Thursday, February 11, 2016

Better Call Saul Matters

The beginning of the end.

Jimmy McGill brings groceries and supplies back and forth from his car to his ill brother's darkened living room while Jesse Pinkman, a skinny, shiftless senior at J. P. Wynne High School, sits in Mr. White's 9 a.m. chemistry class; Mike Ehrmantraut talks stiffly with his daughter-in-law in her sparse backyard, both idly watching a small girl on a swing, as across town Gus Fring trains an employee at his new fast food chicken franchise, Los Pollos Hermanos; at his home, DEA agent Hank Schraeder snorts as he reads the story of McGill's inadvertent heroism rescuing a man from a billboard, then folds the Albuquerque Journal, his mind elsewhere....

At least, it's easy to believe such parallels. The attention to narrative detail is so richly exact in Vince Gilligan's and Peter Gould's southwestern United States that the pleasures of imagining Breaking Bad's characters' daily, uneventful lives as they might be occurring during scenes in Better Call Saul are deep and irresistible. Knowledge of their future colliding is a drama in itself. Like many Breaking Bad fanatics, I was somewhat doubtful about the prequel, which is set roughly six years before White's story begins. But concerns I had that the McGill character might not be dimensional enough to sustain a series or that Ehemantraut's intersecting with McGill might feel contrived vanished within the first several, patiently delivered episodes. Gilligan and company's unfolding of characters against a comfortingly familiar Albuquerque background is riveting in a different way than is the breathless Breaking Bad action: some of this has to do with our sobering foreknowledge of McGill's and Ehrmantraut's fates, of course, but most of it originates in the show's artful rendering of time and place, of motives and inevitable gestures enacted against a pitiless environment. I care about watching McGill and Ehrmantraut this season; a while back I wondered if I'd feel something at stake in this show. These characters move, consciously or distractedly but always vividly, between bleakness and fulfillment, and their truths seem utterly true.

I watch Better Call Saul as someone in the mid-1960s bought a 45 at Woolworth's solely for the Motown label—you had a good idea of what you were going to get, you bought into the delivery system of quality. In other words, I'm a fan. Still, I feel confident that the Better Call Saul brand, no matter how many seasons the show lasts, won't let me down. In a recent Reddit AMA, Gilligan confessed, "Without a doubt, my greatest fear was abject failure—and that is still my greatest fear. Seriously: I was afraid that [Better Call Saul] would go on the air and people wouldn’t like it, and—worse than that—people would say it sullied their memory of Breaking Bad." He needn't worry: he and Peter Gould and the men and women with whom they work are expert storytellers at the top of their game, with deep affection in and curiosity about their characters and the Big Sky/Low Ceiling environments in which they move; they also know the value of suspense, surprise, and sudden, random violence in the service of a good story, and that hiding desperation beneath humor is a fool's game. (In the Toronto Sun, Bill Harris does bring up a logical concern: "This is a prequel, and increasingly it'll be a challenge to keep the carry-over cast looking believably younger than they looked in Breaking Bad. Maybe we just have to let that go. But we can't have them looking so much older that it becomes a distraction.") Of course, I want Gus Fring to show up sometime this season—I want to know how Ehrmantraut became his main man. Of course, I want to see more of Tuco or The Cousins, as much as I fear them. Of course, I want to spot Hank Schreader in a brief walking cameo in the background in some bland municipal building. However Better Call Saul's stories unfold, they will unfold with the integrity and purposefulness of indelible narrative art.

Strangers no more.

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