Better Call Saul S04E08 Recap: “Coushatta”

 

The brilliance of the writers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is a notion that has become memefied over the years. Praising creator Vince Gilligan is usually met with in-jokes and laughter among fans, and I sort of get it, because there’s a lot more that goes into making a show like this than just one man, and as good as it is, at the end of the day, it’s just a TV show. How “brilliant” could it truly be?

Well, it’s episodes like “Coushatta” that justify that kind of behaviour. “Coushatta” is an episode so-well crafted that pays off the finest details of the season in such a grandiose manner that you can’t help but admire it and disproportionately praise it. It’s an episode that turns fan theories on their heads for the umpteenth time in as many episodes, and before the credits roll, it even finds a way to set the next stage of the game in an unexpected but welcome way.

The main focus of the episode revolves around Kim and Jimmy working to get Huell off the hook for hitting a plain clothes cop who was accosting Jimmy with a bag of sandwiches. The DA see this as a slam dunk case so they’re throwing the book at Huell, who, as we found out in last week’s episode, would rather run than go to prison. Jimmy knows this is a bad idea and feels bad for getting Huell in this mess, so he’s willing to do something stupid (as last week’s episode title implied) to help get him off. But Kim, who after a long time-jump still cares for Jimmy despite the fact that they’ve grown apart, doesn’t want to see him get in trouble, so she comes up with a plan of her own.

That plan manifests itself over the course of the episode, and it’s glorious. It involves putting Jimmy on a bus to Louisiana, where he and his fellow passengers write hundreds of letters addressed to the judge, posing as members of Huell’s hometown church and pleading with him to go easy on their beloved Huell. The judge is incensed, but the ADA doesn’t back off, and that’s where the plan really gets good. Some of the letters have phone numbers, numbers from Jimmy’s stock of burner phones, which he and his commercial crew from last season sit around and answer using various accents. At the end of the day, it’s enough to convince the ADA to let Huell off the hook, fearing a full-on freakout from Judge Munsigner.

It’s the perfect, ridiculous kind of plan for this show that plays out in BCS’s signature meticulous fashion, with a long cold open during which we see Jimmy writing all these letters without knowing what the endgame is. And when it’s all over, we see Jimmy reassuring Kim that this won’t ever happen again, only to find out that she got a thrill out of it and, realizing her life of opening bank branches bores her, wants to do it again. Combined with the fact that she came up with the plan, one that put both her and Jimmy at risk of not only losing their licenses but also going to jail for mail fraud and other crimes, it once again says a lot about Kim and where the show might be going with her character. As I’ve spoken about a lot this season, many believe that she faces some tragic end during the course of this show, as we never see her at Saul’s side during the Breaking Bad days. And maybe that’s the case, but seeing her act as the mastermind behind this plan only reaffirms my belief that she’s right there next to Jimmy/Saul that entire time, just off screen. She may even be with him in Nebraska when Jimmy becomes Gene.

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That may seem farfetched, but remember that slobbering praise for Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers that we talked about earlier. They’re no strangers to doing something crazy like that. There’s even proof of it in this episode, in Nacho’s story. The closing moments of the episode introduce us to Eduardo Salamanca, AKA “Lalo” (played by Mexican sta. Now, it’s been a while since Breaking Bad, but that’s an important name in this universe, as it is the first name that Saul Goodman utters when he’s introduced on that show, kidnapped by Walt and Jesse, right before he mentions Ignacio, making Lalo the second character birthed from a throwaway line from a decade earlier.

On the surface, Lalo appearing as a foil to Nacho’s newfound wealth and status is important because it advances that story, it gives Nacho something to do and it breeds a certain kind of conflict on that side of the BCS story spectrum that’s been desperately missing for a few episodes now, as Nacho ponders escaping to Canada with his father and a couple of fake IDs. But if you dig a little deeper it’s even more important than that, because we know that Jimmy eventually comes to know Lalo (likely through Nacho), so this is probably the table-setting for Jimmy’s introduction to the cartel world.

But I think there’s even one more layer, a subtle one at that. The idea that two characters can come to life based on a line of dialog from season 2 of Breaking Bad is sort of magical. It tells us that what happened on Breaking Bad isn’t the only thing that was happening. Nacho and Lalo represent what’s going on in the background. When Saul utters their names, the presumption is that they’re still alive at that time, even though we never see them during the course of the main show. It means that if this show intends to give Lalo and Nacho complete stories, we’re going to need to see what they were doing at the time that Saul utters their names for the last time. It means that, inevitably, the timeline of Better Call Saul needs to intersect with the timeline of Breaking Bad. And it reinforces my belief that Kim can exist during that time as well, because it means that we’re not seeing everything that Saul was up to.

And that’s where the brilliance of this show lies, in how it can take a single line of dialog and expound on it infinitely. It’s in the details of the details. It’s in how it tells the viewers to trust it and almost always pays off. “Coushetta” is a fantastic, layered episode of Better Call Saul and it gets 10 chartered buses from Louisiana out of 10.


Notes:

  • Quickly since I didn’t get to it earlier, the bunker storyline sees Kai get kicked out of a strip club, but the show once again throws a wrench in the works when it’s Werner who messes up the most by chatting up some bar rats about their construction plans. Mike scolds him and gives him a pass, but he seems uncertain when Gus asks him about it later on.
  • It’s kind of jarring when you consider that this is the first time we’ve seen Nacho in nearly a year. He’s healed, heading up the Salamanca business and clearly benefiting from it financially, but he’s unhappy and scared and contemplating trying to leave. Still, he’s doing his job, ripping earrings out of his dealers ears when he needs to, so why Eduardo comes out to play remains to be seen, but you can already tell he’s going to have a big impact on the show.
  • Jimmy’s southern pastor impression is his best impression yet. “I’ve got crawdad in ma pants. It’s a thing that happens to you when you’re sittin’ in the bayou.”
  • And finally, Guillermo Del Toro (rightfully) thinks Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad. Read about that here.
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The Best Lines from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia S13E03: “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot”

 

Any other show would bungle an episode like “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot”. But for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, it’s exactly what we needed to see. Thirteen seasons in, a show unabashedly borrowing a concept from an earlier popular episode, replacing the cast with female side characters for the sake of making some meta commentary points and ending with everyone puking and shitting their pants would probably signal its death knell. But here’s, it’s unironically a sign that IASIP hasn’t lost a step.

The episode has Sweet Dee gathering all of the women she knows and can tolerate on a flight headed for the women’s march. But they’re not on it to celebrate their womanhood or to protest the current administration, they’re there because Dee is constantly trying to figure out how to stick it to the guys, and her latest scheme involves having one of the girls beat Wade Boggs’ record of drinking 71 beers on a flight to Los Angeles before winning the big game the next day. Only Dee doesn’t actually want “the women” to beat the record, she wants to beat the record and all the other women herself, because she’s a narcissistic misanthrope with a warped sense of feminism, and it says a lot about her that the only women she can harangue are two of her friends’ moms, The Waitress and Artemis (and, as we find out later, Snail, who is hiding and drinking quietly on her own in first class). Also she’s a bird.

It’s kind of a perfect setup. The show does well when re-exploring its own conceits, as this isn’t the first time its rebooted an episode. It also does well when it sets Dee up against everyone, because she’s a frustrated failure and she only gets funnier when her back is up against the wall (this episode features a lot of “goddamnits”). And it’s nice to see some recurring characters get their time to shine, as each of the four ladies have several great moments in this episode.

