what one episode calls “Bad Choice Road” — a road doesn’t have an exit or room to turn around. What remains is simply to find out where the road goes, because there is no alternative to it. And of course all of us who watched Breaking Bad know basically what’s ahead for Jimmy. 

Similarly, Mike’s character arc is completed this season when he decides to “play the hand he was dealt” and work full-time for Gus. And we know where his road leads him also. These two characters may participate in interesting events, and those may surprise us, but neither of these characters will surprise us. 

Nacho has not really had a character arc. He has been the same person since we first met him: a person who wants to be decent but who lacks the strength of character, or the resourcefulness, or both, to extricate himself from involvement with the cartel. We want him to get out of the bind he’s in; we are eagerly waiting to see if he does; but he is not going to change in any significant way. And meanwhile the blood on his hands is growing thicker. 

Which leaves us with Kim. At a certain point in this episode Kim learns — or thinks she learns — that Lalo Salamanca is going to die and she won’t have to fear him any more. And it is immediately after that, though the causal connection is unclear, that she seems to morph into a different person. Something seems to have been released in her, and it’s not altogether pleasant to see. It is a very strange thing to watch. When she starts musing about how she and Jimmy might destroy Howard Hamlin’s career — even though Howard has not, as Jimmy points out, done “something unforgivable,” the phrase that provides the title of the episode — Jimmy tells her that of course she wouldn’t actually do that. To which she replies, “Wouldn’t I?” And a silence ensues. 

Season 4 ended with Jimmy surprising Kim by deciding to practice under the name Saul Goodman — immediately after shocking her by revealing that his moving speech to the board reviewing his reinstatement was total bullshit.  

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Jimmy bold, confident, assured; Kim stunned, disoriented, destabilized. Our last encounter with Jimmy and Kim in Season 5 ends this way: 

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The same turn, the same gesture — but with the fingers made explicitly into pistols, rather a bold thing to do to a guy who has just been threatened at gunpoint — and now it’s Kim who is bold and assured, and Jimmy who is disoriented. 

Kim knows what she is echoing. She remembers how Jimmy played her. But what does her echo of his gesture mean? It makes me wonder whether all the changes in Kim’s relationship with Jimmy, including their marriage of convenience, have been part of a plan. But what plan? I also find myself thinking about something apparently unrelated: We are allowed in this very eventful episode to spend several minutes with Kim in a room filled with the files of people in need of legal defense. From those she selects people to represent — but how does she decide? Does she choose at random, at least among those accused of felonies (which she has specifically requested)? Or is she looking for something? And if so … what? 

All of which leads me to one more question: What do we really know about Kim Wexler? 

Saul: Season 5, Comment 3

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Earlier in this season, Mike Ehrmantraut is so disturbed at the way his life is going — at the decisions he has made, and the people he’s connected to — that, working over his troubles in his head, he lashes out (verbally) at his young granddaughter, which leads his daughter-in-law to suggest, as gently as she can, that maybe Mike shouldn’t be around that granddaughter any more. This drives Mike to certain self-destructive actions that result in his waking up in a tiny Mexican village with a stab wound in his side. 

Gus Fring — who has transported Mike there — visits him and initiates a conversation. He says, “It seems to me that you are at a crossroads. You can continue as you are … drinking, estranged from your family, brawling with street hoods. We both know how that ends.” 

And to this Mike says: “Yeah.” (Jonathan Banks should get an Emmy just for that one line reading.) Ultimately, Mike agrees to continue to work with Gus. Later, when he visits his daughter-in-law again, he tells her that he is better, and when she asks why he is better, he says, “I decided to play the hand I was dealt.” 

I decided to play the hand I was dealt. It’s this hard-earned and bitterly worldly wisdom that Mike shares with Jimmy in Episode 9. “Look. We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off … but eventually, you’re back on it. And the road we’re on led us out to the desert, and everything that happened there, and straight back to where we are right now … and nothing — nothing — can be done about that. Do you understand that?” 

But Jimmy doesn’t want to understand that. He doesn’t want to believe it. He wants to think that there is always a way out, that if you’re clever enough and resourceful enough you can slip out of the consequences of your actions, and play a better hand that the one that you’ve been dealt. (Or that you’ve dealt yourself.) And yet, confronted by an angry Lalo Salamanca who knows that Jimmy has been lying to him, he’s helpless. He has no answers, no strategy — he can’t even muster evasive action. 

It’s Kim who saves Jimmy’s ass. It’s Kim who has the brains and the resourcefulness and the sheer guts to confront a terrifying man, a drug cartel kingpin, a cold-blooded murderer — and to send him away in silence, defeated. It’s Kim who can find a way out of playing the hand she’s been dealt, if anyone can. 

But can anyone so escape? Can anyone get off that road that Mike tells Jimmy you can’t get off? It’s the theme of this season, and in some ways of the whole series. Earlier in the season, Jimmy is talking with Nacho about the consequences of some work he’s doing for the Salamancas: “I mean, if there’s gonna be blowback, I don’t wanna be in the middle of it.” To which Nacho: “It’s not about what you want. When you’re in — you’re in.”

