Television

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- 

Review: Better Call Saul, Season Three, Episode One – “Mabel”

Many reviewers have noted that this season of Better Call Saul feels like a slow burn–or at the very least, the first two episodes feel as such because that’s all that was released to critics in advance. After the first episode I can agree with my contemporaries, and, although the particularly slow nature of “Mabel” should be acknowledged, Better Call Saul has always taken its sweet time in giving the audience what it wants, and expects.

This is a show that spends the first five minutes of each season with black and white shots of a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, following a balding man named Gene as he performs menial tasks. In the cold open for this episode, Gene (the future Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk) eats a sandwich on the second floor of his mall when a kid runs by, DVDs falling out of his oversized coat that screams “I have stolen electronics.” Gene watches silently and, like always, there’s some very complex acting going on as Gene debates whether or not to protect the kid or to rat him out to the police. Ultimately Gene’s too scared to defy the police and tells them where the kid is, but Saul peeks out from behind the apron just a tad as Gene yells at the kid to get a lawyer. Show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have teased that these flash-forwards of Gene could become more frequent, and I would actually be surprised if we did not see more of black-and-white Omaha this season.

The rest of the episode can be summed up in a few sentences. Chuck plans to do something ominous with the tape of Jimmy confessing to altering the Mesa Verde documents. Jimmy faces trouble from the marine featured in last season’s “Fifi” and Kim’s perfectionist nature is contrasted with Jimmy. Mike tracks down the mystery person who left the “Don’t” note on his car in last season’s finale. Mike’s time in the episode–almost half, which has become the norm for this series–is especially slow, and often features Mike sitting alone and waiting for something to happen, with very little dialogue making the final cut. Jonathan Banks gets plenty of time to be methodical this episode, and I am monumentally impressed with how much he can convey through his body language. Vince Gilligan obviously thinks the same thing and this episode, which he co-wrote and directed, showcases the beauty of the simple acts of Mike’s life.

I was particularly attached to Kim in this episode as well, although she too is given relatively little to do. Burdened with the knowledge that she’s advancing her career because of an illegal act, Kim tries to draw as little attention to herself as possible, even making the preliminary paperwork for her Mesa Verde casework perfect down to the punctuation (should she use a semi-colon? I’m fond of the dash myself.) This season will not be an easy one for Kim as Jimmy comes closer to Saul Goodman. Although Rhea Seehorn has mentioned in recent interviews that it’s possible for her character to have a relationship with Saul Goodman during the timeline of Breaking Bad, I don’t see that happening. Kim can’t handle Jimmy’s antics, and every day she’s reminded of the ultimate burden that he will bring on her career–in “Mabel,” she takes a few of his elderly clients, although she hadn’t planned on it. As we’re accustomed to, Rhea Seehorn is tremendous even in the little amount of screen time she gets. If I had had a blog last season, it would have been non-stop ranting about Seehorn because she is truly remarkable in this role, and I’ve often described her as the best female character on television.

More so than ever Better Call Saul is building to something. It’s common knowledge that we’ll meet a younger Gustavo Fring in the next episode, yet this show does a great job of not letting that fact define the season. “Mabel” is a bit of a filler episode, yet one that avoids “filler” stereotypes by being a very solid hour of television in its own right, and one that successfully has its audience asking for more.

A-.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Seven – “You Get What You Need”

(As I wind down my reviews of Big Little Lies, I realized I have never given a proper spoiler warning at the front end of any of these posts. Here we go, for the first time and the last, SPOILER ALERT.)

The last shot of the last episode of Big Little Lies implies room for a sequel, one which probably will not and should not exist. While Reese Witherspoon is seemingly all for it, director Jean-Marc Vallée is not, likely because he realizes that it would be quite difficult to top the seven essentially perfect episodes that he and the show’s wonderful cast and crew have created. I’ve mentioned before that this show feels like the pinnacle of event television, and I stand by my claim after watching last night’s finale.

