My Top Ten Films of 2017

2017 was an odd year. Politics and social turmoil notwithstanding, the film industry—Hollywood in particular—experienced supreme highs and extreme lows, both critically and at the box office. In the United States, the year saw the release of films that were met with praise from both critics and audiences alike (Wonder Woman; Thor: Ragnarok; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Coco; Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), the wide release of films that debuted earlier on international markets (like the criminally undermentioned gem Raw, which would be in my top ten had it not gotten a French release in 2016), as well as a whole mess of stinkers (Jigsaw, the disappointing Suburbicon, Justice League, and Transformers: The Last Knight, to name a few). Still, I felt that 2017 was an improvement, quality wise, from the previous years, and filling out the rest of my top ten list was more difficult—in a good way! Check out my top ten list below, as I reflect on a genuinely fun year at the movies.

  1. Spider-Man: Homecoming

The closer I got to the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming the more nervous I became—the film has six credited screenwriters, a still relatively-unproven director at the helm, that poster is absolutely terrible, and there are enough supporting characters in this one film to fill any franchise. Still, all my fears were eased the second Tom Holland walked on-screen with his intense charisma and charm literally dominating every frame he’s in. More so than just about any film this year, Spider-Man: Homecoming is immensely fun and reminds me why I enjoy going to the movies so much. Holland and the rest of the cast are hilarious and adorably awkward, nailing the high school dynamic perfectly, but Michael Keaton nearly steals the entire show with a complex and restrained performance as Adrian Toomes/Vulture, rivaling Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock as the best on-screen Spider-Man villain. I eagerly await for the 2019 sequel which hopefully retains all the moving parts that makes this film so good.

  1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Frances McDormand is an absolute powerhouse, and she proves it in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. McDormand as Mildred Hayes—a mother who is done putting up with your shit—hits notes of grief, strength, fear, and most importantly humor in a film that demands all of those characteristics and more. Three Billboards deals with some heavy themes, but McDonagh’s script weaves them all together masterfully, never coming across as preachy or otherwise (although that is not the agreed upon opinion about the film’s messages). The real gem about this film, though, is the supporting cast who all hold their own against a career-best McDormand; Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are getting well deserved attention with their dual SAG nominations and Rockwell’s Globes win, but Peter Dinklage and John Hawkes are also phenomenal in every scene they’re in. And what a year for Lucas Hedges and Caleb Landry Jones, both of whom will appear in multiple other films on this list.

  1. Get Out

There wasn’t another film released in 2017 that had the same sort of societal reverberations that Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out had. Grossing 254 million dollars against a mere 4 and a half million dollar budget, Peele’s scary-as-hell horror film (sure, there are funny moments but it isn’t necessarily a comedy as the Golden Globes claim) had perfect timing being released in the doldrums of the February box office and remains important almost a year later. Skewing the white-liberal frame of mind better than any comedy bit since the 2016 election, Get Out is bolstered exponentially by Peele’s outstanding script, and a terrifically wide-eyed star-making performance from English actor Daniel Kaluuya. In a cinematic world dominated by horror sequels and reboots—we had a fourth Insidious movie released this month!!—Get Out reigns supreme, thanks in large part to the political implications involved.

  1. Logan

It’s been quite a while since I first checked out Logan—almost a full calendar year now—but the film has stuck with me, and I’ve revisited it on home media to remind myself of just how great it is. In a world where superhero fatigue is quite real—I mean just how many superhero films does one country need a year??—Logan and the previously mentioned reboot of Spider-Man do their own sort of service without the unnecessary restraints of cinematic universe-building. James Mangold’s Logan does this even better than Homecoming by placing his titular character so far outside of the X-Men timeline, and allowing his film to function on numerous levels: a Western (with a healthy amount of allusions to Shane), a family-or-something-like-it drama, and, perhaps most importantly, a superhero film that redefines what the genre can be and aims a gleeful middle finger at it, too. If these really are the last performances of Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart as Wolverine and Professor X respectively, then they certainly go out with style.

