Contrasting Similarities: Better Call Saul

From its first scene, Better Call Saul took full ownership of the fact that is what is TV’s most overt (and often least successful) ratings grab, a spinoff.  Breaking Bad ‘s Saul Goodman is first glimpsed in a Nebraska mall, now a Cinnabon manager called Gene in a familiar black and white foreshadowing device from Breaking Bad.  However, the device works differently from its predecessor. BrBa‘s use of this device was always a hint to coming events, images that couldn’t be understood until the blanks were filled in. With Better Call Saul, BrBa‘s viewers know how Saul got here. Walter White entering Saul’s office to pay for legal representation for the hapless Badger is the starting point on Saul’s journey ending in Omaha.  This series, however, isn’t concerned with what Saul Goodman was doing while outside of Walter White’s sightline on that journey, but rather the journey of  Jimmy McGill becoming Saul Goodman.  As the show concludes its first season, Better Call Saul has taken some good cues from its lineage, but has found its own, unique identity.

The opening episodes Uno and Mijo, show a visual connectivity to Breaking Bad.  The sunbaked desert landscapes and blue skies with ample clouds that  were so often part of Walter White’s cooks and meets are here.  But so are neon lit courthouses and a halfway through Uno, a first look inside the unlit home of Jimmy McGill’s brother Chuck.  Darkened due to Chuck’s mental illness and fear of electromagnetism.  This is where visually, it has separated from Breaking Bad.  Beyond Chuck’s home, there is Jimmy’s dank, cramped office in the back a nail salon.  An under lit parking garage at the Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill law firm.  Almost all of Mike’s flashback to Philadelphia, the dingy bar, an industrial park.  There is a dark, claustrophobic element to Saul that was far less prevalent in BrBa, and has from the second episode on has been a show of interiors, constriction, and darkness, more than one of exteriors, open spaces, and light.  Visual style has allowed Saul to keep the urgency of BrBa while being a less intense, generally more upbeat show.

Not that Better Call Saul is the laugh fest that many assumed a spinoff starring Breaking Bad’s comic relief and costarring Michael McKean would be.  McKean’s performance has been strictly (and brilliantly) dramatic, and Bob Odenkirk has had the chance to show his range extends well beyond the wisecracks, non sequiturs, and smarminess the BrBa iteration of Saul Goodman is known and loved for.  Despite the beautiful, brutal performance in the sixth episode Five-O, Saul gets many of its biggest laughs from the most intense character, Jonathan Banks’ still wonderfully rendered Mike Ehrmantraut (see the three mercenaries in a parking garage scene from the episode Pimento for evidence).   Banks’ unchanged performance of Mike is the linchpin that keeps Saul connected to Breaking Bad, the reminder that this is still the world where Walter White and Jesse Pinkman cooked their way to the meth business and Gus Fring can slit a man’s throat with a box cutter to send a message.  This early in the show’s run, he needs to be.  Saul Goodman isn’t Saul Goodman yet, and beyond a cameo by Tuco Salamanca back in episode 2, there is little else to remind us that somewhere in this world Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher, yet to have cancer, that is just teaching chemistry.

The season 1 finale of Better Call Saul airs April 6th at 10 on AMC




The Changing Self: Mad Men

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Superficially, Mad Men is a drama based around an ad executive, his personal life, his ad agency, and the employees in that agency during the death throes of the over romanticized American period when women were suited only to  homemaking and secretarial work, persons of color to menial service labor, and drinking, smoking, and sexual harassment were acceptable workplace behavior.  Beyond the periphery of 1960s advertising and social upheaval and chic Madison Avenue affectation is a series whose overwhelming concern is identity. The series has hit on sexual identity, realized or suppressed, professional identity, familial identity, and in what has been essential to the narrative from the start, an out and out identity swap.

Despite seeing Sal Romano’s latent homosexuality, Betty Draper and Peggy Olson discovering the joys of vibration, Sally Draper looking for a place in a broken home with two narcissistic parents, Roger Sterling’s need to be in a miserable marriage, or Freddie Rumson wondering who is without his job, Mad Men is Don Draper ne Dick Whitman.  No character in TV’s “New Golden Age”, save Tony Soprano, has so commanded every frame and no actor, save James Gandolfini, has so seemingly effortlessly embodied his character as Jon Hamm.  With show creator Matthew Weiner’s previous job writing for The Sopranos, that probably isn’t a coincidence.  Don Draper’s wrestling with his past, like Tony with his mother issues, informs so much of who and what he is.  Bore by a prostitute into a home of rural poverty, a drunk father and a zealot stepmother (who tells him he is a dirty child and will go to hell), how could Don get farther away from his past than being an urbanite bourgeois selling products and the image of the perfect American family?

