Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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It’s easier at the end of a serialized season to reflect on that batch of episodes as a whole than to reflect only on that chapter.

That’s because we’ve reached the end, at least temporarily, and as threads are tied up and pieces shuffled into place for the eventual season four, what we’re really left with is perspective. We talked a bit last week about how an ending can define a journey. And, frankly, I think last week’s episode was more than enough proof of that fact.

So leave it to “Lantern” to illustrate it even better.

More than ever before: spoiler warning.

“Lantern” ends with Chuck burning himself alive in his living room. Of course, if you don’t see a body, the best you can do is assume. But, two points about that. First, neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul have been in the habit of false deaths or surprise resurrections. If you’re led to believe something, it’s nearly always because it actually happened. You may well be missing some necessary context, but the end result doesn’t change. And second, we’re clearly led to believe that this final.

There are ways out of this. Maybe Jimmy is parked across the street, sees the fire, and rushes in to save his brother. Maybe Chuck has second thoughts and crawls out onto the lawn. Maybe Walter White falls through a time portal and resets the universe. So, yes, no matter what, season four can do whatever it wants to do. There’d even be a minor precedent for it: in the first episode of season two, Jimmy walked back the decision he made at the end of season one.

But I don’t get the feeling that’s what the show will do here. At least, I hope it doesn’t. Better Call Saul is very much a show about consequences. About dealing with fallout, both expected and unexpected. About doors closing on you and finding fewer and fewer of them left open with each passing day. Undoing this would help very little, and wouldn’t really seem to be within the intentions of the show. Especially since “Lantern” brings so many other decisions to a head, and forces the characters to face their consequences.

Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about Chuck. The ending of “Lantern” positions him as the emotional centerpiece of season three. We opened with him having one kind of breakdown, and close with him having another, very different one. He started off (in flashback) feigning new depths of his illness, and ended experiencing them for real. The notable difference between the two is that when he was only playing, he was simply a confused and batty old man. Here he’s unhinged and, ultimately, suicidal.

To go from one to the other requires a journey. The slip from being so in control of a situation that you can fake your symptoms to being so helpless that you’re at the mercy of them is significant, and season three as a whole describes that transition.

Chuck rose and fell and then rose and fell again throughout the course of these ten episodes. He got the upper hand over his brother with a surreptitious recording, and was then exposed and humiliated in a courtroom. That experience placed him on a genuine road to recovery that saw him make significant progress and start to get his life back together, just for it all to come crashing down. Likely for good.

He played his hand tonight against Howard, and lost. “You won,” Howard says, and I know he believes it. After all, nine million dollars of Howard’s own money and loans in his name were promised to Chuck just to get him to shut up. But for Chuck, it was his last way back in the door at HHM, and it closed instead. Howard would rather be millions of dollars in debt than work with Chuck for another day. That stings.

And it makes his eventual breakdown that much more believable. In that meeting with HHM’s key stakeholders, Chuck was acting and speaking as though he were in control. The reality was very different. When it hit him, he was left literally speechless. His former colleagues gathered to applaud him…but he left the building alone. It was over.

For Chuck to die here…it would make a perfect kind of sense for the character. To Chuck, power was important. He was an intelligent man. A gifted lawyer. A savvy judge of character. He had knowledge and abilities that nobody else had. He stood out in his field. He was respected. He built a massive, successful firm from the ground up, and he did it through hard work and tenacity.

But doors close on you. We watched it happen.

Chuck’s death would also make a perfect kind of sense for Jimmy’s character. His older brother told him, point blank, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” For that to be the last thing he ever hears from his brother…well, that would obviously be meaningful. And would be a completely understandable shove forward on the road to becoming Saul Goodman.

Chuck’s snipe also punctuates a lecture to Jimmy — the latest and possibly last — about how Jimmy is doomed to hurt those around him. Why regret anything? The cycle begins anew. People get hurt. Jimmy feels bad, sure, but if people get hurt again…what does that say about Jimmy?

I think I know what it says about Jimmy, and it’s not what Chuck thinks it says. You each have your own feelings as well. But the fact is that this is coming from somebody Jimmy admires, cares about, and loves. For him to hear that Chuck believes others would be better off staying far away from him…that’s painful. That’s cruel. And that’s bound to lead to some soul searching. Where, ultimately, he’s going to decide that his soul isn’t worth much at all.

