Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man, 1987)

I love video games. For nearly all of my life, I’ve loved video games. Some of my earliest memories — and a huge portion of my fond earliest memories — involve video games.

I remember playing a skiing game on Atari with some friends at one of my birthday parties. We’d hand the joystick around and love every second of a game that was probably embarrassingly simple and still too hard for us to play properly.

I remember playing another Atari game with my uncle. I forget what it was called, but you each controlled a cowboy on a different side of the screen and you had to shoot each other while obstacles scrolled by. Only I didn’t want to play it that way. If you shot an obstacle, part of it disappeared, pixel by pixel. I wanted my uncle to help me shoot the stage coach that roamed vertically across the center of the screen until it was completely gone. I remember that being fun.

And I remember later, when we had an NES. My mother would come into the room I shared with my brother to play Super Mario Bros. To this day, it’s the only time I’ve known her to take an interest in video games, and this was a strong interest. Controlling a springy little plumber through colorful levels of endless surprises triggered something in her that no other game did. I can’t blame her. Super Mario Bros. did that for a lot of people.

I’ve been playing off and on ever since. I stopped for a few years in college, almost entirely, because I had two jobs and a full class schedule. There wasn’t much room for me to do anything aside from read for class, study for class, and embarrass myself in front of women. I was very busy.

Otherwise, though, I’ve been playing video games regularly. Games of all genres. All lengths. All skill levels. And to this day, if I’m asked what my favorite game series is, I’ll give the same answer I gave when I was seven or eight, whenever I played it for the first time: Mega Man.

I adore Mega Man. When I posted to this site’s Facebook page that I was considering doing a retrospective on the games, I got a good deal of engagement and encouragement. I don’t think that’s because anyone expected me to be especially critical of the games; people know how much I love Mega Man. How much I love playing the series. How much I love perfecting the series. There’s something in these incredibly simple games about a little boy in blue pajamas fighting evil robots that brings me back in ways that other games — including many games I’d call great — just don’t.

The Zelda series is bigger. The Mario series offers more variety. Just about any other game in existence offers a better story. (Mega Man stories are, without fail, “Go kill those things.”)

But on some level I must not care too much about any of that, because it’s Mega Man that has my heart. It’s Mega Man I play to unwind. It’s Mega Man that reminds me exactly how much fun gaming can — and should — be.

I’m pretty sure I played Mega Man, the first game in the series, first. It’s possible I started with Mega Man 2, especially since Mega Man didn’t set the world on fire the way its far superior sequel did.

Whenever I played it, though, I played the hell out of it.

I never owned Mega Man. I think one of my friends might have, but I know for sure that it was a frequent rental for us at the video store. It won us over for what’s probably its best-known gimmick today: the opportunity to play the stages in any sequence you like.

This was a design decision that I’m sure had nothing to do with video game rentals, but it sure worked out well for us.

Normally we’d rent games for a weekend and gamble on whether or not we’d enjoy them. The box art would call out to us and suggest worlds of adventure within, but rarely was the experience anything like what we felt was promised. We’d play plenty of games and be disappointed. Or — arguably worse — we’d play games that weren’t disappointing, but struggle to get past the first two or three stages.

I say that may have been worse because when it came to games we didn’t like, we didn’t really care how much we did or didn’t get to see. With games we enjoyed, though, the difficulty could be a real turnoff. We’d have a few hours over the course of a couple of days to get as far as we could. If we couldn’t get far — and if the game didn’t have a password system — that was it. And we’d likely never rent it again, because the one memory that lingered most firmly was that of some roadblock we couldn’t make it past.

Mega Man felt like a miraculous gift in that regard. Yes, it was punishing. No, we never made much progress. But the fact that we could actually see all of the levels…the fact that we could experience all of the levels…the fact that the game — the entire game! — was right there, letting us play it…well, we fell in love. My friends and I rented Mega Man over and over again. And we were never disappointed.

Other games felt like getting to explore a huge sandbox a few feet at a time. Fail to overcome some challenge or puzzle and that was it; you were stuck scratching around the same corner. Mega Man pulled out all of the boundaries and said, “Here. Have fun.”

We did.

Mega Man felt different from most other games. It stood out. On a less tangible level, I think it was just the feel of the game. The way it evoked — though none of us would have been able to articulate this at our young age — a comic book or a Saturday morning cartoon. It was all thick lines and bright colors…enemies with big, goofy googly eyes…varied environments suggesting the kinds of weekly adventures heroes would undertake in other media. We were drawn to it the same way we were drawn to certain TV shows or films…only this time we were playing it. It was a way to immerse ourselves in worlds we previously could only enjoy from afar, from the safety of our couches or bedroom floors. In Mega Man there was no such distance, and we were not safe. We died. A lot.

Here’s another one of my favorite early video game memories: a friend on my block said he could beat Mega Man. Nobody believed him. Why would we? It was a preposterous claim. Nobody could beat Mega Man.

We assembled at his house that afternoon. He picked up the controller, and we all crowded around him to watch.

He took unnecessary damage, I’m sure. He died plenty. He handled dangerous situations in idiotic ways. He probably cursed a bit. Hours passed. Maybe five or six hours. But we were riveted, because he kept making progress. And eventually…he really did beat Mega Man. Probably after a dozen continues and fifty or more deaths, sure, but he beat Mega Man.

We couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.

Today, of course, I can visit Youtube and call up hundreds of videos of people beating Mega Man. Without dying, without taking damage, without using special weapons. Speedrunning. Exploiting clever glitches. Playing Mega Man — a game I know better than I know most things in life — in ways I never would have imagined possible. I can watch World Record runs. I can watch players so graceful that their movements are like beautiful choreography. I can watch players so good at the game that they can narrate interesting facts and details as they play, never missing a beat.

But, somehow, it was still more impressive to me to watch my friend beat it in his bedroom that day.

There’s no comparison in terms of skill. My friend sucked. But he sucked less and less each time until, finally, he was able to eke out a victory. Our hearts were in our throats during that final fight against Dr. Wily. In fact, I’m sure it was the first time many of us had seen Dr. Wily. Or his stages, for that matter.