In a weird way, this episode does a lot to show that there is a version of IASIP that can survive without all of its main characters. While Frank, Charlie and Mac all sneak in cameos (The Waiter is also there, although who are we to remember every man we’ve seen fall into a plate of spaghetti), this is the first episode of the season with no sign of Dennis. While he still looms over the show (there is a lot of talk about his stay in North Dakota and, in fact, Dee winds up there herself, which may play in to a future reveal about Dennis’s kid there), this episode works without the classic Gang chemistry, and it works because Kaitlyn Olson is a great actress who has spent fifteen years honing what kind of character Sweet Dee actually is. And, as I said, she doesn’t hog the screen either.

The meta-commentary about feminism and lazy media attempts at representation were pretty spot-on as well, continuing the trend started in last week’s episode and that clearly seems to be a priority this season, with a lot more women working on the show behind the scenes and a concerted effort to make the show more relevant and topical. Without, of course, losing any of its charm, as suggested by the episode’s crux, where Artemis’ spiked Goop-style products induce mass vomiting and diarrhea amongst the women on the flight.

There’s little more you can hope for as a creative person than to see your meta-episode about lazy, diversity-induced spinoffs actually wind up being funny and memorable. And there are plenty of moments in this Boss Hogg sequel that work. “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot” gets 8 pussies on the track out of 10.


Here are some of the best lines from “The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot”:

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  • Goddamnit Count: 7
  • A couple of great sight gags: Drunk Dee imagining Martina Navratilova all wrong and then picturing Boss Hogg instead of Wade Boggs, Charlie and Mac repeatedly yelling that Dee’s a bird before their facetime cuts out.
  • Mrs Kelly: “I didn’t know it was an all female flight. That feels dangerous.”
  • Artemis/Dee: “I don’t get it. You already did this. Shouldn’t we do our own thing? Why are we copying the guys?” “That’s the whole point. It’s the exact same thing, but with women. So it’s a new idea.”
  • Mrs. Mac: “What kind of a plane is this? How come the coloreds are allowed to sit with the whites and we’re way back here?”
  • Dee: “Wow, I’ve never heard you talk so much. Truly awful.”
  • Dee/Waitress: “What’s your secret?” “I’m an alcoholic.”
  • Artemis/Mrs. Mac: “Let’s at least beat a female sports star.” “Secretariat?”
  • Dee, to The Waiter: “That’s great, you’re a soyboy beta cuck.”
  • Mrs. Kelly: “Oh dear, watching a woman do math scares me!”
  • Frank: “In every reboot you gotta have someone from the original to make a cameo.”
  • Artemis: “She’s gone full Judy Garland, isn’t it glorious?”
  • The Waitress: “I had sex in the bathroom with Frank and now I’m in a shame spiral. I’m going to drink my self to death.”
  • Martina Navratilova: “Now you’re imagining me as Lori Petty in A League of Their Own.”

Better Call Saul S04E07 Recap: “Something Stupid”

 

One of my favourite things about Better Call Saul is its fascination with the mundane. It’s a show that exists in a world growing increasingly crazier, a show that perennially promises to notch up said craziness as the timeline gets closer and closer to the days of Breaking Bad, yet also one that, even in the midst of all that, can devote a good chunk of the episode to routine and minutia, even while it’s pushing the time frame forward.

The cold open for “Something Stupid” is the perfect encapsulation of this. Its purpose is to push the show eight months into the future, to place it in a time where Kim and Jimmy have mostly grown apart, to the end of Gus’ timeline for building his underground meth lab, to the precipice of Jimmy getting his law license back. But the way it does it is almost comically simple, presenting this lapse in time through a montage of Kim and Jimmy’s routines. With a thick black bar splitting the screen right down the middle, we see Kim and Jimmy getting ready for their days, Kim as she works for Mesa Verde and on pro bono cases, Jimmy as he peddles burner phones out of a van. At first, they’re brushing their teeth together, sharing meals, doing, you know, couple stuff. By the end, Jimmy’s eating alone, watching movies alone, brushing his teeth alone as Kim buries herself in work, eventually fading out the opposite of how it fades in, with Jimmy and Kim in the same bed, but worlds apart.

It’s bittersweet, melancholic, and extremely well done. In other words, par for the course for a show like this as Director Deborah Chow knocks it out of the park. It’s also necessary. A big part of this fourth season has been about Kim and Jimmy growing apart, potentially realizing that their relationship is a matter of convenience rather than actual affection. I mentioned last week that while we’ve seen them kiss and do couple stuff, the show has always strayed away from showing them in any significant amount of intimacy. And while I don’t expect a show from a writer as unconcerned with salaciousness as Vince Gilligan to venture into the territory of sex scenes or indiscriminate intimacy for the sake of portraying a relationship (Kim and Jimmy brushing their teeth together, watching movies and deciding on that night’s takeout order is enough), the lack of intimacy or even the words “I love you” from their relationship is a clear choice, one that’s been manifesting itself more and more in recent weeks as they realize they’re different people, as Jimmy realizes that Kim’s goals are different from his own, as Kim realizes that Jimmy might not be the man she thinks he is.

But eight months to be out of love with someone and stay with him is a long time. They’re still “together” after that montage. Kim brings Jimmy to an office cocktail party where he schmoozes with her coworkers and even sort of embarrasses her boss by talking up how cool it would be for him to take his employees on a company retreat to Aspen on a private jet. On the way home, Jimmy and Kim barely even have anything to say about it before returning to their routines. And it’s particularly jarring in a scene late in the episode. Jimmy’s security, Huell, gets busted for hitting a plain-clothes cop with a bag full of sandwiches when he thought Jimmy was getting accosted. Facing an unnecessarily cruel amount of jail time, Jimmy enlists Kim’s help to get him out of trouble since he won’t have his license back for a month. Kim’s immediate response is surprise that Jimmy’s been spending his days peddling phones out of a van. Jimmy brushes it off as unimportant, but for the sake of storytelling it’s crucial. Kim doesn’t know what Jimmy does with his time. She hasn’t known for the better part of a year. In previous episodes we’ve seen Jimmy brush off his job as boring an uneventful, but it’s been eight months, and it’s just as much on Jimmy for not telling her as it is on Kim for not even caring enough to figure it out.

And that tells me a lot about where this might be going. Most people will point to this episode as proof that when Jimmy goes Full Saul, Kim won’t be around to suffer the consequences. But part of me still wants to stick to my guns and hang on to the other (admittedly unlikely) scenario, where the Kim we see now, the one that stuck by Jimmy all this time and even joined in on grifting with him at one point, is way past the point where she can escape Jimmy’s black hole of gravitational pull. It’s been nearly a year since Chuck’s death, since Jimmy’s behaviour in the wake of what happened left her concerned and even recoiling from him and who she perceived him to be. Yet they still share a bathroom vanity and a fish. If they passion is gone, then why are they still even together?

What’s more, even after Jimmy reveals the terrible thing he’s been doing for the better part of the year and the seedy people he’s associating with, even after he suggests doing something shady to get Huell out of prison as if it’s the obvious solution, she still agrees to help him and even, as we see at the end of the episode, enacts a mysterious plan involving loads of office supplies to help him and Huell without Jimmy having to slip and slide. I believe that this show is daring us to think that Kim will leave Jimmy when he breaks bad. The question is whether she’ll be a willing participant or enabler in the Saul days, or whether a more Chuck-like fate awaits her.

The time jump does a lot advance the story between Kim and Jimmy, but it also serves an important purpose on the other side of Better Call Saul’s coin, as we catch up with Gus, Mike and the construction as well. The German suggested it might take eight months to build the underground meth lab, but after that amount of time they’re barely halfway done, and frustration and boredom seems to be getting the best of some of the young workers; an ennui that’s put on display through a second musical montage. Mike floats the idea of sending Kai home but it probably wouldn’t lead to anything positive. Instead they decide to give them some much needed R&R. In any case, this looks like it’s heading down a no-good path in the final episodes of the season. Meanwhile, Gus sends Hector’s brain doctor home after he sees what he does (spilling some water to get a good look at his nurse) in the latest test session, satisfied that, even without his ability to speak, he’s back to his former self.