“You Get What You Need,” named after the Rolling Stones song and this beautiful cover of it, which played over last night’s credits, manages to push the drama to 11 and appropriately conclude the show’s core mystery: who killed whom and why? The majority of the finale’s third act is set at the fundraising gala that this show has so concerned itself with, and the tension that builds is palpable, at the same time as it is startlingly brutal, particularly when it comes to Celeste and Perry.

Celeste continues her move out during this episode, and things seem to be going to plan. Perry has yet to find out and the apartment is slowly becoming furnished and ready for her and her children to move in to. This changes the night of the gala when, in a fleeting moment, Perry picks up Celeste’s phone to find a message from Celeste’s realtor. Skarsgard’s cold delivery of his lines in this scene is subtle and easily the most bothersome aspect of his character. Later, on the way to the gal, he erupts, telling Celeste he has these demons inside of him and acknowledges that he’s a flawed husband. The audience knows he’s not going to change, yet this scene still serves as a ribbon on top of what has been an incredible seven episodes worth of performances from the Emmy-worthy Alexander Skarsgard. I didn’t go into this show thinking that it needed a villain, yet I’m happy it did because Skarsgard is wonderful.

This outburst from Skarsgard leads to the scenes at the gala, where Madeline continues to struggle with her adulterous nature–again playing on the aspect of voyuerism, Madeline watches Joseph and his wife from afar (and vice versa) during Ed’s performance of Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” Madeline, in her own words, tries to hold on to a false sense of perfection, which makes sense when looking at her character. Witherspoon plays Madeline as someone who has far more to her than meets the eye: underneath the blonde bouncy facade is a tortured woman, one who struggles to not only be the mother she feels she should be, but also a wife who loves her husband deeply, yet can’t show it in a way that feels natural to her. She’s bare in the most realistic way, especially after Jane meets up with her at the often-showed stairs under construction outside the town’s civic center. Madeline reveals to Jane that she was unfaithful to Ed, and she is then joined by Renata, and then Celeste, who has once again escaped from Perry. At the same time, Bonnie picks up on clues that Celeste is in a dangerous situation and follows Perry as he follows Celeste. I truly cannot describe this in a just way: this scene is wonderfully edited and shot, and manages to be remarkably clear, despite the fact that it’s following these five women all at once.

I believe this is the first time, since the premiere episode at least, that the entire cast of women is together at once, but it feels vital that they only appear with one another so often. As Perry walks up and joins them, everything falls into place: like many people had presumed, Perry is Jane’s rapist. The moment of realization on behalf of Jane, Celeste, Madeline, and Perry is so wonderfully done and brilliantly executed that I was beside myself while watching it. The entire series led up to one singular moment, and Valleé, as well as the entire cast, pull it off with flying colors. As Perry struggles with the four women, Bonnie emerges the spoiler and shoves Perry over the edge, killing him. This is the show’s biggest little lie: all five women cover up the fact that Bonnie killed Perry, and, through an ending montage, we see the lives of the women returning to a sort of equilibrium. Still, perhaps not all is well. The aforementioned last shot is through a pair of binoculars, looking down at all five women and their children with the sound of a lighter flicking, Detective Quinlan’s signature move.

Although the finale leaves a possible follow up open I don’t think it’s needed. The open-ended conclusion seems fitting for a show that has so reveled in the lives of these women–nothing will ever be perfect, yet that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to achieve happiness. Even if I don’t think there should be a second season, I understand why Witherspoon and the rest of the cast would: with all the wonderful personalities on set, it had to have been the time of their lives filming. Instead, Big Little Lies can end with a strong sense of satisfaction for the women involved, knowing that they’ve gotten over this bump in their lives, and with gleeful blindness at what may happen next.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Six – “Burning Love”