But he beat it. And we screamed and cheered. And I miss that.

I miss that communal joy that came from overpowering some challenging video game. I miss that feeling of discovery when we sussed out a difficult puzzle. I miss that feeling of elation when we found a false wall or a hidden powerup or some other secret, tucked away from the visible world. I miss that a lot. While the internet has made games so much easier to find and play and distribute, it’s made it harder to believe they matter. Back then, every victory was earned through sore thumbs and thrown controllers and profanity and teamwork. Today, I can look up a walkthrough. I can force my way through difficult areas with save states. And if I get lazy, I can just look up the ending and watch it on the video streaming site of my choice.

I almost never do those things, though. Because that’s not gaming to me. Gaming, to me, is what happened in my friend’s bedroom somewhere around thirty years ago, when a group of kids were glued to the screen, shouting advice, hoping against hope that the kid with the controller in his hand was actually going to do what he said he could do.

Am I romanticizing it a bit? Maybe. And while I’m going to romanticize Mega Man as well, I’ll admit that it’s not without its flaws. But there is a real, honest, genuine love I feel for the game, and to understand that love, I think we need to look at its place in history.

Mega Man was released in 1987. Again, I have no way of knowing when I first played it, but the game was released in only the third year of the NES’s life. Prior to Mega Man, nearly all of the games on the system were simple sports titles, uninspired platformers, or single-screen score attacks that hadn’t much evolved from the much more primitive consoles that came before.

Mega Man stood out, and it stood out sharply. Looking back at a list of NES releases, only a handful of games prior to Mega Man would I consider “must owns.” Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll toss Balloon Fight in there.

But that was it. The rest of the games were fairly forgettable. They might be fun to play — and let’s never discount the value of fun — but they didn’t…matter.

Mega Man mattered. It brought its own ideas to the table, and it set a precedent for quality that later games either did or didn’t live up to. And if they didn’t…well, we’d just rent Mega Man again.

That list of games above, I think, is important, because it doesn’t just represent the early greats on the NES; it’s a list of games that expanded upon, pushed the boundaries of, and defined entire genres.

Super Mario Bros., for example, became the immediate template for platformers. It defined the feel and the flow of the action. It cemented specific expectations of difficulty…how to be incredibly challenging without ever being “unfair.” It struck gold with its catchy, evocative music that singlehandedly rid the world of blips and beeps as viable soundtrack options.

I won’t go through each of the games — this is about Mega Man, after all, and I’m sure you know what each of them did to redefine gaming as we now know it — but Mega Man deserves a place on that list for its own irresistible ideas. We’ve already discussed the fact that you can complete the main stages in any order, but there’s also the series-defining choice of having Mega Man inherit the weapons of defeated bosses.

This was both a great bonus in itself, and an answer to one of the challenges of designing the game in the first place. After all, if you’re going to let your players complete stages in the sequence of their choosing, how do you define progression?

That’s how you define progression.

You reward them with a new toy. A toy that allows them to conquer future challenges in unexpected ways. A toy that changes the way they’re playing.

The weapons system in Mega Man did a great job of making the NES itself feel massive and versatile. Sure, the controller only had a couple of buttons (A and B, which we all referred to as Jump and Shoot), but Mega Man let those buttons control seven weapons and a utility. That’s eight things to play with when most games gave you one or two. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid both found ways to cram relatively large arsenals into the same constraints, but it was Mega Man that did it best and the most impressively.

…in theory.

In practice, let’s be honest: a good deal of these weapons are terrible.

The Rolling Cutter is a lot of fun — serving essentially as a very powerful boomerang — and the Thunder Beam has a wide range, enormous power, and low energy consumption. So far, so good.

Then you get the Ice Slasher, which only actually harms one enemy in the game: Fire Man, who is more easily defeated with your default Mega Buster anyway. It freezes enemies in place, which is nice, but is really only useful against the powerful Big Eyes…and even then you just freeze them in the air and run underneath them. Hardly thrilling stuff.

I have a soft spot for the Fire Storm, which surrounds Mega Man with a very temporary shield as it shoots a single projectile forward, but I’d be lying if I said it was anything impressive or even, in most cases, worth using.

At the bottom of the heap, though, are the two truly lousy weapons. The Hyper Bomb is initially pretty cool (I admit that I still love seeing Mega Man pull out a big, black cartoon explosive), but its frustrating delay makes it almost pointless; just about any enemy you could hit with it will move out of the way long before it explodes. This is a shame, because it should be a great weapon for those enemies who are too short for Mega Man to hit with his Buster.

And, of course, there’s the Super Arm…which one of my friends refers to as “Guts Man’s worthless thing.” I can’t really correct him. It’s entirely dependent on finding ammunition on the screen (big blocks that Mega Man can lift and hurl), and removing certain barricades — its one actual use — is faster and more easily achieved by using the far superior Thunder Beam anyway. You had one job, Super Arm…

Of course, Mega Man was just finding its footing. It wasn’t going to have a wealth of great weapons right off the bat; it was forging new ground. Having any special weapons was a bonus to players at that time. It’s really only with the benefit of hindsight (hindsight introduced by this game’s very first sequel) that the flaws in Mega Man stand out to any significant degree.

Playing it now…yeah. It’s a bit rough around the edges. In fact, I’m sure that it turns people off when they try it for the first time. Mega Man was a standout title in its day, but now…well, it still has its charm and its obviously huge ambitions, but it probably doesn’t offer much else.

For starters, the game struggles and chugs constantly, as though its code is just barely holding itself together when there are more than a few moving sprites on screen. (This is probably true.) Mega Man himself controls in a strangely slippery manner, taking a few frames to stop moving after you lift your thumb off the D-pad. In a game that often demands precision, this is inexcusable, and most times that I play Mega Man now I go in knowing that I’ll take a lot of damage from obstacles that it’s more or less a crapshoot to avoid.

