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By Adam Nayman
“Better Call Saul is the shit and looks like—wait for it—digital Pedro Costa.”
—@bmrow, April 17, 2016
Twitter isn’t always right, but when it is, the results can be illuminating. It might seem odd to begin an appreciation of AMC’s Better Caul Saul by talking about lighting; in the great mainstream moving-images culture war between film and TV (now entering its seventh smash decade!), aesthetics are supposed to be the cinephile’s secret weapon to repel the barbarians at the gate advocating for the cultural primacy of premium-cable series. The small (and, more recently, almost exclusively flat and wide) screen is a writer’s medium, the received wisdom decrees, and film is for directors. And so the gospel of auteurism becomes the cult of the showrunner, and one with different criterions of value, less a question of mise en scène than “world-building”: not so much the placement of elements within the frame, but the creation and maintenance of a fertile diegetic environment to be visited (by the viewer) and inhabited (by the characters) on an ongoing basis.
The world of Better Call Saul is of course an extension of the one built by Vince Gilligan for his previous AMC series Breaking Bad, which by now ranks high for many in the second “Golden Age of Television” pantheon. In some ways, it looks similar, unfolding across swaths of commercial real estate in Albuquerque, a bleak landscape of mini-malls and corporate low-rises at the edge of the desert. Rather than rehash the narrative relationship between these two New Mexico-set neo(n)-noirs, or even recapping the latter’s overall plot (that’s what Wikipedia is for), it’s worth pointing out a crucial aesthetic difference between them. While Breaking Bad was one of the last shows to be shot on film, Better Call Saul is shot entirely on the 6K EPIC DRAGON camera—a decision made by cinematographer Arthur Albert, whose not-so-distinguished track record in features (though all due respect to Norm McDonald’s Dirty Work ) belies his accomplishments here.
The aforementioned Tweet invoking Pedro Costa to praise Saul is factually wobbly: Costa has been shooting on digital video since In Vanda’s Room (2000). (Perhaps the Tweeter was thinking of Ossos.) But it’s also apt, because Albert, working with the 11 different directors who’ve signed episodes so far, has (even if totally unconsciously) infused Better Call Saul with some of the same magisterial master-shot atmosphere. Albert’s array of outrageously canted, locked-off angles (in contrast to Breaking Bad’s bobbing handheld takes), shifting focal depth, and—especially—recurring motif of isolating characters at a distance against and within negative space establish what Kent Jones has often called “the greater drama of light and shadow.”
The style exists over top of (but hardly apart from) the excellent writing and acting on offer; it would seem that after two seasons this television program is, unexpectedly but first and foremost, a formal triumph. Take, for example, the home of Better Call Saul’s nominal antagonist (though surely for some he is the series’ tragic hero), Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill. A brilliant and professionally admired lawyer, McGill has been turned into a veritable hermit by a debilitating, and completely psychosomatic, case of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” which requires anybody visiting him to ditch watches, cell phones, and anything else metal in his mailbox.
In writerly terms, this affliction is as broadly metaphorical as, say, the rabbi’s blindness in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Chuck’s paralyzing terror in the presence of anything newfangled underlines the old-school legal-eagle ethos he feels slipping away, as his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk)—the future Saul Goodman (once again, check Wikipedia)—and the 21st-century expedience he represents encroach on his professional territory. The way Chuck’s sickness has been visualized, however, is extraordinary: his living room is a murky vortex punctured in the afternoon by large shafts of sunshine, and at night by pinpricks of lantern light, a suitable habitat for a man whose black-and-white morality is beginning to go greyscale. Hunched on the couch beneath the foil blanket he believes protects him from harmful, unseen forces, the elder McGill is piteous and amusing, but also somehow otherworldly. By the time he’s desperately encased every square inch of the place in Mylar in the second-season finale, it’s clear that the line between external representation and interior reality is being crossed with purpose and gusto both. (To continue and then mercifully conclude our Costa analogy, the extended passages of Chuck in Nixonian repose are the closest Better Call Saul gets to In Vanda’s Room.)
A figure seen mostly in dimness, Chuck nevertheless views himself as the keeper of the flame, and his efforts to keep his brother from extinguishing that light are the spine of Better Call Saul’s unsubtle—and no less enjoyable for it—Cain-and-Abel narrative, which trumps Breaking Bad by offering up a devilishly complex (and downright dialectical) duet of character studies instead of the more familiar post-Sopranos conceit of a single protagonist with a dualistic nature (i.e., Breaking Bad’s nerd turned neo-Scarface Walter White). It’s one thing to take a supporting character from a long-running and mostly beloved show and build a series around him, as Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould did for intermingled mercenary and artistic reasons. It’s another to so quickly and precisely recognize what made said character (and the actor playing him) so resonant in limited screen time, and then cast a co-star who can reflect and refract those qualities like a slightly tinted mirror image.
Like Odenkirk, McKean is a skilled comedian whose genial features twist easily into craven calculation, and he has the smugness of the dutiful son down pat: the long-suffering glare of the good kid who has to apologize for his sibling. (A late-in-the-game flashback to both McGills keeping a vigil over their dying mother fills in certain blanks with ruthless efficiency). Because we already know, via Breaking Bad, that Jimmy/Saul is destined to be a scumbag, Chuck’s attempts to undermine a legal career that keeps threatening to crash and burn on its own are understandable. The monstrous self-righteousness with which Chuck undertakes this task gives one pause, though, and suggests an equally warped pathology. If the inveterately fraudulent “Slipping Jimmy” represents some hardwired human instinct to take the low road at every opportunity, Chuck’s inability to accept his own potential fallibility (a major plot point in Season Two) is the sort of flaming hubris that burns the soul down to the wick. The horrible, retrospectively inevitable revelation in the second-season finale—that Chuck has secretly recorded Jimmy’s damning admission of tampering with court documents—suggests that darkness has fallen for the foreseeable future.