That stuff seems to mostly be setup, but it doesn’t really take away from another great episode of Better Call Saul where the characters and their relationships are still paramount. “Something Stupid” gets 8.5 bags full of sandwiches out of 10.

The Best Lines from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia S13E02: ‘The Gang Escapes’

 

After It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia devoted its thirteenth season premiere to the pressing question of whether or not Glenn Howerton’s Dennis would return to the show, things were unsurprisingly back to normal in “The Gang Escapes”. In fact, the episode holds itself to Dennis’ word, not worry about why or how he’s back or for how long, plunging The Gang right back into the type of low-brow, inconsequential misadventures we’re here for.

The funny thing is that the episode, which, at Sweet Dee’s request, has The Gang locked in Dennis and Mac’s apartment doing one of those escape room team-building challenge thingies, opens with Dennis actually trying to justify why he and the other guys would do something like that, establishing that there need to be stakes; in this case, an actual sirloin steak, to be purchased for the winner by Amanda, the girl setting all of this up, along with disturbing promises of sexual conquest. In true Sunny form, however, Dee has ulterior motives, having already done this exact escape room before, attempting to make herself look good in front of the guys.

Things devolve pretty quickly, as you might expect. The guys lock Dee in Dennis’ bedroom the moment she starts being annoying. In there she must escape a room of her own, as Dennis has set it up for his deviant sexual conquests. Outside, the guys pair off when their egos get in the way and they can’t decide on a leader between Dennis and Frank, but when they match each others’ tactics (The Art of the Deal, bro!), they decide to hold a summit where a pecking order is decided and they put their clues for the escape room together, only to discover it’s just the beginning. Luckily, Dee falls off the building forcing Amanda to open the door before the deadline, thus earning everyone their steaks and their picture on the company’s website. In fact, in a surprisingly sweet moment for this show, the guys let Dee take a bite of her steak first for leading them to victory.

The episode wastes no time delving into topics such as machismo and toxic masculinity, putting the guys against both Dee and each other in a bid for dominance. It treats the idea of an escape room like mice in a laboratory maze, compacting all the terrible things about the guys into an environment where they can quickly manifest themselves and explode. But it all kind of works because obviously it’s satirical and tinged with irony. What’s more, it’s an episode written and directed by women. Megan Ganz, formerly of Community and Modern Family fame joined the show last season (writing the equally hilarious and meta The Gang Tends Bar), and while I consider her to be one of the best working sitcom writers and she certainly earned her job based on skill and merit, it’s also clearly part of an attempt to diversify the Sunny writer’s room. This is a show that has been largely written by men (even outside the bulk of the episodes written by its three main stars and creators), and while most would likely consider the likes of McElheney, Howerton and Day to be relatively woke, it’s an interesting direction for the show to take after so many years. Not only is this episode written by a woman and directed by a woman (LP), but so are most of the next four episodes, and that’s probably a bigger deal than most will give credit.

It doesn’t really affect the quality of the show one way or another, it’s still just as funny and ridiculous, and the stars’ influence over it still persists, even though these changes were likely made to accommodate their increasingly busy schedules as actors and producers. But it’s a positive sign to see a show thirteen seasons old capable of making big changes in the way it’s written and produced, capable of tackling subjects not outside of the show’s realm, but potentially from different angles, all without losing much of a step. “The Gang Escapes” is both topical and timeless, hilarious and well-made. And with everything so quickly going back to normal for The Gang, it reassures me that this is a shot that still has a lot of life left in it.

“The Gang Escapes” gets 8 ounces of sirloin steak out of 10.


 

Here are some of the best lines from “The Gang Escapes”:

  • First and foremost, the Goddamnit Count. I forgot to do this last week, but I don’t remember hearing any. This week the show comes out swinging, with 5 instances of the gang (mostly Dee) expressing their displeasure with the show’s signature word.
  • I also want to shout out Charlie’s speech as speaker during the summit. Too much of it was hilarious to transcribe but the whole thing was just phenomenal.
  • Dennis: “I’m fully aware of this practice. It’s a highly sexual experience for people. You’ll get no judgements from us.”
  • Mac: “This sounds very nerdy. Is this a nerd thing?”
  • Mac: “Men don’t do things just to do them. We’re busy running the world, providing for our families. We need stakes. If there’s no stakes, what’s the point?”
  • Dennis: “I get out of the room, that means I win the game, the lady here, she takes me out for a steak, then it becomes sexual.”
  • Charlie: “Frank hasn’t been locked up since the nitwit school, so he gets a little uptight about it.”
  • Frank: “Everybody knows quarterbacks are men.”
  • Dennis/Mac: “By constantly chewing so loudly he’s sending a very clear message that he is the head cow. And as we all know, the head cow is always grazing.” “Aren’t all cows female?”
  • Dennis: “Mac, sometimes I’m just riffing. Would you allow me to riff? As the leader, can I riff? CAN I RIFF!?”
  • Mac: “Just to clarify, are we monkeys or are we cows?”
  • Frank: “It’s a power play. Everybody knows that the head cow is always grazing.”
  • Mac: “Never trust another man in negotiation! That’s textbook. Art of the Deal! Art of the Deal, bro!”
  • Computer Dennis: “Remember, if you’re having too much fun, it ruins it for me.”
  • Computer Dennis: “Ugh ugh ugh! You didn’t say the safe word.”
  • Amanda/Dee: “This is insanely disturbing.” “You do it for a living, get off your high horse.”
  • Dennis: “Clever girl.”
  • Dennis: “You figured out the only loophole in my carefully curated and well-researched bondage facility. You’re the only person who’s ever done that. The only one. THE ONLY ONE.”

Better Call Saul S04E06 Recap: “Pinata”

 

If you’re the type of person who was wondering why it took Better Call Saul 35 episodes to give us a scene set during the days of Breaking Bad, where Jimmy McGill is finally, fully, Saul Goodman, I present to you this week’s episode, “Pinata”. Last week’s episode gave us one of the show’s highest peaks, so the follow-up was inevitably going to be a bit of a let down, but “Pinata” significantly slowed things down, almost deliberately, to show us that there is still a long way to go until things are like that opening scene from “Quite a Ride”. To use a sloppy metaphor, that scene in Saul’s office expects us to understand that shit has already very much hit the fan. The rest of the show is more or less Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould slowly turning that fan on.

As someone who’s come to expect and embrace the idea of Better Call Saul as a slow-burn origin story, it doesn’t really bother me, but I do understand that there are people that expect more from the show. And instead of using last week’s mind-blowing developments as a launching point, they instead decided to revert back to the snail-paced pastiche of characters slowly dying inside before they reach the breaking point of evil.

The episode quite clearly hammers that home, as Mike’s arc involves setting up a warehouse bachelor pad for a bunch of horny bro-y Germans that have been brought in to build Gus’s secret underground lair. It’s fully stocked with a movie theater (I wonder if pirating falls within Gus’s code?), a soccer field and basketball court, a fully stocked bar and two full-sized bungalow. I would star in a reality show if they let me live in that warehouse. But construction hasn’t even started yet, and the whole purpose of these scenes is to single out one particular troublemaker, Kai, who Mike tells his guys to keep an eye on. But, like I said, the entire time, he’s telling the guys and the audience that they’re in for a long job.

Jimmy tippy-toes forward this week as well, as he spends his days daydreaming about the return of Wexler & McGill in between receiving shipments of prepaid phones. He dons his tracksuit one more time and lures the street thugs who beat them up into an alley where they’re taken by Jimmy’s goons, Huell (Huell!) and Man Mountain (an interesting case of Better Call Saul being self-referential instead of referring to its predecessor for once, as this character is a stretch of a callback from season 1) to what appears to be a pinata factory, where a street-level James Bond villain-esque plot of the goons busting pinatas while the thugs are strewn upside down and threatened pays dividends and gets them off Jimmy’s back, while getting the word out that Cell Phone Guy ain’t no one to fuck with.