Then there’s the stage design, which is…a bit uninspired. In 1987 the NES was already home to a host of forgettable, bland platformers, and Mega Man, at times, is no better or more carefully designed than those were. It often suffers from the belief that throwing some enemies and spikes together makes a stage. Technically it probably does, but rarely does it feel like the product of anyone with a clear idea of what they want to do.

As such, I’m surprised each time I play Mega Man, simply because so much of the game is not memorable.

I’ll go to bat for certain stages, which actually do seem like they were designed with some kind of logical progression in mind. The best example of this is probably Cut Man’s, which begins with some simple jumps and ladders to let players learn the basics of the controls, adds in some simple enemies that can be defeated with a single shot, and then gradually introduces more complex ideas. We move on to the enemies that shield themselves at regular intervals, for example. We toss in some others that can only be shot while they’re hopping, because they’re too close to the ground to be hit otherwise. We start combining enemies with (relatively) tricky jumps. We introduce a flying enemy that shoots in multiple directions, and force a player to navigate ladders while dealing with it. Then we meet Big Eye, the game’s designated and recurring bruiser, and finally the boss himself, who is designed to challenge our ability to jump, shoot, avoid projectiles, and navigate obstacles at the same time. It’s the final exam at the end of a fairly well constructed course, and I appreciate that.

Bomb Man’s stage follows a similar sort of progression, and I’ll go to bat for that one, as well. Elec Man’s doesn’t — at least not to the same, impressive degree — and its favorite trick is to throw difficult-to-avoid enemies at you almost as soon as you enter a screen. (Not to mention those tiny crawling enemies that patrol platforms and are far more challenging than they ever are fun.)

But Elec Man’s stage actually has the best sense of implied progression, as you climb almost without pause to the very top of his tower, where the man (or Man) himself is holed away, generating power. You begin the stage at the base of the tower where the walls are a murky greenish color; when you reach Elec Man’s boss room, those same tiles are now a vivid and bright yellow. The suggestion, deliberate or not, is that the strength of the lighting changes with your proximity to the guy powering it.

That’s pretty cool.

But then you have stages like Fire Man’s, which is just a series of unfair traps and enemies raining down upon your head. Then there’s Ice Man’s, which is just sort of there and contains the two most frustrating passages in the game: the disappearing blocks and the much-too-long journey over bottomless pits atop glitchy enemies who shoot at you and move in literally random patterns…sometimes making it a genuine impossibility to clear.

Guts Man’s stage fares little better; it’s just a handful of screens long, and it actually seems to give up on itself before it can even decide what it wants to be. The same can be said for Guts Man’s theme tune, which is oddly abbreviated compared to most of the other songs in the game.

On the whole, though, Mega Man deserves major and serious recognition for its music.

The one-two punch of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda defined soundtracks for the rest of video game history. (Composer Koji Kondo wrote the music for both of those games, and as far as I’m concerned he’s one of the most important composers of our time.) Compare the sunny, peppy overworld music of Super Mario Bros. to The Legend of Zelda‘s more adventurous, compelling, driving equivalent. One feels carefree and light…the other weighty and significant. Then compare their underworld tracks; Super Mario Bros. feels damp and stuffy, in line with the muted blue color palette used in those areas, while The Legend of Zelda swirls and disorients, foretelling danger and encouraging wariness.

Video game tracks from that point forward were held to a certain standard; they didn’t just need to be catchy or cute…they needed to be evocative. They needed to not only fit the area, but fit the mood. They became an important and defining part of gaming in general. Not many games prior to Mega Man took that to heart, and it’s a challenge this series has always at least tried to meet.

Even in this first game’s comparatively weak and simple soundtrack, it’s easy to see how deliberate it is. Fire Man’s track feels like the spicy, faux-Latin tune you should hear in a metal corridor with lava underfoot and fire falling from above. Ice Man’s track is halting and chilly. Guts Man’s isn’t great, but it feels mechanical, shuddering, and stubborn, in line with the robot-operated quarry that it underscores. Elec Man’s is probably the best, feeling and sounding like electricity singing its way through a long stretch of transmission line. It’s lovely, and this game’s easy standout track.

Mega Man 2 would set a new standard for soundtracks in general, with its infectious, irresistible compositions that sound like chiptuned dance tracks from an alternate universe, but Mega Man laid the groundwork for that, and it deserves a great deal of creative credit for the achievement.

Once the six main stages are complete, Mega Man moves on to Dr. Wily’s final gauntlet. This is the pattern that the rest of the classic Mega Man series would follow, and it’s somewhat remarkable how perfect a template was set by the first game. Sure, starting with Mega Man 2 we’d increase the number of main stages to eight, and Mega Man 3 would introduce another set of levels between the main game and the final castle, but those are just tweaks. The core concept of treating the main stages as tutorials — as longform playgrounds for Mega Man to earn and practice with new weapons — with Wily’s Castle testing your ultimate mastery was a sound one, and it’s something the series, wisely, kept around for its entirety.

Mega Man does seem to lose a bit of personality in its final stretch…but, to be frank, nearly all of the Mega Man games do. Wily’s Castle is often memorable for its big setpieces (such as the Yellow Devil in this game, the Mecha Dragon in Mega Man 2, and so on) but the stages themselves are designed to be punishing rather than distinct. As such, I tend not to enjoy these stages as much. There’s more personality in just about any Robot Master stage than there is in any Wily stage, and Mega Man set that precedent for the series, too.

So, yes, it’s aged noticeably. It’s far from perfect. If I could wave my magic wand and fix anything I wanted to fix, I’d be fixing the game all month. And my love for this title is admittedly due to straight, unapologetic nostalgia. There’s nothing — literally nothing — this game does that isn’t done significantly better in nearly all of its nine sequels.

But I love it.

I love it more than I love most games that are, strictly speaking, better.

I love what it is. I love its flaws. I love its silliness. I love its weakest tracks and its most frustrating sections and its crappiest weapons.

I love Mega Man. And, yeah, maybe I love it mainly for the groundwork it laid, but I still come back often to this one.

