Better Call Saul Reviews: “Sunk Costs” (season 3, episode 3)

Better Call Saul is about how the world of this show becomes the world of Breaking Bad. But that’s not all it’s about.

We’ve talked almost weekly about the running theme of loose predestination; the precise details of your future may not be laid out, but your general direction sure as hell is. And part of the drama of Better Call Saul is waiting for gravity to reassert itself, to send lofty dreams crashing back down to Earth, to injure (in so many ways) those it was already decided would never be allowed to fly.

It’s also, however, about relationships. And that’s both the central theme of “Sunk Costs” and the filter through which we should understand it.

Of course, the beauty is that it’s still about everything else we expect from Better Call Saul. We get further insight into Mike’s relationship with Gus. And Gus’ relationship with Hector. And Jimmy’s relationship with Francesca. All of that will inform the events we remember from Breaking Bad, as well as the ways in which they unfolded. Who stood by whom. Who knew what they could get away with. Who failed to walk away when they should have.

And, of course, predestination is written all over “Sunk Costs.” Jimmy isn’t meant to be an honorable lawyer — no matter how “noble” his calling, as the judge presiding over his felony case put it — and so his brother will see to it that he becomes a dishonorable one. Jimmy was once a criminal, and to criminality shalt he return. Chuck isn’t an agent of justice; he’s an agent of destiny.

But what the episode explores more thoroughly are the relationships between its characters, all of which define the show as we know it, and make the inevitable crash that much more difficult to bear. When the relationships are negative, it hurts, because we like these characters. And when the relationships are positive, it feels almost worse, because we know the fall will come from that much higher.

We’ve spent a good amount of time in these reviews digging into the relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. And, frankly, if you’ve watched the episode I can’t imagine I’ll be able to tell you much new. This is perhaps the rawest, most emotionally vulnerable we’ve ever seen Chuck…and he’s still kind of a dick.

I like Chuck. I feel bad for him. I pity him. And yet he treats his underhanded scheme as a way of moralizing. As a way of preaching emptily to the little brother that he’s literally about to send to jail. Chuck is the parent justifying his abuse of a difficult child. “If you’d behave, I wouldn’t have to do this.”

And there’s satisfaction in his eyes. He has nothing to worry about. When Jimmy stormed Chuck’s home last week, he asked Chuck if that tape was worth tearing the family apart. Chuck’s demeanor in this episode suggests that his answer was, “What family?”

Jimmy isn’t a brother; he’s a nuisance who carries — and tarnishes — the McGill name. Jimmy sunk the family business. Jimmy was a well-known local scam artist. Jimmy bought a mail-order degree and started messing around with the criminal justice system. A chimp with a machine gun, as he put it. What’s worse, a lot of people liked the chimp better. Kim. Rebecca. They boys’ own mother.

Chuck doesn’t think of Jimmy as family, however much lip service he might pay the idea when it suits him. (Read: when he can use it to make Jimmy feel worse.) He thinks of Jimmy as a rival. A less talented, less intelligent rival, against whom he nevertheless can’t seem to succeed. He frames his “lesson” to Jimmy as an opportunity for the younger McGill to straighten his life out. But we learn later (as if we didn’t already know) that it’s just Chuck’s method of getting him out of the way.

That’s what we learn when Chuck lays himself bear for his own attorney. He’s interested in pressing charges, sure…but not to help his brother. He just wants his brother out of his hair, doing something else for a living. Jimmy sunk the family business, and now Chuck’s going to sink his. There are many reasons to avoid a trial, but we see that Chuck’s is simply that he has a better way to cripple his brother’s future.

What a guy.

It’s not a surprise, exactly, but I do think it’s the nearest look we’ve ever gotten at Chuck’s view of the relationship. We’ve already seen Jimmy’s, many times over. He loves Chuck. He cares about Chuck. When something happens to Chuck, he’ll drop everything and scamper over there to help. (Which, of course, is what got him into this particular mess in the first place.) That’s how Jimmy views Chuck: as family. He looks up to his older brother, and his older brother won’t even look at him.

Of course, that’s the relationship Chuck chose to squander. However much or little truth was in it, Jimmy suggested that the next time Chuck needs him, he won’t be there. Brotherhood doesn’t work just one way. If Chuck is going to definitively betray that relationship, Jimmy will do the same.

Smaller relationships find themselves explored, as well. Gus and Mike, for instance, who bond in some way over a mutual antagonist. Jimmy and Francesca, as mentioned, who build a level of trust here that will see them through some far more difficult times, and which unintentionally establishes her as a co-conspirator. Sure, she’s just helping him pick up a car now, but she’ll be calling Hank and impersonating hospital staff before too long. The seeds are sown today, with the sad-eyed boss just needing a hand…

And we see what kind of fallout these relationships — and the dynamic schemes and counter-schemes within — have on innocent victims. We’re reminded (clearly deliberately) of the fact that Hector killed the man who found his driver tied up. That’s what raised Mike’s hackles, and ultimately caused him to lash out a second time here, with Gus’s blessing.

His plan to sic the DEA on Hector, however, embroiled two relative innocents more directly: the drug mules who were smuggling goods and money across the border, and who definitively have their lives ruined. Then, of course, there’s poor Ernesto…used as a pawn by his boss to exploit his loyalty to a friend. Ernesto has been fired. Chuck doesn’t bother to mention that to his attorney.

But the real relationship at the heart of Better Call Saul is the one that’s destined to be the most painful. It is, of course, the relationship between Jimmy and Kim.

I love Better Call Saul. Let me make that clear. But part of me wishes it could just become something else entirely. Because we know Jimmy loses Kim. And I wish he didn’t. Mainly because…well…I don’t want to lose Kim.

If I may speculate wildly, here’s my suspicion: AMC greenlights Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan and his excellent writing staff gets together to decide how best to tell that story. For obvious reasons, they latch onto whatever small details of Saul’s past he let slip during Breaking Bad. One by one, they show us those things and connect the threads in between. Fine.

One of those details, though, was Saul’s gaggle of ex-wives. I can’t offhand remember how many there were, if we were ever told, but we know there was more than one. So Better Call Saul gets to invent some relationships for its protagonist.


Then they create Kim.

And now they’re stuck. Not because it was a bad decision, but because it was too good. Because now they have Rhea Seehorn playing this incredible character week after week, living a life of her own. She’s a perfect foil for Jimmy, but she’s also a perfect fit. She may have been invented out of necessity, but the show’s first experiment with a partner for Jimmy is one that’s destined not to be topped, and one that cannot in good conscience be squandered.

I don’t know if I’m correct. I may never know. But I wonder if any of the writing staff feels the way I do…that they wish Better Call Saul could shift, all at once, into an alternate-universe story instead. That Kim does get to stick around. That Jimmy may drag her through the muck a bit but that he won’t become unlovable to her. That what they have — what they share, what they build — will miraculously flower as a whole other future. One that may not last, but one which they can at least have.

Of course, gravity will reassert itself.

It always does for these characters.

Jimmy refusing to let Kim represent him was probably the single saddest moment this show has given us yet, because it shows how protective he is of her…how much he’d rather fail of his own accord than have her get dirty trying to save him. And the fact that she understood…and stayed by his side…and promised him as the episode ended that they’d fight together…and took his hand in silhouette…

There’s promise there. The real promise of a real future.

And we already know it ends.

The fact that we don’t know how it ends is what fuels the tension.

The fact that we know it won’t be pretty is what fuels the heartache.

Kim — the person and the character — has the misfortune to be here instead of somewhere else…somewhere that might allow her a happy escape.

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 3, 1990)

I want to love Mega Man 3. I really do. It’s often spoken of in the same breath as genuine classics. It’s rarely criticized for anything other than superficial reasons. It’s adored, with many fans holding it up in comparison with Mega Man 2, as though it’s impossible to declare which of these great games is better.

I will declare. Mega Man 2 is better. And I don’t see how Mega Man 3 can even compete.

But I want to love it. I really do. Mega Man 3 does so much right. It introduced the slide, which is now a distinguishing feature of Mega Man’s moveset, and which so elegantly adds an entirely new wrinkle to navigating stages and avoiding enemies. It introduces not one but two great new characters: Rush the utility dog and Proto Man, our hero’s moody and conflicted older brother. On top of that, its soundtrack contains some of the best tracks in video game history.

And yet…it’s not a great game.

It might be a good one. It probably is.