At the beginning of this episode I fully expected that, by the end, we would finally have an answer to our burning question: who killed whom? I falsely assumed that next week’s final episode would depict the fallout of our series-long mystery and our characters would have to pick up the pieces, yet I mistook Big Little Lies for other television shows. Had this show went the route of the often-comparable How To Get Away With Murder or even The Walking Dead but setting up a cliffhanger for its finale I wouldn’t have been surprised, yet thinking about it now I realize I likely would have been disappointed. Each and every week, even as the show has wavered between a solid A+ and a solid A-, I am amazed at how much this series is taking its time. I’ve mentioned in these reviews as well as amongst friends that Big Little Lies is the perfect excuse for a limited series and that HBO is the perfect network for it to call home. HBO affords this show immense liberty–for example, Witherspoon’s Madeline gives the greatest f-word laced tirade since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in this episode–and this show has truly premiered at the perfect time and place. I predict this show will be endlessly re-watchable once it receives a home video release.

As of yet, things have still not come to a head for out characters, although long awaited plot developments have come to fruition, specifically regarding Madeline and Celeste. For episodes we know that Madeline/Ed and Bonnie/Nathan will have their dinner party, yet it finally happens in this episode with stellar results, excusing the show for dragging out the plot line for so long. The dinner scene is so interesting, I think, because it doesn’t really revolve around Madeline and Nathan like many expected it to–instead, the attention of the adults is drawn to Abigail, who has revealed that her super-secret senior project is to sell her virginity online, the proceeds going to Amnesty International. I can’t put my finger on it, but this shocked me. Although the whole of the show feels incredibly realistic, I at first did not think this seemed real, and it seemed too cartoonish for a show that dwelled in realism. After mulling it over the past couple of days, though, I have come to understand just how real it feels. In this time of armchair activism and faux-charity, Abigail’s disillusionment makes sense: she’s seen her mother exhibit these characteristics as well and, although deeply flawed and über-hip, Abigail thinks she’s making a difference. Of course the only reason for this story-line is to draw Madeline and Abigail close together as Madeline reveals to her daughter that she had an affair the year prior. (I also want to point out that Madeline’s vomiting reaction at the dinner table was by far the funniest and best used vomiting I’ve seen in the past decade, perhaps ever. Props to Witherspoon and Vallée for playing it so well.)

Another key turning point comes for Celeste, who seems to be finally breaking away from Perry. While all eyes point to the theatre as Madeline’s production of Avenue Q debuts, Celeste attacks Perry before the show and breaks his urethra after another attempted marital rape. We’ve come a long way since the production was almost shut down, but the musical still manages to be a key plot point and meeting point for the main characters, who are all there–even Bonnie and Nathan for some reason–except for Perry and Celeste. Perry lurks in the background of every scene he’s in like Jason Vorhees in the Friday the 13th series, and his injury feels more than justified yet terrifies us for what’s next. Just what will Perry do to Celeste in retaliation, especially if he discovers that she’s been quietly apartment hunting at the behest of her therapist?

Jane, meanwhile, manages to continue her self-doubt in a very interesting scene where she is trying to convince herself that her rapist might indeed be a good man and not someone worth shooting. This line of thought exudes Jane’s character who struggles with this all along. Although she doesn’t outwardly believe her son is an abusive bully, part of her still thinks he is due to the circumstances of his conception. Her nurturing wasn’t enough to combat the nature of his father. Even as she tries to make amends with Renata in this episode after poking her in the eye, this self-doubt is still there and the audience questions if Ziggy is a bully, too.

There is some wonderful music in this episode, especially the continued use of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations and the titular Elvis song. There’s only one more week for me to be amazed at this show, and I anticipate next week’s finale to do just that, while still defying expectations that its genre has placed it in.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Five – “Once Bitten”

More so than ever I am amazed at how remarkably well Big Little Lies pulls off the dynamic of the American family, something it has been doing throughout the entire series, but something that it does particularly well this episode. Despite the fact that these families are lofty and obviously very wealthy, they feel incredibly whole and authentic, a large step in the right direction for “slice of life” television. While television shows such as Fargo and (more darkly) Breaking Bad have also touched on family dynamics in recent years, Big Little Lies uses the family as the entire basis on which the show is situated. The family, specifically the relationship that mothers have with members of their family, remains the focal point of the show, and the central star that the solar system of the series revolves around. These women are flawed, dark, complex, and, above all else, whole. The characters are remarkably well written and fleshed out, with most of the praise falling on the shoulders of their tremendous actors, as well as the tremendous editing of the show which I notice more and more each week.