It’s an absolutely perfect game to complete in one sitting. It’s the perfect length. It’s the perfect balance of fun and challenge. It’s the perfect example of a game that stumbles not because it’s confused, but because it’s doing so many new and exciting things for the very first time. It’s a giddy experience, knowing that every stumble here sets up a grand slam for its sequel.

It’s so much of what I love about gaming in general. And, yes, I still play video games, but few of them hit me the way this raggedy, flawed, ramshackle little daredevil hits me.

When a game comes out today, people ask how long it is. I’ve never understood why.

I can beat Mega Man comfortably in around two hours, and I’m not even that great at it. It’s a short game. There’s no getting around that. There are no unlockables. No alternate endings. No DLC side stories.

But I’ve played Mega Man what has to be a hundred times over the years.

What’s better? A long game you’ll play once? Or a game so good you’ll play it over and over again forever?

The entire Mega Man series answers that question for me. I’ll take a perfect, bite-sized experience any day.

Best Robot Master: Bomb Man
Best Stage: Cut Man
Best Weapon: Thunder Beam
Best Theme: Elec Man
Overall Ranking: 1 (Erm…this will make sense later.)

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Klick” (season 2, episode 10)

In many ways, I think the best way to review the final episode of season two is to refer back to my review of the final episode of season one.

Season one was, I felt, largely brilliant. It got off to a bit of a sputtering start, but it didn’t take long to carve out a distinct and rewarding identity of its own. Its supporting cast got their chances to shine, we developed Jimmy McGill as a character distinct from Saul Goodman and therefore one worthy of separate study, and it seemed less and less fair to view the show in the shadow of Breaking Bad.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was often great. And Rhea Seehorn, a relative newcomer, proved herself to be the most valuable member of a cast that included old pros like Bob Odenkirk, Michael McKean, and Ed Begley, Jr. In short, Better Call Saul had promise. That was no surprise. What was surprising was how quickly it fulfilled that promise.

Then came the final episode of the season, “Marco,” which wasn’t exactly the best thing the show could have done. Most disappointing was its ending, in which Jimmy turns down a position at Davis & Main so that he can hop into a phone booth and emerge moments later as Saul Goodman.

It was oddly graceless, and almost insulting to a viewer who would have spend the previous nine episodes and change invested in Jimmy’s story. “Anyway, I’m Saul now, so forget all that.”

The show deserved better. Here’s what I said about that in my review:

Jimmy checks his messages and finds that he has clients — actual people for whom he is doing actual good, and who pay him actual money — waiting for him, and it feels like a nice moment of awakening for the character. [Kim] tells him that he stands a good chance of being hired on at another law firm…and hands us a great setup for where season two can go.

But ah, the Sickle! Jimmy comes home, stands in a parking lot for a little bit, then says “Fuck it, I’ll be a bad guy!” It’s an unconvincing reversal, to say the least, and it again feels so effortful. It’s a forced conclusion that speeds us toward Jimmy’s eventual transition into Saul, which works against the quiet, tragic slowness we’ve known all season. […] With the high highs of the previous episodes still so strongly in mind, I find it hard to believe that that’s where we actually ended things.

[…] A far more intriguing end to season one would have been Jimmy getting hired on at [Davis & Main]. He could spend “Marco” doing largely the same things, coming to largely the same conclusion as he comes outside of that church. He decides that he can do this, and sets out to make a name for himself at a reputable firm.

…at which points he finds it extremely difficult, makes an ass out of himself, and despite his best efforts keeps getting beaten back to the man who will eventually give up and become Saul.

That could have been a great series of episodes. It would have proven to him that he couldn’t handle what he expected to handle. It would have given Chuck’s “chimp with a machine gun” concern some retroactive weight, as Jimmy fails to live up to the sacred practice of law.

I’m not saying that I know the direction of this show better than anyone else does, but I do know that Kim’s arrangement floods my mind with possible storylines, whereas “I’m Saul Goodman, and you’re not! G’night everyone!!” doesn’t.

Forgive the long quote, but its length is deliberate: doesn’t season two seem like it addressed that concern specifically?

Not that I suspect anyone involved with the show read my reviews, much less took my criticisms to heart when working on the next batch of episodes. But I do think that my concerns must have been shared by at least someone on the writing staff. Why else would season two have begun with Jimmy literally undoing the decision he made at the end of season one? It must be because Davis & Main floods the mind with possible storylines, whereas ditching all that for Goodmanism just gives us the same stuff we already saw on Breaking Bad.

Funnily enough, the first episode of season two even shares my metaphor of a light switch:

I’ll watch season two, unquestionably. But Jimmy deciding he’s going to be a crooked shit is too easy. We already know where he ends up, so this isn’t surprising. It should have been something more momentous than flipping a light switch, which is what he might as well have done.

But now I’m just bragging.

My point is, Better Call Saul was excellent, but it had some issues…mainly at the very beginning and at the very end. Season two deliberately set out to correct those issues, even going so far as to have Jimmy immediately reverse the very decision that season one led to. It was course correction for both the character and the show, and as a result season two deposits us in much more interesting territory than season one did.

Season one said, “Here’s that guy you like.”

Season two now says, “Here’s these characters you’re still getting to know. And they’re fucked.”

We can get Mike’s story out of the way easily enough: it ends with a beginning. Instead of assassinating Hector with a sniper rifle, our aging hitman finds his view blocked. Some time passes (in an impressively tense scene, considering we know full well he doesn’t kill Hector) and then there’s the sound of Mike’s car horn. Someone’s wedged a stick against the steering wheel to set it off, and they’ve left a simple note: DON’T.

For starters, that’s pretty similar to the “Go home, Walter” phone call from “Thirty-Eight Snub,” which stops Walt from killing Gus. (Well…stops him for the time being.) That’s nice.