But it’s not great. It’s flawed and unbalanced. It’s glitchy and in some cases more rickety than the first game was. It’s a step backward when it had all the potential of being another great leap forward.

And so as much as I want to love Mega Man 3, I don’t. I can’t. And this is probably going to be the saddest review of it you’ll ever read.

By the time Mega Man 3 was released, I was already a firm acolyte of Mega Man 2. My friends and I played it endlessly. We designed Robot Masters and stages of our own. (One of mine was VCR Man. He probably wielded the weapon Planned Obsolescence. My friend Jimmy asked why they all had to be Man. Why not Woman? It would be decades before he got his wish.) I even bought and read that terrible Worlds of Power novelization.

So, no, I wasn’t looking at Mega Man 3 with an objective viewpoint. (Worth repeating: as an individual forming an opinion on somebody else’s work of art, that would have been impossible.) But neither was I closed off to it. In fact, I liked Mega Man 3 a lot more then than I do now. It’s only time and reflection and a greater capacity for articulation that I’ve come to realize how…disappointing it really is.

It’s not, however, a game devoid of new or interesting ideas. In other words, it’s not disappointing in the standard way that sequels are disappointing, in which the same beats are repeated to diminished returns. Mega Man 3 pushes itself, and does some truly fantastic stuff along the way.

Where it falls down is in its execution, and that represents its step backward. Whereas Mega Man 2 proved that the developers had the potential to refine their ideas to incredible, unforgettable degrees, Mega Man 3 slid right back into Mega Man territory…throwing so many new ideas around that none of them feel complete.

I know, I know. Who am I to say any of this? Don’t people love Mega Man 3? Isn’t it highly regarded? Isn’t it a classic video game?

It is. And I’d never attempt to take those accolades away. But I do think that Mega Man 3 is a better game in our minds and memories than it is in reality.

I want to love Mega Man 3. I want to adore it. I want to be able to say that it took every ounce of merit from its predecessor and enhanced it.

But I can’t.

I try, and I try, and I can’t.

I can say a lot of things in its favor. I can make a list of all of the things it gets just right. I can gush about stage tunes like Gemini Man, Top Man, Magnet Man, Shadow Man, and Spark Man all night long. But then I play the game, as I have to, and it find it impossible not to trip over its mistakes. Impossible not to question its design philosophy. Impossible not to…wish I was playing almost any other game in the series.

I know. I know.

I’m a terrible person.

But let’s focus on the good up front, because Mega Man 3 has loads of it.

My favorite thing about the game — aside from its stellar soundtrack — is a brilliant, tiny tweak that a lot of people probably don’t even notice started here. In first game, Mega Man would defeat a Robot Master, pick up a mysterious object, and get bumped back out to the stage select. It was up to the player to pause the game in the next level to see that they had a new weapon…which I’m sure many early gamers overlooked entirely. Mega Man 2 made the acquisition of weapons more explicit, with some text (and a pulsing beat) explaining what you got.

That’s fine. That’s more than fine. In fact, that small improvement was all we needed.

But Mega Man 3 does it so much better. Now Mega Man stands alone in the empty boss room for a moment, then leaps into the air and is showered with swirling particles. In fact, it’s the same effect used by the Robot Master (and Mega Man himself) when he explodes…only now it’s reversed and directed inward. It’s a perfect visual indication that somebody has lost the duel, and somebody has won. To the victor literally go the spoils.

Then the pause window pops up so that you can see a new weapon in your inventory, at which point its energy bar noisily fills…tempting you to rip right into your new gift and start experimenting with it. It’s great. It’s a lovely tweak to the stage-ending sequence, and it’s the best celebratory moment the series has offered us yet.

And then we get a great splash screen with Mega Man caught mid-leap (always the best way to catch a Mega Man sprite, as our history of jumping through boss doors has empirically proven) and yet another fantastic, searing song blazing in the background. It’s a longer song than you probably realize, too; let the screen sit for a while and enjoy it.

But there’s a dark corollary to all of this incredible, impressive, weapon-get bombast…and that’s the fact that the weapons absolutely stink.

None of them feel very fun to use, and in a game that’s built around experimentation, that’s a real problem. What’s more, they’re often buggy, lending them an air of carelessness that makes you wonder why you’d want to play with them if the developers didn’t bother properly coding them.

Of the weapons, the Shadow Blade is probably the best. It’s essentially a Metal Blade crossed with a Rolling Cutter, and that’s a good thing, because those weapons were great. Its range isn’t wonderful, but it’s still the one weapon worth using. And there’s the Needle Cannon, which is more or less innocuous. It’s a differently shaped Buster pellet, and hardly fills the mind with possibilities. Present, but inoffensive.

Then there’s…the rest.

The Magnet Missile is great when it works, which it often doesn’t. Its intention is to home in on enemies, but it will many times miss them entirely or phase right through them without causing damage. The Hard Knuckle crawls so slowly across the screen that it’s literally always faster to kill enemies with your basic weapon, even when they’re technically weak to the Hard Knuckle. The Search Snake makes some snakes. Nobody cares.

The worst are the Spark Shot and the Top Spin. The former just freezes enemies in place, much like the Ice Slasher, but this time Mega Man can’t switch weapons to kill the stunned enemy; all you do is freeze enemies in your own way. It’s awful. The Top Spin is just odd; it’s a pirouette Mega Man can only perform in the air, and it’s a crapshoot whether you or the enemy you strike takes the damage. And how much damage. And how much weapon energy it uses. If you wanted evidence that Mega Man 3 has sloppy coding, look no further. (Having said that, though, once you get the Top Spin you really should spin through the boss doors at least once.)

The most puzzling is the Gemini Laser, which introduces so much lag to the game that it’s almost unusable, and there’s no excuse for that. While Mega Man and Mega Man 2 both lagged at various points, it was always understandable; so much was happening on the screen that of course the little NES would struggle to keep track of it all. With the Gemini Laser, all you’ve done is fire a weapon. You know. Your primary way of interacting with objects in the game. The lag is inexcusable.

We spoke for a bit in Mega Man 2 about how the weapons were given a layer of nuance by allowing them to do things other than fly straight forward when the B button is pressed. Mega Man 3 takes this a step backward, with much less — and much less interesting — complexity.

In this game, only three weapons allow for any degree of adjustment. The Shadow Blade can be thrown in many directions, like the Metal Blade. So far, so good. The Hard Knuckle can be steered slightly up or down by pressing the appropriate direction on the D-pad after firing, and the Needle Cannon can be rapid-fired by holding B.

And that’s it.

The Top Spin does at least ask the player to think differently about how to use it, as you need to press A to jump and then press B while in the air, but no player should ever be using the Top Spin so that doesn’t really count.

Storywise Mega Man 3 doesn’t offer much that the previous games did not. There are some bad robots, and Mega Man is a good robot who kills them off one by one, then smacks their boss around for a bit.

It’s with this game, though, that I’d argue that Dr. Light goes from trusting to learning disabled. In Mega Man Dr. Wily betrayed Dr. Light, turned all of the robots they designed together evil, and set about destroying civilization. In Mega Man 2 Dr. Wily, unprovoked, built eight evil robots for the sole purpose of destroying civilization. In Mega Man 3, Dr. Light helps Dr. Wily build an enormous robot to protect civilization, but doesn’t bat an eye when Wily asks for the keys and offers to go get it washed.

There’s seeing the best in people, and then there’s seeing nothing at all. Dr. Light is a boob.

The truly unimpeachable things that Mega Man 3 brought to the table are the two new characters, and we can learn a lot about the value of strong characterization from both of them.

Prior to Mega Man 3, there was a simple triumvirate. Dr. Light (appropriately mistranslated in this game as Dr. Right) is the good scientist, Dr. Wily (irrelevantly mistranslated in this game as Dr. Wiley) is the bad scientist, and Mega Man is the player’s avatar, advancing the cause of one and beating back the cause of the other.

It’s easy, and a pretty common video-game setup: there are forces of good and forces of evil, and you’re the middleman. (Middle Man 3)

This game adds the first wrinkles to that formula with two new, important characters: Rush and Proto Man.

Rush is essentially just a charming face slapped on Mega Man’s utilities…but it’s a change that matters. The simple fact that these gadgets now resemble a dog makes them feel more important, and more significant to our hero. They’re not stepstools this time; they’re a friend.

While the Magnet Beam was something like a panicked afterthought in the first game, Mega Man 2 made its Items feel natural and better designed for the gameplay. Mega Man 3 goes a remarkable step forward by giving them personality. And the best part is that it’s entirely implicit.