  1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I wanted this film to be my number one film of the year—in fact, I actively hoped for this as soon as I entered my opening Thursday-night screening—but it’ll have to settle for a respectable number six. Don’t let the fanboys and the nay-sayers dissuade you—Star Wars: The Last Jedi is damn good and a ridiculous amount of fun. That Rian Johnson can continue to blaze new trails with a franchise on its eighth installment is remarkable in its own right, but Johnson has also proved himself to be a filmmaker independent of a major studio and capable of putting his own stamp on a property. The Last Jedi is beautiful to look at, instrumentally impactful to the fate of the franchise, and a wonderful tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, and it also gives stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill the chance to really shine. There is indeed hope in the galaxy, and, also, Porgs are the greatest.

  1. Lady Bird

It’s a testament to director and writer Greta Gerwig for making a 17 year-old girl from Northern California in the early 2000s so relatable across all spectrums of life. What struck me so much about Lady Bird was just how effective it was; every decision from Gerwig behind the camera feels so vital to the story, and absolutely nothing in this film gets the short straw. Give additional credit to Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy for their beautiful editing that skillfully draws parallels between Lady Bird and her mother Christine (whose relationship forms the genuine beating heart of this film), as well as the ensemble cast who all hold their own: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe (who are dynamite when they share the screen), Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges. Gerwig created something special with this film, and Lady Bird is truly one of the more affecting and hilarious coming-of-age films since Superbad in 2007.

  1. Detroit

Released in an absurd window at the tail end of the summer movie season, it’s a real shame that Detroit has been routinely ignored by the guilds and the Academy precursors. The story of the Detroit Riots of 1967 is the story of our time, and perhaps some of the reason that Detroit hasn’t been given the attention it deserves is because it’s just so damn relevant to today’s society. Just about everything in this film is perfect—Kathryn Bigelow’s skilled and remarkably personal direction, Mark Boal’s tight and emotionally powerful script, and so many performances. John Boyega, Algee Smith, Jason Mitchell, and especially Will Poulter as the terrifying and racist police officer Philip Krauss should be in consideration for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but none of them will be, which is a shame. Here’s to hoping Detroit will gain some kind of second life on home video.

  1. The Disaster Artist

I’ve always been a big fan of the Apatow brand of comedy and, although The Disaster Artist doesn’t exactly qualify, I have to admit that the presence of Seth Rogen and James Franco in another film together made me excited for this one since it was first announced in 2014. There’s no beating around the bush here: James Franco as The Room writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau is the best performance of the year. Franco attempts so many difficult nuances here—confident yet insecure, cruel yet tender, hilarious yet sad—and nails every one of them. His performance as Tommy carries the entire film (which is wonderful even disregarding the performance at its heart), and Franco should be the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Actor, especially after his victory in the Best Actor – Comedy or Musical category at the Golden Globes. He’s a real triumph here, and I relished every minute of it.

  1. Coco

Despite my affinity for 2016’s Finding Dory, Pixar seems to make the most waves for me when they put their effort behind an original film. Inside Out, Up, and WALL-E remain remarkably crafted pieces of art, perhaps even more so because they stand alone so well. Coco, directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, is no exception to this rule, and is further solidifies that Pixar is a force to be reckoned with when giving it their all. Not only is Coco quite probably the most beautiful animated film—or any film, really—that I’ve ever seen, it’s also full of the rich humor, heart, and positivity that Pixar has made their bread and butter. The talented voice cast, led by 13-year old Anthony Gonzalez voicing Miguel, and Michael Giacchino’s Mexican-influenced score further beautify this already beautiful film.