But the larger development here is that…well, it’s Gus, isn’t it? Gus tailed Mike, I guess, for some reason, and stopped him from killing Hector, I guess, for some reason. And he waited a long time to wedge that stick, too; if Mike’s view hadn’t have been blocked by Nacho, Hector could have been shot dead 150 times over. So…whatever. I’m not really sure what happened here, but FRING’S BACK so we know it’ll be worth waiting around to find out.

It’s Jimmy and Chuck, though, who are really in an interesting spot as the season ends. Chuck tricks Jimmy into confessing his felony, and records him doing so.

Okay. So, no, that doesn’t sound like much when you just see it in print like that.

What’s interesting is how Chuck plays it. How villainously he plays it.

He resigns from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. As in, actually resigns. Howard isn’t in on the deception, but Chuck knows that if he quits, Howard will call Jimmy for some insight. And once Jimmy finds out Chuck quit, he’ll rush over to check on him. And once Jimmy shows up, Chuck will act a little extra crazy, to disarm Jimmy and make him feel bad. And once Jimmy feels bad, he’ll come clean…and Chuck will have it all on tape.

And it plays out exactly that way. Of course it does. Chuck’s the one who pieced together every detail of Jimmy’s crime, in sequence. He knows how this stuff works.

His deception is clever, and in line with what we know and suspect about the character. Sure. But what really makes it sting is that Jimmy spends a huge portion of this episode the same way he spent a huge portion of season one, and much of season two: caring for Chuck. Sitting with Chuck. Refusing to leave Chuck. Doing whatever is in Chuck’s best interest to keep him safe and healthy.

This is what Chuck takes advantage of. He knows Jimmy will drop everything the moment Chuck needs him. Chuck abuses his brother’s good side in order to prove his bad side.

That’s the weight of twenty good episodes making that cliffhanger work as well as it does.

And it also gives us some great insight into who Jimmy is. We know he’s flawed. We know he’s unscrupulous. We know he’s easily led astray.

But now we also know that he’d willingly commit a felony just to help the woman he loves.

And he’d confess to that felony just to make his sick brother feel better.

This leaves us with a lot of possible storylines for season three. This is not closure that needs to be reversed. This is one story becoming, in an instant, another story entirely.

There’s fallout to anticipate. There will be consequences. And, eventually, Jimmy will lose both Kim and Chuck as a result.

As a direct result? Probably not; the show hopefully has a few good years left in it.

But as a result of being Jimmy? As a result of being who Jimmy is?


And that’s already a more interesting story than Saul Goodman’s would have been.

Roll on, season three.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Nailed” (season 2, episode 9)

I’ll stand by my comments about the previous episode, but I think it’s only fair to say that “Nailed” absolutely pays off “Fifi” to a degree I never anticipated. This is one of the best episodes the show has done, and the fact that it comes on the heels of one of the weaker chapters goes a long way toward justifying my faith in Better Call Saul.

Sometimes, sure, things seem to go off the rails a bit. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded.

Also reassuring is the way in which Jimmy’s plot and Mike’s plot comment thematically upon each other. Sure, they’re still conflicting protagonists in unrelated stories, but “Nailed” sees each of them going out of their way to interfere with somebody else’s business, turning an easy success for their rival into a failure, and claiming it for themselves.

In each case they’re even caught…except that there’s no evidence. Nothing can be proven. They’re guilty and everyone knows they’re guilty…but without proof, they get away with it.


In each case, there’s a price.

Mike learns that although his robbery of Hector’s driver netted him a quarter of a million dollars, it also resulted in an innocent death. While Mike hogtied the driver and got the loot without injuring anybody, Hector killed the “good Samaritan” who found the driver and freed him. No hard feelings…just couldn’t leave any witnesses. And, suddenly, Mike’s heist isn’t as clean as it should have been. He didn’t anticipate that consequence. A man doesn’t get to go home tonight…because of him.

And Jimmy…well…what does Jimmy learn? Almost nothing, aside from the fact that Chuck is a more tenacious adversary than he would have guessed. But he still pays a price…as he sees his brother become overwhelmed in the all-night copyshop and collapse…scoring himself what looks like a pretty awful headwound on the way down. He didn’t anticipate that consequence. His brother doesn’t get to go home tonight…because of him.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, maybe, but so much of “Nailed” comes down to its ending. (Or endings.) Like the great Breaking Bad episode “Dead Freight,” it’s not what happens during the story that matters. It’s what happens at the end, and how that recontextualizes what we’ve seen, and makes us question the value and wisdom of the choices that led the characters to that terminal tragedy.

In fact, I was actually reflecting a few days ago on how non-violent Better Call Saul is. For all of its resurrections of gangland characters we remember from Breaking Bad, we don’t get the weekly surges of violence. Of harrowing threats. Of the unexpected deaths of those we probably, at some point, assumed would be safe.

Better Call Saul has its moments of physical danger (“Mijo”) and outright battery (“Gloves Off”), but its tension comes primarily from something else. It comes from the tormented relationship between two brothers who love each other and yet would be slightly relieved if they found out the other had died peacefully in the night. It comes from Jimmy and Kim, and their extremely realistic, inevitably doomed feelings for each other. It comes from a natural con-man’s struggle to find a more professional, more respectful way forward.

In short, it comes from the characters. And, yes, I know, every human being who loves Breaking Bad can speak for hours on end about the development and exploration of its characters. Rightly so. But Breaking Bad also had a violent streak that kept its episodes thrilling. Sometimes disturbingly so. Yes, we wanted to see Walt and Jesse explore their relationship, but weren’t we also tuning in to see if either of them would make it out alive? Yes, we all adored Gus Fring and enjoyed spending time watching Giancarlo Esposito inhabit the character, but weren’t we also tuning in to see how our heroes would finally get him out of the way? Yes, we invested ourselves in the narrative spiral of a desperate man discovering that, at heart, he might be a villain…but if he retired from the drug trade three seasons from the show’s end and successfully cut all of those toxic associates out of his life, would we have kept watching?

What I’m trying to say is that the characters made Breaking Bad as great as it was, but they aren’t what made Breaking Bad. They are, by contrast, what makes Better Call Saul, which is why tonight’s brutal ending hits as hard as it does.