Does Rush Coil function any differently than a springboard would have? Of course not. But by giving it a proper name (as far removed from Item-4 as it’s possible to get), we give Rush a sense of individuality. By further making Rush a dog, we tap effortlessly into the implied relationship between a little boy and his beloved pet. (Mega Man’s youthful appearance in the sprite art becomes an immediate benefit at this point.) And by adding the slightest flourishes — such as having Rush’s tail wag briefly when you select him from the menu — we believe in Rush.

The Magnet Beam was a thing. Item-2 was a thing. Rush is a dog. Mega Man 3 figured out how to make players genuinely care about a utility decades before Portal faced the same question.

The fact that we actually see Rush transform in three ways in this game (Rush Coil, Rush Jet, and Rush Marine) future-proofs him as well; if the then-hypothetical Mega Man 4 didn’t require any of those things, Rush could simply transform into something else. Like a real dog, Rush wouldn’t be a disposable fancy; he was now part of Mega Man’s family.

And speaking of family…

Proto Man. Boy. Is there a cooler character from the 8-bit era? Proto Man with his cape and permanent shades probably holds the title pretty securely.

There’s an air of mystery about Proto Man that runs through the game and makes his story — whatever his story may be — far more compelling than any kind of idiocy Dr. Light is engaging in with Dr. Wily. He turns up in four of the main stages, each time accompanied by his distinctive whistle. (Which you can hear right now, I’m certain.)

I remember each of these appearances being thrillingly tantalizing to my young self. I remember arguing with friends about them. Who was this guy? Was he a bad guy? Was he helping us? Was he testing us?

It was strange. In three of his appearances, Proto Man does actually attack Mega Man…but he always seems to be holding back. He doesn’t do much. He hops around and fires, but most of the common enemies are better at getting in hits than Proto Man is.

But Proto Man keeps appearing. He feels meaningful in a way that other recurring enemies don’t. Those, after all, are destroyed when you defeat them. Proto Man, instead, teleports away and clears a path forward for you. There’s something deliberate behind his behavior. Other enemies are programmed to defeat Mega Man, and so they fight to the mechanical equivalent of death. Proto Man, clearly, has something else in mind.

Most intriguing is his appearance in Gemini Man’s stage. There he doesn’t fight you. He could — and he might be considering it — but he doesn’t. He just…stares. He watches you. He stands motionless. Sizing you up? Questioning you? Respecting you as an equal?

We’ll never know, because he opens the path forward and leaves without a word. Without firing a shot. Without anything but his somber whistle.

…and that’s it. There’s a fight with him after the Doc Robot stages (in which he’s referred to as Break Man…perhaps another mistranslation), and then he saves your life when Wily’s castle crumbles at the very end. That’s all we really know.

Until we finish the game and watch a scene marked EPILOGUE.

We see identification cards for each of the robots Dr. Light built in Mega Man. They run backward. Elec Man. Fire Man. Bomb Man. Ice Man. Guts Man. Cut Man. Then the good guys we already know. There’s Roll, Mega Man’s sister. And Mega Man himself.

And, finally, the mysterious Proto Man, revealed in a note as being “brother of Megaman.”

It’s the closest thing to a true twist ending any Mega Man game has had, and it’s a good one. It forces us to reconsider the events of the game, yet doesn’t definitively answer any questions.

Was Proto Man fighting Mega Man to make sure he was prepared for what’s to come? Possibly, as he removes barricades in four stages that Mega Man would not be able to remove on his own. Or was he seeking some kind of revenge? This is also possible, as Proto Man will gladly enough kill Mega Man should the fights go that way. Which may be telling; Proto Man won’t fight to his own death, but he’ll sure as hell kill his brother.

He eventually saves Mega Man from Wily’s crumbling castle, yes, but does that mean all is forgiven? Does that even mean he likes his brother? Does he feel obligated to save him? Hell, does he regret saving him?

The answers are never quite revealed, no matter how long Proto Man has remained a series staple. And I like that. I like that we never truly know the depth of his allegiance. And I like that his story is almost entirely implicit, hinging on a single, loaded line of text at the end of the game. A sibling rivalry. Father issues. Conflicted loyalties. All suggested, but never divulged.

His Japanese name — Blues — speaks even further to his sad demeanor, and is much more evocative than his Western name, which is just a clue that he came first.

Proto Man is by far the richest of Mega Man’s characters, if only because he’s the only one who can’t be fit into a box. Dr. Cossack in the next game similarly straddles the line between good and evil, but once his motivation is revealed it’s impossible to see him as anything except firmly on the side of good.

Proto Man…well, we still don’t know about Proto Man. He was never used again as effectively as he was in this game, but that’s okay. Because…well…how do you top that?

But Mega Man 3 isn’t about Proto Man. As much as we can debate the merits of individual games, or weapons, or items, or characters, or plots, the entire Mega Man series is really about one thing: boss battles.

That’s something I never quite realized as a kid. Sure, I liked certain Robot Masters more than others, but I was never quite sure why. I tended to be drawn to the explosion-based Robot Masters, as you can probably tell, even though I hated using their weapons. I kept coming back to Bubble Man often enough that he was the first one I learned to outwit. I couldn’t stand fighting Gemini Man, but he was clearly so cool that I couldn’t dislike him.

The Robot Masters — by and large Mega Man’s bosses — were distinct. They had personality, even if it was entirely implied by their music, their stages, their arsenal, their speed, their agility, their aggressiveness.

Metal Man wouldn’t make a move until you did, for instance…unless you took too long, in which case he’d lash out in boredom. Guts Man would stun you by stomping the ground and use that opportunity to close in, fencing you into a corner. Heat Man pelted you with a volley of fire the moment the fight started, not letting you so much as blink before he’s on the offense.

Other Robot Masters, though, such as Magnet Man and Snake Man in this game, just barrel from one side of the screen to the other, working through their routines as though you’re not even there, secure in the knowledge that they’ll successfully bulldoze you before you learn to fight back.

As a kid, I never realized the distinction in fighting style. It’s hard to realize it when you’re struggling just to survive. I’d run at an enemy, guns blazing. Hopefully the enemy died before I did. When possible I’d dodge return fire, but I was both panicked and unskilled enough that this wasn’t reliable. I’d fire wildly and hope for the best. Once I got a special weapon, I’d find whatever Robot Master I could and pelt them blindly with that instead.

As an adult, it’s different. I don’t use special weapons often — aside from the capsule room refights and some of the more particularly irritating bosses — because I realize now that these are a series of duels. It’s not about showering the room with projectiles; it’s about watching, reacting, learning, responding. It’s about identifying and anticipating patterns. It’s about the graceful exchange of attacks and retreats.

And there really is something beautiful about Mega Man’s better boss fights. When you learn how to fight a Robot Master — not beat, but truly match wits with — it becomes a thing of elegance. Of beauty. When you learn how to manipulate a Robot Master in such a way that they sacrifice their upper hand…when you trick them into leaping into what would have been a stray shot…when you stun them in place…when you behave in such a way that they no longer how to respond…

It’s wonderful.

It’s truly, deeply wonderful. Because it requires you to respect them as adversaries. It requires you to learn to think as they do. It requires you to figure them out, and to identify hidden chinks in their durable armor. They stop being a boss, and become instead a satisfying rival.

What’s more, their ultimate predictability and exploitability make sense within the games’ universe: these are robots. They are programmed. They behave in certain ways. Some of them have better AI than others, but they’re all defined by a sequence of code. That’s because they’re video game enemies, yes, but it’s also because they’re robots built and programmed by scientists within the game. When you outwit a Robot Master, you’re also outwitting his designer. You’re playing a game of violent chess.

Bomb Man, for instance, is programmed to flee you, which is only something you’d discover if you keep trying to run right into him. Keep the distance between the two of you narrow enough and he’ll keep hopping around, helplessly open to your shots. The fact that this hinges upon counterintuitive behavior (contact damage hurts you, and you have a long-range weapon) helps it to function as a quiet puzzle in the background of the fight…one you may not even realize is there to be solved.

And he’s not the only one. Crash Man is programmed to jump and fire whenever you shoot, which means if you’re already in the air when you do so he can leap into your projectile and miss you with his. Heat Man will go into a strictly defensive mode whenever he is hit, which means you can prevent him from attacking at all (barring his initial volley) if you’re quick enough on the trigger. If you hit Elec Man with a Buster shot every time he raises his arms, he’ll never attack you. All of these are puzzles that encourage players to experiment and reward careful attention.