But that’s not all that happens to Jimmy this week, as for the umpteenth time, he also gets his hopes and dreams more or less shattered. After she finds his notepad with scribblings of Wexler & McGill, Kim gets freaked out and turns to Rich Schweikart and hands him Mesa Verde on a silver platter, offering to head up their new banking division in exchange for some free time, so she can continue doing pro bono cases without hurting the client. She springs this news on Jimmy over lunch at their favourite grifting restaurant over Moscow Mules, and on the inside, Jimmy clearly isn’t loving it, as he takes a moment to himself to process before Slippin’ Jimmying his way to the next grift, offering to change their hypothetical practice into one practicing criminal law.

It seems very clear that Kim giving up Mesa Verde is an attempt to put up a barrier between her and Jimmy. She’s freaked out by Jimmy’s plans, she’s freaked out with how he’s handling his grief about Chuck, and she doesn’t know what kind of schemes he’s up to, leaving their apartment at all hours of the night, coming back beaten up and being pretty dodgy about what he’s doing. Deep inside, Kim knows the real Jimmy, and she’s starting to have second thoughts about spending her life with someone like that. It’s the kind of guilt trip that led her to pro bono work in the first place.

Don’t take my word for it, just look at how these two interact. They’re supposed to be a couple, yet we haven’t seen them kiss or do anything remotely intimate even once this season. I don’t think they’ve ever said that they love each other, and they seem to live and conspire together out of convenience more than anything. It makes you wonder why they’re together or how they even got here in the first place. And it makes you wonder if this is the show trying to give Kim an inevitable out, or Jimmy something to fight for when he realizes that he’s losing her. Even though it’s no Saul Goodman scrambling for his vacuum repair business ticket out of Albuquerque, it’s incredibly compelling and so well-paced.

And in a final Jimmy development this week, he finds out that one of his first elder clients, Geraldine Strauss, passed away and that he missed the funeral. This hits him surprisingly hard, seemingly worse than the passing of his brother. I’m not sure if Jimmy here is actually grieving over Geraldine or projecting what he wants to feel about Chuck, but soon thereafter he finds himself in Harold’s office and tells him to get his shit together and get HHM back on its feet, which leads to an ultra rare F-bomb for this show (and one that doesn’t phase Jimmy in the slightest, proving once again that Harold is Jimmy’s ultimate punching bag in this show).

All of this is bowtied nicely by the opening scene, a flashback to Jimmy and Kim’s mailroom days at HHM. It’s the morning of a big win for Chuck, who prances around the office receiving congratulations from everyone in the room. Kim tells a completely blase Jimmy all about it while he’s more interested with tallying Oscar pool picks than anything else. She shares a moment with Chuck while Jimmy bungles trying to impress his brother. Soon thereafter, at the end of the lengthy cold open, Jimmy passes by the HHM library and decides to go in, setting his path towards law in motion. The question is, does he do it because he wants to impress his brother, or because he wants to impress Kim?

The truth is that a lot happens in this episode, but you sort of have to reach in between the cracks to find the real meat, and it involves a lot of pawn movement as Kim and Jimmy gear up for the next arc in their story. The funny thing is that I didn’t even bother to talk about the two biggest developments of the episode, first the fact that Michael McKean made a surprise return in that cold open to portray Chuck, which I suppose we should have seen coming. And then the tensest, best scene in the episode, where Gus monologues to a comatose Hector about a chinchilla or whatever that he tortured as a child. It’s a frightening, incredibly well-delivered speech that will hopefully help Giancarlo Esposito get nominated for another Emmy next year, but like Chuck’s return, it’s sort of weirdly on a place in a show that is increasingly becoming, as I said, a pastiche or mosaic of a bunch of different stories that are still some time away from intersecting. And while the show often finds a way to navigate those waters expertly (see our previous discussions about dichotomies and juxtapositions), it’s less effective here.

So while a lot of good, interesting things happen in “Pinata”, it doesn’t come together as well as you would hope, especially after last week’s excellent high. That’s why “Pinata” gets 8 prepaid cell phones out of 10.

The Best Lines from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia S13E01: ‘The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again’

Ever since Dennis was written off It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia last season, and Glenn Howerton and the rest of the gang spent the ensuing months insisting that they weren’t sure how or if he’d ever come back to the show, fans have been lamenting what the show would look like without one of its five key ingredients. The rest of The Gang are all interesting characters in their own right, but the show has always worked because of the dynamic between the five (and I say this knowing that Danny DeVito was only added to the show in season 2). Most fans feared the worst, but, to tell you the truth, I was kind of curious what the show would look like sans-Dennis.

In this week’s season 13 premiere, “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again”, we got a glimpse of what this Dennis-less show would look like, and yet the episode was almost entirely about how he loomed over the show, as The remaining Gang turns to Cindy (a guest-starring Mindy Kaling) as a replacement leader but quickly finds that Dennis’ disapproving, judgmental aura continues to haunt them, especially after a newly super fit Mac reveals that he’s ordered a specially-made sex doll that looks exactly like his former roommate/not-best friend. Cindy schemes to pit liberals against conservatives in order to drum up business for the bar and shut down the competition around the corner, and at first The Gang is into it and sees how Cindy brings out the best in them, but they very quickly get in their own heads about what Dennis would say, the presence of the sex doll not helping.

By the end of the episode, Dennis has inexplicably returned and Cindy is cast out of the bar, with everything returning to normal. No questions are asked about where Dennis has been and why he’s back, and while I would expect the show to address all of that in a future episode, I don’t think anyone really minds. In fact his sudden return, including downplaying why he’s back, is quite funny in and of itself and perfectly executed for this show. The scene at the end of the episode where Dennis suddenly standing where the sex doll was propped up is perfect. He surprises everyone, causing Frank to draw and quickly fire his weapon at him, and within the span of about 90 seconds thereafter he’s successfully driven Cindy away, surmised what Mac is doing with his likeness and thrown casual, devastating insults at both him and Dee.

That’s not to say that the rest of the episode doesn’t work without his actual presence. There’s a sincere self-awareness that permeates the episode. The Gang is aware of the fact that they’re incomplete, yet it doesn’t really change the dynamic. Mac is still woefully insecure, resorting to getting utterly jacked thinking that it’ll make his friends happy or somehow help with their schemes (the fact that Rob McElheney put his body through that for the sake of comedy is a perfect as it was when he gained an obscene amount of weight for a previous season). Dee is a broken creature who would rather return to the bottom of the group’s pecking order with Dennis if it means she’s the only woman in the group. Even Charlie is having a tough time, suddenly dating the Waitress and hating it. In all honesty, this is as much an episode about Mac as it is an episode about The Gang coping with the loss of Dennis.

There’s a lot of great stuff in the first 18 minutes of the episode, and Mindy Kaling is great as the group’s temporary foil, especially considering the reasoning for her presence is just as unexplained as Dennis’ return, but I think we’re all glad that Dennis wound up being back, and I think we all knew deep inside that the show wouldn’t have worked for very long without him. The fact that they so quickly brought him back is proof of that (as is the season’s promotional material, which includes the Gang running away from a Dennis-like figure in a Jason Voorhees mask), and it makes me wonder if that was always the plan, or if they tried to break the season without Dennis around and realized that it couldn’t be done.

In any case, the gang is back in full force now (The Boys Are Back in Town!), and the mystery surrounding Dennis’ whereabouts really added an interesting layer to the show. Mac’s coping mechanisms were hilarious, as was the meta-commentary around Cindy’s plan and how they expertly sidestep any meaningful political commentary despite the episode’s title and the contents of the plan, and all of that makes “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again” an excellent, raucous episode of IASIP, and it gets 9 liberal tears out of 10.