To Jimmy’s immense credit, he does his best to undo much of the damage he caused. He’s correct that he can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but if he can get some old ladies to be friends again — even at the cost of his reputation — he’ll do it. It’s similar to what he did for Chuck in “Klick” last season; he confesses to his own wrongdoing just to help somebody else feel better. He’ll set himself back to pull somebody else forward. That’s Jimmy…not Saul.

But at some point, he stops doing that. At some point he starts putting himself above others. At some point he doesn’t have the twinge of conscience that makes him do the right thing.

Doors close on you.

I will add that I really liked seeing Erin playing along to help things work out…even if she wasn’t “playing” all that much. She’s a great character and one I was glad to see again. Hopefully it won’t be the last time we see her…or Francesca. We know that the latter plays a big part in Saul’s life, but for now, she’s let go. Just because she hitched her wagon to a dual practice that wasn’t fated to last. Another great character kicking around the universe, looking for a path forward.

Elsewhere Nacho deals with the consequences of his own actions…which endanger his father almost immediately. I mentioned before that Nacho is the one true wildcard in that section of the story. We know exactly what becomes of Hector, Tuco, Gus, Victor, et al. But Nacho’s fate is unknown, which means he’s the one character that can unexpectedly die. I still don’t think we care about him anywhere near as much as we cared about Jesse Pinkman, for instance, or Hank, or even Gayle, but if Better Call Saul chooses to develop the character further, we could be in for some real heartache in the future.

Oh, hey, I might as well bring this up since I see people talking about it elsewhere: Yes, Saul mentions Ignacio when he meets Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad, and we’ve been told that he’s referring to Nacho. Some folks have taken that to mean that Nacho is alive at that point in time…but that isn’t true at all. All it means is that Saul doesn’t have knowledge of his death. He could be lying in a shallow desert grave at that point. The only thing it proves is that the lawyer believes he’s still alive.

Okay, sorry, just wanted to clear that up. Nacho’s fate is very much in flux, and possibly in jeopardy. His gambit with the pills pays off this week, and he even gets the opportunity to cover his tracks as everyone else scatters, but Gus gives the boy a knowing glance. This is either good news or bad news for Nacho. Gus does a fantastic job of keeping that uncertain.

Then there’s Kim…who takes some well deserved time off. I don’t have much to say about her at this point, except that I’m very curious to see where the character goes next.

None of our major figures are in the same place now as they were when season two began. Howard is in debt without a partner, Francesca’s been let go, Kim is on indefinite leave, Jimmy’s no longer practicing, Chuck’s on fire…

Season three began with such promise for everyone. Season four will begin with so little left clearly ahead for any of them.

Doors close on you.

Notably absent in the finale was Mike. Which was an odd choice. I’m sure it wouldn’t have fit so I’m not complaining, but ideally I would have put his short scene with Lydia in this episode instead, just to give him an ending as well.

Instead it just feels odd not to check in with our deuteragonist. Then again, Mike’s been pretty…underutilized this season. Both seasons one and two had a lot for him to do, but here he spent several episodes just following a trail. Sure, it led him to Gus…but aside from that, did Mike really have a story? Or did he just jog around the map for a bit?

I expect season four to rectify this. Now he’s on the payroll, and he can get up to all manner of shenanigans with those wacky chicken slingers. But season three seemed like an awful lot of effort to move him incrementally forward.

I still think Better Call Saul is at its best when it’s not setting a place at the table for Breaking Bad. We’ve seen that show. We know that show. We can watch that show any time.

I want Better Call Saul to be about Jimmy. About who he is. About how he changes. About what matters to him and why he’s doomed to lose it.

So far, Gus, Hector, Tuco, and even Mike don’t factor into that much, if at all. It’s a separate story competing for airtime, shouldering Better Call Saul out of the way to make room for characters that won’t matter to this series as much as they mattered to one that’s already off the air.

That’s my wish as season three ends. Better Call Saul is so good that I want to spend more time with it, and I want to know that the time I am spending — all of it — serves this show and not its smarter, more popular, more admired older brother. Gus and Hector and all the rest of those crazy kids can pop up all they like…but they need to be a part of Jimmy’s story. They can’t be an irregular distraction from it.