(Short digression: this illustrates another reason I don’t particularly enjoy the Dr. Wily stages. While those bosses tend to be bigger and more technically impressive, there’s little grace to them. They’re nearly all just big, powerful bullies. Their battles aren’t balletic; they’re a gradual chipping away at walls.)

Mega Man 3‘s bosses overall don’t feel as satisfying to me as many of the earlier (and later) Robot Masters. They’re not terrible, exactly…they just feel less…designed. I don’t get the same satisfying sense of unraveling behavioral code here that I get from the other games.

Gemini Man is a welcome and glorious exception to the rule, as his fight is actually an interesting one. Not only does it consist of two bosses, but it has two phases, really pushing the Gemini angle in exactly the right way. (The stage has nothing to do with the theme, so the boss fight might as well go nuts with it.)

In the first phase, Gemini Men are programmed to circle the room and collide with you, but they also stop and return fire whenever you shoot at them. This either means that you need to fire when they’re both in the air and can’t attack or that you need to be already leaping their projectile before they shoot it. Then, in the second phase, there’s only one Gemini Man, and this one jumps when you shoot at him. That’s both important to know in order to actually hit him, and your best method of avoiding him as he paces around: shoot and then quickly slide underneath.

It’s a great boss fight, but it’s almost the only one. Snake Man and Magnet Man both go back and forth across the screen, firing at standard intervals. Spark Man does the same, firing at non-standard intervals. Hard Man fires, jumps, fires, jumps. Needle Man and Shadow Man just go haywire, jumping and firing at rates too quick for any reasonable player to comprehend. Top Man is an idiot.

So many great Robot Master concepts, but so little thought went into their execution. They don’t feel reactive in the way that Gemini Man and other great Robot Masters do. Rather, it feels like you have no impact at all, and they’d be going through the same routines, unchanged, even if you never showed up at their doors. That’s simply not satisfying.

That’s not the only problem with the boss fights, though: there’s also lag.

Mega Man 3 lags constantly, for no clear reason. Fights with Spark Man, Gemini Man, and Snake Man all slow the game to a crawl…and there’s nothing else happening. The least Mega Man 3 should be able to do is process its showcase duels without falling apart, but it can’t. It even struggles with minibosses, such as the cats in Top Man’s stage. It’s one thing if the player allows too many enemies to follow him into a taxing area, but in these cases it doesn’t take more than a boss showing up for the game to sputter and choke.

And we’ve already spoken about the Gemini Laser; just using it seems to cripple the game, which indicates that the lag is a coding issue. Mega Man 3 is full of things that just don’t work properly.

Not to mention the fact that the aesthetics of the Robot Master levels aren’t as naturally themed as they previously were. Sure, Snake Man makes up a lot of the deficit, as he’s a snake who shoots smaller snakes that crawl around a room made of snakes in a level made of other snakes, but Hard Man is just…in a gorge. Top Man is in some kind of plant nursery, I guess. And Needle Man is an angry plum on a pirate ship? I have no idea, and the lack of care doesn’t end there.

There are the off-center hitboxes, particularly Shadow Man’s and Gemini Man’s. There are the Junk Golem enemies that continue to attack after they’re dead. There are the cloud platforms in Snake Man’s stage that will glitch you into a bottomless pit. And the best thing I can say about the Wily stages is that the Yellow Devil’s new breasts are incredible.

Then there’s the Doc Robot stages…remixed versions of four earlier stages with new hazards and layouts, featuring spiritual rematches with Robot Masters from Mega Man 2. It’s a great concept that, to put it honestly, is absolutely terrible in execution.

The stages don’t feel fair or interesting, functioning more as tedious gauntlets with oddly-chosen checkpoints than actual tests of anything we’ve learned as players. The fact that it’s possible to get stuck with no way to progress or die if you run out of energy for utilities, requiring a full reset of the console, makes me suspicious of just how much these stages were even playtested.

Mega Man 3 just feels a bit…careless.

It has great ideas. It really does.

And I want to love it.

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I want to play it and love it and shout from the rooftops about how great it is.

But I can’t.

Because as much as it introduced, it also regressed to feeling raw and experimental rather than tight and rewarding.

It gave us great characters and more great music.

But its Robot Masters don’t behave in interesting ways. Its weapons aren’t worth using. Its stages range from uninspired to careless. It’s glitchy. It’s unfair. It’s mindlessly punishing and yet too easy, providing few examples of genuinely fair challenges but also throwing so many extra lives and E-tanks at you that it feels impossible to lose. (I ended my game with 20 and 9 respectively when I replayed it for this review, and I was not playing carefully at all.)

I want to love Mega Man 3.

I do.

But maybe it tried to do a bit too much. Just like Mega Man.

And, as with Mega Man, it took the next game to show us how to do it right.

Best Robot Master: Gemini Man
Best Stage: Gemini Man
Best Weapon: Shadow Blade
Best Theme: Gemini Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 3 > 1

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

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Witness” (season 3, episode 2)

Better Call Saul is a great show, and “Witness” assuaged my quiet worry that it soon wouldn’t be.

This was among the most effective hours of television I think I’ve ever seen, maybe because of how effortlessly it pivots at about its midpoint from being one of the funniest episodes to being one of the most painful.

Most great television episodes do something very well. “Witness,” though, does two quite different things very well. It almost feels as though it’s two separate half hours that just happened to air back to back, which in this very specific case I mean as an enormous compliment.

“Witness” isn’t aimless or confused; “Witness” is artful and layered. It isolates the main components of its delicate comedy-drama balance, which allows each half to breathe, to function, to hit us hardest.

I loved this episode.

So why was I afraid I wouldn’t?

Well, as you know if you’ve been reading these reviews, I’m a day or so behind on new episodes. I don’t have cable, so I buy the seasons through iTunes. I don’t get to watch a new Better Call Saul until everyone else has already seen it.

Potentially this could end in me getting pretty majorly spoiled. I don’t mind spoilers, per se, and I think the panic and offense they engender is more or less totally unfounded, but I still like to go into things knowing as little as possible ahead of time.

So, what do I do? I tell my readers — and my friends — that I’m behind. I ask them politely not to spoil anything for me. And because I have excellent readers and friends, they don’t spoil anything for me. I get to experience things fresh. I don’t even know ahead of time if an episode is any good, and I appreciate that. I asked for a small gesture of respect, and everyone’s given it to me.

…except for AMC.

That frustrates and worries me. I’ll get to the worry bit in a moment, but I’m sure you can guess why it’s frustrating.

I don’t like to know what’s coming next. I don’t think it ruins the experience, but it does change it. Watching a show with only your own guesses as to what’s coming is a different experience from watching it knowing what’s coming, and anticipating it.

Wouldn’t it have been better, in a word, if Gus Fring’s reappearance had been kept mum? Wouldn’t the slow reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign been more thrilling? Wouldn’t the artful lack of focus on the man as he swept the floor behind Jimmy felt more purposeful?

I ask not to be spoiled because I want to enjoy the show more, but the network airing the show and the people making the show can’t shut up about it. Fring is coming back. Fring will return in season three. Fring will be back early in the season. Don’t forget; tonight is the night Fring returns. Unscramble the first letters of season two’s titles and they spell BEND OVER HERE FRING COMES AGAIN.

Hitchcock famously wouldn’t allow late seating when Psycho was in theaters, and he personally asked audiences not to share plot details with those who hadn’t seen it. If the Better Call Saul marketing team were in charge of that film, the trailers would have provided a precise timestamp, letting you know exactly when you’d need to show up to see Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Two immediate points of comparison, I think, prove the rule. The first would be the legitimate surprise appearance of Tuco at the end of this show’s very first episode. I was a night behind then, as well, and nobody spoiled it. When he stuck a gun in Jimmy’s face, I felt the shock. Had I known he was coming I could have still enjoyed it, but that initial rush would have been replaced with something less…thrilling.

Then there’s this episode’s other surprise emissary* from Breaking Bad: Francesca. No promotional materials spoiled her return that I saw, and so, ironically, her appearance had infinitely more weight than the (clearly more important) arrival of Gus Fring.

I have to admit, I never expected to be so happy to see Francesca again. Not that I disliked her in Breaking Bad at all; I think she just didn’t stand out as a singular character there. Watching her get her feet wet — and develop the sad loyalty to Jimmy that will keep her by his side through a name change and the ultimate dissolution of his career — makes me very excited to have her back. There’s a journey there that I didn’t expect I’d ever care to see, and now my mind is reeling with possibilities.