 

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Here are some of the best lines from the episode:

  • Charlie: “No one ever really knows what’s going on with Mac. He’s fat, he’s skinny, he’s muscular, it’s really a cry for help and attention I think. So what you do in that situation is you ignore it.
  • Mac, to silence: “You guys like me, right?”
  • Mac/Dee: “It’s not like I’m going to have sex with it.” “He’s going to have sex with it the second we walk out of this door.”
  • Mac/Frank: “I tried, but apparently I can’t return the doll due to the custom nature of the usage of the doll.” “Banging its mouth.”
  • Cindy: “Stop trying to shoehorn your shirtlessness into plans that have no need for it.”
  • Cindy/Dee: “What the hell are you guys talking about?” “It called me a bird.”
  • Mac/Charlie: “Why did I do all this working out, Charlie?” “Nobody knows, man.”
  • Mac: “Tell her not to worry, I’m doing crunches.”
  • Mac: “Dennis is a bastard man.”
  • Frank: “After a series of events that I’d rather not go into, I came to the realization that the only way to not be humiliated by Dennis while playing the tuba was to play him.”
  • Dennis, about his facsimile sex doll: “Ah, Mac’s shooting his loads into it?”
  • Cindy: “Charlie, you were just playing his asshole to humiliate him.”

Better Call Saul S04E05 Recap: ‘Quite A Ride’

 

Whenever we reach the conclusion of Better Call Saul, there will be plenty of moments of brilliance to point to in making the case for this show as one of the best dramas in recent memory, potentially even of all time. The latest episode, “Quite a Ride”, included one of those climactic moments, as the prequel finally caught up with its predecessor, airing a scene set during a pivotal final season moment of Breaking Bad, somewhere between “To’hajiilee” and “Granite State”, which feature Saul Goodman’s final appearances on the show, as Walter White’s meth empire begins to crumble and both he and Saul are forced to go into hiding.

The scene in question opens “Quite a Ride” with Saul and his secretary Francesca (with a much more unpleasant and terse demeanor than one might be accustomed to with her if they’ve only seen her previous appearances on Better Call Saul) destroying documents and preparing for Saul’s stay in the basement of a vacuum repair shop and departure to Nebraska. The cold open  meticulously takes us through everything Saul had to do to get ready, as he shakes a bag of cash free from the ceiling tiles, cuts a hole in his decorative constitution wallpaper to retrieve a box and informs Francesca about what comes next before they bid each other a somber goodbye (Francesca more somber than Saul).

The cinematography in the scene is phenomenal, opening with a shot from the inside of the paper shredder and following it up with shots from every possible nook and cranny of Saul’s office, giving the familiar setting a much bigger and different feel than what we’ve been accustomed to, because while it’s supposed to convey the fact that this is clearly set during the Breaking Bad days, it’s not supposed to feel all that familiar. The scene has a practical purpose (it shows Jimmy using a burner phone to contact Ed in order to set in motion the plan to change his identity and send him away, breaking it apart after a single use, a tactic he only learned of in last week’s episode and spends the rest of this one refining and selling) and doesn’t want you to forget that this is still Better Call Saul and not Breaking Bad. Saul’s office is made to feel bigger the way it’s shot. And Bob Odenkirk portrays the character much differently than how he did during Breaking Bad. This feels like something a lot closer to the Jimmy McGill that we’ve come to know and (mostly) loove over the course of three and a half seasons, or rather a man in the midst of shaking himself free of a despicable persona he’s become accustomed to portraying. During the days of Breaking Bad, we only ever saw Jimmy in character as Saul. What this scene shows us, other than the phone trick, is that any instance of crossover between the two timelines will likely show us someone who is portraying a character. It’s telling us that Jimmy never really stops being Jimmy, that Saul is a character he’s portraying.

The way that the writers (including Ann Cherkis, credited for this episode) casually stray into this part of the timeline is kind of masterful. They don’t make a big deal about it, they use it to elaborate on the smallest of details about Jimmy’s schemes, and yet they kind of managed to blow up everyone’s expectations about where this show could eventually go. The way Odenkirk portrays such a different version of the character that we see at the end of Breaking Bad tells me that there could be a whole season or more of this show set during the days of Breaking Bad where Jimmy struggles to separate Saul, his business persona, and what he’s like in his personal life. It lends so much gravitas to a character that, prior to the first season of Better Call Saul, and prior to this very scene in this part of the timeline, was almost entirely comic relief, a joke character.

And yet this important development is merely the first few minutes of an episode that goes on to match the excellence of that scene. “Quite a Ride” is an episode filled with memorable moments outside of the show’s first foray into the days of Breaking Bad, featuring crucial developments for all of its characters.

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Continuing with Jimmy, his arc in “Quite a Ride” involves him taking a midnight stroll outside of the Dog House, a popular dining establishment that attracts the seedier types in and around Albuquerque, selling them a trunk-full of burner phones from his store with the promise of privacy. The scene might end up being just as iconic as the cold open. Jimmy is laden in a track suit he swiped from his old nail salon office in order to avoid accusations of being a narc. He swaggers around to a song straight out of Jackie Brown (in fact the whole scene feels like an homage to Tarantino and the types of movies he pays homage to, complete with a couple of trunk shots, as pointed out by the AV Club)  and sells out before his confidence gets him mugged by first kids he tried to sell phones to.

As important as that opening scene is to deciphering where Better Call Saul might eventually go, this sequence is crucial for Jimmy’s development now. After the death of his brother and how things went for him last season, he’s teetering on the edge. The phone thing starts off as just another scheme but end with what could be grave consequences for what Jimmy decides to become. The mugging tells him that maybe he should seek counseling, but an encounter with a distraught Howard in the courthouse shows him that even the best counseling might not be able to cure what ails him. This leads Jimmy to deliver an ominous, brooding “they’ll all see” type of speech at his lawyer probation meeting, telling tales about what it will be like after he gets his law degree back in nine months. And suddenly, Jimmy’s path towards Saul, towards the person we’ve seen him become by the time of that opening scene is a little clearer.

And that person is straying in the complete opposite direction of his girlfriend, as Kim spends her time in “Quite a Ride” doing pro bono work, to the point where it winds up affecting her contract with Mesa Verde. First, she gets a juvenile delinquent off with only probation in a fierce negotiation with the prosecutor we’ve previously seen Jimmy deal with. Then she convinces a woman scared to go to jail to come with her to the courthouse and face the consequences of her actions. In a different cinematic universe, a show where Kim Wexler works pro bono cases to help the little guy would be something I’d watch for 21 episodes a season on CBS. In this world, it’s something that likely won’t last very long, as that second case includes her hanging up on her Mesa Verde bosses in the middle of an emergency. And you can’t really blame her, her talk with her client was intense, but she’s putting pro bono work ahead of what’s supposed to be her only client, and that can’t end well. Kim is spiraling just like Jimmy, she’s just spiraling the other way. Jimmy feels like he’s drawn a bad hand. Kim is absorbing guilt for both of them. And that’s not a combination that will likely last.

Finally, Gus and Mike’s arc involves interviewing hole digging experts from Europe in order to set plans in motion to build Gus’s underground meth lab from Breaking Bad. It’s nothing as intense as what happens to Jimmy this week, nor as the business involving Nacho, who is absent from “Quite a Ride”, but it’s an entertaining glimpse into a world continuing to devolve into where we find it during the Breaking Bad days, and more evidence of how far ahead in the future Gus’s brain is, going to absurd lengths to ensure privacy and secrecy about his project before he finds the right person for the job. I always talk about juxtaposition in these reviews, and this is another case of how Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould pull that off brilliantly with a story that is on the other side of the court in terms of intensity, but complements what is happening to the other characters perfectly as it continues to paint the picture of how all the cards wind up landing where they do down the road.