In such a short amount of time this show has given us so much about our main characters, specifically Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, each of whom get ample screen time during the episode. The hour runtime of each episode helps the audience attach themselves to these characters, but the limited nature of the show also attributes to this–in the age of “event television” and the limited series, none more so than Big Little Lies cement themselves so firmly in their truncated series order. Each episode feels the perfect length and, although it would be quite easy to binge these episodes should they have been released all at once, releasing them once a week makes the feel more special, more justified. With only two episodes left, there isn’t much time for our characters to reach a homeostasis and each slowly advance towards the inevitable.

Nicole Kidman steals the show this week as Celeste travels to the therapist by herself unlike in last week’s episode where she and Perry went together. Triggered by yet another horrific incident of violence, which the audience is brilliant made privy to through the glorious editing, Celeste comes very close to revealing the true extent of Perry’s abuse before pulling back at the last second, hiding her bruises both physically and emotionally. Kidman is fabulous with the very tough and heartfelt dialogue written by David Kelly. I can’t even begin to understand Celeste, but I think that’s the point. It’s difficult to understand her motivations, yet they feel solely real, and Kidman solidified herself as an Emmy frontrunner for her performance this week.

Elsewhere, Jane inches closer and closer to violence by driving to meet up with the man that she and Madeline believe might be Ziggy’s father and the man who violently raped Jane. Gun in tow, Jane drives and faces him head on before scrambling out of the office with no clear indication to the audience what happened inside. Although her penchant for violence has been teased previously I still don’t yet think that Jane is ready to commit such an extreme act of violence, mainly for Ziggy’s sake. Perhaps Jane is the aggravator in the violence that this story has been framed around–indeed, one of the talking heads says “Jane Chapman? She’s crazy, too,” this week–yet something must put her into direct danger to literally pull the trigger.

We get our first real glimpse at the PTA fundraiser where murder is committed during this episode, and we get a further, very brief, shot of our lead detective played by Merrin Dungey but I remain surprised we haven’t seen more of after she’s given so much screen time in the pilot episode. Two weeks remain in Big Little Lies, so I expect our two timelines will intersect with bloody abandon very soon.

The Dramatic Comedy of Bob Odenkirk

With his show Better Call Saul about to enter its third season, Bob Odenkirk recently gave an interview to actress Anna Faris for her Unqualified podcast in promotion of both his television show and a new film he released to Netflix, Girlfriend’s Day. While the latter mostly dominated the conversation, Odenkirk touched on the upcoming season of Saul and revealed that he’s not a huge fan of being asked to define himself into one of two broad terms: comedy actor or drama actor.

Beginning his career in Chicago writing and performing improvisational comedy in the city’s thriving comedic sector, Odenkirk began writing for Saturday Night Live in 1987 and continued there until 1991 before leaving to pursue performing in his own right. Later writing for The Ben Stiller Show and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Odenkirk and David Cross created the sketch series Mr. Show which aired for four seasons on HBO in the late 1990s, earning him four Primetime Emmy Award nominations. From there, Odenkirk went on to act and write in television and film before landing the role of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bawhich remains, arguably, his best known work. For his role as Saul/Jimmy in the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul, Odenkirk has received critical acclaim as well as two further Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, adding fuel to the fire for the question that he ever so dislikes.