Also, at this point, can Huell and Kuby be far behind? Not that I’m in a rush to get anywhere (Better Call Saul‘s glacial pace is genuinely its greatest asset) but I’ll be very happy to see them again.

Now let me frustrate you by framing much of what I just celebrated as a concern.

“Witness” — prior to air — worried me because I don’t want Better Call Saul to become Breaking Bad. Having Tuco or Krazy-8 pop up is fine. Hell, bring in more characters whenever there’s a natural and compelling reason for them to be there. I don’t even care if folks pop up just for the novelty of it, as the Cousins seemed to last season.

But by folding these characters into the proceedings — by making them important to this show, to what happens, to the stories being told — we blur the lines between Better Call Saul and its predecessor. And that’s not fair to Better Call Saul.

We had Saul and Mike, of course. Those two, from episode one, were to be our parallel leads. And that’s okay. Because otherwise, the important characters were all new. Kim. Chuck. Howard. Nacho. Any number of new clients, flames, and foils. Better Call Saul occupied the same universe, but charted different territory. It was its own experience, and it could toss a saucy wink at its parent series whenever it damned well pleased; Better Call Saul would still live or die on its own merits.

…until it decides that, no, it won’t.

If it decides to make Hector a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it decides to make Gus a major character, it’s a little more Breaking Bad. If it brings back Ted and Hank and Uncle Nazi, it’s a little more Breaking Bad.

And Better Call Saul deserves so much more than that. It deserves independent appraisal. Over the course of two seasons and change it’s earned independent appraisal. Bob Odenkirk is doing incredible work as Jimmy McGill, and it’s work that is entirely distinct from his work as Saul Goodman. It’s a different character. It’s a unique performance. It’s nuanced and impressive in a way that Saul Goodman — as great as he was — was not.

Rhea Seehorn is, on a weekly basis, the best thing on television. Michael McKean is an unexpectedly impressive and heartbreaking dramatic presence. Dave Porter, the composer of both shows, regularly makes the most of Better Call Saul‘s long, wordless stretches, filling his sonic canvas with compositions that in themselves tell the story, hand over fist outdoing his already great work on Breaking Bad.

In short, Better Call Saul is something wonderful…and it’s painful to see it seemingly want to become something else…something that’s already been and gone…something we’ve already seen. I don’t want the marketing to be all about Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos, because those things don’t belong to Better Call Saul. Those belong to Breaking Bad. And, frankly, I’d rather spend time here.

I worried about how much Gus dominated discussions about the show, because I don’t want to lose Jimmy to Saul. Not yet. Not when we’re still telling what I truly believe is an important story about these characters. Do we really need to carve out more of its runtime for those whose stories we already know?

That might also be why the return of Francesca doesn’t worry me. Or why the hypothetical return of Huell and Kuby doesn’t worry me. Those aren’t stories we know. We met the characters, but never got more than a rough sense of who they were. There’s a lot to learn.

How much more is there to learn about Gus?

“Witness” doesn’t answer that. At least not directly. But it does reassure us, and it does so by its sheer quality. Better Call Saul can still be great, can still be unique, can still be independently brilliant…even if it is saddled more and more by the weight of the legendary show that came before.

I’m still not convinced we needed Gus back. But I think I am convinced that Better Call Saul is going to retain its identity, and not become The Young Chicken Man Chronicles.

Anyway, some smaller thoughts on the episode itself, rather than what it does or doesn’t suggest for the future of the series as a whole.

I had no idea last week what Chuck’s plan was, but a friend of mine guessed it beat for beat. Great job, Keith! I’m an idiot!

I honestly thought that Ernesto hearing the tape was accidental, but my friend saw it as deliberate from the start. And, sure enough, he also predicted that the plan was to catch Jimmy breaking and entering to get it back. I have to admit, I’m impressed at how well Better Call Saul laid those tracks when I wasn’t looking; Chuck already knew Ernesto was loyal to Jimmy, and all he really had to do was get the boy worried. The rest of the plan unfolded naturally from there, and that was a pretty beautiful thing.

And I loved Kim demanding money from Jimmy so that she’d be his lawyer and everything they discuss would be confidential. That’s a trick Saul later pulls on Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad. (Funnily enough, in the episode “Better Call Saul,” if I remember correctly.) It’s interesting to see something Jimmy learned from a true friend who cares for him and his safety eventually becomes a tool in his arsenal of shysterism.

Mike’s story doesn’t go far this time, but the fact that he teams up with Jimmy just serves as a reminder of how much we benefit as viewers when these two actually share screentime. Jimmy’s silent — and clumsy — surveillance inside the restaurant was a setpiece of perfect comic tension. Ditto Mike kicking him out of the car when an amped-up Jimmy wants to keep playing spy.

Hell, even the initial suggestion that Mike and Jimmy might work together led to a huge laugh. (“This one really don’t want to talk about Cracker Barrel.”)

Better Call Saul has life in it. A real life. A life worth exploring.

And I hope, deeply, that it does a better job of escaping the shadow of its celebrated older brother than Jimmy does.

* Okay, we saw Victor as well, and that was cool, but since we knew Gus was coming, that didn’t feel as surprising. Once we know Dorothy is skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, is anyone surprised that Toto shows up, too?

Rule of Three: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

Well, we had to talk about it sooner or later…

In July 1991, Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure. For a children’s entertainer, that’s understandably a death knell. But it was also — let’s be frank — kind of bullshit.

Reubens, as we all now know, was evidently pleasuring himself in an adult theater. Police raided the theater and made arrests as they saw fit. By Reubens’ account — which I find pretty believable — once they realized they had caught a celebrity, the police were not as interested in the rest of the culprits. They had Pee-wee Herman. Who else mattered?

Reubens — also by his account — volunteered to do charity work for children, in character, in exchange for keeping the arrest quiet. However seriously it might have been considered, that ultimately didn’t come to pass. Reubens’ mugshot was all over the news, and he became the butt of jokes for talk show hosts, standup comedians, and sketch comedy shows overnight.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse had already completed its run, which I didn’t realize as a kid. Reubens’ arrest made for exceptionally poor timing, because it was easy to conclude that CBS cancelled his show in response. In reality, they just stopped airing reruns. The net effect was the same, however; Pee-wee Herman was dead, and Reubens no longer had a career.

I’m making sure to talk about this, because it was one of the formative moments of my childhood.

When this happened, I was 10. I didn’t understand it, mainly because I had no concept of adult theaters or masturbation, let alone what that kind of social fallout would mean for a celebrity.

All I understood was that one week I could watch Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and the next week I couldn’t. It was over. Pee-wee wasn’t moving to a new show or a new movie or anything else. Pee-wee was gone. A character I loved — who gave me countless hours of joy and entertainment — was never coming back.

I wasn’t alone. Pee-wee meant a lot to many children at the time. Looking back, to be totally honest, I believe I owe a huge amount of my creativity — and my understanding of its importance, and my desire to nurture it in myself and others — to the shows I watched growing up that embraced and actively glorified the power of imagination.

I had Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with a whole Land of Make Believe. I had Muppet Babies, in which the toddlers had exciting adventures in exotic locales without ever leaving the nursery. I had Pee-wee’s Playhouse, in which even the most mundane things — a globe, a clock, a chair — were enthusiastic friends and companions.

Imagination mattered. Hell, according to those shows and so many others with which I was surrounded, imagination was everything. Take it away and…what are you really left with? A rich inner life was as important as — or more important than — anything we could desire externally. Imagination mattered. To me, possibly because I had it reinforced so deeply, so firmly, so repeatedly in my early years, it still does.

Reubens’ scandal came as a severe blow for that reason. Pee-wee’s Playhouse wasn’t just a show I liked to watch; it was part of who I was. The scandal represented a sharply, cruelly revoked promise. It was a reminder that we couldn’t be kids forever; that reality was going to intrude. And when it did, we wouldn’t like it. We would lose things that were important to us. There would be no going back.

I believe Reubens’ arrest marked the day a lot of children lost their innocence. It was a turning point. Something that had brought us so much joy was suddenly a source of embarrassment.

And yet, especially now, I can’t look back and make any more sense of it than I could then.

Sure, I understand that openly pleasuring one’s self in an adult theater would be considered public indecency. That in itself doesn’t bother me; I’ve never attended a pornographic film and I can’t imagine I ever will.

