Tag Archives: Breaking Bad

Charley Varrick (1973)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Charley Varrick. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

Charley Varrick is one lucky guy. Odd, maybe, to associate “luck” with a man who botches a robbery and gets his wife killed, and odder still once he discovers that the money he does get away with belongs to the ruthless Mafia. Over the course of Charley Varrick poor Charley buries his wife, runs from the police, runs from the Mafia, loses his partner, loses his house, loses his plane, and spends a heck of a lot of time contending with the incompetence of others. Traditionally we call the person in this string of situations “unlucky.”

Maybe we’re looking for luck because Varrick has Walter Matthau as its hero instead of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson or Gene Hackman, actors who led the ‘70s crime flicks Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and The French Connection and to whose characters Charley himself owes a great deal. These are the typical hardnosed and steely-eyed actors we might expect in Charley’s pulpy shoes. But Matthau, roundnosed and puppydog-eyed, was at the time more known for comedies and collaborations with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. Indeed Varrick marked a bit of a career detour for Matthau, who would continue to seek crime dramas like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and the excellent Laughing Policeman throughout the mid-‘70s. In all of these gritty movies Matthau is lovable in spite of his occasional criminality, amusingly standoffish, honorable in an amongst-thieves sort of way.

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Better Call Saul 2.10 – “Klick”

For a season finale as understated as “Klick”, concluding the second-season run of a show as understated as Better Call Saul, an awful lot happened in one hour. Time and again we find ourselves referring to Saul in terms of a balancing act — between comedy and drama, between moral and immoral, between sympathetic and pathetic, between action and inaction. “Klick” lived in a few of those spaces, none more obvious than the space between subtlety and downright ridiculousness. Saul on the whole thrives in this balancing act, and in part it’s forced to do so by the predecessor Breaking Bad. Saul has to balance restraint with forward progress, treading lightly so as to remain interesting while not intruding on Bad‘s storylines.

Take the first scene of “Klick”, veering toward the latter on the scale spanning subtlety and ridiculousness. Jimmy and Chuck sit by their ailing mother’s hospital bed, Mrs. McGill lying unconscious as she closes in on death. It’s been a while, apparently, and so Jimmy recommends they go get hoagies. Chuck declines — he won’t leave his mother, not now. Jimmy? Yeah: Jimmy wants a hoagie. So Jimmy goes to get a hoagie. When he’s alone with his silent mother Chuck breaks down, perhaps remembering how Jimmy screwed his father over right before his expiration date. Chuck cries because if his mother dies then it will just be him and Jimmy, which in Chuck’s mind is tantamount to it just being him.

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Better Call Saul 2.9 – “Nailed”

As Breaking Bad approached conclusion in September 2013 someone asked me if I sympathized with Walt. I danced around the question because that’s the whole point, in a way, isn’t it? You see where Walt’s coming from, and yet he’s doing some bad shit, and yet it’s for a good reason, and yet maybe it’s also for a bad reason, and yet who’s to say what’s good or bad anyway, and yet how could you not think this is bad? And on and on. The morality of that series — shifting, malleable, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes trivial — isn’t intended to be “solved” by the end of Walt’s arc.

And in much the same manner the warring positions of Jimmy McGill and his older brother Chuck are both simultaneously completely understandable, at least at this point in Better Call Saul. “Nailed” continued to make this disagreement more and more explicit, a fact which itself follows an interesting trajectory over the course of the first two seasons. It was only in “Pimento“, last season’s penultimate episode, that we really discovered the animosity Chuck had for his younger brother.

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Better Call Saul 2.8 – “Fifi”

It’s endlessly entertaining watching the montage — an old-fashioned, familiar, nearly-cliched storytelling device — and the cold open — a sort of newfangled, disorienting, “edgy” storytelling device — used to such loving and sincere effect throughout Better Call Saul. Both were hallmarks of Breaking Bad, too, from the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” cooking montage to the pesky little housefly of that third season episode. But here in Saul they’re more frequent and often more ambitious, and in “Fifi” there were multiple examples to this point.