In the first two seasons Don sells his “perfect” family and the mythical American Dream as vigorously to himself and colleagues as he does pitching ad ideas to clients.  The beautiful wife, two children, the clichéd white picket fence. He may have all the domestic comforts and trappings, but when it comes to his family  Don can never bring himself to buy what he is selling.  He’s a philandering husband and an absent father because a man bought up in a whorehouse doesn’t know how to be comfortable as a husband or father.  He knows how to be comfortable working or in the midst of an affair. There he is completely the carefully constructed deception that is Don Draper, at home there is always that shoebox in the locked drawer containing artifacts of what was Dick Whitman.  When the drawer is opened, what is left of that life falls apart.

It is Dick Whitman’s original sin in switching dog tags with Lt. Donald Draper that ultimately brings him the most happiness, and sadness.  He is never seen anymore carefree or at peace with himself than when he is in California with the real Donald Draper’s wife Anna. The weight of lies and the façade of Don Draper fade and he just gets to be Dick again, himself, honestly.  And it is in Anna’s death that Don shows us a real emotion other than anger.  Even though Don asserts to Peggy, “you will be amazed how much it never happened”,  his past, and his former self loom over his entire life.  Trying to outpace his demons through work and alcohol.  Turning away his lonely, troubled half brother.  The lax discipline of his parenting (“my father beat the hell out of me and all it made me do is fantasize about when I’d be old enough to kill him”).  Destroying a chance at a much needed aviation account when his firm losing clients to stop the Department of Defense security clearance from revealing his secret.  Bending to the patrician pouts of Pete Campbell, to keep Pete’s knowledge of Don’s past quiet.  Don Draper must guard against all threats, to keep hidden that he not only changed his name, but has done all he can to erase his painful past.  F. Scott Fitzgerald said “There are no second acts in American Life.”  Don Draper knows this, and knows that it is others that won’t let you have the second act.  No matter who you are in the now, people will want to know where you’re from and who your family is.

Mad Men asks within the confines of its narrative, does saying you are someone else make you different?  Mad Men asks viewers to contemplate the universally human question “who am I?” and the quintessential American questions, “what makes me happy?”, “what is happiness?”.  Not that we, nor the characters can or will have these questions answered for us.  Sometimes it is more important that questions are asked and thought about than that they are answered.

The final season of  Mad Men begins April 5th at 10 on AMC

Blu-ray Pick: Sullivan’s Travels

Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels is the most complete merging of the director’s sophistication, screwball wordplay and his love of America’s low brow, slapstick comedy.   With this film, Sturges successfully plumbs the depths of socially conscious comedy on the level of Charles Chaplin.  Relying far more on his brilliant writing than on the balletic physical comedy of Chaplin (although the chase scene featuring a “land yacht” and a passerby’s home made racecar would be at home in any Mack Sennett Keystone Kop comedy), Sturges manages to satirize the Hollywood establishment and America’s understanding and treatment of the poor at the end of the Depression while maintaining a hopefulness skirting sentimentality.

That hopefulness is buoyed by 40s everyman Joel McCrea’s performance in the eponymous role of John Sullivan, a Hollywood director striking out to live like a hobo, research for his latest picture “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” , which he informs studio execs will be a serious, social picture “with a little sex.”  McCrea comes across radiant female lead Veronica Lake, playing a washout actress ready to give up her Hollywood dream in a diner on his second false start to set out on his journey.  The leads’ chemistry carries the film,  the rest of the ensemble remaining very much in the periphery.

A dialogue free scene of conditions in a shanty town is the film’s most visually striking, as it treats those there with the  love and dignity of The Grapes of Wrath without a single word being spoken.  It is this dramatic seven minutes in the middle of what is at it’s core a screwball comedy that also reiterates Sturges’ contention that comedies can be every bit affecting as dramas like The Grapes of Wrath.  It is also this scene, more than the film’s obvious moral didacticism  of the ending, that proves Sturges right.  Maybe some filmmakers of today should go back and watch it, and see that comedy can be more than disposable raunchiness, or stupidity.  Comedy can be smart.  Comedy can have heart.  Comedy can matter.