In Breaking Bad, a man hitting his head wouldn’t even register. (Unless it’s Ted…but I can’t imagine Chuck suffered a trauma as serious as that.) In Better Call Saul it’s enough to make you have to catch your breath. It’s terrifying.

And yet it wasn’t intentional violence.

There’s no threat of further violence to come.

It wasn’t gory.

It was just Chuck. Poor, conflicted, flustered Chuck…overwhelmed and frustrated by his brother’s treachery. Just Chuck. Chuck, who can’t take it anymore. And who is so overcome with anxiety that his knees buckle beneath him.

And he hits his head.

And it’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen on television.

It was brilliant, and it justified last week’s non-story entirely. Of course, I always have to complain about something, so I’ll just say that I do still feel that Jimmy’s alteration of the documents was a bit of a cheat. Yes, it halted the Mesa Verde proceedings and brought the client right back into Kim’s lap, but how did Jimmy know that would happen? Last week I figured the meddling would be spotted quickly (as it was) and dismissed as a clerical error (which it also was). The fact that it bumped Mesa Verde’s expansion back six weeks or so is fortunate for Jimmy, but it can’t have been something he should have banked on. It feels like a lucky break, and that was a lot of work for him to go through in the hopes that he might get lucky with the court being unable to grant the corrected request for expansion later the same day. Or the next day. Or even a few days later.

His gambit paid off, but I still don’t buy that it was a done deal the way Jimmy seemed to assume it would be a done deal.

Again, though, it led to “Nailed,” and that’s the important thing. Because “Nailed” had a great ending. And probably an even better middle…with a scene that was even more painful to watch than Chuck’s head injury.

It’s when Jimmy and Kim show up to Chuck’s house to pick up the Mesa Verde files. And Chuck tells Kim everything.

He figured it out. He knows exactly what Jimmy did, he knows when Jimmy did it, and he knows how Jimmy did it. He tells Kim every detail. And we know he’s right, because we watched it happen.

He lays it out for Kim. She listens. He interrupts Jimmy when he tries to deflect. He tells Kim exactly how dangerous a person Jimmy McGill is.

And after all that, after a long, dark, perfectly tense, impeccably acted, powerfully scripted scene like that…she dismisses him.

She tells Chuck he made a mistake and Jimmy had nothing to do with it. What’s more, she turns all of his disparaging remarks about Jimmy’s character back on him. Sure, Jimmy might be a conniving scumbag. But isn’t it Chuck who pressed him into that corner in the first place?

I actually made a few involuntary noises (which it’d be embarrassing to recount here) when she pushed back against Chuck. I was conflicted, and the show had done that to me masterfully. Chuck was right…but didn’t it feel good to see Kim lay into him? And the fact that she did so after Chuck made it clear that Jimmy did this as some kind of warped romantic gesture made it both more exciting and more heartbreaking. She was coming to Jimmy’s aid at precisely the wrong time. She was fighting for his innocence now that he was clearly, unquestionably guilty. She was acting as a character witness for the wrong McGill.

Then, of course, they get in the car and Kim punches Jimmy in the arm repeatedly. She didn’t believe Chuck at all.

She wanted to.

Of course she wanted to.

Why wouldn’t she want to?

But she didn’t. She knows better.

Jimmy is flawed. Jimmy is going to drag her down. Jimmy is going to be the reason all of this — however you’d like to define “this” — won’t work out.

But he’s Jimmy.

And on some level, against her better judgment, against the judgment of those she respects and admires, against her memories of how he’s held her back in the past, against all of the things she’s already witnessed him do

She loves him.

Kim loves him. I really believe that.

And I’d go to bat for Better Call Saul as having one of the most believably disarming love stories in TV history.

That’s what makes this such an effective show, at its core. And such a tragic one.

On Breaking Bad we always wondered who would die next. On Better Call Saul, we just follow this singular, sad, doomed relationship downward, toward its inevitable, unfortunate end.

In many ways, that’s actually scarier.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Fifi” (season 2, episode 8)

Intentional or not, I’d say that my break from Better Call Saul has helped the reviews. I don’t think I felt like I was tired of the show, or sick of writing about it, or anything like that, but coming back to it after a delay has given me more to talk about. Better ways with which to express my feelings. Larger questions to raise. In short, it turned out to be a good thing, and I believe my past few reviews are superior to the ones that came before.

Now there’s an episode like “Fifi.” And, man…how on Earth to talk about “Fifi”?

Is it bad? No.

Is it good? Eh.

Is it interesting? Getting warmer, I guess.

In the review for “Gloves Off” we talked about middle chapters. “Fifi” is another one, but instead of suggesting any forward momentum or decisive character moments, it’s just kind of there.

Frankly, I think “Fifi” is the result of the logistical constraints of serialized drama. When writing a sitcom, for instance, you’ll know that you have, say, 22 episodes to fill. So, of course, you dream up 22 stories to tell. I’m unquestionably simplifying things, but for drop-in/drop-out programming like that, all that really matters is that you’ve hit the requisite number of stories to fill your quota.

Serialized drama is different. Neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul featured self-contained stories to any significant degree. One sitcom story lasts, for the most part, the length of one episode. One Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul story could last a season. Or more. And, hey, now that you mention it, how do we define stories on these shows anyway? Don’t they just sort of continue? Transform or ignite other stories? Resurface when we least expect them?

What I’m getting at here is that the hypothetical Slippin’ Jimmy & Friends sitcom would almost certainly feature entirely self-contained stories on a weekly basis. If it still gets 10 episodes per season, the writers need to write 10 self-contained stories. That’s easy. But writing Better Call Saul forces them to think in season-long arcs…and then where the characters will be left when it’s over, and whether or not that will be fruitful enough for another batch of episodes…and so on and so on. In addition, Better Call Saul has the unenviable task of tying everything eventually back into its parent series.