Before we dive into those devices it’s worth noting that this is the home stretch of Saul‘s second season, and the arc has become superbly focused and compelling in ways that the earliest episodes of Season 2 (“Switch” and “Cobbler” in particular) hinted at ever-so-subtly. For a show about a guy who wears orange suits and wails on the bagpipes at the office, for a show built on flashy devices like the montage and the cold open, for a show peopled by characters as bombastic and iconic as any of the Salamancas…if the writing were equally outlandish we’d have an entirely different show. Instead, the character arcs intersect with intricacy and propel forward in subtle ways, lending no small degree of unease to the thematic undercurrent.

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Better Call Saul 2.7 – “Inflatable”

I knew while reviewing “Bali Ha’i“, last week’s episode of Better Call Saul, that I’d be eating my words not long after the following episode hit the airwaves. “Bali Ha’i” wasn’t at all a bad episode; on the contrary, it was full of tension and character development and that special Saul mix of humor and meaningful symbolism. But for the first time the Jimmy McGill storyline felt like second fiddle to the Mike Ehrmantraut storyline, mostly because the latter was about a highly personal slow-boil turf war and the former was about a file audit at a law office. Doesn’t take much to discern which one of those will be more gripping.

“Inflatable” did much more than put the focus back on Jimmy. After a cool flashback cold open showing some of the elements of the youthful genesis of Slippin’ Jimmy, “Inflatable” finally seemed to push Jimmy over the invisible threshold at the heart of the series itself. The conceit was always this: we watch Jimmy become Saul. In the same way that Walter White’s Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, Jimmy’s sensibilities are leading him toward a particular version of himself. One could argue that “Inflatable” is the episode where Jimmy finally becomes Saul.

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Better Call Saul 2.6 – “Bali Ha’i”

For a minute there I forgot that Better Call Saul‘s main character was not in fact Mike Ehrmantraut, nor any of the other characters dominating the landscape of “Bali Ha’i”. Jimmy McGill is here, yes, and he’s probably got more time on screen than in the phenomenal preceding episode “Rebecca“. He has a nifty little cold open highlighting the fact that he’s the kind of guy who’s more comfortable in his shitty little office than he is in his cushy new digs. He pulls another barroom short con with Kim, as in “Switch“, and the two have a meaningful make-up session after weeks on the rocks. The end of the episode belongs to Jimmy, too, as he attacks his stupid little cupholder with a tire iron in order to finally make room for his travel mug.

But for what might be the first time since the beginning of the series, the A Storyline felt like the B Storyline and vice versa. Shifting from Mike to Jimmy, frankly, felt like downshifting. Partially this is because of where we are in the second season of Saul, coming off a solid mid-season episode and entering that spate of hours tasked with setting up the final few. Last season we had “Five-O” in this slot, which in fact had a grand total of one scene with the esteemed soon-to-be Mr. Goodman. The rest of that episode was about Mike.

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Better Call Saul 2.5 – “Rebecca”

Better Call Saul talks to itself. In this YouTube video about the various callbacks to Breaking Bad throughout the companion series Saul, showrunner Peter Gould refers to the “encyclopedia” of the world — the people, places, items, songs, sayings and histories of Bad and Saul — and there’s no doubt it’s an interesting way to craft a serial. We talked about the “slavish devotion to itself” present in both series in our review of this season’s opener “Switch“, but that phrase somehow makes it seem like a negative thing. So: Better Call Saul talks to itself. It talks to Bad, bringing back characters and diners and trinkets galore, but midway through the second season it’s able to turn heel and talk to itself as well. In “Rebecca” Jimmy returns to the courthouse where he spent his public defender days — seen largely in “Uno” and “Mijo” — and his return highlights both the ways in which he’s changed and the ways in which he hasn’t.

But Saul talks to us, too, and that can be a mark of a great show. Without being condescending or hand-holdy in the least, Saul pivots outward every now and then and asserts something that’s not exactly a callback or an easter egg per se; more of a cue, visual or otherwise, that acknowledges something that only the viewers would be able to appreciate. The people in the show may realize that there’s a connective thread running from the Salamancas to Mike Ehrmantraut to Saul Goodman and beyond, but there are other things that only the people outside the show would appreciate.