But, accepting that it is illegal, I don’t know why adult theaters are allowed to operate. Why else would somebody go? It doesn’t seem to me as though they serve any purpose other than providing a context for people to pleasure themselves or others…either case being illegal.

The police made an easy bust that day. Perhaps they had some quota to meet. Perhaps they just felt like being dicks. Certainly once they had Pee-wee Herman in handcuffs they felt like being dicks, focusing their attentions on him and actively deciding at some point that they’d prefer to ruin his career than keep it quiet. Instead of accepting an offer to make some needy kids happy, they turned the arrest into a spectacle that robbed kids across the country of happiness that was rightly theirs.

Reubens’ treatment may have been just, but it certainly wasn’t fair. Those who knew him — including his previous costars, such as Valeria Golino who played Gina in Big Top Pee-wee — spoke out against his treatment. Viewers and parents wrote tens of thousands of letters of support to one show (A Current Affair) that covered the scandal.

But it didn’t help. He was unnecessarily demonized, and his legacy was tarnished forever.

And that was it. For years, Reubens didn’t work.

He eventually started popping up here and there in small roles. I distinctly remember him showing up on Murphy Brown as one of Murphy’s secretaries. A running joke in the show was that the title character couldn’t keep a secretary, either due to their outlandish quirks or something she herself said or did, and each week we’d see a new one. Except for Reubens, whose particular secretary character stuck around.

I suspected that was Candice Bergen choosing to sacrifice one of her own show’s most famous jokes for the sake of giving her friend some steady work. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it’s something I choose to believe.

Reubens himself was probably doing okay. I never heard about him going broke or being homeless or anything like that; it’s just that his future roles (and any royalties he expected from reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse) dried up overnight.

Maybe one day Reubens would be back, but Pee-wee surely wouldn’t.

And then…times changed.

People grew up.

Those making decisions about television shows and films were no longer the ones who turned their backs on Reubens. Rather, they were increasingly those who grew up watching Reubens, who felt that his treatment was uncalled for.

What’s more, the public perception of sexual indiscretion had changed. When a huge cache of hacked, private celebrity photos was released a few years back, how many of the victims faced any kind of fallout for the sudden publicity of their sex lives? There’s even a route to stardom seemingly available to those who knowingly leak their own sex tapes.

It’s not the career killer it once was. And 28 years after Big Top Pee-wee, we saw an official appearance by the character again. Not as a special guest, not as a cameo…but as the headlining star of his third film.

I have to admit, I never saw that coming.

Here’s what I saw coming even less: it was worth waiting for.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is, against all odds, a delight. An incredible late-game reemergence from a character that, by all rights, probably shouldn’t work as well as he still does. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s thoroughly charming. And I honestly couldn’t be happier with it.

Bringing characters and shows back from the dead is often a fool’s errand. It may well make money, but it very rarely pleases anyone who loved the original incarnations. Here you just have to look at my reviews of Project: ALF, Red Dwarf, or Arrested Development. Elsewhere you’ll hear endless (though probably well-deserved) griping about the Gilmore Girls revival, or the Sex and the City films. The various revivals of Futurama all have their detractors, and while I’m probably more forgiving of the show than most, I can see their point.

Something gets lost in the revival. Actors age. Or die, or are no longer available, or are not interested in returning. Writers very rarely return for various reasons, and are too often considered expendable, as nobody would visually notice they’re missing. Networks have new expectations that a revived production may not know how to meet while maintaining its earlier level of quality.

And, perhaps most frustrating of all, we change.

We get older. Our tastes evolve, and hopefully refine. Something that we once enjoyed a show for doing no longer interests us. If the revived show tries to do it again, we feel bored. If the revived show does something new, we complain that it doesn’t feel the same as what we remember.

We can reunite The Beatles, but we can’t make them write another “Hey Jude.” It’s a no-win situation.

Except, of course, for those glorious few that do manage a win.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is one of them. Nobody is more surprised by that than I am.

The film walks a line so fine it’s often difficult to believe it exists: a perfect balance between appealing to nostalgia and providing something new. In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of revivals that manage it better than this film does.

Let’s not go nuts, of course; Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t a great film. It is, however, a surprisingly good one, which merits celebration in its own right. And it does so much so well that it deserves to be studied as a kind of template for those looking to revive properties of their own.

For longtime fans, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday offers some cute little nods (Pee-wee’s hatred of snakes, a character referring to him as “rebel”), but they’re not barricades to the enjoyment of new audiences. It borrows the feel of previous Pee-wee outings — mainly Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — but doesn’t actually repeat jokes or setpieces.

When I say it mainly borrows from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I mean it. It’s another road movie. It’s about Pee-wee heading from some indeterminate location to a fixed destination (Texas there, New York here). Along the way he mixes it up with colorful characters and gets into and out of scrapes. The stakes are comically low (a missing bike there, a birthday party here).

I can’t blame Reubens for taking the character back to a formula that he knows worked. At the same time, though, it’s a worrying impulse, as it invites immediate and likely unflattering comparison. “So, he made Pee-wee’s Big Adventure again? Only worse?”

What rescues it is the fact that the material within that framework is entirely unique. Pee-wee doesn’t run afoul of a motorcycle gang, or get mistaken for making out with a woman in a big dinosaur, or sing folk songs with a boxcar hobo, nor does he experience direct equivalents of any of those things. America is a big place, and Pee-wee (via Reubens) takes the opportunity to see and have very different experiences on his second outing.

Of course, it’s not the second outing for this Pee-wee. Once again the character is an entirely new incarnation. This time, he’s a friendly chef at a diner in a small town he’s never left. In fact, we learn that the one time he tried to leave, he was involved in an accident that resulted in him needing a metal plate in his head. Since then, he’s never attempted to venture further than Fairville’s limits again.

Early in the film we get our equivalent of the breakfast machine from the first film, only this time spanning the town. Pee-wee wakes up, is launched from his bed, skiis down the roof, plops into a tiny car, and so forth.

And here it has its own kind of thematic resonance. In the first film it was a joyous, playful sequence that showed us just how many toys (of all kinds) Pee-wee had, and how much he relished just having them. This sequence, however, shows us how well Pee-wee knows his town. Where everything is, where everybody will be, how everyone and everything will react to him…so perfectly does he know this that he can turn his little corner of the world into its own Rube Goldberg machine. It’s one thing to be able to set one up in your living room, and another to know your surroundings so well that you can use them instead.

Pee-wee’s happy in Fairville. He’s comfortable. He’s secure. But he’s also, on some level, bored.

We don’t see it — at least not overtly — but it’s there. It’s even what drives the opening dream sequence, which is also probably the funniest moment of the film: we see Pee-wee bidding farewell to an alien friend. The alien invites him to come, but Pee-wee can’t. “I want to go,” he repeats almost tearfully, over and over, “but I can’t leave home.”

It’s a funny sequence if only because of how silly it is, and it’s also a pretty great opening feint. It makes sense as a dream sequence, but do we immediately assume it is one? We haven’t seen Pee-wee in almost thirty years, after all; why couldn’t he have made an alien friend in that time? One who departs just as we tune back in to see what’s going on?

At work that day, he meets another new friend. Human, this time, but one who just as overtly suggests a world of adventure beyond the horizon. It’s Joe Manganiello, playing himself, and who immediately establishes himself in Pee-wee’s eyes as “triple cool.”

That much is believable. I mean, look at the guy. He’s pretty effortlessly awesome. He’s handsome. He’s famous. I think it would be pretty difficult to make a milkshake for that guy and not envy him.

But it’s not envy that we see here. What we see instead — surprising both of these guys as much as it surprises us — is camaraderie.

The two turn out to have a lot in common, which is a pretty hilarious conceit just from looking at a screengrab.

They both like stupid jokes and wordplay. They have a mutual favorite treat in rootbeer barrels. (Which they each drink with tiny straws.) They each just…get each other. And as comically unexpected as that is, it also turns out to be pretty believable.

I’d actually never seen Joe Manganiello in anything before this. Within the film he credits himself as having been in True Blood and Magic Mike, which…good for him, I guess. But I don’t think you need to recognize him in order to get the joke…the fact that this gorgeous, famous, swarthy hunk finds his soulmate in Pee-wee Herman.

The two of them bond — sincerely bond! — over Pee-wee’s detailed model of Fairville, and Manganiello feels bad that Pee-wee’s never left town. Never had an adventure. Never gotten a chance to grow up. In an offer that’s both narratively efficient and unexpectedly touching, Manganiello invites him to his upcoming birthday party in New York.