For now, though…that’s it. The door has closed on season three, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch along with me. I know these reviews don’t get as many comments, but a lot of people seem to read them. I can only hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am.

Oh, and if you’re curious what song was playing when Jimmy went to visit Chuck, here you go. It’s one of my favorites, and one of the saddest compositions I’ve ever heard. It was used to incredible effect here. The perfect soundtrack to the last time Jimmy would ever see his brother alive. Or, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Certainly not the first time a man has passed his brother by, at the edge of the evening, often forever, without knowing it.”

See you in a year for season four.

There are a number of television episodes that are made — nearly or entirely — by their endings. “Abyssinia, Henry” from M*A*S*H. “Time Keeps on Slippin'” from Futurama. “The Best Christmas Ever” from Moral Orel. Hell, even ALF‘s “Alone Again, Naturally.” Or, to be more relevant to the matter at hand, “Dead Freight” from Breaking Bad.

I’m not arguing that these are bad episodes if viewed in isolation from their endings. I am arguing, however, that they are enhanced, enriched, and defined by those endings. Take away the final punch and you’ll probably still have something good, but you’ll also have something extremely different.

Those endings provide the context. They’re filters we don’t get until just before the credits roll, but through which we’re meant to view the entire episode. They’re reveals that provide the tools for understanding what it is we just watched. And, in each of the above cases, we don’t even realize we need those tools along the way. We believe we’re watching one thing. It’s rolling along. We’re enjoying the ride. We have a solid idea of where we’re going.

And then…

Crash.

The journey is the story, but the destination defines the journey. Where we end up — or fail to end up — redefines the steps we took along the way.

So Lt. Col. Henry Blake never makes it home. Fry’s grand gesture goes unseen. Orel’s prayer goes unanswered. ALF catches a fleeting glimpse that may have actually just been wishful thinking. An innocent child is murdered to protect a group of criminals.

And Kim drives off the road.

I love Rhea Seehorn. I believe strongly that Kim Wexler is one of the best things on television right now. She’s a rich, believable, important character that regularly pushes Better Call Saul over the line into greatness.

But I’ve wondered about the character before, both within and without these reviews. I’ve wondered if she isn’t too good. If Better Call Saul needed a love interest for Jimmy to work his way through fairly quickly, but who turned out to be too good to let go.

So the question for me — as much time as we spend with her, as well-spent as that time is — was always how long we had left with her. She departs before Breaking Bad begins, and that’s a deadline that seems to approach more rapidly with every episode. What’s more, though: we know* that Jimmy and/or Saul gets married and divorced several times before meeting Walter White, and so, presumably, we’ll also need time to work through those relationships post-Kim.

Kim’s time is necessarily abbreviated, and then abbreviated again. Eventually she and Jimmy will split up for good. Does she leave him for a better opportunity? Does his increasingly seedy behavior drive her away? Is she collateral damage in the fallout of some criminal activity Jimmy or Mike gets up to?

“Fall” doesn’t definitively provide an answer, but it provides another possibility: she becomes a danger to herself.

That’s something I never guessed. Kim’s so collected. So capable. So…great. Surely her destruction would have to come from an external force.

But “Fall” ends by suggesting that it may not.

The funny thing is that it could have, if that were the lesson “Fall” wanted us to pull from it. All the show would have had to do is have her take a shot with Jimmy before rushing off. Have her dawdle for another five minutes and drive 60 instead of 55. Have her explain the situation to her oblivious partner rather than rush out.

Any of those simple, natural responses would have passively reinforced Jimmy as the destructive presence in her life.

But none of that happens. She takes command. She leaves.

She crashes.

And the camera pulls out so that we can survey the damage right along with her.

Of course, it’s worth rewinding. The reason Kim took an additional client at all is due to the fact that Jimmy wasn’t financially pulling his weight. She knew she’d need to make up the difference, so she broke her vow of exclusivity with Mesa Verde to work on an oil rights dispute. That does, in fact, shift the indirect blame back onto Jimmy.

Right?