Kim is cracking under the strain of trying to get out. Kim, who always keeps herself together, is on the verge of collapse at the beginning and the end of this episode. And it’s all because she got drawn into the world of Jimmy effing McGill. 

Saul: season 5, comment 2

Super-spoilery. 

I think my earlier prediction that Season 5 would not primarily be about Jimmy/Saul — because the transformation from the former into the latter is complete — has been borne out by subsequent episodes. Notice that the Saul storylines are largely comical, about his scams and tricks: filming stupid commercials, playing pranks on Howard, etc. It’s great fun, but nothing fundamental is at stake, because the character arc is essentially complete. 

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Which leads us back to Kim. Episode 6 ends with a shocker: Kim suggesting to Jimmy that they get married. (At which my wife cried out Nooooo, and for very good reason.) I’m going to make another prediction: She doesn’t mean it. She is bitterly angry with Jimmy for having played her in the Mesa Verde case, and she is in turn playing him. This is payback. For a change, Kim will, at least for a moment, be the puppeteer pulling the strings. 

Think back to the beginning of the episode: young Kim standing outside her school, in the dark, waiting for her mother to pick her up. Mother finally arrives, drunk, and Kim takes a good look at her and says: I’m walking. Mother pleads; Kim walks. Mother pleads and wheedles and threatens; Kim keeps walking. Kim knew then when to draw the line, when enough is enough, when she’s not going to be played any more. And she still does. 

Thus my prediction. Let’s see if I’m right. 

[UPDATE: Wow was I wrong.] 

Saul: season 5, comment 1

Spoilers ahead.

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Watching the first episode of Season 5 of Better Call Saul, something occurred to me: This story isn’t about Jimmy any more. It’s about Kim. (And, in an only slightly less serious way, about Mike and Nacho.) The metamorphosis has occurred: Jimmy McGill is Saul Goodman. There’s no way back for him. The guy who was always, and would always be, “Chuck McGill’s loser brother” is dead. Saul may have some fascinating adventures from here on out, but his character arc is complete. The key question that remains is: How can Kim extricate herself from her entanglement with him? 

One of the key moments in the entire series came in the final episode of Season 4, when Jimmy, arguing before a committee of attorneys for the restoration of his license to practice law, makes a moving speech about his desire to honor his late brother. The members of the committee are touched; Kim’s eyes well up. And then, afterwards, when Jimmy learns that his license has been restored, Kim begins to tell Jimmy how much his speech touched her, only to have him leap in to say, “Did you see those suckers? That one asshole was crying. He had actual tears!” Rhea Seehorn should win an Emmy simply for the look on her face when Kim hears those words. 

From this point on we know that Jimmy is, functionally if not intrinsically, a sociopath. The problem for Kim is that she is not wholly unlike him. We know from earlier seasons that their relationship was largely built on their mutual fondness for scams, their pleasure taken in turning people into marks. And here at the beginning of Season 5, there’s one more chance for a scam. One of Kim’s clients — in her public defender work — needs to take the plea deal offered by the D.A. But he won’t. He wants to go to trial because thinks he can charm the jury and get off. Kim can’t talk him out of it. 

And then Jimmy/Saul shows up ready to improvise a scam that will scare the client into taking the plea deal … and Kim, after forcefully telling Jimmy/Saul to bug off, ends up playing the very game he had suggested. And of course it works. The client is scared into good sense. All in a good cause, right? Everyone’s better off, right? 

Maybe. But at what cost to human dignity — of the client and of Kim? She sees how easily she could go down Jimmy’s path. She feels it. But will she? And if not — how does she get out? 

Latka

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My post earlier today puts me in mind of something. Think of it as an allegory of social media.

In the old sitcom Taxi Andy Kaufman plays Latka Gravas, a mechanic, an immigrant with a funny high-pitched voice. And then at one point Latka starts to transform himself into someone else — into Latka’s idea of a cool guy, a successful guy. He gradually loses his eastern European accent, and his voice drops an octave. To the people he works with he sounds like a lounge lizard, or a parody of a lounge lizard: a guy who reads the articles in Playboy as a guide for self-improvement. He says that his name isn’t Latka Gravas. His name is Vic Ferrari.

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Vic thinks he is a sexy playboy; in fact, Vic is a jerk. Finally, all the people in the cab company who have to deal with Vic deputize Alex — the central character in the ensemble, the most well-adjusted and psychologically healthy person available — to confront Vic and, somehow, bring back Latka.

It doesn’t go well. Vic scornfully repudiates Alex and the rest of the crew. He says that everybody liked him when he was the foreign guy with the funny voice, when he was shy, silly, dopey Latka, a figure of fun, a clown. Nobody respected him then. Of course they want that guy back, someone they can all laugh at. Of course that’s who they’d prefer him to be.

Alex, being the mensch that he is, takes all this in, and acknowledges that there is truth in it. People did laugh at Latka, they did treat him as the comical foreigner, and they shouldn’t have done that. All that (ruefully) acknowledged, Alex still wants to make a point. “I liked Latka,” he says. “But I don’t like you.”

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.).