Even though the things that Jimmy, Kim and Gus/Mike deal with in this episode seem completely disparate, the subtle ways in which they thematically tie together are phenomenal. And that’s on top of the fact that each of their three stories are straight fire, from the awesome first surprise of a season 5 of Breaking Bad-set Saul scene, to the highly entertaining Jimmy and Mike montages, to the big character moments for Jimmy and Kim. This is an amazing episode of television that finally gets the wheels rolling for this season of Better Call Saul. “Quite a Ride” gets 10 gourmet hot dogs out of 10.

Better Call Saul S04E04 Recap: ‘Talk’

 

In four seasons of  covering Better Call Saul, the one aspect that I have never been able to stop praising, nor will I ever stop praising, is its uncanny ability to juxtapose what’s happening to all of its characters. The severity of what happens to each of them (especially as the number of main characters expands, as this show becomes more and more about the world that will eventually turn into the madness of Breaking Bad) in a given episode tends to lie at an extreme. One might face a life-threatening situation as they slip further and further into the affairs of a dangerous drug cartel, while another might instead be dealing with the general malaise of boredom and unfulfilled potential. The next week the tables might get turned, with the latter characters dealing with a bad car accident or the brutal suicide of a loved one, while the others might spend their week taking apart a car in order to find a tracking device.

It’s a purposeful sort of irony employed by the writers, maybe to impart with the viewer the kind of ticking time bomb that a show like this has to be. This is the kind of world where, eventually, things will wind up getting severe and dangerous for everyone. But Better Call Saul is also ostensibly a modern western, and part of the point that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are trying to get across is that in such a setting, the only options are really extreme boredom or dangerous, law-breaking violence.

On the “extreme boredom” side of the coin this week we have Jimmy and Kim. They’re trying to get things back to normal now that Chuck is gone and the Hamlin types are basically out of their lives, but of course they’re both struggling. We saw it last week when Kim broke down after Jimmy read Chuck’s boilerplate posthumous letter to him. It was more of a normal reaction that Jimmy’s blase nonchalance, as he’s already put his brother in the rearview mirror, but Kim thinks that it might help if Jimmy saw a therapist. This is the early 00s, so Jimmy is desperate to avoid this and winds up taking a dead end job managing a cell phone store that barely ever sees any customers.

Now, this could be another temporary stepping stone for Jimmy, like the printing company, or it could be the kind of boring, out of the way opportunity that opens Jimmy’s world. He spends most of his first day throwing a ball against a wall, but eventually he closes the shop and heads over to see Ira, the guy who helped him with the Bavarian Boy heist, who gives Jimmy more money than he was expecting, as Bavarian Boy was the talk of the auction and started a bidding war. Jimmy is surprised at Ira’s nobility as they promise to work together again in the future, and an offhand comment from Ira about how he changes phones because anyone could be listening inspires Jimmy to paint the store’s windows to try and drum up business. We’ll see what comes of this, but it’s just an example of Jimmy’s slow decay into what will inevitably be Saul Goodman.

Kim is similarly going through an existential crisis. Last week she asked her paralegal to drop her off at the courthouse. This week, we get to see what she’s doing there. And as it turns out,it’s… not much. She spends the day observing various cases until Judge Neelix pulls her into his chambers and tells her she isn’t going to find a once-in-a-lifetime movie-like case by trolling his court, as most of his defendants are the type of guys who throw urine at their bosses. He advises her to make her easy money with Mesa Verde, and if she continues to spend her days lackadaisically observing low-level offenders, he’s going to put her to work on some pro bono cases. Kim defies Judge Neelix’s orders, so, like with Jimmy, we’ll see what comes of this.

Now, I love watching Kim watch defendants stammer their way through court, and watching Jimmy toss a superball around a quiet cell phone store, but whatever they’re doing is designed to pay off near the end of the season. They’re in a holding pattern because they’re still so far removed from the other side of the coin, and that’s the extreme drug cartel chess game being played by one Gus Fring. Last week we got a taste of the kind of scheme we’d pull regularly on Breaking Bad, elaborately staging a gang hit on Nacho and Arturo, the latter of which he murdered the night before in order to show force to Nacho. The Cousins and the rest of the Salamanca troupe don’t suspect that Nacho is involuntarily in bed with the enemy, but that’s not all Gus had in store for his new mole. The plan leads Nacho to a gang called the Espinozas, with the Cousins in the tow. After Gus’s guys drop off some money with them the night prior, Nacho points to them as the guys who killed Arturo. Nacho pitches a plan to pull some guys and take them out, but the Cousins silently tell them to hold their cervezas as they grab a bag of guns and take out the entire gang themselves.

This is a great fucking scene that holds back in showing most of the action. We know what the Cousins are capable of at this point, so director John Shiban doesn’t show us everything, but just enough to satisfy that part of our brains and remind us that there’s more at stake here than the mid-life crises of the other characters. This is the reminder of what’s looming around the corner for all of them. I especially love the way it’s shot, as it never really breaks away from Nacho’s perspective, reminiscent of a similar sequence in a movie about similar topics from this past summer, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, where a chase sequence happens entirely from the perspective of a teenage girl whose been pulled into a manufactured drug war. Of course, Nacho is a little more competent in this than a teenage girl, but just barely, as he starts the sequence as a hapless outsider with a bum shoulder, but is forced into action when reinforcements show up and does his part in helping the Cousins take out the gang. But he aggravates his injuries in the process and can barely stand at the end of it. Later we see him meet with Gus as he susses out his plan to use his new secret agent to eliminate the competition and gain territory, since the cartel won’t give the Espinozas’ turf to the Salamancas after what the Cousins did. Gus merely tells him to get some rest, and he complies, turning to his distraught father in bad shape.

Gus uses Nacho has a pawn to advance his game, and by the end of the episode, he’s on to his next move, as he turns to Mike. But Mike isn’t a mere pawn (and frankly, after a few weeks of Nacho being kind of a badass in the face of some brutal shit that Gus forces him to go through in order to keep his secret, I feel bad giving him that label), and immediately figures out that Gus has called to meet him for two reasons; first to give him shit for not telling him what Nacho was up to, to which Mike replies that it was never part of their agreement, he merely promised not to kill Hector himself. And second, to ask him to come on board for a job. We don’t yet know what that job could be, but if the episode exhausts the equivalent to a GTA level with the Cousins, before getting to this, one can only imagine what it’ll be.

Because Mike is in his own kind of holding pattern. Unlike Jimmy and Kim, though, he seems relatively content. He’s made a friend in the support group he attends with Stacy for his deceased son, he’s still doing security work at Madrigal, and in probably the most satisfying sequence in the show since last year’s “Chicanery” where Jimmy finally takes down Chuck in court, he brutally calls out a guy (played by The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Marc Evan Jackson) who is bereaving a fake wife in his group. It’s awkward and unnecessary but glorious and so Mike, as it shows us how good he is at detecting bullshit, right before he sees straight through Gus’s.

So, “Talk” takes us on a few very different journeys. Kim and Jimmy are trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, Mike and Nacho are being pulled away from theirs (one a little more brutishly than the other), all while Gus Fring continues to make moves that are way ahead of anyone else’s, a reminder of what already made him one of the greatest villains of all time in Breaking Bad. It’s kind of been the story of the season so far, and it makes these individual episodes hard to judge. I’m loving everything that’s happening on the show, but it’s sort of scatterbrains because you need it all to be happening at once. I wouldn’t necessarily want an episode that’s just Jimmy throwing a ball around a store and trying to steal a stupid figurine, or an episode about Kim doing a bank’s due diligence. And if you go too far in the other direction, an episode that’s just about what’s happened to Nacho so far this season is probably too extreme. I’d totally take a show that’s just Mike assessing warehouse security or calling out bullshitters at support groups, but nevertheless, the show expertly decides to give us a little of everything, to juxtapose the varying degrees of severity for each character, because it knows that eventually they will all have to meet somewhere closer to where Gus is operating. And while that makes each individual episode less than stellar, you can easily see the bigger picture. I recognize that these episodes aren’t perfect, but I still end new iteration with undeterred admiration for the show, and “Talk” is no exception. It gets 8.5 cartel shootouts out of 10.