On one condition, of course: that he makes the trip by road, and not by air. “A few days on the open road is worth a lifetime in Fairville,” he says. “The way I see it, Pee-wee Herman, you’ve got a choice to make. Stick around here, or live a little.”

And we’re off. The film is officially in full swing, and it’s impossible to ignore how easily, how perfectly, how magically Reubens slips right back into the Pee-wee persona.

He looks and sounds incredible, as though 10 years at most have passed. I’m sure it’s some fancy makeup work, but seeing Reubens look so much like the Pee-wee we remember is almost like being rocketed backward in time. It’s like finding a Pee-wee movie from the height of his popularity that is only now being released. It’s like sliding back into childhood, and finding things exactly as you remember them.

Aging happens. I sure wish it didn’t, but every time I find a gray hair in my beard (or more hair in my drain) I’m reminded that it does. And there’d be no shame in Paul Reubens looking like an old man. But, at the same time, it’s kind of a relief that he doesn’t. There’s always something sad about someone looking 30 years older while trying to inhabit, without alteration, a character they played 30 years ago. Nobody wants to see an elderly Pee-wee shuffling slowly down the sidewalk; yes, actors age, but by that point we’d just rather not see him at all.

But this isn’t elderly Pee-wee; it’s just Pee-wee. We see it in every interaction. We hear it in every line. And we’re treated to it in the way he bounces off of every new character he meets along the way. And, thankfully, those characters feel more like they belong in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure than they do in Big Top Pee-wee. They feel lived-in. They feel unique. They feel, largely, welcome.

The first companions he picks up are a trio of bank-robbers, among them the great Alia Shawkat, but all three of these actresses are fantastic. They play the crooks as the kind of hard-nosed young criminals you’d find in 1950s scare propaganda, warning parents about the dangers of letting their kids mingle with the wrong crowd. All of which is to say that they’re treated as menacing while coming off to viewers as quaintly adorable. (As is Pee-wee’s question after he picks them up. “Why are the cops after us? Are you guys witches?”)

From there Pee-wee drifts gradually eastward, not entirely convinced he’ll make it in time for Manganiello’s party. Like the quest for the bike, however, and completely in line with Manganiello’s advice in this film, the journey is the destination. And it’s a lot of fun.

Highlights are plentiful throughout. I especially loved Pee-wee’s visit to a Snake Farm…which is actually just a South of the Border-style tourist trap that sells tchotchkes and creates visual gags as opposed to housing actual snakes. A box of baby rattlers is really, for example, a box of baby rattles.

It’s an amusing subversion of expectations, made all the better by Pee-wee’s stubborn refusal to engage in any of the fun, despite the fact that dumb visual gags and wordplay are right up his alley. He’s simply unwilling to play along due to his repulsion to snakes, which is so strong he’s repulsed even by the idea of joking about snakes. It works on a few levels, and it’s very funny to see Pee-wee being the stick in the mud.

There’s even a great scene in which Pee-wee reenacts the classic scenario of the farmer’s daughter…only there are nine of them, and they literally descend on his room from all angles with — it has to be said — impeccable comic timing. After Big Top Pee-wee‘s idiotic romantic dalliances I expected this sequence to be far more problematic and infinitely less funny than it actually was.

Other scenes see him hitching a ride in one of the only flying cars in the world, piloted by Diane Salinger, who played Simone in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Then there’s the scene in Amish Country, in which Pee-wee slowly deflates a noisy balloon, which is easily one of the most successful examples of endurance humor I’ve ever seen.

It’s far funnier than it has any right to be, and its button (in which the Amish children are all excitedly deflating balloons of their own) is kind of wonderful. It’s nice that Pee-wee doesn’t annoy these peaceful, gentle people; the easy joke would be to have them turn and chase him out of town. Instead, they embrace him. Just as everyone else does.

I think that was one of my complaints about Big Top Pee-wee. Outside of the circus, everyone hated him. Wherever he went, people were condescending and rude. They treated him like an outcast…which sort of defeats the entire joke of the character. In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure he was never treated that way, in spite of how incongruous he was in every situation. They just treated him like a person. Big Top Pee-wee‘s cast wanted him drawn and quartered, and that just wasn’t as much fun to watch. It was made even less fun by the fact that it was never resolved; they didn’t come around to loving him…they just ate magic weenies and shrunk.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday sees people falling in love with Pee-wee wherever he goes. From the Amish to doorbell heiresses to Joe Manganiello. People like him, and that makes the movie more fun to spend time with. In fact, rewatching it for this review, I was struck by just how comforting the entire thing was. Nobody’s at each other’s throats; everybody’s just plugging along, hoping for the best, having fun whenever and wherever they can find it.

One of the characters Pee-wee hitches a ride with sells little joke items, such as a fake grocery bag to stick to the roof of your car. In reality, traveling around from business to business trying to sell junk like that would be a miserable existence. In Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the guy is having a blast, loving life, not at all struggling for dollars the way we’d expect.

It’s a film in which there’s really nothing to worry about, but so much to enjoy. It’s a film in which the only tension is whether or not Pee-wee will see his new friend again…but we know that, even if he doesn’t, he’s making dozens of new ones along the way. It’s a film in which we’re never asked to invest in the journey, but always welcome to take pleasure in it.

And, you know what? I kind of love it.

If I made a list of the films that are the most important to me, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday obviously wouldn’t come anywhere near it. But if I made a list of the films I most enjoyed spending time with…well…

The soundtrack isn’t composed by Danny Elfman this time around, but rather by Mark Mothersbaugh, who really was the next best choice. He also has a perfect ear for Pee-wee’s antics, so while his work here isn’t nearly as memorable or iconic as Elfman’s was for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, it’s perfectly fitting and often brilliant. This is especially true toward the end of the film with a song that apes “New York, New York” from On the Town, sung by Pee-wee and Manganiello, their characters seeming to be just barely familiar with the source material.

It’s quite funny and a fittingly entertaining build to the climax, giving Pee-wee a chance to experience the Big Apple without having to spend too much time there (and thus upsetting the journey/destination ratio of the film). Pee-wee gets to visit Grand Central Station, shop for souvenirs, eat his first slice of pizza, and even see the Statue of Liberty!

Well, a Statue of Liberty.

It all builds to Pee-wee making it to Joe Manganiello’s building just in time for the party…except he falls through an open manhole and misses the whole thing.

That’s fine, of course. Pee-wee stuck in a sewer isn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of a film in which he trots from state to state with eccentric characters (GO FIGURE), but it provides an important reveal: as time ticks by and Pee-wee fails to show up, Manganiello starts to worry. He really did like the guy. So much so that not having Pee-wee at his party is heartbreaking to him.

As much as Pee-wee (rightly) saw in Manganiello, Manganiello saw even more in Pee-wee. He cared about him, and now he worries about him and his safety. He tried to send Pee-wee on a big adventure, but what if the guy got hurt? What if he just decided not to come? What if Manganiello didn’t mean as much to Pee-wee as Pee-wee meant to him?

It’s funny and effective. And, of course, Manganiello finds out about Pee-wee’s plight and fires a grappling cannon right to scene of the tragedy to pull Pee-wee out himself.

And, really, that’s the heart of the film, and it’s also why this film stands distinct from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. In that movie, Pee-wee himself learned very little. He was selfish and he wanted his bike back. So…he got his bike back. Sure, at the end it’s suggested that he’s a little more open to Dottie, and that’s nice, but it’s still only a suggestion, and it’s not a defining aspect of his journey.

Here, though, the journey is one of friendship. It’s one of honest and genuine connection between two men. It’s the most romantic platonic story I think I’ve ever seen, which is probably why it’s also so funny. The connection between Pee-wee and Manganiello is one of legitimate beauty…two simple people who find just what they need in each other, each of whom worries that it was only a fleeting fancy.

But, in the end, they reunite. And it’s not Pee-wee getting a bike back…it’s two lonely people finding someone, at last, who understands. For adults, that’s a nice, unchallenging bit of comedy. For kids, it’s an important lesson.

No matter who you are, what you look like, how you act, how isolated you may feel…you’re not alone. It may take you some time, but you can meet that person. Whoever it is. And when you do, you’ll do whatever you can to keep them.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a film that absolutely warranted a return of the character. It’s also, however, a sad reminder of what we’ve missed.

