Better Call Saul Season One

saul1All things in their own time. When I began subscribing to Netflix early last year, one of the shows I was keen to watch was Better Call Saul, as I’d spent several months of the year prior watching DVD box-sets of Breaking Bad. which was, per unanimous opinion, pretty great, and I was naturally interested in seeing the spin-off show. Never got around to it until now, though, and probably only now because the recent El Camino movie got me back on the Breaking Bad wagon. Oh well. All things in their own time, I guess, sums that up, and my perennial habit of being late to every party, but hey, ho.

Of course some things are worth waiting for, and Netflix now has four seasons of Better Call Saul for me to watch over this long dark Winter ahead. Like I did with Breaking Bad, I’m going to watch a season at a time taking breaks of perhaps a month or so in between.

So a plot synopsis feels largely redundant when there are already four seasons out there patiently waiting. After a moody prologue set in a post-Breaking Bad ‘future’ with Saul Goodman in hiding, the first season of the show takes place several years prior to the original show, with Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer armed with a law degree from an online school. Jimmy can’t get a break, constantly haunted (and tempted) by a shady con-artist past while struggling to prove himself to his older brother Chuck.

The funny thing about Better Call Saul is that its hard to seperate it from Breaking Bad, the shadow of which hangs over it in some of the familiar faces in the cast and many nods to the show. Its an element of nostalgia that perhaps makes it too easy to like, and makes one wonder ‘am I enjoying this because its so good, or just because its more Breaking Bad?‘ Saul Goodman, after all, was one of my favourite characters in Breaking Bad. I read somewhere that Goodman (played by Bob Odenkirk with remarkable charm and style that betrays the perfect casting) was only originally intended to feature in three episodes of Breaking Bad, and that the character was so good, and the casting clicked so well, that it seemed to demand more importance in the show and a recurring role, eventually becoming a major character. There’s something just irresistible about Saul and its proven again with him in his own show. I think I could watch him filling in a crossword- he’s plenty fun just hosting a game of Bingo.

Of course that Breaking Bad nostalgia is fed by a drip-feed of fan-service, with Saul’s back-story (and that of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), another character from Breaking Bad, here working as a parking attendant) just adding to the Breaking Bad mythology. Thankfully the series has a life and character of its own and I’m tempted to think it actually informs the original series. The first season ends with Jimmy’s attempts at a legit honest career in the toilet, having come to terms with his true leanings/talent and starting on the path to the shady (okay, criminal) career we are familiar with in Breaking Bad. Along the way there are some great moments, some lovely new characters and relationships and so much promise invested in those seasons to follow I’m having to fight the urge to race into season two.

Might this show actually be as good as Breaking Bad? Hmm. Maybe it could even be better.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

(It was with some considerable shock and sadness that I awoke this morning to the sad news of actor Robert Forster’s passing, having watched this film only last night. Forster’s performance in El Camino is one of the highlights of the film, and I can’t believe that Twin Peaks needs another Sheriff already. )

camino2Returning to a well-regarded series years after it has ended is fraught with dangers, especially when its a series as revered as Breaking Bad, a show that often tops many best-ever lists. Well, I can state from the start that El Camino is great. Was it needed? Of course not. Breaking Bad ended just fine, with sufficient closure and just enough of a tease to leave viewers wanting more. Always leave them wanting more (not something one could possibly say regards how Game of Thrones left its fans, but hey ho, maybe HBO should bring that show back with a tv movie for a better send-off on the evidence of how this film manages things).

What El Camino does do is offer a lovely coda to the series, an unnecessary-but-I’ll-take-it two hours of nostalgia and closure.  I’m certain it will leave some fans frustrated- billing it as a ‘Breaking Bad movie’ possibly suggests something bigger, louder, bolder, which this really isn’t. Its really like two more episodes added to the final series… which is possibly a little unfair, because frankly, this film is more beautiful and vivid than any episode of the original show, so clearly there is a difference of some magnitude of scale here. It may not be Breaking Bad: The Motion Picture, but if the last few years have taught us anything in the Netflix/Amazon era, ‘TV Movie’ doesn’t mean what it used to anymore.

camino3So anyway, El Camino tells us, literally, what happened next, picking up events immediately after the last episode of the series ended. It follows the tortured soul that Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) had become on a road to find some measure of peace and salvation, and does so by allowing a series of flashbacks informing him of the path to take. Of course, those flashbacks are really just there to deliver fans some fan-service through cameos of Breaking Bad characters who, er, mostly were dead in the wake of that last season. Its the only way we can ever get any of them back, but I think its really justified in how the film  follows Jesse and shows how the flashbacks inform his actions and reactions to everything around him- it doesn’t really come across as something cynically corporate. It also helps that Aaron Paul delivers a standout performance, but really the whole cast if pretty excellent. They are all clearly having a ball re-entering the world of Breaking Bad and can recognise the opportunity is a special rare treat for themselves and the fans.