Better Call Saul S04E03 Recap: ‘Something Beautiful’

Better Call Saul now officially has four main characters. What started off as the Saul Goodman origin story quickly became something much bigger, as it morphed into equal parts Jimmy McGill, Mike Ehrmantraut, and eventually, Kim Wexler. In season 4, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have promised us that the world around these characters is about to get a lot bigger, and the reason for that is this fourth main character, something that became as apparent to me as ever in “Something Beautiful.”

Even though we seldom see Gus Fring, his influence over the happenings in the show are truly starting to manifest themselves. After Nacho takes out Don Hector, Gus has room to maneuver and position himself into becoming the badass, nearly unstoppable drug lord we know him to be in Breaking Bad. Last week, he flexed his muscle by killing Arturo in front of Nacho, duly informing Nacho that he knew all about his little scheme and if he wants him to keep it to himself, then Nacho belongs to Fring now. This week, they go to elaborate lengths to cover up Arturo’s murder, staging a drive by on the highway during which Nacho himself has to get shot in order to make it seem believable. Nacho calls The Cousins to clean it up, who take him to the vet (where one of them brushes by Jimmy, as a matter of fact), and in an even crueler twist of fate, winds up with literal Salamanca blood coursing through his veins.

It’s an elaborate chess move on Gus’ part, installing a mole deep inside the Salamanca organization. All the while, he’s plotting his next move, as he visits Gale (!) at a local college, inquiring about chemistry and checking in on what we know is a long-term investment, as he grooms this much younger version of the character we know from Breaking Bad into the fleeting, meth cooking genius he was for a short period on that show. I’m not exactly sure if this was meant to be a cameo or if they have something bigger in store for David Constabile, but the point here is to show that Gus is moving around peons and making moves that will benefit him for a long time, while everyone is can only look directly in front of them.

That’s kind of what makes Gus such a great character. He was introduced to the world of Better Call Saul through a note in the season 2 finale, after which Mike spent weeks looking for him before manifesting himself for only a short while towards the end of season 3. So far this season, we’ve barely seen him more than once or twice a week, and virtually every major development is tied to him and his actions.

Meanwhile, Mike is living his best life as an ersatz security consultant for Madrigal, unconcerned about the people he’s in league with. Jimmy is busy running low stakes grifts, completely unaware of the danger he’s literally brushing up against (as evidenced by when he walks passed one of the Salamanca Cousins). The Bavarian Boy Heist (name of my college indie rock band) is specifically, purposely low stakes to contrast everything else that is happening, and that’s something this show has gotten really good at. When things are getting crazy on the Breaking Bad world-building side of things, things are slow and mundane on the Jimmy-turning-into-Saul side of things.

That’s not to say that there aren’t important things happening on the other side of the coin. We don’t see much of Mike this week, other than enough for him to reject Jimmy’s proposition to steal some ceramic figurine from the printing company he interviewed with (making it clear that he was casing the joint when he made a big show about how dumb they were for wanting to hire him). But Jimmy goes through some important character development here. He’s overly obsessed with this scheme of his, and he’s completely detached with regards to his brother’s death, to the point where he casually and totally nonchalantly reads the letter from Chuck while eating his morning cereal, unaffected by his brother’s words, even though they invoke his mother and real things about his relationship, all while Kim, who is clearly going through something (something at the Mesa Verde office triggers her into taking a visit to the courthouse that’s never fully explained) winds up breaking down emotionally, as she continues to carry all of Jimmy’s burdens, emotional or otherwise.

“Something Beautiful” is kind of a table-setting episode, as the first two of this season also were. Listen, you know the drill with Better Call Saul at this point. Gilligan and Gould are moving pieces around and you know it’ll lead to something good. I think we’ve long passed the point where we can trust to know what they’re doing, and to be frank, while this season has been pretty slow so far, it’s still managed to compelling and wonderfully made. The scene where Jimmy’s new guy robs the printer company was incredibly fun, and the opening scene with Gus’ guys staging Arturo’s death and what follows is wonderfully meticulous on the part of the writers and beautifully shot on the part of the director. Even though not much is happening so far, even though the show is explicitly telling us that they’re setting things up for the future through Gus’s arc, even though the show is playing the long game with regards to Jimmy’s grieving and whatever is going on with Kim, I’m more than happy to exist in this world for an hour a week while we wait for things to happen. Even if it makes these recaps a little more dull than they could be.

“Something Beautiful” gets 7.5 Bavarian Boy collectible ceramic dolls out of 10.

‘Eighth Grade’ vs. ‘Lady Bird’ vs. ‘The Florida Project: A Coming-Of-Age Film State of the Union

As good as the top movies of 2018 have been, so far, it’s also been a year that’s felt particularly iterative. All of my favourite movies of the year so far have in some way, even tangentially in some cases, been slight improvements over similar films from the last couple of years. For example, A Quiet Place and Sorry To Bother You are in one way or another, could be considered this year’s Get Out, in the former’s case a low-budget indie darling that rode critical hype to obscene box office success, or in the case of the latter, a subversive, transformative take on the modern black experience. In a more linear fashion, Black Panther is the superhero film that did for black audiences what Wonder Woman did for female audiences,while Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2 iterated on the superhero sequel in more traditional ways, Mission: Impossible – Fallout pushed the boundaries of what should legally be allowed on the set of an action movie, and so on, and so forth. I’m not sure if this is exactly a take down of a year that desperately needs something a little more original, or an indication that things are going well since it’s arguably been a better year for film so far, but it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it continued for me following my experience with Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age dramedy Eighth Grade this past weekend, a film I enjoyed tremendously but had trouble separating from my experience with last year’s coming-of-age stories about young girls, Lady Bird and The Florida Project.

First things first; Burnham’s directorial debut, Eighth Grade is the story of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an introverted young girl in her final week of middle school as she struggles with what she perceives to be her own shortcomings in a world dominated by the persistent connectivity and pressure that comes with social media. It’s a fantastic film that sheds any and every possible kind of pretense for the sake of a realistic portrayal of what life at that age must currently be like. Burnham’s writing and directing seem unconcerned with his own filter, his own interpretation, as the film almost never deviates from telling Kayla’s story as you’d imagine she’d want to tell it. It’s an impressive feat considering that any relatively accurate, realism-bound representations of teenage life in a given time frame don’t usually come until that generation is old enough to make their own movies. Eighth Grade manages to be relatable because no matter how the times change, no matter which social media platform (if any) you had in middle school, the basic tenets of growing up, of struggling with the horrors of school and popularity and the opposite sex and your own insecurities tend to stay mostly the same. Eighth Grade manages to leave its audience empathetic to Kayla’s struggles, no matter how contextually different they may be to our own, or how frivolous or inconsequential they may seem to an adult with a mortgage or dependents of their own, yet it’s also relatable enough to apply to each and every one of our own struggles and haunting nightmares of our developmental years. It’s uber realistic, charming, and relentlessly cringy at every possible turn, a rousing success for Burnham as he begins his directorial career.