Well…as much as I can’t fault Kim for planning ahead, the fact is that Jimmy has been pulling his weight. Not in the best or most ethical or most reliable ways, but he’s been paying up on schedule…and springing for dinner. What’s more, he was even celebrating by episode’s end the fact that money would no longer be a concern for him. He’d covered his debt to her.

Thinking through the problem and being responsible, is what led to her downfall. Had she taken a mindset similar to Jimmy’s (a vague “That is tomorrow-talk,” as he claimed in “Off Brand”), she’d be fine right now. She wouldn’t have taken another client. She wouldn’t have had to pull extra all-nighters. She wouldn’t have nodded off behind the wheel.

Instead, she rightly identified that Jimmy was unreliable and took steps to fix the problem on her end.

That was the smartest possible thing to do in her situation. And that was her problem.

As much as we love Jimmy and Kim together, I think we all wanted to count on the fact that he’d be the damaging influence in her life. I don’t think any of us wanted to see her as her own problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to have to look a second time at her admirable qualities and see them as flaws. I don’t think anyone wanted Kim to be…human.

We want to believe that our troubles aren’t our own. That we could be so much more than we are, so much happier, so much healthier, so much richer, so much more popular if it weren’t for…something. Something beyond our control. Our looks. Our place of birth. Our parents. Our dead-end career. That dumbass we wasted too many years with. If it weren’t for…something, we’d be okay.

And part of growing up — truly growing up — is realizing that, with very few exceptions, it’s not something. It’s us. It’s our habits and patterns and thought processes. It’s our hangups and fears and anxieties. It’s who we are that holds us back. It’s the monster in the mirror.

Poor Kim faces the monster at the end of “Fall.” And this, I feel, positions her for the most important emotional arc of the season. I could be wrong, of course, but the rest of “Fall” doesn’t feel like it’s moving its characters toward their final positions before being placed back in the box.

Chuck and Howard clash. Mike makes things official with Gus. Hector takes his pills. Nacho tries to protect — if not exactly save — his father. Jimmy does right by his old Sandpiper clients in an unexpectedly callous way.

It’s not as though things are stagnant. The pieces are moving. They’re interacting. They’re making progress.

But throughout the episode I had to keep reminding myself that there was only one more left this season, because nothing felt like it was approaching any kind of terminal point.

And then Kim crashed.

“Fall” deposited her in a situation that leaves her with no more room for blindness. Unless, of course, she chooses wilful blindness.

Kim Wexler is positioned for a change. Nothing felt as though it was headed for the finish line but, suddenly, immediately, in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly where she ended up.

The destination defined the journey.

—–
* It’s possible that he lied to Walt about this for…some reason, but so far “eh, he lied” has never been this show’s answer to any bit of backstory, and I don’t believe they’d start pulling that crap with something so significant.

I’d never played a Hitman game until very recently. Well, that’s a slight lie; I did try one at some point. I think it was Hitman: Blood Money, but it was only for a few minutes and I didn’t even have time to finish the training sequence.

But properly? No, I never got the chance to really inhabit the body of cold, resourceful Agent 47. The games, though, were still of interest to me. They sounded like a lot of fun. They seemed to be a rare example of brainy violence…of turning the ultra-frequent video game action of murder into a longform logic puzzle that required far more than a quick and precise trigger finger.

The games seemed to be sequences of little sandboxes. A mansion, a neighborhood, a foreign city. Somewhere within that framework, your target was busy going about his or her day, unaware that it was the last one they’d get. You’d have weapons, sure, but firing a gun or detonating an explosive would blow your cover immediately, and so you’d have to pull closer to your target through stealth, through stolen costumes, through clever use of the environment.

None of which, of course, could be plotted in advance. You’d have some concept of where you were and what you might find there, but that was it. If an opportunity presented itself, it was up to you to figure out how to take advantage of it, and up to you to react to every unforeseen obstacle you’d encounter on the way. You’d know almost nothing going in, but accumulate an enormous amount of data with every step you took; you’d learn the routines of NPCs, eavesdrop on conversations that may contain hints, identify unsafe wiring or loose chandeliers that might be put to some use.

And therein lies the delightful evolution of the experience: you’d start by know nothing, which was a necessary step to learning everything. The next time you’d play the same level you’d know a little more. And a little more the time after that.

But…so what? To varying extents, isn’t that the case with any level in any game?