Reubens’ conviction wasn’t just the end of a career…it was the effective and untimely death of a beloved character. One who appealed to children and to adults in fairly equal measure. One who had so many more adventures to go on…so much more of the world to see…so many more people to entertain.

Big Top Pee-wee made a fairly convincing argument that there wasn’t much left to see, but Pee-wee’s Big Holiday establishes that film as the fluke. This is what we could have had. Here and there, bit by bit, Pee-wee could have been doing his thing. Making us laugh. Handing down passive life lessons. Reminding us that we are all, in our own ways, outcasts, and that it’s up to us to surround ourselves with people who won’t make us feel that way.

I don’t know if Reubens will make another Pee-wee film. If he does, I’ll watch it. And if he doesn’t…at least I know that Pee-wee never really goes away.

He’s just existing in some other incarnation. One we might not be able to see…but wherever he is…whatever he’s up to…we know he’s still worth watching.

Better Call Saul Reviews: “Mabel” (season 3, episode 1)

A lot of discussion about Better Call Saul centers around Chuck. Specifically, it’s the question of whether or not he’s right. In his thoughts, in his behavior, in the way with which he wields his authority.

This is a question that speaks volumes about how effectively muddled the show has kept its ethics. After all, we’re now three seasons in; shouldn’t we know whether this guy deserves our spite or our pity?

To be fair, many viewers already know their own answers. But the discussion is kept alive by the artful way in which Better Call Saul toys with its audience. We’ve seen Chuck in various states by this point…sometimes deserving of scorn, and sometimes deserving of sympathy. But the show never lets us land decisively on either side. We may wish to see Chuck one way or another, but we’re left instead to circle, without a conclusive answer.

We ended last season with Chuck tricking his brother into confessing a felony, which is a shitty thing to do, for sure. But that felony was committed against him by his brother, so…y’know. There’s that. What we see — in fact, what we’re explicitly told — is that this isn’t over. Jimmy may be willing to walk amicably away, but Chuck is not. McGill v McGill is a battle that will continue to be fought, even if it never sees a courtroom.

Part of the reason “Mabel” keeps us circling is that it doesn’t share with us Chuck’s plan. It was a gutsy move, from a writing standpoint, to bring Howard so early into the episode to unravel whatever legal fantasies Chuck might have entertained about the tape’s value. In fact, the universal assumption after season two (helped along by some promotional photographs for season three) was that this was going to lead directly to Jimmy being arrested.

The writers of Better Call Saul let a character explain to us in no uncertain terms why that won’t happen, though, as their way of kicking off this batch of episodes. That doesn’t renege on a promise; rather, it makes a bigger one. “You thought Jimmy would go to jail?” it asks. “Oh, if only we went so easy on him…”

Frankly, I have no idea what Chuck has planned at this point. If any commenters have a guess, I’d love to hear it. (I’m incapable even of guessing. I’m completely in the dark.) But I’m willing to trust in the show. This far along, it has yet to dissuade me from doing so.

So, let’s talk about Chuck. Let’s remember who he is. All of who he is. We don’t know his plan, but we know the man. What do we think of him?

Chuck is in an odd position, narratively. By rights we should be siding with Jimmy, as he’s our focal character. That doesn’t mean that we need to see everything he does as the “right” thing to do, but it does mean that his decisions should weigh the most heavily on us. When his forerunner Walter White did something terrible — as he did almost weekly — we didn’t leap to his defense, but we did hold him accountable in ways we didn’t hold other characters.

A timely point of comparison would be Gus Fring. When Gus did something terrible, we had a number of responses. We’d be surprised, frightened, worried, sad…something along those lines. But we didn’t worry for the state of his soul. We didn’t want him to learn from his mistakes and make a better choice next time. We didn’t care or hope that he’d eventually change for the better and extricate himself from this mess, simply because he wasn’t our focal character. We cared about those things for Walt (even if it was only for the safety of other characters), because he was.

Here, Jimmy McGill is our focal character, and Chuck is not. So Chuck can do whatever Chuck does, and it shouldn’t affect us beyond the way in which it impacts Jimmy.

…except that we already know where Jimmy ends up. We already know who — and what — he becomes. We have no reason to worry about the state of his soul, because we’ve spent a lot of time with him soulless. Whether or not Chuck wins, we sure as hell know Jimmy loses.

As a result, Better Call Saul can do a lot of things with Chuck. It can humanize him in a way that Breaking Bad was unable to humanize any character from its roster of adversaries. It can explore him in a fairly liberating way, as Chuck is neither there to be conquered nor to conquer. Either may happen, but neither guides his existence as a character.

And so Chuck gets to be Chuck. A person. A human being with complicated desires. A pitiful genius. A brilliant asshole. A cruel hero. A loving bastard.

We’ve seen Chuck break down, which is sad. But we’ve also seen him pretend to break down in order to manipulate others, which casts doubt on previous moments of weakness. We’ve seen Chuck laid low by (what is surely) a mental health condition, which endears us to him. But we’ve also seen him push the condition aside entirely, with no consequence, which suggests that his affliction may be more conscious than he’s let on.

In “Mabel” specifically we see him instruct his brother like a child about how to remove duct tape, which is dickish. But we also saw Jimmy ripping varnish off the wall when left to his own devices, so maybe it was necessary. Later Chuck shared fond memories with his little brother, relishing sweet details of their childhood, which reminds us of the man inside the monster. But then we also see him actively crush the conversation for the sake of reminding Jimmy that he’s well and truly fucked.

“Your brother is one world-class son of a bitch,” Howard says. He’s speaking of one McGill, but he could as well be speaking of the other.

My girlfriend recently caught up on the show, and at the end of season two she pointed something out to me. Sure, Jimmy stole the Mesa Verde account from Chuck…but Chuck stole it first. They each made an underhanded gambit to steal what was not rightly theirs. They each did it for selfish reasons. They each did it with very little (if any) care for the effects it would have on the actual client.

But, she pointed out, Chuck knew how to do it within the law. Jimmy — younger, more impulsive, less experienced — did not. That was the difference. Jimmy stole it anyway, but without the legal safeguards Chuck knew he could rely on.

Who is worse? Is it either? Is there even a villain in this situation? If Jimmy were not our focal character — if we didn’t already love him from what we remember of a completely different show — would Chuck be a bad guy? Or would he just be…a guy?

I want to hate Chuck, on some level. I don’t want him to leave the show or get killed or any silly nonsense like that; what I want is to be able to look at him and say, “That world-class son of a bitch.” But I can’t. Because he’s a person. And as hard as he comes down on Jimmy, he doesn’t do it without reason.

He holds Jimmy back. That’s bad. But he’s seen Slippin’ Jimmy when there was nothing holding him back. So maybe he has a good reason.

He actively blocks Jimmy from assuming authority. That’s bad. But when Jimmy was given some degree of authority over the family business, the business sank. So maybe he has a good reason.

He doesn’t believe in Jimmy’s ability to practice the law with honesty and integrity. That’s bad. But now that Jimmy’s struck out on his own and he isn’t acting with honesty or integrity…you get the point.

We circle. We circle endlessly. Our opinion of Chuck — as a person, not as a character — gnaws its own tail.

He’s a shit, but he’s a shit for a reason.

For now.

Eventually, that cycle will break.

Either Chuck will go further than Jimmy actually deserves, and become the bad guy, or Jimmy will prove himself bad enough that we start to believe poor Chuck should have gone further.

I don’t hate Chuck. I understand him. I wish he’d back off, because I also understand and don’t hate Jimmy.

I want Jimmy to be able to shine. I want him to be able to live up to whatever he knows, in his heart, he can be. I want Jimmy to survive to transition to Saul Goodman. In other words, I want what I already know, conclusively, I cannot have.

Ultimately Chuck will be proven right. That’s what our black-and-white flash-forwards tell us at the top of every season. Chuck is correct.

But did he foresee a dark future? Or did he will one to life?

Season three is poised to dig fairly deeply into that question. But by the time it’s over, I have to guess that it’ll still be difficult to hate Chuck outright. He’s not a bad guy, as far as I can tell. He’s just one factor in another man’s inevitable downfall.

We’ll talk a bit about Mike next week, so I won’t muddy the waters (ahem) by bringing him up now, at the end of the review. But I will say that the incredible, long, almost silent scene of Kim laboring over a semicolon — or a period, or an em dash — is one of the most realistic portrayals of writing I’ve ever seen.

I’ll talk more about her next week, too. I’ve spent enough time here detailing one factor in Jimmy’s downfall, and I don’t think the poor guy can handle another.