  1. The Florida Project

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is not only far and away the best film of 2017, it has to be in contention for the best film of the past decade. Featuring star-making turns from Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinatie and the best performance of Willem Dafoe’s career, The Florida Project highlights an underrepresented portion of the American population—those living in extreme poverty—but never attempts to make any sort of judgment about the characters it presents, or the circumstances in which they live. Alexis Zabe’s simple yet stunning cinematography, coupled with Baker’s subtly fly-on-the-wall direction, create such an utterly realistic setting that it could only make sense for it to be true—and it is. Filmed and set in the Mickey Mouse-shaped shadow of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the film benefits exponentially from its documentary like filmmaking, and, although it sounds cliché, audiences often have to remind themselves they’re watching a movie and not a stylishly edited piece of someone’s life. Baker is known to yield strong performances from his first time actors, like Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in 2015’s Tangerine, but the strength of Prince and Vinatie cannot be understated, they are just that good. Both command the screen with every frame they appear in, and mesh into their characters of Moonee and Halley respectively with ease, grace, and immense skill. The Florida Project demands to be rewatched for many reasons, least of which is the final scene of Moonee and her friend Jancey as they sprint through towards Cinderella’s Castle filmed in gloriously distinctive iPhone quality. Dafoe should win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but hopefully this is not merely a consolation prize—The Florida Project deserves all the attention it gets, and more.

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On November 15, at 3:02 PM

I am a bit obsessed with true crime, specifically serial murder. This isn’t a bad thing I don’t think, although it isn’t necessarily something that you want to shout from the rooftops, especially not in mixed company. Succinctly, serial murder is something you have to ease into a conversation, and I’ve done that pretty well until very recently. It’s starting to seep into my everyday life. Uh oh?

For example, I’m finding it hard to not shout out instances of true crime when someone mentions the name of a town: Gainesville, Florida? You ever heard of Danny Rollins? Gainesville Ripper? Killed five college students in three days? It’s not hard for me to restrain myself from dropping knowledge on people, but I shouldn’t prevent myself from happiness, right? Although I can’t talk to everyone I meet about true crime–get with the program people!!–I can have the outlet of writing thankfully and, if I really have the hankering to get some murderously creative juices flowing, I can turn to the word processor on my computer and get going.

My affinity with true crime likely stems from my preferred types of literature and film/television. As a kid, I was never shielded from movies like Scream and The Silence of the Lambs, and my early literature also dealt fairly heavily with death and murder. It’s only natural that I began to read actually cases of true crime–like Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me and a novel about the murders of the Camm family right across the water from Louisville–and these horrifying scenarios have influenced my writing recently, too. I suppose my most recent story “Dances with Chainsaws” is my earnest attempt at a true crime story; it’s based on something that actually happened and focuses on both the victim and the perpetrator. Still it’s heavily fictionalized, of course. I have yet to dabble in creative non-fiction, yet this story, and another that I’m currently drafting, are half-hearted attempts to write a true crime story. Eventually I’ll get there, and I will happily use true crime as a stepping stone to non-fiction.

I’m thinking about creative non-fiction a lot lately because I’m trying to broaden my horizons and tackle a new genre of writing to diversify myself a bit. This is easier said than done, but there are certainly wonderful non-fiction items to model myself after: the aforementioned Ann Rule, the non-fiction book Mindhunter that the Netflix television show of the same name is based on, Raymond Carver’s essays in Fires, and podcasts like Serial and S-Town that make non-fiction way more fun than I originally thought it was. If anyone has further recommendations, I’d love to hear them!

On October 17, at 7:00 PM

After finishing Herman Koch’s The Dinner and having a class discussion about the novel, I wondered why likability is such a prominent word (and goal) in our society. From characters in our literature and film, to our politicians–I just finished Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, so likable politicians are on the brain–Americans have an affinity for likable people, although that term, in my eyes, means everything and nothing.

Simply put, likability is overrated; I say this as a person who makes a genuine attempt to be “likable” on a daily basis, but also as one who knows that there is no one thing that is considered “likable” to the grand spectrum of people. The most likable and unproblematic person I can think of, Tom Hanks, is probably not liked by at least one sorry person in this world. In literature and film this is still a divisive topic, and I was surprised by how passionate my classmates were about likability in The Dinner. Many of them, and other reviewers of the novel, were turned off by Paul and his supreme un-likability, and I do get that. Paul is a problematic and difficult character, as written by Koch, and his actions in the novel are hard to wrap your head around, and impossible to support. Still, I found his narrative voice to be utterly compelling, and, although of course he’s unlikable, I was drawn to Paul nonetheless.