Well, yes. The first time you step foot into any level in Super Mario Bros., you are at the complete mercy of the designers. The second time, you know where many of the enemies and items are, so you’ll adjust your play style accordingly. The third time you’ll have an even stronger and more distinct understanding of the safest way to go about things, which means you can spend more time and attention looking for secrets. And, to some degree, that’s something you’ll passively learn by replaying almost any level in almost any genre.

Repetition, in short, builds familiarity. There’s a Starman in this block. If I get it, I can blow through the Buzzy Beetles I know are just up ahead. If I don’t, I’ll have to avoid them, which is trickier.

You plan ahead based on foreknowledge, because the experience won’t change. That Starman is always there, those Buzzy Beetles are always waiting, the flagpole is in the same place every time. Wrinkles and digressions are minor. Maybe you find an underground coin room, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you take damage, so that Fire Flower you were counting on is now just a Super Mushroom. Maybe an enemy glitches and appears in an unexpected place.

But those are minor deviations. They give us a bit of room for flourishes on the fairly narrow path between A and B, but, ultimately, A leads to B, and it’s only a question of whether or not we make it there alive. Rarely do the specifics of how we go about that task result in a difference that’s anything beyond superficial.

But Hitman, as a series, seemed to offer repetition that would provide a different kind of familiarity.

Sure, you could play it the same way you’d play any level: turn up, find a way to accomplish your task, and then move on. If you come back, you’ll have experience accomplishing that task, and you might be able to perform it more quickly or with more grace.

But here, repetition offers a lot more than that, as I’m learning by playing 2016’s quasi-reboot Hitman.

I’ll say right here that the game is great. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, packed full of impressive design, and it turns contract killing into an experience of genuine invention and beauty. Okay? So, there.

What I’d prefer to talk about is how the game encourages replaying levels in a way I almost never see.

Usually level-based games encourage replayability in a few ways: harder enemies, tighter time constraints, optional achievements, secret exits, and things along those lines. To be frank, those don’t really work on me. Sure, sometimes I’ll dip back into a level I’ve completed for the sake of an achievement, but even if I do, it doesn’t keep me playing beyond that. It makes me feel as though I might as well perform some action, as opposed to making me feel like I’d really enjoy performing that action. That’s a huge difference that developers don’t seem to understand. And so the only games I truly replay again and again are the ones that I just like spending time with; any replay-enhancing gimmicks (or lack thereof) don’t factor into it.

With Hitman, I’m compulsively playing levels over and over again. I’m sure I’ve played one of them more than a dozen times, and I’ll keep playing it for probably a good while longer. And it’s nothing to do with gimmickry. It’s entirely to do with design.

Early in Hitman, you’re given two training missions help you learn the controls, a nudge in terms of potential puzzle solutions, and a few wrenches in the works to help you anticipate future circumstances. In the first training level, your target is aboard a small ship. In the second, he’s in an airplane hangar. And in each case, I had a decent amount of difficulty even seeing the target up close, let alone orchestrating his undetected murder and making a clean escape.

Which I liked quite a lot, and which quickly revealed itself to be every bit as complex and rewarding as I hoped it would be. For instance, in the first mission, I know my target is on the ship, so I head toward it. But I can’t board, because I don’t belong there. So I get turned away and amble around for a bit until I find a mechanic in a shed with his back to me. He’s working on something and is completely unaware of my presence. So I conk him on the head and steal his outfit.

Now I can board the ship, because it looks like I have a job to do. But I still don’t have free run of the ship, because as a mechanic the crew wants me to stay below deck. What’s more, other mechanics will recognize me as not being one of them if I stay in their line of sight too long, so I need to find a higher-ranking disguise if I want to make any progress.

All of this is just to start the mission, which I adore. Not only have I still not seen my target, but I have yet to observe his patterns, to find any method of taking him out, to identify opportunities to separate him from witnesses.

Once I do find him, I have a wealth of options. I can drop a lifeboat on his head. I can plant an explosive to take him out while he’s sitting at his computer. I can shoot him, stab him, or strangle him. I can drug him. And those are just the obvious solutions.

The gameplay experience is rich and rewarding, giving me both a) myriad ways to approach my goal and then b) myriad ways to accomplish it. In fact, we should even add c) myriad ways to exit the level, because, of course, I still need to get out alive and preferably unnoticed.