The thing is, according to Mr. Odenkirk, the answer is never that simple, and the typecasting, sometimes, can be quite difficult–still, Odenkirk doesn’t think it should be. Every year, he noted, a comedic actor receives rave reviews for their performance in a drama (I thought about Steve Carrel’s Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, as well as Sarah Silverman in I Smile Back), but acting is acting. Although comedy and drama both have their distinctions, Odenkirk says that acting comes naturally, and brining different talents to the table is not only a good thing, but a necessary thing for someone to make their way up the acting pantheon. Odenkirk is often hilarious as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodmanyet his performance is also great enough to compete in the dramatic categories among heavyweights like Kevin Spacey and Rami Malek.

Better Call Saul season two arrives on Netflix on March 27, while the third season of the show will premiere April 10 on AMC.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Four – “Push Comes to Shove”

After being pushed to the background in a way in last week’s episode, “Push Comes to Shove,” thankfully, brings Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline back to the forefront, and the entire show is better as a result of it. I could write an entire blog dedicated to my love for Reese Witherspoon and, specifically, my love for this character of Madeline, but this is not the time or place so I’ll keep my adoration brief: Witherspoon is phenomenal in this role. Every week she adds something new, creating a multi-faceted character who, very easily, could be one-note. If she isn’t at least nominated for an Emmy come September, there’ll be another blog post debating why that is–simply, she’s wonderful week-in and week-out.

Other than Madeline’s renewed prominence, the fourth episode of the seven-part series also managed to bring sex/sexuality into the narrative, and I was surprised at how long it took for HBO to do so. Although underlying themes of sex were essential to the series before–Celeste and Perry’s uncomfortable and abusive sessions, for example–“Push Comes to Shove” managed to make sexuality an important plot device for just about every character. Logically this makes a ton of sense as we inch towards our bloody conclusion: sex is power, and murder and pain is also power. The two are tied together in interesting ways during “Push Comes to Shove.”

Jane, after revealing to Madeline in the previous episode that she had been raped, expresses lukewarm interest in dating again, much to Madeline’s surprise and approval. Still though, I don’t believe the audience is supposed to buy this. After three episodes of foreshadowing that something very bad and sex-related happened to Jane, it’s obvious that Jane just wants to move on, which she cannot do, not yet. As Madeline and Celeste attempt to track down the man who raped Jane, Jane deflects, saying that she’d rather just start dating anew and forget about the entire situation. For Jane it isn’t easy either. Because of Ziggy’s continued prodding over his father’s identity–Jane takes him to see a child psychologist in this episode to qualm some of her worries about her son’s mental state–she cannot let go just yet, and indeed we see her looking up the man’s identity as well as the episode draws to a close.

On the other side of the situation, the previously asexual Ed and Madeline explore their sexuality in this episode, just not with each other. The episode opens with Madeline and her ex-husband Nathan meeting for lunch where Nathan proposes a couples dinner between he and Bonnie and Madeline and Ed. Hyper masculinity illustrates itself again in Madeline’s ex husband. Attempting to make sacrifices for his wife but only to make himself look good, he stresses intently that he’s doing everything to be a good husband. Ed, meanwhile, seems to actually enjoy being a husband, putting on an impromptu Elvis impersonation when she comes home: “I’m your nut job.” This meeting of Madeline and Nathan prompts Ed to meet Bonnie at her studio where awkward sexual tension ensues, casting a bit of a shadow on the previous “all-American husband” persona that Ed exuded. Checking out other girls and saying point blank to Bonnie that he only came to gyms because sweat turned him on, the seed of doubt is placed in Madeline and Ed’s marriage, a seed which grows and grows with each passing minute of the episode, culminating in the reveal that Madeline has had an extramarital affair with the director of her play.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Although Madeline and Ed seem very much in love, there isn’t much sexual tension between the two of them and very little actual physical affection. After Ed’s odd tension with Bonnie, Madeline’s make out session with her director, which is prompted by their successful defense of the play against Renata, makes sense. Madeline’s affair is revealed later which, again, almost makes sense in contrast to the characterization and Witherspoon’s performance. Is Madeline hiding something else? Is Ed? There isn’t much time to find out–three weeks left.