In a more general way, what defines likability as a character? A persistent and overwhelming niceness? A constant need to be and do good? A morally right person? I’m not sure if a concrete definition exists, but I’ve personally always been attracted to unlikable characters—the George’s, the Saul Goodman’s, and the Llewyn Davis’ of the world. In John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, George doesn’t come off as very likable; he’s mean and dismissive to his friend Lennie, and, although he’s been tasked with Lennie’s care, he seems to put himself first more often than not. The lawyer Saul Goodman, in the television series Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul, is downright smarmy and uses the wrong side of the law to advance his own legal activities. The title character of Inside Llewyn Davis is rude, lazy, cold-hearted, and arguably untalented as the folk musician that he perceives himself to be. I mention these characters, and their specific attributes, to give a wide spectrum of things that can make a character unlikable. But, as the vivacious reader and filmgoer I am, I would also call these attributes fun. I’ve read Of Mice and Men a dozen times, and each time I do I find something else about George to enjoy. I’ve re-watched the aforementioned TV shows and film plenty of times as well, and each time I’m amazed at just how compelling and relatable the two characters are. When pressed to think of a likable character, I turn to Scott from To Kill a Mockingbird. Would anyone press me on that? Probably. There is a spectrum of likability, and it makes great conversation to see where characters fall for particular readers or viewers.

When I wasn’t musing about likability, I had a few pop culture items to keep myself busy: the four original Friday the 13th films, two Netflix Originals (Mindhunter and American Vandal), 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap MusicLed Zeppelin III, Chance the Rapper’s 2016 masterpiece Coloring Book, and (shameless plug) my own podcast I created with my colleague TBA with Brent and Nicole (now available on iTunes!).

On September 25, at 9:58 AM

In my mind, film and literature walk hand-in-hand–after all, this blog began as one for my Senior Capstone film class while at Western Kentucky University, and I spent most of my time reviewing episodes of Big Little Lies and Better Call Saul. Throughout my undergraduate experience as a film major, I often turned to studies of literature and adaptation, as well as film criticism, to enter into the academic conversation, so to speak. There were no official “tracks” to guide me during my pursuit of a film degree, yet there were two that I noticed: the “production track,” where students were molded to enter the industry directly, and the “education track,” where students were shuttled into the exciting world of academia. Although I have production experience, I gleefully took the second track. And now here I am in an English Graduate program. No regrets.

The idea of adaptation is one that is fraught with debate, not only among me and my friends, but among culture as a whole; if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “yeah, but the book is always better,” I’d drop out of school and pay people to tell me how good my writing is. The thing is that no, the book isn’t always better, and oftentimes that comparison is wholly unjust. The book/comic/essay/whatever and the film/television show/whatever it’s based on are two different things, and should be evaluated as such. In my apartment my book shelf and media shelf are standing right next to each other, and I’m looking at how many titles appear in both. The previously mentioned Big Little Lies is a superb novel, but an awe-inspiring television series that is among the best I’ve ever seen. Still, I don’t see the series as any less than the novel, and vice versa. Stephen King’s The Green Mile is very similar to Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the same name, but I find myself appreciating both of them. Books and film make people feel connections to the works, in different ways. I can’t spend my life lessening one work of art in service to another so I won’t do it. If I were in consideration for a directorship in some English-Film department in the future, I’d campaign on a pro-fidelity criticism platform. (More on that later in my graduate school life, I’m sure.)

This is all an extended introduction to what I’m currently working on now. I won’t spoil it for anyone, and I’d like for whoever to read it to enter the reading experience semi-blind, but I’ll say that it’s a kind of a reverse adaptation: taking something from film into a heavily fictionalized piece of short fiction. Maybe it’s a foolproof answer to the question if the source text is better than it’s adaptation? I won’t get ahead of myself.