And so, yes, what Hitman offers is multiple solutions. But many games offer those, and I wouldn’t call most of them as replayable. The Fallout series, for interest, is a common touchpoint for me. I love it. I believe the games do great things in deeply engrossing ways and, at their best, brilliantly complicate the morality of your decisions.

But Fallout is also an example of how relatively shallow “multiple solutions” in games often are. For instance, you may get to choose which side of a battle you’ll be on. Or you may get to talk your way out of a battle. Or you may be able to quietly steal whatever important item exists in the area without having to kill someone to get to it. In short, it’s more binary. The obvious (and probably easier) solution is A, but if you scout around you may be able to find B. Or you’ll be fenced into a situation in which you need to align with one faction or another, with the superficial result being the same: a clash with the opposing army.

And multiple solutions are fine. But Hitman offers something a lot deeper: multiple stories.

I’m not exaggerating. If we consider a story to be less what a game tells us and more our experience of playing the game (which we should, as that’s how novels and film work as well), Hitman offers an infinite number of stories, many of which deviate from each other in substantial, crucial, unexpected ways.

In my first true mission, I’m sent to a fashion show in Paris to take out two targets. One of them is on the first floor of a massive estate, and the other is on the third. It won’t be a quick in and out, and around any corner I might bump into an NPC who knows I shouldn’t be there. But the large play area and varied environments allow me a wealth of options, and I keep replaying this level (and others, including the training missions) because the options lead to different stories.

There’s a story about a hitman who haltingly worms his way through a crowd, spies his mark from a distance, and gradually attempts to work his way closer. The hitman has no plan, but he knows he has a job to do, and expects that he’ll find a way to do it soon enough. So he overhears two men that are waiting to meet with his target, knocks out a bodyguard and steals his uniform, and then leads the men out to the meeting place near the Seine. They phone the target and the hitman waits behind the bushes.

The target appears. He meets with the two men. No further opportunity presents itself. The hitman worries, knowing that if his target returns to the fashion show, he will have to find another way to get close to him, essentially starting all over. So the hitman, in something like professional panic, just runs over to the target and shoves him over the railing into the river.

That’s one story. It’s a pretty fun one. It involves a lot of fumbling and a bunch of people who accidentally walked in on me stealing somebody’s clothes, who then had to be knocked out and stashed away before they could tell anyone. So not only did it have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it had some tension and comic relief along the way.

And that’s just one of the two targets, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stop there.

Now I can replay the level, and figure out a way to push him into the river without all the wandering and buffoonery.

…but why would I do that?

See, as I observed him during my first playthrough, I learned that he’s upset that the bartenders he hired can’t mix his favorite cocktail. One kind of hitman runs out from behind a bush and shoves you over a railing. Another kind of hitman, though, tracks down the recipe for your favorite cocktail, impersonates wait staff, mixes rat poison into your drink, and drowns you in the toilet as you vomit.

That’s not just an alternate solution; that’s an alternate story. None of the beats are the same. There’s a victim and a murderer, but the entire framework of what happens — and when, and why, and how — changes.

And on that playthrough, I observed even more. There are reporters at the event waiting to interview my target; what if I planted an explosive in the camera? There are gas lamps all over the estate; what if I loosened some valves and waited for my target to crave a cigarette? There’s a lighting rig over the stage; what if I poisoned the fashion designer so that he couldn’t give his speech and my target had to go on instead? Underneath those lights? Those lights I can reach if I can climb up there without drawing attention to myself…

Those are all different stories…and, again, I have to emphasize that I’m not even bringing up the multiple methods of infiltrating the estate, the multiple methods of escape, or any of the things I can get up to with my second target. Each playthrough isn’t another playthrough; it’s a playthrough of an entirely different level, because the level allows itself to be played entirely differently.

A different kind of hitman would do each of those things, and there are countless other solutions I haven’t mentioned. All of them offer different experiences, different kinds of preparation, different things to watch out for. They require you to collect different items, interact with different people, explore different rooms. And each of those things are likely to require different costumes, which you’ll have to figure out how to obtain in your specific circumstances. If you need a chef’s outfit to get somewhere, you’ll need to get into the kitchen. But if you can’t get into the kitchen with what you’re wearing currently, what do you need? Where will you find it? How will you get it without alerting security?