It’s no longer a 1:1 story:episode ratio. Jimmy McGill is in one place at the start of the season, and the writers want to get him to another place by the end. The episodes themselves, therefore, become steps rather than stories. Jimmy has milestones to hit along the way, and ideally we get some nice character interaction in there…maybe set some time aside to explore larger themes or to let Mike calmly dispense whoop-ass…but the season is the concern, not the individual episodes.

So we get a “Fifi,” now and then. An episode that only barely pushes anything forward. An episode so full of long, wordless stretches (the customs sequence, Mike’s stakeout, Jimmy monkeying around with the Mesa Verde files) that it wears its lack of urgency like a badge.

Reader Stephen Fletcher reminded me of something when I wondered about the significance of Rebecca in the episode that was named after her: he said that the first letter of each episode’s title creates an anagram. By now, I don’t think it’s worth redacting the spoiler; it spells FRING’S BACK. So that’s why that episode had to be named after Rebecca; we needed the R. Personally I think they could have called it “Regret” or “Reconsideration” or “Reprisal” or something that had a bit more to do with anything that happened in the episode, but so be it.

“Fifi” by that same logic might as well be called “Filler.”

But, hey, it’s not without merit. Better Call Saul has one of the wall-to-wall best casts on television right now, and it’s a pleasure to watch them go about their business, even if that business seems relatively light.

This time around, we even get to see another side of Chuck: we get to see him being an actual lawyer. His salvaging of the Mesa Verde account was both impressive and unexpected, and we get a sense of just why he’s still valuable to Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, despite his reclusive lifestyle. (We also get yet another indication that his “sickness” is all in his mind, as he’s able to make it through a long, important meeting with aplomb and only begins to falter once the client leaves.)

That much was nice. Even if he was single-handedly crippling Jimmy’s and Kim’s prospects as solo practitioners.

Yeah, if “Fifi” tugs any of the narrative threads along, it’s that one, forcing us to experience Kim’s emotional roller coaster right alongside her. She’s throwing her lot in with Jimmy, she retains Mesa Verda, she loses Mesa Verde. Apprehensive, empowered, crushed. It’s a nice little journey for the character, and part of me wishes it were joined to a more gripping episode in general.

We’re left knowing almost nothing more than we knew at the end of last week, as well. Wexler & McGill is still a blank slate.

Then there’s Mike, whose story barely advances…but does advance just enough to prove me wrong yet again. First I thought Hector might want to use Mike for muscle in the future. Then I thought Mike might be heading back to Hector to ask for more work. Now…who knows. Mike scopes out Hector’s operations and…that’s about it. It was a bit odd that he let Kaylee help him build whatever monstrous device he was working on in his kitchen, as I’d honestly think he’d want his granddaughter to have no part in his dealings whatsoever, but, again, that’s what you get from an episode like “Fifi.” It needs to tread water, and that’s what it forces the characters to do as well.

I’m also not sure what Jimmy was doing toward the end with the Mesa Verde files. He obviously switched an address on a few of the documents, but I’m not sure what his aim is. Is he trying to make Chuck look incompetent or something? Surely if Chuck fucks up an address he’ll be corrected, and then that’s that. Worst case scenario is that he compares his copies of the files to some other records and ascertains immediately that Jimmy meddled. I’m sure I’m wrong, but as of right now I have no clue how this is meant to impact Chuck at all. “Fifi” sure seems to think it’s important…I just wish it gave me reason enough to join it.

And, hey, as long as we’re wallowing in confusion…that customs sequence at the beginning. Was that a nod to the opening of Breaking Bad‘s “Kafkaesque,” when we see the Los Pollos Hermanos trucks transporting illicit substances along with their expected cargo? I assume so, but “Fifi” doesn’t tell us the significance of anything — almost literally anything — it shows us. It wasn’t a Los Pollos Hermanos truck, obviously, but I’m wondering if it ties into Fring’s return in any way, or if it’s just a neat, time-killing callback.

It would be nice if “Fifi” answered some questions, as I think it needed to be a far more engaging episode than it is.

But we still have two chapters left to go. It’s possible that “Fifi” set them up for a grand slam.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Inflatable” (season 2, episode 7)

Well, this one was certainly fun. That doesn’t necessarily translate to “good,” but as necessarily disappointing as “Inflatable” is, I enjoyed it, and I think it’s going to prove to be one of Better Call Saul‘s most memorable episodes.

I say disappointing not because I didn’t like it, but because it represents a likely hard stop for many aspects of the show. Yes, we all knew Jimmy’s employment at Davis & Main was a detour at best. He wasn’t going to be there for long. That’s no surprise. But aside from the daring commercial, its inevitable fallout, and, now, Jimmy’s bombastic farewell, the arc didn’t bear much fruit.

I think I’m disappointed because Davis & Main fulfilled its narrative necessity without digging too deeply into the possibilities it offered for characterization. Ed Begley Jr. is always a delight, but now that he’s out of the regular supporting cast it’s easy to see that he didn’t do — or contribute — much of anything to the show. Jimmy’s bristling at Erin’s constant supervision of him was also an interesting dynamic that is now doomed to remain almost entirely unexplored. And his awkward farewell to Omar — who genuinely seemed to like Jimmy if he didn’t necessarily respect him — suggests a fertile pairing that was over before it started.

In short, the job was exactly as disposable as Jimmy, Kim, and Chuck all suspected it was. I was holding out hope for it, and I think I’ll always wish we spent a little more time there. A handful of episodes isn’t enough to really explore Jimmy’s new surroundings, and now we’re already saying goodbye, heading back to the nail salon for the next phase of Jimmy’s career.

To be clear, I’m disappointed because this job could have offered the show so much more. We didn’t see much outside of Jimmy making a well-intentioned blunder, after which we sidelined his character for a few weeks and returned to see him angling to be fired. There should have been more to Davis & Main than that.

The positive aspect of this, however, is the fact that the episode’s cliffhanger isn’t the season’s cliffhanger. When we hear that Jimmy and Kim will (likely) strike out on their own, we don’t have to spend the between-seasons break wondering what that will look like. Potentially we have three episodes already lined up that will give us a taste. That may be worth truncating the Davis & Main stage of things. We’ll certainly find out.