Pop culture that has made me happy these past few weeks: The Dinner by Herman Koch, for class; The Best American Short Stories of 1999, for pleasure; the audiobook version of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, for peace of mind (politics aside it’s a remarkable tale of a woman dealing with a supreme loss, and it’s helped me get through a confusing time in my life); Insecure, because Issa Rae is a wonderful writer-actor; American Horror Story: Cult, because I’m a sucker for television that I fully acknowledge is not of great meritand the works of Stevie Nicksbecause if I were alive in the 70’s my celebrity crush would have been too much for me to handle.

 

On September 4, at 6:51 PM

I’ve been discussing and thinking about my writing a little more than usual lately, particularly over this long Labor Day holiday weekend. From submitting a recent story to various literary magazines and journals, to celebrating the recent publication of my short story “{Reminiscent of Sugar}” in Western Kentucky University’s undergraduate literary magazine Zephyrus, to exposing my writing to someone new and being excited by their feedback (which, as of right now, I have not yet received), it has been a productive weekend for the writing of Brent Coughenour.

The extent to which I’ve talked about writing is a new one for me. Until very recently I was quite hesitant to discuss my writing with anyone else, let alone allow them to read it–what a terrifying thought!–but now it’s something I welcome and revel in. Why has this change occurred? I haven’t necessarily grown any more confident in my writing, but now I’m comfortable with sharing it with others, and in the case of one particular person, anxious to hear what she has to say about it. I’ve grown as a person, sure, and I’ve realized that if I ever want to publish my writing anywhere else I have to let my guard down just a little bit, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy hearing feedback. Still that’s just what has happened, and I think it’s likely because of the workshop model that I’ve come to know and love in both my undergraduate education, as well as my graduate level learning.

Simply, I have no choice but to participate in workshop. I could always hide under the desk every time a piece of mine was up to bat, I guess, but my early workshop experiences, which started about two years ago, were immense learning experiences and they helped me pull off the proverbial band aid. The workshopping experience has not only made me less afraid, but has also given me an outlet to read a ton of stories (from my classmates as well as professional writers) and to think and discuss these stories in a setting where I felt like my ideas mattered. What a relief that was! Being involved in a writer’s workshop at least once a semester for the past two years has been a completely revealing experience, and one that I have strived for ever since the very start. If workshopping were a drug, I might be addicted to it.

On the literary front I’ve stayed busy, which I’ve come to discover is what I need to do in order to produce material that I enjoy–if my mind is always working with something new, it normally spells good news for my own creative output. Last week I submitted a new story “lagartija” for future workshop and have begun brainstorming ideas for its follow-up. I’m reading Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier for class, which has taken up a fair bit of my reading time, but I’m also reading Careers for Women by Joanna Scott and listening to the audiobook It by Stephen King in preparation for the newest cinematic adaptation. On television, I’m still working my way through Game of Thrones. Movies that I’ve watched and enjoyed this week include It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer, 1963), Blow (Demme, 2001), Logan Lucky (Soderbergh, 2017), and 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957).

 

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 305: “Chicanery”

In the days since the fifth episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season aired I’ve convinced myself that it’s one of the best episodes of television that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. “Chicanery” is great, almost in spite of how little action actually happens on the screen–most of the action takes place during one scene inside the courtroom of Jimmy’s disbarment hearing–although these characters advance exponentially over the course of 45 minutes. It’s cliche to say that lines are drawn and things will never be the same, yet it rings true for this episode of monumental importance.

The action in the courtroom is what surprised and impressed me that most on both a narrative and cinematic standpoint. Director Daniel Sackheim and his cinematographer Marshall Adams manage to make every shot from that tight courtroom feel claustrophobic and vital, never extraneous and consistently gorgeous. There’s a real struggle with realistically lighting dark rooms due to Chuck’s sensitivity, yet the crew of Better Call Saul does it each week with aplomb. This week it’s not only the courtroom, but  Chuck’s home in a cold open flashback to a dinner with Rebecca, now Chuck’s ex-wife. Not only is the the cold open lit almost entirely by candlelight as Chuck lies to Rebecca about his condition, but it’s also tinged with blue, a unique choice for flashback, but one that the show has used so well.