Each playthrough of the level has the same basic objectives, but the experience of achieving them is always different. Which is keeping me coming back over and over again in a way that trophies or some other ancillary award would not. Is it worth zipping Agent 47 back to Paris just to unlock an achievement by setting off the fire alarm? No, I wouldn’t think so. Is it worth zipping him back to Paris because setting off the fire alarm will cause your targets to head for safe rooms which you can boobytrap for another entirely unique experience? Why yes…now we’re talking.

And I think that’s the difference. Hitman is bottomlessly replayable because you never have to do the same thing twice. Or, if you choose to do the same thing twice, you never have to do it in the same way, or the same place, or at the same time. You’re writing a new story as you go. The same characters die at the end, but that’s never been the most important part of any story. A story is a journey. Hitman rewards replaying it because there are as many journeys within as you’d care to uncover.

There’s even another element to it that — so far — I think is best exemplified by the next level: Sapienza.

Here, again, there are two targets, as well as…something else that needs to be taken care of. Including the infiltration and escape options, those are five objectives that can be accomplished in any number of ways, leading to easily dozens of possible, distinct routes through the level and ways to play the level.

And so on my first attempt, I learned that a new cook was hired at the home of my target, so I tracked that guy down, stole his uniform, and used the opportunity afforded to me as cook to poison my target. (Again, I’ll focus only on one target for simplicity.) Similarly to the steely professionalism I displayed in Paris, I waited for him to vomit, shoved him off a cliff, and ran like hell.

So that’s one kind of story.

The next time through, I learned that my target was expecting a visit from a therapist…who I found at a nearby cafe. Taking him out took some planning and effort in itself, but before long I was in that man’s clothes and heading toward my victim’s home…where I’d be a much different kind of killer than I was before. And I’d therefore be in a different kind of story.

My role as therapist allowed me privacy with the man. I sat in a chair, and he lay helplessly on the couch. Nobody else was there. No witnesses. There was a button prompt to smother him with a pillow. It would have been easy and ruthless, and the ease with which I could do it was empowering, especially compared to my previous, less impressive run through the level.

But then something else happened: my victim talked. He opened up to me as a patient. The prompt to smother him hung there, waiting, patient. I could have pressed it at any time.

But I listened.

And he unfurled a story of childhood trauma, of a lifetime of anxiety and struggle, of loneliness and isolation. None of this could I have learned elsewhere, what with the man’s lavish mansion and beautiful environs and private golf lessons and servants and wealth beyond imagination.

My target became human.

And therefore my story became, again, something else entirely.

I still killed him. I had to.

But it meant something different now.

The first time through a Hitman level, I don’t know how what I’m doing. I don’t know what my options are. I don’t know how I can track my target, incapacitate my target, and make it home alive. I don’t know where to go, what to look for, or what any of the items or objects strewn around can be used to achieve.

So I’ll figure something out, as I must, and find the end of the story.

But the next time through, I know more. Things are recontextualized. I can build upon my understanding and, in doing so, find more inventive, more satisfying, more tempting solutions. And that’s another kind of story.

By the third or fourth time, I’ll look for more complicated solutions that I can set up like a row of dominoes. Not because I’ll get an achievement for doing so, but because I’ll feel achievement by doing so.

Technically any solution is possible from the outset of any given Hitman level, but in terms of the experience, it’s layered. The way you play the story the first time shapes and informs the way you play it the next, which makes it a different story entirely.

I’ve never looked forward to repetition more than I look forward to it in Hitman.

Better Call Saul skipped a week to avoid airing a new episode on Memorial Day. That’s something we all feel here and now, but it won’t matter for those who are binging the show on Netflix or DVD in the future.

And…you know what? I think I’m glad we had a silent week between episodes. I think that extra, empty space actually helped. I think it made a few things matter a bit more than they would have otherwise. Or, at least, it helped to make it feel as though they were landing at different times.

That empty space, I’m sure, was unintentional. It certainly wasn’t part of the pitch sessions, it wasn’t in mind when the scripts were being written, and it was of no concern to the editors working day and night to package up the footage. But it worked. It was a bit of accidental, passive worldbuilding. An intermission during which we didn’t see the characters, but they kept moving.