So, yes, I was wrong about Jimmy’s restroom conversation in “Rebecca” suggesting that he decided not to throw away his job. I’m guessing now that the function was to make him look like even more of a dope in our eyes when he almost immediately turned around and did so anyway. But that’s fine! I like getting things wrong. I like thinking through a series of consequences only to find a well-written show present me with an entirely different series. It challenges me as a viewer and expands my horizons as an artist. I’m all for that.

As long as I’m confessing to idiocy, I was also wrong, apparently, about Hector thinking he could use Mike as muscle in the future. At the end of the episode, it seems like it might be the opposite: Mike thinks he can use Hector for work. My new prediction is that next week’s episode is about a surprise party Hector is throwing for the cousins. He hires Mike to wheel in the giant cake, which Gus Fring then pops out of and they fall in love. Callin’ it.

The biggest Breaking Bad connection comes with this week’s enormous piece of the Saul Goodman puzzle: his wardrobe. We learn of its origin here as an act of professional defiance…and man, if that’s not an absolutely perfect in-universe rationale I don’t know what is.

Of course, I think there’s more to it than Jimmy’s need to piss off Clifford; I do think he’s genuinely drawn to the gaudiness. After all, he keeps the suits after they’ve served their purpose, and he wears them all through his incarnation as Saul Goodman. What’s more, we’ve already seen him considering such “optical migraines” in “Hero.” I think this really is just Jimmy’s fashion sense — or some quarter of it — and it also happens to offer an easy out.

The title “Inflatable” refers to the flailing-arm tube-man that inspires Jimmy to reconsider his wardrobe…something which leads to both an incredible montage of the younger McGill purposefully tanking his prospects and to probably the single funniest episode of Better Call Saul yet. It’s easy to turn “Inflatable” comic once you realize you’re going to get Bob Odenkirk back in bright colors and let him honk on some bagpipes in the middle of a workday, but what surprises me is how effectively the comedy works.

Back in “Uno” and “Mijo,” the first two episodes of this show, I thought there was an intermittent problem of tone. That’s not to say that the show faltered in any significant way, but if there was an early weakness for Better Call Saul it was the cartooniness of some of the supporting characters. Odenkirk — to literally nobody’s surprise — understood perfectly and thoroughly the necessary balance between laughter and sincerity. He was a comic actor with the emphasis on “actor,” while some others around his periphery, such as the two young men he teams up with in an ill-fated bid that leads him instead to a crazed Tuco, obviously preferred to lean on the “comic.”

Since then the show’s been better at maintaining the right kind of comedy for its atmosphere. One that’s conducive to big laughs but also doesn’t rob the universe of its gravitas. In fact, “Inflatable” calls right back to those two episodes as Jimmy describes to Mike his encounter with Tuco…and it serves as a reminder — deliberate or not — of just how much better the show already is, by simple virtue of its more consistent tone.

In fact, the rampant comedy of that scene plays right into one of the most deflating moments we’ve seen yet. (Though it admittedly would have landed better if we’d spent more time with Clifford.)

JIMMY: Cliff…for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good guy.
CLIFF: For what it’s worth, I think you’re an asshole.

That’s the kind of thing you can only do when you let your characters matter.

But, yes, Jimmy gets fired, which means he keeps his signing bonus, which means he has some capital.

…which means he invites Kim to strike out with him at the lawfirm of Wexler-McGill. That’s a pretty loaded name…not just because Jimmy lists her first, but because Wexler-McGill is what Kim’s last name would be if she does indeed turn out to be one of Jimmy’s wives.

That’s pretty clever.

What’s more, she agrees with him!


It won’t be Wexler-McGill, though…it’ll be Wexler & McGill. They’ll share office space, they’ll collaborate…but they won’t be partners. They’ll be individual lawyers, operating not together but in close proximity. And I think we can all agree with Kim that this was the better move. Presumably Jimmy will accept her counter-offer; I don’t see a rational or compelling reason that he wouldn’t. But, either way, this could lead to some very interesting places…not least because Jimmy will be free enough to operate in whatever underhanded ways he sees fit, and Kim will be in near enough proximity to notice it.

Something is going to sink this relationship. And we may have just learned the venue for that showdown.

Of course, Jimmy wasn’t the only one courting Kim away from Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. Was she wise to sidle up to Jimmy while turning down an offer from an established, respectable firm with definite prospects for partnership? Maybe not…but I buy her decision. Easily. And I think it just comes down to one word she used in the interview when she was asked about why she left her hometown. She told them what she wanted: “More.”

Then they made a nice offer.

But we know she wants more.

Whatever that means, whatever it could mean, I believe it.

It’s worth also considering the flashback that opens “Inflatable.” It’s clearly a formative moment for Jimmy, what with being told to decide between identifying as a wolf or a sheep, but what’s more interesting to me is how deliberately it refuses to prove Chuck’s story from “Rebecca” either right or wrong.

Did Jimmy sink the family business? We do see him stealing from the till, but we also see Charles Sr. being so willing to hand over money to strangers that he’s earned an embarrassing reputation for it. So, yes, Jimmy pocketed cash and that’s certainly a terrible thing to do, especially to your own family…but it does seem like Charles Sr.’s habits, as of right now, are more likely to have resulted in the greater loss.

That also explains why Charles Sr. refused to believe Chuck; he himself knew how much he had given away. He refused to let Jimmy take the blame because even if they boy did steal…he couldn’t have stolen as much as Charles Sr. knew he was responsible for handing out.

Just some thoughts…the kind of thoughts you can only have in regards to a show that knows what it’s doing, even if it sometimes, here and there, seems like it might not.

A lesser show would have used the flashback to prove Chuck right or to definitively establish him as a liar. (Or at least as an unreliable source.) Better Call Saul keeps that particular ball in the air.

And I like that.

Because the McGill boys aren’t going to stop feuding any time soon, and I kind of love how often I’m invited to shit my allegiance.