Each scene in this episode is heart-wrenching, but the cold open with Rebecca might take the prize. The show tries very hard to make Chuck relatable, or at the very least understandable, and it succeeds, yet it still can’t make Chuck likable. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intention of the writers–his actions are insufferable and his motives are often frustrating, but we understand that his tumultuous relationship with his brother and with the Law define who he is. These two come to a head during the episode’s final act, as Jimmy cross-examines his brother.

The entire episode builds to this one set piece. Watching the episode again, days later, “Chicanery” has a narratively cinematic vibe that is unparalleled. Each character gets their own scene before the dramatic tension of the hearing–Jimmy as he employs the familiar Huell Babineaux, Kim as she saves face to Mesa Verde by opening up to them about her legal predicament, and Hamlin telling Chuck, in lesser words, that he cares most about his firm, and not the man whose surname follows his own in the firm’s name. Unlike other episodes this season, the absence of characters from our other storyline (Nacho, Mike, Gus) doesn’t feel jarring, and indeed it feels necessary. Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Bob Odenkirk are remarkable in this episode, and all should submit this episode for consideration for this year’s Emmy nominations.

The tension between Chuck and Jimmy holds this episode together. They little ways they one up each other is both petty and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Jimmy’s actions in this episode have the potential to ruin Chuck’s life; Jimmy embarrasses him publicly in the legal setting that Chuck most admires, and he also embarrasses him in front of the woman he still loves when Jimmy brings in Rebecca to view the proceedings. Jimmy may have tainted Chuck’s life in a way that he cannot recover from, yet Chuck has been striving to do the same thing throughout the series. It’s Chuck’s own folly that he’s not as quick as his brother is.

A+. Television critics and scholars will be talking about this episode long after Better Call Saul has ended. 

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 304: “Sabrosito”

In the few days since this episode has aired (it’s taken me a bit longer than usual to digest this one), I have called it one of the most satisfying episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Three days after its initial airing, I’m sticking to my initial praise: “Sabrosito” is the best episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season, so far, and manages to piece together the show’s interweaving storylines in a way that I knew was capable, but was itching to see since the first second of the season’s first episode “Mabel.”

As per usual, Mike Ehrmantraut is the glue that holds these two superficially different shows together. The first half of this week’s episode focused solely on Mike’s new friendemy Gustavo Fring and his dealings with Hector Salamanca, as well as Don Eladio (Steven Bauer, yet another Breaking Bad reprisal). We see the initial jealousy form between Hector and Gustavo here, a brilliantly intelligent touch that I never really thought we’d see explored in such detail, as Hector realizes that Gus is quickly becoming Don Eladio’s favorite drug smuggler, even though Hector has named his ice cream business after Eladio–“The Winking Greek. ”

Something that I’m frequently amazed with while watching this show is how well it makes you care for characters whose fates you are already aware of. The teaser of “Sabrosito,” which is entirely in Spanish, features no characters whose fates we are unsure of–Hector, Eladio, and Gus will all die within the decade. Still, I care for these characters, especially Mike, who doesn’t appear until a bit later. I’m captivated by their actions, thanks in large part due to the consistently wonderful ways they’re written–this episode was written by Jonathan Glazer.

After leaving Don Eladio’s home, a location I never though I’d see again, we’re transported back into Los Pollos Hermanos, where Nacho appears for the first time this season. I’ve missed him dearly and, although he doesn’t do much, his presence is always appreciated as Michael Mando just has a way about standing there and looking menacing. The scene in Los Pollos where Hector intimidates the customers and employees is so well done and so captivating on numerous levels that I had to remind myself I was watching Better Call Saul and not an episode of Breaking Bad. Show co-creator Vince Gilligan is on record as saying that “Sabrosito” is like the 64th episode of Breaking Bad, and I can see why.