It’s a great, original film that I will recommend to everyone and that has a very strong chance of making my top 10 this year, but looking at some early Oscar predictions, it’s unlikely to break through the way it probably should, outside of maybe a Best Original Screenplay nomination. And that got me thinking about those two aforementioned coming-of-age films from 2017, both of which share commonalities with Eighth Grade, especially thematically, but took two very different paths following their release. One, namely The Florida Project, was similarly raw, original and important, and at the end of the line it failed to break through come awards season in any meaningful way. The other broke Rotten Tomatoes records, topped everyone’s best of lists and breezed to five Oscar nominations. And while it wasn’t a bad movie, I felt like I was taking crazy pills watching Lady Bird accomplish all of this despite what I perceived to be some very apparent flaws. And at the risk of angering some of you reading, I’m going to use those flaws (and the ignored strengths of The Florida Project) to show the inherent unfairness of what’s about to happen to Eighth Grade.

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In case you need a refresher course, The Florida Project is the story of a young girl living in poverty with her struggling, rebellious mother that place over a summer in the shadow of Disneyworld. Young Moonee is living life like any six-year-old would, oblivious to the hardships and realities of the world around her before it very abruptly tries and slap her in the face. The movie, from innovative indie filmmaker Sean Baker, is unabashedly raw. From how it’s filmed, to the cast of first-time actors it employs (anchored by a phenomenal Oscar-nominated performance from Willem Dafoe), The Florida Project never stops reminding you that what’s happening in the movie is reflective of actual, real-life, current-day society. More than a coming-of-age film, it’s a take down of vicious circle status quo of capitalism, the all-too-real story of a teen mom that’s already been failed by the system and is only further punished by it simply because she wants to try and make ends meet and do right by her daughter.

Despite all of that, The Florida Project wasn’t able to translate its sheer originality and bleeding raw message into anything more than that aforementioned nomination for Willem Dafoe. The Oscars are tragically broken, so I’m not here to reiterate any of that (although you can see me discuss that at length in my post about the new popular film category from last week), but it’s an easy benchmark to point to when it comes to films that are so obviously deserving of more attention and love, but fair to get it because they aren’t as flashy and accessible as their alternatives. Like The Florida Project, Eighth Grade is similarly low budget, raw, uber-realistic and ultra-relevant, and lacking the flash that usually draws people’s attention.

That’s where Lady Bird comes in. Greta Gerwig’s film is competently made, charming and easily accessible, but it managed to ride the coattails of two phenomenal performances and subtle nostalgia to five Oscar nominations and endless fawning from anyone with a top ten list. Posing as semi-autobiographical and taking place around the turn of the century, Lady Bird tells the story of its titular character, a young woman played by Saoirse Ronan as she struggles with her identity, with boys, and with authority figures (including her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf) in her final year of high school, with dreams of moving out of the suburbs and out to the big, far away city.

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A lot of that log line sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? At the end of the day, you can boil movies like this, and Eighth Grade, and countless others down to a similar sentence. Where they deviate, and I feel as if Eighth Grade veers closer to what The Florida Project does, is in how it uses that pretty generic elevator pitch to send a message through its subtext. The Florida Project has something to say about the way the system puts people in poverty at a disadvantage. It makes you question the very nature of that system. To be fair, I don’t think the level of subtext runs that deep with Eighth Grade, but Burnham definitely has something pertinent to say about how we perceive the younger generation and how their constant connectivity may or may not be something worth discussing (he specifically treats it as a benign constant, actually). In comparison, Lady Bird reflects on a fictional relationship between mother and daughter that’s likely more extreme than anything Gerwig every experienced (by her own admission, as a matter of fact), and while that’s entertaining and familiar and, in a way, heartwarming, and certainly deserves a place in any conversation of last year’s best films (even though it didn’t make mine), it doesn’t really feel as if it has anything important to say through that story, other than possibly a reminder to call your mom once in a while. I just wonder if a message tantamount to what you can get out of a Hallmark card is worthy of the praise it received, particularly, it seems, at the expense of something like The Florida Project. While it and now Eighth Grade attempt to humanize their contemporary, misunderstood subjects in an effort to make them relatable to the audience, and while they do it in genuinely impressive ways with a small budget and unrecognizable casts, Lady Bird merely peddles in the theatrics of its top performances and the familiarity of an era that hasn’t yet been mined for nostalgia.

This all finally made me realize why I didn’t get on the Lady Bird hype train. While it’s a good movie, while its performances are excellent and its message relatable, it feels manufactured in kind of a sneaky way, a transmutation of what used to be the typical form of Oscar bait into something more modish and palpable to audiences that have long-since learned how to recognize when they’re being pandered to. I don’t want to say that Gerwig isn’t passionate about what she made, but there’s a reason why she hired two recognizable, decorated actresses (ones you’ve certainly seen in half a dozen shows and movies despite the fact that they’re not usually in any blockbusters) to be her leads and not rather with unknowns that would leave more room for the material. There’s a reason it’s set in the past, peddling in nostalgia that distracts from the film’s shortcomings with efficacy, a nostalgia for the under-served median age of influential voices (as well as the ever-growing younger class of Academy voters).

This isn’t meant to serve as some sort of grand conspiracy theory, just a reflection of the fact that even indie movies are made with profit and marketability in mind, and that those aspects are keenly obvious in a movie like Lady Bird. Those things are present in one form or another with Eighth Grade and The Florida Project as well (all three were distributed by A24 and both Eighth Grade and Lady Bird were produced by Scott Rudin). In fact, their realistic, raw nature is probably just as designed to sucker in someone like me. The Florida Project employed Guerilla tactics to film a scene at Disneyworld, and that’s an easy, marketable point. Eighth Grade is a contemporary movie about 13-year-olds starring 13-year-olds, and that’s part of the pitch. It even shares some of those tactics with Lady Bird, taking place in a monotonous suburban town with a Burger King in its mall food court that could serve as the setting to each and every one of our stories. It has a quirky father figure either meant to remind us of our dad or, if we’re old enough, the father we either hope to be or dread that we’ve become. It puts its main character through the ringer of awkward teenage situations we’ve all experienced, be it the pity party invite, the too-cool-for-school popular kid they try to befriend, the fleeting crush that, in retrospect, was a dodged bullet, or whatever else. A lot of these things are certainly common between Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, some even with the somewhat different Florida Project. They just feel more authentic in one over the other, the tactics less obvious, more honest to the voice of the auteur, more indicative of where trends in indie filmmaking need to go.

I tend to get a little riled up, and this all probably feels like too harsh of a takedown for a film that I honestly liked. Greta Gerwig is a competent filmmaker and with Lady Bird she manages to to reign in two powerhouse performances that would have otherwise dominated the film beyond recognition. Her subtle use of nostalgia, the way she kept her characters within the parameters of their archetypes and the tactics she employed to make her film stand out yet remain relatable are commendable and worthy of praise and, hey, probably even those Oscar nominations. But the best way I can describe what I mean here, and hopefully without sounding to harsh, is that Lady Bird feels like the offspring of someone who has seen a bunch of John Hughes movies and made that kind of film in her own image, just better than the dozens of other filmmakers doing the same thing. In contrast, Eighth Grade feels like the product of what could very well be the next John Hughes, that is to say, a talented, emergent young filmmaker capable of tuning in to the frequency of the current generation and making movies for them. Of course, Bo Burnham’s directed but one movie and done some standup we’ve all seen on Youtube, so who knows if that comparison is worthy, but Eighth Grade truly is that good and worthy of that kind of praise.

Thing is, circling back, in a year that’s been remarkably iterative so far on the last couple of years of cinema, it’s hard to see something like this breaking out of the pack when it doesn’t have that flash, that gimmick, that thing for people to latch on to. Eighth Grade is special in that it’s a really good movie and its reflective of the way indie films of this nature will hopefully evolve in the coming years, but its unique properties simply don’t stand out the way they need to to make an immediate impact, making it likely to disappear in the shuffle of this year’s awards frenzy. That being said, it’s easily one of my favourite movies of the year so far (9.5 out of 10), and I will do my part to keep it part of the conversation.