Sullivan’s Travels will be released March 31 on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD

Waste the Weekend: Man of the West /GoT Season One

untitled (16)Anthony Mann’s Man of the West is one in a string of his 1950’s Western psycho-dramas, with Gary Cooper in the role usually reserved for Jimmy Stewart.  The story is a run of the mill reformed gunslinger forced into one last job by his old gang.  Anyone familiar with Cooper’s resume may have issue imagining him as a man that once committed awful crimes, but Mann made it work for Stewart and does here if less successfully.  Co-starring Lee J. Cobb at his menacing best, and Julie London as singer Billie Ellis.  London’s performance in a scene of sexual violence completely incongruous to 50’s cinema still resonates.  The violence and internal turmoil drives a stock Western plot into far more interesting territory, in what critic Robin Wood called “Mann’s supreme achievement… It remains one of the great American films and one of the great films about America.”

Man of the West airs Saturday at 12:15PM on TCM

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HBO kicks off the countdown to season five of Game of Thrones with a season one marathon.  In what was probably the top to bottom best acted season, due in large part to Sean Bean and Mark Addey, watch the seeds of war sown between Houses Stark and Lannister .  So go back to the good old days when Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark ruled the Seven Kingdoms, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke’s performances weren’t one note (better dialogue please), most of the Stark children hadn’t hit puberty and in the pilot Peter Dinklage had blond hair.

Game of Thrones Season 1 begins Sunday at 10AM on HBO2

Post Script: “There it is. You’re Caught.”

Tonight’s “The Jinx” finale carried with it high expectations and delivered with all the emotional intensity one could want. The taught (37 minutes) episode featured a nervous build-up (that felt twice the length of the entire running time) to Derek Jarecki’s final interview with Robert Durst and Jarecki confronting Durst with the evidence in the Susan Berman murder. And the pay off was huge. As Durst, post interview, entered a bathroom with his microphone still on, saying “There it is. You’re caught. ” “What the hell did I do?” And a de facto confession “Of course you killed them all.” An excellent and fitting conclusion.

Real Life Drama: The Jinx

The Oxford American Dictionary’s primary definition of jinx is “a person or thing that brings bad luck.”  Following today’s news that Robert Durst has been arrested in New Orleans on a Los Angeles County warrant just hours prior to the HBO finale of “The Jinx”, one could think that Durst has finally jinxed himself.  After watching the first five episodes, perhaps the more apt assumption is that Durst is getting what he wants, or pending the outcome of his latest arrest, what he deserves.  Why does a man with ample cash steal a $6 sandwich, after skipping bail on charges of murder and dismembering a body?  Or why does a man whose notoriety has faded over the 10 years since that death had taken place,  contact a filmmaker that had made a dramatic film about the disappearance of his first wife to interview him to present “his side of the story”?  Is Robert Durst the sociopath that thinks he can get away with anything, or is he the killer that wants to be caught?

Contradictions like these lie at the heart of Andrew Jarecki’s six part series.  Starting out as a rather standard crime documentary that wore its indebtedness to Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” on its sleeve, it has grown into something different entirely.  Due to both the series’ peeling back the layers of Durst’s alleged crimes and of Durst himself, and the drama currently taking place in news headlines, “The Jinx” has taken on an immediacy without precedent in American television documentary.   It is almost as if “America’s Most Wanted” had a love child with the “Who Shot JR?” cliffhanger.   Last week’s revelation of new evidence connecting Durst to the 2000 murder of his friend and confidant Susan Berman, was an “Oh Shit!” moment that documentaries often fail to deliver, and transformed “The Jinx” from a series about deaths and a disappearance in the past, into one unfolding in the now.  And today’s arrest of Durst has reinforced that sense of now.  Jarecki and HBO must have known the attention that the Berman evidence in the penultimate episode would bring the series, but Durst’s arrest is the kind of attention grabbing coup that would make Kim Kardashian blush (maybe).

And that attention is deserved.  Not just because it fits in nicely with the modern attention span that can only be accurately measured with a stopwatch and the seeming disposability of anything that happened yesterday.  But because it is well made, intelligent filmmaking with an ability to fascinate and repulse, much like Durst himself.  In equal measures, Jarecki’s documentary paints Durst as monster and a tragic figure.  A victim of personal tragedies and the victimizer of others.  When Durst recounts the details of his mother’s death, something nearing sympathy can be felt for a man that recalls the dismembering of the body of neighbor Morris Black so flippantly that  it nauseates.  The juxtaposition within Durst himself is ultimately what makes “The Jinx” so compelling.  The series could have easily been the blandish recounting of crimes and evidence, or how the rich man got away with murder.  Credit the filmmakers for going deeper and making, instead, an intense, deeply personal human drama that recognizes the man at the center of all it, is far more interesting than just the who, what, when, where, and how could ever be.

The finale of “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”  airs at 8 on HBO