Part of this feeling is because Jimmy and Kim do not appear until more than halfway through the episode, an incredibly brave choice that I’ve noted in Better Call Saul before. Even when Jimmy does appear though, the presence of Mike continues to remind audiences that much more is at work in this universe than Jimmy’s conflict with his brother. Mike posing as a handyman and fixing Chuck’s broken down door, all the while playing spy for Kim and Jimmy is hilarious and comically jarring as he and Chuck had never appeared in a scene together before. There is more going on in this storyline than meets the eye, as evidenced by a fair amount of suspicious conversation about the price of a cassette tape, yet the writers and directors of Better Call Saul will reveal this information slowly, milking every second of their limited ten episode per season run.

Although it is a near perfect episode of television, “Sabrosito” still feels like two separate television shows in many ways. There’s not quite the same kind of concrete uniformity as in Breaking Bad (everything revolved around Walter in that show), yet that can be attributed to the fact that there are two main characters in Better Call Saul: Jimmy and Mike. For now I’ll enjoy getting two TV shows for the price of one, but I anxiously await the moment when Jimmy is drawn into the Gustavo Fring cycle of scum and villainy.

A.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 303: “Sunk Costs”

I’m of the opinion that there will never be any kind of equilibrium for any of these characters, at least not for the duration of Better Call Saul. Even Saul Goodman won’t get much equilibrium in his future, as Walter White will certainly come along, yet in this timeline, too, it feels impossible. There will always be a case, always something to work out, and always something to prevent Jimmy, our flawed hero, from succeeding in his life.

Still, the ending of “Sunk Costs” almost feels like it could be happy one. Kim and Jimmy share a cigarette, hatch a plan, and hold hands to form an “M” with their arms, an undeniably sweet moment in an episode that hadn’t been full of them for Jimmy. He’s already been arrested, booked, and released on bail, so this moment with Kim feels all the more important to him. He’s realized that Chuck is likely aiming to disbar him, yet he and Kim have a line of defense. Only time will tell if it succeeds–smart money is that no, it will not–yet there’s a semblance of happiness among the partners at law, and maybe that’s what they need as troubled waters sit in their way. Speaking of Kim, there’s a brilliant Bond-esque montage of Kim getting herself ready in the morning, as she’s sleeping in the office and getting ready for her day in the gym across the street. She walks out of gym, clean and refreshed, along with the people covered in sweat from working out. I half-expected the building to blow up behind her as she left.

Mike, on the other hand, seems to be willing to wade in the troubled waters. Towards the beginning of the episode, Gus, who has still not been officially given his name, offers Mike the chance to get out, and to leave the Salamancas behind. Gus doesn’t want Hector Salamanca dead, not yet at least, but he doesn’t want Mike messing around with him either. Giancarlo Esposito, who has been promoted to the main cast starting with this episode, is still so terrifying as Gus, especially when he’s dressed in all black and framed against the desert. Again, the show is phenomenal at de-escalating and not giving us what we want. It would be all too easy for Gus and Mike to willingly team up together yet that isn’t the case, although Mike certainly pulls off an elaborate stab at the Salamanca ice cream truck/drug dealing operation. It’ll take a while for Gus and Mike to fully embrace each other’s unique talents, just like everything else on this show.

Chuck continues to become one of the more despicable villains in the Gilligan-verse, which is saying a lot when people like Gus Fring and Walter White are walking around. I think the reason that Chuck’s villainy feels so cold is because he still thinks he’s doing something good for Jimmy. Keeping Jimmy in the mailroom is exactly the same thing as pressing charges against him, with he methodically does this episode, and Chuck justifies his own actions by saying that he’s helping his brother out. I anticipated Jimmy to call Chuck a “pig fucker” in this episode, yet his ice-cold assessment of Chuck’s future health issues is even worse.

I briefly noted last week that certain characters have yet to make any kind of impact on the show so far this season, specifically Michael Mando’s Nacho (and Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin was also absent this week). There is a delicate balance that shows with large casts of characters have to juggle week-in and week-out to effectively showcase all of its working pieces, and I do think Better Call Saul does that well, yet this week it felt a little off. An “off” episode of Better Call Saul is better than just about anything on television though, and the show barrels on to the ever-promising future.