So yeah, I really enjoyed this, had a blast with it. As I stated at the start of this post, its a tricky thing returning to old shows. I’m pleased to say that it has gone as well here as it did in the recent Twin Peaks revival, and yes, this shares with that show the warmth of nostalgia that is unique to projects like this. I’m just glad it wasn’t a disaster that blighted the memory of the originals series by some revisionary rewriting of the original mythology of something cherished by fans. Yeah, Disney/JJ Abrams etc  take note: you don’t have to break something to fix it, and thank goodness nobody broke Breaking Bad.

Bad to the Bone? Breaking Bad

bbad2017.66/67/68: Breaking Bad Seasons 3 – 5

My colleague at work who lent me his DVD boxsets warned me not to expect much of the final season. “I didn’t like where it went- I thought it spoiled the whole thing,” he told me. Well, endings of tv shows are funny things, and  some work for some people, and they don’t for others. I’ve remarked on this before, in shows like BSG I’ve really enjoyed what I felt were satisfying endings- in shows like Dexter, not so much. Of course, it’s impossible for showrunners to keep everybody happy, but I think for the ending of a show to be satisfying, it has to be honest to the internal logic of the show and how it started. As if you can follow an imaginary through-line from episode one to episode xx and think, yeah, that makes sense, it works.

In the case of Breaking Bad, contrary to my work colleague, I think it works. Indeed, in many ways it was the only way it could end, and I figure that as I’ve watched this series so long after everyone else has, spoilers can be cast aside. Walter had to die- he was dying from the very start, and it was the cause of everything he did. Whether he died the way he should have, well, I guess that’s the crux of the argument for fans. Did he deserve a noble death, a death with purpose, or a death dying of cancer in prison? Was he a good guy or a bad guy, and what is the morality in the ending of the show? We are clearly supposed to be rooting for him from the first episode, but by the final episode, are we supposed to be hating him? If so, then Bryan Cranston is possibly too sympathetic/charismatic an actor for that to fully convince.

For me that’s the biggest question of the whole series- was Walter a good guy caught in a bad situation, just digging himself deeper all the time he tried to dig himself out of trouble, or was he a bad guy trying to justify his actions by using his family as an excuse. Frankly, was he enjoying it too much, or was it a case of the end justifying the means?  There was certainly a tipping-point in season three when he just seemed to go over some edge. I think it would be fascinating to watch it all over again, see season one through the eyes of someone who has seen season five, with the almost Godlike-perspective of Fate, seeing the beginning while knowing where things go, how actions unfold and everything unravels.

Not that I think that necessarily has to make sense, like there’s some moral high ground. In some of the best moments of Breaking Bad, it seemed deliberately morally obscure, as if I was watching Chaos Theory in action. Sometimes I thought that maybe the showrunners were throwing the various season’s arc-cards up in the air and seeing where they fell. It was exciting but also inherently flawed at times- the ambiguity was great but possibly counter to traditionally satisfying storytelling.

Regards Breaking Bad‘s greatness, sure, it’s a great show, but counter to some claims likely not the best show ever made (a ridiculous claim to make of any tv show, really). There were a few twists and turns that didn’t feel right, a few character turns that didn’t fully convince, in order to enable a run of five seasons. I think I tighter run of three seasons would have enabled a firmer, more realistic story.  But that’s being picky. Breaking Bad is a superior television series, indeed one of the very best ever made. Some individual episodes were sheer perfection and the show always managed to deliver some twists and turns I didn’t see coming (no small feat, really, considering all the tv shows and movies I’ve seen over the years). The cast were terrific, and I’m really keen to discover if prequel spin-off Better Call Saul is worth watching, if it is, then yay, another treat to look forward to!

Breaking Bad is clearly another case for the argument that we are living in a Golden Age of television, and that the best television shows are of far better quality than anything we see at the cinema now. Praise enough, there, I think.

Chaos and Causality: Breaking Bad Season 2

brb22017.29: Breaking Bad – Season 2

Watching a tv show years after it ended has many advantages, particularly with their current fashion for multi-season story arcs. There is, however, one drawback- even if you don’t know how a story ends, you know when it ends, from knowing how many seasons the show ran. Its an issue I found during the last episodes of season two of Breaking Bad. I would imagine, back when the show first aired, audiences were unaware of how many seasons the show would last and must have been open to any season finale, including Walter’s money-making scheme finally succeeding and a ‘happy’ conclusion for all- or maybe it all collapsing into a sudden, final disaster.

But of course, watching it now, fully aware that another four seasons follow this one, I knew it would hardly end well for Walter- where’s the future drama of a cancer ‘cure’ and a million dollars in the bank? But back when this season first aired in 2009… maybe viewers were suckered into the possibility, incase a third season wasn’t forthcoming, or, if that third season would be the end of the show, maybe a turn towards a ‘proper end-straight?

There’s a moment during this second season, when a cancer treatment promises some reprieve for Walter from what he thought was imminent death from his lung cancer, that suggests that the critical and popular success of the first season had struck the showrunners with the problem of stretching the series out into more seasons than originally planned. I may be wrong, maybe there was always a plan to extend to five or more seasons, but it just felt a little forced to me following the relentless pressure of time that dominated Walter’s efforts in season one. I was always aware that Walter’s desperate actions stemmed from a lack of time, his health always an issue. Season two eases that tension somewhat.