It’s reflected in a few of the stories, I feel. Howard, unseen, has been meeting with clients to protect the reputation of Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill. The guitar shop, unseen, has aired and reaped the benefits of Jimmy’s commercial. Chuck, unseen, has been coming to grips with his mental health issue, which with impressive speed he seems to accept completely as being a mental health issue. Nacho, unseen, has been rehearsing, detail by detail, his plot to switch Hector’s pills.

Alright, yes, “unseen” isn’t strictly true in any of those cases. We see a snatch of each. (Presque vu, as Chaplain Tappman might put it.) But those snatches are meant to orient us. The passage of time, on the other hand…the expanse of time…the loose ticking of the clock in the background as the characters make more, more, more progress toward what they want…

That we don’t see. That’s what the empty space last week provides. That’s why I believe more in the progress we see here than I might have otherwise.

When Nacho drops the pills into Hector’s pocket, he wasn’t lucky. He was rehearsed. We’re seeing the evidence of empty space. Of early-morning hours spent practicing in the dark. Of repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, not until he could do it but until he could do it any time, from any angle, without thinking, without having to think, without having to focus, without missing ever again, because he knows he will only get one chance, because he knows he will be sweaty, because he knows his hand will shake, because he knows this is the only opportunity he will ever have and a mistake — any mistake — will get him killed.

That’s how Nacho filled his empty space.

Each of the characters filled theirs.

It was surprising to see Chuck pulling his life together rather than wallowing or resisting, but it does make sense. Chuck never realized he was broken. He needed to be shattered completely before he was aware enough to fix anything. Now…he’s trying, bless him. He wants to do better. And as much as I am on Jimmy’s side at this point, Chuck does deserve to live a better life than the one he created for himself. He’s taking steps to get there. Small steps, but he’s doing it.

And as Chuck begins his rise, Jimmy takes a fall. Literally, yes, but there’s also the fact that he regresses to his broken state: that of Slippin’ Jimmy. It’s a desperate act, but it’s one he knows he can rely on. And it works. No, I didn’t want to see him get reduced to that again — after all we’ve learned about him, after all he’s grown, after all he’s proven he’s capable of — but I can’t really blame him.

Jimmy’s tried multiple times to make a fair (if not entirely honest) living. Whether he’s tracking the Kettlemans down in the woods, digging through dumpsters for evidence, writing and producing a commercial for his firm, or funneling customers into a guitar shop, his good deeds get him nowhere. He falls back to the ground. He proves his worth, and it might even be acknowledged in some superficial way, but he’s slapped down where he belongs.

That’s what he gets for his trouble, his effort, his dedication. He gets reminded of his place in the universe, as he was here by the brothers who owned the guitar shop and realized they could cheat him out of their arrangement.

So he slips.

Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he knows it works. It’s not his fault. The universe left him with no other choice. He can work his ass off to climb some temporary step or two…or he can slip on a drumstick. Morally, he should do the former. Rationally, the nature of the universe in Better Call Saul insists he do the latter.

Jimmy’s competency bites him. It always has. He’s good at what he applies himself to, but where does playing by the rules get him? Where did it get his father? It’s no coincidence that we opened tonight’s episode in the sunk McGill family business. Where would it get Nacho’s father? (Well, hopefully we won’t have to find that out.)

The Better Call Saul universe — like this one — rewards bad behavior. Not exclusively, but easily enough that it’s a viable option, and often enough that it might be the smarter option.

It’s not sustainable (we all know how Breaking Bad ended for each character involved, and we know without question that Jimmy loses Kim, his career, and his identity), but who’s worried about sustainability?

I have bills to pay at the end of the month. The judge said I have to finish my community service this week. I need to find a client and produce a commercial to air tomorrow.

Sustainability?

We’re just trying to make it through the day.

We’ve tried to do things the right way, and it hasn’t worked. You can’t blame us, now and then, for trying the wrong way, just to see what happens.

And when that’s what works…over and over, repeating, repeating, repeating, repeating, why wouldn’t we keep it up?

We’ve learned our lesson.

It’s not our fault the universe decided to teach us that one.

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