B.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 302 – “Witness”

I often find myself asking what I want from this series. I have not been shy in saying that I think the first two seasons of Better Call Saul were superior in almost every way to Breaking Bad and I have loved watching characters like Kim and Nacho go toe to toe with BB stalwarts Saul and Mike, yet I still love the thrill as BCS gets closer to its predecessor. Last night’s episode, “Witness,” directed by Vince Gilligan and written by Thomas Schanuz, was no exception to my perilous situation and I say without irony that I had a big, dopey smile on my face the entire time. Better Call Saul got as close as possible to Breaking Bad last night, yet I don’t think it will stay that way as the season progresses. It sure as hell was a fun ride, though.

As everyone with a pulse knew would happen, Giancarlo Esposito and his character Gustavo Fring made their triumphant return to the world of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the extended scene of his return is one of the best the show has ever done. Eager to explore his criminal side, Jimmy agrees to help Mike spy on a man whom he has tracked to Los Pollos Hermanos, a familiar sight. Jimmy, whose willingness to break bad makes him very much like Saul Goodman but whose inability to stay innocuous makes him very much like Jimmy McGill, almost stumbles into the chicken restaurant following the man that Mike has tracked. Ordering food and a coffee, Jimmy sits down yet keeps his eyes on his man the entire time, a rookie mistake in the world of tailing and an obvious one under the watchful eye of Gus Fring. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how often I laughed at Jimmy try to stay under-the-radar and how funny I found this entire scene to be. Why would Jimmy think it’s a good idea to move closer to someone and then stare at them the entire time if he’s trying to not be obvious? Bob Odenkirk’s performance here is perfectly awkward and one almost forgets that Gus Fring is about to pop out and confront him. It’s great to see Esposito in this character once more, yet my eyes were on Jimmy and his almost-transformation. He doesn’t know just how far this path will take him, but his youthful innocent exudes and he’s more than willing to let the criminal side of his character break through the legal facade he tries to show the world. Jimmy even wants to tail the target, and barely takes no for an answer when Mike tells him he doesn’t need his help. “I’ve got your back,” this eager Jimmy/Saul hybrid says to Mike. Jimmy is no Saul, not yet, and this is an early lesson in stealth and criminality that bites Mike quite immediately and will no doubt implicate Jimmy in the long run.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has more important things to worry about than the mustard-colored suit that confronted him in Los Pollos Hermanos. Chuck has played the long con (which only needed eight days to come to fruition) by banking on Ernesto running to Jimmy and Kim to tell them about Chuck’s tape recording. Kim willfully becomes Jimmy’s legal representation, despite the fact that she knows he’s guilty, yet he isn’t interested in legal action. He drives to Chucks, breaks in and destroys the tape, all in front of Howard Hamlin and a bodyguard hired by HHM. This admission of guilt will get Jimmy in trouble, as well as his break-in of his brother’s home, and the wall protecting Jimmy from the world is starting to crumble.

The episode opens and closes with scenes in Chuck’s home, although his villainy shines through the episode. It feels strange calling Chuck a villain, and his evolution into an antagonist of the show is one of the more careful evolutions that Gilligan & Co. have done. I frequently hate Chuck for being a foil to Jimmy, yet I feel bad for him as well. He’s obviously sick, his wife left him (as Jimmy calls out to him in this episode), and his morals are seemingly in the best place. Michael McKean plays him so well, and he’s a sympathetic character, but he’s also a sonofabitch, and his faux-goodness is the worst thing about him.

“Witness” is careful in moving the plot forward, and more or less is an extension of last week’s “Mabel” in its set up of the entire season. In many ways this episode is thrilling and does a perfect job at increasing tension, yet it also continues the ignoring on Michael Mando’s Nacho character. It makes sense that, through his involvement with the Salamanca’s, Nacho would also be involved with Fring, yet I don’t see how he’ll play into this season just yet. Mando’s placement in the main cast has always felt off–he only appeared in four episodes of the ten episode first season–yet he’s a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him. Will that be next week? Will this show become all about Gus from this point on? How will Jimmy worm his way out of the punishment of the law? I can’t wait to find out.

A-