That said, thankfully Breaking Bad is as much about the character beats and the incidental moments as it is the story of Walter’s plunge into the world of drug-manufacturing and distribution.  In a way, the drugs etc are almost incidental- the biggest joy, if thats the word, in this show is Walter’s moral code being tested, his ‘crossing the line’ so to speak. His journey is a little like the ride up the river in Apocalypse Now, and at this point in the series, I don’t know exactly what Walters destination will be. The pleasure of this show is finding out.

One of the lines that Walter crosses is in allowing Jess’ girlfriend (Krysten Ritter) to die of a drug overdose through his own inaction. Her death solves an immediate problem re: a risk to his and Jesse’s enterprise but it has terrible repercussions later. Jane was a recovering addict who was pulled back into drugs by her association with Jesse, against the wishes of her caring father Donald (John de Lancie), who Walter himself has a conversation with in a bar- a chance meeting which has the feeling of other peoples lives, like the orbits of planets, being pulled into Walter’s gravitational pull, as if he were a black hole. Jane’s death hits Donald hard, and when he returns to work weeks after her funeral, it transpires he is an air traffic controller, and on returning to work we later see him unravel and cause a tragedy. But its all Walters fault, through him allowing Jane to die- Walter has caused the death of perhaps hundreds of people, ruined the lives of countless others. And he’s the good guy of this story, our principal protagonist.  Its a study of chaos and causality, of Walter trying to make sense and order as events fall apart around him, and his actions causing effects beyond his control.  I guess this sense of cause and effect is reflected by this season’s regular flashes-forward to the season’s final, disastrous event, a mystery that filters through all of it, fragments of imagery which are tantalising clues to what’s coming. Its a testament to the showrunners that I didn’t suss it out until Donald’s workplace was revealed and the horrific repercussions of Walters desperate act fully dawned on me.

That quandary I mentioned earlier, knowing ‘when’ a series will end simply by knowing the number of seasons it ran. Its something of a two-edged sword. There are still four more seasons of Breaking Bad to follow. What the hell happens next?

Breaking into Breaking Bad

break12017.26: Breaking Bad Series One (2008)

Over the past few years I’ve received many recommendations to watch this show. I’m not sure why exactly it has taken this long, except for the obvious pressures on time. It sounds almost ridiculous, writing that, but its true- indeed, watching this series, like any other tv boxset, by its very nature impacts time for other watching other stuff. Or reading stuff. Or chores. Or work. Maybe I should leave all this for when I retire. God knows I have plenty of discs etc that seem like they will have to wait that long.

How do we manage our time when you like watching movies/good tv shows or reading books or… its like saturation bombing, which is to say, this seems to be a very modern contemporary problem that our parents/grandparents didn’t need to deal with and I’m at a loss in how to deal with it. Time, my freinds, is at a premium these days and there is just too much content. There are many shows I have not watched simply for lack of time.

So I’ve finally gotten around to Breaking Bad. And it is as wonderful as everybody has told me. Its dark, its funny, its sad, its thrilling and yes, its amazing how well the show juggles all that- thats an element of this show that is pretty marvelous. Its perfectly acted with a fine cast and sharply witty scripts. Its wonderful to think there are several seasons yet ahead of me. It just feels odd, being so ‘behind the curve’ so to speak, marvelling at actors new to me who have presumably since moved on to other stuff (or in the case of Bryan Cranston, shaking off the first experience of him in the Godzilla movie from a few years back).

And yes, I’m in the position of binge-watching the first few series. Certainly, being able to watch this first season over the course of one week is something that original viewers years ago might have been quite envious of. Its something that occurs to me very often with these box sets; as an episode ends, usually with a bit of a cliffhanger, original viewers had to wait a week for the next episode. This frustration, I do not know- consequently the show possibly performs actually better than on its original broadcast (a friend at work waits for each season of The Walking Dead to finish before watching it and finds it a far superior experience to the long slow lingering death of suffering weekly episodes in which little happens or characters disappear from the narrative for weeks on end).

Like the very best television, Breaking Bad is a character-driven show that clearly demonstrates the superiority that television can have over movies. I have heard it said that we are living in a Golden Age of television, which seems strange when you consider all the game-shows and reality-TV shows that dominate the schedules.  The simple fact is that most of my tv watching is via box-sets, whether physical sets or streaming seasons via Amazon, and sometimes it feels like I do not watch any ‘ordinary’ television programming at all. I am watching fewer movies though. There simply is not the time for everything, especially with how many hours these tv shows tend to entail- on that front, season one of Breaking Bad is not an offender as it encompasses only seven episodes. But it isn’t really just seven episodes is it- not with season two following after…

(But please, do me a favour- if you have seen all this show, don’t spill the beans about what happens later on…. just have a bit of a chuckle about this damn fool being ridiculously late to the party.)