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Better Call Saul 2.4 – “Gloves Off”

IGN said it best: Better Call Saul has high stakes, and yet somehow they’re mostly personal stakes. Yes, Mike’s storyline finds him embroiled in a dangerous and deceptive feud between Nacho and Tuco, wherein the stakes are most certainly life-and-death. Obviously Mike’s personal experiences and outlook play into his actions (more on that later), but when juxtaposed against Jimmy’s it’s clear that Mike deals with a lot of external factors in the form of predictable people. Tuco will kill Nacho someday, so Nacho takes the initiative to kill him first. Tuco will take the bait Mike lays out for him, and the police will arrive at around the time Mike intends them to arrive. Mike says to Nacho “Your Tuco Salamanca problem goes away,” with such certainty that before the plan is put into effect we’re already pleased with the result.

Jimmy’s side of the series is a little different, not because the people he’s surrounded by are any less predictable but because each of them is most concerned with their own personal reputation. If Mike fails there’s a distinct possibility it will end his life; if Jimmy fails it will end his career. Actually, “failing” to Jimmy now seems synonymous with “following all of the rules”, which would in fact result in him keeping his job, which everyone but Jimmy would likely deem “succeeding”. Saul asks us to see his side of things while positing that he’s the one who’s backwards, and never was that more clear than in “Gloves Off”.

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Better Call Saul 2.3 – “Amarillo”

“Amarillo” incorporated a ton of thematic material from the first season of Better Call Saul, and in doing so became a pivotal chapter in the hilarious, sad tale of Jimmy McGill. There are callbacks to nearly every episode. Jimmy casts a spell on his phone as he did throughout the first season, starting in “Uno“. We have the return of the dimwitted film students from “Hero” and the Alpine Shepherd Boy from “Alpine Shepherd Boy“. Mike chomps on the same sandwich from “Pimento” and sits outside his daughter-in-law’s house as in “Five-O“. At one point Jimmy even whispers bingo as if to say, hey, we had an episode called “Bingo“.

Details like this are nothing new for Saul, and they don’t even take into account the hundreds of little callbacks/foreshadowing to companion series Breaking Bad (like Kaylee’s little pink elephant). At best, the high degree of subtlety with which these are employed makes for what Jimmy would call a rich tapestry, a comprehensive and highly believable narrative that can afford to veer into ridiculousness in plot due to the strong foundation of details and character quirks. At one point in “Amarillo” Jimmy approaches Clifford Main’s office and pauses outside the door. We hear faint guitar chords and then Jimmy walks away. The inclusion of those chords — which we know are from Clifford himself after his explanation in “Cobbler” — isn’t necessary by any means, but it reinforces the history behind the scene enough that we feel the history as Jimmy does.

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Better Call Saul 2.2 – “Cobbler”

There’s nothing quite like a good ol’-fashioned Hoboken Squat Cobbler, amirite? You know what I’m talking about. A Full Moon Moon Pie. Seriously! Would I make this up?

If Bob Odenkirk isn’t TV’s Best Funnyman then he’s certainly #2, right behind the unstoppably hysterical Louis C.K. or the endlessly quippy Stephen Colbert. Odenkirk’s advantage is that few comedians are a part of something as brilliant as Better Call Saul, and “Cobbler” might be a microcosm of the entire series in terms of tone and humor/drama balance. The season opener “Switch” was great, pulling back for some breathing room after the comparatively cataclysmic events of “Pimento” and “Marco” and allowing Jimmy some Me Time to reflect on his epic sibling rivalry with Chuck. We didn’t see Chuck or Mike (aside from the in-episode recap of the ending of “Marco”) and it was a refreshing change of pace.

Happily, bringing those characters back in full didn’t shake up the feeling of changing pace, nor did it feel as if those characters are anything but vital to Better Call Saul. Saul is definitely a true blood brother to Breaking Bad in the sense that a minor-seeming character like Pryce or Gale Boetticher can become a crucial piece of the whole puzzle, but the heart and soul reside in the core cast. “Cobbler” felt more like a return to greatness than “Switch” because that core was out in full force.

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