The always-perspicacious Matt Zoller Seitz has called Better Call Saul the “anti-Breaking Bad,” and I’d agree, except that I’d alter the angle of the designation slightly. Where Seitz (rightly) suggests that Gilligan’s second show is more relaxed and less potboiler-ish than its predecessor, the true reversal has to do with its protagonist’s underlying conundrum. What makes Jimmy compelling is that it is almost always his attempts at doing the “right” thing (usually as instructed or specified by some other party) that get him in the most trouble. He gets along, albeit by the skin of his teeth, when he’s cutting corners, which leads us to contemplate whether or not consistent and egregious dishonesty is a crime in and of itself when it’s (mostly) harmless, or if our anti-hero’s greatest transgression is trying to deny his basic nature—with the joyless shut-in Chuck serving as a witness for the prosecution and a cautionary tale about virtue as its own reward.
That the stakes for this ethical wrestling match have been kept relatively low so far arguably heightens the enjoyment, holding back on the quasi-apocalyptic violence that took Breaking Bad into the realm of live-action cartoonery. However well-acted by Bryan Cranston, Walter White followed an all too familiar downward arc as he descended into crime-boss brutality. Watching Odenkirk’s crooked arrow try to go straight is recognizable in a different way: instead of a genre archetype inflated to mythological proportions, we get a guy who struggles to attain even the level of a cliché. The reference point here isn’t Tony Montana, it’s Willy Loman, or maybe one of Glengarry Glen Ross’ shirt-sleeved strivers. (No coincidence that the best sketch in the recent Mr. Show redux cast Odenkirk as a desperately sweaty veteran salesman, so insecure that he can’t hawk copies of the Koran to a Muslim study group.)
There’s been enough enthusiastic writing about the other members of Gilligan and Gould’s ensemble that it’s redundant to go on too long about them here; suffice it to say that both Jonathan Banks (like Odenkirk, reprising the part that made him famous on Breaking Bad) and Rhea Seehorn (whose voraciously ambitious attorney Kim Wexler has gained strength and dimension after a wobbly start as Jimmy’s platonic confidant) do the kind of good, detailed character work that the serial format supports. (This is probably why so many journeyman movie actors end up looking good after the shift to TV: they actually get enough scenes to leave a real impression.)
It’s not a slight to the cast, however, to point out that some of the very best moments for these supporting players have as much—if not more—to do with the staging (directing, shooting, and design) as with the delivery of dialogue. The long, wordless sequence where Banks’ ex-cop/freelance bodyguard stalks (but doesn’t get to shoot) the drug dealer threatening his live-and-let-live semi-retirement borrows its telescoped perspectives and deathly stillness from No Country for Old Men (2007). And the best summation of rule-stickler Kim’s simultaneous attraction and wariness for Jimmy comes when he hands her a business card proposing a joint law-firm, “Wexler & McGill,” the first letters of their surnames pointedly inverted—suggesting either polar opposites or a perfect match, if one of them would rotate their worldview 90 degrees or so. (And speaking of rotation, that snaky, proudly Touch of Evil-inspired three-minute shot kicking off Season Two’s eighth episode—outlining the process by which contraband gets smuggled across the Tex-Mex border—is an example of stylistic muscle-flexing that stands as one of the series’ low points; if I want ostentatious displays of virtuosity, I’ll watch True Detective, thanks.)
A final word about Odenkirk, whose mercurial sketch-to-sketch brilliance all those years ago on Mr. Show—often playing the kind of desperate not-so-smoothie that led Gilligan to cast him in Breaking Bad—has deepened with age into what can only be called great acting: the complete inhabitation of a character whose behaviour is sometimes mysterious to himself, yet still perfectly legible to the audience. This was not the case for Breaking Bad’s Saul, who was, after all, just so much comic relief: a grotesque from the criminal subculture that Walter White reluctantly joined up with and doubled-down on when he had no other choice. Here, the comic relief is the drama, and Odenkirk’s ability to switch between different levels of shtick—the character’s unctuous, dead-eyed glad-handing (which only really works on impressionable dumbass teens and the very elderly), as well as the actor’s own well-practiced verbal and physical trickery—and completely open, transparent, emotional expressiveness is formidable indeed.
When Jimmy, camped out in the shadows across the street from a photocopy place—transformed here into a genuine crucible for drama by plot machinations too byzantine to spoil—watches his increasingly apoplectic brother, who is out to expose his treachery, suffer a terrible accident (framed through glass, beneath interior fluorescent lights in a composition perfectly calibrated for dreamlike distance), the excruciating play of impulses across the actor’s eyes transcends the immediate narrative consequences of the scenario. In these shots, Odenkirk combines concern, shame, and, somewhere in the mix, a little glint of excitement that it might be possible to get away with something very bad, maybe once and for all. That Gilligan and Gould send him hurtling to the rescue—en route to his doom—is as much a function of form as storytelling: the show must go on, after all. But as a portrait of moral paralysis, Jimmy’s indecision—and Odenkirk’s wolfish face, bristling with anguish—isn’t easily forgotten.